It was in the early months of 1857 that there were the first ominous signs of unrest in India.
We have already seen how our power in India was founded upon the position held by the traders of the East India Company; we have also read of Dupleix, the French Governor; of Robert Clive, who held Arcot for fifty days against thousands of the enemy; of the battle of Plassey, and the ‘Black Hole’ at Calcutta; we have dealt very briefly with the victories of Wellesley, but between the early part of the nineteenth century and 1857 there had been little actual conflict, while the progress of the British Government had been well sustained.
During these years the native army had been very largely increased in numbers, while the British forces had hardly altered. In Bengal there were twenty Sepoys for every English soldier, and naturally enough the Crimean War had not been a favourable time to increase our garrison. It is difficult to say whether the Russian campaign had any political effect upon the Indians, but it is probable that it gave an impetus to the general unrest. Railways, telegraph wires, with all the other new appliances that were being first introduced at this time, were regarded with the deepest hatred and suspicion.
Finally in the early part of 1857 it was rumoured amongst the Sepoys that a plot had been laid by the Government to crush their religious scruples by stealth. Certain Indians hold the belief that they lose their caste if the fat of a cow or a pig passes their lips. It was necessary, so it was stated, in using the new Government cartridge to bite it with the teeth before ramming it home down the barrel. The grease upon this cartridge was discovered to contain forbidden ingredients.
But it must not be taken for granted that these cartridges were the sole cause of the Indian Mutiny. They were not a cause so much as a fuse to set India ablaze. There was sufficient aggravation to play upon the feelings of thousands of fanatical people. “The real motive of mutiny,” says G. O. Trevelyan, “was the ambition of the soldiery. Spoilt, flattered, and idle, in the indolence of its presumed strength, that pampered army thought nothing too good for itself, and nothing too formidable.”
In utter secrecy, an emblem of unity like a kind of fiery cross passed from one Sepoy regiment to another. Something was happening, and it is foolish to believe that those in authority were altogether in the dark. But the Crimean War was raging, and it was hardly the time to act. Men like Sidney Cotton, Edwardes, Chamberlain, and, soaring above them all, John Nicholson, were not the kind of men to be blind to the state of affairs, or to be taken wholly by surprise. Nicholson, by an investigation of the native letters passing through the post-office, was well aware of the magnitude of the conspiracy. Young Frederick Roberts, who at this time was acting Deputy-Assistant-Quartermaster-General, wrote: “He impressed me more profoundly than any man I had ever seen before, or have ever met since. I have never seen any one like him; he was the beau-ideal of a soldier and a gentleman. Above all others, I had for him the greatest admiration and the most profound respect.”
Nicholson had gone out to India as a boy of sixteen. He was a man of very imposing presence, very reserved, and inspiring amongst the natives the greatest possible admiration and hero-worship. He made few friends, faced conspiracy and disturbances night and day; a man whose self-reliance was only equalled by his courage, and whose name has gone down in India as a kind of super-man, removed above the level of his contemporaries.
It was Meerut, well called ‘the cradle of the Indian Mutiny,’ that set flame to the fire that was to rage across India. The cavalry there refused point-blank to use the cartridges, for which insubordination the colonel placed several under arrest. For a time everything seemed to be quiet enough, and then on the next day (a Sunday) the native regiments decided to rise and put the English to the sword.
The bells were ringing for evening service and the English officers and their wives were making their way to church, when out of the silent night there thundered the alarming rattle of rifle shots and the doleful roll of drums. Dense masses of smoke circled heavenwards from the native quarters.
The Mutiny had taken birth.
Sepoys, turned suddenly into a maddened crowd of fanatics, shot their rifles in all directions. With that confidence in their men which was such a pathetic feature of the Mutiny, the English officers hurried towards their regiments, and fell riddled with bullets. The cry, ‘To Delhi! To Delhi!’ arose, and to the ancient city of kings the rebels set out. Delhi was the Mecca of revolt, from whence the trouble was to spread like the wings of the morning. It was already a rendezvous for the rebels from all parts of the country.
Meerut was not only the cradle of the Mutiny; it was also in a manner the death-warrant of the deserted English people in Delhi. There was a comparatively strong force of British troops in Meerut, but for one reason or another—principally, one gathers, because their commanding officer was so very aged—they did not attempt the succour of the English in Delhi. Had they done so they would have taken the Sepoys in their hour of mutiny and probably scattered them. It would have been no formidable task. All along the roads to Delhi were streaming rebel cavalry and infantry, riding at their ease, and the English troops could have had everything their own way. As it was, they made no move, and soon news came to Meerut of the terrible massacre at Delhi. Every European—man, woman, and child—on whom the rebels could lay their hands had been murdered. Well said was it, ‘The sorrow was in Delhi, the shame in Meerut.’
When the outbreak of the rebellion and the news of the Delhi massacre were reported to General Anson, Commander-in-Chief in India, he said that at any cost Delhi must be regained. It was the only way of preserving the prestige of the English race. Without delay, General Barnard was placed in command of the force, and on June 7th united his troops with those at Meerut. In due course he advanced against Delhi, taking up a position upon a commanding plateau, which stood like a revolver pointing at the heart of the city.
It was Delhi that was the heart of the Mutiny, and coupled with the name of Delhi is that of John Lawrence, the brother of the defender of Lucknow. Truly has Dr. Fitchett said, “At Cawnpore and Lucknow the British fought for existence. At Delhi they fought for empire.”
To besiege Delhi, no matter with how small a force, was to maintain British supremacy from the very start. The man who had made that possible was John Lawrence. He it was who founded the Punjaub Frontier Force, who inspired Nicholson, Edwardes, and Chamberlain, who, in a word, prepared for the trouble while it was barely a cloud upon the horizon. He it was who brought 50,000 Sikhs into the war, and “through him,” wrote Canning, “Delhi fell.”
It is not within our subject to deal with the siege and storming of the city. The few details that follow must only be regarded as rough indications of the conflict. As the heart of the Mutiny it would require a greater canvas than it is possible to give here.
The Ridge commanding Delhi formed not only a point of vantage but also a rampart of defence, standing some 60 feet over the city. Even then the situation was critical. The British forces were plagued with cholera, and possessed guns which could not be relied upon to fire with accuracy. It was a struggle between a mere handful of men on an open plateau and a fierce and relentless army secured behind fortifications.
For nearly six weeks the Delhi Field Force held its own on the Ridge, suffering attacks almost daily, and carrying out sorties that were sometimes successful, but were always accompanied by great loss of life, and holding on like grim death till the city should fall into their hands.
On August 7 John Nicholson arrived, bringing with him some artillery and cavalry, and also the wonderful corps of Guides. News from the rest of India was in no way cheering. During the siege of Delhi, Sir Henry Lawrence had fallen, Lucknow was not relieved, and Havelock was as yet far away. Perceiving the gravity of the position, Nicholson decided that the Sepoys must receive a blow from which they could not recover. “Delhi,” he said, “must be taken, and at once.”
The news of the massacre at Cawnpore, with all its tale of horror, had already reached the troops, and they set out with renewed determination, led by John Nicholson, “a tower of strength, a guiding star,” who, at the head of the troops, was the first to set foot upon the broken rampart. The advance of the British was irresistible, but it brought with it an irreparable loss. “It was almost more than I could bear,” says Roberts; “other men had daily died around me, other comrades had been killed beside me, but I never felt as I felt then. To lose Nicholson seemed to me at that moment to lose everything.”
It was at sunrise on the morning of the 21st of September, after days of hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of Delhi, that the British at last gained the ascendancy, but with the accomplishment of their long endeavour had come the death of Nicholson.
The news of this victory—and it was a great victory at such a time—passed through the whole of India and thence to England. After weeks of fighting not only Sepoys, but also the ravages of cholera, 10,000 troops had attacked and carried a city defended at every point, losing 3000, and with them one of the greatest men that have ever defended the British flag.
The conquest of Delhi was the conquest of revolt, and a handful of British soldiers had made possible the re-establishment of the British flag.
They carried Delhi city—
Men whose triumphant arms
Filled all the land with wonder,
And stirred with strange alarms
The Pathan in his fastness,
Or where by Jumna’s tide
The bold front of rebellion
Had flourished in its pride.
Whilst this long siege was in operation much had happened elsewhere. At Lucknow Sir Henry Lawrence had delayed an outbreak for a considerable time. His influence over the Sepoys was very great, and it was only because of the success of the rebels elsewhere that they eventually decided to fling in their lot with the rising.
Lawrence had been left very much to himself during the earlier stages of the Mutiny. Hearing of the outbreak at Meerut and the fall of Delhi, he knew that in his isolated position he must act on his own initiative, and accordingly decided that he would concentrate the little force of British troops—together with their wives and families—in the Residency, the most hopeful place, in his opinion, for a small force to defend. Here he stored grain and built ramparts and trenches, and when by the end of May the Sepoys were in revolt, he was prepared to fight to the last.
At Cawnpore, where Nana Sahib, an Indian inspired by the deepest hatred of the English, was in command of the rebels, things were no more promising. Early in June the first signs of insurrection were visible, and the British, under Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, fortified themselves as best they could in a hospital barracks, where they were speedily besieged. It was a most ill-chosen place to make a stand. Their sufferings were terrible, but for all that they held out for eighteen days, after which, influenced by the frail hope that the women and children would be spared, General Wheeler came to terms with Nana Sahib. No word had reached them that they would be relieved or that Havelock was already on the road to Cawnpore. Trusting to the word of Nana Sahib, the garrison marched out—300 women and children, 150 soldiers, and the same number of civilians. For the terrible details of what followed one can best refer to Trevelyan’s Cawnpore.
“All the world knows of the cruelty that awaited them,” he writes. “They were permitted to embark in boats, and no sooner had they done so than the Sepoys opened fire. Those who were not slaughtered were conveyed ashore again and imprisoned. The white-haired General, the English officers and the civilians were speedily shot. But there still remained 122 women and children, who were placed in the Assembly Rooms, and here, and into this room—while Havelock was almost at hand—there were sent seven men to massacre the women and children and fling their bodies into a well. This hideous duty was not performed by the Sepoy soldiers, but by certain hirelings who were heavily paid by Nana Sahib.”
It was at this stage, when Lucknow was the next point of attack and Cawnpore had already fallen, that Havelock set out from Calcutta, where he had been preceded by the 78th Seaforth Highlanders.
The Persian campaign of 1856-57 was of little importance, but it is interesting as the scene of some activities—one cannot rate the foe more generously—on the part of the 78th Highlanders under Havelock and Outram, both fated to bear a great share in repressing the Mutiny. At Kooshab the “Ross-shire Buffs,” as the regiment was called, distinguished themselves by routing the Persian force most ignominiously. In consequence of this action Havelock was greatly impressed with their courage and stamina. “There is a fine spirit in the ranks of this regiment,” he wrote. “… I am convinced the regiment would be second to none in the service if its high military qualities were drawn forth. It is proud of its colours, its tartan, and its former achievements.”
It was with this veteran battalion that Havelock set out for Cawnpore.
Havelock was instructed that he should first quieten all disturbances at Allahabad, and then not lose a moment in relieving Sir Henry Lawrence and General Wheeler. His force was a comparatively insignificant one, lacking cavalry altogether, its guns drawn by cattle, and numbering only 1400 British soldiers. He was marching through a hostile country, and certain to encounter hundreds of thousands of well-armed Sepoys. Soon enough news came of the massacre of Cawnpore, but trusting that some at least of the garrison were still holding out, he struggled onward.
To return to Lucknow. The whole ambition of the rebels was now bent upon its destruction. Sir Henry Lawrence, driven to despair by the thought of what might happen to his helpless women, had made one sortie, which, unfortunately, had been heavily repulsed. He had been overpowered by numbers, and compelled to fight his way back into the Residency. So far everything was favouring the Sepoys.
The long and arduous siege began, and had it not been for his presence, it is doubtful whether the little force could have cherished the courage to hold out. To the last he urged them most earnestly never to surrender.
Early in July Lawrence was fatally wounded, and three days later died, leaving the heartbroken garrison to carry on the defence. Upon his tomb were written these simple and moving words: “Here lies Henry Lawrence, who tried to do his duty.”
On the 12th of July Havelock encountered the rebels. It was the first time that the Sepoys had come in contact with an efficient British force, but when they saw the Highlanders they cried to each other that here were the wives of the men slain in Cawnpore and Delhi. It is recorded that after a brief acquaintance with the Seaforths the Sepoys would willingly have fled from the English “women,” but there was no escape. Havelock ordered his men to charge, and to go on charging, and although the enemy were in a strong position and admirably armed, they were quite unable to resist the artillery and infantry that faced them. For twenty-four hours the British had been marching, and for as long a time they had tasted no food, but on the morning of the 15th they set out again upon their advance on Cawnpore. Again and again they confronted the enemy in ever-increasing numbers as they began to near the city. At last on the night when they came within twenty-three miles of Cawnpore, and fell upon the ground to snatch a little rest, Nana Sahib, hearing of their swift approach, signed the death-warrant of the hapless women and children. The next day—the 18th of July—saw the advance upon the city. “The rays of the sun,” says one writer, “darted down as if they had been concentrated through a lens.” After all their privations and their unconquerable march how tragic was their victory to prove.
In the meantime, the Indian army, composed of 5000 men with 8 guns, had come out to meet Havelock, and it was well for the British that Nana Sahib was anything but a competent general. The Indian leader had settled very definitely in his mind where Havelock was certain to attack him, and he made his plans accordingly. Fortunately Havelock was perfectly aware of this, and the Sepoys learnt his real intentions too late. One thing, however, was necessary, and that was the muzzling of the native guns. For this task the 78th Highlanders were chosen. Under Colonel Hamilton they advanced, and when they reached to some eighty yards of the Indian artillery, they brought their bayonets to the charge and flung themselves straight at the gunners. In a few minutes the artillery was in the hands of the British. The Sepoys retreated behind a howitzer. Again the Highlanders were rallied by Havelock, whose words, “Well done, Highlanders! Another charge like that wins the day,” rang out like a bugle call. Again the Sepoys broke and set out towards Cawnpore, rallying in a village some little way from the city. Instantly Havelock galloped up to the leading regiments and cried, “Who’ll take that village? The Highlanders or the 64th?” The rivalry thus inspired resulted very quickly in the evacuation of the position by the Sepoys, and the whole rebel army fell back towards Cawnpore.
The British were so exhausted by their unceasing march, lack of food, and the terrible sun, that they halted for a breathing-space, and Nana Sahib chose that moment for a final effort, opening fire upon their ranks with a large gun stationed upon the Cawnpore road. The crisis of the battle had come at last. Trevelyan has well pictured what followed. “Then,” he says, “the mutineers realised the change that a few weeks had wrought out in the nature of the task which they had selected and cut out for themselves. Embattled in their national order, and burning with more than their national lust of combat, on they came, the unconquerable British infantry. The grape was flying thick and true. Files rolled over. Men stumbled and recovered themselves, and went on for a while, and then turned and hobbled to the rear. Closer and closer drew the measured tramp of feet; and the heart of the foe died within him, and his fire grew hasty and ill-directed. As the last volley cut the air overhead, our soldiers raised a mighty shout, and rushed forward, each at his own pace, and then every rebel thought only of himself. Those nearest the place were the first to make away, but throughout the host there were none who still aspired to stay within push of the British bayonets. Squadron after squadron, battalion upon battalion, these humbled Brahmins dropped their weapons, stripped off their packs and spurred and ran, limped and scrambled back to the city that was to have been the chief and central abode of Sepoy domination…. At nightfall Dhondoo Punth (Nana Sahib) entered Cawnpore upon a chestnut horse drenched in perspiration, and with bleeding flanks. A fresh access of terror soon dismissed him again on his way to Bithoor, sore and weary, his head swimming and his chest heaving.”
The battle of Cawnpore was won, but the loss had been considerable, and the massacre of the hapless garrison was to take from the victory all its joy. There are few episodes in our history that have been conducted under more trying circumstances. There have been terrible marches undertaken, but few can be compared to the advance on Cawnpore. As Havelock said in issuing a report to the soldiers: “Between the 7th and 16th you have, under the Indian sun of July, marched one hundred and twenty-six miles, and fought four actions, but your comrades at Lucknow are in peril. Agra is besieged, Delhi is still the focus of mutiny and rebellion.”
During the night following the action a thunderous report reached the ears of the British force, to be followed by a dense cloud of smoke. It split the silence of the Indian night and died away. The rebels, before their retreat from the city, had blown up the magazine.
The next day the Highlanders marched into Cawnpore, a deserted city, with all the traces of the horrible thing that had taken place there. “Was it any wonder,” says one of the soldiers, “that when men carried back with them to camp a long heavy tress of golden hair, clean cut through as if by the slash of a sharp sword, and showed this token to comrades, who had been fighting and marching, and striving and straining that this thing might not be, was it any wonder that our soldiers swore to exact a merciless retribution as they stood around the dead, but eloquent witness of this oath.”
The task that lay before Havelock was one that might have made any man give way to despair. Well might he have said, in the heroic words of Scott: “I see before me a long tedious and dark path but it leads to stainless reputation. If I die in harness as is very likely, I shall die with honour. If I achieve my task I shall have the thanks of all concerned and the approval of my conscience.” Death and disease had reduced the numbers of his force to a bare 1500. They were still faced by some fifty miles swarming with the enemy, at the end of which they hoped to rescue the garrison of Lucknow. “The chances of relieving Lucknow,” said Havelock, “are daily multiplying against us; the difficulties of an advance are excessive.”
Lucknow was fated to hear of three advances to its relief. The initial attempt by Havelock failed owing to lack of ammunition. He was compelled to return to Cawnpore and wait patiently until the arrival of Sir James Outram.
On the 4th of August Havelock began his second advance towards Lucknow, his force consisting of Highlanders, Fusiliers, and Sikhs. Facing him stretched thirty miles of the enemy’s country, the city of Lucknow itself defended by a large army, while a force of the enemy was detached to cut his communications with Cawnpore. Cholera again broke out in the ranks, and the whole situation speedily became impossible. Havelock consulted with his officers and they decided that it would be useless to advance. He therefore fell back upon Mungulwar and appealed to Sir Patrick Grant for reinforcements.
Shortly afterwards the Seaforth Highlanders distinguished themselves in an engagement with the enemy, capturing two of their guns. The Sepoys who threatened Cawnpore next received Havelock’s attention, and were defeated, the British falling back again upon the latter.
It was after this second advance of Havelock’s that he was superseded by Sir James Outram. No man could have taken over the command with less satisfaction than Outram, but at the same time no man could have made it as bearable to Havelock. In the meantime news was received from Lucknow that Inglis was determined to cut his way out if the relieving force could not cut their way in. “You must bear in mind,” he wrote, “how I am hampered, that I have between 120 sick and wounded and at least 220 women and about 230 children, and no carriage of any description. In consequence of news received I shall soon put this force on half rations; our provisions will thus last us till the end of September. If you hope to save this force no time must be lost in pushing forward.”
Havelock instantly called for reinforcements. Sir Colin Campbell, who had landed in Calcutta as Commander-in-Chief, made every exertion to forward the despatch of troops. Before the advance Outram wrote to Havelock, “To you shall be left the glory of relieving Lucknow, for which you have already struggled so much. I shall accompany you only in my civil capacity as Commissioner, placing my military services at your disposal if you please, serving under you as a volunteer.”
With this cordiality between the leaders of the Expedition the force set out upon its third, this time the historic, march to save the women and children in Lucknow.
Lucknow is roughly forty-five miles from Cawnpore. The relieving army crossed the Ganges, marched again on Mungulwar, and drove the rebels back to Busseerutgunge. Their advance until September 22—when they were within some sixteen miles of Lucknow—was almost uncontested. The swiftness of their approach took the enemy by surprise. The Sepoys put up a desperate resistance before Lucknow, but by the charge of the Seaforths the bridge was crossed and the city entered. Inside the Residency anxiety grew almost unbearable. They had heard so often rumours and more rumours of relief. Already the garrison knew in their heart that help was coming—eagerly they watched for the first glimpse of a kent face in the dim street below.
Oh, they listened, dumb and breathless,
And they caught the sound at last;
Faint and far beyond the Goomtee
Rose and fell the pipers’ blast!
Then a burst of wild thanksgiving
Mingled woman’s voice and man’s;
God be praised! The March of Havelock!
The piping of the clans!
The rebels had not yet realised how small a force was opposing them, and when they did they rallied again to the attack undismayed. The British pushed on with desperate courage, driving the Sepoys before them, fighting every inch of the way towards the Residency. Night was falling when the last terrible struggle commenced. It was now or never. Already the Residency was almost within hail. The Highlanders, supported by the Sikhs, were in the forefront, and Havelock, placing himself at their head, gave the order to charge. Above the turmoil of the swaying street the thin scream of the pipes pierced the hubbub like the bell of a light-ship over a winter sea. Suddenly the English watchers at the Residency gates beheld the long-looked-for figures of the British soldiery.
Louder, nearer, fierce as vengeance,
Sharp, and shrill as swords at strife,
Came the wild MacGregor’s clan-call
Stinging all the air to life.
But when the far-off dust-cloud
To plaided legions grew,
Full tenderly and blithesomely
The pipes of rescue blew!
It was a supreme, a dramatic moment. The gates were flung open, and “from every pit, trench, and battery—from behind the sand-bags piled on shattered houses—from every post still held by a few gallant spirits, rose cheer on cheer—even from the hospital many of the wounded crawled forth to join in that glad shout of welcome to those who had so bravely come to our assistance. It was a moment never to be forgotten. The delight of the ever-gallant Highlanders, who had fought twelve battles to enjoy that moment of ecstasy, and in the last four days had lost a third of their numbers, seemed to know no bounds.”
It was mainly by the magnificent efforts of the Seaforth Highlanders that a passage was forced through the condensed masses of Sepoys into the heart of Lucknow and into the Residency itself. “Never did the valour of this gallant regiment shine brighter than in this bloody conflict.”
It had been the hope of Sir James Outram that after the relief of Lucknow the garrison would be able to withdraw under safe protection to Cawnpore. Most unhappily, however, it became evident that not only would it be impossible for the troops to force their way out through 50,000 Sepoys, but that, as the provisions and ammunition had been left temporarily in the rear, they were in actual danger of becoming a further drain upon the resources of the Residency. Whatever hope there was that the soldiers could fight their way out, there was little chance that 700 women and children would be able to reach Cawnpore. But what they had brought, however, was perhaps as good as food and arms—the presence of strong hearts and news of Colin Campbell. For six weeks, therefore, Havelock and Outram and the Seaforths were in their turn besieged in Lucknow.
In the meantime, namely the beginning of November, troops had reached India from England, and the officer in command was Sir Colin Campbell, a name associated for all time with the stand of the ‘thin red line’ at Balaclava. He was sixty-five years of age, considerably younger than Field-Marshal Roberts when he was asked by the Government to go to South Africa. But he was only too ready to start to the support of the hapless garrison. Landing at Calcutta on August 13, he reached Cawnpore on November 3, and on the 9th was already on the road to Lucknow.
Under Sir Colin Campbell were some 4700 men, a small force of cavalry, the Naval Brigade, artillery, and amongst the infantry the veteran Sutherland Highlanders. It is related that when Sir Colin passed before the ranks of the ‘thin red line,’ preliminary to the advance on Lucknow, he cried, “93rd! You are my own lads. I rely on you to do the work.” At which a reply came, “Ay, ay, Sir Colin, ye ken us, and we ken you. We’ll bring the women and children out of Lucknow, or die with you in the attempt.”
On November 12 the British had reached the Alumbagh. At this point Colin Campbell decided that he would not force his way through the narrow lanes of the city, but would take what was called the Dilkusha Park—a property some two miles to the east of the Residency. Making that his base, he planned to attack the north of the city, forcing his way by the Secundrabagh.
In the meantime Outram had despatched particulars to Campbell regarding the plans of the city. He also sent a guide named Kavanagh. Kavanagh disguised himself as a Sepoy, and dropping out of the Residency at night, passed safely through the hordes of Sepoys, and crossing the river managed to reach the British. Never did his nerve fail him. By mistake he ran into a battery of the enemy’s guns. The slightest hesitation would have betrayed the fact that, despite his disguise, he was not an Indian. With the utmost coolness he made a great business of inspecting the guns, and thus disarming the suspicion of the Sepoy soldiers, walked on in a leisurely manner, and in due course reached the British lines. In all the history of heroism in the Mutiny it would be difficult to find a more hazardous undertaking than that of Kavanagh. He was afterwards awarded the Victoria Cross.
On the 15th Sir Colin Campbell made a feint of assaulting the extreme left, but during the night he advanced in another quarter, and by the morning was in full march upon the fortified position to his right. The Secundrabagh was a garden of considerable size, with walls 20 feet high, and reached by a narrow lane. By a dexterous movement the British guns were moved up to the top of this lane, and from thence opened fire upon the walls, and for nearly an hour the bombardment went on. At last a breach was made, and the three regiments of the 53rd, the Sutherlands, and the Sikhs darted forward, each determined to be the first among the enemy. Indeed it is doubtful whether any command was given; the soldiers—straining like dogs upon the leash—were only too anxious to take the first excuse for a charge. It is recorded that a drummer-boy of the 93rd was one of the first to leap over the breach, and as Roberts himself has written, “When I got in I found him just inside the breach, lying on his back quite dead. A pretty, innocent-looking, fair-headed lad, not more than fourteen years old.”
Their officers all shot, the Sikhs hesitated. Sir Colin Campbell saved the situation. “Colonel Ewart,” he cried, “bring on the tartan!” and at that, says an eye-witness, “the whole seven companies like one man leaped for the wall with such a yell of pent-up rage as I never heard before or since.” In the face of this Gaelic charge the Sepoys were driven back into the building. The rebels were hounded back from floor to floor, and from building to building. In the records of war there have been few scenes of slaughter so fierce as that which took place at the Secundrabagh. Hardly a Sepoy escaped, and without pausing, the Highlanders rushed on to the attack of the Shah Nujeef. It took many hours for these positions to be stormed, during which Major Branston was killed, and the late Lord Wolseley—then a promising young officer—took the command. But the tide was on the turn. Gradually the artillery asserted its superiority, and at last Sir Colin Campbell, galloping up to the 93rd, announced that the place must be carried, and that he himself would give them the lead, at which they answered proudly and with a fear for his safety, “We can lead ourselves.” But it is doubtful whether it would have been possible to take this position had not the gallantry of Sergeant John Paton, V.C., come to the aid of the Sutherlands. He had discovered a breach in the rampart, and owing to this invaluable news the place was speedily carried. From the point known as the ‘Mess-house,’ Campbell signalled to the Residency that they were on the eve of their last attack. Full of joy Outram began to advance to meet the relieving force, carrying one building after another until, at last, that memorable scene took place when Havelock, Campbell, and Outram shook hands before the Mess-house.
Havelock, who was profoundly touched, could be heard saying, “Soldiers! I am happy to see you. Soldiers! I am happy to think you got into this place with a smaller loss than I did.” But it was no time for speeches of congratulation. There were still the women and children to be saved. Outside the Residency there lurked an enemy five times more numerous than the British troops. Again the besieged saw the Highlanders fight their way in, and again they were to learn that danger still threatened their lives.
The Sutherland Highlanders at Lucknow
After the dramatic entry it was decided that the garrison must be conveyed out of range of the enemy, and so adroitly was this conducted that the Sepoys did not realise until many hours after the Residency was evacuated that the British had evaded them and were in retreat upon Cawnpore.
Havelock, the brave defender of Lucknow, died almost as soon as the withdrawal had begun. He contracted illness through running three-quarters of a mile under a heavy fire to greet the relieving force. As he was dying he turned to Outram with the memorable words: “I have for forty years so ruled my life that when death came I might face it without fear.” No loss could have cast a darker shadow over the withdrawal.
With all speed Sir Colin Campbell made his way towards the Alumbagh, where he left Outram with 4000 men as garrison until the final assault upon Lucknow should take place. Until that time came the Alumbagh was to be held as a revolver at the head of Lucknow.
Unfortunately bad news came from Cawnpore, which had been left with a garrison of 500 troops under Windham, a Crimean soldier. It was threatened by Nana Sahib, whose mind was concentrated upon a second massacre, and the defeat of the British troops. Sir Colin Campbell had many perils to face. In his rear lay a hostile country, between Lucknow and Cawnpore a Sepoy force of some 14,000 men might threaten him at any moment, while over Cawnpore there hung a cloud of dangers, known and dreaded. Should Windham be defeated the bridge of boats across the Ganges would fall into the hands of the enemy, leaving Sir Colin with his little force of soldiers and the large number of sick and wounded hopelessly cut off.
It was with these anxious thoughts in his mind that he received a despatch from Windham marked, ‘Most urgent,’ and indicating that the garrison at Cawnpore were in a perilous state. Campbell knew that if the worst came to the worst, Windham would have fallen back within the entrenchments of the city, which meant that Cawnpore proper would be in the hands of the rebels. It was a hazardous position for any general. Every moment was precious, and Sir Colin appealed to his gallant Highlanders to make all speed. Let us see how they answered the call. With the utmost haste the force laboured on, and in the words of one of them, “The whole army eagerly pressed on towards the scene of danger…. The anxiety and impatience of all became extreme. Louder and louder grew the roar—faster and faster became the march—long and weary was the way—tired and footsore grew the infantry—death fell on the exhausted wounded with terrible rapidity—the travel-worn bearers could hardly stagger along under their loads—the sick men groaned and died. But still, on, on, on, was the cry. Salvos of artillery were fired by the field battery of the advanced guard in hopes that its sound might convey to the beleaguered garrison a promise of the coming aid. At last some horsemen were seen spurring along the road; then the veil that had for so long shrouded us from Windham was rent asunder, and the disaster stood before us in all its deformity.”
Roberts was despatched to ascertain if the bridges were still in the hands of the British. He found an officer on guard, and learned from him that Windham was surrounded on three sides. Spurring on he made his way into the entrenchments and delivered his message. There followed a dramatic incident. From far off came the clatter of hoofs. A little party of cavalry, headed by a familiar figure, galloped towards the fort. Sir Colin Campbell had come himself! His appearance at that critical moment had the same electric effect as the first glimpse of his worn face in the shell-raked streets of Lucknow. Always impetuous, he had no sooner despatched Roberts than he must hasten upon the same errand. Meeting the officer at the bridges he had inquired how matters stood, and received the reply, “Windham’s men are at their last gasp.” It was not the sort of remark to make to the commander of the 93rd Highlanders. “How dare you say of Her Majesty’s troops that they are at their last gasp?” he roared, and hurrying across the bridges he carried to the disheartened garrison the inspiration of his indomitable personality.
With the breaking of the dawn the plain across the river was white with the tents of the British Army, and in a short time the smoke of battle began to trail across the Ganges. The conflict for the bridges began, and Sir Colin, who fully realised that sooner or later the Sepoys would rightly appreciate the importance of preventing the British crossing the river, stationed Peel and his artillery upon the other bank. The Sutherlands, under a very heavy shell fire, reached the position where the hapless Wheeler had withstood for so long Nana Sahib’s soldiery. They were the first to cross, but by the evening the army were on the Cawnpore side of the river.
For a few days they maintained their position there without assuming the offensive, and on December 3 Sir Colin despatched a convoy conveying the sick and wounded to a place of safety.
This settled, the British set about the defeat of the rebels. But before the attack commenced a new regiment reached the troops before Cawnpore. The Black Watch—having marched seventy-eight miles in three days—came into line with the 93rd, and Sir Colin Campbell greeted his old comrades of the Crimea, shaking hands with the officers and speaking to the men. On December 6 the action commenced. Under Sir Colin were some 5000 troops, a small body of cavalry, 35 guns, and opposed to him 25,000 Sepoys.
The engagement opened with Windham’s artillery. Presently the Highlanders of the 42nd advanced, their bayonets gleaming white in the sunlight. Driving the enemy before them they made way for Peel and his sailors, together with their 24-pounder. The swift approach of the Highlanders was irresistible, “and so complete,” says one writer, “was the surprise, so unexpected was the onslaught, that the chupatties were found heating upon the fires, bullocks stood tied behind the hackeries, the sick and wounded were lying in the hospitals, the smith left his forge, and the surgeon his ward, to fly from the avenging bayonets.”
In the meantime the rebel right, struck by an iron hand, was flung into an irretrievable confusion, and took to its heels. “Gun after gun was spiked; cartloads of ammunition lay strewed along the road. For two miles without a check the pursuit was carried on by the 17th battery alone, accompanied by Hope Grant and his staff. Four times in that distance did we go into action to clear our front and our flanks, until General Grant, thinking wisely that we were too far from our supports, determined to wait for more artillery. Then a small cloud coming nearer and nearer was seen on the left, and the head of the cavalry column debouched from a grove. The order for a further pursuit was given; the cavalry spread like lightning over the plain in skirmishing order. Sir Colin took the lead, and the pursuit was continued, taking all the character of a fox-hunt.”
After the rout of the enemy came the return of the victorious British troops, who cheered Sir Colin Campbell, as the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force cheered Roberts on the road to Sibi.
“In front,” says one writer, “came the 9th Lancers with three captured standards at their head, the wild-looking Sikh horsemen rode in the rear. As they passed the Commander-in-Chief he took off his hat to them with some words of thanks and praise. The Lancers shook their lances in the air and cheered; the Sikhs took up the cry, waving their sabres above their heads. The men carrying the standards gave them to the wind; the Highland Brigade who were encamped close by ran down and cheered both the victorious cavalry and the veteran chief, waving their bonnets in the air. It was a fair sight, a reminder of the old days of chivalry.”
With the relief of Cawnpore, there followed a few days in which the army awaited anxiously the order to advance again on Lucknow. The delay was caused by a difference of opinion between Sir Colin Campbell and Lord Canning. The latter was most anxious that Lucknow should be retaken once and for good; Sir Colin, who was ever a methodical soldier, was strongly of belief that it would be better to concentrate the British forces before the advance commenced. Lord Canning won the day, and in the beginning of March 1858 the final assault upon Lucknow took place. By this time the forces of the rebels had been badly broken up and dispirited. The tide had turned, fresh troops were pouring into India, everything was in favour of the British. Instead of the little force which had accompanied Havelock to Lucknow, the British commander had a siege train with guns and ammunition and stores, 30,000 men, and more than 150 guns.
On January 19 the Queen had written to Sir Colin Campbell congratulating him on his Indian campaign, and mentioning in particular the gallantry of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. With this letter had come a despatch from the Duke of Cambridge, begging Sir Colin to place himself at the head of the 93rd as their Colonel, which he was only too proud to do. In the attack upon Lucknow and under Sir Colin Campbell were the Black Watch, the Sutherlands, and the Camerons—the Brigade that he had led to victory in the Crimea. The Camerons had arrived shortly before, and were given a cordial welcome by their comrades. The task before the British was a very severe one, despite the large numbers in the field; it was also a very critical one. Should the rebels be completely crushed then the Indian Mutiny would be virtually at an end, but since the retreat of Sir Colin to Cawnpore their numbers had been greatly strengthened, their fortifications largely rebuilt, and an outer line erected, heavily protected by cannon.
Lucknow was a wonderful city. Dr. Russell, in his Diary in India, has described it as “a vision of palaces, minarets, domes azure and golden, cupolas, colonnades, long façades of fair perspective in pillars and columns, terraced roofs, all rising up amid a calm, still ocean of the brightest verdure. Look for miles and miles away, and still the ocean spreads and the towers of the fairy city gleam in its midst. Spires of gold glitter in the sun, turrets and gilded spheres shine like constellations.”
On the 9th of March Sir Colin Campbell opened the engagement that was to prove the most final and the most terrible of the Indian Mutiny. It was given to the Black Watch to lead the attack, while in support were the Sutherlands.
The 42nd advanced in perfect order, their pipes playing ‘The Campbells are comin’.’ They were received by a hot fire from the rebels, but with the eyes of the army upon them the veterans of the Alma never paused in their stride. The Sepoys did not wait to dispute the matter with them, but fell back towards the city, where the Begum’s Palace was to prove the citadel of their defence. The suburbs of Lucknow were quickly in the hands of the British, and the 93rd led the attack upon the Begum’s Palace. It was a place of tremendous strength, the walls loopholed and the gateways strongly protected, with an exceedingly deep ditch before the whole front of the position. For a long time the artillery kept up a bombardment of the walls in the frail hope that a breach would be made, and that, as in the attack upon the Secundrabagh, the Highlanders would obtain a foothold. On the following day the artillery suddenly ceased fire, the Sutherlands leapt to their feet, for a few minutes took cover in the building facing the position, and then charged for the ditch. “Every obstacle,” says Captain Burgoyne, “that could be opposed to the stormers had been prepared by the enemy; every room, door, gallery, or gateway was so obstructed and barricaded that only a single man could pass at a time. Almost every window or opening that could afford the slightest shelter was occupied by the enemy, and in threading their way through the narrow passages and doorways our men were exposed to unseen foes.”
It would appear to have been an almost impossible position to take, but the Sutherlands never flinched, and the more foes and the greater numbers of the enemy that faced them the more did they press on with the bayonet. A hand-to-hand struggle lasting for two hours took place, while above the din of the conflict rang the shrill notes of the pipes of John Macleod—the Pipe-Major of the 93rd. The engagement was very similar to that of the Secundrabagh, the Highlanders pursuing the enemy from courtyard to courtyard, from room to room, giving no quarter, and expecting none.
Well might the Brigadier write in his despatch, “The Brigadier-General has shared in many a hard-fought action during his service, but on no occasion has he witnessed a more noble and determined advance than was made by the 93rd this day.”
By March 20 the rebels were finally driven back, and Lucknow was captured. We must not forget that in the siege the Camerons were also engaged, but in another part of the operations, being included in the division under Outram. There is very little information regarding their share in the engagement, while the 93rd and the 42nd were achieving such memorable work elsewhere. But it is certain, from the Life of Outram, that the Cameron Highlanders engaged in the suburbs of Lucknow managed to repulse the enemy with considerable loss.
Following the storming of Lucknow, Sir Colin Campbell prepared the dispersion of the enemy at Bareilly. This town was to be reached by two columns, converging upon it from different directions, one under the command of General Walpole, with whom were the 42nd and the 93rd, and the other under the command of Brigadier-General John Jones. The first attack by Walpole resulted in a reverse, and the loss of Brigadier Adrian Hope, a most distinguished officer, whose death caused amongst the members of the Highland regiments the deepest resentment and distress. The incident was like that later one of Magersfontein, one that rankled—whether justly or not we cannot say—for many years. The loss of the 42nd was very heavy, and later on Sir Colin Campbell himself took command, advancing upon Bareilly.
On May 5 there was a fierce attack upon the British by the Ghazees, a fanatical tribe, and, as Sir Colin himself said, “the most determined effort he had seen during the war.” Uttering their fierce shouts, they flung themselves upon the Black Watch. Colonel Cameron was dragged from his horse; General Walpole was wounded, and had it not been for the presence of Sir Colin Campbell himself, the Highlanders might have been overcome by the fierceness of this attack, being outflanked as well as outfaced by the enemy.
On the following day the British delivered their attack upon Bareilly, practically clearing the position of the enemy. The remnants were dispersed by the 93rd. This action concludes the main features of the Highland regiments’ part in the Indian Mutiny campaign.
The 42nd remained in India until January 1868, nearly ten years after the 78th had marched into Edinburgh with the band playing ‘Scotland Yet.’
It would not be fitting to conclude a chapter on the Indian Mutiny without recalling the name of Sir Colin Campbell. Broken in health through the toils and anxieties of the campaign, he was compelled to return to England, where he was raised to the Peerage as Baron Clyde. The remaining years of his life were spent in the quiet enjoyment of the honours that were showered upon him by a grateful country, and on August 14, 1863, the great Scottish soldier passed away, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
THE BATTLE HONOURS OF THE ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
Cape of Good Hope, 1806; Rolica, Vimiera, Corunna, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthez, Toulouse, Peninsula, Alma, Balaclava, Sevastopol, Lucknow; South Africa, 1846-1847, 1851-1852-1853, 1879; South Africa, 1899-1902; Modder River, Paardeberg.
The 1st Battalion was raised in 1794 and called the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders.
The 2nd Battalion was raised in 1799 and known as the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders.
The two regiments became the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1881.
After the Mutiny we say farewell, as it were, to the Old Guard of the Crimea and India, and hear a great deal about the younger men, Wolseley, Roberts, and White, all of whom had been through the Mutiny, two of them being destined to attain to the highest distinction that the British Army can bestow.
Garnet Wolseley was born in Dublin on June 4, 1833. He lost the use of one eye in the Crimea, served in India during the Mutiny, and in the Chinese War of 1860. In 1861 he crossed to Canada, and in 1870 conquered Louis Riel, the half-breed. In 1873 he led an expedition to Ashanti. There have been many places of horror and oppression in the histories of savage peoples, but it is doubtful whether there was ever a town so foul and brutal as Coomassie, the capital of Ashanti. The shedding of blood was the daily delight and pastime of the king, while murder upon a prodigal scale was to him and to his people a kind of rite. His subjects, instead of rebelling against these practices, delighted in such spectacles, and encouraged Koffi Calcalli, the king, to further outrages and orgies. It was, as some one has called it, ‘a metropolis of murder.’ So far, however, Britain had not seen her way to interfere, and had she done so, simply on the ground of common humanity, it is probable that other nations would have suspected her of conspiring to take over the country. At last King Koffi, craving for something new, decided that he would attack the English at Cape Coast Castle. Fortunately he was not able to achieve very much, but on the other hand the English were not strong enough to retaliate. This position was rendered all the more dangerous by the policy of toleration, which from the year 1824, when the Ashantis defeated Sir Charles M’Carthy, to the year 1863, when a West Indian regiment failed most signally, had given the natives a poor opinion of the English arms. It was therefore necessary for the safety of the English settlers that an Expeditionary Force should leave for Ashanti. It sailed under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley, with whom were the Black Watch under Sir John Macleod.
It was no ‘picnic,’ to quote from a popular expression of to-day; and to give some idea of the country through which the Black Watch marched, I shall quote a paragraph from Sir Henry Stanley’s Coomassie and Magdala.
“Coomassie,” he says, “was a town insulated by a deadly swamp. A thick jungly forest—so dense that the sun seldom pierced the foliage, so sickly that the strongest fell victims to the malarias it cherished—surrounded it to a depth of one hundred and forty miles seaward, many hundred miles east, as many more west, and a hundred miles north. Through this forest and swamp, unrelieved by any novelty or a single pretty landscape, the British Army had to march one hundred and forty miles, leaving numbers behind sick of fever and dysentery.”
To force their way through this fastness of almost impenetrable jungle called for both patience and courage. Wolseley received some assistance from the Fantees, who were enemies of the Ashantis. These natives cut a passage through the forests for the British troops. By the time the Black Watch landed at Cape Coast Castle in January 1874 this preparatory work had been completed.
The Highlanders presented an unfamiliar appearance, being clothed in Norfolk grey, which for several excellent reasons was considered a safer form of dress for the troops than the kilt. Associated with the expedition were officers whose names were soon to become familiar to the whole of the English-speaking race. There were Evelyn Wood, Archibald Alison—future commander of the Highland Brigade—Redvers Buller, all men of sterling quality, while Wolseley, whose long life closed in 1913, was a leader possessed of infinite perseverance and with a genius for organisation.
For a time the Fantees gave their assistance as carriers, and without delay the expedition started into the interior, and, having crossed the Prah River, came in contact with the enemy, who were now only too anxious, were it possible, to come to conciliatory terms with the British. These negotiations failed, and a large number of presumably friendly natives having disappeared, the British expedition were faced by a jungle of ninety miles to their front, at the end of which was the stronghold of King Koffi.
Stanley, who was with the expedition, has related that when they came in touch with the enemy for the first time he turned out to see the Black Watch march past to the attack. “We had but barely finished our breakfasts,” he relates, “and buckled our belts on, when our servants informed us that the white troops were close by. Hastening to the square or plaza of the village, we were in time to witness the famous ‘Black Watch’ come up, all primed and ready for action. This was our first view of the fighting 42nd Highlanders, and I must say I improved the occasion to get a good look at them, as if I had never seen a British regiment in my life. Their march past was done with an earnest determined stride that promised well for their behaviour, whatever might lie at the front.”
The Black Watch was under the command of Major Macpherson of Cluny, to whom reference has already been made in a former chapter. He was a descendant of that Cluny Macpherson who, little more than a hundred years before, had been in arms for Prince Charlie.
The forest confronting the Highlanders was intersected by narrow paths, and, in order to advance, and keep in touch with one another, the 42nd availed themselves of these lanes, thus throwing themselves open to a flank attack by the enemy from the dense bush upon either side. They advanced in skirmishing order, firing as they went, unable to see their foe, but knowing very well of his near presence by the hail of slugs that whistled about their heads. For a brief space of time the whole proximity of forest would appear perfectly lifeless, and then, with spurts of fire from every side, a deafening cannonade would be opened. Undaunted, the Highlanders pressed on, firing as they could and when they could, while over their heads the shells of the naval brigade whined and crashed into the trees.
The Ashantis, who so far had reposed the utmost trust in their fetishes, grew at last discouraged with the steady advance of the British. The roadway, over which they had rushed in their headlong retreat, was now bespattered with human blood, while here and there lay the unhappy victims of their sacrifices. Perceiving these significant signs of weakening, the advance of the Black Watch was quickened. Sir Archibald Alison, realising that the turning-point had come, ordered the pipes to strike up, and with the ‘Campbells are comin’’ the Highlanders charged swiftly after the enemy, who, confronted with lines of cold steel, and deafened by the booming thunder of the great naval guns, made headlong for Coomassie. One who took part in the conflict has well written: “Never was battle fought admitting of less distinction. It is impossible, indeed, to give a picturesque account of an affair in which there was nothing picturesque; in which scarcely a man saw an enemy from the commencement to the end of the fight; in which there was no manœuvring, no brilliant charges, no general concentration of troops; but which consisted simply of lying down, of creeping through the bush, of gaining ground foot by foot, and pouring a ceaseless fire into every bush in front which might contain an invisible foe. Nothing could have been better than Sir Garnet Wolseley’s plan of battle or more admirably adapted for the foe with whom he had to deal. Where he attacked us he found himself opposed by a continuous front of men, who kept his flank attacks at bay, while the 42nd pushed steadily and irresistibly forward. To that regiment belong, of course, the chief honours of the day, but all did exceedingly well.”
After this opening engagement Wolseley halted for the night, and on the following day his advance was continued, the River Ordah being reached. Here King Koffi determined to resist the encroachment upon his country and the menace to his capital. It was necessary to throw a bridge across the river, and when this was completed the Rifle Brigade crossed and came into touch with the enemy. For a long time their resistance was so warmly sustained that the British could make no advance, but after seven hours’ fighting Wolseley did what in Stanley’s opinion he should have done long before, he ordered up the Black Watch. Colonel Macleod, who was in command, gave the order, “The 42nd will fire volleys by companies according to order. Forward!” Immediately there commenced the final advance on Coomassie, throughout which the Highlanders were met by a resistance more determined than ever before.
The arrival of the 42nd turned the scales at once. Their tactics—the front rank firing to the right and the rear rank firing to the left—enabled them to advance without exposing their flanks to the volleys of an invisible foe. Wherever the Ashantis were observed to be huddled together, either in the lanes or in confusion in the bush, the Highlanders charged them with the bayonet, driving them away helter-skelter. Nothing stopped the onward march, and the whole heart went out of the enemy when they realised that it was impossible to distract or confuse the Highlanders by ambuscades on their flanks. To make a stand for their capital—that was the only thing left. All around the British sounded the cow-horns of the enemy giving the signal for retreat.
The result of this swift approach of the 42nd was that all the villages before Coomassie were speedily captured, and Sir Archibald Alison despatched the news to Wolseley, saying that if he were reinforced he could enter Coomassie that night. As Stanley has remarked: “Mere laudation is not enough for the gallantry which distinguished this regiment when in action…. They proceeded along the well-ambushed road as if on parade, by twos. Vomiting out two score of bullets to the right and two score to the left the companies volleyed and thundered as they marched past the ambuscades, cheers rising from the throats of the lusty Scots, until the forest rang again with the discordant medley of musketry, bagpipe, and vocal sounds…. Very many were borne back frightfully disfigured and seriously wounded, but the regiment never halted nor wavered; on it went until the Ashantis, perceiving it useless to fight against men who would advance heedless of ambuscades, rose from their coverts and fled panic-stricken towards Coomassie, being perforated by balls whenever they showed themselves to the hawk-eyed Scots.”
So swift had been their oncoming and so profound the impression they had made upon the Ashantis, that when Coomassie was reached the Highlanders marched into it without opposition, and later in the evening Wolseley himself passed between the lines of the victorious 42nd, who greeted him with cheer upon cheer.
The destruction of the horrible town took place, and without further delay Wolseley led his troops back to Cape Coast Castle.
On March 23 the regiment landed at Portsmouth, where they were the centre of a tremendous enthusiasm. Thus was concluded one of our smaller campaigns, in which the historic Black Watch conducted itself with that resourceful determination and dogged bravery that has ever distinguished it.
It would be quite beyond the scope of this book to deal with the causes that led up to the conflict in Afghanistan, but it would be expedient to glance at the most prominent features of the Afghan trouble. Afghanistan lies at the north of India, and forms the boundary state between the possessions of Russia and of England. For this reason it was compelled to trust neither Russia nor England, and to play a lone hand for its own independence. In 1878 the ruler of Afghanistan was named Shere Ali, a very cunning and unscrupulous man, inspired by the desire to sustain his own independence while siding with the strongest of his neighbours—a policy as old as the world itself.
It was suggested that a British officer should take up his residence at Kabul, and at that Shere Ali for a moment dropped the mask. He opposed the suggestion very strongly, for excellent reasons, since he was in touch with Russia. It instantly became imperative that the Government should act, so they proposed forthwith to send a Mission to confer with Shere Ali. “The Amir must choose,” said Lord Lytton, “which of his powerful neighbours he will rely upon, and he must learn that if he does not promptly prove himself our loyal friend we shall be obliged to regard him as our enemy and treat him accordingly. A tool in the hands of Russia I will never allow him to become. Such a tool it would be my duty to break before it could be used.” They were courageous words, but uttered rather late.
With Eastern caution Shere Ali did not refuse point-blank to receive the Mission, but was obviously satisfied—as Lord Lytton wrote to Lord Salisbury—that there was nothing more to be got out of the British. For several months the matter was allowed to drop, as England was fully occupied with the threatening of war with Russia over the old question of Turkey. During these rumours of hostilities the Amir, who followed the European Press very carefully, was more and more inclined to throw in his lot with Russia, and with this end in view pushed on the fortifications and the manufacture of guns and ammunition at Kabul. Presently news was received by the Government that a Russian envoy had been welcomed by Shere Ali with demonstrations of the greatest friendliness. One feature of the situation became self-evident. Should war break out Russia would make her attack on India through Afghanistan.
The signing of the Berlin Treaty staved off the war between Russia and England, but the reception given to the Russian envoy by the Amir could not so easily be ignored. Accordingly Lord Lytton decided that a Mission must be received by Shere Ali to prevent the situation appearing as a slight upon the British arms. When Stolieloff, the Russian envoy, was shown the letter he merely remarked to the agitated Amir, “Two swords cannot go into one scabbard.” Those words nerved Shere Ali to oppose the passing of the English Mission through the Khyber Pass. It was a humiliating situation, and as Sir Neville Chamberlain wrote in his letter to the Viceroy, “Nothing could have been more distinct, nothing more humiliating to the British Crown and nation.” Through their vacillation the Government had now convinced the Amir—as they were later on to delude the Boers—that they would never take action, and as one native Prince remarked with engaging frankness to Chamberlain, “The people say, and we think, that you will still do nothing.”
That, quite briefly, was the situation when the Government decided to send a force to Afghanistan. It was composed of two columns—one advancing towards Kandahar, the other by the Kuram Valley. In command of this latter column was Major-General Sir Frederick Roberts, while under him were included the 72nd (the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders), who had already seen service in Central India, and who, together with the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders), will principally occupy our attention during this campaign.
Frederick Roberts was born in India in 1832, being the son of a distinguished soldier, Sir Abraham Roberts, called the ‘patriarch of Indian Generals,’ while two of his uncles had been in the Navy. He was at the relief of Lucknow and the fall of Delhi. During his long life he saw much service, never meeting with a serious reverse. His last years were employed in a vain appeal for National Service, and his death in 1914 was where he would best have wished it—within sound of the guns.
The advance towards Kabul was naturally somewhat prolonged, owing to the extremely difficult character of the country. It was necessary to carry a great quantity of baggage and commissariat. Everything went smoothly until the Peiwar Kotal was sighted, where the Afghans were at last seen to be in force. It was six in the morning, and very dark, when the sentinels of the enemy were first discovered. There followed a charge by the Highlanders and the Gurkhas, but the main force of the Afghans awaited the attack upon the strongly defended heights of the Peiwar Kotal, which guarded the only approach to Kabul, and which was a kind of crow’s nest. “Across the summit or saddle of the steep ascent the enemy had thrown up a battery of field works, the fire of which could rake the whole pass. On either side of the Kotal, on two steep hills, were guns in battery, which could throw a deadly cross-fire upon an ascending force. The troops of the Amir occupied the entire line of the upper hills for a distance of four miles, and at either extremity were guns in position to meet any flank attack that could be made, and lofty and more inaccessible hills covered their line of retreat.”
Roberts, determined that he should lose no time in attacking the Afghan position, planned that the Highlanders, the Gurkhas, and the Punjab infantry, with some artillery, should make a flank attack. The remainder of the force held the attention of the enemy in the front. In silence and secrecy the little party set off and attacked at dawn. The type of country through which they were passing was not unlike the Highlands of Scotland when the snow is on the ground. The sides of the hills were thick with boulders and broken foliage, and during the whole of the advance shots were fired from the Afghans concealed behind trees and rocks upon the hill-side.
As soon as the attack had developed the guns came into action, and when the Afghans saw their beasts stampeding and their tents on fire, panic set in. Realising that an assault was threatening their rear, and dreading that they would be surrounded, they speedily evacuated their position. It was a great success, and a Seaforth triumph. For the first time the Afghans had learned that respect for the British soldier that Mr. Kipling has emphasised in the lines:
An’ when the war began, we chased the bold Afghan,
An’ we made the bloomin’ Ghazi for to flee, boys, O,
An’ we marched into Kabul, an’ we tuk the Bolan ‘Issar,
An’ we taught ’em to respec’ the British soldier.
In a despatch Roberts wrote: “I cannot praise them too highly, the 72nd is a splendid regiment.”
That night, after twenty hours of continual marching upon very little food, the troops bivouacked on the saddle of the hill along which the enemy had retreated shortly before. On the following morning it was realised what a very great advantage had been gained in taking this position, an achievement that could only have been won by a high degree of discipline and endurance. Roberts advanced to within four miles of Kabul, and decided that as his force was insufficient he must turn back to Fort Kurum.
He determined to leave a portion of his force to hold the position of Peiwar Kotal during the winter. On Christmas Eve news came that the Amir had been deserted by his army and had set out for St. Petersburg, proposing to place himself in the hands of the Czar. Fate willed it otherwise. He was shortly overcome by illness, dying at Turkestan, and in the confused condition of the country he had deserted it was impossible to know what was hidden in the future.
Shere Ali had been succeeded by his son, Yakub Khan, who was as cunning as his father. He accepted with engaging celerity all the conditions that the British Government laid down, but Roberts strongly suspected that the time was not yet due when peace could be made. The Afghans had not been beaten, and despite public opinion, which, in its accustomed ignorance of the real situation, implored the Government to end the war, he advised most urgently that the campaign to Kabul should continue in the spring.
Soon after this Major Cavagnari was permitted by the new Amir to proceed to Kabul as the British agent. Roberts accompanied him a part of the way, and when they said farewell he turned back and shook hands with him once more. It was in both their minds that in all probability they would never meet again. And so time went on, and not very long after rumours came drifting southwards that there was trouble in Kabul. It was afterwards related that Cavagnari was warned by a native that he should flee. “Never fear,” was his answer, “dogs that bark don’t bite.” “This dog does bite,” said the other. As representative of the British Government it was unthinkable that he should consider his own life. “They can only kill three or four of us here,” he replied, “and our death will be avenged.”
Already his doom was sealed. On September 2nd the Viceroy received a telegram, ‘All well.’ On September 5 Roberts heard that the Residency in Kabul had been attacked by three regiments, and that Cavagnari and his brother officers were defending themselves as best they could. Roberts was ordered to advance to Kabul, accompanied by the troops that were stationed at Kurum. Things moved quickly after that. One telegram followed upon another, each bearing worse news, and at last came the tragic tidings that the members of the Embassy had been murdered. With Sir Louis Cavagnari, the Resident, were a handful of Englishmen and a detachment of the famous Indian regiment, the Guides. It was of that memorable scene that Sir Henry Newbolt has written:
Sons of the Island race, wherever ye dwell,
Who speak of your fathers’ battles with lips that burn,
The deed of an alien legion hear me tell,
And think not shame from the hearts ye tamed to learn,
When succour shall fail, and the tide for a season turn,
To fight with a joyful courage, a passionate pride,
To die at the last as the Guides at Cabul died.
Within twenty-four hours Roberts had left Simla with 5000 men and orders to reach Kabul, while the Amir was warned that the British troops were on their way to avenge the outrage.
The expedition, which included the Seaforths and Gordons, reached Charasiah before the enemy were in force. This place lies some twelve miles from Kabul, but with ridge after ridge of precipitous hill between. Upon this summit the Afghans had placed their guns, while their riflemen had taken cover behind the innumerable boulders to await the advance of the British force. Before Roberts lay the Afghan army thus heavily entrenched, guarding Kabul. He must storm the heights or retreat, and unless he made his attack at once he must permit the enemy to redouble their numbers.
Frequently in the Indian Mutiny the Sepoys, taking for granted that an attack would be made upon one flank or another, stationed their guns accordingly. On this occasion the Afghans, believing that Roberts would concentrate his assault upon their left, laid themselves liable to a surprise.
At the same time it would be difficult to name an enemy more brave, more athletic, and more resourceful than the Afghan, and the task before the British was no enviable one.
Major White of the Gordon Highlanders—afterwards famous as the defender of Ladysmith—went to the attack, covered by the British guns, while General Baker set out to carry the enemy’s right. The Gordons started up the steep hill-side, to be suddenly faced by a great number of the enemy—at least twenty to one. They were already exhausted by the severe toil up the hill, and noting their hesitation, White snatched a rifle from one of the men’s hands, shot down the leader of the enemy, and as the Afghans wavered the Gordons charged and took the position. It was for this cool action at a critical moment that Major White received the Victoria Cross. Meanwhile, the Seaforths, together with the Gurkhas, had borne the brunt of the attack in another quarter. They struggled onward from ridge to ridge, till at last the Afghans threw up the fight and bolted. The battle of Charasiah was won, but it had taken twelve hours’ hard fighting to win it. Daybreak found Roberts on the march, and the Amir, who had had the effrontery to send a message of congratulation to the British commander in the vain hope that it would make things more agreeable when they met, was ready to receive him when Kabul was reached. But the trouble was not over.
The Afghans had taken up another strong position outside Kabul, but in the darkness of the succeeding night, upon the threat of an attack from General Baker, they decided to disperse, and, like all hillmen, vanished into the mist before the dawn. The triumphal entry of Roberts into Kabul was a splendid if melancholy spectacle. He told the people that the British Government had decided not to take revenge for the murder of Cavagnari and his colleagues, but that certain measures would be enforced to ensure peace.
On the next day the Amir walked into Roberts’s tent and stated that he wished to resign. As Kabul could not be left without a Governor, Roberts, on behalf of England, proclaimed that Afghanistan would be taken over by the British, and that the future of the people would be decided after a conference.
As might be expected, the Afghans were by no means satisfied with this ultimatum. A guerilla warfare was directed against our troops, and Kabul was besieged by such numbers that it became daily more evident that the position would be soon untenable. It was during these raids and counter-raids that Lieutenant Dick-Cunyngham of the Gordon Highlanders won his Victoria Cross, and Corporal Sellar of the Seaforths was also awarded the coveted honour.
Roberts now found himself in an exceedingly difficult position, being ignorant of the number of the enemy and unable to obtain much information of their movements. As inactivity is often more dangerous than defeat he resolved to lead an attack from two different points, trusting that he could surround the Afghans and win a decisive victory. Had the two columns managed to work in unison the British would have been rewarded with a success. Unfortunately, there was one false move, and, by a blunder, the British force was outflanked and attacked by some 10,000 of the enemy. Compelled to retire in frantic haste, the guns became jammed in the narrow road, and the cavalry were unable to assist them. In the midst of this dangerous situation Roberts arrived to find that his strategy was like enough to turn into a disaster. It was imperative, were the situation to be retrieved, to obtain infantry without delay. A messenger was despatched to Kabul to call up the Seaforth Highlanders. Would they arrive in time before the British troops were annihilated? For there were now less than 300 men and 4 guns confronting 10,000! To win time the English cavalry employed the desperate resort of charging.
“Into a cloud of dust the Lancers disappeared as they headed for the masses of the enemy, and nothing could be seen for a few moments of the fight. Then riderless horses came galloping back, followed by scattered bodies of troopers. They had been received with a terrific fire which had killed many horses and men, and on trying to force their way through the enemy, had been surrounded and beaten back by sheer force of numbers. Even among Roberts and his staff the bullets fell thickly, killing three or four horses and wounding others.”
Just in the nick of time appeared the Seaforth Highlanders, amidst the cheers of the Lancers. “It was,” says an eye-witness, “literally touch and go as to who could reach the village first, the Highlanders or the Afghans, but our men swept in and swarmed to the tops of the houses, able to check the rush of the enemy, who streamed down on the village like ants on a hill.”
In the meantime the other columns that had hoped to join with that of General Baker heard with alarm the mutter of distant artillery, General Macpherson, who was in command, realising that this probably spelt disaster, pushed on with all speed and managed to come to where the Highlanders were fighting at Dehmazung. The British force was thus snatched from a catastrophe that would have raised every Afghan in the country.
After this unsatisfactory engagement Roberts decided that he would take up position in Sherpur, evacuating Kabul since the people there were not to be depended on, and it would be a difficult place to hold. The numbers of the enemy had increased so largely that although many points of vantage had been taken it was decided that concentration within the limits of Sherpur was inevitable. Though Roberts had ample funds of ammunition he could not reassure the Government that for the present any decisive advance could be made. Trenches were hastily thrown up and wire entanglements implanted, and shortly afterwards the attack upon Sherpur commenced. Before dawn the noise, “as if hosts of devils had been let loose,” came rolling out of the night, and through the darkness could be dimly seen dense masses of the Afghans rushing upon the British entrenchments, shouting again and again their frenzied battle-cry of “Allah-il-Allah!”
The Gordon Highlanders were one of the first regiments to open fire upon the immense force that threatened them. For three hours, despite the terrible slaughter amongst their ranks, the Afghans rushed again and again to the attack. At last it was evident that a counter-move would be necessary to break the enemy’s determination to take Sherpur at all costs. Moving out the cavalry with four guns, Roberts began to shell the outlying villages. Distracted by this manœuvre, the Afghans’ assault exhausted itself, and the moment for a counter-attack arrived. Suddenly the cavalry swept down on their crowded masses, and in a moment the enemy were in confused retreat. The end was come. Once in disorder they scattered far and wide, pursued by every available man and horse. By evening all the neighbouring country was perfectly silent, just as though no battle had ever raged. The Afghans had vanished like smoke.
Kabul had been wrecked and plundered by the enemy, but the next day Roberts re-entered the city, made General Hills Governor, and, as he himself said, “the present outlook was fairly satisfactory.” But although the natives in the immediate vicinity of the capital were crushed, the tribes at Kandahar were in revolt. General Burrows was forced to retreat to Kushk-i-Nakud, while against him were marching 12,000 men. The result of this engagement was the loss of the guns at Maiwand. It was essential that this disaster should be wiped out, and shortly afterwards Roberts, accompanied by the Seaforths and the Gordon Highlanders, set out on the famous march to Kandahar. The news from Kandahar could not have been worse. The Afghans had completely defeated General Burrows’s brigade, and were now besieging the English force under General Primrose in Kandahar. It was imperative that Roberts should relieve Primrose at once, and on the 8th the memorable march commenced. The English force numbered some 10,000 men, selected from regiments of stamina and proved courage.
Only a military genius could have undertaken a march without communication lines, without heavy baggage, and with a hostile army at the end of it. The prospect was not favourable. They were faced by three hundred miles of the enemy’s country, the inhabitants of which would be only too ready to fall upon them should an opportunity present itself, and disaster would almost surely turn to annihilation. It would take too long to deal with that eventful march, and there was little of actual conflict throughout. On the 26th of August there was a sharp engagement, the Afghans being thrown back; on the 31st the British came in sight of Kandahar, where the Afghan leader was strongly posted. They had arrived just in time. To the beleaguered garrison they were like an army dropped from heaven.
On September 1 the action began, and the Seaforths and Gordons were sent forward to expel the enemy from the village in which they were entrenched. A fierce hand-to-hand engagement ensued, and facing the thousands of the enemy Major White shouted to the 92nd: “Highlanders, will you follow me?” “Joyfully and with alacrity the Highlanders responded to the call of their favourite leader, and without pausing to recover breath, drove the enemy from their entrenchments at the point of the bayonet.” This was the heaviest piece of hard fighting, and shortly after the enemy wavered and finally broke, being quickly dispersed by the cavalry. An undisciplined army can seldom retire in good order; once broken it is instantly confused, and in a few minutes the Afghan troops were streaming away towards the hills. Roberts, worn out by fever and the anxieties and fatigues of the last few weeks, did not spare himself during that critical day, and when it was over he thanked each regiment personally for their services. Right well had the Highlanders supported him. He had left India for a country seething with revolution, and had carried the Peiwar Kotal. There had followed the murder of Cavagnari, the quick descent upon Kabul, those anxious days when the British forces were besieged outside the city, victory only to be followed by the memorable march to Kandahar, and, last of all, after the frightful fatigues and endurance, this decisive action.
Roberts, in addressing the troops, reminded them of the glory they had won. “You beat them at Kabul,” he said, “and you have beaten them at Kandahar, and now as you are about to leave the country you may be assured that the very last troops the Afghans ever want to meet in the field are Scottish Highlanders and Goorkhas.”
The Seaforths at Candahar
“Never,” he wrote afterwards, “had commander been better served, and I shall never forget the feeling of sadness with which I said good-bye to my men who had done so much for me. I looked upon them all, native as well as British, as my valued friends. Riding through the Bolan Pass, I overtook men of the regiments of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force, marching towards Sibi, thence to disperse to their respective destinations. As I parted with each corps in turn, its band played ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ and I have never since heard the memory-stirring air without its bringing before my eye the last view I had of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force. I fancy myself crossing, and recrossing, the river which winds through the Pass, I hear the martial beat of the drums, and the plaintive music of the pipes; and I see Riflemen and Goorkhas, Highlanders and Sikhs, guns and horses, camels and mules, with all the endless following of an Indian army, winding through the narrow gorges or over the interminable boulders.”
It was this vivid picture that came back to the author upon that bleak November day of 1914, when the Indian soldiers, under the grey English heaven, went winding through the rain-driven streets of London. From far away sounded the deep salutation of the guns, the tolling of a bell, the wailing of the pipes. Thirty-four years had passed, and once again “Riflemen and Goorkhas, Highlanders and Sikhs, guns and horses” passed like the ghosts of long ago, or a dream of past achievement and work well done before the falling of the night.
BATTLE HONOURS OF THE SEAFORTH HIGHLANDERS (ROSS-SHIRE BUFFS, THE DUKE OF ALBANY’S).
Carnatic, Mysore, Hindoostan; Cape of Good Hope, 1806; Maida, Java; South Africa, 1835; Sevastopol, Persia, Koosh-ab, Lucknow, Central India, Peiwar Kotal, Charasiah; Kabul, 1879; Kandahar, 1880; Afghanistan, 1878-1880; Egypt, 1882; Tel-el-Kebir, Chitral, Atbara, Khartoum; South Africa, 1899-1902; Paardeberg.