Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
It was intended, as I have before said, that the assault should be delivered at break of day, but many of the men belonging to the regiments of the storming force had been on piquet all night, and it took some time for them to rejoin their respective corps. A further delay was caused by our having to destroy the partial repairs to the breaches which the enemy had succeeded in effecting during the night, notwithstanding the steady fire we had kept up.
While we were thus engaged, the Infantry were ordered to lie down under cover. Standing on the crenellated wall which separated Ludlow Castle from the road, I saw Nicholson at the head of his column, and wondered what was passing through his mind. Was he thinking of the future, or of the wonderful part he had played during the past four months? At Peshawar he had been Edwardes's right hand. At the head of the Movable Column he had been mainly instrumental in keeping the Punjab quiet, and at Delhi everyone felt that during the short time he had been with us he was our guiding star, and that but for his presence in the camp the assault which he was about to lead would probably never have come off. He was truly 'a tower of strength.' Any feeling of reluctance to serve under a Captain of the Company's army, which had at first been felt by some, had been completely overcome by his wonderful personality. Each man in the force, from the General in command to the last-joined private soldier, recognized that the man whom the wild people on the frontier had deified—the man of whom a little time before Edwardes had said to Lord Canning, 'You may rely upon this, that if ever there is a desperate deed to be done in India, John Nicholson is the man to do it'—was one who had proved himself beyond all doubt capable of grappling with the crisis through which we were passing—one to follow to the death. Faith in the Commander who had claimed and been given the post of honour was unbounded, and every man was prepared 'to do or die' for him.
The sun had risen high in the heavens, when the breaching guns suddenly ceased, and each soldier felt he had but a brief moment in which to brace himself for the coming conflict. Nicholson gave the signal. The 60th Rifles with a loud cheer dashed to the front in skirmishing order, while at the same moment the heads of the first and second columns appeared from the Kudsiabagh and moved steadily towards the breaches.
No sooner were the front ranks seen by the rebels than a storm of bullets met them from every side, and officers and men fell thick on the crest of the glacis. Then, for a few seconds, amidst a blaze of musketry, the soldiers stood at the edge of the ditch, for only one or[Page 126] two of the ladders had come up, the rest having been dropped by their killed or wounded carriers. Dark figures crowded on the breach, hurling stones upon our men and daring them to come on. More ladders were brought up, they were thrown into the ditch, and our men, leaping into it, raised them against the escarp on the other side. Nicholson, at the head of a part of his column, was the first to ascend the breach in the curtain. The remainder of his troops diverged a little to the right to escalade the breach in the Kashmir bastion. Here Lieutenants Barter and Fitzgerald, of the 75th Foot, were the first to mount, and here the latter fell mortally wounded. The breaches were quickly filled with dead and dying, but the rebels were hurled back, and the ramparts which had so long resisted us were our own.
The breach at the Water bastion was carried by No. 2 column. No sooner was its head seen emerging from the cover of the old Custom-house than it was met by a terrible discharge of musketry. Both the Engineer officers (Greathed and Hovenden) who were leading it fell severely wounded, and of the thirty-nine men who carried the ladders twenty-nine were killed or wounded in as many seconds. The ladders were immediately seized by their comrades, who, after one or two vain attempts, succeeded in placing them against the escarp. Then, amidst a shower of stones and bullets, the soldiers ascended, rushed the breach, and, slaying all before them, drove the rebels from the walls.
The Scene at the Kashmir Gate No. 3 column had in the meanwhile advanced towards the Kashmir gate and halted. Lieutenants Home and Salkeld, with eight Sappers and Miners and a bugler of the 52nd Foot, went forward to blow the gate open. The enemy were apparently so astounded at the audacity of this proceeding that for a minute or two they offered but slight resistance. They soon, however, discovered how small the party was and the object for which it had come, and forthwith opened a deadly fire upon the gallant little band from the top of the gateway, from the city wall, and through the open wicket.
The bridge over the ditch in front of the gateway had been destroyed, and it was with some difficulty that the single beam which remained could be crossed. Home with the men carrying the powder-bags got over first. As the bags were being attached to the gate, Sergeant Carmichael was killed and Havildar Madhoo wounded; the rest then slipped into the ditch to allow the firing party which had come up under Salkeld to carry out its share of the duty.
While endeavouring to fire the charge, Salkeld, being shot through the leg and arm, handed the slow-match to Corporal Burgess, who fell mortally wounded, but not until he had successfully performed his task.
As soon as the explosion had taken place, Bugler Hawthorne sounded the regimental call of the 52nd. Meeting with no response, he sounded twice again. The noise of firing and shouting was so great that neither the sound of the bugle nor that of the explosion reached the column,[Page 127] but Campbell, after allowing the firing party what he thought was sufficient time, gave the order to advance. Captain Crosse, of the 52nd, was the first to reach the gate, followed closely by Corporal Taylor of his own company, and Captain Synge of the same regiment, who was Campbell's Brigade-Major. In single file along the narrow plank they crossed the ditch in which lay the shattered remnant of the gallant little band; they crept through the wicket, which was the only part blown in, and found the interior of the gateway blocked by an 18-pounder gun, under which were lying the scorched bodies of two or three sepoys, who had evidently been killed by the explosion. The rest of the column followed as rapidly as the precarious crossing would admit, and when Campbell got inside he found himself face to face with both Nicholson's and Jones's columns, which, after mounting the three breaches, poured in a mingled crowd into the open space between the Kashmir gate and the church.
No. 4 column advanced from the Sabzi Mandi towards Kisenganj and Paharipur. Reid, the commander, was unfortunately wounded early in the day. Several other officers were either killed or wounded, and for a little time a certain amount of confusion existed owing to some misconception as to whether the command of the column should be exercised by the senior officer with the regular troops, or by the political officer with the Kashmir Contingent. The fighting was very severe. The enemy were in great numbers, and strongly posted on the banks of the canal—indeed, at one time there appeared to be a likelihood of their breaking into our weakly-guarded camp or turning the flank of our storming parties. The guns at Hindu Rao's house, however, prevented such a catastrophe by pouring shrapnel into the ranks of the rebels; and just at the critical moment Hope Grant brought up the Cavalry brigade, which had been covering the assaulting columns. The Horse Artillery dashed to the front and opened fire upon the enemy. From the gardens and houses of Kisenganj, only two or three hundred yards off, the mutineers poured a deadly fire of musketry on our men, and from the bastion near the Lahore gate showers of grape caused serious losses amongst them. Owing to the nature of the ground the Cavalry could not charge. Had they retired the guns would have been captured, and had the guns been withdrawn the position would have been lost. For two hours the troopers drawn up in battle array sat motionless, while their ranks were being cruelly raked. Not a man wavered. Hope Grant and four of his staff had their horses killed under them; two of them were wounded, and Hope Grant himself was hit by a spent shot. In Tombs's troop of Horse Artillery alone, 25 men out of 50 were wounded, and 17 horses either killed or wounded. The 9th Lancers had 38 casualties amongst the men, and lost 71 horses. 'Nothing daunted,' wrote Hope Grant, 'those gallant soldiers held their trying position with patient endurance; and on my[Page 128] praising them for their good behaviour, they declared their readiness to stand the fire as long as I chose. The behaviour of the Native Cavalry,' he added, 'was also admirable. Nothing could be steadier; nothing could be more soldierlike than their bearing.'
Bold Front by Artillery and Cavalry The bold front shown by the Horse Artillery and Cavalry enabled No. 4 column to retire in an orderly manner behind Hindu Rao's house, and also assisted the Kashmir Contingent in its retreat from the Idgah, where it was defeated with the loss of four guns. The repulse of this column added considerably to our difficulties by freeing many hundreds to take part in the fight which was being fiercely carried on within the city.
Meanwhile the three assaulting columns had made good their lodgment on the walls. The guns in the Kashmir and Water bastions had been turned so as to allow of their being used against the foe, and preparations were made for the next move.
Nicholson's orders were to push his way to the Ajmir gate, by the road running inside the city wall, and to clear the ramparts and bastions as he went. Jones was to make for the Kabul gate, and Campbell for the Jama Masjid.
These three columns reformed inside the Kashmir gate, from which point the first and second practically became one. Nicholson, being accidentally separated from his own column for a short time, pushed on with Campbell's past the church, in the direction of the Jama Masjid, while the amalgamated column under Jones's leadership took the rampart route past the Kabul gate (on the top of which Jones had planted a British flag), capturing as they advanced all the guns they found on the ramparts, and receiving no check until the Burn bastion was reached by some of the more adventurous spirits. Here the enemy, taking heart at seeing but a small number of opponents, made a stand. They brought up a gun, and, occupying all the buildings on the south side of the rampart with Infantry, they poured forth such a heavy fire that a retirement to the Kabul gate had to be effected.
It was at this point that Nicholson rejoined his own column. His haughty spirit could not brook the idea of a retirement; however slight the check might be, he knew that it would restore to the rebels the confidence of which our hitherto successful advance had deprived them, and, believing that there was nothing that brave men could not achieve, he determined to make a fresh attempt to seize the Burn bastion.
The lane which was again to be traversed was about 200 yards long, with the city wall and rampart on the right, and on the left flat-roofed houses with parapets, affording convenient shelter for the enemy's sharp-shooters.
Nicholson Wounded As the troops advanced up this lane the mutineers opened upon them a heavy and destructive fire. Again and again they were checked, and again and again they reformed and advanced. It was in this lane that[Page 129] Major Jacob, the gallant Commander of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, fell, mortally wounded. His men wanted to carry him to the rear, but he would not allow them to remain behind for him, and refused their help, urging them to press forward against the foe. The officers, leading far ahead of their men, were shot down one after the other, and the men, seeing them fall, began to waver. Nicholson, on this, sprang forward, and called upon the soldiers to follow him. He was instantly shot through the chest.
A second retirement to the Kabul gate was now inevitable, and there all that was left of the first and second columns remained for the night.
Campbell's column, guided by Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, who from his intimate acquaintance with the city as Magistrate and Collector of Delhi was able to conduct it by the route least exposed to the enemy's fire, forced its way to the vicinity of the Jama Masjid, where it remained for half an hour, hoping that the other columns would come to its assistance. They, however, as has been shown, had more than enough to do elsewhere, and Campbell (who was wounded), seeing no chance of being reinforced, and having no Artillery or powder-bags with which to blow in the gates of the Jama Masjid, fell back leisurely and in order on the church, where he touched what was left of the Reserve column, which had gradually been broken up to meet the demands of the assaulting force, until the 4th Punjab Infantry alone remained to represent it.
While what I have just described was taking place, I myself was with General Wilson. Edwin Johnson and I, being no longer required with the breaching batteries, had been ordered to return to our staff duties, and we accordingly joined the General at Ludlow Castle, where he arrived shortly before the assaulting columns moved from the cover of the Kudsiabagh.
Wilson watched the assault from the top of the house, and when he was satisfied that it had proved successful, he rode through the Kashmir gate to the church, where he remained for the rest of the day.
He was ill and tired out, and as the day wore on and he received discouraging reports, he became more and more anxious and depressed. He heard of Reid's failure, and of Reid himself having been severely wounded; then came the disastrous news that Nicholson had fallen, and a report (happily false) that Hope Grant and Tombs were both killed. All this greatly agitated and distressed the General, until at last he began seriously to consider the advisability of leaving the city and falling back on the Ridge.
I was ordered to go and find out the truth of these reports, and to ascertain exactly what had happened to No. 4 column and the Cavalry on our right.
The Last I Saw of Nicholson Just after starting on my errand, while riding through the Kashmir[Page 130] gate, I observed by the side of the road a doolie, without bearers, and with evidently a wounded man inside. I dismounted to see if I could be of any use to the occupant, when I found, to my grief and consternation, that it was John Nicholson, with death written on his face. He told me that the bearers had put the doolie down and gone off to plunder; that he was in great pain, and wished to be taken to the hospital. He was lying on his back, no wound was visible, and but for the pallor of his face, always colourless, there was no sign of the agony he must have been enduring. On my expressing a hope that he was not seriously wounded, he said: 'I am dying; there is no chance for me.' The sight of that great man lying helpless and on the point of death was almost more than I could bear. Other men had daily died around me, friends and comrades had been killed beside me, but I never felt as I felt then—to lose Nicholson seemed to me at that moment to lose everything.
I searched about for the doolie-bearers, who, with other camp-followers, were busy ransacking the houses and shops in the neighbourhood, and carrying off everything of the slightest value they could lay their hands on. Having with difficulty collected four men, I put them in charge of a sergeant of the 61st Foot. Taking down his name, I told him who the wounded officer was, and ordered him to go direct to the field hospital.
That was the last I saw of Nicholson. I found time to ride several times to the hospital to inquire after him, but I was never allowed to see him again.
Continuing my ride, I soon came up with Hope Grant's brigade. It had shortly before been relieved from its perilous and unpleasant position as a target for the enemy by the timely arrival of the Guides Infantry and a detachment of the Baluch battalion. I was rejoiced to find Tombs alive and unhurt, and from him and other officers of my regiment I learnt the tremendous peppering they had undergone. Hodson was also there with his newly-raised regiment, some officers of the 9th Lancers, and Dighton Probyn, Watson, and Younghusband, of the Punjab Cavalry. Probyn was in great spirits, having fallen temporarily into the command of his squadron, owing to Charles Nicholson (John Nicholson's younger brother) having been selected to take Coke's place with the 1st Punjab Infantry. Probyn retained his command throughout the campaign, for Charles Nicholson was wounded that very morning while gallantly leading his regiment. His right arm was being amputated when his heroic brother was carried mortally wounded into the same hospital, and laid on the bed next to him.
It seemed so important to acquaint the General without delay that Hope Grant and Tombs were both alive, that the Cavalry had been relieved from their exposed position, and that there was no need for[Page 131] further anxiety about Reid's column, that I galloped back to the church as quickly as possible.
Wilson Wavers The news I was able to give for the moment somewhat cheered the General, but did not altogether dispel his gloomy forebodings; and the failure of Campbell's column (which just at that juncture returned to the church), the hopelessness of Nicholson's condition, and, above all, the heavy list of casualties he received later, appeared to crush all spirit and energy out of him. His dejection increased, and he became more than ever convinced that his wisest course was to withdraw from the city. He would, I think, have carried out this fatal measure, notwithstanding that every officer on his staff was utterly opposed to any retrograde movement, had it not been his good fortune to have beside him a man sufficiently bold and resolute to stimulate his flagging energies. Baird-Smith's indomitable courage and determined perseverance were never more conspicuous than at that critical moment, when, though suffering intense pain from his wound, and weakened by a wasting disease, he refused to be put upon the sick-list; and on Wilson appealing to him for advice as to whether he should or should not hold on to the position we had gained, the short but decisive answer, 'We must hold on,' was given in such a determined and uncompromising tone that it put an end to all discussion.
Holding on to the Walls of Delhi Neville Chamberlain gave similar advice. Although still suffering from his wound, and only able to move about with difficulty, he had taken up his position at Hindu Rao's house, from which he exercised, as far as his physical condition would allow, a general supervision and control over the events that took place on the right of the Ridge. He was accompanied by Daly and a very distinguished Native officer of the Guides, named Khan Sing Rosa, both of whom, like Chamberlain, were incapacitated by wounds from active duty. From the top of Hindu Rao's house Chamberlain observed the first successes of the columns, and their subsequent checks and retirements, and it was while he was there that he received two notes from General Wilson. In the first, written after the failure of the attacks on the Jama Masjid and the Lahore gate, the General asked for the return of the Baluch battalion, which, at Chamberlain's request, had been sent to reinforce Reid's column, and in it he expressed the hope that 'we shall be able to hold what we have got.' In the second note, written at four o'clock in the afternoon, the General asked whether Chamberlain 'could do anything from Hindu Rao's house to assist,' adding, 'our numbers are frightfully reduced, and we have lost so many senior officers that the men are not under proper control; indeed, I doubt if they could be got to do anything dashing. I want your advice. If the Hindu Rao's piquet cannot be moved, I do not think we shall be strong enough to take the city.' Chamberlain understood General Wilson's second note to imply that he contemplated withdrawing the troops[Page 132] from the city, and he framed his reply accordingly. In it he urged the necessity for holding on to the last; he pointed out the advantages already gained, and the demoralization thereby inflicted upon the enemy. The dying Nicholson advocated the same course with almost his latest breath. So angry and excited was he when he was told of the General's suggestion to retire, that he exclaimed, 'Thank God I have strength yet to shoot him, if necessary.' There was no resisting such a consensus of responsible and reliable opinion, and Wilson gave up all idea of retreating.
During the afternoon of the 14th, Norman, Johnson, and I, at the General's desire and for his information, visited every position occupied by our troops within the city walls. In some places there was great confusion—men without their officers, and officers without their men—all without instructions, and not knowing what was going on in their immediate neighbourhood, the inevitable result of the rapid advance. We did what we could to remedy matters, and were able to report to Wilson that our troops were holding the wall from the Water bastion to the Kabul gate in sufficient strength. But this was all the comfort we could give him. The fact is, too much had been attempted on that eventful morning. We should have been satisfied with gaining possession of the Kashmir and Water bastions, and getting a lodgment within the city walls. This was as much as three such weak columns should have tried, or been asked to accomplish. No one who was present on that occasion, and experienced the difficulty, indeed impossibility, of keeping soldiers in hand while engaged in fighting along narrow streets and tortuous lanes, would ever again attempt what was expected of the assaulting columns.
While engaged in this duty we (Norman, Johnson and I) were attacked by a party of the enemy who had been hiding in considerable numbers in a side-lane watching for a chance. A fight ensued; we had only a small guard with us, but, fortunately, the firing was heard by the men of a near piquet, some of whom came to our help. With their assistance we drove off the sepoys, but in the scrimmage my poor mare was shot. She was a very useful animal, and her death was a great loss to me at the time.
At sunset on the 14th of September only a very small portion of the walls of Delhi was in our possession. The densely-populated city remained to be conquered. The magazine, the palace, and the Fort of Selimgarh, all strongly fortified, were still in the hands of the enemy. The narrow strip of ground we had gained had been won at severe loss. Three out of the four officers who commanded the assaulting columns had been disabled, and 66 officers and 1,104 men had been killed and wounded.
'Cheer, Boys, Cheer!' The night of the 14th was spent by the General and staff in 'Skinner's house,'1 close to the church. Rest was badly needed, for[Page 133] almost everyone in the force, officers and men alike, had been hard at work, night and day, for a week. That night, luckily, we were allowed to be at peace, for whether it was that the rebels were as tired as we were, or that they were busy making preparations for further resistance, they did not disturb us; and when day broke we were all refreshed and ready to continue the struggle. At one time, indeed, early in the evening, the enemy appeared from their movements to be preparing to attack us, but just at that moment the band of the 4th Punjab Infantry struck up 'Cheer, Boys, Cheer!' upon which the men of the regiment did cheer, most lustily, and other regiments caught up and continued the inspiriting hurrahs, which apparently had the effect of disconcerting the mutineers and keeping them quiet.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XVIII
[Footnote 1: The house belonged to the Skinner family, and was originally built by James Skinner, a Eurasian, who served the Moghul Emperor with great distinction towards the end of the last century. When Lord Lake broke up that Mahomedan Prince's power, Skinner entered the service of the East India Company and rose to the rank of Major. He was also a C.B. He raised the famous Skinner's Horse, now the 1st Bengal Cavalry. His father was an officer in one of His Majesty's regiments of Foot, and after one of Lord Clive's battles married a Rajput lady of good family, who with her father and mother had been taken prisoners. Skinner himself married a Mahomedan, so that he had an interest in the three religions, Christian, Hindu, and Mahomedan, and on one occasion, when left on the ground severely wounded, he made a vow that if his life were spared he would build three places of worship—a church, a temple, and a mosque. He fulfilled his vow, and a few years later he built the church at Delhi, and the temple and mosque which are in close proximity to it.]