Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

The Relief of Lucknow

A GREAT revolt of the native soldiers in India against their English rulers occurred in 1857, and resulted in a wide-spread mutiny. The British East India Company, which then owned the greater part of India, had trained the Bengal natives to be soldiers, giving them Englishmen as officers. These native, or sepoy troops, as they were called, proved able fighting men, but in time the sepoys so largely outnumbered the English soldiers that they began to resist the orders of their officers. As soon as they found how powerful they were in numbers, they planned to overthrow the foreign rule.

The English had ordered the sepoys to use greased cartridges in their rifles, in spite of the fact that a native of Bengal would lose caste if he were to touch the fat of cows or pigs, and he would have to bite the greased cartridge to use it. Many of the soldiers in the barracks at Meerut, a military station near Delhi, refused to use these cartridges, and as a result were marched to prison. The next day, May 10, 1857, the native cavalry in Meerut armed, galloped to the prison, and released their comrades. Other regiments mutinied against their officers, and soon a large force of sepoys advanced to capture the important city of Delhi. The native soldiers there likewise turned on their English commanders, and Delhi became the centre of a great revolt.

In the meantime a mutiny had also broken out at Lucknow, in northern India, the capital of the province of Oudh. The sepoys deserted the English, and the British officers, together with all the English men, women, and children there, were forced to take refuge in the residency, or fort of Lucknow. Here a small number of fighting men held at bay a very large number of sepoy troops and a great rabble of natives. Food grew scarce, and fever, smallpox, and cholera spread among the little garrison. Week after week went by without succor, and the sepoys had almost undermined the fort, when, on September 25th, nearly three months after the siege had begun, a rescue party headed by General Havelock arrived and fought its way to the stockade. These reinforcements enabled the English to hold out until a much larger army under Sir Colin Campbell defeated the sepoys a month later and raised the siege.

For the period of almost three months before the arrival of Havelock the people in the fort at Lucknow had been the targets of a practically unceasing fire from heavy guns and muskets only fifty yards distant. The siege was one of the bravest and most remarkable in history.

The poem of its relief tells how a woman in the fort caught the first notes of the Scotch bagpipes playing "The Campbells are comin'," that told of Havelock's approach.

As a result of the Mutiny of 1857 the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the English crown.

The Relief of Lucknow

by Robert Trail Spence Lowell

Oh, that last day in Lucknow fort!

We knew that it was the last;

That the enemy's mines crept surely in,

And the end was coming fast.

To yield to that foe meant worse than death;

And the men and we all worked on;

It was one day more of smoke and roar,

And then it would all be done.

There was one of us, a corporal's wife,

A fair, young, gentle thing,

Wasted with fever in the siege,

And her mind was wandering.

She lay on the ground, in her Scottish plaid,

And I took her head on my knee;

"When my father comes hame frae the pleugh," she said,

"Oh! then please wauken me."

She slept like a child on her father's floor,

In the flecking of woodbine shade,

When the house-dog sprawls by the open door,

And the mother's wheel is stayed.

It was smoke and roar and powder-stench,

And hopeless waiting for death;

And the soldier's wife, like a full-tired child,

Seemed scarce to draw her breath.

I sank to sleep; and I had my dream

Of an English village-lane,

And wall and garden; but one wild scream

Brought me back to the roar again.

There Jessie Brown stood listening

Till a sudden gladness broke

All over her face; and she caught my hand

And drew me near and spoke:

"The Hielanders! Oh! dinna ye hear

The slogan far awa?

The McGregor's? Oh! I ken it weel;

It's the grandest o' them a'!

"God bless thae bonny Hielanders!

We're saved! We're saved!" she cried;

And fell on her knees; and thanks to God

Flowed forth like a full flood-tide.

Along the battery line her cry

Had fallen among the men,

And they started back;—they were there to die;

But was life so near them, then?

They listened for life; the rattling fire

Far off, and the far-off roar,

Were all; and the colonel shook his head,

And they turned to their guns once more.

Then Jessie said, "That slogan's done;

But can ye hear them noo,

'The Campbells are comin' '? It's no a dream;

Our succors hae broken through."

We heard the roar and the rattle afar,

But the pipes we could not hear;

So the men plied their work of hopeless war,

And knew that the end was near.

It was not long ere it made its way,

A thrilling, ceaseless sound:

It was no noise from the strife afar,

Or the sappers under ground.

It was the pipes of the Highlanders!

And now they played "Auld Lang Syne."

It came to our men like the voice of God,

And they shouted along the line.

And they wept, and shook one another's hands,

And the women sobbed in a crowd;

And every one knelt down where he stood,

And we all thanked God aloud.

That happy day, when we welcomed them,

Our men put Jessie first;

And the general gave her his hand, and cheers

Like a storm from the soldiers burst.

And the pipers' ribbons and tartan streamed,

Marching round and round our line;

And our joyful cheers were broken with tears,

As the pipes played "Auld Lang Syne."

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