In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter VII. Delhi.
Never did a government or a people meet a terrible disaster with a more undaunted front than that displayed by the government and British population of India when the full extent of the peril caused by the rising of the Sepoys was first clearly understood. By the rising of Delhi, and of the whole country down to Allahabad, the northern part of India was entirely cut off from Calcutta, and was left wholly to its own resources. Any help that could be spared from the capital was needed for the menaced garrisons of Allahabad, Benares, and Agra, while it was certain that the important stations of Cawnpore and Lucknow, in the newly-annexed province of Oude, would at best be scarcely able to defend themselves, and would in all probability urgently require assistance. Thus the rebel city of Delhi, the center and focus of the insurrection, was safe from any possibility of a British advance from the south. Nor did it look as if the position of the English was much better in the north. At Sealkote, Lahore, and many other stations, the Sepoys mutinied, and the Sikh regiments were disturbed, and semi-mutinous. It was at this all-important moment that the fidelity of two or three of the great Sikh chieftains saved British India. Foremost of them was the Rajah of Puttiala, who, when the whole Sikh nation was wavering as to the course it should take, rode into the nearest British station with only one retainer, and offered his whole force and his whole treasury to the British government. A half-dozen other prominent princes instantly followed the example; and from that moment Northern India was not only safe, but was able to furnish troops for the siege of Delhi. The Sikh regiments at once returned to their habitual state of cheerful obedience, and served with unflinching loyalty and bravery through the campaign.
Not a moment was lost, as it was all-important to make an appearance before Delhi, and so, by striking at the heart of the insurrection, to show the waverers all over India that we had no idea of giving up the game. The main force was collected at Umballah, under General Anson. Transport was hastily got together, and in the last week of May this force moved forward, while a brigade from Meerut advanced to effect a junction with it. With this latter force were Warrener's irregular horse, which had returned only the evening before the advance from its successful expedition to Nahdoor. On the 30th of May the Meerut force under Brigadier-General Wilson came in contact with the enemy at Ghazee-ud-deen- Nugghur, a village fifteen miles from Delhi, where there was a suspension bridge across the Hindur. This fight, although unimportant in itself, is memorable as being the first occasion upon which the mutineers and the British troops met. Hitherto the Sepoys had had it entirely their own way. Mutiny, havoc, murder, had gone on unchecked; but now the tide was to turn, never to ebb again until the Sepoy mutiny was drowned in a sea of blood. Upon this, their first meeting with the white troops, the Sepoys were confident of success. They were greatly superior in force; they had been carefully drilled in the English system; they were led by their native regimental officers; and they had been for so many years pampered and indulged by government, that they regarded themselves, as being, man for man, fully equal to the British. Thus, then, they began to fight with a confidence of victory which, however great their superiority in numbers, was never again felt by the mutineers throughout the war. Upon many subsequent occasions they fought with extreme bravery, but it was the bravery of despair; whereas the British soldiers were animated with a burning desire for vengeance, and an absolute confidence of victory. Thus the fight at Ghazee-ud-deen-Nugghur is a memorable one in the annals of British India.
The mutineers, seeing the smallness of the British force, at first advanced to the attack; but they were met with such fury by four companies of the Sixtieth Rifles, supported by eight guns of the artillery, by the Carbineers and Warrener's Horse, that, astounded and dismayed, they broke before the impetuous onslaught, abandoned their intrenchments, threw a way their arms, and fled, leaving five guns in the hands of the victors, and in many cases not stopping in their flight until they reached the gates of Delhi. The next day considerable bodies of fresh troops came out to renew the attack; but the reports of the fugitives of the day before, of the fury and desperation with which the British troops were possessed, had already effected such an impression that they did not venture upon close fighting, but after engaging in an artillery duel at long distances, fell back again to Delhi.
On the 7th of June the Meerut force joined that from Umballah, at Alipore, a short march from Delhi; and the next morning the little army, now under the command of Sir H. Barnard--for General Anson, overwhelmed by work and responsibility, had died a few days before advanced upon the capital of India, After four miles march they came at Badulee-Ka-Serai upon the enemy's first line of defense, a strong intrenched position, held by three thousand Sepoys with twelve guns. These pieces of artillery were much heavier than the British field guns, and as they opened a heavy fire, they inflicted considerable damage upon our advancing troops. The British, however, were in no humor for distant fighting; they panted to get at the murderers of women and children--these men who had shot down in cold blood the officers, whose only fault had been their too great kindness to, and confidence in them. Orders were given to the Seventy-fifth to advance at once and take the position; and that regiment, giving a tremendous cheer, rushed forward with such impetuosity through the heavy fire that, as at Ghazee-ud-deen-Nugghur, the Sepoys were seized with a panic, and fled in wild haste from their intrenchments, leaving their cannon behind them.
At the foot of the steep hill on which the signal tower stands, another and stronger line of defense had been prepared; but the mutineers stationed here were infected by the wild panic of the fugitives from the first position, and so, deserting their position, joined in the flight into the city.
The British troops had marched from their encampment at Alipore at one in the morning, and by nine A.M. the last Sepoy disappeared within the walls of the town, and the British flag flew out on the signal tower on the Ridge, almost looking down upon the rebel city, and the troops took up their quarters in the lines formerly occupied by the Thirty-eighth, Fifty- fourth, and Seventy-fourth native regiments. As the English flag blew out to the wind from the signal tower, a thrill of anxiety must have been felt by every one in Delhi, from the emperor down to the lowest street ruffian. So long as it waved there it was a proof that the British Raj was not yet overthrown--that British supremacy, although sorely shaken, still asserted itself--and that the day of reckoning and retribution would, slowly perhaps, but none the less surely, come for the blood-stained city. Not only in Delhi itself, but over the whole of India, the eyes of the population were turned toward that British flag on the Ridge. Native and British alike recognized the fact that English supremacy in India depended upon its maintenance. That England would send out large reinforcements all knew, but they also knew that many an anxious week must elapse before the first soldier from England could arrive within striking distance. If the native leaders at Delhi, with the enormously superior forces at their command, could not drive off their besiegers and pluck down the flag from the Ridge, the time must come when, with the arrival of the reinforcements, the tide would begin to flow against them. So India argued, and waited for the result. The Delhi leaders, as well as the English, felt the importance of the issue, and the one never relaxed their desperate efforts to drive back the besiegers--the other with astonishing tenacity held on against all odds; while scores of native chiefs hesitated on the verge, waiting, until they saw the end of the struggle at Delhi. It was called the siege of Delhi, but it should rather have been called the siege of the Ridge, for it was our force rather than that of the enemy which was besieged. Never before in the history of the world did three thousand men sit down before a great city inhabited by a quarter of a million bitterly hostile inhabitants, and defended moreover by strong walls, a very powerful artillery, and a well-drilled and disciplined force, at first amounting to some ten thousand men, but swelled later on, as the mutineers poured in from all quarters, to three times that force. Never during the long months which the struggle lasted did we attempt to do more than to hold our own. The city was open to the enemy at all sides, save where we held our footing; large forces marched in and out of the town; provisions and stores poured into it; and we can scarcely be said to have fired a shot at it until our batteries opened to effect a breach a few days before the final assault.
The troops with which Sir H. Barnard arrived before Delhi consisted of the Seventy-fifth Regiment, six companies of the Sixtieth Rifles, the First Bengal Fusiliers, six companies of the Second Fusiliers--both composed of white troops--the Sirmoor battalion of Goorkhas, the Sixth Dragoon Guards (the Carbineers), two squadrons of the Ninth Lancers, and a troop or two of newly-raised irregular horse. The artillery consisted of some thirty pieces, mostly light field-guns.
Upon the day following the occupation of the Ridge a welcome accession of strength was received by the arrival of the Guides, a picked corps consisting of three troops of cavalry and six companies of infantry. This little force had marched five hundred and eighty miles in twenty-two days, a rate of twenty-six miles a day, without a break--a feat probably altogether without example, especially when it is considered that it took place in India, and in the hottest time of the year.
The Ridge, which occupies so important a place in the history of the siege of Delhi, is a sharp backed hill, some half a mile long, rising abruptly from the plain. From the top a splendid view of Delhi, and of the country, scattered with mosques and tombs--the remains of older Delhi--can be obtained. The cantonments lay at the back of this hill, a few posts only, such as Hindoo Rao's house, being held in advance. Until the work of building batteries and regularly commencing the siege should begin, it would have been useless putting the troops unnecessarily under the fire of the heavy guns of the city bastions.
When the troops had fairly taken possession of the old native lines on the 8th of June many of them, as soon as dismissed from duty, made their way up to the flagstaff tower, on the highest point of the Ridge, to look down upon Delhi. Among those who did so were Major Warrener and his two sons. Both uttered an exclamation of pleasure as the city came into view:
"What a superb city!"
Delhi is indeed a glorious city as viewed from the Ridge. It is surrounded by a lofty crenelated wall, strengthened with detached martello towers, and with eleven bastions, each mounting nine guns, the work of our own engineers, but in admirable architectural keeping with the towers. Conspicuous, on a high table rock rising almost perpendicularly in the heart of the city, is the Jumma Musjid, the great mosque, a superb pile of building, with its domes and minarets. To the left, as viewed from the Ridge, is the great mass of the king's palace--a fortress in itself--with its lofty walls and towers, and with its own mosques and minarets. These rise thickly, too, in other parts, while near the palace the closely- packed houses cease, and lofty trees rise alone there. The Ridge lies on the north of the city, and opposite to it is the Cashmere gate, through which our storming parties would rush later on; and away, a little to the right, is the Lahore gate, through which the enemy's sorties were principally made. On the left of the Ridge the ground is flat to the river, which sweeps along by the wall of the town and palace. There are two bridges across it, and over them the exulting mutineers were for weeks to pass into the city--not altogether unpunished, for our guns carried that far, and were sometimes able to inflict a heavy loss upon them as they passed, with music playing and flags flying, into the town.
"A glorious city!" Ned Warrener said, as they looked down upon it. "What a ridiculous handful of men we seem by the side of it! It is like Tom Thumb sitting down to besiege the giant's castle. Why, we should be lost if we got inside!"
"Yes, indeed, Ned," said his father; "there will be no possibility of our storming that city until our numbers are greatly increased; for if we scaled the walls by assault, which we could no doubt do, we should have to fight our way through the narrow streets, with barriers and barricades everywhere; and such a force as ours would simply melt away before the fire from the housetops and windows. There is nothing so terrible as street fighting; and drill and discipline are there of comparatively little use. The enemy will naturally fight with the desperation of rats in a hole: and it would be rash in the extreme for us to make the attempt until we are sure of success. A disastrous repulse here would entail the loss of all India. The news is worse and worse every day from all the stations of the northwest; and as the mutineers are sure to make for Delhi, the enemy will receive reinforcements vastly more rapidly than we shall, and it will be all we shall be able to do to hold our own here. We may be months before we take Delhi."
"I hope they won't keep us here all that time," Dick said, "for cavalry can't do much in a siege; besides, the ground is all cut up into gardens and inclosures, and we could not act, even if we had orders to do so."
"We may be very useful in going out to bring convoys in," Major Warrener replied, "and to cut off convoys of the enemy, to scout generally, and to bring in news; still, I agree with you, Dick, that I hope we may be sent off for duty elsewhere. Hullo! what's that?"
As he spoke a sudden fire broke out from the walls and bastions; shot and shell whizzed over their heads, many of them plunging down behind the Ridge, among the troops who were engaged in getting up their tents; while a crackling fire of musketry broke out in the gardens around Hindoo Rao's house, our advanced post on the right front.
"A sortie!" exclaimed the major. "Come along, boys." And those who had gathered around the flagstaff dashed down the hill to join their respective corps. The Sixtieth Rifles, however, of whom two companies held Hindoo Rao's, repulsed the sortie, and all calmed down again; but the enemy's artillery continued to play, and it was evident that the foe had it in his power to cause great annoyance to all our pickets on the Ridge.
Fortunately our position could only be assailed on one side. Our cavalry patrolled the plain as far as the river, and our rear was covered by a canal, possessing but few bridges, and those easily guarded. It was thus from our right and right front alone that serious attacks could be looked for.
The next afternoon a heavy firing broke out near Hindoo Rao's house, and the troops got under arms. The enemy were evidently in force.
An aid-de-camp rode up:
"Major Warrener, you will move up your troop, and fall in with the Guide cavalry."
At a trot Warrener's Horse moved off toward the right. The guns on the walls were now all at work, and our artillery at Hindoo Rao's were answering them, and the shots from a light battery placed by the flagstaff went singing away toward the right.
Warrener's Horse were now at the station assigned to them. The musketry fire in the gardens and broken ground near Hindoo Rao's was very heavy, and a large body of the enemy's cavalry was seen extending into the plain, with the intention of pushing forward on the right of the Ridge.
"You will charge the enemy at once," an aid-de-camp said; and with a cheer the Guides and Warrener's Horse dashed forward.
It was the moment they had longed for; and the fury with which they charged was too much for the enemy, who, although enormously superior in numbers, halted before they reached them, and fled toward the city, with the British mixed with them, in a confused mass of fighting, struggling men. The pursuit lasted almost to the walls of the city. Then the guns on the wall opened a heavy fire, and the cavalry fell back as the balls plunged in among them.
There were but two or three hurt, but among them was Lieutenant Quentin Battye, a most gallant young officer, a mere lad, but a general favorite alike with other officers and the men. Struck by a round shot in the body, his case was hopeless from the first; he kept up his spirits to the last, and said with a smile to an old school-friend who came in to bid him farewell:
"Well, old fellow, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, and you see it's my case."
Such was the spirit which animated every officer and man of the little army before Delhi; and it is no wonder that, day after day, and week after week, they were able to repulse the furious attacks of the ever-increasing enemy.
On the 9th, 10th, and 11th fresh sorties were made. Before daybreak on the 13th a large force of the mutineers came out quietly, and worked their way round to the left, and just as it began to be light, made a furious assault on the company of the Seventy-fifth who were holding the flagstaff battery. Warrener's Horse were encamped on the old parade-ground, immediately behind and below the flagstaff, and the men leaped from their beds on hearing this outburst of firing close to them.
There was a confused shouting, and then the major's voice was heard above the din:
"Breeches and boots, revolvers and swords, nothing else. Quick, lads; fall in on foot. We must save the battery at all hazards."
In a few seconds the men came rushing out, hastily buckling on their belts, with their pouches of revolver ammunition, and fell into rank; and in less than two minutes from the sound of the first shot the whole were dashing up the steep ascent to the battery, where the tremendous musketry fire told them how hardly the Seventy-fifth were pressed.
"Keep line, lads; steady!" shouted the major as they neared the crest. "Now get ready for a charge; go right at them. Don't fire a shot till you are within five paces, then give them three barrels of your revolvers; then at them with the sword; and keep your other shots in case you are pressed. Hurrah!"
With a thundering cheer the gallant little band fell on the mutineers, many of whom had already made their way into the battery, where the handful of white troops were defending themselves with desperation. Struck with terror and surprise at this sudden attack, and by the shower of pistol bullets which swept among them, the enemy wavered and broke at the fierce onslaught, sword in hand, of these new foes; while the Seventy- fifth, raising a shout of joy at the arrival of their friends, took the offensive, swept before them the mutineers who had made their way into the battery, and, joining the irregulars, drove the mutineers, astounded and panic-stricken at the fierceness of the assault, pell-mell before them down the hill.
The reinforcements had arrived but just in time, for Captain Knox, who commanded at this post, and nearly half his force, had fallen before Major Warrener's band had come up to their aid. The next day, and the next, and the next, the sorties from the city were repeated, with ever-increasing force and fury, each fresh body of mutineers who came into the city being required to testify their loyalty to the emperor by heading the attack on his foes. Desperately the little British force had to fight to maintain their position, and their losses were so serious, the number of their enemies so large, so rapidly increasing, that it was clear to all that the most prodigious efforts would be necessary to enable them to hold on until reinforcements arrived, and that all idea of an early capture of the city must be abandoned.
Warrener's Horse, however, had no share in these struggles, for on the day after the fight at the flagstaff a report spread among them that they were again to start upon an expedition. A note had been brought in by a native to the effect that several English ladies and gentlemen were prisoners at the fortress of Bithri, in Oude, some hundred and fifty miles from Delhi. The instructions given to Major Warrener were that he was to obtain their release by fair means, if possible; if not, to carry the place and release them, if it appeared practicable to do so with his small force; that he was then to press on to Cawnpore. Communications had ceased with Sir H. Wheeler, the officer in command there; but it was not known whether he was actually besieged, or whether it was merely a severance of the telegraph wire. If he could join Sir H. Wheeler he was to do so; if not, he was to make his way on, to form part of the force which General Havelock was collecting at Allahabad for an advance to Cawnpore and Lucknow. It would be a long and perilous march, but the troops were admirably mounted; and as they would have the choice of routes open to them, and would travel fast, it was thought that they might hope to get through in safety, and their aid would be valuable either to Sir H. Wheeler or to General Havelock.
It was a lovely moonlight evening when they started. During their stay at Delhi they had, profiting by their previous expedition, got rid of every article of accouterment that could make a noise. Wooden scabbards had taken the place of steel, and these were covered in flannel, to prevent rattle should they strike against a stirrup. The water bottles were similarly cased in flannel, and the rings and chains of the bits in leather. Nothing, save the sound of the horses' hoofs, was to be heard as they marched, and even these were muffled by the deep dust that lay on the road. Each man, moreover, carried four leathern shoes for his horse, with lacings for fastening them. Under the guidance of two natives, the troop made their first six stages without the slightest adventure. The country was flat, and the villages sparsely scattered. The barking of the dogs brought a few villagers to their doors, but in those troubled times the advantages of non-interference were obvious and the peasant population in general asked nothing better than to be let alone.
The troop always marched by night, and rested by day at villages at a short distance from the main road. Upon a long march like that before them, it would have been impossible to maintain secrecy by resting in woods. Food for men and horses was requisite, and this could only be obtained in villages. So far no difficulty had been met with. The head men of the villages willingly provided provender for the horses, while flour, milk, eggs, and fowls were forthcoming in sufficient quantities for the men, everything being strictly paid for.
The last night march was as successful as the preceding, and crossing the river by a bridge at Banat, they halted some five miles from the fortified house, or castle, which was the immediate object of their expedition. They were now in Oude, and had, since crossing the river, avoided the villages as much as possible, for in this province these are little fortresses. Each is strongly walled and guarded, and petty wars and feuds are common occurrences. The people are warlike, and used to arms, and without artillery even a small village could not be carried without considerable loss. The troops therefore had made circuits round the villages, and bivouacked at the end of their march in a wood, having brought with them a supply of food and grain from the village where they had halted on the previous day. They had not slept many hours when one of the vedettes came in to say that there was a sound of beating of drums in a large village not far away, and that bodies of peasantry had arrived from other villages, and that he believed an attack was about to take place.
Major Warrener at once took his measures for defense. The first troop were to defend the front of their position with their carbines against an attack. The second troop were to move round to the extreme end of the tope, were to mount there, and when the enemy began to waver before the musketry fire, were to sweep round and take them in flank. Major Warrener himself took command of the dismounted troop, and posted the men along behind a bank with a hedge, a short distance in front of the trees. Then, each man knowing his place, they fell back out of the scorching sunshine to the shade of the tree's, and waited. In half an hour a loud drumming was heard, and a motley body, two or three thousand strong, of peasants in a confused mass, with a tattered banner or two, made their appearance.
The "Avengers," as Warrener's Horse called themselves, took their places behind the bank, and quietly awaited the attack. The enemy opened a heavy fire, yet at a long distance. "Answer with a shot or two, occasionally," Major Warrener had ordered, "as they will then aim at the bank instead of tiring into the wood. We don't want the horses hurt."
Slowly and steadily the rifled carbines spoke out in answer to the heavy fire opened on the bank, and as almost every man of Warrener's Horse was a sportsman and a good shot, very few shots were thrown away. The enemy beat their drums more and more loudly, and shouted vociferously as they advanced. When they were within three hundred yards Major Warrener gave the word:
"Fire fast, but don't throw away a shot."
Astonished at the accuracy and deadliness of the fire which was poured into them by their still invisible foe, the enemy wavered. Their leaders, shouting loudly, and exposing themselves bravely in front, called them on, as slowly, and with heavy loss, the main body arrived within a hundred yards of the hedge. Those in front were, however, falling so fast that no efforts of their leaders could get them to advance further, and already a retrograde movement had begun, when there was a yell of fear, as the mounted troop, hitherto unnoticed, charged furiously down upon their flank.
"Empty your rifles, and then to horse," shouted Major Warrener; and the men dashed back through the tope to the spot in the rear, where four of their number were mounting guard over the horses.
In three minutes they were back again on the plain, but the fight was over. The enemy in scattered bodies were in full flight, and the cavalry, dashing through them, were cutting them down, or emptying their revolvers among them.
"Make for the village," Major Warrener said. "Gallop!"
At full speed the troop dashed across the plain to the village, whose gate they reached just as a large body of the fugitives were arriving. These gave a yell as this fresh body of horsemen fell upon them; a few tried to enter the gates of the village, but the main body scattered again in flight. The cavalry dashed in through the gates, and sabered some men who were trying to close them. A few shots were fired inside, but resistance was soon over, and the male inhabitants who remained dropped over the wall and sought refuge in flight. A bugle call now summoned the other troop from pursuit, and the women and children being at once, without harm or indignity, turned out of the village, the conquerors took possession.
"This will be our headquarters for a day or two," the major said, as the troop gathered round him; "there is an abundance of food for horse and man, and we could stand a siege if necessary."
Warrener's Horse was the happiest of military bodies. On duty the discipline was severe, and obedience prompt and ready. Off duty, there was, as among the members of a regimental mess, no longer any marked distinction of rank; all were officers and gentlemen, good fellows and good comrades. The best house in the village was set aside for Major Warrener, and the rest of the squadron dispersed in the village, quartering themselves in parties of threes and fours among the cleanest- looking of the huts. Eight men were at once put on sentry on the walls, two on each side. Their horses were first looked to, fed and watered, and soon the village assumed as quiet an aspect as if the sounds of war had never been heard in the land. At dark all was life and animation. A dozen great fires blazed in the little square in the center of the village, and here the men fried their chickens, or, scraping out a quantity of red-hot embers, baked their chupatties, with much laughter and noise.
Then there was comparative quiet, the sentries on the walls were trebled, and outposts placed at a couple of hundred yards beyond the gates. Men lighted their pipes and chatted round the fires, while Major Warrener and a dozen of the oldest and most experienced of his comrades sat together and discussed the best course to be pursued.