The Ceylon Army’s British Heritage

Jayantha Somasundaram, courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN, November 2019

Sri Lanka’s maritime areas were ceded to the British in 1796 and for the next one and a half centuries there was a British military presence on the Island. As a consequence the Ceylon Army which was established seventy years ago in October 1949 was heavily influenced by this British legacy.

In the early British years under a Lieutenant General, Britain stationed four regiments of infantry, two Ceylon Rifle Regiments, a regiment of the Royal Artillery, a regiment of the Royal Engineers and a troop of cavalry on the island. But after the rebellion in the former Kandyan Kingdom was put down in 1848 and for much of the next century of British rule, there was a more limited British military presence on the island. So by the turn of the twentieth century the British Army in Ceylon, now under the command of Brig Gen R.C.B. Lawrence, consisted of a battalion of infantry, a company of the Royal Artillery, a company of Ceylon and Mauritius Royal Artillery and details of the Royal Engineers and  Royal Army Medical Corps. (Wright: 857)

During Dutch times many Javanese had arrived in Ceylon as exiles and soldiers and they provided the Army’s initial non-European presence, because the British believed that among the indigenous population “there were no castes or other social groups who had a ‘martial calling.’” (Wickremesekera: 12)

The British established a ‘native regiment’ called the Ceylon Rifle Regiment which initially consisted of 300 Javanese Malay soldiers. Made up of five companies they saw action during the Kandyan War of 1815, the Uva Rebellion of 1818 and the Matale Rebellion of 1848. The Malay troops “created a fearful impression on the Sinhalese after the 1848 rebellion.” (Horowitz: 54)

During the course of the 19th Century the Ceylon Rifle Regiment would grow, with 11 of its 16 companies staffed by Malay officers and soldiers. The Regiment was barracked in Colombo’s Slave Island (now Kompannavidiya) where there is a Rifle Street and a Malay Street to record their presence. The Ceylon Rifle Regiment was the last regular Ceylonese army unit until the Ceylon Army was established in 1949. (Holt: 454)

In the first half of the nineteenth century the British Army in Ceylon consisted of regular units made up of Britishers and some Malays recruited from the Island’s non-European population.


What was to become the island’s armed force after dominion status in 1948 had its origins in a military formation that was raised in the last quarter of the 19th Century from among Britons residing in Ceylon. In 1861, Ordnance No 3 provided for a Volunteer Corps and this legislation was followed on 1 April 1881 by a proclamation in which the British Governor, Sir John Douglas KCMG gazetted the establishment of the Ceylon Light Infantry Volunteers (CLIV). Commanded by Lt Col John Armitage the CLIV had HRH Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales    (the future King Edward VII), as Honorary Colonel. The Regiment still carries the crest of the Prince of Wales as the unit’s badge and the motto Ich Dien (German for ‘I serve’).

In November 1881 the new Governor Sir James Longdon carried out the first inspection of these troops. The officers were all British, mainly planters and mercantile executives, and the three companies were made up largely of British NCOs and soldiers. In fact Col Armitage wrote to the Colonial Secretary in January 1882 that “both the Tamils and Sinhalese are weak in numbers and with very few exceptions make but poor volunteers.” (Horowitz:61)

Companies of the CLIV were raised in major towns; in 1883 a company was established in Kurunegala and in 1886 in Galle. The Snider rifle originally issued to the CLIV was replaced in 1890 by the Martin-Henry and in 1899 with the Martin-Enfield rifle and carbine. The first CLIV camp was conducted in 1890 at Uragasmanhandiya in the Island’s south west, but after 1903 these annual camps would be held in Diyatalawa. (Wright:858)

The CLIV was the parent of most other units raised during the next half century. In 1881 an Engineer Company of the CLIV was formed, in 1888 a gun battery and 27 CLIV members under the command of Capt C.E.H. Symons became the Ceylon Artillery Volunteers, in 1890 a group of CLIV stretcher bearers became the Ceylon Medical Corps and in 1892 the CLIV’s Mounted Company drawn from tea planters became the Ceylon Mounted Infantry. Under Col Gordon-Reeves who was planting at Hoolankande Estate, Madulkele, the Mounted Infantry was Ceylon’s only cavalry unit.

A cadet troop was established in 1881 at Royal College Colombo to provide instruction in drill, discipline and responsibility. Later in 1902, as part of the CLIV, a Cadet Battalion with companies at Royal, S. Thomas’, St Benedict’s and Wesley Colleges in Colombo, Trinity and Kingswood Colleges in Kandy, and Richmond College in Galle was established with officers drawn from teachers and senior students. “The history of the CLIV marked not only the history of the infantry arm but also the birth of many units of the Ceylon Volunteers.” (Muttukumaru: 116)

In the second half of the nineteenth century with the raising of the Ceylon Volunteer Corps there were opportunities for residents of the Island to serve in the military. However they did so in a volunteer capacity and were largely drawn from the European population.


The Ceylon Volunteer Corps saw action overseas in its early years. When the Second Boer War commenced in 1899 a company of the Ceylon Mounted Infantry numbering 129 under Major Murray Menzies left for South Africa. They saw action in Stinkhoutboom, Cape Colony, Driefontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill and Wittebergen. Eight members of the unit were killed and are remembered in a memorial window at St Paul’s Church, Kandy. The Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corps, consisting of European tea and rubber planters, was raised in Kandy in 1900 under Col R.N. Farquharson, a retired navy captain. In 1901 the Mounted Infantry contingent in South Africa was replaced by a company of 103 soldiers from the Planters’ Rifles under Capt J. Stewart of Sutton Estate Agrapatana. (Wright:859)

In April 1900 the Colonial Government identified Diyatalawa as the site for a Prisoner of War (POW) camp to house Boers from South Africa. Within months the facility was completed and the first prisoners arrived that August. Diyatalawa continued to receive Boer prisoners until June 1901, housing a total of 4,700 prisoners. “There were other Boer POW camps too – at Mount Lavinia (where the convalescents were sent), Ragama (for dissidents) and at Hambantota and Urugasmanhandiya (for prisoners on parole). All in all, there were around 5,500 Boer POWs dispatched to Ceylon.” (Sadanandan)

Willie Steyn with four other Boer POWs escaped custody in January 1901 at the Colombo Harbour and boarded a Russian vessel which carried them to a port in the Crimea. From there they went overland by train via St Petersburg to Amsterdam, finally returning to South Africa. Though the Boers had by then virtually lost the War, exploits like this escape drew “attention to the war in South Africa and strengthening the image of the resolute, courageous and seemingly invincible Boers.” (Wessels: 111)

At the end of the War in 1902 one POW, Henry Engelbrecht, refused to take the required oath of allegiance to the British monarch and was barred from returning to South Africa. He remained in Ceylon becoming the first game warden of what is now the Ruhunu National Park.

After the War, the abandoned facilities at Diyatalawa were turned into a training camp for the Ceylon Volunteer Force. Diyatalawa would remain the focus of military training for over a century. When the Ceylon Army was established the Recruit Training Depot was set up here, later it would become the Sri Lanka Military Academy. In 1952 the Royal Ceylon Air Force would also set up its Officer Cadet Training School at Diyatalawa.

In 1905 Lt Col Richard Morgan VD was appointed commander of the Ceylon Volunteer Corps which numbered 2,500. Born in Colombo and educated at the Colombo Academy (later Royal College) and S. Thomas’ College, a graduate of Cambridge University and a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, he was a District Judge. In 1881 he joined the CLIV and was promoted Lt Col in 1904. Second in command was Lt Col Hector van Cuylenburg, educated at Royal College, a member of the Ceylon bar and a barrister at Gray’s Inn. He enlisted in 1881 in the CLIV and was subsequently commissioned. (Wright:861)

Major Theodore Jayawardene would be appointed Intelligence Officer in 1910 when the post was created, primarily to warn against the approach of hostile naval vessels. In 1922 Lt Col Jayewardene the first Ceylonese to command the Regiment received the King’s Colours on behalf of the CLI, presented to the Regiment by the Prince of Wales. (Wright:862)

In 1906 the Ceylon Mounted Infantry now incorporating a mechanized squadron was renamed the Ceylon Mounted Rifles and based in Colombo. With the end of the cavalry era, the regiment was disbanded in 1938, and its personnel were absorbed by the Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corps.

The Ceylon Volunteer Force became the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) in 1910. Still a volunteer army it comprised the following units: The Ceylon Light Infantry, the Ceylon Mounted Rifles, the Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corp, the Ceylon Artillery, Ceylon Engineers, Ceylon Army Service Corp and the Ceylon Volunteer Medical Corp.

Most of these units would become the nucleus of the Ceylon Army in 1949. The Ceylon Volunteer Medical Corps would become the 2 (Volunteer) Ceylon Army Medical Corps; the supply and transport element of the CLIV became the Ceylon Supply and Transport Corps in 1918, renamed the Ceylon Army Service Corps it would become the 2 (V) CASC in 1949. The Ceylon Artillery Volunteers (CA) became the Ceylon Garrison Artillery in 1918 and in 1949 became the 2 (V) Anti Aircraft/Coast Artillery Regiment. The Engineer Company of the CLIV formed in 1881 became the Ceylon Engineers Corps (CE) in 1911 and the 2 (V) Ceylon Army Engineers Corps.

The CDF in peace time numbered about 3,000 officers and men and for the first time provided an opportunity for the non-European residents of the Island to serve in large numbers, albeit in a volunteer capacity.


The CDF was mobilized in 1914 and during World War I the CLI was assigned to guard vulnerable installations, especially in Colombo, while the CA manned guns to defend the city. Many soldiers from the CDF travelled to the UK at the outset of war, joined the British Army and served in Europe. Second Lieutenant Basil Horsfall VC a rubber planter who had served with the CE joined the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regt and in March 1918 near Moyenneville in Somme France when under German attack was wounded in the head. Disobeying an order to withdraw he rallied his troops and counterattacked. He was killed and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. In addition “in 1914, an overseas contingent composed of eight Officers and 221 other ranks of the Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corps embarked for the first Great War and saw service in the Suez Canal military area and Mesopotamia. Others came in several line regiments of the British Indian Army.” (Samarasinghe)

Under the command of Major Hall Brown, a Rifle Corps contingent was attached to the 1st Battalion Wellington Regt, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). In April 1915 as part of the ANZACs they landed on Z Beach, now known as ANZAC Cove, on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. They also saw service in Palestine and Mesopotamia.

On their own initiative soldiers of the CDF enrolled for service abroad, among them was Corporal (later Major) D. B. Seneviratne CLI who was commended for his ‘conspicuous gallantry, devotion to duty and leadership during an enemy attack,’ and awarded the Military Medal. Similarly Private Jacotine ‘when every man on his outpost save one had been killed or wounded, the survivor Pte Jacotine of the Coldstream Guards carried on the fighting alone for 20 minutes before he was blown to pieces by a grenade.’ Richard Aluwihare who enlisted in 1915 with the Middlesex Regiment was severely wounded in the Battle of the Somme the following year. In all 49 Ceylonese servicemen were killed during the War as were 276 Britons from Ceylon.

Four new units were raised by the CDF during World War I. They were the Colombo Town Guard and Town Guard Artillery in 1914, the Ceylon Motor Cyclist Corps in 1915 and the Ceylon Supply and Transport Corsp in 1918. In addition the Ceylon Artillery and the Town Guard Artillery were amalgamated in 1918 to form the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA).

World War I provided an opportunity for soldiers from Ceylon, both European and indigenous, to serve with distinction overseas in theatres of combat.


In May 1915 rioting broke out at Gampola between the Moors and the Sinhalese. When it spread to Kandy, Police reinforcements were rushed from Colombo but the situation deteriorated with violence erupting in Colombo and other parts of the Island. Governor Robert Chalmers declared Martial Law and placed Brig Gen Henry  Leith Malcolm CB CMG DSO, Officer Commanding Troops in Ceylon, in charge. “Martial Law was proclaimed on 2 June 1915 to deal with Buddhist-Muslim rioting. It was withdrawn by an Order in Council on 30 August 1915.” (Minattur:79)

The 28th Punjabi Infantry Regiment of the British Army under the command of Lt Col A G de V Chichester which was on garrison duty was called upon to suppress the riots with shoot on sight orders. One hundred and sixteen people were killed, 63 by the Army and Police. Gov Charmers was recalled and a Commission of Inquiry was appointed by his successor Sir John Anderson GCMG KCB JP. Presided over by the Chief Justice Sir Alexander Wood Renton GCMG KC the inquiry found that that some acts of military shooting, resulting in fatalities, could not be justified.

 Lt Col John Kotelawala

By the time World War II broke out in 1939, the CLI was under the command of Col Waldo Sansoni OBE VD JP UM. He was succeeded by Lt Col John Kotelawala who had been commissioned into the CLI in 1922, promoted Captain in 1928, Major in 1933 and Lieutenant Colonel in 1940. The CDF was given the responsibility of securing the Island’s coast and its strategic military and civilian installations. For this task the CLI expanded to become five battalions, the CGA became three regiments, and the CE three companies.

Unlike World War I, this would not be a conflict in distant lands. Ceylon faced the threat of a Japanese invasion in 1942 and was attacked that April by the Japanese Imperial Navy’s main aircraft carrier force, comprising five Fleet Carriers and four Battleships, “in striking power virtually the same as the force used against Pearl Harbour.” (Willmott:442)

To meet the threat of invasion the British hastily inducted the equivalent of two army divisions, one light and two fleet carriers, five battleships, seven cruisers, sixteen destroyers and seven submarines while the Royal Air Force deployed No. 222 Group and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm No 803 Naval Air Squadron. As a consequence, in air battles over the Island and in the ocean surrounding, the Japanese were repulsed and their fleet withdrew to Singapore.


On 11th November 1947 on the eve of Dominion Status, the United Kingdom signed what became known as the ‘Defence Agreement’ with Ceylon which stated inter alia, “The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Ceylon will give each other such military assistance for the security of their territories.” Under the terms of this Agreement, in 1948 the UK seconded a British officer, Brigadier James Roderick Sinclair, 19th Earl of Caithness CBE DSO who served first as military advisor to Ceylon and then as the first commander of the Ceylon Army.

In order to assist Brig Caithness Lt Col Anton M. Muttukumaru, the ranking CDF officer, was called back to active service, and appointed Officer in Charge Administration CDF HQ. Brig Caithness proposed to the Ceylon Government that the Army consist of an infantry battalion, an artillery regiment, signal, supply, ordnance, electrical and mechanical, and medical units; a works services engineering detachment to maintain buildings, a military police section and a training depot.

BrigaBRIGAdier James Roderick Sinclair

Under the Army Act No. 17 of 1949 the Ceylon Army came into existence on the 10th of October 1949. Once the Ceylon Army was established, British assistance under the Defence Agreement would also take the form of a training team to man the Recruit Training Depot, advisors for the Ordnance Corp and the Electrical and Mechanical Engineer Corps, and places for officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Between 1949 and 1968, eighty Ceylon Army Cadets would attend Sandhurst.

Brig Caithness invited Lt Col Anton Muttukumaru to be the Army’s first Chief of Staff. A barrister of Gray’s Inn and a Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s Department, Lt Col Muttukumaru had already played a major part in drafting the Army Act and in advising and assisting Brig Caithness in preparing his plans for the Ceylon Army. Lt Col Muttukumaru had been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the CLI in 1934, mobilized for active duty in 1939, promoted Captain in 1940 and Major in 1942. In November 1943 he was promoted Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the 2nd Battalion CLI.

The Chief of Staff was assisted by three officers, Major Maurice de Mel who handled operations and training, Capt Roy Jayatillake responsible for administration and Capt Harold Van Twest in charge of quartermaster issues.

Two combat units were raised by the new Army, the Ceylon Infantry Regiment, which was the old CLI, and the 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft/Coast Artillery Regiment. They were commanded by Lt Col H. W. Wijeyekoon and Lt Col Saram respectively.

The Army followed the British regimental system with each unit operating independently and responsible for its own recruiting. Each battalion comprised five companies of four platoons, with each platoon made up of three squads of ten soldiers. Officers generally remained with their regiment throughout their military careers.

Soldiers and units of the CDF not absorbed into the regular Ceylon Army made up the Ceylon Volunteer Force: the 2 (V) CLI, 2 (V) Anti Aircraft/Coast Artillery Regiment, 2 (V) Ceylon Signal Corp, 2 (V) Ceylon Army Medical Corps, 2 (V) CE, and 2 (V) CASC. The regular units and their volunteer counterparts would share nomenclature, dress and other aspects of regimental life.

At birth the Army was staffed by 154 CDF officers who had been commissioned in the 1930s and 1940s and had been mobilized for service during World War II. Non Commissioned Officers and soldiers were also initially drawn from those who had served with the CDF. The first six commanders of the Ceylon Army would be CDF veterans.

Among the officers and soldiers of the new Ceylon Army were those who had seen action during the Japanese raids in 1942, elements of the CLI and CGA who had been deployed overseas for duty in the Cocos Islands, and others who had volunteered for active duty in Burma. Individual officers and soldiers of the CDF also had combat experience in other theatres of operation, primarily in North Africa, Sicily and Greece, with the Royal Army Service Corps, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Pioneer Corps. During the War the CDF veterans had also benefited from training with British and Allied units rotated through Sri Lanka, especially for jungle warfare in South East Asia.

When the Ceylon Army was established in October 1949 it inherited a rich history of institutions, traditions and experiences that had emerged during British times along with well trained, motivated and combat tested officers and soldiers who had served with and alongside their British counterparts.

HOLT, John ed Sri Lanka Reader (Duke University Press: Durham 2011)

HOROWITZ, Donald L. Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives (Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ 1980)

MINATTUR, Joseph Martial Law in India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Martinus Nijhoft: The Hague 1962)

MUTTUKUMARU, Anton Marian The Military History of Ceylon (Navrang Publishers: New Delhi 1987)

SADANANDAN, Renuka Driven to tell stories of the forgotten Boer POWs (Sunday Times 26/10/14)

SAMARASINGHE, Prasad For the love of one’s country Ceylon Today 25th January 2014

WESSELS, Andre The Five Swimmers. The Escape of Willie Steyn and his Four Fellow Prisoners-of-war from Ceylon in 1901 (African Historical Review Vol. 46, No. 1, 2014, pp 109–111)

WICKREMESEKERA, Channa A Tough Apprenticeship: Sri Lanka’s Military against Tamil Militants 1979-1987 (2017) Published by the author: Mt. Waverley, Victoria

WILLMOTT, H.P. Empires in the Balance Naval Institute Press: Annapolis MD (1982)

WRIGHT, Arnold ed Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) Lloyd’s Greater Publishing Co. Ltd. London

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8 responses to “The Ceylon Army’s British Heritage

  1. David Blacker

    It would be incorrect to claim that the Japanese raids on Ceylon were repulsed. They were not. While the IJN lost 18 aircraft, the RAF lost 27 on April 5th alone. The RAF lost one third of its fighter aircraft and all of its strike aircraft. Additionally, the IJN aircraft heavily damaged the port facilities in Colombo and China Bay, sank an aircraft carrier (HMS Hermes), and three cruisers (Vampire, Cornwall and Dorsetshire), the ships going down with heavy loss of life (the latter two alone went down with 400 men). The IJN also sank 23 merchant ships (totaling 112,000 tons). The only RAF aircraft to reach the Japanese force (nine Bristol Blenheims of 11 Squadron) didn’t hit a single ship with their bombs and lost four planes.

    Admiral Chuichi Nagumo withdrew his 2nd and 5th Carrier Divisions only because he had failed to find Admiral James Somerville’s British Eastern Fleet and was now in need of refueling and replenishment. Somerville’s force played no part in the battle, having in turn failed to find the Japanese force.

    The result of the raid, however, was to make it explicitly clear that Ceylon could not be defended by the RAF or the Royal Navy, and the Eastern Fleet was withdrawn to Kenya, seceding control of the eastern Indian Ocean to Japan. It was only the Japanese defeat at Midway in June that removed the threat of the IJN from the Indian Ocean.

  2. EMAIL NOTE from Commodore Somasiri DEVENDRA: “David is perfectly right……On another tack, during this period the CRNVR ships were deployed in Addu Attol, (referred to as ‘Port T’) and sometimes in Diego Gracia on ‘Guard Ship’ duties.”

  3. Gavin Grant

    My Grandfather Ernest Thomas Fulcher served with both the Ceylon Volunteer And the Ceylon Defence Force, How can I find his records?

  4. Richard Simon

    ‘Malay officers’? Can anyone confirm there were such officers in the British Army?

  5. There were Malay Regiments stationed in Ceylon in early British times so it is likely that at least the junior officers were Malay. Ismeth Raheem should be contacted and Rajpal De Silva’s coffee table books checked. …. also check PEOPLE INBETWEEN. When i have the time i will pursue this quest. One strand you will find there in PEOPLE INBETWEEN is the fact that one of the earliest cricket clubs in British Ceylon in the 1860s was comprised of Malays.

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