Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
Wilson's succession to the command gave great relief to the troops on account of the systematic manner in which he arranged for the various duties, and the order and method he introduced. The comparative rest to the troops, as well as the sanitary improvements he effected, did a good deal for the health of the force. Wilson also took advantage of the reinforcements we had received to strengthen our position. As far as possible he put a stop to the practice of following up the enemy close to the city walls when they were driven off after an attack (a practice which had cost us many valuable lives), contenting himself with preventing the rebels from remaining in the immediate vicinity of our advanced posts.
Enemy Baffled in the Sabzi Mandi The day after Reed's departure another sharp and prolonged attack[Page 109] was made upon the Ridge batteries and Sabzi Mandi piquets, and in the afternoon a column was sent to drive the enemy away. It consisted of four Horse Artillery guns, 750 Infantry, and the Guides Cavalry. Lieutenant-Colonel Jones, of the 60th Rifles, commanded the column, and, having gained experience from the lesson we had received on the 14th, he took care not to approach too near to the city walls, but cleared the Sabzi Mandi, and took up a good position, where he remained for some little time. This unusual procedure seemed to disconcert the enemy, most of whom returned to the city, while those who remained to fight did not come to such close quarters as on previous occasions. Nevertheless, we had 1 officer and 12 men killed, 3 officers and 66 men wounded, and 2 men were missing.
The four following days passed without any serious attack being made, but an unfortunate accident occurred about this time to a cousin of mine, Captain Greensill, of the 24th Foot. He was attached to the Engineer department, and was ordered to undertake some reconnoitring duty after dark. On nearing the enemy's position he halted his escort, in order not to attract attention, and proceeded alone to examine the ground. The signal which he had arranged to give on his return was apparently misunderstood, for as he approached the escort fired; he was mortally wounded, and died in great agony the next morning.
The last severe contest took place in the Sabzi Mandi on the 18th, for by this time the Engineers' incessant labour had resulted in the clearing away of the old serais and walled gardens for some distance round the posts held by our piquets in that suburb. The 'Sammy House' piquet, to the right front of Hindu Rao's house, was greatly strengthened, and cover was provided for the men occupying it—a very necessary measure, exposed as the piquet was to the guns on the Burn and Mori bastions, and within grape range of the latter, while the enemy's Infantry were enabled to creep close up to it unperceived.
The improvements we had made in this part of our position were, no doubt, carefully watched and noted by the rebels, who, finding that all attempts to dislodge us on the right ended in their own discomfiture, determined to try whether our left was not more vulnerable than they had found it in the earlier days of the siege. Accordingly early on the 23rd they sallied forth from the Kashmir gate, and, occupying Ludlow Castle and its neighbourhood, shelled Metcalfe House, the stable piquet, and the mosque piquet on the Ridge. As all attempts to silence the enemy's guns with our Artillery proved unavailing, and it was feared that if not dislodged they would establish a battery at Ludlow Castle, a small column under Brigadier Showers moved out by a cutting through the Ridge on our left, its object being (in conjunction with the Metcalfe House piquets) to turn the enemy's right and capture their guns.
The troops detailed for this duty consisted of six Horse Artillery[Page 110] guns, 400 British Infantry, 360 of the 1st Punjab Infantry, and a party of the Guides Cavalry, in addition to 250 men detached from the Metcalfe House piquets. The advance of the column up the road leading towards the Kashmir gate appeared to be unnoticed until it arrived close to the enemy, who then opened with grape. Our troops pressed on, and in their eagerness to capture the guns, which were being withdrawn, got too near the city walls. Here Showers was wounded, and the command devolved on Lieutenant-Colonel Jones, of the 60th, who skilfully conducted the retirement. Our loss was 1 officer and 11 men killed, 5 officers and 34 men wounded. Captain Law, one of my two companions on the mail-cart from Umballa, was the officer killed.
The enemy were fairly quiet between the 23rd and 31st July, on which date they moved out of the city in considerable strength, with the intention of making a temporary bridge across the cut in the swampy ground I have before described, and so threatening our rear. A column under Coke was sent to the other side of the cut to intercept the enemy should they succeed in getting across; this column was joined at Alipur by the Kumaon battalion (composed of Gurkhas and hill-men), about 400 strong, which had just arrived from the Punjab as escort to a large store of ammunition. The services of these troops were, however, not required, for the rain, which had been coming down in torrents for some hours, had caused such a rush of water that the bridge was carried away before it was completed. The enemy then retired towards the city. On reaching the suburbs they were reinforced by a large body of Infantry, and a most determined attack was made on the right of our position. This occurred about sunset, and all night the roar of musketry and artillery was kept up without a moment's cessation.
Efforts to Exterminate the Feringhis The next day was the anniversary of a great Mahomedan festival, when it was the custom for the King to pray and make sacrifice at the Idgah, in commemoration of Abraham's intended offering up of Ishmail.1 On this particular occasion, however, the sacrifices were to be dispensed with in deference to Hindu prejudices,2 and in their stead a tremendous united effort was to be made by Hindus and Mussulmans to exterminate the Feringhis. All the morning of the 1st August mosques and Hindu temples were crowded with worshippers offering up prayers for the success of the great attempt, and in the afternoon the rebels, mad with excitement and fanaticism, issued in countless numbers from the city gates, and, shouting the Moslem battle-cry, advanced and threw themselves on our defences. They were driven back by our deadly volleys, but only for a moment; they quickly reformed and made a fresh attack, to be stopped again by our steady,[Page 111] uncompromising fire. Time after time they rallied and hurled themselves against our breastworks. All that night and well on into the next day the fight continued, and it was past noon before the devoted fanatics became convinced that their gods had deserted them, that victory was not for them, and that no effort, however heroic on their part, could drive us from the Ridge. The enemy's loss was heavy, ours trifling, for our men were admirably steady, well protected by breastworks, and never allowed to show themselves except when the assailants came close up. We had only 1 officer and 9 men killed and 36 men wounded.
The officer was Lieutenant Eaton Travers, of the 1st Punjab Infantry. He had been seven years with the regiment, and had been present with it in nearly all the many frontier fights in which it had been engaged. He was a bright, happy fellow, and a great friend of mine. As Major Coke, his commanding officer, published in regimental orders: 'This gallant soldier and true-hearted gentleman was beloved and respected by the officers and men of the regiment. His loss is an irreparable one.'
The enemy were much depressed by the failure of the Bakhra Id attack, from which they had expected great things. They began to despair of being able to drive us from our position on the Ridge, which for seven weeks had been so hotly contested. They heard that Nicholson with his Movable Column was hastening to our assistance, and they felt that, unless they could gain some signal victory before reinforcements reached us, we should take our place as the besiegers, instead of being, as hitherto, the besieged. Disaffection within the city walls was on the increase; only the semblance of authority remained to the old and well-nigh impotent King, while some of his sons, recognizing their perilous position, endeavoured to open negotiations with us. Many of the sepoys were reported to be going off to their homes, sick and weary of a struggle the hopelessness of which they had begun to realize.
Our work, however, was far from being finished. Notwithstanding losses from death and desertion, the enemy still outnumbered us by about eight or nine to one.
All this time our communication with the Punjab was maintained, and we regularly received letters and newspapers from England by the northern route; but for several weeks we had had no news from the south. Rumours of disasters occasionally reached us, but it was not until the second week in July that we heard of the fight at Agra, the retirement of our troops, and the flight of all the residents into the fort.
These scraps of intelligence, for they were mere scraps, written often in Greek character, some screwed into a quill, some sewn between the double soles of a man's shoe, and some twisted up in the messenger's[Page 112] hair, were eagerly looked for, and as eagerly deciphered when they came. It was cheering to learn that Allahabad was safe, that Lucknow was still holding out, that troops from Madras, Ceylon, and the Mauritius had reached Calcutta, and that Lord Elgin, taking a statesmanlike view of the situation, had diverted to India3 the force intended for the China expedition, and we fondly hoped that some of the six British regiments reported by one messenger to have arrived at Cawnpore would be sent to the assistance of the Delhi Force.
A Letter from General Havelock Strangely enough, we knew nothing of the death of Sir Henry Lawrence or General Wheeler, and had not even heard for certain that Cawnpore had fallen and that Lucknow was besieged, while there were constant reports that Wheeler was marching up the Trunk Road. Being most anxious to get some authentic intelligence, Norman4 on the 15th July wrote a letter in French addressed to General Wheeler at Cawnpore, or whoever might be in command between that place and Delhi, giving an account of our position at Delhi, and expressing a hope that troops would soon march to our assistance. The letter was entrusted to two sepoys of the Guides, who carried out their difficult task most faithfully, and on the 3rd August returned with the following reply from General Havelock, addressed to Major-General Reed:
'Cawnpore, left bank of the Ganges,
'MY DEAR GENERAL,
'Yesterday I saw Captain Norman's letter of the 15th instant from Delhi, addressed to Sir Hugh Wheeler. That gallant officer and the whole of his force were destroyed on the 27th June by a base act of treachery. Sir Henry Somerset is Commander-in-Chief in India and Sir Patrick Grant in Bengal. Under the orders of the supreme Government I have been sent to retrieve affairs here. I have specific instructions from which I cannot depart. I have sent a duplicate of your letter to Sir P. Grant. In truth, though most anxious to march on Delhi, I have peremptory orders to relieve Lucknow. I have, thank God, been very successful. I defeated the enemy at Futtehpore[Page 113] on the 12th, and Pandu Naddi on the 15th, and this place, which I recaptured on the 16th. On each occasion I took all the guns. Immense reinforcements are coming from England and China. Sir Patrick Grant will soon be in the field himself. Lucknow holds out. Agra is free for the present. I am sorry to hear you are not quite well. I beg that you will let me hear from you continually.'
Two days afterwards another letter was received; this time from Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser-Tytler, A.Q.M.G., with Havelock's force. It was addressed to Captain Earle, A.Q.M.G., Meerut, and ran as follows:
'Cawnpore, July 27th.
'General Havelock has crossed the river to relieve Lucknow, which will be effected four days hence. He has a strong force with him, and he has already thrashed the Nana and completely dispersed his force. We shall probably march to Delhi with four or five thousand Europeans and a heavy Artillery, in number, not in weight. The China force is in Calcutta, 5,000 men. More troops expected immediately. We shall soon be with you.'
These sanguine expectations were never fulfilled! Instead of Lucknow being relieved in four days, it was nearly four months before that result was achieved, and instead of troops from Cawnpore coming to help us at Delhi, the troops from Delhi formed the chief part of the force which relieved Lucknow.
News of Henry Lawrence's Death While we were rejoicing at the prospect of being reinforced by a large number of British soldiers, a gloom was cast over the whole camp by the rumour that Sir Henry Lawrence was dead. As the first British Ruler of the Punjab, Henry Lawrence was known by reputation to, and respected by, every man belonging to the Delhi Force, and all realized what a serious loss his death would be to the beleaguered garrison of Lucknow. Much time, however, was not given us for lamentation, for at the end of the first week in August another attempt was made to drive us from the Metcalfe House piquets. Guns were again brought out through the Kashmir gate, and posted at Ludlow Castle and the Kudsiabagh; at the same time a number of Infantry skirmishers kept up an almost constant fire from the jungle in front of our position. The losses at the piquets themselves were not heavy, good cover having been provided; but the communications between the piquets and our main position were much exposed and extremely hazardous for the reliefs. It was felt that the enemy could not be allowed to remain in such close proximity to our outposts, and Showers (who had recovered from his slight wound) was again ordered to drive them off, for which purpose he was given a strong body of Infantry, composed of Europeans, Sikhs, and Gurkhas, a troop of Horse Artillery, a squadron of the 9th[Page 114] Lancers, and the Guides Cavalry. The result was a very brilliant little affair. The orders on this occasion were to 'move up silently and take the guns at Ludlow Castle.' The small column proceeded in the deepest silence, and the first sound heard at dawn on the 12th August was the challenge of the enemy's sentry, 'Ho come dar?' (Who comes there?). A bullet in his body was the reply. A volley of musketry followed, and effectually awoke the sleeping foe, who succeeded in letting off two of their guns as our men rushed on the battery. An Irish soldier, named Reegan, springing forward, prevented the discharge of the third gun. He bayoneted the gunner in the act of applying the port-fire, and was himself severely wounded. The rebel Artillerymen stood to their guns splendidly, and fought till they were all killed. The enemy's loss was severe; some 250 men were killed, and four guns were captured. On our side 1 officer and 19 men were killed, 7 officers and 85 men wounded, and 5 men missing. Amongst the wounded was the gallant Commander of the column, and that fine soldier, Major John Coke, the Commandant of the 1st Punjab Infantry. The return to camp was a stirring sight: the captured guns were brought home in triumph, pushed along by the soldiers, all madly cheering, and the horses ridden by men carrying their muskets with bayonets fixed.
Arrival of the Movable Column The following morning the Punjab Movable Column arrived. Nicholson had preceded it by a few days, and from him I heard all about his fight with the Sialkot mutineers at Trimmu Ghat and the various marches and counter-marches which he had made since I left him at Philour.
The column was a most welcome addition to our force. It now consisted of the 52nd Light Infantry, a wing of the 61st Foot, a Field Battery, a wing of the 1st Baluch Regiment, and the 2nd Punjab Infantry, beside 200 newly-raised Multani Cavalry and 400 military police. This brought up our effective force to about 8,000 rank and file of all arms.5 A more powerful siege-train than we had hitherto possessed was on its way from Ferozepore, and three companies of the 8th Foot, detachments of Artillery and the 60th Rifles, the 4th Punjab Infantry, and about 100 recruits for the 4th Sikhs were also marching towards Delhi. In addition, a small contingent from Kashmir and a few of the Jhind Raja's troops were shortly expected, after the arrival of which nothing in the shape of reinforcements could be looked for from the north.
Nor could we hope for any help from the south, for no definite news had been received from Havelock since his letter of the 25th of July, and rumours had reached us that, finding it impossible to force his way to Lucknow, he had been obliged to retire upon Cawnpore. It was felt, therefore, that if Delhi were to be taken at all, it must be taken[Page 115] quickly, before our augmented numbers should be again diminished by sickness and casualties.
The enemy knew our position as well as we did, and appreciating the great value the siege-train would be to us, they decided on making a supreme effort to intercept it. A few days before they had been foiled by Hodson in an attempt to cut off our communication with the Punjab, and were determined to ensure success on this occasion by employing a really formidable force. This force left Delhi on the 24th August, and proceeded in the direction of the Najafgarh jhil.
At daybreak the following morning Nicholson started with sixteen Horse Artillery guns, 1,600 Infantry and 450 Cavalry, his orders being to overtake the enemy and bring them to action. I hoped to have been of the party, but Nicholson's request to have me as his staff officer was refused, as I had not been taken off the sick-list, though I considered my wound was practically healed.
It proved a most difficult march. The rain fell in torrents, and the roads were mere quagmires. In the first nine miles two swamps had to be got through, on crossing which Nicholson heard that the insurgents were at Najafgarh, twelve miles further off. He determined to push on, and at 4 p.m. he found them occupying a strong position about a mile and three-quarters in length. In front was an old serai which was held in force with four guns, and on either side and in rear of the serai was a village equally strongly held; while running round the enemy's right and rear was a huge drainage cut, swollen by the heavy rain. This cut, or nulla, was crossed by a bridge immediately behind the rebels' position. Nicholson advanced from a side-road, which brought him on their right with the nulla flowing between him and them. Even at the ford the water was breast-high, and it was with much difficulty and not without a good deal of delay that our troops crossed under a heavy fire from the serai. It was getting late, and Nicholson had only time to make a hasty reconnaissance. He decided to attack the serai, drive out the mutineers, and then, changing front to the left, to sweep down their line and get possession of the bridge.
The 61st Foot at Najafgarh As the Infantry were about to advance, Nicholson thus addressed them: 'Men of the 61st, remember what Sir Colin Campbell said at Chilianwala, and you have heard that he said the same to his gallant Highland Brigade at the Alma. I have the same request to make of you and the men of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers. Hold your fire until within twenty or thirty yards, then fire and charge, and the serai is yours.' Our brave soldiers followed these directions to the letter, and, under cover of Artillery fire, carried the serai. Front was then changed to the left as had been arranged, and the line swept along the enemy's defences, the rebels flying before them over the bridge. They confessed to a loss of more than 800 men, and they left in our hands[Page 116] thirteen field-pieces and a large quantity of ammunition, besides all their camp equipage, stores, camels, and horses. Our casualties were 2 officers and 23 men killed, and 3 officers and 68 men wounded—two of the officers mortally, the third dangerously.
The enemy in the city, imagining from the size of the force sent with Nicholson that we could not have many troops left in camp, attacked us in great strength on the following morning (26th), but were beaten off with a loss on our side of only 8 killed and 13 wounded.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XVI
[Footnote 1: According to the religion of Islam, Ishmail, not Isaac, was to have been offered up by Abraham.]
[Footnote 2: Forrest's 'The Indian Mutiny.']
[Footnote 3: Since writing the above it has been brought to my notice that the promptitude with which the troops were diverted to India was due in a great measure to the foresight of Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape, who, on hearing of the serious state of affairs in India, immediately ordered all transports which touched at the Cape on their way to take part in the China Expeditionary Force, to proceed directly to Calcutta instead of to Singapore. He also despatched as many of the Cape garrison as he could spare, with stores, etc., to India. It is right, therefore, that he should share with Lord Elgin the credit of having so quickly grasped the magnitude of the crisis through which India was passing.]
[Footnote 4: Owing to Brigadier-General Chamberlain having been placed hors de combat by the severe wound he received the previous day, Norman was carrying on the duties of Adjutant-General.]
[Footnote 5: There were besides in camp at this time 1,535 sick and wounded, notwithstanding that several hundred men had been sent away.]