Gateway to the Classics: Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by Mrs. Frewen Lord
Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by  Mrs. Frewen Lord

The Sikh Monument

Many of you must have heard or read something about India, and all of you who have done so know that the King, as well as being King of England, is Emperor of India. All that great country is ruled over by King George, but because it is so far off, and he himself cannot leave England, a Viceroy is sent there to rule over all his millions of subjects—English and natives—in that far-off land. If you will look on the map of India, you will see marked, quite in the north, between Afghanistan and Thibet the Punjaub. The Sikhs, as the people who live in the Punjaub are called, are some of the bravest and best of all the natives of India, and during the Indian Mutiny (in the reign of Queen Victoria), when some of the natives rebelled and fought against the English who governed them, the Sikhs came to our help, and fought with and for us, and their Empress as bravely and as faithfully as any other soldiers of the Queen. Yet only ten years before they themselves had been fighting against us, and had not only determined that we should never set foot in their country of the Punjaub, but that they would drive us out of the part of India which already belonged to us. There was only a river, called the Sutlej, dividing the land which belonged to the English, from the land which belonged to the Sikhs; but for years they and we had lived quite peaceably side by side, and, indeed, more than once, when neighbouring princes of other native states had made war on the Sikhs, they had begged us to protect them, and evidently looked on us as their best friends. So it was all the greater surprise to Sir Henry Hardinge (who had been sent out as Governor-General) to find, soon after he arrived in India, that all these friendly feelings were at an end. The Sikhs, who had for some time been quarrelling among themselves, now began to quarrel with us, and determined to cross the river and drive us out of our country on our own side. As soon as this became known, Sir Henry Hardinge ordered the British army to march down to the river, and so be ready to fight the Sikhs if they should come. At last, on the evening of December 18, the enemy, who had really crossed the river at last, met our army, and a great battle—the battle of Moodkee—was fought and won by the English. It is said that during and after this battle there was very little food, and still less water, to be got for the tired fighters, and that the native soldiers in our army, seeing that our men needed much more both to eat and to drink than they did, gave up all their share to their English comrades, saying, "They cannot live without it—we can; let them take it all." Four of the many officers (Colonel Bolton, Captain Willes, Lieutenant Hart, Lieutenant Brenchley), as well as many men who were killed in this battle, are remembered, as you will see, in Canterbury Cathedral.

For the next two days all was quiet; the Sikhs and the English spent the time in burying those who had been killed, and in looking after the wounded. Then, on the 21st of December, just when we in England were thinking about Christmas presents and Christmas festivities, little knowing what was going on in India, the fighting began again. Between two and three o'clock on that Sunday afternoon, the battle of Ferozeshah—the second of the four great battles about which I want to tell you, and of which you will be reminded at Canterbury—began. All that afternoon and evening the fighting went on, and it was not until nine o'clock at night that the guns ceased to roar and our men were ordered to lie down and rest. But even then the Sikhs—the Lions of Lahore, as they called themselves—were not beaten. About twelve o'clock at night the tired soldiers were awakened by the sound of more firing, and many among them were killed and wounded as they lay, trying to sleep. Sir Henry Hardinge, mounting his horse, called to the men of the regiment among whom he was resting, "My lads, we shall have no sleep until we take those guns." The men instantly sprang up—tired, stiff, and many of them wounded—and, following the Governor-General with a cheer, charged through the darkness, which was only lighted up by the flashes of the guns and the bursting of the shells, reached the enemy, and then, after killing the gunners and taking the guns, returned to the camp and quietly lay down to wait for the morning.

For the rest of that night Sir Henry Hardinge went round the camp, looking after the officers and men who had been wounded, and choosing out those who would be fit to fight again in the morning, for he felt sure that as soon as day came the battle would begin again. And so it did. "At four the next morning," so wrote home an officer who was there, "the action began again, and raged with great fury till seven, and from that time to ten o'clock with redoubled fury. At one o'clock their camp was taken by storm, and the fighting then ceased, and the Sikhs retreated; we took the whole camp and 106 guns. The field is literally covered with dead, and horses and camels out of number." So, after twenty-two hours of almost ceaseless fighting, the battle of Ferozeshah was won. The Governor-General, Sir Henry Hardinge, and the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Gough, rode round the field of battle; each regiment, or what was left of it—for hundreds of our men had been killed—cheering again and again as they passed. In the "Life of Lord Hardinge" (for the Queen afterwards made Sir Henry a viscount)—a book which you will all like to read some day—his son, who wrote it, tells how, the day after the battle, his father went to see all the wounded officers and men, "and had a cheerful word for all. If a poor man had lost his arm, the Governor-General consoled him by pointing to his own empty sleeve, and assuring him he would soon be all right. If a soldier had had his leg shot away or shattered, he reminded him that one of his sons, who was with him and who went into battle at his side, had long had only one foot. The men were delighted. Sir Henry visited the poor sufferers again and again, and watched over their welfare with a solicitude which could not have been surpassed if they had been his own children." There were three officers, whose names you will see on the monument in Canterbury Cathedral — Major Baldwin, Lieutenant Pollard, and Lieutenant Bernard — whose bravery will never be forgotten. All three had been wounded in the battle of Moodkee, but only three days later, in spite of the pain of their wounds, and because they knew that every man who had strength left to stand and fight was so much needed, they were again leading their men in the battle of Ferozeshah, where they were all three killed.

For more than a month no other battle was fought, and it began to be hoped that the Sikhs at last knew they were beaten, and would keep in their own country. But these were false hopes, and in January it became known that some of the Sikh chiefs had made a camp in, and built fortifications round, the village of Aliwal, on our side of the river. This could not be allowed. Once again our men marched out to meet their enemy, and on the 28th of January the third great battle—Aliwal—was fought. The Sikhs, although they were in the end beaten, fought like the Lions they called themselves. Many of them were killed while actually loading their cannon; for they would not desert their posts. Others lay down on the ground, and as our horsemen charged and rode over them they cut the horses legs with their sabres. In this way they killed and wounded many of our horses and men, and cared nothing for being trampled to death themselves. But they were driven back over the river at last, and we took all their cannon except one, which they managed to get back with them over the Sutlej. But our men saw what they were doing, and having determined that they should not be allowed to keep even one, Lieutenant Holmes and Gunner Scott started after them, followed them over the river, fought for and captured the gun, and came back in triumph, and, wonderful to say, unhurt. This is only one of the many stories told of the brave deeds done all through this war.

After this battle of Aliwal, the Sikhs began to see that instead of capturing our country they would have to be careful lest they themselves should lose their country of the Punjaub. For a few days they seemed to have lost all heart, but soon again began to plot and plan as to how they could get the better of the English. But all their planning and all their bravery was of no use, and a few days later (on the 10th of February) the battle of Sobraon—the last and greatest battle of the Sikh War—was fought. The Lions of Lahore, who had rebelled against the English, and boasted that they would conquer them and drive them out of India, now saw the enemy not only their master, but master of the Punjaub, and the whole English army, under Sir Henry Hardinge and Sir Hugh Gough, camped just outside their town of Lahore. There is a letter written home by an officer who fought in this battle which will give you a much better idea of all that happened than I could do. "Here we are," he writes, "at the far-famed city of Lahore, and thank God that I am all safe, after the glorious victory of Sobraon. . . . At four o'clock on the morning of the 10th we were under arms, and our brigade . . . marched and took up a position in the dry bed of a river, about a mile off the right of the enemy's entrenchments. . . . We arrived at this place a little before daybreak, and shortly afterwards the cannonading commenced, and our heavy guns played at them about an hour and a half, when the firing began to slacken, and the staff officer rode down and the order was given to advance and storm the enemy's position. . . . We had not advanced a hundred yards when their round shot came rattling around us in every direction, and a very nasty row they made. We then formed line and advanced at a double, each regiment cheering. As we got nearer, the fire got hotter and hotter, and at the distance of two hundred yards it was a perfect shower of grape, musketry etc; the wall of their entrenchment, about five feet high, appeared to be one blaze of fire. Our brigade was here ordered to lie down, which we did, for a minute, in order to get breath. The enemy, thinking we were repulsed (driven off), began to yell like demons, which note was soon changed when the whole line got up and went at them without firing a shot. They had not time to reload, and the consequence was that when we got close to them we drove them before us like sheep, shouting, and bayoneting them down to the bridge, which broke. . . . Perhaps such a sight was never seen in the world . . . in fact, such a complete victory was it that their army is completely disorganized, and we advanced to this place (Lahore) without firing another shot. My company was the first of the regiments in the trenches; but sepoys won't 'go ahead' without being led, and I had to go to the front under the hottest part of the fire to cheer them on and lead them. . . . How I escaped getting shot I do not know. At the time I thought it was certain death—men falling in all directions, and a gun going off slap in front, and then a regular shower would go pit-a-pat in all directions." So ends the letter.

Here, in this camp outside Lahore, the English army—officers, men, and faithful natives—rested, after eight weeks of hard fighting; and here, a few days after the battle, came the Maharajah of the Punjaub to ask pardon for having attacked us, to own that he was conquered, to promise that he would in future be ruled by England, and to sign a treaty of peace. Then, and not till then—and when he had given up every gun that had ever been fired against us, and paid us a large sum of money—was he pardoned. So ended the Sikh War; and, as I told you at the beginning of this story, when ten years afterwards the sepoys rebelled against us we had no truer or more trusty comrades than our old enemies, the brave and lion-hearted Sikhs, who had by then become our fast friends.

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