On the evening of May 12th 1857, General Anson was host to a dinner party of 25. Following dinner, when the ladies had retried, he opened a telegram which had come during the meal. It was from Delhi “We must leave office” he read “all bungalows are on fire being burned down by the sepoys of Meerut. They came in this morning. Mr. C. Todd is dead, we think. Nine Europeans killed. We are off - goodbye”. As the telegraph system was new to India and the line from Delhi went no further than Ambala, 66 miles from Simla the message had taken some time to reach him. Troops had to be rounded up from the various hill resorts before Anson could move. On May 15th Anson with a force of some 6,000 men left for Ambala to organise the recapture of Delhi. The task was formidable, Anson had the troops but little ammunition and no transport.
Due to economies, the army had lost its transport department and now depended on civilian contractors. Since no campaigns were ever fought in the hot weather much of the transport had been dispersed and most of the ammunition stored in the great magazine at Delhi. While at Ambala, Anson received many messages from the governor-general and also from John Lawrence in the Punjab urging swift action. Such advice was not a great deal of use to Anson, but he did move with only 20 rounds of ammunition per man and none for his artillery. Without medical supplies or bullocks to pull the guns.
The whole of the little force reached Karnel, 8 miles from Delhi on May 30th. Three days earlier, Anson had died of cholera after handing over command to Sir Henry Barnard. With support from a force out of Meerut under Archdale Wilson, they met mutineers some 6 miles from Delhi at Badli-ke-Serai, on June 8th. The British put the mutineers to flight and Barnard and his troops moved on to Delhi. The British occupied the old military cantonments outside the city, on what was known as the Ridge. It was soon obvious that the were not strong enough to take Delhi. The force on the Ridge numbered about 5,000 men while the mutineers had over 30,000, a figure increasing by the day as more reinforcements came in.
The British lacked not only men and guns but also leadership. Heat stroke and cholera took a heavy toll. General Barnard himself succumbed early in July. The British had to have reinforcements and heavy artillery with which to breach the walls of Delhi. Reinforcements could only come from the Punjab. Fortunately there was John Lawrence who set in motion preparations for a massive ‘siege-train’: great guns drawn by 16 elephants and accompanied by over 500 wagons bursting with ammunition.
Unfortunately, British soldiers found, and broke open the cellars of merchants dealing in European liquors, “most of the British force spent days in an orgy”. When General Wilson finally ordered the remaining liquor stores to be destroyed there was still much to do in clearing the city of rebels which was completed by September 20th. The inhabitants were driven out into the countryside while the city was given over to plunder.
Meanwhile elsewhere the mutiny had spread soon after the original fall of Delhi to the mutineers, the British communities in two other cities Lucknow and Cawnpore, some 250 miles south east of Delhi, in the former kingdom of Oudh, were threatened with extinction.
Forty-two miles from Lucknow, at Cawnpore another garrison was already fighting for its life. Cawnpore was the headquarters of the command which covered Oudh, in charge was Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, a man in his early 70’s, and totally unprepared for what he was now to face. Cawnpore was a large station with many European and Eurasian families. To protect them Wheeler had only 60 European artillery men on who he could rely, the rest of his troops were Indian.
In the town of Bithur near Cawnpore, lived a man known as Nana Sahib who was the adopted son of a prince. The prince had been, after the annexation of Ouhd, settled in luxurious exile and in receipt of a lavish pension, but when he died in 1851 the British refused to continue paying the pension to the son. The Nana living in indolence and luxury in his palace was even able to finance his own troops. No one seemed to suspect that he might harbour a deep grudge against the British and he remained on the best of terms with General Wheeler and his Indian wife. Wheeler trusted the Nana implicitly. After deciding on the barracks as his own defensive position, the general invited the Nana to take over the magazine and the treasury with his household troops.
The Nana occupied these two points and waited,. On the night of June 4th the sepoys mutinied, burning their barracks before looting the treasury. Some however did not do so and joined Wheeler inside the entrenchment.
On June 6th, Wheeler received a letter from the Nana Sahib, saying that he intended to attack the entrenchment. Within a few hours, the area was surrounded by the rebels and the guns from the magazine, which Wheeler had handed over to his friend were dropping round shot on the barracks. Behind the feeble ramparts were 240 men and 375 women and children. The sun was at its hottest, gun barrels burned the hand that held them and there was little or no protection. The death toll among the defenders grew steadily and on June 23rd a great assault was beaten off. Food and water were scarce and the route to the well was open to heavy fire from the mutineers
By June 25th, the ammunition was almost gone and starvation confronted the garrison. The Nana offered terms of surrender. A written treaty was drafted and accepted by which the British were to surrender their guns and treasure and then march out of the entrenchment with with their hand arms and 60 rounds of ammunition each. The Nana was to provide boats to transport the women, children and the sick. On June 27th what remained of the garrison marched out towards the landing-stage. By 9a.m. All were embarked in large clumsy vessels. Suddenly, and without warning a shot was heard. Fearful of treachery, and with nerves shattered by three weeks of siege, the British immediately opened fire.
The British, enraged by the murder of the women and children in Cawnpore responded with a reign of terror. Volunteer hanging parties went out into the districts and amateur executioners were not wanting. The victims of this wild justice being strung up as though for a pass time in the form of a figure of eight. Hanging however, was felt to be too good for mutineers. When the facilities were available, it was usual to ‘blow them from the guns’. It was claimed that this method contained two valuable elements of capital punishment; “it was painless to the criminal and terrible to the beholder”. The ritual was certainly hideous.
With great ceremony the victim was escorted to the parade-ground while the band played a lively air, the victims back was ranged against the muzzle of one of the big guns and he was strapped into position . Then the band would fall silent and with a flash and a roar, an obscene shower of blood and entrails would cover both the gunners and the observers.
As Neill was engaged in personal vengeance at Cawnpore, Havelock set out for Lucknow. He was however opposed, not only by large bodies of mutineers but also by heat stroke and disease. Although victorious in a number of engagements, his troops were too weak to follow-up their successes and twice he was forced to fall back on Cawnpore. Inside the Residency at Lucknow, the garrison, 1800 British men women and children together with 1200 native soldiers had been holding out against 20,000 mutineers. The defence of the Residency was a nightmare due to the failure by Sir Henry Lawrence’s to demolish the mosque and houses surrounding it. The defenders were under fire from nearby rooftops. Casualties were high, the deadly sniper was supplanted by heavy artillery. On July 1st a shell burst in the room occupied by Lawrence. He escaped on that occasion and believed it would not happen again. On the following day, as he lay exhausted on his bed, there was a sheet of flame and a loud report. Lawrence survived for two days. The men of the garrison at least had their duties but the women and children were confined to the cellars and food was rationed. The children suffered most, the heat was intense with no-one to pull the punkah fans. The rebels were led by an exceptional woman of some character named Begum Hazrat Mahal. She had borne an illegitimate son to the King of Oudh, who had since died. Following the uprising in Oudh, sepoys approached the king’s concubines to persuade them to put up one of their sons as a king. Hazrat Mahal agreed that her ten year old son Birjis Qadr become the king in waiting. Hazrat Mahal later died, sword in hand fighting the British.
On September 25th after bloody fighting Havelock’s forces battered their way through to the Residency. “The half-famished garrison” wrote Havelock, “contrived to regale me not with beef cutlets but mock turtle soup and champagne”. Unfortunately the force they had brought to Lucknow was not strong enough to break out again
Reinforcements, however, were by now arriving in India in ever increasing numbers. On November 9th, Sir Colin Campbell advanced with 5,000 men on Lucknow. To guide him, General Outram trapped in the Residency sent Henry Kavanagh, who had volunteered to make his way through the rebel lines disguised as an Indian. This seemed foolhardy as he was six feet tall with red hair and blue eyes. He did succeed in reaching Campbell (being later awarded a civilian Victoria Cross - very rare) whose forces slowly cleared the city of rebels as the garrison of the Residency made preparations for evacuation. As the early darkness descended on November 19th the sad remnants of the garrison marched out.
There had been no real danger that British rule in India would be overthrown. The majority of the native soldiers had remained loyal. In fact, without them the British could hardly have suppressed the rebellion. During the attack on Delhi, for example, of 11,200 combatants on the British side, no fewer than 7,000 had been Indian. Large areas of the country remained unruffled by what the Indians called “the devils wind”.
Though the British lost at most, 11,000 men, three-quarters of them killed by disease or heat-stroke, the overall cost was high. There are no reliable figures for sepoy or civilian deaths, but many thousands , both guilty and innocent had perished. The scars of the rebellion were there for all to see. Ruined cities, burned villages, and dead fields ran like a swathe across northern India. The country was burdened by a debt of £30,000,000. In Britain the Mutiny did more than produce a wave of hysteria and a desire for vengeance: it convinced the politicians that the British Crown must assume full responsibility from the East India Company for the Government of India. This was done by Royal Proclamation on November 1st 1858.
There was no possibility of assaulting the city, protected as it was by seven miles of walls, until the ‘siege-train’ arrived. It did so on September 4th and three days later the first breaching battery was laid against the city walls. By the evening of the 14th the British had broken into the city but the victory required bitter fighting and many casualties.
There were two possible strong points, one was the magazine which contained large stocks of weapons and ammunition and stood only a little way from the river which could be used as a getaway in an emergency. The other was two barrack buildings in the open well away from the river had no defences. The latter was chosen and surrounded by an inadequate entrenchment. A competent soldier would have been alert to the disadvantages of the position.
Nana Sahib ordered all remaining prisoners to be killed. Towards evening five British men, fugitives from elsewhere were taken out and shot, then a party of sepoys was detailed to execute the 210 women and children. Unable to bring themselves to commit such cold-blooded murder the sepoys fired high. Butchers were then summoned from the bazaar and together with the Nana’s troops went in to finish the job with knives. It was not efficiently done. A few were still alive in the morning among them children. The victims were dragged out and thrown down a nearby well. Some sepoys stated that children, still alive were killed first, others that they were tossed still alive into the well. It was this atrocity above all which inflamed British feelings when the relief forces under General Havelock arrived to begin the assault two days later. When Havelock’s forces entered the town on December 17th they still hoped to being relief to the women and children imprisoned there instead they found a slaughterhouse. The British left the house untouched and filled in the well only partially so that they could stand as terrible reminders to new troops from England that their duty must be sustained by a desire for revenge. Revenge was not confined to the soldiers. At Cawnpore, Brigidier-General James Neill Issued an order on July 25th that every captured rebel whether proved guilty or not, “will be taken down to the house and made to clean up a small portion of the bloodstains, the task to be made as revolting to his feelings as possible, after which the culprit will be immediately hanged”.
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The Nana’s men replied with grapeshot and ball and the little fleet was soon ablaze. Of those who survived this last battle the men, 60 in number were killed by the Nana’s troops. Women and children were first imprisoned in a house but on July 15th news reached Cawnpore that the British were approaching the city.