Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
By the 6th September all the reinforcements that could be expected, including the siege train (consisting of thirty-two pieces of ordnance with ample ammunition) had arrived in camp, and the time had now come when it was necessary for Wilson to determine whether Delhi was to be assaulted, or whether the attempt must be given up. Long exposure to sun and rain began to tell terribly on the troops; sickness increased to an alarming extent, and on the 31st August there were 2,368 men in hospital—a number which, six days later, had risen to 2,977.
Norman, on whose figures implicit reliance can be placed, states that on this date the total number of effective rank and file of all arms, Artillery, Engineers, Cavalry, and Infantry, including gun-Lascars, Native drivers, newly-raised Sikh Pioneers, and recruits for the Punjab regiments, was 8,748.
The strength of the British troops was 3,217, composed of 580 Artillery, 443 Cavalry, and 2,294 Infantry. The Infantry corps were mere skeletons, the strongest being only 409 effective rank and file. The 52nd, which had arrived three weeks before with 600 healthy men, had already dwindled to 242 fit for duty.
The above numbers are exclusive of the Kashmir Contingent of 2,200 men and four guns, which had by this time reached Delhi; and several hundred men of the Jhind troops (previously most usefully employed in keeping open our communication with Kurnal) were, at the Raja's particular request, brought in to share in the glory of the capture of Delhi, the Raja himself accompanying them.
Wilson's Difficulties No one was more alive than the Commander of the Delhi Field Force to the fact that no further aid could be expected, and no one realized more keenly than he did that the strength of the little army at his disposal was diminishing day by day. But Wilson had never been sanguine as to the possibility of capturing Delhi without aid from the south. In a letter to Baird-Smith dated the 20th August, he discussed[Page 117] at length his reasons for not being in a position to 'hold out any hope of being able to take the place until supported by the force from below.' He now was aware that no troops could be expected from the south, and Sir John Lawrence plainly told him that he had sent him the last man he could spare from the Punjab. On the 29th August Lawrence wrote to Wilson: 'There seem to be very strong reasons for assaulting as soon as practicable. Every day's delay is fraught with danger. Every day disaffection and mutiny spread. Every day adds to the danger of the Native Princes taking part against us.' But Wilson did not find it easy to make up his mind to assault. He was ill. Responsibility and anxiety had told upon him. He had grown nervous and hesitating, and the longer it was delayed the more difficult the task appeared to him.
Fortunately for the continuance of our rule in India, Wilson had about him men who understood, as he was unable to do, the impossibility of our remaining any longer as we were. They knew that Delhi must either be taken or the army before it withdrawn. The man to whom the Commander first looked for counsel under these conditions—Baird-Smith, of the Bengal Engineers—proved himself worthy of the high and responsible position in which he was placed. He too was ill. Naturally of a delicate constitution, the climate and exposure had told upon him severely, and the diseases from which he was suffering were aggravated by a wound he had received soon after his arrival in camp. He fully appreciated the tremendous risks which an assault involved, but, in his opinion, they were less than were those of delay. Whether convinced or not by his Chief Engineer's arguments, Wilson accepted his advice and directed him to prepare a plan of attack.
Baird-Smith was strongly supported by Nicholson, Chamberlain, Daly, Norman, and Alex. Taylor. They were one and all in communication with the authorities in the Punjab, and they knew that if 'Delhi were not taken, and that speedily, there would be a struggle not only for European dominion, but even for European existence within the Punjab itself.'1
Our position in that province was, indeed, most critical. An attempted conspiracy of Mahomedan tribes in the Murree Hills, and an insurrection in the Gogaira district, had occurred. Both these affairs were simply attempts to throw off the British yoke, made in the belief that our last hour was come. The feeling that prompted them was not confined to the Mahomedans; amongst all classes and races in the Punjab a spirit of restlessness was on the increase; even the most loyally disposed were speculating on the chances of our being able to hold our own, and doubting the advisability of adhering to our cause.[Page 118] On the part of the Sikhs of the Manjha2 there was an unwillingness to enlist, and no good recruits of this class could be obtained until after Delhi had fallen.
It was under these critical circumstances that a council of war was convened to decide definitely whether the assault should take place or not.
Nicholson's Resolve Nicholson was not a man of many intimacies, but as his staff officer I had been fortunate enough to gain his friendship. I was constantly with him, and on this occasion I was sitting in his tent before he set out to attend the council. He had been talking to me in confidential terms of personal matters, and ended by telling me of his intention to take a very unusual step should the council fail to arrive at any fixed determination regarding the assault. 'Delhi must be taken,' he said, 'and it is absolutely essential that this should be done at once; and if Wilson hesitates longer, I intend to propose at to-day's meeting that he should be superseded.' I was greatly startled, and ventured to remark that, as Chamberlain was hors de combat from his wound, Wilson's removal would leave him, Nicholson, senior officer with the force. He smiled as he answered: 'I have not overlooked that fact. I shall make it perfectly clear that, under the circumstances, I could not possibly accept the command myself, and I shall propose that it be given to Campbell, of the 52nd; I am prepared to serve under him for the time being, so no one can ever accuse me of being influenced by personal motives.'
Happily, Nicholson was not called upon to take so unusual a step. I walked with him to the Head-Quarters camp, waited in great excitement until the council of war was over, and, when Nicholson issued from the General's tent, learnt, to my intense relief, that Wilson had agreed to the assault.
That Nicholson would have carried out his intention if the council had come to a different conclusion I have not the slightest doubt, and I quite believe that his masterful spirit would have effected its purpose and borne down all opposition. Whether his action would have been right or wrong is another question, and one on which there is always sure to be great difference of opinion. At the time it seemed to me that he was right. The circumstances were so exceptional—Wilson would have proved himself so manifestly unfit to cope with them had he decided on further delay—and the consequences of such delay would have been so calamitous and far-reaching, that even now, after many years have passed, and after having often thought over Nicholson's intended action and discussed the subject with other men, I have not changed my opinion.
Arrangements for the Assault In anticipation of an attack on Delhi, preparations had been commenced[Page 119] early in September, one of the first of these being to form a trench to the left of the 'Sammy House,' at the end of which a battery was constructed for four 9-pounders and two 24-pounder howitzers. The object of this battery was to prevent sorties from the Lahore or Kabul gates passing round the city wall to annoy our breaching batteries, and also to assist in keeping down the fire from the Mori bastion.3 This battery, moreover, led the enemy to believe that we should attack them from our right, whereas it had been resolved to push the main attack from our left, where we could approach nearer to the walls under cover, and where our flank was completely protected by the river. The Engineers had also employed themselves in getting ready 10,000 fascines, as many gabions, and 100,000 sand-bags, besides field-magazines, scaling-ladders, and spare platforms.
On the 7th September Wilson issued an order informing the force that arrangements for the assault would be commenced at once. He dwelt upon the hardships and fatigue which had been cheerfully borne by officers and men, and expressed his hope that they would be rewarded for their past labours, 'and for a cheerful endurance of still greater fatigue and exposure.' He reminded the troops of the reasons for the deadly struggle in which they were engaged, and he called upon all ranks to co-operate heart and soul in the arduous work now before them.
Construction of Breaching Batteries Ground was broken that evening. Unfortunately Baird-Smith was not able to personally superintend the construction of the breaching batteries, but he had in his second-in-command, Alex. Taylor, a thoroughly practical Engineer, who not only knew how to work himself, but how to get work out of others. Ever alert and cheerful, he was trusted and looked up to by all his subordinates, and was of all others the very man to be placed in charge of such a difficult and dangerous duty.
The first battery, known as No. 1, was traced out in two parts, about 700 yards from the Mori bastion, which the right half, with its five 18-pounders and one 8-inch howitzer, was intended to silence; while the left half, with its four 24-pounders, was to hold the Kashmir bastion in check.
All night the Engineers worked at the battery, but although before day broke it was nearly finished and armed, it was not ready to open fire until close on sunrise. The enemy did not fail to take advantage of this chance. They poured in round after round of shot and grape, causing many casualties. Their fire slackened as our guns were gradually able to make themselves felt, and by the afternoon it was silenced. Nothing remained of the Mori bastion but a heap of ruins. No. 1 battery was commanded by Major James Brind,4 the bravest of the[Page 120] brave. It was said of him that he 'never slept'; and Reid (of 'Hindu Rao' fame) wrote of him: 'On all occasions the exertions of this noble officer were indefatigable. He was always to be found where his presence was most required; and the example he set to officers and men was beyond all praise.'
No. 2 battery was next taken in hand. This was erected in front of Ludlow Castle, and about 500 yards from the Kashmir gate. Like No. 1, it was formed in two parts, the right half being intended for seven heavy howitzers and two 18-pounders, and the left for nine 24-pounders, commanded respectively by Majors Kaye and Campbell. All these guns were intended to breach the Kashmir bastion, where the main assault was to be made.
Up till this time the enemy had imagined that the attack would be delivered from our right, and they were quite taken by surprise when, on the evening of the 8th September, we occupied Ludlow Castle.
Baird-Smith showed his grasp of the situation in attacking from our left, notwithstanding the greater distance of this part of our position from the city wall. No counter-attack could be made on that flank, and the comparatively open ground between the Kashmir and Mori bastions would assist us in protecting the assaulting columns.
As soon as the enemy discovered their mistake, they did their utmost to prevent our batteries being constructed; but the Engineers were not to be deterred. By the morning of the 11th No. 2 battery was completed, armed, and unmasked, and No. 3 and No. 4 batteries were marked out in the Kudsiabagh. No. 3, commanded by Major Scott, was constructed for six 18-pounders, and twelve 5½ inch mortars under Captain Blunt. Norman in his narrative says: 'The establishment of Major Scott's battery within 180 yards of the wall, to arm which heavy guns had to be dragged from the rear under a constant fire of musketry, was an operation that could rarely have been equalled in war.' During the first night of its construction 89 men were killed and wounded; but with rare courage the workmen continued their task. They were merely unarmed pioneers; and with that passive bravery so characteristic of Natives, as man after man was knocked over, they would stop a moment, weep a little over a fallen friend, place his body in a row along with the rest, and then work on as before.5
No. 4 battery, armed with ten heavy mortars, and commanded by Major Tombs, was placed under the shelter of an old building, about half-way between No. 2 and No. 3 batteries.6
I was posted to the left half of No. 2 battery, and had charge of the[Page 121] two right guns. At eight o'clock on the morning of the 11th September we opened fire on the Kashmir bastion and the adjoining curtain, and as the shots told and the stones flew into the air and rattled down, a loud cheer burst from the Artillerymen and some of the men of the Carabineers and 9th Lancers who had volunteered to work in the batteries. The enemy had got our range with wonderful accuracy, and immediately on the screen in front of the right gun being removed, a round shot came through the embrasure, knocking two or three of us over. On regaining my feet, I found that the young Horse Artilleryman who was serving the vent while I was laying the gun had had his right arm taken off.
In the evening of the same day, when, wearied with hard work and exhausted by the great heat, we were taking a short rest, trusting to the shelter of the battery for protection, a shower of grape came into us, severely wounding our commander, Campbell, whose place was taken by Edwin Johnson. We never left the battery until the day of the assault—the 14th—except to go by turns into Ludlow Castle for our meals. Night and day the overwhelming fire was continued, and the incessant boom and roar of guns and mortars, with the ceaseless rain of shot and shell on the city, warned the mutineers that their punishment was at hand. We were not, however, allowed to have it all our own way. Unable to fire a gun from any of the three bastions we were breaching, the enemy brought guns into the open and enfiladed our batteries. They sent rockets from their martello towers, and they maintained a perfect storm of musketry from their advanced trench and from the city walls. No part of the attack was left unsearched by their fire, and though three months' incessant practice had made our men skilful in using any cover they had, our losses were numerous, 327 officers and men being killed and wounded between the 7th and 14th September.
Nicholson Expresses his Satisfaction On the evening of the 13th September Nicholson came to see whether we gunners had done our work thoroughly enough to warrant the assault being made the next morning. He was evidently satisfied, for when he entered our battery he said: 'I must shake hands with you fellows; you have done your best to make my work easy to-morrow.'
Nicholson was accompanied by Taylor, who had to make certain that the breaches were practicable, and for this purpose he detailed four subaltern officers of Engineers to go to the walls as soon as it was dark, and report upon the condition they were in. Greathed and Home were told off for the Water bastion breach, and Medley and Lang7 for that of the Kashmir bastion. Lang asked to be allowed to go while it was yet daylight; Taylor agreed, and with an escort of four men of the 60th Rifles he crept to the edge of the cover in the Kudsiabagh, and then, running up the glacis, sat on top of the counterscarp for[Page 122] a few seconds studying the ditch and the two breaches. On his return Lang reported the breaches to be practicable; as, however, it was desirable to ascertain whether ladders would be necessary, he was sent again after dark, in company with Medley. They took a ladder and a measuring-rod with them, and were escorted by an officer and twenty-four riflemen, of whom all but six were left under cover in the Kudsiabagh. Lang slipped into the ditch, which he found to be sixteen feet deep. Medley handed him the ladder and rod, and followed him with two riflemen, the other four remaining on the crest of the glacis to cover their retreat. With the help of the ladder they ascended the berm and measured the height of the wall. Two minutes more, and they would have reached the top of the breach, but, quiet as they had been, their movements had attracted attention, and several of the enemy were heard running towards the breach. The whole party reascended as rapidly as possible, and, throwing themselves on the grass, waited in breathless silence, hoping the sepoys would go away, and that they might be able to make another attempt to reach the top of the breach. The rebels, however, gave no signs of retiring, and as all needful information had been obtained, they determined to run for it. A volley was fired at the party as they dashed across the open, but no one was hit.
Greathed and Home had been equally successful, and by midnight Baird-Smith was able to report to General Wilson that both breaches were practicable.
Baird-Smith urged the importance of attacking without delay. He pointed out the impossibility of continuing the high pressure at which nearly every man8 in the force had been working during the past few days; that the tension was becoming too severe to last; and that every hour[Page 123] that passed without assaulting was a loss to us and a gain to the enemy.
Orders for the Assault Issued Before Wilson and Baird-Smith separated, orders had been issued for the attack to be made at daybreak the next morning, the 14th.
Composition of the Attacking Columns It was arranged that there were to be four assaulting columns and one reserve column.
The first, second and third columns, which were to operate on our left, were under the command of Brigadier-General Nicholson, who personally led No. 1 column. It consisted of:
Her Majesty's 75th Foot 300
and was meant to storm the breach near the Kashmir bastion.
[Note: I am indebted to the kindness of Mrs. Barter, the widow of my gallant friend and comrade. General Richard Barter, C.B., who served throughout the Mutiny with the 75th Foot, first as Adjutant and afterwards as Captain, for the above 'Daily State' and for the following extract from that officer's diary:
'In the evening the order was published for the storming of Delhi a little before daybreak the next morning, September 14, and we each of us looked carefully to the reloading of our pistols, filling of flasks, and getting as good protection as possible for our heads, which would be exposed so much going up the ladders. I wound two puggris or turbans round my old forage cap, with the last letter from the hills [Mrs. Barter was then at Kasauli, in the Himalayas] in the top, and committed myself to the care of Providence. There was not much sleep that night in our camp. I dropped off now and then, but never for long, and whenever I woke I could see that there was a light in more than one of the officers' tents, and talking was going on in a low tone amongst the men, the snapping of a lock or springing of a ramrod sounding far in the still air, telling of preparation for the coming strife. A little after midnight we fell in as quietly as possible, and by the light of a lantern the orders for the assault were then read to the men. They were to the following purport: Any officer or man who might be wounded was to be left where he fell; no one was to step from the ranks to help him, as there were no men to spare. If the assault were successful he would be taken away in the doolies, or litters, and carried to the rear, or wherever he could best receive medical assistance. If we failed, wounded and sound should be prepared to bear the worst. There was to be no plundering, but all prize taken was to be put into a common stock for fair division after all was over. No prisoners were to be made, as we had no one to guard them, and care was to be taken that no women or children were injured. To this the men answered at once, by "No fear, sir." The officers now pledged their honours on their swords to abide by these orders, and the men then promised to follow their example. At this moment, just as the regiment was about to march off, Father Bertrand came up in his vestments, and, addressing the Colonel, begged for permission to bless the regiment, saying: "We may differ some of us in matters of religion, but the blessing of an old man and a clergyman can do nothing but good." The Colonel at once assented, and Father Bertrand, lifting his hands to Heaven, blessed the regiment in a most impressive manner, offering up at the same time a prayer for our success and for mercy on the souls of those soon to die.']
No. 2 column, under Brigadier Jones, of Her Majesty's 61st Foot,[Page 124] consisted of:
Her Majesty's 8th Foot 250
and was intended for the storming of the breach near the Water bastion.
No. 3 column, under Colonel Campbell, of Her Majesty's 52nd Light Infantry, consisted of:
Her Majesty's 52nd Light Infantry 200
and was told off to enter the Kashmir gate after it had been blown in.
No. 4 column was to operate on our right. It was commanded by Major Reid, of the Sirmur battalion, and was composed of that regiment, the Guides Infantry, and such men from the piquets (European and Native) as could be spared. Its strength was 860 men, besides 1,200 of the Kashmir Contingent, and its orders were to attack the suburbs of Kisenganj and Paharipur, and support the main attack by effecting an entrance at the Kabul gate..
The Reserve column, under Brigadier Longfield, Her Majesty's 8th Foot, was told to await the result of the attack, and afford assistance wherever required. It consisted of:.
Her Majesty's 61st Foot 250
with 300 of the Jhind Contingent..
There were besides 200 of the 60th Rifles, who were to cover the advance of Nicholson's columns, and join the reserve as soon as the assaults had been carried out..
In order to provide these five columns, in all hardly 5,000 strong, the services of every man who could bear arms had to be put into requisition. Piquets were weakened to a dangerous extent, and many of the sick and wounded who ought to have been in hospital were utilized for the protection of the camp..
Camp Delhi, 13th September, 1857.
Rank and File. 6
Fit to turn out 37
(Sd.) E. COURTENAY,
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XVII
[Footnote 1: Punjab Administration Report, 1857-58.].
[Footnote 2: The tract of country between the Sutlej and Ravi rivers.].
[Footnote 3: Norman's narrative.].
[Footnote 4: The late General Sir James Brind, G.C.B.].
[Footnote 5: 'The Indian Mutiny,' by Forrest.].
[Footnote 6: When his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was coming to India in 1875, I obtained permission from Lord Napier of Magdala, who was then Commander-in-Chief, to erect miniature embrasures to mark the gun of direction of each of the breaching batteries; and on these embrasures are recorded the number, armament, and object of the batteries.].
[Footnote 7: Colonel Arthur Lang is the only one of the four now alive.].
[Footnote 8: Nearly every man was on duty. The daily state of the several corps must have been very similar to the following one of the 75th Foot.