21st Empress of India’s Lancers: a Victorian period major’s dress tunic, circa 1898-99


Major’s full dress tunic of the unique regimental pattern worn from 1898 to 1901, blue double breasted with plastron front and facings of the regiment’s distinctive French grey [rather like Star of India pale blue]. The lace of one inch regimental pattern is double at the cuff and collar indicating field rank [major & lieutenant colonel]. The buttons are all of Victorian pattern and by Jennens of London. The shoulder cords are of standard lancer pattern but in addition to the rank badge they have an applied gilt royal VRI cypher which forms the distinctive part of the regimental badge. The collar badges [unusual for cavalry dress uniform] are of fire gilt metal with half the lance pennons silvered: they have the very distinctive Victorian imperial crown above the cypher. A detail photograph shows the loops for medal bars and the two loops below for a breast star. The quilted interior is in good condition but the plain dark silk of the central part is shredded. There are a couple of moth holes just above the medal loops but for its age the tunic is in very good condition. We are selling this, as with all this group of 21st Lancer’s items, as they came to us and have not done any cleaning.

The following note is descriptive of a group of items of which the above tunic is one part and is an attempt to put it into focus.


A significant group of items of military uniform which belonged to a field officer serving in the regiment in the 1897 – 1905 period.

We have not yet been able to confirm the name of the officer to which these items belonged but the uniforms tell the story of an officer who was a major before 1901 and remained in the regimernt during at least part of the Edwardian era. His full dress uniform shows that he had a considerable group of medals and there are also loops for the fixing of a breast star. None of the majors who served in that period seems to have held a knighthood but it is quite possible that this one had a foreign order – most likely an Egyptian one which could have been awarded as a result of the regiment’s very high profile service in the 1898/99 campaign in the Sudan. There were only three majors serving in the regiment at the crucial 1898 to 1902 when these uniforms were in use. The one who seems to fit the requirements is Major John Fowle who was commissioned in 1881, served with the Light Camel Regiment in the Egypt campaign of 1884, became a major in 1898 and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1902. He commanded B Squadron at Omdurman where he was mentioned in despatches, and crucially was awarded the Ottoman Order of Osmanieh. The other major commanding A Squadron [C & D were commanded by captains], Harry Finn was given a brevet of Lt Col after the battle.  The regiment can trace its origins back to 1760 as the 21st Light Dragoons but it went through several guises before becoming the 21st Hussars and finally being designated 21st Lancers in 1897, receiving the additional honour of becoming “Empress of India’s Lancers” the following year. The title accounts for the extremely unusual honour for a British regiment of bearing the royal cypher VRI rather than the more usual VR: this was usually used only by units of the British Indian Army.

At Khartoum Kitchener, commanding the force, selected the 21st to scout the land before Omdurman and they made a famous charge against far larger Mahdist forces than had been thought to occupy the area. In September 1898 the young Lieutenant Winston Churchill, although himself a 4th Hussar, took part in what is often described as the last full scale cavalry charge of the British Army when he rode with the four squadrons of the 21st Lancers. The regiment suffered huge casualties and three members received a Victoria Cross for that day. The event was recorded in the painting of Major Edward Matthew Hale, now in the National Army Museum.

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