It was in the early months of 1857 that there were the first ominous signs of unrest in India.
We have already seen how our power in India was founded upon the position held by the traders of the East India Company; we have also read of Dupleix, the French Governor; of Robert Clive, who held Arcot for fifty days against thousands of the enemy; of the battle of Plassey, and the ‘Black Hole’ at Calcutta; we have dealt very briefly with the victories of Wellesley, but between the early part of the nineteenth century and 1857 there had been little actual conflict, while the progress of the British Government had been well sustained.
During these years the native army had been very largely increased in numbers, while the British forces had hardly altered. In Bengal there were twenty Sepoys for every English soldier, and naturally enough the Crimean War had not been a favourable time to increase our garrison. It is difficult to say whether the Russian campaign had any political effect upon the Indians, but it is probable that it gave an impetus to the general unrest. Railways, telegraph wires, with all the other new appliances that were being first introduced at this time, were regarded with the deepest hatred and suspicion.
Finally in the early part of 1857 it was rumoured amongst the Sepoys that a plot had been laid by the Government to crush their religious scruples by stealth. Certain Indians hold the belief that they lose their caste if the fat of a cow or a pig passes their lips. It was necessary, so it was stated, in using the new Government cartridge to bite it with the teeth before ramming it home down the barrel. The grease upon this cartridge was discovered to contain forbidden ingredients.
But it must not be taken for granted that these cartridges were the sole cause of the Indian Mutiny. They were not a cause so much as a fuse to set India ablaze. There was sufficient aggravation to play upon the feelings of thousands of fanatical people. “The real motive of mutiny,” says G. O. Trevelyan, “was the ambition of the soldiery. Spoilt, flattered, and idle, in the indolence of its presumed strength, that pampered army thought nothing too good for itself, and nothing too formidable.”
In utter secrecy, an emblem of unity like a kind of fiery cross passed from one Sepoy regiment to another. Something was happening, and it is foolish to believe that those in authority were altogether in the dark. But the Crimean War was raging, and it was hardly the time to act. Men like Sidney Cotton, Edwardes, Chamberlain, and, soaring above them all, John Nicholson, were not the kind of men to be blind to the state of affairs, or to be taken wholly by surprise. Nicholson, by an investigation of the native letters passing through the post-office, was well aware of the magnitude of the conspiracy. Young Frederick Roberts, who at this time was acting Deputy-Assistant-Quartermaster-General, wrote: “He impressed me more profoundly than any man I had ever seen before, or have ever met since. I have never seen any one like him; he was the beau-ideal of a soldier and a gentleman. Above all others, I had for him the greatest admiration and the most profound respect.”
Nicholson had gone out to India as a boy of sixteen. He was a man of very imposing presence, very reserved, and inspiring amongst the natives the greatest possible admiration and hero-worship. He made few friends, faced conspiracy and disturbances night and day; a man whose self-reliance was only equalled by his courage, and whose name has gone down in India as a kind of super-man, removed above the level of his contemporaries.
It was Meerut, well called ‘the cradle of the Indian Mutiny,’ that set flame to the fire that was to rage across India. The cavalry there refused point-blank to use the cartridges, for which insubordination the colonel placed several under arrest. For a time everything seemed to be quiet enough, and then on the next day (a Sunday) the native regiments decided to rise and put the English to the sword.
The bells were ringing for evening service and the English officers and their wives were making their way to church, when out of the silent night there thundered the alarming rattle of rifle shots and the doleful roll of drums. Dense masses of smoke circled heavenwards from the native quarters.
The Mutiny had taken birth.
Sepoys, turned suddenly into a maddened crowd of fanatics, shot their rifles in all directions. With that confidence in their men which was such a pathetic feature of the Mutiny, the English officers hurried towards their regiments, and fell riddled with bullets. The cry, ‘To Delhi! To Delhi!’ arose, and to the ancient city of kings the rebels set out. Delhi was the Mecca of revolt, from whence the trouble was to spread like the wings of the morning. It was already a rendezvous for the rebels from all parts of the country.
Meerut was not only the cradle of the Mutiny; it was also in a manner the death-warrant of the deserted English people in Delhi. There was a comparatively strong force of British troops in Meerut, but for one reason or another—principally, one gathers, because their commanding officer was so very aged—they did not attempt the succour of the English in Delhi. Had they done so they would have taken the Sepoys in their hour of mutiny and probably scattered them. It would have been no formidable task. All along the roads to Delhi were streaming rebel cavalry and infantry, riding at their ease, and the English troops could have had everything their own way. As it was, they made no move, and soon news came to Meerut of the terrible massacre at Delhi. Every European—man, woman, and child—on whom the rebels could lay their hands had been murdered. Well said was it, ‘The sorrow was in Delhi, the shame in Meerut.’
When the outbreak of the rebellion and the news of the Delhi massacre were reported to General Anson, Commander-in-Chief in India, he said that at any cost Delhi must be regained. It was the only way of preserving the prestige of the English race. Without delay, General Barnard was placed in command of the force, and on June 7th united his troops with those at Meerut. In due course he advanced against Delhi, taking up a position upon a commanding plateau, which stood like a revolver pointing at the heart of the city.
It was Delhi that was the heart of the Mutiny, and coupled with the name of Delhi is that of John Lawrence, the brother of the defender of Lucknow. Truly has Dr. Fitchett said, “At Cawnpore and Lucknow the British fought for existence. At Delhi they fought for empire.”
To besiege Delhi, no matter with how small a force, was to maintain British supremacy from the very start. The man who had made that possible was John Lawrence. He it was who founded the Punjaub Frontier Force, who inspired Nicholson, Edwardes, and Chamberlain, who, in a word, prepared for the trouble while it was barely a cloud upon the horizon. He it was who brought 50,000 Sikhs into the war, and “through him,” wrote Canning, “Delhi fell.”
It is not within our subject to deal with the siege and storming of the city. The few details that follow must only be regarded as rough indications of the conflict. As the heart of the Mutiny it would require a greater canvas than it is possible to give here.
The Ridge commanding Delhi formed not only a point of vantage but also a rampart of defence, standing some 60 feet over the city. Even then the situation was critical. The British forces were plagued with cholera, and possessed guns which could not be relied upon to fire with accuracy. It was a struggle between a mere handful of men on an open plateau and a fierce and relentless army secured behind fortifications.
For nearly six weeks the Delhi Field Force held its own on the Ridge, suffering attacks almost daily, and carrying out sorties that were sometimes successful, but were always accompanied by great loss of life, and holding on like grim death till the city should fall into their hands.
On August 7 John Nicholson arrived, bringing with him some artillery and cavalry, and also the wonderful corps of Guides. News from the rest of India was in no way cheering. During the siege of Delhi, Sir Henry Lawrence had fallen, Lucknow was not relieved, and Havelock was as yet far away. Perceiving the gravity of the position, Nicholson decided that the Sepoys must receive a blow from which they could not recover. “Delhi,” he said, “must be taken, and at once.”
The news of the massacre at Cawnpore, with all its tale of horror, had already reached the troops, and they set out with renewed determination, led by John Nicholson, “a tower of strength, a guiding star,” who, at the head of the troops, was the first to set foot upon the broken rampart. The advance of the British was irresistible, but it brought with it an irreparable loss. “It was almost more than I could bear,” says Roberts; “other men had daily died around me, other 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.”
It was at sunrise on the morning of the 21st of September, after days of hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of Delhi, that the British at last gained the ascendancy, but with the accomplishment of their long endeavour had come the death of Nicholson.
The news of this victory—and it was a great victory at such a time—passed through the whole of India and thence to England. After weeks of fighting not only Sepoys, but also the ravages of cholera, 10,000 troops had attacked and carried a city defended at every point, losing 3000, and with them one of the greatest men that have ever defended the British flag.
The conquest of Delhi was the conquest of revolt, and a handful of British soldiers had made possible the re-establishment of the British flag.
They carried Delhi city—
Men whose triumphant arms
Filled all the land with wonder,
And stirred with strange alarms
The Pathan in his fastness,
Or where by Jumna’s tide
The bold front of rebellion
Had flourished in its pride.
Whilst this long siege was in operation much had happened elsewhere. At Lucknow Sir Henry Lawrence had delayed an outbreak for a considerable time. His influence over the Sepoys was very great, and it was only because of the success of the rebels elsewhere that they eventually decided to fling in their lot with the rising.
Lawrence had been left very much to himself during the earlier stages of the Mutiny. Hearing of the outbreak at Meerut and the fall of Delhi, he knew that in his isolated position he must act on his own initiative, and accordingly decided that he would concentrate the little force of British troops—together with their wives and families—in the Residency, the most hopeful place, in his opinion, for a small force to defend. Here he stored grain and built ramparts and trenches, and when by the end of May the Sepoys were in revolt, he was prepared to fight to the last.
At Cawnpore, where Nana Sahib, an Indian inspired by the deepest hatred of the English, was in command of the rebels, things were no more promising. Early in June the first signs of insurrection were visible, and the British, under Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, fortified themselves as best they could in a hospital barracks, where they were speedily besieged. It was a most ill-chosen place to make a stand. Their sufferings were terrible, but for all that they held out for eighteen days, after which, influenced by the frail hope that the women and children would be spared, General Wheeler came to terms with Nana Sahib. No word had reached them that they would be relieved or that Havelock was already on the road to Cawnpore. Trusting to the word of Nana Sahib, the garrison marched out—300 women and children, 150 soldiers, and the same number of civilians. For the terrible details of what followed one can best refer to Trevelyan’s Cawnpore.
“All the world knows of the cruelty that awaited them,” he writes. “They were permitted to embark in boats, and no sooner had they done so than the Sepoys opened fire. Those who were not slaughtered were conveyed ashore again and imprisoned. The white-haired General, the English officers and the civilians were speedily shot. But there still remained 122 women and children, who were placed in the Assembly Rooms, and here, and into this room—while Havelock was almost at hand—there were sent seven men to massacre the women and children and fling their bodies into a well. This hideous duty was not performed by the Sepoy soldiers, but by certain hirelings who were heavily paid by Nana Sahib.”
It was at this stage, when Lucknow was the next point of attack and Cawnpore had already fallen, that Havelock set out from Calcutta, where he had been preceded by the 78th Seaforth Highlanders.
The Persian campaign of 1856-57 was of little importance, but it is interesting as the scene of some activities—one cannot rate the foe more generously—on the part of the 78th Highlanders under Havelock and Outram, both fated to bear a great share in repressing the Mutiny. At Kooshab the “Ross-shire Buffs,” as the regiment was called, distinguished themselves by routing the Persian force most ignominiously. In consequence of this action Havelock was greatly impressed with their courage and stamina. “There is a fine spirit in the ranks of this regiment,” he wrote. “… I am convinced the regiment would be second to none in the service if its high military qualities were drawn forth. It is proud of its colours, its tartan, and its former achievements.”
It was with this veteran battalion that Havelock set out for Cawnpore.
Havelock was instructed that he should first quieten all disturbances at Allahabad, and then not lose a moment in relieving Sir Henry Lawrence and General Wheeler. His force was a comparatively insignificant one, lacking cavalry altogether, its guns drawn by cattle, and numbering only 1400 British soldiers. He was marching through a hostile country, and certain to encounter hundreds of thousands of well-armed Sepoys. Soon enough news came of the massacre of Cawnpore, but trusting that some at least of the garrison were still holding out, he struggled onward.
To return to Lucknow. The whole ambition of the rebels was now bent upon its destruction. Sir Henry Lawrence, driven to despair by the thought of what might happen to his helpless women, had made one sortie, which, unfortunately, had been heavily repulsed. He had been overpowered by numbers, and compelled to fight his way back into the Residency. So far everything was favouring the Sepoys.
The long and arduous siege began, and had it not been for his presence, it is doubtful whether the little force could have cherished the courage to hold out. To the last he urged them most earnestly never to surrender.
Early in July Lawrence was fatally wounded, and three days later died, leaving the heartbroken garrison to carry on the defence. Upon his tomb were written these simple and moving words: “Here lies Henry Lawrence, who tried to do his duty.”
On the 12th of July Havelock encountered the rebels. It was the first time that the Sepoys had come in contact with an efficient British force, but when they saw the Highlanders they cried to each other that here were the wives of the men slain in Cawnpore and Delhi. It is recorded that after a brief acquaintance with the Seaforths the Sepoys would willingly have fled from the English “women,” but there was no escape. Havelock ordered his men to charge, and to go on charging, and although the enemy were in a strong position and admirably armed, they were quite unable to resist the artillery and infantry that faced them. For twenty-four hours the British had been marching, and for as long a time they had tasted no food, but on the morning of the 15th they set out again upon their advance on Cawnpore. Again and again they confronted the enemy in ever-increasing numbers as they began to near the city. At last on the night when they came within twenty-three miles of Cawnpore, and fell upon the ground to snatch a little rest, Nana Sahib, hearing of their swift approach, signed the death-warrant of the hapless women and children. The next day—the 18th of July—saw the advance upon the city. “The rays of the sun,” says one writer, “darted down as if they had been concentrated through a lens.” After all their privations and their unconquerable march how tragic was their victory to prove.
In the meantime, the Indian army, composed of 5000 men with 8 guns, had come out to meet Havelock, and it was well for the British that Nana Sahib was anything but a competent general. The Indian leader had settled very definitely in his mind where Havelock was certain to attack him, and he made his plans accordingly. Fortunately Havelock was perfectly aware of this, and the Sepoys learnt his real intentions too late. One thing, however, was necessary, and that was the muzzling of the native guns. For this task the 78th Highlanders were chosen. Under Colonel Hamilton they advanced, and when they reached to some eighty yards of the Indian artillery, they brought their bayonets to the charge and flung themselves straight at the gunners. In a few minutes the artillery was in the hands of the British. The Sepoys retreated behind a howitzer. Again the Highlanders were rallied by Havelock, whose words, “Well done, Highlanders! Another charge like that wins the day,” rang out like a bugle call. Again the Sepoys broke and set out towards Cawnpore, rallying in a village some little way from the city. Instantly Havelock galloped up to the leading regiments and cried, “Who’ll take that village? The Highlanders or the 64th?” The rivalry thus inspired resulted very quickly in the evacuation of the position by the Sepoys, and the whole rebel army fell back towards Cawnpore.
The British were so exhausted by their unceasing march, lack of food, and the terrible sun, that they halted for a breathing-space, and Nana Sahib chose that moment for a final effort, opening fire upon their ranks with a large gun stationed upon the Cawnpore road. The crisis of the battle had come at last. Trevelyan has well pictured what followed. “Then,” he says, “the mutineers realised the change that a few weeks had wrought out in the nature of the task which they had selected and cut out for themselves. Embattled in their national order, and burning with more than their national lust of combat, on they came, the unconquerable British infantry. The grape was flying thick and true. Files rolled over. Men stumbled and recovered themselves, and went on for a while, and then turned and hobbled to the rear. Closer and closer drew the measured tramp of feet; and the heart of the foe died within him, and his fire grew hasty and ill-directed. As the last volley cut the air overhead, our soldiers raised a mighty shout, and rushed forward, each at his own pace, and then every rebel thought only of himself. Those nearest the place were the first to make away, but throughout the host there were none who still aspired to stay within push of the British bayonets. Squadron after squadron, battalion upon battalion, these humbled Brahmins dropped their weapons, stripped off their packs and spurred and ran, limped and scrambled back to the city that was to have been the chief and central abode of Sepoy domination…. At nightfall Dhondoo Punth (Nana Sahib) entered Cawnpore upon a chestnut horse drenched in perspiration, and with bleeding flanks. A fresh access of terror soon dismissed him again on his way to Bithoor, sore and weary, his head swimming and his chest heaving.”
The battle of Cawnpore was won, but the loss had been considerable, and the massacre of the hapless garrison was to take from the victory all its joy. There are few episodes in our history that have been conducted under more trying circumstances. There have been terrible marches undertaken, but few can be compared to the advance on Cawnpore. As Havelock said in issuing a report to the soldiers: “Between the 7th and 16th you have, under the Indian sun of July, marched one hundred and twenty-six miles, and fought four actions, but your comrades at Lucknow are in peril. Agra is besieged, Delhi is still the focus of mutiny and rebellion.”
During the night following the action a thunderous report reached the ears of the British force, to be followed by a dense cloud of smoke. It split the silence of the Indian night and died away. The rebels, before their retreat from the city, had blown up the magazine.
The next day the Highlanders marched into Cawnpore, a deserted city, with all the traces of the horrible thing that had taken place there. “Was it any wonder,” says one of the soldiers, “that when men carried back with them to camp a long heavy tress of golden hair, clean cut through as if by the slash of a sharp sword, and showed this token to comrades, who had been fighting and marching, and striving and straining that this thing might not be, was it any wonder that our soldiers swore to exact a merciless retribution as they stood around the dead, but eloquent witness of this oath.”
The task that lay before Havelock was one that might have made any man give way to despair. Well might he have said, in the heroic words of Scott: “I see before me a long tedious and dark path but it leads to stainless reputation. If I die in harness as is very likely, I shall die with honour. If I achieve my task I shall have the thanks of all concerned and the approval of my conscience.” Death and disease had reduced the numbers of his force to a bare 1500. They were still faced by some fifty miles swarming with the enemy, at the end of which they hoped to rescue the garrison of Lucknow. “The chances of relieving Lucknow,” said Havelock, “are daily multiplying against us; the difficulties of an advance are excessive.”