Share



Access Heritage Logo (formerly the Discriminating General)

  

 

 Follow us on: FacebookTwitterInstagram

"Man to Man. Sword to Sword."
The Extraordinary Life and Sword Play of Lieutenant John Shipp

by Robert Henderson

 

Lieutenant John Shipp of the 87th Regiment of Foot points with the blade of his "old friend" he called "twenty-fourther" 
(circa 1821 by Thomas Charles Wageman).

T he life of John Shipp is so interwoven with adventure and bravery, it sounds like a work of fiction.   Born into the military as a son of a Marine, John enlisted as a boy in the 22nd Regiment of Foot.  As a result of the decimation of the British Army in the 1790s, boys were allowed to join and train as soldiers until they were 16 years old and were put into the line of battle.  Taken under the wing of his company's commanding officer,  John had risen to the rank of sergeant in the regiment's grenadiers, before setting sail to fight in India.    


Royal Artillery encampment at Arcot, Madras Presidency in 1804 were John Shipp served

His regiment was tasked to fight the Mahrattas in the Madras region of India.  This proved difficult as it involved storming heavily fortified positions.  However John did not flinch from his duties and stormed the Deeg fortress in 1804 receiving a wound to the head, and extensive bruising from the "wind of a cannonball".  But this attack was only preparation for a bigger prize: Bhurtpore.  Although an infantry Sergeant, John used his off-duty time to skirmish on horseback with Mahrattas cavalry as the army moved to Bhurtpore. 


The formidable fortress at Bhurtpore as it appears today

When the time came to storm the fort, John Shipp volunteered to lead the forlorn hope, or vanguard of the storming party.  The reward for doing so was an officer's commission, because the task provided almost certain death.     When he was asked if he had made out his Will, John replied: "Yes, which is, that I will lead you into that fort undaunted, for all their smoke and rattle."  In his memoirs he describes the mental and physical state of the soldier before charging the enemy: "a heroism bordering on ferocity; the nerves become tight and contracted, the eye full and open, moving quickly in its socket, with almost a maniac wildness; the head is in constant motion; the nostril distended wide, and the mouth .. gasping."    Their first attack into the breach proved a failure as the defenders had refortified the approach and repulsed the storming party.  John got out of it with just scrapes and cuts and a minor spear wound to his finger. 

However the British were not done with Bhurtpore.  A second attack was soon organized and John again offered to lead the forlorn hope.  A bamboo bridge was to help them get across the enemy water-filled ditch and into the breach.   Only the portable bridge proved too short and floated down stream.  John received a shot through the bridge of his nose where it joined his forehead.  With no chance of crossing the ditch, the British again retreated with over seven hundred killed or wounded.  The grenadier company had all of its officers wounded, and nearly half of the men killed or wounded in the two attacks.  A third attempt was made but the doctor refused to allow John to take part.  It also failed.  A new storming party was formed the next day, and John convinced his doctors to allow him to lead it, though he thought he "could not in human probability, escape a third time".

Through a path of mangled and dismembered corpses of their fallen comrades from the previous attempts, the forlorn hope entered the breach again.   The enemy were now so well prepared any success was impossible.  The exposed enemy wearing chainmail or armour proved difficult to kill, and John shot one defender three times from less then twenty feet away without effect.  In the fighting John was hit by a combustible "stinkpot" and his cartridge pouch exploded, sending his scorched body to the base of the breach at the water-filled ditch.  The retreat was a sounded, and John covered in mud and missing half of his hair, returned to camp.  Of the twelve men in the last forlorn hope, only he survived.  

  With close to three thousand troops dead or wounded, the siege of Bhurtpore was finally given up.  However for leading three forlorn hopes John Shipp was made an ensign in the 65th Regiment of Foot and then was promoted to lieutenant in the 76th Regiment of Foot the following year.  He had become an officer from the ranks at the age of 21.   However the expense of an officer's life and some poor financial decisions upon returning to England forced John to sell his commission in 1808 to pay his debts.  Penniless in London, and knowing only an army life, John re-enlisted as a lowly cavalry trooper in the 24th Light Dragoons.  Soon he was off back to India.  Being a former officer, he was quickly raised to the rank of Sergeant-Major.

    


Light Dragoons in India (24th Regiment on the Right)

In the cavalry, John found himself in the numerous skirmishes with the Pindaris.  The Pindaris were ruthless irregular horsemen who sallied forth into British controlled India plundering, torturing, burning and killing.  The Pindaris wore quilted cotton armour and like many Indian forces used matchlocks and a variety of spears, swords, and knives.  During fighting with these marauders, John Shipp had his "old friend" a 1796 pattern Light Cavalry Sabre.   At one skirmish: "I was riding at speed to deliver my orders [when] a Pindari had the impudence to discharge his matchlock [almost point blank], but the ball missed me. I had before this bent my faithful friend, [his 24th Light Dragoon sabre], nearly double, by striking at the thick cotton stuffed coats of the Pindari."  John dropped his sword and grabbed a spear of the enemy.  Using it like a lance, he killed his assailant and rode off abandoning his sabre.  However guilt took him: "I then began to regret having parted with my old friend, the twenty-fourther, which had so often stood my friend in the hour of peril" and returned for it to have it repaired. 

   File:(1) A Seapoy in the Native Attire; (2) A Hindoo Soldier; (3) A Brigbasi.jpg
A Hindoo Soldier in the middle wears quilted armour like the Pindari


After three years of loyal service fighting the Pindari, John Shipp was again awarded an officer's commission, this time as an ensign in the 87th Regiment of Foot in 1815.  It is the only recorded time were a soldier had rose from the ranks to become an officer in the British Army twice!  To his new regiment, John brought with him his "old friend" pattern 1796 Light Cavalry sabre.

While the war in Europe had ended with the Battle of Waterloo, fighting in the Indian subcontinent continued.  A disagreement between Nepal and the East India Company started the Ghoorka War (Anglo-Nepal War).  The Gurkhas proved to be one of the fiercest adversaries the British have ever faced.


Gurkha Soldiers in 1816.  They used various sizes of shields and high ranking leaders had a small shield hanging off a waist belt.

John Shipp learned first hand how skilled the Nepalese were with both the sword and the shield.  On the high hill of Muckwanpore "we were now dealing with were no flinchers; but on the contrary, I never saw more steadiness or more bravery exhibited by any set of men in my life."  Soon in the fighting John came face-to-face with a high-ranking Sirdar (or nobleman) dressed in a full general uniform: 

"He was strong, powerful man, protected by shields, one tied round his waist, and handing over his thighs as low as his knees, and the other on the left arm, much larger the one round his waist,  From this gentleman there was no escape; and fortunately for me, I had my old twenty-fourther with me, which I had two or three days before put in good shaving order. With this I was obliged to act on the defensive, till I could catch my formidable opponent off his guard.  He cut, I guarded; he thrust, I parried; until he became aggravated, and set to work with that impetuosity and determination pretty generally understood by the phrase ' hammer and tongs' [or hammering away] in the course of which he nearly cut my poor twenty-fourther in pieces.

At last I found he was winded but I could see nothing of the fellow, except his black face peeping above one shield, and his feet under the other; so I thought I would give him a cut five [horizontal] across his lower extremities; but he would not stand still a moment; he cut as many capers as a French dancing-master, till I was quite out of patience with his folly.  I did not like to quit my man so I tried his other extremities but he would not stand still, all I could do.  At length, I made a feint at his toes, to cut them; down went his sheild from his face to save his legs, up went the edge of my sword smack under his chin; in endeavouring to get away from which he threw his head back, which nearly tumbled off and down he fell."

Taking up the shield of his fallen adversary, John used it the rest of the battle.  To his surprise, the shield was musket ball proof and saved him from harm numerous times.   After the battle, John Shipp returned to the body of the Sirdar he had slayed.  To his surprise, the nobleman John had fought had laboured through their "Man to man. Sword to sword" battle with a musket ball in his hip and a slash to the abdomen.  John noted: "When engaged with him, I never dared take my eye off his.  Had I not been thoroughly practiced in the sword exercise, I must soon have fallen, for he was a very expert swordsman."

After peace was made with the Gurkhas in 1816, efforts began to convince them to serve in the British Army.  As for John Shipp, he continued to serve in the 87th Regiment of Foot and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1821.  While very popular in the regiment for his battlefield heroics, John again found himself in a financial mess by betting on horse races with a superior officer.    His subsequent questioning of his superior over the transaction got him a court-martial for insubordination.  Because of his past services and numerous wounds, and "the high character that he had borne as an officer and a gentleman" he was allowed to again sell his commission and return to England to retire.  

 


Reproduction of the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre that John Shipp called "Twenty-Fourther"
after the 24th Light Dragoons he served in.   It is sold here.


Full View of Lieutenant John Shipp of the 87th Regiment of Foot
 

 

Access Heritage Logo (formerly the Discriminating General)
 

Would you like to link to Militaryheritage.com?

Copyright:Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) Reproducing of this article in any form is strictly forbidden. We are not held responsible for the use of any information on this website.