Siege of Delhi 1857 Part II

Lieutenant George Alexander Renny VC at the Delhi Magazine, 16th December 1857 by David Rowlands

It may well have been the plight of the cavalry that made Nicholson so determined to achieve his last objective by capturing the Lahore Gate. But to do so he first had to take the Burn Bastion, which lay at the end of a narrow lane, 200 yards long, flanked on one side by the city wall and on the other by flat-roofed houses swarming with rebel snipers. Twice men from the 1st Bengal Fusiliers had tried to advance down the lane and twice they had been driven back with heavy losses, including their commander, Major Jacob, who was mortally wounded. Now Nicholson himself took charge. Calling on the demoralized fusiliers to follow him, he ran forward into the lane. But halfway down he realized that only a handful of men were still with him. He was in the act of calling the rest to come on, his sword above his head, when he was shot below his exposed right armpit by a sepoy firing down from one of the flat roofs. As he fell, a sergeant of the 1st Fusiliers caught him and dragged him into a small recess below the city wall. For some time he refused to be moved, saying he would stay until Delhi had been taken. Eventually he relented and was carried back to the Kabul Gate and placed in a doolie. The bearers were told to take him to the field hospital beyond the Ridge, but they preferred to plunder and left him on the side of the road a short way beyond the Kashmir Gate.

General Wilson had watched the start of the assault from the roof of Ludlow Castle. When it became clear that the first three columns had gained a foothold in the city, he rode with his staff through the Kashmir Gate and set up his advanced headquarters in the ruins of St Thomas’s Church. There he remained for the rest of the day, becoming ‘more anxious and depressed’ as report after discouraging report came in. ‘He heard of Reid’s failure,’ recalled Fred Roberts, ‘and of Reid himself having been severely wounded; then came the disastrous news that Nicholson had fallen, and a report (happily false) that Hope Grant and Tombs were both killed. All this greatly agitated and depressed the General, until at last he began seriously to consider the advisability of leaving the city and falling back on the Ridge. I was ordered to go and find out the truth of these reports, and to ascertain exactly what had happened to No. 4 column and the Cavalry on our right.’

Roberts had just ridden through the Kashmir Gate when he came upon an abandoned doolie. Dismounting to see if he could be of any assistance to the occupant, he discovered to his ‘grief and consternation, that it was John Nicholson, with death written on his face’. Nicholson told him that he was in great pain and wished to be taken to hospital. Roberts, observing no visible sign of injury, expressed the hope that he was not seriously wounded. ‘I am dying,’ replied Nicholson, ‘there is no chance for me.’ Roberts was shocked. He had seen many men die, but to lose Nicholson at that moment was to ‘lose everything’. Only with difficulty did he gather four doolie-bearers from the multitude of camp-followers who were looting property in the vicinity and place them under the orders of a sergeant of the 61st Foot. He never saw Nicholson again.

Continuing his mission, Roberts eventually came across the Cavalry Brigade. Delighted to discover that both Tombs and Hope Grant were still alive, and that there was ‘no need for further anxiety about Reid’s column’, he galloped back to the church to report to Wilson. The news cheered Wilson without entirely dispelling his forebodings — and these increased when word arrived soon after that Campbell’s column had been forced to retire from the Jama Masjid, its furthest point of advance, to the area around the church. This failure, coupled with the ‘hopelessness of Nicholson’s condition, and, above all, the heavy list of casualties which he received later,* appeared to crush all spirit and energy’ out of Wilson. He became more convinced than ever of the need to withdraw from the city and would, in Roberts’s opinion, have ‘carried out this fatal measure’ had it not been for the presence of his chief engineer, Richard Baird-Smith, who had insisted on remaining at headquarters despite suffering from dysentery and a painful leg wound. When asked for his opinion, Baird-Smith’s reply was emphatic: ‘We must hold on.’

* During the first day of the assault, 14 September 1857, the Delhi Field Force’s casualties were sixty-six officers and 1,104 men killed and wounded, or two men in nine.

Chamberlain gave the same response to a letter from Wilson, written at four in the afternoon, stating that ‘if the Hindu Rao’s picquet cannot be moved, I do not think we shall be strong enough to take the city’. It was, said Chamberlain, imperative to hold on to the last, not least because the ground already gained would have severely demoralized the enemy. The dying Nicholson was just as determined. When told of Wilson’s suggestion to retire, he rose up in bed and roared: ‘Thank God I have strength yet to shoot him, if necessary.’

Faced with this consensus of opinion, Wilson gave up all idea of retreating. But he could not dispel his fear of failure for some days yet, as his letters to his wife demonstrate. ‘We are now holding what we have taken, but nothing more,’ he wrote on the 15th. ‘Our position is from the Cabul Gate to the College, and I cannot say we have complete possession of that. I am in Skinner’s house . . . The Europeans with the Column with me got hold of lots of beer in the Shops, and made themselves helpless. I have not a Queen’s officer under me worth a pin, or who can preserve any sort of discipline except Jones of the 60th Rifles, in fact the men are so badly officered that they will and can do nothing tomorrow . . . All we can now expect to do, is to get on gradually, but this street fighting is frightful work. Pandy is as good a soldier at that as our men.’

The fighting technique employed by Lieutenant Lang and soldiers of the 1st Column in the vicinity of the Kabul Gate was to climb on to the roof of a house and fire down into the next yard while sappers picked a hole through the wall into the adjoining house. They would then storm through the hole, turn out any non-combatants* and secure the house. And so on. But on the 15th they were forced to concede some ground and spent the day erecting parapets on the rooftops out of ‘gaily painted doors and sandbags’.

* In his ‘General Order’ of 6 September 1857, Wilson had told his men to give ‘no quarter’ to the mutineers. But for the ‘sake of humanity, and the honour of the country they belong to’, he asked them ‘to spare all women and children that may come in their way’. On the whole this request was adhered to. Able-bodied men, on the other hand, were invariably ‘taken for rebels and shot’. Mainodin Hassan Khan, the rebel kotwal of Delhi, recorded: ‘The green as well as the dry trees were consumed; the guiltless shared the same fate as the guilty. As innocent Christians fell victims on the 11th of May, so the same evil fate befel the Mahommedans on the 20th September, 1857. The gallows slew those who had escaped the sword.’ (Two Native Narratives, 72.)

The following day the 61st Foot took the magazine and Lang was given the task of setting up a battery to play on the Selimgarh Fort and neighbouring Royal Palace. Yet Wilson’s spirits were lower than ever. ‘Our force is too weak for this street fighting, where we have to gain our way inch by inch,’ he informed his wife on the 16th. As Wilson’s letter of the 15th mentioned, part of the problem was drunkenness, particularly among his European and Sikh troops who had got hold of an ‘immense quantity of wines, spirits and beer’ and were ‘incapable of doing their duty’.

On 17 September the 52nd Light Infantry occupied the Bank of Delhi on the Chandni Chauk (‘Silver Bazaar’), the famous main street of jewellers and cloth merchants that ran from the Red Fort to the Lahore Gate. Also that day Hodson’s spies reported that most of the mutineers had already fled the city in the direction of Mathura, and that those remaining were about to follow. This news reinvigorated Wilson, who told his wife that the rebels appeared to be ‘very disheartened’ and that he would not be surprised ‘to find the whole City with exception to the Palace evacuated in two or three days’.

Unknown to Wilson until the following day, the King of Delhi and his family had left the Red Fort during the afternoon of the 18th and taken refuge in Humayun’s tomb,* six miles south of the city. Bakht Khan is said to have begged the King to accompany him and a large force to Lucknow. But the King refused and Bakht Khan departed without him, taking as many men as he could muster. With the rebel garrison greatly reduced, Wilson’s men made significant gains on the 19th, notably the Burn Bastion, which was captured by Lang, Roberts and fewer than fifty men. Even now Wilson’s letters to his wife were only cautiously optimistic. ‘We are . . . progressing favourably through bombarding the City and gradually seizing strong posts,’ he wrote.

* Humayun (1530-56) was the second of the six great Mogul Emperors.

The following day it was all over. First Lang and Roberts repeated their feat of the previous day by taking the Lahore Gate from the rear with a small force; then they advanced up the deserted Chandni Chouk, ‘finding none but dead and wounded Pandies, and wondering at our finding our way all clear before us’. Meanwhile a separate column had occupied the Jama Masjid and Ensign McQueen of the 4th Punjab Infantry had ascertained that the Red Fort was all but denuded of defenders. So Lang and Roberts pushed on to the Lahore Gate of the fort. Powder was brought by another engineer officer, Lieutenant Home, and the outer gate was blown in. ‘As soon as the smoke of the explosion died away,’ recalled Roberts, ‘the 60th [Rifles], supported by the 4th Punjab Infantry, sprang through the gateway; but we did not get far, for there was a second door beyond, chained and barred, which was with difficulty forced open, when the whole party rushed in. The recesses in the long passage which led to the palace buildings were crowded with wounded men, but there was very little opposition, for only a few fanatics still held out.’

According to Lang, the race to ‘sit first in the crystal throne of the Moghuls in the Diwan-i-Khas’ was between an officer named Murray and a private of the 60th. He does not mention the victor, but adds:

British soldiers and Sikhs rummaged all the swell private rooms and marble baths of the Zenana. All the valuables seemed to have been taken away, and what was left the troops seized and tossed about. I took a little book which I say was a present from the Prince of Bokhara to the Delhi family! It was in an elegant private room in the Zenana; there I took too five pachisi* markers of glass which young princesses had been playing with just before their flight: but no real valuable plunder are we allowed to take.

* An Indian game similar to ludo.

Wilson’s ‘General Order’ of 6 September had prohibited ‘indiscriminate plunder’ and instead appointed prize agents to collect and sell ‘all captured property’ with the proceeds divided ‘fairly among all men engaged’. It was widely ignored as both officers and men ‘appropriated to their own use much treasure that ought to have gone towards swelling the general fund’. Nevertheless, goods worth more than £350,000 were handed in. And honesty did not pay because, shortly after the fall of Delhi, Canning countermanded Wilson’s order by forbidding the payment of prize money for goods stolen from British subjects, which the Indians technically were. The official reward for the victors of Delhi was restricted to the standard campaign batta of 36 rupees and 10 annas for privates and 450 rupees for lieutenants. The soldiers were incensed and took care not to surrender plunder during subsequent operations. Eventually the Indian government gave in to public pressure in Britain and agreed to distribute the prize money for Delhi in two instalments: the first in 1862, the second in 1865. The basic share for privates was £17 (almost a year’s pay); ensigns received five shares, captains eleven and a half and Wilson, the Commander-in-Chief, a sixteenth of the total, ‘an immense sum’.

That evening, 20 September, Lang and others celebrated the taking of Delhi by riding their horses up the steps of the Jama Masjid, dancing jigs and drinking toasts of beer and brandy. Sikh soldiers celebrated by lighting fires in the sacred mosque.

The following morning Wilson established his headquarters in the Diwan-i-Khas. One of his first visitors was Hodson, who had discovered that Bahadur Shah and the principal members of his family were sheltering in Humayun’s tomb. Hodson volunteered to arrest them, pointing out that ‘victory would be incomplete if the King and his male relatives were allowed to remain at large’. Wilson replied that the enterprise was too dangerous. Even when Hodson enlisted the support of Neville Chamberlain, Wilson ‘would not consent to any force being sent after them, and it was with considerable reluctance that he agreed to Hodson going on this hazardous duty with some of his men only’. Hodson set off at once with a hundred horsemen and soon reached the tomb, a magnificent structure of red sandstone inlaid with white marble whose grounds were thronged with thousands of armed retainers. Halting at the gateway, he sent in two emissaries to negotiate with Bahadur Shah. In return for surrendering, his life and that of his favourite wife, Begum Zinat Mahal, and her son, Mirza Jawan Bakht, would be guaranteed. After two hours of tense negotiations, Bahadur Shah and the Begum appeared in a gharry and Hodson escorted them back to Delhi, where they were placed under an armed guard in the Begum’s house in Chandi Chauk.

Bahadur Shah remained in Delhi until his trial in January 1858,* a figure of curiosity for the many Europeans who found it hard to believe that this was the man in whose name the rebellion had begun. Among his visitors was ‘Butcher’ Vibart, who had more reason to resent him than most, but who actually felt more pity than anger. Vibart recorded:

* Bahadur Shah was arraigned before a military commission at Delhi on 27 January 1858 on charges of rebellion, treason and murder. After a trial lasting forty days, he was found guilty on all counts, but no sentence was passed because Hodson had guaranteed his life. Instead the government exiled him, Begum Zinat Mahal and the surviving members of his family to Rangoon. He died there in 1862.

At the door stood a European sentry, but I had no difficulty in gaining admittance, and there I saw, sitting cross-legged on a native bedstead, on which he was rocking himself to and fro, a small and attenuated old man apparently between eighty and ninety years of age, with a long white beard, and almost totally blind. He was repeating to himself, in a low but audible murmur, some verses of the Koran, or it may be of some of his own poetical compositions — for he aspired to be a poet — and he certainly looked an object of pity and compassion . . . and not feeling inclined to disturb them by making any remarks, I merely stood and gazed for a while in silence on this woe-begone picture of fallen greatness, and then left the poor old man still mumbling to himself in the solitude of his dreary apartment.

On 24 September, having convinced Wilson of the need to arrest the King’s sons, Hodson returned to Humayun’s tomb. Lieutenant Macdowell, Hodson’s second-in-command, takes up the story:

We started at eight o’clock, and halted half a mile from the tomb where the Princes were. Close by were about 3,000 of their Mussalmen followers, so it was rather a ticklish bit of work. We sent in to say the Princes must give themselves up unconditionally, or take the consequences. A long half hour elapsed, when a messenger came out to say the Princes wished to know if their lives would be promised them if they came out. ‘Unconditional surrender,’ was the answer. Again we waited. It was a most anxious time . . . We heard the shouts of the fanatics . . . begging the Princes to lead them on against us. And we had only one hundred men and were six miles from Delhi. At length . . . they resolved to give themselves up . . . Soon the Princes [two of the King’s sons, Mirza Mogul and Mirza Kizr Sultan, and his grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr] appeared in a cart. Behind them thronged about 2,000 or 3,000 Mussulmans (I am not exaggerating).

Hodson told ten sowars to hurry the princes into the city while he and the rest of his men kept back the mob. The best way to do this, Hodson reasoned, would be to disarm the crowd. So accompanied by just four men he entered the garden in front of the tomb and ordered the men there to lay down their arms. Macdowell recorded: ‘There was a murmur. He reiterated the command and (God knows why, I never can understand it) they commenced doing so.’

When all the weapons had been thrown into a cart, Hodson and his men set off for Delhi, overtaking the princes and their small escort about a mile from the city walls. ‘I came up just in time,’ wrote Hodson, ‘as a large crowd had collected and were turning on the guard. I rode in among them at a gallop, and in a few words appealed to the crowd, saying that these were the butchers who had murdered and brutally used helpless women and children, and that the Government had now sent their punishment: seizing a carbine from one of my men, I deliberately shot them one after another.’ Hodson’s version of events is open to question. According to Macdowell, there was no overt threat from the crowd when Hodson caught up with the princes and declared: ‘I think we had better shoot them here. We shall never get them in.’ He did not help his cause by stripping the princes of some signet rings, a turquoise armlet and their swords. Forced to relinquish the jewellery, he was determined to hang on to at least one sword. ‘If I ever part with it,’ he wrote, ‘it shall be to . . . our Good Queen . . . Tombs declares I shall get a CB . . . and, between ourselves, I ought to have anything they can give me, for it was a fearful risk.’ Reaction to Hodson’s summary executions was mixed. Most British officers at Delhi thought the princes had got their just deserts. Even Wilson was supportive, telling his wife that two of the princes ‘have been most virulent against us’ and that ‘Hodson, as a Partizan Officer, has not his equal’. But others, further afield, were not convinced the shootings were necessary, and Hodson’s battered reputation suffered still further.

On 23 September, the day after Hodson shot the princes, Nicholson at last succumbed to the wound he had received on the 14th. He had spent most of the intervening period high on morphine, though in his more lucid moments he dictated a number of messages, including one to Sir John Lawrence, begging him to replace Wilson with Chamberlain. Other — more personal — notes were to his mother and Herbert Edwardes. Many officers, including Roberts, tried to visit Nicholson on his deathbed, but were turned away by the faithful Muhammad Hayat Khan, who did not want his master disturbed. Told on the 20th that Delhi had fallen, Nicholson replied that his last wish had ‘been granted’. Two days later he was too weak to say more than a few words to Chamberlain. The following day, at one in the afternoon, he died.

Much of British India was grief-stricken — but no one was hit harder than Herbert Edwardes in Peshawar. ‘I feel as if all happiness has gone out of my public career,’ he telegraphed to Chamberlain. ‘It was a pleasure even to behold him. And then his nature was so fully equal to his frame! So undaunted, so noble, so tender, so good, so stern to evil, so single-minded, so generous, so heroic, yet so modest. I never saw another like him, and never expect to do so. And to have had him for a brother, and now to lose him in the prime of life. It is an inexpressible and irreparable grief.’ Of the old Punjab hands only Sir John Lawrence, with whom he had crossed swords in the past, was less than fulsome in his praise, though even Lawrence was prepared to acknowledge that he had played the major role in the victory at Delhi. As for Wilson, he mourned the passing of that ‘fine fellow Nicholson’ with the words: ‘What an assistance he would have been to me.’

Nicholson’s funeral took place on 24 September in the newly prepared cemetery between the Kashmir Gate and Ludlow Castle. It was a sombre occasion: no ‘Dead March’, no volleys over the grave. Just a large, respectful crowd of Europeans, Gurkhas, Pathans and Afghans, led by the chief mourner, Neville Chamberlain. Only after the grave had been filled in did Nicholson’s frontier horsemen give vent to their grief by throwing themselves on the ground and weeping. Ensign Wilberforce, who was present, recorded:

Probably not one of these men had ever shed a tear; but for them Nicholson was everything. For him they left their frontier homes, for him they had forsaken their beloved hills to come down to the detested plains; they acknowledged none but him, they served none but him. They believed, as others, that the bullet was not cast, the sword not ground, that could hurt him; over and over again in the frontier skirmishes they had seen Nicholson pass unharmed where others must have been killed; and now that the earth was placed on his coffin, they threw their tradition to the wind.

Fred Roberts was among those who missed the funeral. As it took place, he was marching out of Delhi with a mobile column of 2,650 men* and sixteen guns, under Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Greathed of the 8th Foot, sent in pursuit of the ‘flying Rebels’. Roberts later described their route along the Chandni Chauk as a ‘veritable city of the dead’. He added: ‘Dead bodies were strewn about in all directions, in every attitude that the death-struggle had caused them to assume, and in every stage of decomposition . . . Here a dog gnawed at an uncovered limb, there a vulture, disturbed by our approach from its loathsome meal, but too completely gorged to fly, fluttered away to a safer distance . . . Our horses seemed to feel the horror of it as much as we did, for they shook and snorted in evident terror.’

* 750 British and 1,900 Indian troops, including detachments from the 9th Lancers, 8th and 75th Foot, 1st, 2nd and 5th Punjab Cavalry, 2nd and 4th Punjab Infantry, Bengal Sappers and Miners.

General Wilson remained at Delhi until 4 October, when he was relieved by General Penny and given two months’ sick leave with his wife in the hills. For his services at Delhi he was successively awarded a CB, a knighthood, a baronetcy — Sir Archdale Wilson of Delhi — and finally a pension of £1,000 a year. No mention was made in public of his hesitant — almost defeatist — conduct at Delhi until much later. And yet if men of the calibre of Chamberlain, Baird-Smith and, above all, Nicholson, had not stood up to him, he might well have withdrawn his troops from Delhi — an act whose consequences could have been fatal for British India. As it was, the success of the assault was in the balance for at least four days, a fact not lost on Wilson himself. ‘Had the fellows had any pluck,’ wrote Wilson to his brother on 27 September, ‘our small Force must have been annihilated, after getting into the City, which is built of brick houses each a fortification with few exceptions, narrow winding streets, and large masses of shops and buildings. It is only by God’s Providence in putting dismay into the Rebels’ hearts, that we have succeeded . . . I trust my success will have the effect of cutting the neck of the Rebellion, but there is much to be done yet.’

No sooner had news of Delhi’s capture reached Agra than the authorities there* were urging Wilson to move to their assistance ‘with a large moveable Column’. But it was as much as Wilson could do to scrape together the troops that he did. The retaking of Delhi had cost the British 992 killed and 2,845 wounded,† out of an effective force that was never more than 10,000 men. Many hundreds more had died of disease and exposure. Most of the seven European regiments were down to barely two hundred effectives. All were ‘sadly disorganized’, ill-disciplined and, according to Wilson, ‘badly commanded from the loss of most of their old Officers’. Yet Wilson was not disheartened. ‘If Havelock could only relieve Lucknow and move up this way,’ he wrote on 22 September, ‘the whole rebellion could be put down.’

* John Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, had died of a mysterious illness on 9 September. E. A. Reade, the next senior civilian, assumed charge of the Agra administration until Calcutta appointed a military officer, Colonel Hugh Fraser of the Bengal Engineers, as Colvin’s replacement with the inferior rank of chief commissioner. Colonel Cotton continued as military chief.

† The casualties of the three corps that bore the brunt of the fighting at Delhi were as follows: 60th Rifles, 389 out of 640 men; Sirmur Battalion, 319 out of 540; Corps of Guides, 303 out of 550.