Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Capture of the Fort of Gorindghar


A Traveller who at this day passes Amritsar by train will, if he looks to the south, see hard by the formidable fortress of Gorindghar. Over its battlements now floats the Union Jack, and on its drawbridge may be seen the familiar red coat of the British sentry. Should he ever pass that fort again, he may perhaps regard it with greater interest after reading the stirring tale of how it was captured from the Sikhs by a handful of resolute men of the Guides. To tell this story we must be forgiven for forsaking strict chronology; for the incident here narrated took place while part of the corps was still engaged at the siege of Mooltan.

Against modern artillery the fort of Gorindghar would be of little avail, however gallantly held; but by the standard of 1848 it was a very powerful work. Its armament consisted of no less than eighteen guns, while fifty-two lay stored in reserve, and its garrison consisted of such veteran fighters as a regiment of Sikh infantry. As may readily be understood, without touching on strategical details, it was a matter of considerable importance that this fort, lying as it did on the main line of the British communications between Umballa and Lahore, should not remain in hostile hands. It was therefore resolved to send back from Lahore a force to capture if possible, but at any rate to mask, this formidable work. To accomplish this, a considerable force was despatched from Lahore, and in advance of it was sent a party to reconnoitre and gain intelligence. This party consisted of Subadar (a native commissioned officer commanding a company of infantry.) Rasul Khan, and one hundred and forty of all ranks of the Guides' infantry, with orders to get along as fast as they could. At noon, therefore, on a hot September day the little party set off on their forty mile march along the dusty, treeless road to Amritsar.

Marching all that day, and the greater part of the following night, Rasul Khan arrived in the vicinity of the fort just as day was breaking. His orders were to reconnoitre and find out in what state of preparedness the garrison stood, what was its strength in men and guns, the best means of attack, and the most vulnerable quarter. To gain all this useful information the most obviously complete method was to get inside the fort itself, and this the resourceful subadar determined to do.

It must be remembered that at this time the second Sikh war was in full swing, and that various bands of troops who had espoused the Sikh cause were roaming the country. The British forces, on the other hand, consisted chiefly of drilled and organised regiments, armed, equipped, and clothed on a regular basis, and recognisable as such. The Guides, however, newly raised, and living a rough and ready adventurous life in their ragged and war-worn khaki, bore little resemblance to these, and might to a casual observer come from anywhere, and belong to either side.

Rasul Khan was quick to perceive this point in his favour, and take full advantage of it; for during the long and weary night march, he had thought out his plan. Taking three of his own men, stripping off what uniform they had, and concealing their arms, he had them securely bound and placed under a heavy guard of their own comrades. As soon as it was broad daylight, closely guarding his prisoners, Rasul Khan marched boldly up to the main gate of the fort, and was hailed by the Sikh sentry: "Halt there! who are you and what is your business?"

"After an exceedingly arduous pursuit, as you may judge from our dusty and exhausted condition," replied Rasul Khan, "we have managed to capture three most important prisoners, on whose heads a high price has been placed by the Sikh Durbar. They are the most desperate ruffians, full of the wiles of Satan, and we greatly fear lest they should escape us. I and my troops are weary, and to guard them in the open requires so many men. Of your kindness ask your Commandant if, in the Maharaja's name, I may place them in your guard-room cells until we march on again."

The Sikh sentry called the havildar (a native non-commissioned officer of infantry, corresponding to a sergeant) of the guard, who in turn called the Commandant, and after much palavering and cross questioning, the drawbridge was let down and the party admitted. The remainder of the Guides bivouacked here and there under the shade of the fort walls, cooked their food, and lay about at seeming rest, but all the while as alert and wide-awake as their extremely hazardous position required.

The guard-room cells were pointed out to Rasul Khan, the prisoners thrust into them, and the escort quietly but firmly invited to rejoin their comrades outside the walls; for in time of war, as the Commandant explained, it behoves every man, especially when the safety of a great fort is concerned, to walk warily, and treat the stranger with circumspection. So far, beyond seeing the main entrance and the guard-room cells, Rasul Khan had not done much towards securing that full information about the fort, its garrison, and its defences, which it was of such vital importance to gain. He had, however, secured a footing, and, while with apparent readiness he prepared to rejoin his men outside, he politely insisted that he must leave his own sentry to guard the prisoners; "for," as he jocularly remarked to the Commandant, "if I don't, you will be saying that you captured these villains, and, sending them off to Lahore, will secure the reward my men have earned!" The Commandant laughed heartily at this blunt pleasantry, and partly out of good nature, and partly to avoid all blame should the prisoners escape, agreed to the proposal of the diplomatic subadar. During the course of the day the utmost cordiality was maintained, the Sikhs coming out and freely fraternising with the Guides, who, in their casual wanderings round, had at any rate got hold of a fairly shrewd notion of what the outside of the fort was like. But this was not enough for Rasul Khan, and he laid his further plans accordingly.

The cordial interchange of rough soldierly amenities had borne its fruit, and the suspicions of the Sikhs were completely lulled. To an alert and resourceful soldier like Rasul Khan, a man whom nothing in warlike strategy escaped, it occurred amongst other things that only a single sentry with his reliefs, under a non-commissioned officer, guarded the main entrance. As night fell, with engaging candour he pointed out the weakness of this arrangement to the Commandant, and, to avoid imposing additional guard duties on the Sikh garrison, offered, now that his men were well rested, to place a double sentry on the cells of the prisoners. Further, he made the obvious suggestion that it would be unsound, when once the drawbridge was up, to let it down each time that a relief of sentries was required, and that therefore it would probably be more convenient for all parties, as well as safer, if the reliefs for the double sentry also slept in the fort. With a whole regiment in garrison there seemed to be no particular objection to this proposal, and it was therefore accepted. Rasul Khan thus had at the main gate six men and a non-commissioned officer, not to mention three soldiers disguised as prisoners, as against three Sikhs and a non-commissioned officer. Be assured that he chose the bravest of the brave for that night's work, for, when the drawbridge was drawn slowly up that evening, it was ten men, and three of them unarmed, against a regiment; and short and terrible would have been the shrift accorded to them had an inkling of suspicion arisen, or had the slightest blunder, or precipitation, exposed the true position.

Meanwhile the force of cavalry and infantry sent by the British Resident was hastening down from Lahore, and Rasul Khan calculated that it would arrive at streak of dawn next morning. He despatched therefore two or three of his men to meet the column, to apprise the commanding officer of the state of affairs, urging him to make all haste and giving him as full information as possible should he on his arrival find that during the night disaster had fallen on the staunch little band of Guides. "On the other hand," the message concluded, "if by the Grace of God my plans prevail, I shall be ready to welcome your Honour at the fort gates at dawn."

To the party inside the fort the subadar's orders were to keep a very desultory watch over the prisoners, thus by example discouraging any undue vigilance on the part of the Sikh sentry; and for the rest to await quietly their opportunity till near dawn of day. This they did, and when the appointed hour had arrived the double sentry of the Guides fell like the upper millstone on that heedless Sikh sentry, and hewed him to the ground; at the same moment the rest of the guard was silently overpowered, gagged, and bound. Then, arming the three prisoners with the captured weapons, the Guides' sentries quickly and quietly lowered the drawbridge and let in the whole company of their comrades. Thus collected inside, with fixed bayonets, the cavalier, which commanded the whole of the interior of the work, was captured; the rest was easy, and the Sikhs, out-manoeuvred and placed at great disadvantage, surrendered at discretion. It is not always that the best laid plans succeed without a hitch, but the fortune of war was on this occasion entirely kind to the British cause, and the bold game played by subadar Rasul Khan and his men reaped a splendid reward; the capture of a formidable fortress, seventy guns, and a regiment of infantry, with little or no loss.

When, as dawn grew stronger, the British commander strained his anxious eyes towards the fort, to his immense relief friendly signals welcomed him, and as the sun rose the gentle breeze flung to the dusty haze the Union Jack, which ever since that day has floated from the ramparts of the fort of Gorindghar at Amritsar.

It may not be without interest, as illustrating the liberality with which soldiers in those days were treated, to mention that, besides the official thanks of the British Government, Rasul Khan received a robe of honour, a gun, a brace of pistols, and five hundred rupees, each havildar and naik fifty rupees, and each sepoy, including the "prisoners," eleven rupees. Nor may it be inappropriate to mention that Rasul Khan was a brother of that same ressaldar Fatteh Khan, who only the month before with a handful of the Guides' cavalry had scattered as chaff before the wind the flower of Diwan Mulraj's horsemen, and chased them into the gates of Mooltan.