Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
On the morning of the 15th the situation was reviewed, and preparations made for the conquest of the city. Order was restored amongst the troops, who, as I have shown, had become somewhat demoralized by the street fighting. Regiments and brigades were got together; raids were made on all the store shops within reach, and every bottle of beer and spirits was broken.1 Some of the liquor would doubtless have been of great use in the hospitals, but there was no means of removing it, and the General wisely determined that it was best to put temptation out of the men's way. Guns and mortars were placed into position for shelling the city and palace, and a few houses near, where[Page 134] the enemy's sharpshooters had established themselves, were seized and occupied. We soon, however, gave up attacking such positions, for we found that street fighting could not be continued without the loss of more men than we had to spare, and that the wisest plan would be to keep the soldiers under cover as much as possible while we sapped from house to house. A battery commanding Selimgarh and part of the palace was constructed in the college gardens, and a breach was made in the wall of the magazine, which was captured the next morning with but slight loss.
On the 16th, and again on the 18th, Chamberlain took command of the troops inside the city while the General rested for a few hours. He was, as he expressed himself in a note to Chamberlain, 'completely done.'
The enemy now began to draw in their line. The suburbs were evacuated, and riding through the Sabzi Mandi, Kisenganj and Paharipur, we gazed with wonder at the size and strength of the works raised against us by the mutineers, in attacking which we had experienced such heavy loss during the early days of the siege, and from which No. 4 column had been obliged to retire on the day of the assault.
Capture of the Burn Bastion The smaller the position that had to be defended, the greater became the numbers concentrated in our immediate front, and every inch of our way through the city was stoutly disputed; but the advance, though slow, was steady, and considering the numbers of the insurgents, and the use they made at close quarters of their Field Artillery, our casualties were fewer than could have been expected.
Capture of the Lahore Gate I had been placed under the orders of Taylor, Baird-Smith's indefatigable Lieutenant, who directed the advance towards the Lahore gate. We worked through houses, courtyards, and lanes, until on the afternoon of the 19th we found ourselves in rear of the Burn bastion, the attempt to take which on the 14th had cost the life of the gallant Nicholson and so many other brave men. We had with us fifty European and fifty Native soldiers, the senior officer of the party being Captain Gordon, of the 75th Foot. A single door separated us from the lane which led to the Burn bastion. Lang, of the Engineers, burst this door open, and out dashed the party. Rushing across the lane and up the ramp, the guard was completely surprised, and the bastion was seized without our losing a man.
Early the next day we were still sapping our way towards the Lahore gate, when we suddenly found ourselves in a courtyard in which were huddled together some forty or fifty banias,2 who were evidently as much in terror of the sepoys as they were of us. The men of our party nearly made an end of these unfortunates before their officers could interfere, for to the troops (Native and European alike) every[Page 135] man inside the walls of Delhi was looked upon as a rebel, worthy of death. These people, however, were unarmed, and it did not require a very practised eye to see that they were inoffensive. We thought, however, that a good fright would do them no harm, and might possibly help us, so for a time we allowed them to believe that they were looked upon as traitors, but eventually told them their lives would be spared if they would take us in safety to some place from which we might observe how the Lahore gate was guarded. After considerable hesitation and consultation amongst themselves they agreed to two of their party guiding Lang and me, while the rest remained as hostages, with the understanding that, if we did not return within a given time, they would be shot.
Our trembling guides conducted us through houses, across courtyards, and along secluded alleys, without our meeting a living creature, until we found ourselves in an upper room of a house looking out on the Chandni Chauk,3 and within fifty yards of the Lahore gate.
From the window of this room we could see beneath us the sepoys lounging about, engaged in cleaning their muskets and other occupations, while some, in a lazy sort of fashion, were acting as sentries over the gateway and two guns, one of which pointed in the direction of the Sabzi Mandi, the other down the lane behind the ramparts leading to the Burn bastion and Kabul gate. I could see from the number on their caps that these sepoys belonged to the 5th Native Infantry.
Having satisfied ourselves of the feasibility of taking the Lahore gate in rear, we retraced our steps.
The two banias behaved well throughout, but were in such a terrible fright of anything happening to us that they would not allow us to leave the shelter of one house until they had carefully reconnoitred the way to the next, and made sure that it was clear of the enemy. This occasioned so much delay that our friends had almost given us up, and were on the point of requiring the hostages to pay the penalty for the supposed treachery of our guides, when we reappeared on the scene.
We then discussed our next move, and it was decided to repeat the manœuvre which had been so successful at the Burn bastion. The troops were brought by the route we had just traversed, and drawn up behind a gateway next to the house in which we had been concealed. The gate was burst open, and rushing into the street, we captured the guns, and killed or put to flight the sepoys whom we had watched from our upper chamber a short time before, without losing a man ourselves.
This was a great achievement, for we were now in possession of the main entrance to Delhi, and the street of the city leading direct from[Page 136] the Lahore gate to the palace and Jama Masjid. We proceeded up this street, at first cautiously, but on finding it absolutely empty, and the houses on either side abandoned, we pushed on until we reached the Delhi Bank. Here there was firing going on, and round shot flying about from a couple of guns placed just outside the palace. But this was evidently an expiring effort. The great Mahomedan mosque had just been occupied by a column under the command of Major James Brind; while Ensign McQueen,4 of the 4th Punjab Infantry, with one of his own men had pluckily reconnoitred up to the chief gateway of the palace, and reported that there were but few men left in the Moghul fort.
The honour of storming this last stronghold was appropriately reserved for the 60th Rifles, the regiment which had been the first to engage the enemy on the banks of the Hindun, nearly four months before, and which throughout the siege had so greatly distinguished itself.
The 60th Rifles Storm the Palace Home, of the Engineers, the hero of the Kashmir gate exploit, first advanced with some Sappers and blew in the outer gate. At this, the last struggle for the capture of Delhi, I wished to be present, so attached myself for the occasion to a party of the 60th Rifles, under the command of Ensign Alfred Heathcote. As soon as the smoke of the explosion cleared away, the 60th, supported by the 4th Punjab Infantry, sprang through the gateway; but we did not get far, for there was a second door beyond, chained and barred, which was with difficulty forced open, when the whole party rushed in. The recesses in the long passage which led to the palace buildings were crowded with wounded men, but there was very little opposition, for only a few fanatics still held out. One of these—a Mahomedan sepoy in the uniform of a Grenadier of the 37th Native Infantry—stood quietly about thirty yards up the passage with his musket on his hip. As we approached he slowly raised his weapon and fired, sending the bullet through McQueen's helmet. The brave fellow then advanced at the charge, and was, of course, shot down. So ended the 20th September, a day I am never likely to forget.
At sunrise on the 21st a royal salute proclaimed that we were again masters in Delhi, and that for the second time in the century the great city had been captured by a British force.
Later in the day General Wilson established his Head-Quarters in the Dewan-i-khas (the King's private hall of audience), and, as was in accordance with the fitness of things, the 60th Rifles and the Sirmur battalion of Gurkhas5 were the first troops of Her Majesty's army to garrison the palace of the Moghuls, in which the traitorous and[Page 137] treacherous massacre of English men, women and children had been perpetrated.
Hodson Captures the King of Delhi The importance of securing the principal members of the Royal Family was pressed upon the General by Chamberlain and Hodson, who both urged that the victory would be incomplete if the King and his male relatives were allowed to remain at large. Wilson would not consent to any force being sent after them, and it was with considerable reluctance that he agreed to Hodson going on this hazardous duty with some of his own men only. The last of the Moghul Emperors had taken refuge in Humayun's tomb, about seven miles from Delhi, where, on the afternoon of the 21st, he surrendered to Hodson on receiving a promise from that officer that his own life and the lives of his favourite wife and her son should be spared. Hodson brought them all into Delhi and placed them under a European guard in a house in the Chandni Chauk, thus adding one more to the many valuable services he had rendered throughout the siege.
I went with many others the next day to see the King; the old man looked most wretched, and as he evidently disliked intensely being stared at by Europeans, I quickly took my departure. On my way back I was rather startled to see the three lifeless bodies of the King's two sons and grandson lying exposed on the stone platform in front of the Kotwali. On enquiry I learnt that Hodson had gone a second time to Humayun's tomb that morning with the object of capturing these Princes, and on the way back to Delhi had shot them with his own hand—an act which, whether necessary or not, has undoubtedly cast a blot on his reputation. His own explanation of the circumstance was that he feared they would be rescued by the mob, who could easily have overpowered his small escort of 100 sowars, and it certainly would have been a misfortune had these men escaped. At the time a thirst for revenge on account of the atrocities committed within the walls of Delhi was so great that the shooting of the Princes seemed to the excited feelings of the army but an act of justice; and there were some men, whose opinions were entitled to the greatest respect, who considered the safety of the British force would have been endangered by the escape of the representatives of the house of Taimur, and that for this reason Hodson's act was justified.
My own feeling on the subject is one of sorrow that such a brilliant soldier should have laid himself open to so much adverse criticism. Moreover, I do not think that, under any circumstances, he should have done the deed himself, or ordered it to be done in that summary manner, unless there had been evident signs of an attempt at a[Page 138] rescue.
But it must be understood that there was no breach of faith on Hodson's part, for he steadily refused to give any promise to the Princes that their lives should be spared; he did, however, undoubtedly by this act give colour to the accusations of blood-thirstiness which his detractors were not slow to make.
Nicholson's Death The news that we had occupied the palace, and were in complete possession of the city of Delhi, consoled Nicholson on his deathbed. From the first there was little hope that this valuable life could be saved. He was taken into hospital in a fainting condition from internal hemorrhage, and he endured excruciating agony; but, wrote General Chamberlain, 'throughout those nine days of suffering he bore himself nobly; not a lament or sigh ever passed his lips.' His every thought was given to his country, and to the last he materially aided the military authorities by his clear-sighted, sound, and reliable advice. His intellect remained unclouded to the end. With his latest breath he sent messages of tender farewell to his mother, hoping she would be patient under his loss, and to his oldest and dearest friend, Herbert Edwardes. After his death some frontier Chiefs and Native officers of the Multani Horse were permitted to see him, and I was told that it was touching beyond expression to see these strong men shed tears as they looked on all that was left of the leader they so loved and honoured.
° ° ° ° ° ° °
Thus ended the great siege of Delhi, and to no one could the tidings of its fall have brought more intense relief and satisfaction than to the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab. Although in the first instance Sir John Lawrence certainly under-estimated the strength of the Delhi defences and the difficulties with which General Anson had to contend, he fully realized them later, and even at the risk of imperilling the safety of his own province by denuding it of troops, he provided the means for the capture of the rebel stronghold, and consequently the army of Delhi felt they owed him a deep debt of gratitude.
Gallantry of the Troops Like Norman when writing his narrative of the siege, I feel I cannot conclude my brief account of it without paying my small tribute of praise and admiration to the troops who bore themselves so nobly from the beginning to the end. Their behaviour throughout was beyond all praise, their constancy was unwearied, their gallantry most conspicuous; in thirty-two different fights they were victorious over long odds, being often exposed to an enemy ten times their number, who, moreover, had the advantage of ground and superior Artillery; they fought and worked as if each one felt that on his individual exertions alone depended the issue of the day; they willingly, nay, cheerfully, endured such trials as few armies have ever been exposed to for so long a time. For three months, day after day, and for the greater[Page 139] part of the day, every man had to be constantly under arms, exposed to a scorching Indian sun, which was almost as destructive as, and much harder to bear than, the enemy's never-ceasing fire. They saw their comrades struck down by cholera, sunstroke, and dysentery, more dispiriting a thousand times than the daily casualties in action. They beheld their enemies reinforced while their own numbers rapidly decreased. Yet they never lost heart, and at last, when it became evident that no hope of further reinforcements could be entertained, and that if Delhi were to be taken at all it must be taken at once, they advanced to the assault with as high a courage and as complete a confidence in the result, as if they were attacking in the first flush and exultation of troops at the commencement of a campaign, instead of being the remnant of a force worn out, by twelve long weeks of privation and suffering, by hope deferred (which truly 'maketh the heart sick'), and by weary waiting for the help which never came. Batteries were thrown up within easy range of the walls, than which a more heroic piece of work was never performed; and finally, these gallant few, of whom England should in very truth be everlastingly proud, stormed in the face of day a strong fortress defended by 30,000 desperate men, provided with everything necessary to defy assault.
Praise from Lord Canning The list of killed and wounded bears witness to the gallantry of all arms of the service. The effective force at Delhi never amounted to 10,000 men. Of these 992 were killed and 2,845 wounded, besides hundreds who died of disease and exposure. Where all behaved nobly, it is difficult to particularize; but it will not, I hope, be considered invidious if I specially draw my readers' attention to the four corps most constantly engaged: the 60th Rifles, the Sirmur battalion of Gurkhas, the Guides, and the 1st Punjab Infantry. Placed in the very front of the position, they were incessantly under fire, and their losses in action testify to the nature of the service they performed. The 60th Rifles left Meerut with 440 of all ranks; a few days before the assault they received a reinforcement of nearly 200, making a total of 640; their casualties were 389. The Sirmur battalion began with 450 men, and were joined by a draft of 90, making a total of 540; their loss in killed and wounded amounted to 319. The strength of the Guides when they joined was 550 Cavalry and Infantry, and their casualties were 303. The 1st Punjab Infantry arrived in Delhi with 3 British officers and 664 Natives of all ranks. Two of the British officers were killed, and the third severely wounded, and of the Natives, 8 officers6 and 200 men were killed and wounded; while out of the British officers attached to the regiment during the siege 1 was[Page 140] killed and 4 wounded. Further, it is a great pleasure to me to dwell on the splendid service done by the Artillery and Engineers. The former, out of their small number, had 365 killed or disabled, and the latter two-thirds of their officers and 293 of their men. I cannot more appropriately conclude this chapter than by quoting the words of Lord Canning, who, as Governor-General of India, wrote as follows in giving publication to the Delhi despatches: 'In the name of outraged humanity, in memory of innocent blood ruthlessly shed, and in acknowledgment of the first signal vengeance inflicted on the foulest treason, the Governor-General in Council records his gratitude to Major-General Wilson and the brave army of Delhi. He does so in the sure conviction that a like tribute awaits them, not in England only, but wherever within the limits of civilization the news of their well-earned triumph shall reach.'
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XIX
[Footnote 1: A report was circulated that a large number of our men had fallen into the trap laid for them by the Native shopkeepers, and were disgracefully drunk. I heard that a few men, overcome by heat and hard work, had given way to temptation, but I did not see a single drunken man throughout the day of the assault, although, as I have related, I visited every position held by our troops within the walls of the city.]
[Footnote 2: Sellers of grain and lenders of money.]
[Footnote 3: 'Silver Bazaar,' the main street of Delhi, in which were, and still are, situated all the principal jewellers' and cloth-Merchants' shops.]
[Footnote 4: Now Lieutenant-General Sir John McQueen, K.C.B.]
[Footnote 5: The Gurkhas became such friends with the men of the 1st Battalion 60th Rifles during the siege—the admiration of brave men for brave men—that they made a special request to be allowed to wear the same uniform as their 'brothers' in the Rifles. This was acceded to, and the 2nd Gurkhas are very proud of the little red line on their facings.]
[Footnote 6: Amongst the Native officers killed was Subadar Ruttun Sing, who fell mortally wounded in the glacis. He was a Patiala Sikh, and had been invalided from the service. As the 1st Punjab Infantry neared Delhi, Major Coke saw the old man standing in the road with two swords on. He begged to be taken back into the service, and when Coke demurred he said: 'What! my old corps going to fight at Delhi without me! I hope you will let me lead my old Sikh company into action again. I will break these two swords in your cause.' Coke acceded to the old man's wish, and throughout the siege of Delhi he displayed the most splendid courage. At the great attack on the 'Sammy House' on the 1st and 2nd August, when Lieutenant Travers of his regiment was killed, Ruttun Sing, amidst a shower of bullets, jumped on to the parapet and shouted to the enemy, who were storming the piquet: 'If any man wants to fight, let him come here, and not stand firing like a coward! I am Ruttun Sing, of Patiala.' He then sprang down among the enemy, followed by the men of his company, and drove them off with heavy loss.
On the morning of the assault the regiment had marched down to the rendezvous at Ludlow Castle, 'left in front.' While waiting for the Artillery to fire a few final rounds at the breaches, the men sat down, and, falling in again, were doing so 'right in front.' Ruttun Sing came up to Lieutenant Charles Nicholson, who was commanding the regiment, and said: 'We ought to fall in "left in front," thereby making his own company the leading one in the assault. In a few minutes more Ruttun Sing was mortally wounded, and Dal Sing, the Jemadar of his company, a man of as great courage as Ruttun Sing, but not of the same excitable nature, was killed outright.]