Delhi, June 1857
The Delhi of 1857 was a very different city from the one we know today.
This was the city of Shahjahanabad, or the 7th city of Delhi, built by the Moghul emperor, Shah Jahan in 1649. Constructed as a fortress on the right bank of the Jamuna River the city was then confined to an area of five and a half miles with nearly one and a half taken up by the King’s Palace.
The strong walls were made of stone and lime that had been kept in excellent repair and even strengthened, by the British. These walls consisted of long curtains, punctuated at irregular intervals by bastions. While the curtains were adapted for musketry fire only, the bastions had been a modern construction and were capable of mounting from 8 to 12 guns at a time. Additionally, there were 14 entrance gates and 16 wicket gates or Khirkis (literally translated as windows). A number of these bastions had been added by the British, who in addition to repairing the original fortifications, added to it to make it more secure.
On the river, side stood the strongly fortified palace of the King of Delhi, and the Selimgarh, another fort, which commanded the Bridge of Boats that connected the city with Meerut. Entrance to the palace was given by one main gate that directly ran into the main street of Chandni Chowk. Within the city walls, was “a maze of houses, some of masonry, some of mats, some of mud.. The larger houses contained underground rooms, enclosed courtyards…”
What remains today of this magnificent structure is the King’s Palace, or Red Fort; of the 14 gates. some of which were of British construction, only 5 remain. It must be noted here that the Lahore Gate which we know today as the entrance to the King’s Palace or Red Fort is not the same gate which would figure during the final assault on Delhi. Of this gate very little remains today at the far end of the Lahori Bazaar crossing.
The 8th of June 1857 and Beyond
The victory at Badli-ki-Serai was by no means the end of the day’s work. There was a real danger the mutineers, though routed, might rally – the British were outnumbered and desperately out-gunned; another fight so soon as Badli-ki-Serai would have meant their defeat. With that in mind, General Bernard decided to push home his advantage and mustered the men to move forward to Delhi. The goal for the 8th of June was not the recapture of Delhi – for that Barnard had too few men. Instead, he set his sights on a more practical target, a rocky hill called the Ridge.
General Barnard divided his force into two separate columns – the column under his command took its way across the plain.
“Crossing the half-ruined bridge over the canal, our force was fired down upon by some guns which had stopped beside the Flagstaff Tower, but their balls were ill-directed, breaking down the tombstones in the churchyard to the right. The parade ground, with the blackened shells of the officers’ bungalows, now came into view. A little above were the sepoy’s huts. Captain Money’s troop then wheeled to the right of the Flagstaff. The firing was admirable. The enemy fled after a few shots, leaving three guns behind them, and disappeared down the covered road which led to the city…”
The other column, under General Archdale Wilson, led an attack through the suburbs of Sabzi-Mandi. The area was quiet and deserted and no one stopped the advancing soldiers from setting the houses on fire. The spirit of vengeance was still very much alive.
From the Kabul Gate, the column then turned left, skirting towards the Ridge. No sooner had they been seen from the city walls than the firing commenced, the round shot whizzing and whirring around their heads.
“They pushed hastily under the shelter of the walls and gates of a large stone building called Hindoo Rao’s House where they met with the victorious column of Sir Henry Barnard and the Ghoorkas, who had ascended the front of the hill. The enemy had taken the range of the house, and the justness of their aim was surprising. A gun limber was blown up, and the clothes of a young officer of artillery caught fire; he was most cruelly burned.”
Rising 60 feet above the city, the Ridge covered the main line of communication with the Punjab which was essentially the lifeline of the British in Delhi. To the left ran the Jamuna River, then unfordable due to the high volume of meltwater from the Himalayas and by the onset of the monsoon rains. The river was also sufficiently wide enough to prevent the enemy from engaging in any meaningful bombardment; however the immediate right of the position of the numerous bazaars, buildings and garden- walls would provide the mutineers with enough cover to launch attacks but the ground itself was too difficult to allow to make any deliberate advances consisting of jungle, forest, rocks and scrub brush. Thus protected from attacks to their flank or rear, the British would further be covered by the Najafgarh jhil or swamp which during the rainy season simply turned vast areas of land into a lake. The Ridge ran for one and a half miles, abruptly ending at the Sabzi Mandi and then continuing away towards the southwest. The East Jumna Canal and the Grant Trunk Road to the Punjab entered the city at this point, while “this ridge formed the front of our position, and covered our camp, which was pitched with its left resting on the river, and protected thereby, but its right rested on the Subzee Mandi Suburb, which thus became the key of our position, as by it alone could our flank be turned, and our communications with the Punjab threatened.”
The side of the city facing the Ridge had several points of note, namely on the right, and close to the river, the Water Bastion, on the left and nearly opposite to the point where the Ridge ended at Sabzi Mandi, stood the Moree Bastion. Between the two points was the Kashmiri Bastion, while again to the left, the Lahore Gate which was untenable by the British guns. As this was the main gate of the city and sheltered by two areas occupied by the rebels – Paharipore and Kishanganj, the rebels could enter and leave the city unhindered. They used this to obvious advantage, sallying out from the Sabzi Mandi to attack the British flank.
The distance of the Ridge to the city walls varied distinctly. On the right, it stood only some 1200 yards from the walls but from the Flagstaff tower the distance increased to a mile and half, while still further along, at the end near the river, it measured nearly two and a half miles. This of course made the left side reasonably safe and being behind the Ridge, an ideal location for the main part of the camp. Above all, it commanded an excellent view of the city of Delhi – a better position could not have been wished for.
The Piquets and Batteries on the Ridge
On the 8th of June, the Delhi Field Force managed to establish themselves in two positions – Hindu Rao’s House and Flagstaff Tower. They established a camp at the rear on the parade ground recently evacuated by the mutinous regiment. This precarious position was quickly augmented by the formation of the Mound Piquet and subsequently another in the Observatory or Jantar Mantar, in the ruins of Metcalfe House, in an old temple called Sammy House, the Crow’s Nest and eventually Sabzi Mandi itself. Ludlow Castle would become part of the lines later on in the siege.
Once the home of William Fraser, agent to the Governor General in Delhi the house and grounds had been bought by the Mahratta Chief Hindu Rao after Fraser’s assassination. After the death of the Mahratta, the house remained mostly unoccupied however the name of the wily old warrior stuck and it remained known as Hindu Rao’s House.
It would form the extreme right of the position and would be garrisoned throughout by the Gurkha Sirmoor Battalion under command of Major Ried, two companies of the 60th Rifle and men of the Guides. The rest of the 60th was encamped close by to be able to send support as needed. In the rear of the house Colonel Tombs’ troop of horse, artillery was stationed with the intention of over-awing any attempt by the enemy to attack from Subzi Mandi. Batteries were constructed at various points to answer the fire of the Mori Bastion and to throw shot and shell into the suburb of Kishenganj from which the enemy envisaged attacking the camp’s flank.
As for Major Charles Ried, this exemplary officer never left his post, and led his men in every attack and skirmish: he only ever entered the main camp on the Ridge when wounded during the final assault in September. The Sirmoor Battalion would suffer 327 casualties out of a total strength of 490, including eight of their nine British officers between June and September and. like Ried, it was the Gurkha’s point of honour to never leave their post; even their sick and wounded begged their friends to conceal them to prevent being sent to the rear.
Three other forward posts, all close to Hindu’ Rao’s House were the Sammy House (a corruption of the word Swami), a craggy outcropping called the Crow’s Nest which would become a favourite with riflemen, and Sabzi Mandi, the lowest point of the defences. Behind Hindu Rao’s House stood the Observatory, so admired by George Beresford, it would now serve as a post for 2 field guns. These guns were permanently occupied in what was to be the most exposed spot on the Ridge. From here a red gravel road led to the Flagstaff Tower.
One of the oldest buildings on the Ridge, Flagstaff Tower had been built by the British in 1828 to serve as a signal or lookout point. This one-roomed, castellated tower with Gothic architecture overtures, had served as the rallying point for the survivors of the Delhi Massacre on the 11th of May. It was here they waited with no food or water, for help from Meerut that never came. While the men gathered on the roof, the women, children and the wounded sat inside on the stairs in the stifling heat, listening to the constant sound of heavy firing from the city. When it became clear no help was coming, the fugitives crowded into whatever conveyances they could find and fled the city. When the Delhi Force took the Ridge on the 8th of June, the first sight that greeted the men was the bullock cart, covered only partially by a cloth, that had been sent up from the city on the 11th of May, still containing the bodies of the murdered officers of the 54th. Unidentifiable but for the buttons on their rotted uniforms the grisly remains were quickly interred in a makeshift grave behind the tower. What their names were, no one could say.
Standing at 150 feet high, the roof of the tower was accessible by a single staircase and due to its relatively sheltered position, the tower was soon a favoured place for sick and off-duty officers to gather and discuss the day’s events. As it provided a vantage point to survey the surrounding area, every new officer who arrived in Delhi was quickly compelled to climb to the top of the roof and take stock of what exactly it was he had gotten himself into. The position was held by a party of infantry and 2 guns.
“From the top of Flagstaff Tower, the view was indeed magnificent. The city lay open to them, over the walls, topped by eight-foot parapets and flanking bastions and martello towers, and enclosing the cupolas and minarets of the Jumma Masjid Mosque and the delicate and intricate pierced screens and dome of the Red Fort…
The river bed was nearly a mile wide; in places, a confusion of channels and sandbanks, and shallow lagoons, sometimes bordered by jungle and malarial swamp, and sometimes by cultivated terraces and orange-groves. The panorama was fantastic; a delicate, ethereal city of domes and towers, framed in a deep green surrounded by swamps, gardens and trees…”
In the beauty, a quiet horror remained. Many of the shrubs and small trees had been destroyed by the fury of the mutineers; what was left would soon be eaten away by the elephants and camels of the Delhi Field Force leaving a long, barren desert of rocks and dust. The roads in the destroyed Cantonment were strewn with the contents of the houses, the pictures and music boxes, the furniture, clothes and books of their former inhabitants, all left to rot by the elements and the burned houses roofless – the blackened remains of happier times. Officers who had escaped Delhi on the 11th of May and would later join the Field Force would make the pilgrimage to their former residences, only to be disappointed at finding nothing left of their possessions worth salvaging.
A deadly shortcut had been established between the camp and the Ridge, dreadfully exposed to the enemy’s guns, it would soon gain the sobriquet of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” from a large number of men and animals killed there. It would become a truly horrible road, strewn with the dead bodies of camels, horses and bullocks left unburied, their rotting corpses adding to the already pestilential smells of the Ridge.
“Up and down this valley, past the bloated corpses and the vultures and the black swarms of flies, the table servants or kitmutgars would toil bravely with the meals for their officers on duty balanced on their heads. They had begun to use this short-cut before it became dangerous, and, being creatures of strict habit, they did not like to change their ways but ran on, in and out of bursting shells, cover with dust and flies, and occasionally with chips knocked out the crockery by shell splinters.”
Lord Roberts would later describe the Ridge as such:
“It was on the afternoon of the 8th June that the British force was placed in position on the Ridge. The main piquet was established at Hindu Rao’s house, a large stone building, in former days the country residence of some Mahratta Chief. About one hundred and eighty yards further to the left was the observatory, near which our heavy gun battery was erected. Beyond the observatory was an old Pathan mosque, in which was placed an Infantry piquet with two field-guns. Still further to the left came the Flagstaff Tower, held by a party of Infantry with two more field-guns. At the extreme right of the Ridge, overlooking the trunk road, there was a strong piquet with a heavy battery.
This was the weak point of our defence. To the right, and somewhat to the rear, was the suburb of Sabzi Mandi (vegetable market), a succession of houses and walled gardens, from which the rebels constantly threatened our flank. To protect this part of the position as much as possible, a battery of three 18-pounders and an Infantry piquet was placed on what was known as the General’s Mound, with a Cavalry piquet and two Horse Artillery guns immediately below. In front of the Ridge the ground was covered with old buildings, enclosures, and clumps of trees, which afforded only too perfect shelter to the enemy when making their sorties.”
General Barnard did not have long to wait for the enemy to attack. On the very afternoon of the 8th of June the mutineers attacked Hindu Rao’s House and would not be driven off until after dark. The very next day they began a relentless cannonade from the city walls and in the afternoon again attacked the house.
The question was, why did Barnard simply not push on and take the city on the very same day as urged by some of his officers and certainly by many who were not in Delhi, can be easily explained. What Barnard lacked most on the 8th of June besides fire power was men. He only had the force that remained after Badli-ki-Serai. This was hardly sufficient to attack a fortified city of some 7000 inhabitants who might or might not be well-intentioned, and a mutinous force of unknown quantity. Barnard, and indeed no one else could say for sure how many mutineers, fanatics and rebels were behind the red sandstone walls of the city. Over time, the number has been greatly exaggerated, with some estimates as high as 50’000! However, it must be taken into consideration, this was the beginning of the mutiny and not the end. Many of the rebellious regiments had not reached Delhi while others simply would not march to Delhi. A more sensible figure of 7500 has been offered (Christopher Hibbert, The Great Mutiny, India 1857 (1980)) but seeing as the Delhi Field Force, as Barnard’s troops were called numbered no more than 3,600 on the 8th of June, the success of an all-out attack on the city, although not impossible, would not have been met with any success without strong leadership. Barnard could not provide it with the advisors he had, so the British instead, dug their heels in on the Ridge. Although it s called the Siege of Delhi, the besiegers were in fact, themselves the besieged. General Barnard might have gained the city on the 8th of June but he would never have been able to hold it. A disaster of such magnitude would have spelt the inevitable end of British rule in India and it was one of the instances in the history of the mutiny that doing less was better than doing more, yet holding the Ridge until September would have its terrible consequences.
The Ridge in June 1857
Now that we have an idea of the position the British were destined to hold for another 3 gruelling months, we will explore the events of the siege month by month, starting in June.
The Force that was to march to Delhi was as follows:
9th Lancers, 450 sabres (Colonel Hope Grant)
75th Foot, 800 strong, (Colonel Herbert)
1st Bengal European Regiment, 800 strong,(Major Jacob)
2nd Bengal European Regiment, 550 strong (Colonel Showers)
Two troops of Horse Artillery (Major Turner and Money)
Two squadrons of the Carabineers
One wing of the 60th Rifles
Scott’s Light Field Battery
Tomb’s troop of Horse Artillery and some Sappers
Sirmoor Battalion (Major Charles Ried)
The 60th BNI and the 4th Bengal Light Cavalry were to have joined the field force but such was the distrust of native troops the 60th was removed from Ambala on 22 May, and marched towards Kurnaul but then redirected to Rohtak where they mutinied on the 10th of June.
As a precaution, the other Indian units in Ambala were disbanded, including the 4th Bengal Light Cavalry (Lancers) who were disbanded for ‘disaffection’. At that time they had an establishment of 420 men in 6 Troops. The officers of the 4th and 6th Bengal Light Cavalry thus disbanded and joined the newly created 3rd Bengal European Light Cavalry.
With the deaths and casualties after Badli-ki-Serai, the force now presented itself at barely 4000 strong. Their guns consisted of mostly light field pieces; until the 14th of August they would only have 5 heavy guns, two which had come up from Meerut and three that had been captured by the 75th a Badli-ki-Serai. For these, after the first day on the Ridge, servants were paid to bring the Artillery the round shot fired by the enemy to be reused and fired back at them. The going rate was 8 annas or one shilling for every 24 or 18-pounder, and four annas or sixpence for every 9 or 6-pounder. Writes Butler, “The rule of war is that the besiegers should outnumber the besieged by at least three to one; and here the British Force was in front of a city well fortified and having along its walls over three hundred pieces of ordnance, garrisoned by trained soldiers of all arms at least thirty to one of the besiegers and supplemented by an irregular Force double the strength of the regular Sepoys, all well armed and in possession of the finest arsenal and magazine in India.”
Until regular reinforcements began to arrive, every casualty was a calamity for the Delhi Field Force. Many lives would be lost in the first month through endless skirmishes with the mutineers while death through disease in what would soon be a pestilential camp would almost outnumber those lost to battle.
Almost all of the earliest attacks on the Ridge were concentrated on Hindu Rao’s House.
In the early morning of the 9th of June, the alarm sounded at the house, signalling the first attack in earnest of the siege. On the 9th, the Gurkhas and the 60th Rifles took up their positions to face what looked like an “unimaginative and uncoordinated attack…determined but unscientifically delivered.” Ried took the lead in front of his men and he led the Gurkhas in a swift charge which had the enemy retreating in some haste back to the city – but it took 16 hours of hard fighting to achieve this final goal. At 5 pm, close to dusk, Ried and his men returned to the cheering of every European regiment present. He had not been completely alone in his venture. Joining the Gurkhas had been the Corps of Guides and their stalwart leader, Captain Henry Daly.
The Corps of Guides
The first reinforcements to arrive on the Ridge on the 9th of June were none other than the Corps of Guides. This elite fighting unit had been raised in 1846 as the brainchild of Sir Henry Lawrence to serve as the foremost force to serve on the North West Frontier. Consisting of infantry and cavalry, their first commander was Lieutenant Henry Lumsden and as second-in-command, William Hodson. By the outbreak of the Second Sikh War, the unit had grown in size to six companies of infantry and three troops of cavalry. Following the war, they would be garrisoned in the new fort of Hoti Mardan, designed by William Hodson who had been promoted to their commander in 1852. Here they remained until 1857 when ordered to proceed with all haste to Delhi.
The Guides marched nearly 600 miles during the hottest season of the year, crossing over five immense rivers and fighting their way through 4 small battles. The Muslims of the unit who was then observing Ramadan and thus forbidden from eating or drinking during the hours of daylight accomplished this tremendous feat in just over three weeks.
There would however be no rest for the 600 Guides. Their commander Henry Daly had been met by a Staff Officer who had ridden out to meet them and asked Daly how soon they would be ready to go into action.
Daly looked at him for a moment.
“In half an hour,” he said briefly and marched his men on.
They were met by William Hodson, and they had not forgotten their one-time commandant. Hodson wrote.
“The Guides came in today- the welcome they gave me…cheering and shouting and crowding around me like frantic creatures. They seized my bridle, dress, hands and feet, and literally threw themselves down before the horse with tears streaming down their faces. Many officers who were present hardly knew what to make of it, and thought the creatures were mobbing me, and so they were – but for joy, not for mischief…”
This display of affection did much to dispel the reports that Hodson had been forced to leave the Guides due to his unpopularity with the men and must have left some of the rumour mongers at something of a shame-faced disadvantage.
Within three hours of arriving on the Ridge, the call came to “Call out the Guides!” and with no delay, Daly formed up his men.
He sent off the Guides Cavalry under Lieutenant Kennedy to blockade the road leading from the city to Suzi Mandi while he took the infantry with Lieutenants Battye and Hawes to reinforce Hindu Rao’s House.
The sudden ferocity of the Guide’s attack took the mutineers by surprise. Falling back in confusion, they were pushed on by the Guides, 25-year-old Lieutenant Quintin Battye ever in the front.
Finding himself suddenly alone and surrounded by the enemy Battye, on horseback, parried “a slashing backhand cut from a rebel with a heavy sword. It dented Quintin’s, and surely would have cut his head off had he not brilliantly guarded the blow and then felled the mutineers with one swift stroke.” Above the cacophony of the battle, the voice of Henry Daly boomed out, ” Gallant Battye! Well done, brave Battye! Noble Battye, ever in front!” The cavalry had troubles of their own busy routing the rebellious 3rd Cavalry at the Subzi Mandi crossroads. Lieutenant Kennedy was hit in the sword arm by a pistol charge forcing him to retire from the battle, but his men persevered and routed the mutineers. They now found themselves free to assist the infantry and quickly dove into the fray afresh. Sowar Mahmud Khan rushed to help the two Lieutenants, Battye still defending himself and Hawes, with blood spurting from a wound on his face. Daly was sprawled on the ground next to his dead horse, having been hit by a blast from a shell. He struggled to his feet only to be hit by a spent bullet in the leg which again laid him flat. The only officer who remained unwounded and still on his horse was Quintin Battye.
“He called to the senior Rissaldar on the spot and to Mahmud Khan to follow him, leapt from his horse and chased down a steep bushy scrub of strewn boulders to where a body of rebels was fiercely engaged with the Infantry. An echoing cry from behind told Quintin others were following to the rescue.”
Quintin did not see the man, laying concealed to one side who suddenly jumped up and wielding a heavy musket charged the lieutenant. Quintin grabbed hold of the weapon and deflected it but as they grappled “in the instance of dropping the musket fleeing, the mutineer’s finger pressed the trigger.” The shot, fired at point-blank range entered the young man’s groin and burst through his back. Barely a moment later, Mahmud Khan sprang on the mutineer and stabbed him through the heart. He was however too late to save Battye.
By the end of the day, 350 of the 600 Guides were either dead or wounded. Quintin Battye would live on, beyond help, slowly dying in Henry Daly’s tent, refusing anything to deaden the pain, saying the surgeon, “While I am alive, Dr Stewart, I want to be alive with all my faculties.” Outside the tent the Guides gathered with tears streaming down their faces, lamenting “Why not us? We can be replaced but how can such a man as Battye sahib ever be replaced? He fought his guns like a burrah lerai wallah, he dies like a burrah lerai walla.. he is a great fighter, look how he fights death!” His friends came to see him and sat by his bed, each trying in their own way to raise the young man’s spirits, and one by one, his men came into the tent, each to giving into the sorrow of seeing him one last time.
Quntin received the last Rites from Reverend Rotton (who had come up with the force from Meerut), and now waited quietly in the dawn of the 11th of June for the moment of death. Rotton called Daly and Hodson, his best friend for all times to the tent – Hodson arrived first.
“Bending closer to catch the whispered words, William heard Quintin say on a last breath, “Ah well, old fellow, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. That’s how it is…”
Although much was made of these words, uttered as they were by young man dying in indiscribable agony, they were meant less in patriotism as in irony.
A talented amateur artist with a penchant for quoting in Latin, Battye had drawn on the walls of the Hoti Mardan a spirited charicature of an charge of the Guides on the wall of the billiard room giving it the self same Latin title. Lumsden had admonished him, saying the title was “too tall” but the drawing won great favour with his friends who had recognised themselves in the drawing. This would become a “friendly joke at Battye’s expense, for when ever he received a dull or unpleasent assignment he was sure to be reminded it was “sweet and fitting.” Yet it was the unintentional patriotism and not the irony of his last words that made them legend.
Quintin Battye was the first of the 10 remarkable Battye brothers to do service in India. Another six would serve through the mutiny yet Quintin was the first to die.
We now return to events on the Ridge.
On the 10th of June, 500 mutineers sortied out of the Sabzi Mandi suburb – once again, Ried was called to advance against them, taking the 60th Rifles to his left and the Gurkhas in line to their right. The mutineers were in particular sinister humour, calling out to the Gurkhas to throw down their arms and join them. To this, the Gurkhas replied, to their surprise with their menacing war cry, “Ayo! The Gurkhas are here!” While the mutineers held back, the Sirmoor Batallion closed the distance, doubling forward in an unbroken line. At 20 yards they suddenly stopped and to the horror of the mutineers, presented arms and fired straight into the sepoys. Without waiting for another invitation, the Gurkhas then sprang forward with bayonets and kukri flashing into the fleeing mutineers, chasing them back to the Ajmere Gate. When the artillery on the bastions took their aim at the Gurkhas the wily hillmen turned and retreated.
It would be a relentless fight.
On the 11th, the Gurkhas again faced off against the mutineers, and then set them to a chase again on the 13th, repelling them both times. Reinforcements for the mutineers were now coming in quickly and fast, and General Barnard had no way of stopping the relentless attacks. His only strategy was to counter them as and when they came.
The morning of the 12th of June brought once again a surprise when a number of the mutineers were seen to be gathering the gardens and covered ground close to Metcalfe House. This once imposing mansion had been gutted and destroyed on the 11th of May, its owner Sir Theophilus forced to run in extraordinary circumstances for his life, leaving his magnificent library and beautiful grounds and the mercy of plundering Gujars. The last to see the house intact had been Lieutenant Vibart -shortly after his party had left the tyekhanna of the building, it was set on fire, engulfing not just the magnificent library but a curious collection of busts of Napoleon. However the racquet court was still intact and some officers, later in the siege would engage in spirited games, albeit with the added thrill of sniper fire.
To cover the Flagstaff Tower and thus the nearby Metcalfe House, Barnard had ordered two light guns under Lieutenant Bishop and a detachment of the 75th to take up the position. Unbeknownst to them, on the 12th, an enemy had managed to sneak along, sheltered from sight by the trees and gather, some 200 in all, in the racquet court. They then managed to gain the left brow of the ridge, in an attempt to take the guns in the flank.
Bishop quickly turned the guns but not before Captain Knox and several men of the 75th had been killed by the rapidly advancing mutineers. The 75th quickly took shelter behind Flagstaff Tower while the mutineers continued their advance to within 20 yards of the guns, killing four artillerymen. Recovering from the shock, the 75th rallied and coming forward now charged the mutineers, driving them back.
To prevent another attack of this kind, a large piquet, with two strong posts, was established near Metcalfe House. One on a small hillock surrounded by trees, another in the stables whose walls were heightened by sandbags. It would now be impossible for the enemy to pass in any number to the left of the British position which was closed in by Metcalfe House.
On the 13th, Ried had received a warning, that a dawn attack was imminent although the circumstances which will be explained below, were somewhat marred in controversy. He watched with patience as 5000 mutineers made their advance in line over open ground, led by their officers who had remembered their training, and yelled at their men to keep their intervals straight. Ried waited until the mass was close enough before he let loose a violent volley of grape and musketry fire. The Gurkhas stood firm as Ried then led three companies in a charge, forcing the mutineers back over the ground they had just covered, driving them back once again to the city.
He would sadly report 3 killed, 11 wounded and three right arms amputated in this action alone – by the end of June, he had lost 138 of his Gurkhas, with the 60th Rifles reporting similar losses.
Nor did things improve when General Reed, the old, infirm and bewildered general surreptitiously sent packing by John Lawrence to do his duty in Delhi as the senior most officer in lieu of Anson on his death, arrived on the Ridge on the 10th of June. Frail and sick, he immediately took to his bed and let Barnard continue the operations. His obvious senility had a terrible effect however on Barnard who until then had had command of the Ridge and he took the old man’s arrival as a slur on his abilities. Barnard was a Crimea veteran and a man with much military experience but not in India. He had only just arrived and knew neither the men he commanded nor the country he was now expected to subdue. The very thought of Reed on the Ridge drove Barnard to inaction – unable to eat or sleep, he soon retired to his tent and retreated from his impossible responsibility. It did not help that the men who should have been helping him were less than useless.
Major Laughton as the senior Engineer was to have been busy working out a plan to breach the walls of Delhi – instead, he spent his time in his tent in the company of his young and demanding Persian wife who had been allowed, by some oversight to accompany her husband into the field of battle. To the disgust of the men, she had brought with her a veritable siege train of goods for her own comfort – some 30 camels and heavily laden carts – and her demands on Laughton were to the extent he never left his tent. He was more than willing to pass off all his responsibilities onto junior offers and indeed on anyone willing to take them.
The second thorn Barnard had to contend with besides a useless chief engineer was the ever-vacillating Archdale Wilson of Meerut infamy. As Chief of Artillery, he openly dissuaded Barnard from even attempting any active operations, thus leaving a camp full of younger men to convince their seniors something must be done.
Wearied by the constant badgering of his juniors, Barnard finally relented to let them come up with a plan.
The one with the loudest voice but deemed too incoherent and too excited was young Wilberforce Greathed of the Engineers. He was joined by William Hodson, George Chesney and Frank Mansell to work out a plan to attack Delhi. Hodson quipped “Times must be changed, when four subalterns are called upon to suggest a means of carrying out so vital an Enterprise as this – on which the safety of the Empire depends!”
The plan, called “Project of Attack on the City of Delhi, prepared for Submission to Major-General Sir H. Barnard, K.C.B., Camp Delhi Cantonment, 11th June 1857” was quickly approved by Barnard, now infinitely relieved that something had been finally committed to paper – without any idea if the plan would actually work.
The attack was set for the 13th of June, the main element being a complete surprise. In their excitement to put the plan into action, which entailed withdrawing virtually all the fighting men from the piquets and leaving the entire Ridge unguarded while the force crept up to the very walls of Delhi and blew in the gates, they had failed to inform the most senior officers.
On receiving orders to withdraw his men, Brigadier Graves as Officer of the Day, rightly baulked. The order was brought by an excited young subaltern and Graves lost no time in asking if the man had lost his mind. The subaltern continued to demand Graves form his men into an assault column but as Graves had not the foggiest notion of what the subaltern was on about, decided to as Barnard directly what was happening.
In the meantime, word had gotten about that an attack was planned but the men waited as there seemed to be no one able or willing to lead them or even tell them to march – only the Rifles advanced and that too within 300 yards of the walls where they were to blow up one of the gates and thus start the surprise attack against Delhi. Their efforts came to nothing – Graves spent too much time satisfying himself that Barnard had indeed ordered an attack on the city and by the time it was finally agreed the order had been authentic, the day had broken and the element of surprise was lost. The Rifles were recalled and the siege continued unhindered.
Brigadier Graves was forced to take the blame for the whole fiasco – although he rightly pointed out that leaving the camp unguarded with but a few cavalry and hundreds of camp followers was a folly of the highest order, he was still ostracized by his fellow officers, to the point he was eventually forced to leave the Ridge. Putting in for four months of sick leave, Graves left Delhi before the end of June.
Plans for a second assault fell through with no one willing to take the responsibility of giving an actual order. Barnard deferred to Colonel Young who then suggested Greathed and Reed should be asked for their opinions – in the end, it was decided to simply wait for reinforcements. Meanwhile, the attacks by the mutineers continued.
Metcalfe House was attacked again on the 15th of June, in great force with severe fighting between the mutineers and men of the 75th. Four horse artillery guns were brought down and brought into swift play, causing the mutineers to retreat but not until they had put up a fierce struggle. It was around now the artillery from the walls of Delhi started their incessant firing at the Ridge, probably to distract from the fact the mutineers were busy building a battery of their own, to the right of Hindu Rao’s House.
By the 17th of June, men were noticed carrying baskets of earth and with some stealth, a force was collecting to the right across the road. 400 men of the 1st Fusiliers, the 60th Rifles, Tombs troop of horse artillery, thirty horsemen of the Guides and a few sappers and miners were told off to stop what looked like an imminent attack.
To confuse the mutineers, only Major Tombs was told where they were going while orders were given and then countermanded on short notice to further add to the enemy’s bafflement, leaving them with the idea that the British still had no idea they were there. What they did not realise was that Ried was already advancing with the Gurkhas and Rifles from the Hindu Rao’s House while Tombs took his men and proceeded from the left. The batteries then opened fire on Lahore Gate, whose guns would have been able to reach the advancing squadrons.
At the first, the rebel cavalry prepared to charge, misjudging the numbers advancing – when they noticed the infantry advancing behind the few Guides that had been sent forward, they fled without any resistance, while their infantry, taken completely by surprise, turned and ran, some throwing down their arms as they went back to the city. Others took up a position in a mosque the walls of which were furnished with loopholes. From here they began firing on Tombs and his men. Tombs was their obvious target – with his loud voice he caught their attention and they quickly deprived him of his horse, killing it beneath him.
Undaunted, Tombs ordered the riflemen to go up and fire into the loopholes while others were sent to force the doors. The sappers poured a train of gunpowder, a bag was attached to the gates and the explosion forced not just the doors but killed 39 sepoys instantly. He then went on and captured a 9-pounder gun.
For his part, Major Ried was no less successful, destroying not just the foundling battery but the accompanying magazine while setting a village and a serai on fire. The losses for the British on the 18th of June amounted to three killed and 15 wounded, among the Captain Brown of the Fusiliers, dangerously.
The constant reinforcements received by the mutineers were starting to show. While the Delhi Field Force continued to fight without sleep and often without even a chance to eat, constantly under fire and on alert, the mutineers were able to organise one attack after another unrelentingly every day. On the 19th, they attempted to force their way to the Ridge once again, this time attacking the British from two sides.
Facing the British was a fresh force – the Nasirabad brigade with 2 regiments of infantry, a company of cavalry with a horse battery of artillery. They had until now been forbidden to enter the city but were encamped just beyond the Lahore Gate. Through the morning of the 19th, the British watched this large force with increased trepidation, but no attack seemed imminent – until the enemy disappeared amongst the gardens to the right of the ridge and the news of their ultimate destination was brought in by some sowars belonging to the Raja of Jhind. The attack, they reported was to take place to the rear of the position.
Tombs horse artillery was the first on the ground, twelve guns of the three troops fell upon the enemy, bearing for a time the full brunt of the attack with the rest of the camp scrambled into action, recalling men from piquets and forming up. The fire from the Nusseerabad Brigade was steady and well-distributed and supported by infantry sheltered by the covered ground, Tombs’ guns were soon in danger of being over-run. Tombs soon found himself under a severe attack of musketry from sepoys cleverly concealed in a thicket where he could not reach them with guns. As the Guides rode up with Daly in the lead, Tombs called out,
“Daly, if you do not charge, my guns are taken.”With barely a dozen men following him, Daly obliged and spurred into the thicket, earning himself a bullet in the shoulder but his prompt action saved the guns.
Meanwhile, Captain Money’s troops took ground on the left towards Sabzi Mandi and although taken in flank and subjected to severe firing from the enemy artillery, Money managed to push them back, gaining ground for the British but one of his guns was disabled on the process and his horse killed. Another gun, belonging to the 3rd troop under Lieutenant Bishop was dismounted and momentarily abandoned when Bishop was wounded.
Although it was mostly an artillery affair up to this point, the lancers now came up and charged the enemy, who turned and took them in flank in a narrow lane and inflicted losses on their numbers. Brigadier Hope Grant entered the fray holding command of his men but he too had his horse killed under him and for a moment, thus dismounted and disorientated, would be rescued by one of his native orderlies and some lancers. In the ensuing confusion, with dusk coming on rapidly, it became difficult to ascertain who was fighting who. The British force was too small and scattered to press the enemy back at all the points, with one wing now fighting a mile away from the Ridge, while another was so close their grapeshot fell on the banks of the canal. They hurried up, without any particular plan and simply plunged into the melee. The lancers were fired upon by the British artillery, and Captain Money was twice told to turn his guns on what turned out to be British carabiniers. One of Major Scott’s wagons was blown up before anyone realised it did not belong to the enemy, while the infantry was held back to protect the Ridge. They were only sent forward as dark was setting in and finally the enemy was pushed back. Only the flashes of artillery told the fight was still raging.
Gradually, even those flashes ceased and the men came back to the camp bringing in the wounded on the gun wagons. There was no joy in the victory – the losses had been hard and it was the first time the enemy had turned out with any real intent. The QuarterMaster General Colonel Becher was wounded and the horse of Colonel Yule had returned riderless. Daly was wounded and some of the infantry had been seen flinching during their attack, four guns had been disabled and many officers and men besides were dead while the enemy now settled themselves down to the rear of the Ridge. The dispirited Delhi Force laid itself down for a night of restless sleep.
Early the next morning the men were assembled again this time to drive the enemies from the rear of the camp but it proved to be something of a strange affair.
“We came upon a sight which convinced us that their loss could not have been light. At one spot alone forty of them were lying, their bodies torn by the ghastly woulds of cannon-shot…Some were still alive,; one man stated he had come along with the brigade from Nasirabad, a solitary deserter of the 1st Bombay Light Cavalry. He was spared on request of the Rajah of Jheend. He said they were refused admitance to Delhi and order to go and fight, after which they would get 10 rupees and month and two hundred once. Fify-five horses were said to have been counted on the ground… The body of Colonel Yule was found, rifled ald mutilated..A willage about a mile further on was occupied by the enemy…At any rate, no attempt was made to cope with us,; a few shells drove them out. A gun, on which some wounded men were strapped was overtaken and brought in…”
In the midst of this, a few rebels came back as the force was withdrawing and “wheeled up a gun so close to our tents that the round shot passed through the Headquarter camp. Having executed this bravado, they galloped off. The alarm of the camp followers across the canal was renewed, they rushed with one accord to the nearest bridge. Soldiers mixed up with them, rushing to the front, knocking them about without any apology and troopers trying, with much swearing to push their frightened horses against the stream. Our forces had turned out upon the plain and clouds of dust hindered us from seeing what was going on; our artillery blazing away at an imaginary enemy; and a regiment of infantry was made to lie down by a wary old brigadier, to avoid vollies that never came.”
The losses from the previous day amounted to three officers and nineteen men killed, and seven officers and seventy men wounded and sixty horses unfit for further duty. One of the officers killed and four of those wounded belonged to the 60th Rifles.
As a result of the attack on the 19th, a piquet was established to guard the rear of the Ridge, and two heavy guns were mounted to increase the defence. The next concentrated attack would come on the 23rd of June, the centenary of the Battle of Plassey.
“Let the soldiers go forth and smite the Feringhees without fear”
“The astrologers had calculated it, the holy Brahmins had read it; the spirits of the conjurors and the dice of the soothsayers all told the same tale. It was written, that assuredly on this day the reign of the white people would be over…”
With this powerful assurance in their minds, the mutineers opened a brisk cannonade from the walls and their whole force marched out occupying not just Sabzi Mandi but the suburb of Kissengan with the idea of laying waste not just to the Ridge but the batteries.
Without delay, the British sent forward their infantry, while a small body of cavalry and artillery was sent to the rear to cover the entrance of Major Olpherts long-awaited reinforcements. He was in pursuit of the mutinous Jullunder Brigade who had but recently reached Delhi. Olpherts march had been uneventful and his force substantial, consisting of four guns of the 1st European troop, 1st Brigade of the Horse Artillery, part of a native troop commanded by Captain Renny, a company of the 75th Foot, some men of the 2nd Fusiliers, the 4th Sikh Infantry, and a wing of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry. It numbered in all, no more than 850 men.
While Olpherts made his entrance to the Ridge, the infantry was engaged in a severe fight in the Sabzi Mandi. The sepoys held the houses and the serais and from the roofs poured unrelenting fire on the British. Clearing the roads was only one job – the other was forcing the houses. As soon as the infantry turned from the road, it was immediately filled again by sepoys. The battle inched its way towards the Ridge, the shouts of the men and the “words of command could be heard by the artillery at the foot of the mound, waiting to cover the infantry should they be driven in; sometimes it seemed as if our troops were driving far before them.”
Hodson’s network of spies who worked tirelessly bringing in intelligence from the city while sowing disinformation on the city side and exaggeration on the British side reported with some satisfaction the battle had left the mutineers disspirited. Their prophets had deceived them and the great victory in the 100 years after Plassey was not to be had on this day and indeed on none other. The British for their part were surprised they had won the day. It should have been easy for such a superior force to hold and strengthen Sabzi Mandi and Kissenganj and then shelled the Ridge into oblivion. Yet it did not happen – the mutineers once again turned and fled back to the walls of the city leaving the British room to place a piquet in the Sabzi Mandi which they defended from some strong houses and across the road from Hindu Rao’s House take over a temple the men nicknamed Sammy House.
Both positions were quickly fortified and a breast-work built that ran along the Ridge to the main batteries making it impossible for the enemy to advance again along the road leading to the rear of the camp without being exposed to deathly fire from the British guns.
Brigadier Showers had been given command of the force but instead of leaving the actual running of the battle to his discretion, he was hindered from relentlessly, with Barnard and some officers watching the progress of the fight from the Mound Piquet, Barnard stating he could tell the course of the battle from the smoke. His officers complained that the “order of retreat would come when they had driven the enemy back and the order to advance when they had the worst of it.” Somehow the small force managed to drive the mutineers back to the walls of Delhi and by nightfall, Sabzi Mandi was in British hands. The losses were telling on the force. One officer, Lieutenant Jackson of the Fusiliers and 38 men were killed, Colonel Welshman 1st Fusiliers were dangerously wounded, 2 other officers were severely wounded and 118 men in all wounded.
As for Olphert, his reinforcements did nothing to raise the camp’s spirits. He had expected by this time, Barnard would be sitting comfortably in the city itself, not fighting for his very existence on an outcrop of rocks with hardly enough men to ward off imminent destruction. Shortly after his arrival, a man less prone to grumbling arrived with the next reinforcements to take the position of Adjutant-General, one Brigadier Chamberlain.
“Everything will be right when Chamberlain comes! and all took courage when they saw his stern, pale face.”
Known as a cavalry officer of some daring with a reputation that preceded him, he had gained much well-deserved praise for his handling of the Punjab Moveable Column in the first desperate weeks of the mutiny. He was indefatigably ambitious and as promotion in the service was too slow for his liking he found the shorter route of risking life and “playing ten to one with death” was a certain way, provided he survived to secure the position he wanted. He was a man of the same breed as Nicholson and Hodson – courage personified but without the experience in leading armies. This gave rise to a singular conundrum with generals split into two camps – daring guerilla leaders who stopped at nothing to get the job done but with little regard for the blood they spilt or “worn out old men who had gained their rank by living long, unnerved by age and the exhausting climate of India, perfectly incapable of doing the rough work required of them, but with rank and influence sufficient to obstruct those who were able to do it.” At Delhi, there were too few of the former and too many of the latter. With the advent of Neville Chamberlain on the Ridge, it was hoped the tide would finally turn.
Following the desperate battle for the Sabzi Mandi, the attacks on the Ridge, though no less fierce, lessened in frequency. However, the death toll for the British in these skirmishes was by no means lessened and men continued to be lost in “useless affairs.” Officers refused to remain behind the breastworks and continued to sally out to meet the enemy on their ground, and the cost was starting to tell. On the 27th of June, another attack was made on the Metcalfe and Sabzi Mandi piquets and could only be repulsed with substantial losses with 62 wounded. On the 30th yet another pitched battle took place, costing the lives of Lieutenant Yorke of the 4th Sikhs and dangerously wounding Lieutenant Blair of the 2nd Fusiliers. The cry to finally attack the city continued to grow, but General Barnard looked out on the scene and decided waiting for reinforcements was probably the wisest course of action. By now the red walls of the city were teeming with mutineers while the British were barely holding their own.
On the 28th of June, a day after the monsoon rains began in earnest, the Her Majesty’s 8th Regiment of Foot numbering 400 men arrived in Delhi, “about the strength to which almost every regiment in camp was reduced.” Major Olphert’s guns, Captain Renny and some foot artillery from Lahore made their appearance, bringing with them a newly raised body of Sikh artillery, comprising of old gunners who had won their scars in the far off battles of Ferozeshur and Chillianwallah.
Shortly after with the arrival of Her Majesty’s 61st Regiment, the 1st Punjab Infantry and a squadron of the 5th Punjab Cavalry the force on the Ridge swelled to 6600 men.
July was now but days away and changes were starting to happen on the Ridge – the first tumultuous month was over but the siege was only just beginning.
Letters Written During the Siege of Delhi by H.H. Greathed Esq, -edited by his Widow (1858)
Twelve Years of a Soldiers Life in India Being Extracts from the Letters of the Late Major W.S.R. Hodson, B.A . – edited by his brother, the Rev. George H. Hodson, M.A. (1859)
History of the Siege of Delhi by an Officer who served there – W.W. Ireland (1861)
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 – Colonel G.B. Malleson, C.S.I. (1891)
The Siege of Delhi in 1857, A Short Account – compiled by Major-General A.G. Handcock C.B. (1897)
Forty-One Years in India Vol I – Field Marshal Lord Roberts (1897)
Delhi-1857 – edited by General Sir Henry Wylie Norman and Mrs Keith Young (1902)
A History of the Indian Mutiny – T. Rice Holmes (1904)
Richard Baird Smith – the Leader of the Delhi Heroes in 1857 – Colonel H.M. Vibart, R.E. (1907)
The Punjab and Delhi in 1857 Vol I- Rev. J. Cave-Browne M.A. (1911)
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 – A Sketch of Principal Military Events – Captain F.R. Sedgwick, Royal Field Artillery (Reprinted 1919)
The Red Fort – An Account of the Siege of Delhi – James Leasor (1956)
The Great Mutiny, India 1857 – Christopher Hibbert (1980)
The Siege of Delhi -Mutiny Memories of an Old Officer – Richard Barter, (London, the Folio Society, 1984)
The Fighting Ten – Evelyn Désirée Battye (1984)