General Allard's Dragoons

Although we have no conclusive proof of Sikhs wearing turban helmets, circumstantial evidence based on descriptive written accounts of European visitors to the Sikh Empire seem to suggest that a branch of the cavalry raised by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s French General Jean Francois Allard may have worn the Punjab style turban helmet. It is General Allard’s Dragoons that have been referred to as wearing ‘a steel helmet in the shape of a Sikh turban’ (United Service Journal, 1832), ‘close-fitting steel helmets’ (Asiatic Journal, 1839), and ‘close fitting steel helmets, of the Roman pattern’ (Oriental Herald, 1838).

Since most written accounts and visual evidence corroborate that the Indo-Persian style helmet was the overwhelming choice of helmet preferred by the Sikhs of Punjab, why would the Dragoons under the command


General Jean Francois Allard

of General Allard possibly wear a different style helmet? It is plausible that General Allard may have modeled the Punjab turban helmet worn by his troops after the casque helmet worn by Cuirassier cavalry regiments of the France Empire. A hemispherical domed helmet the French casque features an ornate front-facing decorative fin at its apex, which in some ways resembles the top-knot dome of the Punjab turban helmet. Although we have no direct evidence, it is possible that the Punjab turban helmet may have had its design influenced by the French casque, with the floriated pattern work and camail of chain mail influences coming from the more popular Indo-Persian helmets worn in Punjab.

If General Allard’s Dragoons represented the primary wearers of the Punjab turban helmet it then becomes important to try to identify exactly how Dragoons there may have been in order to estimate the potential number of turban helmets in use.

General Allard raised the first European style cavalry regiments in the Sikh Kingdom in 1822, the Rajman Khas Lansia (Lancer Regiment) and Rajman Daragun Anwal (Dragoon Regiment) [1]

The number of men in a cavalry regiment varied considerably over time during the Sikh Empire, the smallest on record numbering just 98 men. Most regiments fell somewhere in the range of 200 to 500 men in the 1830’s during the time of General Allard and 250 to 700 men in the 1840’s during the post-Ranjit Singh era of the Empire. [2]

As part of the Fauj-i-khas (royal army), the initial single Dragoon cavalry regiment raised by General Allard in 1822 may have comprised approximately 500 men if we use the upper range of regimental numbers in the 1830’s.

At the October 29, 1831 meeting between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the British Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck at Ropar, 800 of General Allard’s cavalry troops wearing a ‘steel helmet’ were described as being in attendance (Oriental Herald, 1838).

By 1829, General Allard’s cavalry had grown to 3,000 men composed of 1 regiment of Lancers and 2 Regiments of Dragoons (Masson, 1844) [3]. Using a 2/3 ratio, this would mean approximately 2,000 Dragoons at this time.

By 1838 the number of Dragoons under General Allard reached their largest number of men. In 1838, the regular Sikh cavalry numbered 4,000 men, composed of 2 regiments of Lancers and 6 regiments of Dragoons (Oriental Herald, 1838) [4]. Using a 6/8 radio this would mean that there were approximately 3,000 Dragoons at this time.

Following General Allard’s death in 1838 priorities shifted within the Fauj-i-khas and by 1845 before the battle of the Sutlej in the first Anglo-Sikh War, there was only one regiment of Dragoons totalling 750 men [5].

In 1838 the strength of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s cavalry was estimated at 40,000 men [6]. Even at their 1838 numerical height of 3,000, the Dragoons would only have represented 7.5% of Sikh cavalry. Furthermore it is important to note that not all of the Dragoons would have worn a turban helmet as helmets and armour in general were expensive and had to be purchased. Helmets for the most part would were in the realm of possibility for officers and senior personnel. Captain Leopold von Orlich on his 1843 visit to the Lahore Royal Court made the following observation regarding the regular cavalry troops under the command of General Ventura and General Court at the time:

Almost every one of the Sikh officers of these regular troops was dressed according to his own taste; some in English, others in French uniform, or in a mixture of both; some wore turbans, or caps with shawls wrapped round them, and others helmets and chakos: some had high boots with coloured tops, other shoes; some wore white, and others coloured pantaloons. (Orlich, 1845) [7]

Out of the 3,000 Dragoons in 1838, perhaps only 800 may have been senior ranking officers who may have worn armour including a turban helmet. During the 1831 meeting at Ropar between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and British Governor General Lord William Bentinck, only the most senior officers would have been present, the report of 800 of General Allard’s cavalry troops wearing a ‘steel helmet’, likely represents these senior officers, potentially wearing a Punjab turban helmet.

There are some references to General Allard’s Dragoons where they are described as wearing turbans and not helmets, further corroboration of the fact that the usage of helmets was not uniform or consistent even among the the Dragoons themselves.

We left Pubbee at sunrise, and had proceeded about six miles, when we were met by a party of Allard's dragoons, sent by Colonel Wade to escort us to his camp, and who, as we approached them, formed up on one side of the road and saluted us by drawing their right hands to the forehead… Their trousers are long, of dark blue cloth, with a red stripe; and their turbans of crimson silk, brought somewhat into a peak in front, and ornamented in the centre with a small brass half-moon, from which springs a glittering sprig about two inches in height. (Barr, 1839) [8]

If we assume that all of the senior officers of the Dragoon regiments wore turban helmets this would mean that the potential pool of possible Punjab turban helmet wearing troops would only have been 800 men (Ropar meeting). Out of a cavalry of 40,000, this represents only a sample size of only 2% potential Punjab turban helmet wearing soldiers. Such a small number may explain why there are so few surviving Punjab turban helmets today.

Footnotes

1. Ian Heath, The Sikh Army 1799-1849 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2005), 15

2. Ibid.

3. Charles Masson, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab & Kalat vol 1, (London: 1844), 431

4. "Runjeet Singh's Army", Parbury's Oriental Herald and Colonial Intelligencer, Vol II (Jul.-Dec. 1838): 575

5. Sir Lepel Griffin, Rulers of India, Ranjit Singh (Oxford: 1892), 141

6. "Runjeet Singh's Army", Parbury's Oriental Herald and Colonial Intelligencer, Vol II (Jul.-Dec. 1838), 575

7. Leopold von Orlich, H. Evans Lloyd Translator, Travels in India, including Sinde and the Punjab, Volume 1 (London: 1845), 229

8. William Barr, Journal of a March from Delhi to Peshawur (London: 1844), 213