Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Fighting Round Mooltan and After


These prompt measures, however, served only a local and temporary purpose, effective but little beyond striking distance of the troops stationed at Lahore. The flame of unrest damped down here had burst forth under a different banner at Mooltan, where the Diwan Mulraj farmed the province under treaty with the Sikhs. The Diwan himself was a miserable personality, but carried away by the tide of popular feeling, he became inextricably involved in antagonism to the British cause by the cold-blooded murder of Agnew and Anderson. These two British officers, with the full consent and support of the Sikh Durbar, had been sent to Mooltan on special duty in connection with the voluntary abdication of Mulraj, which had been accepted by his suzeraine. The escort sent with the British officers was a strong one, and, if loyal, perfectly competent to deal with any disorders. It consisted of fourteen hundred Sikhs, a regiment of Gurkhas, seven hundred cavalry, and six guns.

This seemingly formidable and carefully composed body of troops proved, however, to be entirely unreliable. Agnew and Anderson were, within a few hours of their arrival at Mooltan, attacked and severely wounded by fanatics, and no one raised a hand to help them. Lying helpless and sorely wounded in the temporary asylum which their quarters afforded, they heard with dismay that practically the whole of the escort on whom their safety depended had gone over to the faction of Mulraj, a faction which insisted on his remaining in power, and which was strongly antagonistic to the claims of British political influence. Alone amid thousands, it remained only for these brave young officers to offer up their lives on the altar of British dominion.

Thus strongly committed to a line of action which was far from according with his weak and vacillating nature, Mulraj raised the standard of revolt, and sending the fiery cross through the country, called on all to join in expelling the hated foreigner, and common enemy, from the Land of the Five Rivers. The prospects of the cause looked bright indeed. No organised body of British troops lay nearer than Lahore, hundreds of miles distant; the hot season had commenced, when the movement of regular troops encounters almost insuperable difficulties; the whole country was smarting under the sense of recent severe but hardly conclusive defeat; while hundreds of petty chiefs, and thousands of soldiers, were chafing under the thinly disguised veil of foreign sovereignty.

Yet out of the unlooked for West arose a star which in a few brief weeks eclipsed the rising moon of national aspiration, and, shining bright and true, helped to guide the frail bark of British supremacy through victory to the haven of a permanent peace. That star was an unknown British subaltern named Herbert Edwardes. Edwardes was one of the young officers deputed to assist the Sikhs in the work of systemising and purifying their administration, and was at this time engaged in the revenue settlement of the Dera-Ismail-Khan district. One day in June as he sat in court settling disputes, there came to him a runner, covered with dust and sweat, who brought to him a last message from Agnew, as he lay wounded on his bed in Mooltan. The message asked urgently for help, and appealed, as the writer knew, to one who would spare no risk or pains to furnish it. To succour the wounded British officers was a matter which had passed beyond the region of possibility, for the ink had hardly dried on their message before they were murdered; but to re-establish the prestige of the British name, to reassert its dignity and influence, and to bring to punishment the perpetrators of a hideous and treacherous crime,—these tasks Herbert Edwardes at once set before himself.

Alone, save for the presence of one other Englishman, the young British subaltern, with the sage intrepidity of ripest experience, hastily summoned the chiefs of the Derajat and Bannu districts to his aid, and assembled their motley followings under his banner. He sent messengers to the friendly chief of Bhawulpore, and called on him to join in the crusade against Mooltan. Then after much feinting and fencing, and greatly assisted by the stout Van Cortlandt, Edwardes threw his army across the Indus, at this season a roaring torrent three miles wide, and sought out his enemy. Coming up with him he defeated Mulraj and his army of ten thousand men in two pitched battles, and drove him to take refuge behind the walls of Mooltan.

Accompanying Herbert Edwardes was a detachment of the Guides, lent by Lumsden, and before the war bent on learning their way about this portion of the frontier, in accordance with the role assigned their corps. This detachment not only joined with natural zest in the hard fighting that fell to the share of all, but proved of great service to the commander as scouts and intelligence men. So far did intrepidity and love of adventure carry them, that four sowars (native troopers), under Duffadar Khanan Khan, rode through the enemy's outposts, and with admirable coolness picketed their horses, probably without excessive ostentation, amidst the enemy's cavalry. They then separated, and went about to see and remember that which might be useful to their own commander and their own comrades in the war. It is perhaps needless to say that discovery meant instant death, yet, with the happy insolence of the born free-lance, superb indifference carried them through where the slightest slip would have been fatal. Indeed, one of them, by name Mohaindin, with nerves of steel, actually succeeded in being taken on as an orderly by Diwan Mulraj himself, and while acting as such was severely wounded by a round shot from one of our own guns at the battle of Sadusam.

Meanwhile the headquarters of the Guides, under Lumsden, were hastening down from Lahore to give Edwardes that invaluable support which, however meagre in numbers, stout hearts, whose loyalty is above suspicion, afford to a harassed commander. Joyfully were they welcomed, as one sweltering day in June the Guides joined the little force which was besieging an army of equal or perhaps greater strength lying behind the growing ramparts of Mooltan.

Nor were the new arrivals long in showing their mettle. The camp was then pitched on the right of the nullah at Suraj Kund, and in this position was much annoyed by twelve pieces of ordnance, placed in position round the Bibi Pakdaman mosque. These Lumsden offered to capture and silence and, if possible, bring away. The service was carried out with much dash and gallantry, and the guns were captured and rendered useless, though it was found impossible, in face of the heavy odds, to bring them off.

But the siege of Mooltan, in so far as the Guides were concerned, was chiefly memorable for bringing prominently to notice the gallant and romantic figure of Fatteh Khan, Khuttuk. This noble fellow was one of those Bayards of the East who know no fear, and as soldiers are without reproach. Born of a fighting stock and fighting tribe, cradled amidst wars and alarms, he developed the highest qualities of a brave, resolute, and resourceful partisan leader. Always ready, always alert, nothing could upset his equanimity, nothing take him by surprise, while no odds were too great for him to face. With the true instinct of the cavalry leader he struck hard and promptly, and upheld in person the doctrine that boldness, even unto recklessness, should be the watchword of the light cavalryman. Yet this paladin of the fight could barely write his name. It is not every soldier who has the opportunity nowadays, as in the days of champions, to perform a historic deed in the open with both armies as spectators. Yet so it happened to Ressaldar Fatteh Khan one hot day in August, 1848, before the walls of Mooltan.

Lumsden was absent on some duty; indeed, there were only three British officers, and these took turn and turn about in the trenches, when a messenger galloped into the Guides' camp to report that a marauding party of the enemy's cavalry, some twenty strong, had driven off a herd of General Whish's camels which were grazing near his camp. Fatteh Khan, as ressaldar, was the senior officer in camp, and at once gave the order for every man to boot and saddle and get to horse at once. The little party, numbering barely seventy, led by Fatteh Khan, followed the messenger at a gallop for three miles to the scene of the raid. Arrived there they suddenly found themselves confronted, not by a marauding troop of horsemen hastily driving off a herd of camels, but by the whole force of the enemy's cavalry, some twelve hundred strong. These veteran swordsmen and lancers, of whose skill and bravery in battle we had had ample proof during this and previous wars, had been sent out to intercept a convoy of treasure expected in the British camp. Having, however, failed in their mission, they were leisurely returning to Mooltan, when a little cloud appeared on their fighting horizon. Some returning patrol, no doubt, they thought, some frightened stragglers driven in perhaps, some stampeding mules or ponies. But no! the little cloud now discloses a little line of horsemen, tearing along as if the devil drove. The whole mass of cavalry, like startled deer, halted and stared at this reckless onslaught; and while thus standing, transfixed with astonishment, Fatteh Khan and his gallant troop of Guides were on them.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Guides by F. Younghusband


Yelling fiercely, with lance and sword the Guides clove their way through the huddling mass of the enemy. Then clearing, they wheeled about, and with unabated fury fell again upon the benumbed and paralysed foe. Not yet content, the heroic Khuttuk again called on his men for another effort, and, rallying and wheeling about, the weary troopers and still wearier horses once more rode down into the stricken mass. But "God preserve us from these fiends," muttered the demoralised Sikhs, and, assisting their deity to answer the pious prayer, the whole mass broke and fled, pursued up to the very walls of Mooltan by "that thrice accursed son of perdition, Fatteh Khan, Khuttuk," and the remnants of his seventy Guides.

Through the intense heat of the summer of 1848 the little cluster of English officers who stood for British dominion kept heart and energy in the siege of Mooltan. As Edwardes described the position, it was only a terrier watching a tiger; but it was at any rate a good stout-hearted English terrier, and the tiger was afraid to face it. Yet even this stout terrier had to give way a little, when no reinforcements arrived, and when, in September, Sher Sing, with three thousand four hundred cavalry and nine hundred infantry, deserted and went over to the enemy.

The siege, however, was only temporarily raised, and was at once resumed on the arrival of a column of Bombay troops. This reinforcement consisted of two British infantry regiments, five Native infantry regiments, and three regiments of Native cavalry. With his force thus strengthened General Whish immediately resumed the offensive, and not only renewed the siege, but determined to take the place by assault. In the furtherance of this project he first stormed and captured the city, many of the buildings in which completely dominated the fort at short effective ranges. From the coigns of vantage thus gained the British artillery and infantry poured a hail of shot and shell into the doomed defences, while the cavalry hovered outside ready to pounce on those who broke cover. Placed in these desperate straits, and without hope of succour, Diwan Mulraj and the whole of his force surrendered unconditionally on the 22nd of January, 1849, after a siege which had lasted nearly seven months.

This timely success released at a critical moment, for service elsewhere, the British forces engaged in the siege. For meanwhile great events had been happening in the upper Punjab, and great were yet to come. On January 13th had been fought the bloody battle of Chillianwalla, where the casualties on both sides were very severe, and where the gallant 24th Foot had thirteen officers and the sergeant-major laid out dead on their mess-table. Lord Gough required nearly three thousand men to fill the gaps in his ranks before again closing with the redoubtable Sikhs. On every count, therefore, the news of the fall of Mooltan was received with considerable satisfaction, and the troops recently engaged in it with keen alacrity turned their faces northwards to Lord Gough's assistance, in the hope of arriving in time to throw their weight into the balance in the closing scenes of a campaign destined to add a kingdom to the British Empire.

Ahead of the troops from Mooltan went Lumsden and the Guides' cavalry, followed by Hodson with the Guides' infantry. The corps when re-united, before it joined Lord Gough, was deflected for the performance of a detached duty which brought it no little honour. It was reported that considerable numbers of Sikh troops, under Ganda Singh and Ram Singh, having crossed the Chenab, were moving south-east heavily laden with spoil, which having disposed of, they would be free to fall on the British lines of communication.

Starting in hot haste, Lumsden and Hodson took up the trail, and by dogged and relentless pursuit, after three days and nights of incessant marching, came up with their quarry. They found Ganda Singh and his following at Nuroat on the Beas River, while Ram Singh was some miles further on.

The position taken up by Ganda Singh was in a clump of mango trees, surrounded by a square ditch and bank in place of a hedge, as is often the case in the East. This formed a good natural defence, and piling their spoil up amongst the trees, Ganda Singh prepared to fight desperately to hold what they had won with so much toil. The right of the Sikh position rested on a deep and tortuous nullah, or dry watercourse, whose precipitous sides, if properly watched, formed an excellent flank defence; but if unwatched they formed an equally admirable covered approach whereby an opponent might penetrate or turn the position. The manifest precaution of setting a watch was, however, neglected, an error not likely to slip the attention of so skilled a campaigner as Lumsden. Occupying, therefore, the attention of the enemy in front by preparations for the infantry attack under Hodson, Lumsden himself, with the cavalry, slipped into the nullah, and working quietly past the enemy's flank emerged on to his rear at a spot where a friendly clump of sugar-cane afforded further concealment till the appointed moment. A signal was now made for Hodson to attack vigorously in front, which he accordingly did, and after severe fighting drove the enemy into the open. Seizing the auspicious moment, Lumsden issued from his shelter, and falling like a whirlwind on the retiring enemy, literally swept them from the face of the earth; one man only escaped to tell the tale. Amongst the recovered loot were found the silver kettle-drums of the 2nd Irregular Cavalry lost in the recent fighting, and amongst the slain was Ganda Singh. General Wheler coming up on the following day, the combined force crossed the Beas, attacked, and utterly routed Ram Singh, who was occupying a strong position behind that river.

These services performed the Guides turned back, and hastening northwards arrived in the camp of the Grand Army in time to take part in the crowning and decisive victory of Gujrat. The battle, according to history, was chiefly an artillery duel, the preponderance and accuracy of our fire paving the way for a practically unchecked advance of the infantry. The Guides, therefore, did not see much fighting during the battle; but their turn came that night, when, attached to Gilbert's cavalry division, they joined in the strenuous pursuit of the Sikhs,—a pursuit which began on the battle-field and ended at the rocky gates of the Khyber two hundred miles away. The first burst carried the pursuing squadrons past the battle-field of Chillianwalla, across the Jhelum river, capturing on the way all the Sikh guns that had escaped from the battle-field. Snatching a few hours' rest, Gilbert's fine horsemen were again in the saddle, and with relentless fury hunted the demoralised enemy, allowing him not a moment's respite, not an hour to steady his flight or turn to bay. Right through the bright winter days, through a country of rocks and ravines, pressed on the avenging squadrons; till, utterly worn out, starving, with ammunition failing, a dejected and exhausted majority laid down their arms and surrendered unconditionally at Rawul Pindi. But the Affghan Horse in the service of the Sikhs fled still further north, hoping to escape to their own country, and in hot pursuit of these went the Guides, a stern stiff ride of close on a hundred miles; and running them staunchly to the end, they drove the sorry remnants across the Affghan border.

Thus brilliantly concluded the second Sikh War, which, after many anxious moments and much hard fighting, resulted in adding to the Queen's domains a kingdom larger than France or Germany and more populous than Italy or Spain; and herein is recorded the modest share taken by the Guides in these great events.