General Sir A. Taylor, G.C.B.:
The Man Who Took Delhi
Alexander Taylor was a Scot by race and an Irishman by birth: many of his ancestors had been distinguished engineers, both civil and military, and they hailed from Aberdeen.
Alexander's grandfather, Captain George Taylor, began life as a civil engineer at Aberdeen: he planned and superintended the construction of the Aberdeen-Inverurie Canal, and the harbour of Howth (Dublin).
In 1779 we find him fighting as a volunteer in the British Army under Sir Henry Clinton, and distinguishing himself at the Siege of Charlestown: he received a commission as captain in the Duke of Cumberland's regiment in Jamaica. On his return he married Barbara Thompson, bought the family place, Anfield, and became captain of the Aberdeen Volunteers.
Soon after, he left Scotland for Dublin and undertook the management of high roads between Dublin and the south-west of Ireland.
The Taylors were the great road-makers: Alexander inherited this faculty. William Taylor, George's youngest son, the father of Sir Alexander, devoted himself to the introduction into Ireland of the new steam-engine, and owing to his energy and enthusiasm the Southern and South-Western Railway was speedily opened.
Alexander Taylor was this William's eldest son and was born in Dublin in 1826. At the early age of twelve the boy was sent to the famous school at Hofwyl, near Berne, which was managed by Pestalozzi's friend, Herr Von Fellenberg.
The basis of the teaching was love to God and love to man: the education of the body and the character came first; hands, eyes and ears were carefully trained before the pure intelligence was instructed.
Alexander remained here till he was fifteen: he rapidly rose in the school, became a good gymnast, skater, rider and fencer. It was a splendid school for one who was to become an Engineer.
In August, 1841, Taylor entered the military college at Addiscombe, where he gained the friendship of George Fulton, killed at Lucknow in 1857. When the young lieutenant arrived at Calcutta he joined the headquarters of the Sappers at Meerut, and was shortly after sent to Ferozepur. As he had done much sailing at Chatham, Lord Ellenborough gave him charge of a flotilla of fifty boats for military bridging on the Sutlej. On the outbreak of the first Sikh War, Taylor was ordered to sink these boats and fall back on Ferozepur: here he was put in command of the Sappers and Miners, though only a young subaltern.
When the Sikhs withdrew Taylor had orders to raise the boats, and they afterwards formed the bridge across which the British Army marched to Lahore after the battle of Sobraon.
When fighting began at Multan (1848) he carried down the heavy Engineer train required for the siege in these same unwieldy boats. No doubt he enjoyed it vastly; for 200 miles he was fending them off' shoals, or guiding them through foaming rapids; but he brought them safely to Multan, and won the praise and esteem of his only passenger—Robert Napier, his chief Engineer, and later known as Lord Napier of Magdala.
Modesty, promptitude, a huge appetite for work, resource in the time of peril, great cheerfulness—all these qualities were duly marked by his chief, who afterwards gave him his life's work—the construction of the grand trunk road between Lahore and Peshawur. Taylor was in charge of the Engineers' Park in both sieges of Multan, and distinguished himself by preparing all kinds of contrivances for facilitating siege operations, as well as by making brilliant and hazardous reconnaissances. For, in exploring the ground, as afterwards at Delhi, in taking measurements of walls, etc., many lives were saved. The writer has just heard from a Mutiny veteran how mistakes were sometimes made when besieging cities. In estimating the height of walls, ladders would not reach to the top, or the coping had not been knocked off by the guns: in consequence valuable lives were lost, as the attacking party were shot down before they could escalade the ramparts. It was such defaults as these which Alexander Taylor never permitted; he knew what to do, and how to do it well.
When the breaches in the walls of Multan were completed, Robert Napier allowed him to guide the party assaulting the left breach: in doing this Taylor was severely wounded.
At the battle of Gujerat (February 1849), being orderly officer to General Sir John Cheape, Taylor had his horse killed under him. He was with Gilbert in the pursuit of the Sikhs to the mouth of the Khyber, and was thanked for his services in dispatches.
In May 1849, Robert Napier entrusted Taylor with the construction of a new military road destined to connect Lahore and Peshawur—290 miles through a wild country that possessed no roads and little organised labour, and of which there were no maps. The Lahore-Peshawur road is now the first military road in India, and from the trunk line radiate branches in every direction.
On this work Taylor with his subordinates and road-makers was employed unremittingly from 1849 to 1857.
The viaducts over the five rivers, the Sutlej, the Beas, the Ravi, the Chenab and the Jhelum, were to be postponed; but bridges over all lesser rivers were to be built, and a good and clear passage made through the rugged country between the Jhelum and the Indus.
For a few miles wide on each side of these rivers of the Punjab (five rivers) there lies a narrow belt of fertile land, irrigated by overflow waters. All between the rivers, with this exception, is jungle of tamarisk and thorn, haunted by wild beasts or wilder men, assassins and cattle-lifters.
The heat here is terrible amid these rocks and deserts and scanty grasses.
The Punjab is as populous as Bengal in the rich country, healthy and pleasant in the hill districts; but in the plains, as at Lahore and Multan, the heat is well-nigh intolerable. Hence an Indian proverb arose: "When God had Multan ready for His purpose, why did He make Hell?"
Of the different peoples among whom Taylor was working, come first the Sikhs, tall and lithe and bearded, the bravest and most chivalrous race in India: they had fought well against us in two great wars and taken their beating like men, and were soon to show how their good faith was as strong as their valour.
The aboriginal Goojurs and Gukkurs together with Raj puts made up a sixth part of the population; the rest, in the country round Multan, Hazara and Peshawur, were mostly Mussulman: the farther west, the wilder the tribes—all ready to swoop down on the industrious nations of the richer valleys and slay with robbery under arms.
Such were the men amongst whom Taylor and his subordinates had to work: and when they first began, there was not a road or a neap existent.
Taylor had to work single-handed: he had to be his own draughtsman, surveyor and leveller: he had to collect labourers from the district, not always by persuasion: he had to keep his own accounts and send them up punctually to Sir John Lawrence, who came once a year to inspect progress, and was more given to find fault than to praise.
Soon rumours began to come to him of sepoys shooting their officers, of horsemen hurrying south towards Delhi, and of a great siege beginning. Still he toiled on amid the pickaxes and spades, wondering if his siege experiences at Multan might some day soon be thought useful down at Delhi! Then, one day, the commissioner of the district, Edward Thornton, came to see him, and said gaily, "Hello, Taylor! you here, still making roads! Why, you ought to be at Delhi, working in the trenches."
"I would give my eyes," replied Taylor, "to be there; but my work is here, and I do not think it right to volunteer."
Thornton rode off, musing on the strange throwing away of a good engineer, when he was so much wanted elsewhere.
The next time he saw John Lawrence he told him what he had seen, and what he had thought. And John Lawrence said curtly, "Send him!" So Thornton rode out again to Alexander Taylor and said:
"I have come from the chief commissioner: he says you are to go to Delhi."
"Oh!" said Taylor, "any of you fellows got a sword?"
In a quarter of an hour the road-maker was ready to start, and, joining Neville Chamberlain, he reached Delhi on 27th June. There Captain Taylor found Baird-Smith nominally chief Engineer, but his important staff duties and his increasing illness compelled him to delegate the actual duties of' chief Engineer to the younger man from the Punjab, who had come to the camp with so brilliant a reputation.
As General Sir F. R. Maunsell has ably set out in his pamphlet on the siege of Delhi, the British force on the Ridge had just enough ammunition to form practicable breaches, and if the city could not be taken by surprise when this was expended, there was no other hope of success. The only site suitable for such an attack was covered with buildings, trees, copses and ruins, and was occupied more or less by the enemy.
Captain Taylor, from the first day of his arrival, began to examine the ground at the risk of his life and with many hairbreadth escapes. In these hazardous scoutings he was frequently accompanied by General Nicholson, who loved the audacity of such adventures.
For some time no one knew what he was studying or planning, for Taylor was the most modest and retiring of men.
Any one who might be informed that the Engineer was seeking a site for his batteries in the very ground occupied by a watchful enemy would say at once, how can he survey the site, take measurements and mark the position of the guns in the face of the enemy? The thing is absurd.
But Taylor was doing all this long before the siege guns arrived. Owing, however, to Baird-Smith being ill, no full report of the Engineer's part in the siege was written, and the earliest histories scarcely mentioned Taylor's name. But Sir John Kaye, after the publication of his History of the Mutiny, asked Sir Alexander Taylor some direct questions, and Sir Alexander's reply will probably be printed in full when the Engineer's Life by Miss Taylor is published.
General Maunsell writes: "I knew Taylor first at Multan and afterwards at Delhi. These defensive replies were forced from him by those who demanded the facts from him directly. Never was he one to claim more than his due. At Delhi he humbly let others take the credit and honour really due to him."
In Sir Alexander's letter, dated 29th November 1875, he states that he and Baird-Smith often discussed how the assault was to be made; they agreed that economy of time would be the chief point. It must be a surprise, and give no time to the enemy to prepare a counter-attack.
An attack in full form, with trenches, etc., was out of the question. There must be no room for error, but all must be actually seen and measured.
There was a great house called Ludlow Castle between our lines and the walls of the city, in which the enemy kept a large piquet of several hundred sepoys. As Taylor one day was watching Ludlow Castle with his glasses, he thought the old piquet had been withdrawn and the new one had not yet arrived. Ludlow Castle is set on the crest of a ridge sloping down towards the city walls. "Now's my chance to examine the ground," he thought: thereupon he threw down sword and belt, seized his pistol, ordered a piquet of sixteen men from the Guides to follow him, and passed between Ludlow Castle and the river; he even went as far as Khoodsia Bagh, an old summer palace of the Mogul kings.
Leaving the men in extended order outside this building, with strict orders on no account to fire, Taylor entered the walled enclosure with the havildar, or native officer, and explored it thoroughly; then, mounting on the wall next the city, he could see the sentry on the ramparts apparently quite close.
The Custom House, one hundred and eighty yards in front of him, and lower down, was between him and the city wall. Taylor lay on his face on the top of the palace wall behind a small shrub, and carefully examined the Custom House for more than an hour. They effected their retreat without being observed. It was risky work, because on their right when in the old palace there were dense groves of orange bushes, and to their rear was the enemy's piquet in Ludlow Castle. Taylor had ascertained that the roof of the Custom House had fallen in, but that the brick walls remained standing, and that the site was good for a battery. It, in fact, became the site of Battery No. 3.
He also learnt that Ludlow Castle was the only place near, and outside the walls, which was occupied in force; in other parts the vegetation was untrampled. Throughout July and August Taylor seized other opportunities to examine the ground and make plans for batteries.
Once he was going with twenty men far in front of our advanced posts, and had come to within sixty yards of a stone wall which crossed their path at right angles, when suddenly a couple of hundred sepoys sprang up, delivered a volley in their faces, and jumping the wall, tried to close with them.
Taylor and his men, thinking discretion the better part of valour in a case like this, turned and bolted like rabbits into the brushwood. Fortunately the fire had been bad, and no one was badly hurt, but they had to run half a mile to get clear, and escaped into Metcalfe's piquet.
On another occasion, Taylor says, Ludlow Castle seemed to be unoccupied and he ran down to it alone, and was taking observations from the flat roof when he suddenly perceived the head of a regiment entering the gateway beneath him: quietly the Engineer officer crept downstairs, went out at a door on the other side of the house and climbed the garden wall unnoticed.
By these close observations made in broad daylight Taylor was able to find out where the breaching batteries could be most successful.
Every night he unfolded his facts and plans to Baird-Smith, who at length laid them before General Wilson at headquarters.
The general read the report with astonishment, and some show of doubt. "Very important, Baird-Smith, if true and exact: but I question whether Captain Taylor has really gone so far as Ludlow Castle, let alone the Khoodsia Bagh." Upon this General Nicholson broke in: "Look here, general, I will undertake to go with Captain Taylor to Ludlow Castle and will report the result." Accordingly Taylor conducted John Nicholson at midnight into Ludlow Castle, which happened to be unoccupied, for the sepoys often left it empty for an hour between the relief of the garrison.
Then Taylor took his friend down to the old palace, and finally got him safely back to camp: no doubt he felt a little sore at his word being doubted. But Taylor was not a man to complain or feel a grievance.
Nicholson made such a report, that General Wilson made no more objections to Taylor's plans and projects; and, being an artilleryman himself, he must have fully realised the importance of a close examination of the ground and the lie of the guns.
After this Nicholson used to go every day on the works for the batteries, very often from an hour before dawn until sunset: he did this partly that he might arrange for any movement of troops which Taylor desired. How the batteries, when finished, did their work we have already seen in a previous chapter: Taylor's chief trouble was in removing the old brick walls of the Custom House which partly blocked one battery.
On the evening of 7th September they began to trace the assailing batteries, and worked so hard that by the next morning they had mounted one gun: the sepoys noticed it and sent out a sortie from the Lahore gate, which was defeated; and as the enemy's guns could not fire while their own men were out, it gave the Engineers time to complete five platforms and mount five guns which immediately opened fire. Brind and Kaye soon rendered the Mori and Kashmir bastions harmless. By dawn of the 11th, No. 2 battery had been completed—the third battery under Captain Medley, placed only 160 yards from the Water bastion, was armed by the night of the 11th.
A fourth battery under the gallant Tombs, for throwing shells, was traced near the old palace and completed on the 11th.
Then the two sides proceeded fiercely to pound one another, until on the afternoon of the 13th Wilson and Baird-Smith thought the breaches sufficient.
But Taylor did not consider his work over even when his batteries had made the breaches, and our men had won the ramparts of the city. On 18th September, when he saw how Nicholson, and after him Colonel Greathed, had failed to carry Burn bastion, Taylor applied for a large body of men, and with these he occupied a large block of houses between the workshops and the Begum's gardens; it was Wilde's regiment that took possession. Sir John Kaye writes: "Ever to the front, ever active, ever fertile in resources, the Engineer brigade had much to do, and did . it well. It had been terribly shattered during the assault: few had escaped"—(on the 14th Lieutenant Tandy had been killed, Lieutenant Salkeld died a few days after, when blowing in the Kashmir gate, and eight other Engineer officers were wounded).
It was Taylor who suggested to the commander-in-chief that, instead of fighting in the open streets, the Engineers should work through the sheltered houses to the Burn bastion. A little friction arose at first with the brigade officers, but this soon passed away. We have seen in the chapter on Lord Roberts how successful this plan was, and how economical of life. Kaye writes: "Taylor was one who thought nothing impossible; all men worked under him with the heartiest goodwill, for he animated and inspired all who came into contact with him in battery or in trench. The younger officers of the Engineers swore by him."
Sir John Lawrence wrote to Lord Dalhousie on 14th January 1858: "Up to the capture of Delhi, the scales were trembling in the balance. The Punjabis of all classes have behaved admirably . . . still, if Delhi had not fallen, we must have been ruined. Had the troops retreated, all must have been lost. To Nicholson, Alexander Taylor of the Engineers and Neville Chamberlain the real merit of our success is due. Alexander Taylor, though only the second Engineer before Delhi, was really the officer who designed and arranged all the scientific operations which led to the success of the assault, and in the actual attack was as forward as any man that day."
General Sir F. Maunsell, the Engineer officer in charge of the right attack, writes: "I can frankly state that none of us were capable of doing what Taylor did: we doubtless all thought ourselves fine fellows—more or less—but as to a mastery or control of the great questions and issues involved, we were nowhere as compared with him . .. we all believed in him as a first-rate man."
It is only of late that the importance of the siege of Delhi has been recognised: the great anxiety as to the fate of Lucknow with its women and children took all the public attention at the time, and Delhi was almost ignored.
Sir Henry Norman writes: "Throughout the operations Taylor seems to have been omnipresent, and to bear a charmed life . . . the plan of the attack was bold and skilful. . . . Pandy can fight well behind cover, but here he was outmanoeuvred; his attention was diverted from the real point of attack until the last (by the feint on the right) and then the cover on the left was seized at the right moment, without loss, and all its advantages turned against him."
Taylor himself pays a tribute to the services of his chief, Baird-Smith: "He did all that could be done by a chief Engineer of great capacity, but crippled by heavy sickness; took a sound view of our position and its requirements, and gave firm and wise council to General Wilson, more than once.... For all this grand work he deserved the thanks, not only of the Delhi field force, but of every white face to the north of Delhi, whose fate depended on our success."
After the fall of Delhi, Colonel Baird-Smith left in a bullock-cart, being too ill to ride on horseback: Taylor took up the command, and was told to restore the battered fortifications and strengthen the bastions.
Taylor would rather have served with one of the columns destined to put down rebellion in the North-West Provinces; but duty was duty to him. However, his plans, which were approved by General Wilson, were thought by Sir John Lawrence too ambitious: probably Sir John thought that the time for rebuilding had not yet come, and that Taylor was wanted elsewhere. So, in November, Taylor went to Agra in command of the Engineer Brigade, and on the 10th of December joined Seaton's column at Alighur, south-east of Delhi, just in time to take part in the brilliant cavalry engagement at Khasgunge, in which the Carabineers and Hodson's Horse so ably distinguished themselves.
Colonel Sir Edward Thackeray, V.C., who was attached to Seaton's column, gives a vivid picture of Hodson thoroughly enjoying himself as a Paladin of the olden time.
It was early in the morning of 17th December, while the dawn was yet cool and grey, the column was near Puttiali, when distant shots were heard. Taylor and Hodson, attended by some of his troopers, rode forward to reconnoitre: they reached a village which seemed to be deserted; there was no sign of life, the gates were built up, and there was no admittance.
Taylor sent two men back for some powder-bags to blow up one of the gates: meanwhile both officers dismounted; and, while Taylor and Thackeray lay down under a tree for a short nap, Hodson took a hog-spear and wandered about on a voyage of discovery.
He happened at length to stray into an enclosed yard, at one end of which was a long, low one-storeyed house: the door was fast bolted. Taking a run and a kick Hodson forced open the central door, but found not what he had expected. Instead of an empty house, he saw dimly in the darkness of the room ten swordsmen in front of him; and he remembered too late that he had left his pistol and sword elsewhere.
In a moment the sepoys stepped forward to attack him!
Hodson seized the situation in a flash, stepped back one pace into the yard, and, as each swordsman carne through the narrow doorway, so low that he had to stoop and could not immediately use his sword, Hodson met him with a spear thrust.
Taylor says that this occurred within a few yards of where he had been lying down: Hodson came back to Taylor and said, "Come and have a look at what I have found in here."
They went together, the troopers following, and Taylor was rather horrified to see ten armed men, dead or dying, stretched about the floor of the room.
"Either their lives or mine, Taylor—theirs for choice."
It was wonderful to see how cool and resourceful the great scout was in sudden danger. Taylor did not know that his own trial was near at hand; for, after going to the gateway to ascertain how best to dispose of the powder-bags, he began to stroll along the foot of the village wall.
There was a low round tower springing out of this wall and covered with creepers: into this Taylor climbed, got through a narrow window and found a staircase which brought him on to the flat, mud roof. There was not a sound to be heard nor a soul moving.
He began to advance slowly and cautiously, as he had so often done at Ludlow Castle, when he suddenly spied a man on a neighbouring roof on the other side of a very narrow street! This man was kneeling, but not saying his prayers: no, for Taylor perceived a long matchlock levelled at him.
Resourceful as Hodson, but not perhaps quite so cool, Taylor gave a wild shout, rushed straight at the sepoy and cleared the narrow passage at a bound (had he not learnt to jump in Switzerland?). The dark man did not wait for more; he thought a white devil was coming, dropped his gun and vanished.
So, Taylor had a story to tell Hodson while the powder-bags were being placed close to the gate: the village was found to be deserted after all. When they came next morning to Puttiali, Taylor, riding along the front, easily ascertained the position of the guns, as each foolishly fired on him when he came opposite; then Taylor sent a plan to General Seaton and suggested where his guns could enfilade the fort. In consequence, the enemy, although some 5000 strong, broke and fled before our infantry could arrive, leaving all their guns and carriage in our hands.
Towards the end of the year Taylor joined the force under the commander-in-chief, and was sent to Cawnpur to prepare an Engineer Park for the siege of Lucknow, and a bridge of casks for the passage of the Gumti River. He was in command of the Bengal Engineers at the capture of Lucknow, and was wounded at the taking of the Begum Koti, or Palace, by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Rifles, led by the chivalrous Adrian Hope.
Taylor never completely recovered from his wound: for the bullet passed through the leg a few inches above the knee.
In a letter to a friend Taylor writes: "We had got into the palace and had made good headway. I had mounted up to the highest pinnacle to see what was ahead of me, and what further could be done. Pandy, in an adjoining house, took advantage of me."
It was on this day, 11th March 1858, that Hodson was mortally wounded. Colonel Chalmers wrote: "Captain Hodson, the best cavalry officer in this, or indeed I think in any other service, is very dangerously wounded.
Major Taylor of, the Engineers is also wounded, and has had to lie up, and is a great loss. As in reality he was the man who planned the taking of Delhi, so here . . . . he has pushed on in the face of opposition . . . . The consequence of his wound was the giving up of a quarter of a mile of street we had got."
But even when our men had got through the breach at the palace and crushed the main opposition, there still remained hundreds of sepoys hiding in the various rooms and cellars. One encounter of Lieutenant MacBean with eleven men won him the Victoria Cross.
Forbes-Mitchell in his Reminiscences gives the story.
Paddy MacBean, as the men called him, met a havildar, a naik, and nine sepoys at one gate of the palace, and killed ten of them one after the other. The havildar was the last to come out, and by this time several of our men had come up to help their comrade.
"Stand back, boys; fair play for the havildar," shouted MacBean: thereat he made a feint to cut, but instead lowered his point and ran his opponent through the chest.
It is said that this strong young man had been an Inverness-shire ploughman before he enlisted, and rose from the ranks to command the regiment, dying a major-general.
Next morning the Begum Palace presented a strange spectacle with its enormous mirrors, lamps and chandeliers, with dead Highlanders and sepoys lying about on the rich carpets: the smell of burnt clothing and hair was horrible, and large parties of camp-followers were brought in to drag out the dead. For on our side we had lost 75 officers and 800 men killed or wounded.
As soon as Taylor was well enough he took his first furlough to Europe after an absence of fifteen years.
Lord Canning wrote to thank him for his great services, and that was his only reward for some time.
In 1861 he returned to India and was offered the post of Chief Engineer of the Central Provinces: but the family instinct was strong in him; he chose rather to return to his old work in the Punjab, the completion of the grand trunk road.
However, he saw some more active service under General Neville Chamberlain; was appointed Chief Engineer in the Punjab, and in 1876 was designated Quarter-Master-General at Simla: but as an affection of the eyes threatened him with loss of sight, Taylor went to Europe and consulted a famous German occulist, Dr. Meurer, who effected a cure.
In 1876 he returned to India and was appointed Secretary to Government in the Public Works Department, but soon resigned, and on coming home succeeded Sir George Chesney as President of the Royal Engineering College at Cooper's Hill; this post he filled for sixteen years. Taylor became at once a favourite with all members of the College staff: he regarded the professors as his colleagues and consulted them without reserve. Being intensely religious, he looked upon moral discipline and example as the highest ideal to aim at, and insisted upon regularity in attendance at the Chapel services. He still kept his interest in yachting and athletic sports, and though old in years acted as though he were young.
The obituary notice in the Cooper's Hill Magazine says: "Sir Alexander was loved and respected by every one with whom he came into contact: he was a firm friend, and always did his best to help those who were in any sort of trouble. He was a strict disciplinarian, but generally had a strong tendency to take a merciful view of a case. But in the event of anything of grave importance taking place, he was the very last person any student of Cooper's Hill cared to meet."
He died on 25th February 1912, at the ripe age of eighty-six.