This story records the lives and careers of three brothers who all served in the British Army during the peak of the British Empire. They are Henry Godfrey Marsh, born in 1812, Edward Herman Marsh, born in 1827 and Octavius John Blake Marsh, born in 1829.
Henry Godfrey Marsh is my friend’s great-great-great-grandfather.
They were the sons of Henry Marsh, a gentleman of independent means and grew up in privileged comfort in Somerset.
Henry Godfrey Marsh
Henry Godfrey Marsh was born on 10th September 1812, (to give that some context, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars… in the middle of Napoleon’s march on Moscow, three days after the Battle of Borodino). He would inevitably have attended public school but I haven’t determined where, however, later he continued his education at universities in Prussia, in both Berlin and Bonn. It was in the latter where he met and married Josephine Wassermeyer (possibly Wassermeier) in 1832.
It is unclear when he joined the 13th Light Foot (later renamed the 1st Somersetshire) Regiment, but it would have been in the mid-1830s, when the regiment was on garrison duty in India.
Henry does not appear in the 1841 census which suggests he was out of the country, presumably still with the army and, over this period, the 13th Foot was in for some adventures!
In 1837, Persian troops, allied to the Russians, occupied the Herat region of Afghanistan. The British, who feared Russian intervention in the area, decided to remove the emir of Afghanistan and to replace him with a pro-British monarch, Shuja Shah Durrani. Accordingly, an expeditionary force, known as the “Army of the Indus”, was formed. The 13th Light Infantry formed part of the invasion force, joining the other units in November 1838. The army passed into Afghanistan in March 1839, taking Kandahar in April without resistance and the 1st Afghan War had begun.
The 13th Light Infantry took part in the decisive victory at Ghazni in July 1839, a night-time storming of the fort followed by bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the dark streets.
The British fought their way into the centre of the city and by dawn the city was captured. The British forces suffered 200 men killed and wounded while the Afghans lost nearly 500 men and 1,600 taken prisoner, with an unknown number wounded.
The British initially achieved their objective of enthroning Shuja in August 1839. The 13th formed part of the occupation force that attempted to enforce the rule of the new monarch; but, in October 1841, a popular uprising against Shuja broke out. The 13th found itself engaged in operations against the rebels who had overthrown Shuja and attacked the capital, Kabul. In November 1841, the regiment was forced to retreat to the fortified town of Jalalabad.
Meanwhile, General Elphinstone, the senior British officer in Afghanistan, had decided to evacuate his Kabul garrison and fall back on Jelalabad to unite with the British troops there. However, they were cut off by the rebel Afghan forces and annihilated, there being just one survivor of Elphinstone’s force to reach Jalalabad, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon.
Whereupon Jalalabad was soon encircled, leading to a lengthy siege.
Almost simultaneously, news arrived from India that the force under General Wilde, lying at the base of the Khyber Pass, could not begin its advance, so the Jelalabad garrison could expect no early relief.
Following this dismal news, a series of communications arrived from the Afghans demanding that the Jelalabad brigade abandon the town to an Afghan governor and withdraw to India. Brigade Sir Robert Sale, commanding the Jelalabad force, held a council of war with the senior officers of his regiments and decided that the town must be held.
On 12th February 1842, a further demand that the town be given up arrived from Kabul, but the demand was rejected and the officers resolved to hold Jelalabad to the end. The Afghans, now commanded by Akbar Khan, invested the town closely.
At the beginning of April, Brigadier Sale resolved on a major sortie by the entire garrison, in an attempt to drive the Afghan besiegers away. The odds were not in the garrison’s favour. Akbar had some 5,000 to 6,000 men. The garrison numbered around 1,500 men.
At dawn on 7th April 1842 three columns issued from the Kabul Gate into the open country outside Jelalabad. The columns advanced in line towards Akbar’s camp, some 3 miles away, its right flank resting on the river. Despite being temporarily separated, the columns coordinated well. The artillery came up in support and a heavy fire was opened on the Afghans, as the three columns advanced into Akbar’s camp capturing his artillery and driving his soldiers away in rout.
By 7am on 8th April 1842 the Afghan besieging force had fled and the British were able to march back into Jelalabad in triumph. The garrison had raised the siege without assistance.
On 13th April 1842 the British relief force finally arrived, to be played into Jelalabad by the band of the 13th Light Infantry with the Scottish song “Oh but you’ve been a lang time acoming.”
In the following year the regiment’s official name was changed to 13th (1st Somersetshire) (Prince Albert’s Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot… a bit of a mouthful!
The regiment returned to England in 1845.
Although Henry Godfrey Marsh gives his occupation on the 1851 census as Captain in the 1st Somerset Regiment, by that time the regiment had been posted to garrison duty in Gibraltar so I think by that time he had begun to settle into the life of the landed gentleman and would let his younger brothers take up the warrior mantle.
But that will be in the next episode…