Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

Cawnpore, Lucknow, Delhi

In the early summer of 1857 a terrible mutiny broke out among the native troops of the Indian army. There were many causes at work to bring this about. I cannot describe them here; perhaps no one knows all about them. But I will mention one, because it is easily described, and also because it actually produced the first outbreak. Grease had been used in making the cartridges served out to the native troops. The ends of the cartridges used in those days had to be bitten or torn off. But to put a thing on which there was fat into the mouth, or even to touch it, was shocking to many of the Hindoos. And when the report was spread that the British Government had ordered this fat to be used for the purpose of making the Hindoos do what their religion forbade, it made the soldiers furious. At Meerut, a town 40 miles N.E. of Delhi, some troopers of a native cavalry regiment were sentenced to imprisonment for refusing to touch the cartridges served out to them. This was on May 10. The next day all the native regiments (which I shall henceforth call Sepoys) mutinied, murdering some of their officers. They broke open the prison and released their comrades, plundered everything they could lay their hands on, and then made their way to Delhi, the ancient capital, as it may be called, of India.

The mutiny which began in this way lasted for nearly two years. I cannot tell the whole story of it, and so have chosen three of the most famous names in it.


Cawnpore was an important place on the road from Calcutta to Delhi. At this time it was garrisoned by three Sepoy regiments. There were no European troops. The officer in command was Sir Hugh Wheeler, who had had Sepoys under him all his life, and found it hard to believe that they were not loyal. Still he could not help seeing that all was not right, and he began to take precautions. Unfortunately he did not act at all wisely. He might have made the magazine into a strong fortress. What he did was to fortify in a way some barracks. These were so placed, however, that had the defences been much stronger than they were they could hardly have been held. A supply of provisions was laid in, but this too was very badly done. But this, we shall see, did not matter in the end. On June 4 the Sepoy regiments mutinied. They intended to march away and join their comrades at Delhi, but a native prince, Nana Sahib by name, who believed that the British Government had treated him badly, and was eager for revenge, persuaded them to attack the Europeans at Cawnpore.



The barracks had been hastily surrounded by a mud wall. Behind this there were gathered together about one thousand people. Not quite half were men, the soldiers among them being chiefly the officers of the regiments that had mutinied. For three weeks they held out. They might at any time have cut their way through the enemy, but they could not leave behind them the women and children. At the last nothing was left but to treat with the enemy. Nana Sahib promised to send them safely away. They were to march out of the fort, and to embark in boats which had been provided for them. On their way to the river they were attacked by the treacherous enemy. Some reached the boats, and perished afterwards; others were afterwards murdered. Nearly a quarter of the whole number, happier than their companions, had died of disease, or been killed during the siege.


Here matters were better managed than at Cawnpore, thanks to the wisdom of the officer in command, Sir Henry Lawrence. The building, which had been formerly occupied by the Resident, was strongly fortified, and a good store of provisions was laid in. The place was invested by the mutineers on July 1. The next day Sir Henry Lawrence was mortally wounded by a shell which entered the room where he was sitting. He died on the 4th. On the 30th of the same month General Havelock, who had reached Cawnpore too late to rescue the inmates of the fort, and was on his way to relieve Lucknow, reached a spot about fifty miles from that town. But here he had to halt. His little army was not strong enough to go forward. He had started from Cawnpore with less than 1500 men, of whom not quite 1200 were Europeans. He had had to fight two battles, and had lost between two and three hundred of his few European soldiers. He had to count on losing more before he could reach Lucknow. He could hardly have more than 600 fit for service when he arrived. He had nearly exhausted his ammunition, and he had no means of carrying the sick and wounded. He fell back. A few days afterwards he advanced, and again retired. To have gone on would have been to lose his army, and to take away all hope of the safety of Lucknow. On September 19 he started for the third time. He had now 3179 men, of whom all but 400 were Europeans.

Meanwhile the Lucknow garrison had been holding out bravely. The Residency, which, as I have said, they occupied, was not a fortress. It was not strong, and it was too near the buildings of the city. Four times the enemy assaulted it, and were driven back. The garrison, too, had to fight under the ground as well as above the ground, for the enemy never ceased to make mines, which the garrison had to destroy with counter mines. Sometimes the two would meet, and then there would be a fierce struggle almost in the dark. But so watchful and so skilful were the engineers in the garrison that the enemy never but once succeeded in making a mine that did any serious damage. But there was dreadful loss of life. In eighty-seven days, the time between July 1, when the Residency was first besieged, and September 25, when it was relieved for the first time, there died, killed or mortally wounded, or struck down by disease, 350 Europeans and 133 native soldiers.

On September 23 Havelock, who had now Sir, James Outram with him, came in sight of Lucknow. After two days' fighting, which I cannot attempt to describe, he and his brave men made their way into the Residency. It was not done without heavy loss, for the enemy, who were trained soldiers, trained, too, by British officers, and well knew that they had committed crimes which could not be pardoned, fought fiercely. Altogether 535 British and native soldiers were either killed or wounded in these two days—about one in six, that is, of the whole army which had marched out of Cawnpore. As for the joy of the people in Lucknow, of the men, who had begun to doubt whether they could defend the place much longer, of the women, who had suffered so much themselves, and so much more in seeing their children fade away before their eyes, there is no telling it.

But all was not over yet. To put the matter shortly, another siege began. Outram and Havelock were not strong enough to leave the place, taking with them all the sick and wounded, with the women and children. Of these there were altogether about a thousand. This second siege lasted for seven weeks. On November 16 Sir Colin Campbell, afterwards Lord Clyde, reached Lucknow; the garrison sallied forth at the same time, and attacked the enemy. This time the place was really relieved. Eight days later Havelock died. Sir Colin Campbell and Outram marched away, and for a time Lucknow was left to the enemy.


In the midst of the fighting that took place during the first relief of Lucknow, news was brought that Delhi had been taken. The troops were partially formed into a square and the despatch read to them. They heard it with a loud cheer, and indeed it was very good news indeed. It was the first great thing that had been done towards bringing this dreadful war to an end.

I have said that the Sepoy regiments that mutinied at Meerut fled at once to Delhi. This city had been the seat of a powerful kingdom, and there was still a King of Delhi, though he was a king in name only, the real government of the country being in our hands. But the leaders of the rebellion hoped that the ancient name would be a source of strength to them.

The Sepoys did dreadful deeds in Delhi. I would not describe them if I could. But I can tell you of some brave acts which our countrymen did, faithful to their duty to the last. A telegraph clerk was killed at his desk, having just wired to Sir John Lawrence, who was Governor of the Punjaub: "The Sepoys have come in from Meerut, and are burning everything." Sir John Lawrence received the message in a few hours' time, and at once began preparing to send help. No one did more to save the British power in India, and it was a great thing that he was warned so soon. Then there was a young officer, Willoughby by name, who was in charge of the magazine. He did good service, and in the very bravest way. He had eight Europeans with him. For a time they defended the magazine, hoping that help would come. When Lieutenant Willoughby saw that this would not be, he determined to blow up the magazine and all the stores in it. A train of powder had been laid, and one of the eight—his name was Scully—offered to fire it when Willoughby gave the signal. Scully perished in the explosion, but a thousand mutineers perished with him, and all the ammunition in the magazine was destroyed. Four of the eight made their way out in safety. Willoughby himself was murdered on his way to Meerut.

The first thing that the British Government did was to prepare to take Delhi out of the hands of the mutineers and the king, who indeed was nothing more than a puppet in their hands. All the troops that were available were hastily got together, and on June 8 the siege of Delhi was begun. To take the city seemed almost hopeless. One side of the city was protected by the river. On the others were fortifications not less than seven miles round, very strong, and with more than a hundred guns mounted upon them. The besieging army consisted of but a few thousand men. It could not even attempt to invest the city. All that was possible was to attack that part where there seemed most hope of success. Behind the walls of the city there were many thousands of rebels, trained soldiers all of them. And the besiegers, for the present at least, had no heavy guns with which to make a breach in the walls. For about three months, indeed, there was no siege. A small British army held its own against a far more numerous enemy. There was fighting almost, one might say, without ceasing. In these two months thirty actions took place, one, that is, for every two days. And some of these actions lasted for more than a day. We find an officer writing, after a grand attack by the enemy had been made and beaten off: "Most of us had been fighting for more than thirty hours." On June 23 the enemy made a tremendous attack on our camp. It was the hundredth anniversary of the battle of Plassey, and there was a very common belief that it was to be the last of the British rule. Fired by the hope of bringing this to pass the Sepoys fiercely assailed our camp. They were beaten back with heavy loss, and from that time were far less confident than before.

At last, early in September, the heavy guns, that were wanted to make a breach in the walls, came up. The mutineers had tried to take them as they approached, but were driven off with heavy loss. On the 4th of the month they reached the British camp, each drawn by twenty couple of oxen. The engineers busied themselves in building the batteries, and the guns were mounted as they were finished, and opened fire on the city. On the 11th the guns were all at work, and two days afterwards they had made such breaches in the walls—they were of stone, which does not resist nearly so well as earth—that it seemed as if the assault could be made. But it was necessary first to find out the exact state of the case. Four officers volunteered to examine the breaches. This they did, and narrowly escaped with their lives. The report which they brought back was such that an assault was ordered for the next day at dawn.

The attacking force was in five columns. The first and second of these were to force their way into the city through breaches that had been made in the walls; the third was to enter by the Cashmere Gate; the fourth was to go against the Cabul Gate; the fifth was to follow the first. In all the five columns there were not more than 6000 men, of whom about one-fifth were British soldiers; inside the walls there were not less than 30,000 rebels.

It had been arranged that the assault should be made at dawn, but it was bright daylight before the columns reached the walls. Both the breaches were carried, but not without heavy loss. At the second twenty-nine out of the thirty-nine men who carried the scaling ladders in part of the column were struck down. But fresh men filled their places; the ladders were set against the walls; men mounted, cut down the gunners at their guns, and drove all before them. Perhaps the hardest work of all was done at the Cashmere Gate. A party of Sappers and Miners made their way to the Gate, carrying with them the powder-bags with which it was to be blown up. The drawbridge had been partly destroyed, but they crossed by the beams that were left, and placed the powder against the gate. The wicket was open, and through this the enemy within went on firing at our men. A sergeant was killed while laying the train of powder; the officer who was to light the fuse was mortally wounded just as he was about to do it; he handed the match to a sergeant, and the sergeant was shot down, but not till he had succeeded. A tremendous explosion followed; the Gate was blown in, and the bugle sounded thrice as a signal for the column to enter.

The fourth column only failed in its task. At one time it seemed as if the rebels might make a counter attack in this direction, which would have been dangerous to the whole British army, but a charge of the Cavalry Brigade drove them back.

It must not be supposed that Delhi was taken when the attacking columns made their way into it over the breaches or through the gates. The fight was carried on fiercely and obstinately in the streets. One of the best and bravest of the English Qfficers, Brigadier Nicholson, whom men called "The Lion of the Punjaub," was killed within the city. So were many others. Almost every street was defended by the rebels. It was not till the afternoon of September 20, more than six days after the morning of the first attack, that the Palace, the last stronghold of the rebels in Delhi, was taken.

The British army, which never numbered more than 10,000 men, lost nearly 4000 in killed and wounded during the siege. How many died of disease, sooner or later, it would not be possible to say. But the taking of Delhi was well worth all that it cost.