Lord Roberts and Delhi:
In the Great Siege
Before recounting what befell Roberts at Delhi, we must give a short account of the events which preceded his arrival. Sir Henry Barnard had succeeded General Anson on the 26th May, but he was an utter stranger to India and had only been in the country a few weeks. He had been chief of the stag' in the Crimea and was an energetic officer. He knew how the critics had blamed Anson for not attacking Delhi off-hand without guns or soldiers, and he recognised the difficulties of his position. Not waiting for his siege-train, he set out from Kurnal on the 27th May and reached Alipur on the 6th of June.
Meanwhile, the Meerut force had been ordered to take the field, and when they came to a village close to the Hindun River on 30th May, a vedette reported that the enemy were coming in strength. The Rifles crossed the Hindun suspension-bridge and attacked, while the Carabineers forded the stream and turned the enemy's left. Seven hundred British soldiers attacked and defeated seven times their number, captured 5 guns and only lost 1 officer and 10 men.
The intense heat prevented them from following up the victory: so it was that next day the sepoys returned to the battleground.
They took up position on a ridge to the right of the Hindun, and opened fire from their guns on Wilson's force: for two hours there was an artillery duel, then Wilson ordered a general advance. The sepoys retreated with their guns to Delhi, our men being too prostrated by the heat to follow.
Among our wounded was an ensign of the 60th Rifles, a boy named Napier, full of gallantry and vigour and much liked by his men. He had been hit in the leg, and when he was brought into camp, it was amputated. When the operation was over, the poor boy murmured to himself, "I shall never lead the Rifles again—never lead the Rifles again." He felt his career was so soon over and he must leave the regiment he loved.
There was some satisfaction felt in camp that the Meerut Brigade had, after all, been the first to retaliate on the sepoys.
The next day, 1st June, Wilson's force was strengthened by the arrival of the 2nd Gurkhas, 500 strong, commanded by Major Charles Reid.
On the 7th of June this force joined Barnard's at Alipur, and the Meerut men were loudly cheered as they marched into camp with the captured guns.
On the 8th, Hodson reported that the rebels were in force half-way between Alipur and Delhi, at Badli-ki-Serai, where many large houses and walled gardens supplied good means of defence. The rebels' guns were of heavier calibre than ours, and it became necessary to charge them. When Hope Grant with cavalry and horse artillery appeared on their rear, they fell back. The Lancers kept charging the retreating sepoys till they abandoned their guns and retired in disorder within the walls of the city.
Then Barnard turned to the Ridge overlooking Delhi, drove away the rebels posted there and encamped on a favourable position on the top. The rebels had lost 350 men, 26 guns and ammunition.
The next day the Guides, led by Colonel Daly, were cheered on their arrival. Let us give a few words about the Ridge and the city of Delhi.
The Ridge rises 60 feet above the city; its left rested on the Jumna, generally too deep to ford, and wide enough to prevent our being enfiladed. On the right of the Ridge, bazaars, buildings, woods and garden walls afforded cover to the enemy when they made a sortie: the Ridge at this end was about 1200 yards from the city walls, at the Flagstaff Tower about a mile a half, and at the end near the river nearly two miles and a half.
The Flagstaff Tower in the centre of the Ridge was the general rendezvous for the sick and wounded; the tower was 150 feet high, approached by a winding staircase. The main piquet was established at Hindu Rao's house, a large stone building once belonging to a Mahratta prince. The city is surrounded on three sides by a lofty stone wall, five and a half miles long; the fourth side, two miles long, is covered by the river, and bridges and ferries gave the besieged means of procuring food from the country. The walls were mounted with 114 pieces of heavy artillery supplied with plenty of ammunition. In addition, the garrison of 40,000 sepoys had 60 pieces of field artillery, and their gunners had been trained by the English.
To meet this force the English general had at this time a little more than 3000 soldiers, some Gurkhas and the Guides with 22 field guns. On our rear was a canal with a splendid supply of water.
As we have stated before, the Guides had to fight on their first afternoon and lost Quintin Battye close up to the walls.
Lord Roberts says: "I spent a few hours with him on my way to Delhi, and I remember how his handsome face glowed when he talked of the opportunities for distinguishing themselves in store for the Guides. Proud of his regiment, and beloved by his men, who were captivated by his many soldierly qualities, he had every prospect before him of a splendid career, but he was destined to fall in his first fight. He was curiously fond of quotations, and his last words were 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.'"
The few heavy guns were placed in position on the Ridge, but were soon found inferior to those of the enemy; ammunition, too, was so scarce that a reward was offered for every 24-pounder shot which could be picked up.
The rebels thought that they could persuade the Gurkhas to join them, and as the latter advanced they called out, "We are not firing; we want to speak to you, we want you to join us." The little, stubborn Gurkhas replied: "Oh yes, we are coming, wait a bit—we are coming to you."
Then, when within twenty paces of the sepoys they fired a volley and killed nearly 30 of them.
Every day attacks were made, sometimes on Hindu Rao's house in the centre of our position, sometimes on the Flagstaff Tower: on one occasion they crept up in a fog and nearly succeeded in taking the guns.
With so few men the work grew very toilsome, and the men were seldom off duty. General Barnard felt that his force was unequal to the task of taking Delhi by a coup de main, but he had written instructions from Lord Canning and Sir John Lawrence to make short work of Delhi. Those gentlemen, at a convenient distance, were sure that the city could be taken.
The perplexed general consulted his Engineers, and three of them drew up a plan of assault for the 12th June. The young officers were Greathed, Maunsell, and Chesney of the Engineers and Hodson of Hodson's Horse.
The scheme was kept so secret that even the commanding Engineer was not informed of it. Practically the whole force was to be engaged, divided into three columns—one to enter by the Kashmir gate, the second by the Lahore gate and the third was to attempt an escalade.
The troops assembled between one and two in the morning, but Brigadier Graves with his 300 Europeans was absent, and the assault was postponed.
Graves had received no written orders, and as the verbal notice sent him would have involved his leaving the Flagstaff piquet in the hands of natives, he wisely declined to act upon it. All military critics agree in thinking this a merciful relief: the attacking party must have been repulsed; a repulse would have involved the destruction of the besieging force, and perhaps the loss of all India. This critical position was the result of civilians at a distance presuming to dictate to the general on the spot.
On the 14th June, General Reed arrived on the Ridge to assume command: for a time, owing to ill-health, he did not supersede Barnard.
But the question of a coup de main was discussed in Reed's tent for several days, and finally the senior officers voted against it.
On the 17th, we had to attack in two columns to prevent the enemy from completing a battery that would enfilade our position. Tombs had two horses killed under him, making five so far; he drove the rebels away and blew up a mosque which they had seized.
On the 18th, the rebels were reinforced by more mutineers with six guns: they celebrated the event by a fierce attack on our rear, which nearly succeeded; but Reed, the Gurkhas and 60th Rifles held on steadily and saved the situation.
The 23rd June, the hundredth anniversary of Plassey, was celebrated by a desperate attempt on the part of the sepoys to get their prophecy fulfilled: thousands rushed against a mere handful of men on our right; again Reed stood firm. After the 23rd the attacks were pushed home with less vigour.
On the 24th, Neville Chamberlain came from the Punjab to take the post of adjutant-general, and reinforcements raised our strength to 6600 men. On the 28th June, Roberts had come tired into camp and thrown himself down in the tent of his friend Norman.
Next morning he awoke, full of questions and eager to hear everything. He found that Harry Tombs, of the Bengal Horse Artillery, was so far the hero of the hour—a handsome man and a thorough soldier.
After visiting the tents of Edwin Johnson and General Chamberlain and Sir Henry Barnard, to find out what his post was to be, it was settled Roberts was to be D.A.Q.M.G. with the artillery; which was the post he desired.
Once more the question of an assault was opened; the date 3rd July was fixed for it, and at 3 a.m. there arrived on the Ridge Baird-Smith, of the Engineers, destined to take a foremost place in the taking of Delhi.
But the assault had again to be postponed, as the enemy had planned a sortie for that day. On the 5th July, General Barnard was attacked by cholera and General Reed assumed command.
On the 9th July the rebels sent the regiment which had mutinied at Bareilly through the right of the British camp, by the rear; as their uniform was the same as our irregulars they were allowed to pass unchallenged. They had put to flight some young soldiers of the Carabineers when James Hills, one of the most daring soldiers in the world (later Sir James Hills-Johns) ordered out his two guns for action. But the enemy were upon him and he had no time to fire; so, determined at all costs to stop the foe and give his men time to load and fire a round of grape, he charged the head of the column single-handed, cutting down the leading men, and slashing at the second: then two sepoys rode at him and rolled over his horse. It had been raining heavily and Hills wore his cloak, which saved his life, for it was cut through in many places, as were his jacket and shirt! To pick himself up and find his sword was the work of a moment: but three men now came on, two mounted; the first sowar he shot, the second he ran through the body after seizing his lance in his left hand, the third man, on foot, wrenched his sword from him: twice his pistol missed fire, then Hills closed with the man and hit him in the face with his fists, but fell and would have been killed after all, had not Tombs cut his way through the enemy and, seeing Hills' danger, taken a shot with his pistol at thirty yards, which killed the native trooper.
In spite of Hills' heroic attempt, his men never got a chance to fire a round; for the sepoys were amongst them, and riding off to the native horse artillery called upon the men to join them and bring away the guns. But the native artillerymen loyally refused to join the rebels: by this time the camp was roused and the irregulars rode off with some loss. Tombs and Hills both received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry.
At this moment Roberts was standing by his tent, watching with the interest of an owner his horses which had just arrived from Philour. They were crossing the bridge over the canal at the rear of the camp when the retiring sowars galloped over the bridge, not waiting to secure any loot. Roberts' servants had marched 200 miles through a disturbed country and had brought horses and baggage in good order.
Through the siege these servants behaved admirably: the khitmatgar never failed to bring his food under the hottest fire, and the syces (grooms) seemed quite indifferent to all risks wherever duty called them.
On the 14th July the rebels came out in great numbers, and had to be driven back: on reaching a wall lined with sepoys the troops stopped short, and Chamberlain, calling them to follow him, jumped his horse over the wall and got a ball in his shoulder. But the men did follow and the rebels were slowly driven away. Roberts was with two advanced guns on the grand trunk road: the subaltern was severely wounded, and a fine young sergeant being shot through the leg was being carried to a hut near the road.
"Don't put him in there," shouted Roberts, "he will be left behind."
Roberts, in the bursting of shells and crashing of branches, was not heard. The poor fellow was left in the hut, and, like other wounded, was murdered by the rebels.
As Roberts was helping the drivers to keep the gun-horses quiet (several of them being wounded) he suddenly felt a tremendous blow on the back, which made him faint and sick: he just managed to stick on his saddle until he got back to camp. He had been hit close to the spine by a bullet: his life was saved by the fact that a leather pouch for caps, which he usually wore in front, had slipped round; the bullet passed through this first and so was prevented from penetrating very far into his body.
This wound kept Roberts on the sick-list for a fortnight: his tent, fortunately, was pitched close to that of Campbell Brown, surgeon to the artillery. The medical officers were clever and worked hard; but the wounded had little shelter from sun and rain: chloroform was unknown, and antiseptics not yet heard of, and scarcely a single amputation case survived.
It was difficult to get rid of the festering carcases of animals; some were buried, and jackals and adjutants worked without pay to remove the nuisance. On the 17th July, General Reed's health broke down and he had to leave the camp. General Wilson assumed command, and was earnestly requested by Baird-Smith not to think of raising the siege: We must maintain the grip we now have on Delhi." In consequence General Wilson ordered up a siege-train from Ferozepur; he also gave the troops relief by introducing order and method into their various duties, by caring for their health and recreation. He also put a stop to the practice of following up the enemy close to the city walls when repulsed—for this practice had led to many casualties from sharp-shooters.
About the 20th July, Roberts lost a cousin by an accidental shot. Captain Greensill of the 24th Foot was reconnoitring after dark, and on drawing near the enemy's position he halted his escort and went forward alone to examine the ground. He had given his men a signal by which they might recognise his approach; but this was apparently misunderstood, for as he came up in the dark the escort fired. The poor fellow died in great agony the next morning.
As to news, the besiegers regularly received letters from England by the Punjab, but for several weeks they had no news from the South.
Sometimes one of Hodson's spies would come in with a scrap of thin paper written on in Greek letters, sewn between the soles of his shoe, or twisted in his hair. How eagerly these missives were deciphered! A fight at Agra! Allahabad still safe! Lucknow holding out! troops at Calcutta from Madras, Ceylon, Mauritius! Lord Elgin diverts a force on way to China!
But they never heard a word from Cawnpur, nor of the death of General Wheeler, nor Sir Henry Lawrence; but thought Wheeler was coming to their aid. At length Norman, on the 15th July, addressed a letter written in French to Wheeler at Cawnpur: two sepoys of the Guides took it, delivered it faithfully to General Havelock at Cawnpur and returned with his reply on the 3rd August.
In this he acquaints General Reed with Wheeler's fate; states he has orders to relieve Lucknow; informs him that Sir Henry Somerset is commander-in-chief in India, and Sir Patrick Grant in Bengal; and speaks of his own victories.
Two days afterwards Colonel Fraser-Tytler's letter came from Cawnpur to Captain Earle: "Havelock has thrashed the Nana . . . . will relieve Lucknow in four days . . . . we shall soon be with you." This sanguine prophecy was a failure! Instead of four days it took four months to relieve Lucknow, and no troops from Cawnpur came to Delhi.
On the 14th August, Nicholson's column arrived, and hopes began to spring up; for this brought up the effective strength to about 8000 rank and file.
The rebels knew more than the British did: they knew Havelock had been obliged to fall back upon Cawnpur, and that a siege-train was not far off. So they decided to make a supreme effort to capture the big guns, and proceeded in the direction of Najafgarh on the 24th August.
The following morning at daybreak Nicholson started to catch the rebels and bring them to action; he had with him 16 horse artillery guns, 1600 infantry and 450 cavalry, Nicholson requested to have Roberts as his staff officer, but this was refused, as he was still on the sick-list.
A twelve hours' march through swamps and marches brought them, weary and wet, at 4 p.m. near the rebels, covered by guns and deep water.
But Nicholson, nothing daunted, led his men across the ford, breast-high: Tombs and Remington did good work with their batteries, and a plucky charge drove the sepoys from their strong position; they made for a bridge over the canal, but Nicholson caught them, killed 800 and took 13 guns.
Though reinforcements and able leaders had come to the Ridge, yet at the beginning of September there were 3000 sick in hospital!
Baird-Smith was emphatic and decisive for an assault before disease could still further weaken the attack. He said they must think of the Punjab which Lawrence had denuded of troops for their benefit. If delay should induce the native princes to take part against us, as was probable, then all India would be lost, at least for a time.
Wilson, ill and anxious, had long been hesitating, waiting for help from the South: now he knew that help would never come. Baird-Smith was strongly backed up by Nicholson, Daly, Hodson, Norman, and Alec Taylor.
Lord Roberts says he was sitting in Nicholson's tent before he set out to attend the council. In a confidential talk, Nicholson startled his friend by saying: "Delhi must be taken, and it is absolutely essential that this should be done at once; and if Wilson hesitates longer, I intend to propose at to-day's meeting that he should be superseded."
Roberts replied that as Chamberlain was hors de combat from his wound, Wilson's removal would leave him, Nicholson, senior officer with the force. To this Nicholson replied, he had thought of that and should propose that the command should be given to Campbell of the 52nd.
Fortunately so drastic a measure was not needed: Wilson agreed to the assault. For some time Taylor, second in command of the Engineers, had been scouting and measuring and drawing plans for the breaching-batteries: a battery was constructed to prevent sorties from the Lahore and Kabul gates; it was also there placed to make the rebels think our assault would be from the right of the Ridge, whereas it had been resolved to attack from the left, where the men could approach nearer to the walls under cover and where the river completely protected our left flank.
As Baird-Smith was ill, the responsibility fell on Taylor, a practical Engineer, alert and cheerful and trusted fully by all working under him. The evening of the 7th September was fixed for the tracing of the batteries. No. 1 battery was placed below the Ridge within 700 yards of the Mori bastion; this bastion was at the north-west corner of the walls, mounting eight guns. The right section of the battery to be commanded by Major Brind, "a real hero of the siege," as Malleson says; the left by Major Kaye.
The Engineers worked all night with such energy that on the morning of the 8th, when as yet only one gun was mounted, the enemy discovered Brind's section and opened upon it a deadly fire of shot and grape. By the afternoon, as new guns were mounted, the rebels' fire was crushed and the Mori bastion became a heap of ruins.
Kaye, too, was doing good work against the Kashmir bastion, until the half-battery caught fire from the constant discharge of guns. At once the rebels opened fire upon the burning battery, and it looked as if the hard work of three days would be thrown away. But the battery was saved from destruction by the gallantry of Lieutenant Lockhart, who, with two companies of the 2nd Gurkhas, carried sandbags to the top, cut them and smothered the fire with sand. Two of the Gurkhas were shot dead; Lockhart, shot through the jaw, rolled over the parapet; but the fire was extinguished.
No. 2 battery was erected in front of Ludlow Castle, nearer the river and about 500 yards from the Kashmir gate, in order to destroy the bastion, to knock away the parapet to the right and left that gave cover to the rebels, and lastly, to open a breach for the stormers.
By this time the enemy began to see that the assault would be on the left near the river, and did their utmost to check the erection of the batteries, mounting heavy guns along the northern face.
No. 3 battery, traced by Medley and commanded by Scott, was placed within 160 yards of the Water bastion' and was finished by the night of the 11th. During the first night of its construction thirty-nine men were killed—Gurkhas. As man after man was knocked over, "they would stop a moment, weep a little over a fallen friend, says Forrest, place his body in a row along with the rest and then set to work again. No. 4 battery, half-way between 2 and 3, armed with ten heavy mortars, was; commanded by Tombs.
It was to No. 2 battery that Roberts was posted, and he had charge of two guns. At eight o'clock on the morning of the 11th September they opened fire on the Kashmir bastion, and as the shots told and the stones flew into the air and rattled down, a loud cheer came from the artillerymen and others who had volunteered to work in the batteries.
But the enemy also had got the range very accurately, and as soon as the screen in front of the right gun was removed, a round shot came through the embrasure, knocking over Roberts and three others. "On regaining my feet," Roberts says, "I found that the young artillery-man, who was serving the vent while I was laying the gun, had had his right arm taken off."
In the evening, as they were taking a short rest in the shelter of the battery after the exhausting work and the heat, a shower of grape came down upon them, severely wounding the commander, Major Campbell: Edwin Johnson then took his place.
How terrible the work of bombarding was, carried on night and day, we may realise from the fact that these men never left their batteries until the day of the assault—the 14th—except to go by turns into Ludlow Castle, just behind the battery, for their meals. The roar of big guns and mortars was incessant, the rain of shot and shell on the city must have given the mutineers some sense of coming disaster.
But the rebels, on their side, had made an advanced trench in one night, only 350 yards from our left attack: this they lined with infantry and enfiladed our batteries: they sent rockets from their martello towers and left no part of our attack unsearched by their fire.
Three months' practice had made our men skilful in taking cover, but yet we lost 327 officers and men between the 7th and 14th September. On the evening of the 13th, Nicholson went down to see whether the gunners had done their work thoroughly enough to warrant an assault on the morrow. After a careful look he turned and said with a smile: "I must shake hands with you fellows; you have done your best to make my work easy to-morrow."
Taylor, too, who accompanied Nicholson, seemed well pleased with the results; for, soon after, he and Baird-Smith advised General Wilson that the breaches were sufficient: so Wilson ordered they should be closely examined. Four subaltern officers of Engineers were detailed to go to the walls after dark and report upon their condition: this dangerous duty was given to Greathed and Home for the Water bastion, Medley and Lang for the Kashmir bastion.
Lang wished to go and examine the breach while there was light: Taylor agreed. So, with an escort of four men of the 60th Rifles, Lang crept to the edge of the cover, and then running up the glacis, sat on the top of the counter-scarp for a few seconds, studying the ditch and the two breaches. He returned with the report that the breaches were practicable, but had to go again after dark with Medley to ascertain if ladders would be necessary.
Lang slipped into the ditch with a measuring rod, which gave 16 feet; Medley handed him the ladder and followed with two riflemen, four others remaining on the crest of the glacis to cover their retreat. By using the ladder they ascended the ditch and measured the height of the wall. In two minutes they would have reached the top of the breach, but in spite of all precautions they had been heard, and the noise of running sepoys came to their ears. Then they climbed up the ditch as quickly as possible and threw themselves down on the grass, hoping the sepoys would go away, and they might try once more to get to the top of the breach. But as the rebels remained chattering and listening, they resolved to run for it: a volley was fired as they dashed across the open, but fortunately no one was hit.
Greathed and Home reached the Water bastion and examined their breach successfully; and by midnight Baird-Smith made his report to the general, and at the same time advised him strongly to order the assault for the coming morning. So the order was given for the storming of Delhi a little before daybreak; and in every tent men were making ready, re-loading pistols, filling flasks, winding puggrees round their forage caps, and giving, friend to friend, instructions, "if I fall." A little after midnight they were bidden to fall in as quietly as possible, and by the light of a winking lantern the orders for the assault were read to the men. Any officer or man who should be wounded was to be left where he fell! for there were no men to spare. No plundering! all prizes to be put into common stock for fair division. No prisoners! No women or children to be hurt!
"No fear, sir!" murmured the men. Then in some cases a priest or chaplain came up and offered a short prayer for success as they waited till all were ready.
There were four columns of attack: Nicholson led the first; Brigadier W. Jones, the second; Colonel Campbell, the third; Major Reid, the fourth.
The fifth, or reserve column, was to support the first column, or any that required help, and was led by Colonel Longfield. Many of the sick and wounded were used for the protection of the camp.
A delay was caused by having to wait for the men who had been on piquet all night; also it was necessary to batter down some of the repairs made in the night to the breaches. While this was being done the infantry lay down under cover; the sun rose, the breaching guns ceased, Nicholson gave the signal, and the 60th Rifles with a cheer dashed forward in skirmishing order; meanwhile the other columns moved forward. But the rebels were on the look out and sent a storm of bullets into the mass; and officers and men fell thick on the crest of the glacis.
While our men stood at the edge of the ditch, waiting for more ladders, dusky figures crowded on the breach, hurled stones and insulting epithets and dared our men to cross. Then came a rush, a climb, a struggle; many fine men were ruined for life or killed in the breach, but the rebels gave way and the ramparts were ours.
No. 2 column also carried the breach at the Water bastion; but of the 39 men who carried the ladders, 29 dropped in as many seconds. The ladders were picked up by their comrades and placed against the escarp: the supports by mistake got on to the rampart; but Jones, seizing the situation, cleared the ramparts as far as the Kabul gate, on the summit of which he planted the column flag, presented in 1877 to Queen Victoria.
No. 3 column advanced towards the Kashmir gate in the face of a heavy fire and halted.
Lieutenants Home and Salkeld with 8 sappers and miners and a bugler set out to blow the gate open; each carried 25 lb. of powder.
The rebels wondered what so small a party were going to do, and slackened fire; but very soon opened a deadly fire from the top of the gateway, the city wall, and the open wicket. The bridge over the ditch had been destroyed; a single beam remained, over which Home and his men crossed with difficulty.
How the gate was blown in has been already described in Chapter IV.
When Campbell got inside he found Nicholson's and Jones' columns, and together they poured into the open space between the Kashmir gate and the church.
The fourth column under Reid had to start without their four H.A. guns; Reid himself was wounded in the head, but managed to send for Captain Lawrence and gave him the command. But the rebels were strongly posted on the banks of the canal, and indeed threatened to break into our weakly-guarded camp, but just at the critical moment Hope Grant brought up the cavalry brigade, and No. 4 column were enabled to retire in an orderly manner.
Meanwhile Nicholson pushed on along the foot of the walls to the right towards the Lahore gate past the Kabul gate and Burn bastion. To do this he had to force his way through a lane 200 yards long where every building was manned with sharpshooters; the city wall was on his right, on his left flat-roofed houses with parapets sheltering rebels. He might have maintained his position at the Kabul gate, but thinking that the repulse of No. 4 would encourage the rebels, he cried, "Boys, storm the lane and take those two guns in front." They charged, recoiled, and charged again; Greville spiked the first gun, Lieutenant Butler got beyond the second gun. But the grape and round-shot were too much for mortal men. Jacobs of the 1st Fusiliers was mortally wounded. Wemyss, Greville, Caulfield, Speke, Woodcock, Butler were in turn struck down. The men, discouraged by the fall of their officers, were falling back a second time, when the clear-sounding voice of Nicholson called them to follow their general. But even as he turned to address them he was shot through the back and chest.
Though he felt the wound was mortal, nothing could yet quench the ardour of his spirit; he still called on his men to come on. But it was in vain; already 8 officers and 50 men had fallen in this attempt. The only thing was to fall back on the Kabul gate.
The result of the first day's operations was that we had won the entire space from the Water bastion by the river to the Kabul gate, being the north side of the city walls; while the fourth column, outside the city, held the batteries behind Hindu Rao's house. But the price paid was high.
In the day's fight we had lost 66 officers and 1104 men; the rebels were still very strong in numbers, in guns, in position; and they had had their measure of success and had no need to despair.
All this time Roberts was with General Wilson at Ludlow Castle on staff duty. Wilson watched the assault from the top of the house; and, seeing the success of the assaulting columns, he rode through the Kashmir gate to the church, and there stayed for the remainder of the day.
The general was ill and worn out with toil and anxiety, and as reports of disaster kept coming in, he grew more and more depressed. The failure of Reid and the 4th column, the fall of Nicholson, and the false report that Hope Grant and Tombs were killed—all this so distressed him that he began to consider the advisability of falling back again on the Ridge. Roberts was ordered to go and find out the truth of these reports and ascertain what had happened to No. 4 column.
While riding on his errand through the Kashmir gate Roberts saw by the side of the road a dhoolie without bearers. He dismounted to see if there was a wounded officer inside, and perceived to his grief and consternation that it was John Nicholson, with death written on his face.
"The bearers—have gone off to plunder—I am in great pain—I should like to be taken to the hospital," the wounded man gasped out.
"Not seriously wounded, John, I hope?"
"I am dying; there is no chance for me."
"The sight of that great man lying helpless and on the point of death," says Lord Roberts, "was almost more than I could bear. Other men had daily died around me . . . but I never felt as I felt then—to lose Nicholson seemed to me at that moment to lose everything."
It took Roberts some time to find four men, whom he put in charge of a sergeant of the 61st Foot: he took down the sergeant's name, told him who the wounded officer was, and ordered him to go direct to the field hospital. Continuing his ride, Roberts came up with Hope Grant's brigade, and was very glad to find him and Tombs unhurt, and Hodson cheery and Probyn in high spirits at commanding his squadron.
So Roberts galloped back to Wilson with the good news, which did a little cheer him; but the heavy list of casualties came in later and seemed to crush all spirit out of him: he would have withdrawn from the city in spite of the opposing opinions of every officer on his staff; had not Baird-Smith come up, looking very ill and wasted by disease and suffering fearful pain from his wound.
"Now, Baird-Smith, shall we hold on or retire?" asked the general.
"Sir, we must hold on," was the reply given in so loud and determined a tone that Wilson shrugged his shoulders and said no more.
Neville Chamberlain, Daly, and Khan Sing Rosa, a distinguished officer of the Guides, all incapacitated by wounds, were watching the assault from the top of Hindu Rao's house: to Chamberlain, Wilson sent two notes, asking his advice. Chamberlain urged the necessity for holding on to the last.
Nicholson, though slowly dying, when told of General Wilson's wish to retire to the Ridge, cried, "No! no! thank God I have strength yet to shoot him, if necessary!"
While such were the varying opinions of the besiegers, they little knew what emotions had been stirred in the hearts of the besieged by the capture of the walls and bastions and the calm bivouacking of the British within the city. The king and his counsellors were panic-stricken: the sepoys had had all the heart taken out of them by the terrible street fighting. If we had retired, all these advantages would have been thrown away. And they very nearly were!
But at length Wilson braced up his courage and decided to remain. In the afternoon of the 14th, Norman, Johnson, and Roberts were sent to visit every position occupied by our troops within the city.
They found great confusion naturally—men without officers, officers without men, and all without instructions. For three weak columns had been set to do the impossible; but they had done what was possible in gallant style. While riding along they were suddenly attacked from a side lane: but fortunately one of our piquets heard the firing and came running up to help. "In the scrimmage my poor mare was shot," says Roberts; "her death was a great loss to me at the time."
The magazine, the palace, and the fort of Salimgarh, all fortified, still remained in the enemies' hands, as well as the densely populated city. The general and his staff spent the night in Skinner's house near the church: whether the rebels were tired, or from whatever cause, the outworn troops were allowed to enjoy a peaceful and restful night, and awoke refreshed. The 15th was employed in restoring order, breaking wine-bottles, and preparations for shelling the city: the sepoys gave little trouble.
On the 16th the rebels evacuated Kishanganj, whence on the 14th they had repulsed the fourth column: the British stormed and took the magazine, so heroically defended, and partially blown up by Willoughby on the 11th of May.
On the 17th and 18th the bank was taken and the besiegers' posts were brought close to the palace: but it became necessary to take the Lahore gate, which was strongly held by the rebels, and was commanded by the Burn bastion. It was then that Alec Taylor besought the general to allow him to work his way from house to house to the Burn bastion.
The general assented, knowing now that what Taylor promised he would perform. Roberts was placed under Taylor, and they had with them 50 Europeans and 50 native soldiers, the senior officer being Captain Gordon of the 75th Foot. For hours these men worked like moles through houses, courtyards, and lanes, clearing all before them, where any natives were left, until on the afternoon of the 19th they found themselves in rear of the Burn bastion. Only one door now separated them from the lane leading to this bastion: Lang, of the Engineers, burst it open and the others followed at a rush up the ramp, surprising the guard and capturing the bastion without the loss of a man.
Early in the morning of 20th September, as they were sapping their way towards the Lahore gate, they came upon some 50 banias (grain merchants) huddled together and unarmed.
Instead of killing these inoffensive people, Taylor made a bargain with them, "Your lives shall be spared if you will conduct us safely to some spot from which we may observe how the Lahore gate is guarded."
After a long discussion among themselves they agreed that two of their party should guide Lang and Roberts, while the rest remained as hostages, to be shot if the two officers did not return.
In a panic the two guides led on from house to house and along secluded alleys, without meeting a single living person, until at last they brought the officers to the upper room of a house which looked out on the Chandni Chauk, or Silver Bazaar, the main street of Delhi, close to the Lahore gate. From the window of this room Lang and Roberts saw sepoys lounging about or cleaning their muskets, and sentries by the gateway and two guns.
The two banias were so afraid of anything untoward happening to the officers that they insisted on reconnoitring every house before entering: in consequence there was such delay that they found their friends ready to shoot the hostages, because they believed the guides had behaved treacherously.
Then the hundred men were guided along the same route and drawn up behind a gateway next to the house from which Roberts had seen the sentries. Suddenly the gate was flung open, the party rushed into the street, captured the guns, and killed or put to flight the sepoys.
This was a worthy achievement, for it gave possession of the street which led from the Lahore gate to the palace and the mosque.
Up this street Roberts and his men proceeded; finding it absolutely empty, except for the signs of looting, they pushed on to the Delhi Bank. A couple of guns outside the palace were sending round-shot about, but soon ceased firing: for the great Mahommedan mosque had just been taken by a column under Major James Brind, and Ensign M'Queen with one of his men had reconnoitred up to the chief gateway of the palace and reported only a few sepoys left. The 60th Rifles were allowed the honour of storming this last stronghold as they had distinguished themselves in the battle of Hindun, four months before. Roberts attached himself to the 60th on this occasion.
Home, of the Engineers, who blew up the Kashmir gate, now advanced with some sappers and blew in the outer gate.
They waited for the smoke of the explosion to clear away and then rushed in, supported by the 4th Punjab Infantry: but a second door barred the way, which took some time to force open.
Then they saw crowds of wounded men in the recesses of the long passage leading to the inner rooms of the palace: a few fanatics only resisted. One of these, a Mahommedan sepoy, took aim and shot through M'Queen's helmet: he then charged madly along the passage, and was shot down.
"So ended the 20th September—a day I am never likely to forget."
We must add that Brigadier William Jones with 500 Sikhs helped Taylor to take the Lahore gate and the great mosque. Brind it was who asked permission to storm the palace: and a young lieutenant, named Aikman, had previously secured the Salimgarh.
That afternoon Wilson took up his quarters in the palace.
The poor old king had been advised by his commander-in-chief, Bakht Khan, to accompany the sepoys in flight and live to fight in the open. But the aged monarch had wives and sons to think of, so he sadly took refuge at the great tomb of Humayun, four or five miles away.
So ended the siege of Delhi: and a royal salute at sunrise on the 21st proclaimed that we were again the Masters of the Imperial City. But our triumph was honourably shared by the Gurkhas of the Himalayas, the frontier men of the Guides, the proud Sikhs, the daring Pathans. Heroes all—they had shown equally with the British soldier endurance of hardships, faith in their officers, and contempt of death. Lord Canning wrote in his dispatches home these words In the name of outraged humanity, in memory of innocent blood ruthlessly shed, in acknowledgment of the first signal vengeance inflicted on the foulest treason, the Governor-General in Council records his gratitude to Major-General Wilson and the brave army of Delhi. He does so in the sure conviction that a like tribute awaits them wherever the news of their well-earned triumph shall reach."
Nicholson just lived to know that his labours had not been in vain: his funeral took place on the 24th, and Roberts was marching out that morning with a mixed column to Cawnpur.
The victorious soldiers under Lieutenant-Colonel Greathed set out in the early morning light along Silver Street, now desolate and deserted: the gay bazaars all idle and forlorn and empty: not a sound was to be heard but the fall of their own footsteps. Dead bodies still polluted the air and stricken faces grinned a ghastly farewell: dogs and vultures were eating their loathsome breakfast: some dead sepoys lay with arm uplifted as if beckoning the column to come and see what war was like at closer quarters. The very horses felt the horror of the scene, for they trembled and snorted in disgust and fear, misliking the scent of blood.
It was a pure delight to gain the fresh air of the open country: but the taint of cholera had followed them; Captain Wilde of the 4th Punjab Infantry having to be sent back to Delhi apparently dying; but he made a good recovery and lived to fight again very strenuously.
It was not long before they came upon rebels strongly posted and had to storm a walled town; here Anson got surrounded by mutineers, performed heroic deeds of valour and won the Victoria Cross.
Here, too, Roberts' life was saved by his horse rearing and receiving in his head the bullet aimed at his rider: the horse survived and did good service. It had been John Nicholson's Wasiri stallion, a great favourite of his.
On the 1st of October another hero of the Mutiny lost his life: for it had been decided that Malagarh fort should be blown up. Lieutenant Home, who had been one of the Engineer officers to blow in the Kashmir gate, was engaged in laying the mine; the slow-match was lighted, but as no explosion followed, Home thought the match had gone out and ran forward to relight it. Just as he reached it the mine blew up and Home was no more.
When the column reached Khurja, a large Mahommedan town, the first thing that met the eyes of the soldiers was the skeleton of a white woman: it was placed against the side of the bridge, headless, the bones hacked and broken. The soldiers cried for vengeance and wished to burn the town; but as the townsfolk pleaded innocence, the houses were spared.
At the camping ground they saw a fakir sitting under a tree, vowed to silence, as a penance for sin; but when some officers drew near, he pointed to a wooden platter significantly—an ordinary plate, in which food had recently been mixed: still the fakir pointed: on closer inspection it was seen that a small piece of wood in the centre was loose; this on being lifted up revealed a tiny folded paper!
This was none other than a secret note from General Havelock, written in Greek letters, saying that he was on his way to Lucknow, and begging any commander into whose hands it should fall to hasten to his assistance.
Greathed, on reading this, decided to proceed at once to Cawnpur.
On reaching Aligarh they found a great crowd drawn up before the walls, blowing horns and cursing the foreigner: but these gentlemen catching a glimpse of the Horse Artillery, bolted within and closed the gates, leaving two guns in our possession. Thinking the city would be stormed and taken, they bolted out on the other side into the open country; but the cavalry had ridden round and were ready for them as they scuttled into the high crops and tried to hide.
The civil authorities of Aligarh welcomed the British rule again with alacrity and joy: for their taste of sepoy rule had not been sweet.
On the road to Cawnpur lived twin brothers, Rajputs, who had taken a prominent part in the rebellion: the cavalry surrounded their village, and both brothers were killed in attempting to escape. In their house were found many articles which must have belonged to English ladies.
Pressing calls from Agra for help induced Greathed to turn from Cawnpur to Agra. What happened there can be given in detail in a later chapter.
The Agra authorities had assured Greathed on his arrival that the rebels were ten miles away: Roberts had got leave with Norman, Watson, and a few other officers to breakfast in the fort. They had scarcely sat down, full of delight at once more enjoying a charming meal in ladies' society, when the report of a gun startled them, then boomed out a second and a third!
The officers sprang to their feet: "What can it mean the enemy?"
The host ran to an angle in the terrace to see, and returned in hot haste, saying, "My God! an action is taking place, gentlemen!"
In a moment Roberts and his friends were down the stairs and on their horses galloping towards their camp: but their progress was stopped by an immense crowd of men, children, and animals, all rushing back to the fort with yells and screams of fear. They had flocked out to see the famous Delhi soldiers; and the surprise attack made by the rebels had sent them pell-mell back to the city. With difficulty the officers forced their way through the throng, and found their own men fighting in their shirt-sleeves, having been startled from their sleep by the round-shot, and not having had time to put on their accoutrements.
Roberts at this juncture was nearly killed by a dismounted sowar, who danced about in front of his horse, waving his turban in front of its eyes, so that Roberts could not get his charger to face the man: who held in his other hand a sharp sword that looked very business-like. However, a man of the 9th Lancers ran the rebel through and rescued his officer.
Though Greathed had been surprised, the rebels were on their part more surprised: for they had supposed that the tents were those of the garrison whom they despised: a rumour had been spread abroad that the Delhi column was coming, but they had not believed it.
So when they charged into the camp on the parade-ground and were repulsed by the 75th Foot, they were heard to say to one another, "Arrah bhai! ze Delhiwale hain!" (I say, brothers, these are the Delhi fellows).
Hope Grant was put in command of the column in place of Greathed, and joined them in October soon after they left Agra. Grant was senior to Greathed, and knew much more of India and its customs; he was very popular with the troops.
They had some more fighting before they reached Cawnpur on the 26th October. Lord Roberts says: "Our visit to this scene of suffering and disaster was more harrowing than it is in the power of words to express; the sights which met our eyes, and the reflections they gave rise to, were quite maddening . . . tresses of hair, pieces of ladies' dresses, books crumpled and torn, bits of work and scraps of music, just as they had been left by the wretched owners on the fatal morning of the 27th June, when they started for that terrible walk to the boats provided by the Nana. . . . When one looked on the ruined, roofless barracks, with their hastily constructed parapet and ditch, one marvelled how 465 men, not more than half of them soldiers by profession, could have held out for three long weeks against the thousands of disciplined troops whom the Nana was able to bring to the attack."
The stay at Cawnpur was longer than had been expected, as they had to wait for the carts which had taken the women and children to Allahabad.
In a battle fought on the banks of the Kali Nadi, Roberts won his V.C. On the same day he did two daring deeds as they were chasing the flying foe: a batch of mutineers had faced about and fired into the squadron at close quarters. Younghusband fell, and Roberts waited to rescue a wounded sowar who was being attacked by a sepoy with fixed bayonet: one slash of the sword was sufficient: then Roberts rode on and saw two sepoys making off with a standard.
"This must be captured!" said Roberts to himself, and setting spurs to his horse soon overtook the rebels. One he cut down at once, and while he was wrenching the staff out of his hands, the other sepoy put his musket close to Roberts' body and fired.
Fortunately the musket missed fire and Roberts recovered the standard. As is the manner of English heroes, Lord Roberts only alludes to these actions in a summary way in his interesting Forty-one Years in India.
Roberts after this went on to Lucknow, meeting his old friend Sir Colin Campbell and General Outram at the Relief of Lucknow. We cannot now enter into details of that struggle, but Forbes-Mitchell gives us two sketches of what he witnessed concerning Lieutenant Roberts.
He tells us that the young lieutenant had been associated with the 93rd Highlanders in several skirmishes, so that the men had recognised his worth and familiarly spoke of him as "Plucky wee Bobs."
On the 14th November, as the 93rd were passing through the breach in the wall of the Dilkoosha Park, Roberts rode through, followed by a trooper, when suddenly a battery unmasked and opened fire: the second shot struck the trooper's horse, and horse and rider fell together in the dust. Someone cried, "Puir lad! plucky wee Bobs is done for!"
But as the dust cleared away, Roberts was seen to have dismounted and to be assisting the trooper to rise from under the dead horse.
As he remounted, the Highlanders gave him a rousing cheer, and he rode with the guns to the front, pointing the direction they should take.
"The young lieutenant who could thus coolly dismount and extricate a trooper from raider a dead horse within point-blank range of a well-served battery of 9-pounder guns, was early qualifying for the distinguished position which he has since reached."
After Lucknow, Roberts handed his office of D.A.Q.M.G. to Wolseley and returned to England. How our hero served his country in Afghanistan, Abyssinia, Burma, and South Africa must be learned elsewhere.
If Englishmen should ever awake to the duty of making themselves fit to defend their country, it will be mainly due to the unflagging exertions of our great field-marshal. He has never spared himself to defend us: but we are apt to be forgetful and ungrateful, until the approach of danger rouses us from a foolish lethargy.
In part from Forty-one Years in India, by kind permission of F.M. Earl Roberts; and from Malleson's Indian Mutiny, by kind permission of Messrs. Seely, Service & Co.