"Fortunately for India there were good men and true" (to use Lord Roberts' own words) "at Peshawur in those days, when hesitation and irresolution would have been fatal."
Immediately on hearing the news, the Commissioner Edwardes, acting with his deputy, Nicholson, sent to the post-office and seized all native letters. These on being opened and read showed that the worst fears were only too well grounded. Every native regiment in the garrison was in the plot, and prepared at the earliest opportunity to join the rebels.
Two days after the news came to Peshawur, Roberts was ordered to attend a meeting at the general's house. The problem to be solved was how the Punjab could best be made secure with the small force of British troops available—all told, not more than 15,000, with 84 guns, against upwards of 65,000 natives, with 62 guns.
It was decided that the only chance of keeping the Punjab quiet was to trust the chiefs and the people, and to try and get them to ride with us against the Hindustanis. Nor was this confidence misplaced; the chiefs along the border proving again, as they had already done in the Sikh War, how loyal and trustworthy they were.
It was also arranged that a movable column, made up of reliable troops, should be formed in the Punjab, and be kept ready to move and strike whenever its services might be required. Brigadier Neville Chamberlain was appointed to the command of the column, and Lieutenant Roberts, to his great delight, was chosen as one of the staff.
The night of the conference might have been Roberts' last. The guard which kept watch outside his bungalow was furnished by the 64th Native Infantry, a regiment with a bad reputation. The letters, which had been taken from the post-office and opened, showed it to be on the verge of mutiny, and it was to be ordered to leave Peshawur the following morning.
"I could not help feeling," says Lord Roberts, "as I lay down on my bed, which, as usual in the hot weather, was placed in the verandah for coolness, how completely I was at the mercy of the sentry who walked up and down within a few feet of me. Fortunately he was not aware that his regiment was suspected, and could not know the reason for the sudden order to march, or my career might have been ended then and there."
Within a week from that time Roberts started for Rawal Pindi to be ready to join the movable column, which was to be formed as soon as the troops could be got together.
"I took with me," he tells us, "only just enough kit for a hot-weather march, and left everything standing in my house just as it was, little thinking that I should never return to it or be quartered in Peshawur again."
With General Neville Chamberlain, Roberts left Peshawur and went to Rawal Pindi, where he was for some time employed doing confidential work in the office of Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner. Sir John was all for the policy of striking while the iron was hot. Delhi was in the hands of the mutineers, and must at all costs be retaken. To the Commander-in-Chief, General the Hon. George Anson (who, as an ensign, was present at Waterloo), he wrote, imploring him to press on to the city's recapture.
"When have we failed when we acted vigorously?" he asked. "When have we succeeded when guided by timid counsels? Clive, with 1200 men, fought at Plassy in opposition to the advice of his leading officers; beat 40,000 men and conquered Bengal."
One of the native princes, the Maharajah of Patiala, whom Lawrence was all along for trusting at this juncture, came to our aid and proved his loyalty.
"Maharajah Sahib," he was asked, "answer me one question: Are you for us or against us?"
"As long as I live, I am yours," was the answer. "What do you want done?"
Patiala was true to his word, and throughout the Mutiny the Phulkan chiefs stood firm and did us trusty service.
While Lieutenant Roberts was still at Rawal Pindi it became known that the mutineers were going to make their great stand at Delhi, and the order came that the troops from the Punjab were to be sent thither. On the 2nd of June the movable column entered Lahore, to the great joy of the Europeans in the city, who had been anxiously awaiting its arrival.
At Lahore Roberts first saw the grim realities of the stirring times in which he was living. He was sharing a bungalow with the brigadier, when, during the night, a spy awoke him and said that the 35th Native Regiment, which was attached to the column, intended to revolt, and that some of the men had already got their muskets loaded.
Roberts at once awoke General Chamberlain and told him the report. Next morning a drumhead court-martial, composed of native officers, was ordered to try the case. Two Sepoys, whose muskets were found to be loaded, were found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to death. The carrying out of this sentence made a great impression on the young officer. To quote his own words:
"Chamberlain decided that they should be blown away from guns in the presence of their own comrades, as being the most awe-inspiring means of carrying it into effect. It was a terrible sight," he continues, "and one likely to haunt the beholder for many a long day; but that was what was intended."
The condemned men went to their doom calmly and showed no fear: their comrades were taken aback at the swift and terrible punishment, but it in no way altered their resolve to desert to Delhi on the earliest chance they might have to do so.
Two days after this the column left and came to Jullundur, and, General Chamberlain having left for Delhi, Roberts' hero, John Nicholson, took over the command. Jullundur was garrisoned by the troops of the Rajah of Kapurthala. These evidently thought that the British rule in India was at an end, and were in consequence most swaggering and insolent.
A durbar, or council, was arranged, at which Roberts was present, and was an eye-witness of the scene between the Rajah's general, Mehtab Sing, and Nicholson. After the durbar was over, Mehtab Sing was walking to the door, when the stalwart form of Nicholson appeared in front of him, barring the native general's further progress.
"Do you see that General Mehtab Sing has his shoes on?" he sternly asked. "If I were the last Englishman left in Jullundur you should not come into my room with your shoes on." Then, politely turning to Commissioner Lake, "I hope the Commissioner will allow me to order you to take your shoes off and carry them out in your own hands, so that your followers may witness your discomfiture."
For a native to enter the presence of an Englishman with his shoes on is, to his mind, the greatest insult he can offer a white man. Never before the Mutiny would the Kapurthala general have dared to act in such a way. Now, completely cowed, Mehtab Sing did meekly as he was bidden, and walked to the door, his shoes in his hand.
Six years later Roberts was on a pig-sticking expedition with the Rajah of Kapurthala, who, when he heard that his guest had been at the Commissioner's house during the scene we have told, laughed heartily and said, "Oh, then you saw Mehtab Sing made to walk out of the room with his shoes in his hands? We often chaff him about that little affair, and tell him that he richly deserved the treatment he received from the great 'Nicholson Sahib.'"
On the column reaching Philour, it was determined to disband the 35th Native Infantry. The native troops had as yet caused no trouble, but it was feared that when Delhi was reached they would try to desert. Quickly and silently the British troops took up their position; the two batteries in the centre, the guns unlimbered and ready for action.
Roberts himself was told off to give the commanding officer orders to disarm and dismiss his regiment. Surrounded by our own troops the native soldiers were ordered to pile arms and take off their belts.
Both officers and Sepoys were equally taken aback; the former had no idea of what was going to happen, while the latter had hoped they would be able to slip off to Delhi with their arms. Major Younghusband, the commanding officer, had been with the 35th for thirty-three years. He was proud of his regiment, with which he had served in the Afghan War, where they had fought with great bravery, but now even he felt his men could not be trusted; and when he heard the order he could only murmur "Thank God!"
After the 35th had been disbanded, the 33rd arrived. The loyalty of this regiment was like-wise doubtful, and it was decided that the men should be dealt with in like manner. The British officers of the 33rd did not, however, take things so quietly. Their colonel trusted them to the death. On hearing what was to take place, he exclaimed, "What! disarm my regiment! I will answer with my life for the loyalty of every man."
"On my repeating the order," Lord Roberts relates, "the poor old fellow burst into tears."
"You have drawn the fangs of one thousand snakes—truly your luck is good!" was the remark of an old Sikh colonel who saw the ceremony.
Meanwhile an order had come from the Commander-in-Chief, asking that all artillery officers who could be spared should be sent to Delhi. Next morning the young lieutenant set off in high spirits. From Philour he went to Ludhiana. Here there was a block: all the vehicles were in use, and a long delay seemed in store for him when he, by good fortune, managed to get a seat on an extra mail-cart laden with ammunition, on the condition that his kit must be of the smallest, as there was no room for anything inside the cart.
Greatly pleased at his luck, Roberts describes himself "as like a boy at school who has got a hamper from home." He determined to share his success, and managed to squeeze, with two other officers to whom he had offered a lift, into the cart.
The City of Delhi.
Near Delhi their driver pulled up, and refused to go any farther: the enemy were constantly on the road, threatening the rear of our troops, and the cart and its occupants might at any time drive into the middle of them. The officers let the driver get out and drove on themselves, hearing more plainly the booming of the guns, and passing by the wayside many dead bodies and other signs of warfare.
As they neared the city they came to a place where the road divides—one branch going through the cantonment, the other leading straight to the town. Fortunately for them-selves they chose the right road—to have followed the other would have landed them right in the middle of the foe—and pushed on through the growing darkness as fast as their tired ponies would go. At last they reached the British lines and safety.
"The relief to us when we found ourselves inside our own piquets may be imagined," says Lord Roberts.
On arrival his father's old staff officer, Henry Norman, who was then Assistant-Adjutant-General at headquarters, welcomed him most warmly, and very kindly asked the young artillery officer to share his tent. Dead-beat, Roberts was very soon sleeping the sleep of the weary. Next morning he awoke quite refreshed, none the worse for his long and dangerous journey, and above all, overjoyed to find himself at Delhi, and that the fighting was still going on.