Cawnpore and Lucknow
During the siege of Delhi, by his zeal and by the way in which he had never lost an opportunity of serving the cause in which our soldiers were engaged, Roberts had gained much praise from his superior officers. He was "mentioned in dispatches," General Archdale Wilson writing thus: "I beg also to bring very favourably to notice . . . that gallant and active officer Lieutenant Roberts."
Three days after Delhi had fallen, a force, consisting of 750 British and 1900 native troops, with 16 guns, was sent out, their object being to proceed to Cawnpore, and there join the column which was to advance to the relief of Lucknow.
As the little army left the city, Roberts' heart was full of the saddest feelings, for the funeral of John Nicholson—the great Nicholson Sahib, "the Christian hero, the happy warrior upon whom had come nothing which he did not foresee"—was taking place.
The column had only gone four days on their journey when they met and had a sharp brush with the enemy. In a wild charge for the guns Lieutenant Roberts was the first to reach the enemy's battery. The enemy were driven. back into the town of Bulandshahr, where some fierce hand-to-hand fighting went on in the narrow streets.
Roberts was riding a somewhat restive horse, a Waziri which had been the favourite of Nicholson. Just in the thickest of the fight a Sepoy took careful aim at our hero. In vain Roberts tried to get at him and cut him down—the throng was too great: the native pulled the trigger and fired point blank. Fortunately, at that instant the charger reared, and received in its own head the bullet which had been meant for its rider. It is pleasant to learn that the faithful Waziri recovered, and bore his master for many a day after.
During the column's advance, the fighting was frequent and continuous. The men were worn thin and lean as greyhounds, so tanned and bronzed by the sun that they looked like natives. They were a terrible, hard-hitting, seasoned force for the enemy to meet, however, and the fame of their doings already inspired terror in the Sepoys' hearts.
At Agra Roberts again had a narrow escape for his life. He was engaged in a single-handed combat with a native. The latter waved his turban in front of the Englishman's charger, and while the startled horse reared back, slashed at its rider. Roberts drew his pistol, but the trigger jammed. His horse refused to come to close quarters, and he could not get near enough the Sepoy to use his own sword. His position was one of extreme danger. At this moment, however, a Lancer galloped up and ran the native through the body.
After leaving Agra, the column were eleven days on the march before they reached Cawnpore. This town, the birthplace of Roberts, was the scene of one of the blackest deeds of the Mutiny. General Wheeler, who was in command there when the wave of mutiny swept over the place, refused to believe in the treachery of his own native troops, with whom he had served for fifty years. His Baba-log (baby-folk) he called them, and he trusted them but too well.
This is not the place to tell the tragedy of Cawnpore, and of the Nana Sahib's treachery. The British force trusted to the Nana's word; they were to leave the city in safety, and be allowed to embark in boats on the river; so he had promised. Scarcely had they pushed off, however, when a murderous fire was directed on them, the boats were set on fire, and many defenceless women and children taken captive. These were confined in one small house to the number of about two hundred. Painfully the days dragged on; at last the guns of Havelock's relieving force were heard. Their troubles, they fondly trusted, were now at an end; but the tiger—the blood-thirsty Nana—was not to be baulked of his prey. Havelock was thrashing his huge Sepoy hosts, and with his handful of men driving them before him. The Nana would at least be avenged on the defenceless women and children he had in his power.
The order to kill went forth. In justice to the Sepoys they remembered that they were soldiers: their work was to wage war: but, treacherous as they had been to the Sahibs, they revolted at the idea of shooting the Mem-sahibs and the Baba-log. They obeyed orders to the extent of marching to the prison-house, but there they refused to act; their shots purposely went up into the roof, and no one was hit.
Wild with the passion of cruelty and rage, the Nana now sent hired butchers from the bazaars to do his bidding. No soldierly instincts stayed the hand of these; the work of blood and death went on unchecked by pity, the house became a shambles, and not one escaped the slaughter.
Small wonder that, when Havelock and his Highlanders marched in, a terrible vengeance was enacted. The Highlanders struck terror in the superstitious native mind, and "flying fast, the Nana's troops told everywhere that the Sahibs had come back in strange guise; some draped like women to remind them what manner of wrong they were sworn to requite."
After leaving Cawnpore, Roberts, who at this period seemed to bear a charmed life, had another narrow shave.
While on ahead of the column, accompanied by another officer, looking for a suitable camping-ground, they suddenly found their return barred by a crowd of armed horsemen, who seemed to have sprung from nowhere. They instantly began firing, and bullets were soon whizzing unpleasantly close to the Englishmen's heads. Their only chance of escape lay in riding hard enough to get round the enemy's flank before the Sepoys could stop them.
To use his own words: "Accordingly, we put spurs to our horses, and galloped as fast as they could carry us to our left; the enemy turned in the same direction, and made for the village we must pass, and which we could see was already occupied. The firing got hotter and more uncomfortable as we neared this village, the walls of which we skirted at our best possible pace. We cleared the village, and hoped we had distanced the rebels, when suddenly we came upon a deep nulla (a river). Mayne got safely to the other side, but my horse stumbled, and rolled over with me into the water at the bottom. In the fall my hand was slightly cut by my sword, which I had drawn, thinking we might have to fight for our lives; the blood flowed freely, and made the reins so slippery when I tried to remount that it was with considerable difficulty that I got into the saddle. The enemy were already at the edge of the nulla and preparing to fire, so there was no time to be lost. I struggled through the water and up the opposite bank, and ducking my head to avoid the shots, now coming thick and fast, galloped straight into some high cultivation in which Mayne had already sought shelter. Finally we succeeded in making our way to the main body of the force, where we found Hope Grant in great anxiety about us, as he had heard the firing and knew we were ahead. The dear old fellow evinced his satisfaction at our safe return by shaking each of us heartily by the hand, repeating over and over again in his quick, quaint way, 'Well, my boys; well, my boys; very glad to have you back! Never thought to see you again.'"
Sir Colin Campbell shortly after this joined the column, which now consisted of about 600 cavalry and 3500 infantry, with 42 guns.
Everything now being ready, the little army set off on its march towards Lucknow. One and all were eager to have a share in the rescue of our suffering countrywomen. Sir Colin had a cheering and inspiriting word to say to each battery and regiment, and the whole force was in grand fighting trim, the Delhi troops, in particular, looking "the picture of workmanlike soldiers."
Roberts was entrusted by Sir Colin, very shortly after this, with the duty of conducting the troops to a large park called the Dilkusha, near Lucknow, where the general intended encamping. He had always a good eye for locality, and he accomplished his work to everybody's satisfaction.
On the 15th November, Roberts had a more than usually hard day of it, and was just looking forward to a long night's sleep, when he was told that the Commander-in-Chief wished to speak to him. On arriving, Sir Colin told him that he thought that there was not enough small-arm ammunition in the camp, and asked Roberts if he could find his way back in the dark to the "Alumbagh," a large bungalow passed on the march, in which the cartridges had been stored. "I am sure I can," came the ready answer.
Accompanied by two other officers, Roberts meant to start with a guide; the latter, however, soon bolted, and the little party had now to trust to our lieutenant entirely for its safety. It was an exciting night. First there was the risk of coming upon the enemy—indeed, several times they were dangerously near the Sepoy piquets; then, again, there was the chance that our men in the "Alumbagh" might mistake them for the foe, and fire upon them. Roberts left his companions and rode on alone. The sentry challenged immediately, but after some parleying he gained the bungalow and explained what he wanted. The lading up was quickly finished, and by dawn the ammunition was, as Sir Colin had ordered, safe in our soldiers' hands at Lucknow. Old Sir Colin, only half-dressed, greeted the escort most heartily, and warmly praised Roberts, who describes his old Chief's welcome and approval as "a very happy moment."
That same day the troops moved forward, and after some days' hard fighting the object of the expedition was achieved, and the women and children, and the brave garrison, were able to march out in safety and join the attacking column.
Before entrance to the city could be made, our guns had to batter a breach in the walls. At last a hole three feet square and three feet from the ground was made. It was a small opening through which to storm a town, but Sir Colin determined on the attack.
The order was given, and then started a wild rush.
"It was a magnificent sight, a sight never to be forgotten," says Roberts, "that glorious struggle to be the first to enter the deadly breach, the prize to the winner of the race being certain death! Highlanders and Sikhs, Punjabi Mahommedans, Dogras and Pathans, all vied with each other in the generous competition. A Highlander was the first to reach the goal, and was shot dead as he jumped into the enclosure; a man of the 4th Punjab Infantry came next, and met the same fate. Then followed Lieutenant Cooper, of the 93rd, and immediately behind him his colonel (Ewart), Captain Lumsden, of the 3oth Bengal Infantry, and a number of Sikhs and Highlanders, as fast as they could scramble through the opening. A drummer-boy of the 93rd must have been one of the first to pass that grim boundary between life and death, for when I got in I found him just inside the breach, lying on his back quite dead— a pretty, innocent-looking, fair-haired lad, not more than fourteen years of age."
Once our troops had poured through the breach, the enemy were completely taken by surprise, and caught in a trap. Two thousand of them had collected in a sort of large courtyard, intending to assault our flanks. Into this courtyard, however, our men dashed. The Sepoys had no outlet but a single gateway and the breach we had made. Escape was not to be thought of; the rebels fought to sell their lives as dearly as they could; no mercy, they knew, awaited the slayers of women and children. Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion, and bayoneted and shot down till not a man remained. The Sahibs had delayed their vengeance, but it was swift and terrible when it did come.
Next day the troops were at it again. The first object to be gained was the mess-house, on which our guns were soon merrily pounding. Sir Colin, who sat on his white horse watching the attack, as soon as the mess-house was captured bade Roberts hoist our flag on the top, to show the beleaguered garrison the success of the arms coming to their aid. Assisted by two other officers, Roberts planted the standard of the loyal 2nd Punjabis on the loftiest turret. Twice was the standard shot away, and twice did the gallant lieutenant, amid a storm of bullets, replace it. Again it fell, the staff this time broken in two. Once more Roberts picked up the colour and managed to prop it up a third time on the turret, where it remained at last, a sight to cheer the loyal garrison and strike terror into the hearts of the rebels.
At last the "Relief" was accomplished and the brave defenders rescued. Unable to take the city with the small force available, rescuers and rescued retired.
Roberts, who seemed to have a genius for finding his way in the dark, was, as night fell, sent with a message to General Hale, to tell him at what time the troops were to withdraw. Having delivered this message in safety, in spite of the dangers around him, Roberts returned to join the main body. To his dismay he found the positions we had gained, deserted. The whole force had moved off and he was alone—the one Englishman in Lucknow! The experience was a trying one, but Roberts was used to danger, and calmly turning his horse's head from the city, he galloped on the line of route his instinct told him our army had followed.
Fortunately for him the enemy had not discovered that the British had stolen away, and after a hard gallop he reached the straggling column in safety.
For days the work had been desperately severe, and arrived at the "Alumbagh"—the villa from which he had got the ammunition—Roberts had the first wash and change of clothes during ten days' fighting.
Despite the never-ending work, the brief snatches of sleep, and the fact that he almost lived on horseback, Roberts described himself as very fit and in splendid training. He was now all eagerness for more fighting, and started in high spirits for the march on Cawnpore, where he was to win what every soldier prizes above any other honour, "The Victoria Cross."