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

The End of the Mutiny

On the 27th December the column started from Lucknow to go to the relief of Cawnpore.

Roberts had no light work before him in arranging the transport for such an unwieldy army as the force had now become. The column, with all its train, extended from ten to twelve miles in length, and frequently its head had reached the end of the day's journey before its tail was ready to start. The next day heavy firing was heard in the direction of Cawnpore, and a native met the force with a note, written in Greek characters, addressed to Sir Colin, "or any officer commanding troops on the Lucknow road." This letter told of the sore straits the troops at Cawnpore were in, and urgently begged that help might be sent as soon as possible.

The news acted like magic on the tired, straggling troops. To use the words of an eye-witness, who published the account shortly afterwards, "the impatience and anxiety of all became extreme. Louder and louder grew the roar; faster and faster became the march; long and weary was the way; tired and footsore grew the infantry; death fell on the exhausted wounded with terrible rapidity; the travel-worn bearers could hardly stagger along under their loads; the sick men groaned and died—but still on, on, on was the cry." Sir Colin was in a fever of impatience, and anxious lest the bridge of boats which led to the city had been destroyed. Roberts was sent on ahead to find whether this was the case or not, and great was the rejoicing when he returned, bearing the news that the bridge was still undestroyed. The passage over the boats was, however, a long and tedious job, and it took from 3 p.m. on the 29th till about 9 p.m. the next day before the last of the troops had safely crossed.

The time had now come to read the mutineers in Cawnpore a lesson.

Lord Roberts writes: "Sunday, the 6th December, was one of those glorious days in which the European in Northern India revels for a great part of the winter—clear and cool, with a cloudless sky. I awoke refreshed, after a good night's rest, and in high spirits at the prospect before us of a satisfactory day's work; for we hoped to drive the enemy from Cawnpore, and to convince those who had witnessed—if not taken part in—the horrible brutalities there, that England's hour had come at last."

Sir Colin, whose little army had been lately reinforced by the arrival of the 42nd, the famous Black Watch, had now a force of about 5000 infantry, 600 cavalry, and 35 guns.

The rebel army consisted of 25,000 men, with 40 guns, so the odds against the British were very great. But a desperate courage ran through the whole of Sir Colin's force, and weight of numbers mattered little to the spirit of daring, and the just desire for vengeance, which possessed our men.

Roberts describes the advance as a "sight to be remembered." Across a grassy plain the British moved steadily onwards, marching as though on parade, despite the storm of shot which plunged through them, or ricocheted over their heads.

The loyal 4th Punjabis, supported by the 53rd Foot, were the first to charge the rebels. Native soldier and British fought side by side with fierce valour, and soon the Sepoys broke, and fled across the canal.

Soon after the attack, Sir Colin Campbell and Sir Hope Grant (Roberts, of course, accompanying them), with their respective staffs, hurried up and joined in the fight. The rebel camp was soon broken up, and orders were given for a pursuit. By some accident the mounted troops were not yet up. The rebels must not be allowed to escape without further punishment. Sir Colin was not long in doubt. Supported by Bourchier's battery, he determined to follow them up himself, with only his escort.

"What a chase we had!" says Roberts. "We went at a gallop, only pulling up occasionally for the battery to come into action, to clear our front and flanks."

For two miles did the chase continue without a check, when a halt was called. While the horses were having a breather, the cavalry came up, and off they all started again, Sir Colin taking the lead, the mutineers bolting in all directions.

"The pursuit is continued to the fourteenth milestone, assuming all the character of a fox-hunt. Strange to say, not many miles beyond the enemy's camp, a fox broke right in front of the enemy, and a view-halloa told Reynard that the heavy crops would be his safest refuge. At the fourteenth mile-stone, on the banks of the Pandoo river, the pursuit ceased, not a trace either of an enemy or a cart of any kind being in sight."

The defeat of the enemy was complete, and when Roberts rode his weary steed back, in order to select a camping-ground in front of Cawnpore, the rebel army had ceased to exist. Such as had not been cut down in the chase had thrown away their arms, and were for the future as harmless as the innocent peasants they pretended to be.

Part of the Cawnpore force, indeed—those who had been within the city—had escaped, and to Roberts the duty fell of finding out where they had gone. This, with the help of a trusty native guide, he was soon able to do, and the rebels were overtaken and speedily routed, with the loss of all their guns.

Two days before Christmas, the British again moved forward, in order to restore order, and open up the roads between Bengal and the Punjab. On New Year's Day (1858) the troops were halted near Futtehghur, as the enemy had turned, and seemed determined to make a stand. Their courage was, however, gone. Our men, flushed with victory, charged the Sepoys with a will. "Then despair seized upon the rebel mass; breaking their ranks, throwing aside their arms, they fled in wild confusion; but the horsemen were upon them and amongst them. The slaughter was terrible; for several miles they rode along, spearing and cutting down at every step."

The chase continued till daylight began to fall: the fugitives seemed all to have been dispersed, and our men were ordered to form up in the road. To describe the ensuing incident we shall use Roberts' own words:—

"Before, however, this movement could be carried out, we overtook a batch of mutineers, who faced about and fired into the squadron at close quarters. I saw Younghusband fall, but I could not go to his assistance, as at that moment one of his 'sowers'  was in dire peril from a Sepoy who was attacking him with his fixed bayonet, and had I not helped the man and disposed of his opponent, he must have been killed. The next moment I descried in the distance two Sepoys making off with a standard, which I determined must be captured, so I rode after the rebels and overtook them, and, while wrenching the staff out of the hands of one of them, whom I cut down, the other put his musket close to my body and fired; fortunately for me it missed fire, and I carried off the standard."

In such simple language does our great soldier tell the story of a deed of bravery and courage which bore with it its reward—a reward more valued than any other our soldiers can attain.

"For these two acts I was awarded the Victoria Cross,"  is how Lord Roberts modestly puts it in a footnote to his book, "Forty-one Years in India."


Roberts winning the Victoria Cross.

Nearly a month was spent at Futtehghur, after which the force was kept busy clearing the country and keeping the roads open. While engaged in this duty, Roberts was one day out for a ride with a brother officer. He was followed by a greyhound, which always accompanied its master. Suddenly a "nilghai," or antelope, got up in front of them, so close that Roberts' brother officer aimed a blow at it with his sword and gashed its quarter. Off started the greyhound after the quarry, and the two eager riders were soon galloping in the chase as hard as their horses could go.

Suddenly they saw moving towards them a large body of the enemy's cavalry. Their horses were blown after their long gallop, and escape seemed impossible. Thinking their last hour had come, the two young Englishmen shook hands and said "good-bye," determined at the worst to sell their lives dearly. "When lo! as suddenly as they appeared, the horsemen vanished, as though the ground had opened and swallowed them; there was nothing to be seen but the open plain, where a second before there had been a crowd of mounted men." The whole thing was in reality an illusion, or mirage, so well known to travellers in the desert.

There now remained the last act in the Mutiny. This was the siege and final capture of Lucknow, and here, from the 2nd to the 21st of March, when the city fell, Roberts was actively engaged. The rebels fought with the courage of despair, and offered a splendid resistance, in which numbers of the Highlanders and Punjabis fell. Hodson, of Hodson's Horse, was killed, to the sorrow of the whole British force. He had shot with his own hand the rebel sons of the King of Delhi, for which act he has been blamed. But his unflinching courage and personal bravery won him the respect and admiration of all soldiers; and loyal natives and British alike mourned the early death of their daring leader.

The hard work and all he had gone through had told on Roberts, but, with the fall of Lucknow, the fighting was practically over.

On the 1st of April 1858, six years after his arrival in India, he handed over the office of Deputy-Assistant-Quarter-Master-General to another soldier, who has become likewise famous as Viscount Wolseley, and towards the middle of the month he left Lucknow.

Before leaving, Sir Colin Campbell thanked him for his services, and promised at the earliest opportunity to give him the rank of brevet-major.

Thus, having won golden opinions from his superior officers, and "having during his first half-dozen years in India seen more of fighting than many soldiers see in lifetime," Lieutenant Roberts, on May 4th, embarked on the Nubia  on his way to England and home.

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