Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
It seems strange on looking back that these many warnings should have passed almost unheeded, and that there should have been no suspicion amongst the officers serving with Native regiments that discontent was universal amongst the sepoys, and that a mutiny of the whole Bengal Army was imminent. But at that time the reliance on the fidelity of the Native troops was unbounded, and officers believed implicitly in the contentment and loyalty of their men. Their faith in them was extraordinary. Even after half the Native army had mutinied and many officers had been murdered, those belonging to the remaining regiments could not believe that their own particular men could be guilty of treachery.
At Peshawar there was not the slightest suspicion of the extent to which the evil had spread, and we were quite thunderstruck when, on the evening of the 11th May, as we were sitting at mess, the telegraph signaller rushed in breathless with excitement, a telegram in his hand, which proved to be a message from Delhi 'to all stations in the Punjab,' conveying the startling intelligence that a very serious outbreak had occurred at Meerut the previous evening, that some of the troopers from there had already reached Delhi, that the Native soldiers at the latter place had joined the mutineers, and that many officers and[Page 35] residents at both stations had been killed.
Prompt Action at Peshawar Lieutenant-Colonel Davidson, commanding the 16th Irregular Cavalry, who happened to be dining at mess that evening, was the first to recover from the state of consternation into which we were thrown by the reading of this telegram. He told us it was of the utmost importance that the Commissioner and the General should at once be put in possession of this astounding news, and at the same time impressed upon us the imperative necessity for keeping it secret.
Davidson then hurried off to the Commissioner, who with his deputy, Nicholson, lived within a stone's-throw of the mess. Edwardes drove at once to the General's house, while Nicholson came to our mess. He too pointed out to us the importance of preventing the news from getting about and of keeping it as long as possible from the Native soldiers.
We had at Peshawar three regiments of Native Cavalry and five of Native Infantry, not less than 5,000 men, while the strength of the two British regiments and the Artillery did not exceed 2,000. This European force was more than sufficient to cope with the eight Native corps, but in the event of any general disturbance amongst the Native troops, we had to calculate on the probability of their being joined by the 50,000 inhabitants of the city, and, indeed, by the entire population of the Peshawar valley; not to speak of the tribes all along the border, who were sure to rise.
It was an occasion for the gravest anxiety, and the delay of even a few hours in the sepoys becoming aware of the disastrous occurrences at Meerut and Delhi meant a great deal to us.
Fortunately for India, there were good men and true at Peshawar in those days, when hesitation and irresolution would have been fatal, and it is worthy of note that they were comparatively young men—Edwardes was thirty-seven, Nicholson thirty-five; Neville Chamberlain, the distinguished Commandant of the Punjab Frontier Force (who was hastily summoned from Kohat, where he happened to be on his tour of inspection), was thirty-seven; and the Brigadier, Sydney Cotton, though much older, being sixty-five, was not only exceptionally young for his years and full of energy and intelligence, but actually much younger than the average of General officers commanding stations in India.
At once, on hearing of the Mutiny, Edwardes, acting in unison with Nicholson, sent to the post-office and laid hands on all Native correspondence; the letters they thus secured showed but too plainly how necessary was this precaution. The number of seditious papers seized was alarmingly great; they were for the most part couched in figurative and enigmatical language, but it was quite sufficiently clear from them that every Native regiment in the garrison was more or less implicated and prepared to join the rebel movement.
A strong interest attaches to these letters, for they brought to light[Page 36] the true feeling of the Natives towards us at the time, and it was evident from them that the sepoys had really been made to believe that we intended to destroy their caste by various unholy devices, of which the issue of contaminating cartridges was one. The seeds of disaffection had been sown by agitators, who thought they saw an opportunity for realizing their hope of overthrowing our rule, maintained as it was by a mere handful of Europeans in the midst of a vast population of Asiatics. This feeling of antagonism, only guessed at before, was plainly revealed in these letters, never intended to meet the European eye. Some corps did not appear to be quite so guilty as others, but there could now be no doubt that all were tainted with disloyalty, and that none of the Hindustani troops could any longer be trusted.
In the afternoon of Tuesday, the 12th May, I received a note from the General commanding the division directing me to present myself at his house the following morning, which I accordingly did. Besides General Reed I found there the Brigadier, Sydney Cotton; the Commissioner, Herbert Edwardes; the Deputy Commissioner, John Nicholson; Brigadier Neville Chamberlain, and Captain Wright, Deputy Assistant-Adjutant-General, who, like myself, had been summoned to record the decisions that might be arrived at.
This meeting was a most momentous one, and I remember being greatly impressed with the calm and comprehensive view of the situation taken by Edwardes and Nicholson. They had already been in communication with the Chief Commissioner, and had, previous to the meeting, received a telegram from him approving generally of the several proposals they contemplated. John Lawrence also informed them that the authorities at Lahore had decided on disarming the Native troops at Mian Mir that very morning.
The problem to be solved was how the Punjab could best be made secure with the small force of British troops available—all told not more than 15,000, with 84 guns—against upwards of 65,000 Natives (of whom 42,000 were Hindustanis), with 62 guns.3 In all stations Native troops preponderated, and in some there were no European[Page 37] soldiers at all.
A Bold Policy Edwardes and Nicholson gave it as their opinion that the only chance of keeping the Punjab and the frontier quiet lay in trusting the Chiefs and people, and in endeavouring to induce them to side with us against the Hindustanis. They undertook to communicate, regarding the raising of levies and fresh troops, with their friends and acquaintances along the border, who had proved such staunch allies in 1848-49, when we were fighting with the Sikhs. How nobly these loyal men responded to the demand made upon them, and how splendidly the frontier and Punjab soldiers whom they brought to our assistance behaved, will be seen hereafter.
The Movable Column Amongst other matters of importance, it was proposed by those two able soldier-civilians, Edwardes and Nicholson, that General Reed, as the senior officer in the Punjab, should join the Chief Commissioner at Rawal Pindi, leaving Brigadier Cotton in command at Peshawar; that a Movable Column, composed of reliable troops, should be organized at some convenient place in the Punjab,4 prepared to move in any direction where its services might be required; that the Hindustani regiments[Page 38] should be scattered as much as possible, in order to prevent dangerous combinations; that a detachment of Punjab Infantry from Kohat should replace the Hindustani sepoys in the fort of Attock, which was a very important position, as it contained a magazine, and covered the passage of the Indus; and that a small guard of Pathan levies, under a tried and trusty frontier Native officer, should be placed in charge of the Attock ferry.
All these proposals were cordially and unanimously agreed to by the military authorities present.
The question of the command of the Movable Column was then discussed. It was considered essential that the officer selected should, in addition to other necessary qualifications, have considerable experience of the country, and an intimate knowledge of Native soldiers. It was no ordinary command. On the action of the Movable Column would depend, to a great extent, the maintenance of peace and order throughout the Punjab, and it was felt that, at such a crisis, the best man must be selected, irrespective of seniority. It was a position for which Cotton and Nicholson would have given much, and for which they were well qualified, but there was important work for them to do at Peshawar. Neville Chamberlain was available, and there was a general consensus of opinion that he should be appointed. It was necessary, however, to refer the matter to the Chief Commissioner, with a request that he would submit it for the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. This course was adopted, and in a few hours a reply was received from General Anson nominating Chamberlain to the command. My anxiety as to the Commander-in-Chief's decision was very considerable; for Brigadier Chamberlain, to my infinite delight and astonishment, had offered, in the event of his being appointed, to take me with him as his staff officer—the most wonderful piece of good fortune that could have come to me; my readers must imagine my feelings, for it is impossible for me to describe them. My most sanguine hopes seemed about to be more than realized; for though the serious aspect of affairs seemed to promise the chance of active service, I little thought that I should be lucky enough to be employed as the staff officer of such a distinguished soldier as Neville Chamberlain.
When the meeting was over I was ordered to take the several messages, which Wright and I had written out, to the telegraph office, and see them despatched myself; as they disclosed more or less the[Page 39] measures that had been decided upon, it was necessary to avoid any chance of their falling into the hands of Native clerks. One of the messages5 contained a summary of the proceedings of the council, and was addressed to the commanding officers of all stations in the Punjab, with the view of imparting confidence, and letting them know what steps were being taken for the protection of the British residents throughout the province. This duty having been carried out, I returned home in a not unpleasant frame of mind, for though the crisis was a grave one, the outlook gloomy, and the end doubtful, the excitement was great. There were stirring times in store for us, when every man's powers would be tested, and the hopefulness of youth inclined me to look only on the bright side of the situation.
An Annoying Occurrence My equanimity was somewhat disturbed later in the day by an occurrence which caused me a good deal of annoyance at the time, though it soon passed away. Nicholson came to my house and told me that the proceedings at the meeting that morning had in some unaccountable manner become known; and he added, much to my disgust, that it was thought I might perhaps have been guilty of the indiscretion of divulging them. I was very angry, for I had appreciated as much as anyone the immense importance of keeping the decisions arrived at perfectly secret; and I could not help showing something of the indignation I felt at its having been thought possible that I could betray the confidence reposed in me. I denied most positively having done so; upon which Nicholson suggested that we should proceed together to the telegraph office and see whether the information could have leaked out from there. The signaller was a mere boy, and Nicholson's imposing presence and austere manner were quite too much for him; he was completely cowed, and, after a few hesitating denials, he admitted having satisfied the curiosity of a friend who had inquired[Page 40] of him how the authorities intended to deal with the crisis. This was enough, and I was cleared. The result to me of this unpleasant incident was a delightful increase of intimacy with the man for whom above all others I had the greatest admiration and most profound respect. As if to make up for his momentary injustice, Nicholson was kinder to me than ever, and I felt I had gained in him a firm and constant friend. So ended that eventful day.
At that time it was the custom for a staff officer, who had charge of any Government property, to have a guard of Native soldiers in charge of his house. That night it happened that my guard was furnished by the 64th Native Infantry, a regiment with a particularly bad reputation, and which had, in order to give effect to the measures proposed at the morning's meeting, been ordered to leave Peshawar and proceed to the outposts. The intercepted letters showed that this regiment was on the point of mutinying, and I could not help feeling, as I lay down on my bed, which, as usual in the hot weather, was placed in the verandah for the sake of coolness, how completely I was at the mercy of the sentry who walked up and down within a few feet of me. Fortunately, he was not aware that his regiment was suspected, and could not know the reason for the sudden order to march, or my career might have been ended then and there.
I Leave Peshawar Within a week from that time I had started for Rawal Pindi to be ready to join the Movable Column, which was to be formed at Wazirabad as soon as the troops could be got together. I took with me only just enough kit for a hot-weather march, and left everything standing in my house just as it was, little thinking that I should never return to it or be quartered in Peshawar again.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER VI
[Footnote 1: Place where the arms and accoutrements of Native regiments were kept.]
[Footnote 2: This name was the origin of the sepoys generally being called Pandies.]
[Footnote 3: At Meerut, Delhi, and Rurki, and in the Punjab there were:
2 Regiments of Cavalry
12 Regiments of Infantry
9 Troops of Horse Artillery
5 Light Field Batteries
10 Companies of Foot Artillerymen
7 Regiments of Light Cavalry
14 Regiments of Irregular Cavalry and
31 Regiments of Regular Infantry
3 Troops of Horse Artillery
6 Light Field Batteries
30 (3 batteries had only 4 guns each)
2 Mountain Batteries
14 (1 battery had 8, the other 6 guns)
3 Companies of Foot Artillery
Head-Quarters and 12 Companies of
The above figures show the troops at full strength. There were probably not more than 15,000 British soldiers in the Punjab available for duty in May, 1857.]
[Footnote 4: The original proposal was that the Movable Column should be formed at Jhelum, and composed of the 24th Foot from Rawal Pindi, the 27th Foot from Nowshera, a troop of Horse Artillery from Peshawar, a Native Field Battery from Jhelum, the Guides from Murdan, the 16th Irregular Cavalry from Rawal Pindi, the Kumaon battalion from Murree, the 1st Punjab Infantry from Bannu, and a wing of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry from Kohat. But events developed so rapidly that before the column was formed every one of these troops was otherwise employed. It was thought unwise to unduly weaken the Peshawar valley; the troop of Horse Artillery, therefore, stood fast, the 27th Foot was halted at Attock, and the 24th Foot and Kumaon battalion were kept at their stations ready to move towards the frontier. The Guides, 2nd Punjab Cavalry, and 1st Punjab Infantry were ordered to Delhi, and the 16th Irregular Cavalry and the Native Field Battery were not considered sufficiently loyal to be employed on such a duty. Eventually, the column was formed of one troop of Horse Artillery, one Field Battery, and one Infantry regiment, all British and all from Sialkot.]
[Footnote 5: The full text of the message was as follows:
'From General Reed, Peshawar.
'To Sir John Lawrence, Rawal Pindi, the Commander-in-Chief, Simla, and officers commanding all stations in the Punjab respectively; to be forwarded by the assistant in charge of the telegraph office, or post, as the case may be.
'The senior military officer in the Punjab, Major-General Reed, having this morning received news of the disarming of the troops at Mian Mir, a council of war was held, consisting of General Reed, Brigadier Cotton, Brigadier Neville Chamberlain, Colonel Edwardes, and Colonel Nicholson, and the following measures were decided on, subject to the confirmation of the Commander-in-Chief. General Reed assumes the chief military command in the Punjab; his Head-Quarters will be the Head-Quarters of the Punjab Civil Government, and a Movable Column will be formed at Jhelum at once, consisting of [the troops were here detailed]. The necessary orders for this column have been issued. The column will move on every point in the Punjab where open mutiny requires to be put down by force, and officers commanding at all stations in the Punjab will co-operate with the column.']