From The Archives - The Perils of "Wetting the Colors"
In February of 1857 the British 52nd Light Infantry arrived in India for a tour of duty. Hardly had the regiment landed when it was plunged into the horrors of the Indian Mutiny. Over the next thirteen months the regiment fought its way across vast stretches of India. Among its officers was a 19-year old ensign named Reginald G. Wilberforce (1838-1914). Wilberforce, the son of an Anglican bishop, and grandson of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce, recounted his military adventures in An Unrecorded Chapter of the Indian Mutiny (London: John Murray, 1894).
There is much fight and much blood in Wilberforce’s book. Nevertheless, Wilberforce opens the book with a brief account of an incident that happened in the last weeks of peace that is quite amusing, and demonstrates the character of some great commanders.
As an ensign, Wilberforce had the honor of carrying the colors – or as he puts it the “colours” – on ceremonial occasions and, of course, into battle, and the incident involved the practice of “Wetting the Colours.”
In those days a custom prevailed in the army, and for aught I know continues still, called "wetting the colours;" in plain English this means [a new ensign] standing champagne to the mess on first carrying the colours . . . .
In another regiment, one of these "Colour" nights nearly ended in a Court-martial; the giver of the wine was orderly officer of the day, and as such had to visit the guards at night. He left the mess apparently quite sober, but the fresh air outside, acting on the wine he had drunk, caused him to fall off his pony, and he slept in the ditch by the roadside.
Some half hour after, his Colonel, a very big man, came by on his way to bed; he saw the prostrate ensign, and after trying to awaken him, put him on his shoulders and carried him around the various guards, finally putting him to bed.
Next day the [young officer’s] report had to be written, and the report stated that the guards had not been visited at night. About noon the Adjutant appeared and requested his immediate attendance at the orderly room. There the Colonel sat looking very stern.
"Mr. — — , I see your report omits to mention that you visited the guards last night. What is the reason ?"
[Ensign] — - — hung his head; he was not going to lie, and say that he was taken ill.
The Colonel again spoke: "I do not understand this, for I see that the sergeants of the Quarter Guard and the Prison Guard state that you turned them out at 12.30 and 12.50 respectively. How do you account for this?"
The Colonel, after keeping up the mystery a short time longer, dismissed the orderly room, and walking home with the youngster said, "You may thank your stars that I found you and carried you round last night. Don't do it again.”
During the Mutiny, Wilberforce saw considerable action, and by some accounts was the third man through the Kashmir Gate when the British stormed Delhi on September 14, 1857, by which time he had been promoted to lieutenant. Apparently disgusted with ineptitude in the Army, not long after the Mutiny was over Wilberforce left the service, to enter the law, at which he prospered. His memoir was highly critical of the way the campaign was conducted, and he was widely criticized for his opinions.
Reginald Wilberforce died in January of 1914. One of his sons became a distinguished jurist, and another a clergyman. The jurist’s son was Richard Orme Wilberforce (1907-2003), a noted jurist who was ultimately made a baron, while the clergyman’s son was Reginald Garton Wilberforce, born in April of 1914, shortly after his grandfather’s death, who rose to squadron leader in the RAF during World War II, earning a D.F.C. and an A.F.C, and died in 1966.