Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Lord Roberts by Edmund Francis Sellar
The Story of Lord Roberts by  Edmund Francis Sellar

The Ridge at Delhi

Delhi, the city of the Great Mogul, may be said to have been the centre and heart of the Mutiny. Hither, as we have seen, the mutineers fled after the outbreak at Meerut on May 11. The native regiments in the town joined them, and a general massacre of Europeans followed. To Delhi flocked all the rebels, and soon the city was filled with fierce, warlike troops, who knew that there was now no turning back or hope of mercy, and that they were fighting with their backs to the wall. The Delhi Field Force, which was sent to retake the stronghold, at first numbered only 3000 men, and afterwards it never rose above 9000 fighting men.

From the outset the force showed its splendid fighting qualities and power of hard-hitting. As far back as the 30th of May, 700 British soldiers beat and routed seven times their number of Sepoys, capturing five guns and a large quantity of stores and ammunition. Next day the enemy again attacked, and again our men drove them back in head-long confusion. The natives were learning the lesson that the British rule would continue as long as there were Britons left to shoulder a musket.

To quote Lord Roberts: "The Sepoys were no match for British bayonets; and they now learnt that their misdeeds were not to be allowed to go unpunished." On the arrival of Roberts, the British Army, in which we include the loyal native troops, was posted on a ridge about sixty feet high, and varying in distance from the city from 1200 yards on the right, to 4 miles at the end near the river Jumna.

The Flagstaff Tower, which became the rendezvous for all non-combatants, was about one mile and a half away. It was here that the residents of Delhi assembled to make a stand on hearing of the outbreak at Meerut. The heat was almost unbearable to the closely packed throng of men, women, and children. No help seemed to be coming as they anxiously scanned the horizon towards Meerut, and at last, before dark, it was decided to leave and take the road to Umballa. They were only just in time; for before the last of the party were out of sight the natives poured in. Had they found the Sahibs there, all must have been killed.

Among the fugitives were Captain Tytler and his wife, who, after some hair-breadth escapes, arrived in safety at Umballa. This couple afterwards joined the camp at Delhi, where, on the 21st of June, Mrs. Tytler gave birth to a baby. This infant was christened "Stanley Delhi Force Tytler," and a soldier was heard to say: "Now we shall get our reinforcements. This camp was formed to avenge the blood of innocents, and the first reinforcement sent to us is a new-born infant." Sure enough, fresh troops did join the camp the very next day.

For the first two months General Barnard and the British force were fully occupied in defending themselves on the Ridge. The time for attacking the city had not yet come, and the little army had to fight for its very existence. The morning after General Barnard occupied the Ridge, the famous Corps of the Guides arrived in camp, "as fresh as if they had returned from an ordinary field-day, instead of having come off a march of nearly 600 miles, accomplished in the incredibly short time of twenty-two days, at the most trying season of the year. That very afternoon they showed their worth by driving the enemy back to Delhi, after a fierce hand-to-hand fight. Close up to the walls, Quintin Battye, the daring commander of the Guides Cavalry, got his death-wound. He might have had a great career; the Guides adored him, and would have followed him anywhere. Seldom, we are told, had a young soldier given such early promise of a brilliant future. Always fond of quotations, his last words were: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori  (" A sweet and comely thing it is to die for one's country ").

The Guides had found in camp a soldier after their own heart, who had been their leader in many a gallant charge. This was Hodson, of Hodson's Horse—"a tall, fair-haired man, with bloodless complexion; heavy, curved moustache; keen, alert, and, what some one called, 'unforgiving eyes.'" As the Guides rode in Hodson met them, and was greeted with wild cries of welcome.

"They seized my bridle," he says, "my dress, hands, and feet, and threw themselves down before the horse with tears streaming down their faces."

Five days before Roberts arrived came the centenary of Plassy, and the Sepoys, by a more than usually fierce attack, determined to fulfil the prophecy that the British rule should only run a hundred years. For eight hours the attack continued; every man in the camp was engaged, and both sides fought with desperate fury. The Sepoys were "thousands against a mere handful," but they could do nothing against the steady valour of our men, and at last they were put to flight with the loss of over 1000 men. So the anniversary of Plassy came and went, and the British rule was still undefeated. The heat had been terrific: a hot wind was blowing, and there was a pitiless glare. After the battle men lay down where they had fought, quite done up; even the Ghurkas were worn out.

On the 30th of June, Roberts, who had taken up his duties as d.a.q.m.g. to the Artillery, was under fire for the first time.

The next day the first regimental band to reach the camp arrived, playing the lively strains of "Cheer, Boys, Cheer!"

The fighting continued daily, with equal fury on both sides. Our loyal allies, the Ghurkas, were doing splendid service. The first time the mutineers encountered them they halted, said that they were brothers and should not kill one another, and begged them to come out and help to destroy the Sahibs. The Ghurkas listened in silence—the Sepoys thought they had persuaded them to betray their trust—when suddenly, with a shout of "Oh, yes, we are coming!" our loyal little allies fired a volley straight into the midst of the mutineers, killing more than thirty of them, and letting the rebels see that, come what might, the Ghurkas would remain loyal to the salt they had eaten at the Sahibs' hands.

On the 14th of July, an engagement was fought in which our hero came near to ending his life. Roberts, by the means of spies, found out that a more than usually desperate attack was to be made on Hindu Rao's house, which was the keystone of our position on the ridge. "We have beaten them nineteen times, and I don't expect we shall be worsted on the twentieth," cheerfully replied "Ghurka" Reid, when warned of the assault which was to take place.

At eight o'clock in the morning, under shelter of a heavy fire from the city walls, the attack began in earnest. Brigadier Showers was in command. Chamberlain was with him, and Roberts was there as staff officer. Our men—Reid with his Ghurkas in the centre—swept the enemy back. Under the shelter of a low wall the Sepoys clung, and made a desperate resistance. Nothing daunted, Chamberlain, calling to his men to follow, leapt his horse over the wall. He was wounded in doing so; but the British swarmed over, and right up to the walls of Delhi they pursued the flying Sepoys. They pursued them too far, in fact: a murderous fire met them from the city walls; men were mowed down in scores, and the "retreat" was sounded.

When the retirement began, Roberts was with the two advanced guns. The subaltern in charge of them was severely wounded; the sergeant had fallen with a bullet in his leg. After seeing to the wounded men, all Roberts' attention was turned to saving the guns. The horses, some of them wounded and maddened by the noise and tumult, had become restive and almost unmanageable. As they plunged and reared, Roberts ran to their heads, patted them, and endeavoured to keep them quiet, when, to use his own words, "Suddenly I felt a tremendous blow on my back, which made me faint and sick, and I was afraid I should not be able to remain on my ,horse." Fortunately the feeling of faintness passed, and he was able to ride back with the retiring guns.


Roberts saving the guns.

On arrival at camp it was found that he had been struck near the spine by a bullet. By rare good fortune, the leather pouch in which he carried caps for his pistol had slipped round; the bullet struck this, losing its force, and thus the slipping of his belt probably saved our future Field-Marshal's life.

The whole scene was very like that which was enacted many years after under African skies, when, in December 1899, our hero's only son, Lieutenant Roberts, laid down his life at Colenso while gallantly saving the guns. To use the words of Mr. Maclaren Cobban, "Why was there no shifted pouch to save the dear life of the only son?"

This accident kept Roberts on the sick list for a fortnight, and for a month he was unable to wear a sword-belt or to mount a horse. "I remember him well," wrote a doctor who knew him: "a bright, eager little fellow, very cheerful, very even-tempered, with the clear eye and the curious interest of a bird for every detail, and with a decided disposition rather to listen than to talk. He was too young, too quiet and modest, to be a very well-known figure in camp; but with all who did know him he was a great favourite, although none, I imagine, had any notion of the great destiny in store for him."

Before Delhi was once again captured and in British hands, no less than thirty-two fights took place. The struggle was a fierce and desperate one—"a struggle between a mere handful of men along the open ridge, and a host behind massive and well-fortified walls." During this time there had been three officers in chief command. General Barnard had died, stricken by cholera; General Reid was unable to continue at his post, having broken down through strain and anxiety; and it was left to General Wilson to finish the work the others had begun, and finally, in mid-September, to plant the British flag once more on the walls of the ancient city of the Mogul emperors. Wilson had never wavered; from the first he had written, "It is my firm, determination to hold my present position and to resist every attack to the last. The enemy are very numerous, and may possibly break through our entrenchments and overwhelm us, but this force will die at its post."

For some time before the final assault on the city Lieutenant Roberts was especially busy. For a week at a time he never left his battery, except for his meals. While in the battery he had a wonderful escape; he was actually knocked over by a ball and yet remained unhurt.

The British guns were now doing splendid work; night and day they kept firing, and the breaches in the walls began to widen. Late in the afternoon of the 13th, Nicholson, who was to lead the assault, went round the guns to see that all was ready. "He was evidently satisfied," Roberts tells, with pride, "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.'"

That night there was no work in the batteries; the men lay down and tried to sleep, in view of the hard work before them on the morrow. "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. No prisoners were to be made, as we had no one to guard them; but care was to be taken that no women or children were injured:" so ran the grim orders. Next morning the assault began.

The attacking force was formed in four columns. Roberts, being on the general's staff, was not attached to any of the columns. He, however, rode with the general into the town after our men had gained an entrance, and were desperately fighting their way through the streets. A report that disaster had befallen one of the columns reached the general's staff: Roberts was instantly sent off to find out what had happened. While riding through the Kashmir Gate he saw a doolie without bearers and with a wounded man inside. To quote his own words:—

"I dismounted to see if I could be of any use to the occupant, when I found to my grief and consternation that it was John Nicholson, with death written on his face. He was lying on his back; no wound was visible, and but for the pallor of his face, always colourless, there was no sign of the agony he must have been enduring. On my expressing a hope that he was not seriously wounded, he said, 'I am dying; there is no chance for me.' The sight of that great man lying helpless and on the point of death was almost more than I could bear. Other men had daily died around me, friends and 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."

Nicholson had fallen in the forefront of the battle. With the words, "Come on, men!" on his lips, he had been struck down.

The victory was dearly bought at the cost of this hero's life. "From city to city, from cantonment to cantonment, went the chequered tidings: Delhi had fallen, the King of Delhi was a captive—but John Nicholson was dead."

Delhi was once again in our hands, but fierce fighting still continued in the streets of the city, till on the 10th of September the palace itself was taken, and for the second time in the century the stronghold of the Moguls was captured by a British force.

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