Writing about 1857 is as much a study of human character as it is about events. The scene is also too often dominated by generals. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages, from old ones like Hugh Wheeler who was over 70 during the horrible days of Cawnpore to the young and suddenly promoted, John Nicholson. Some rose to the occasion as masters of men while others proved to be an embarrassment and at their worst, a liability. There was enough blame for blunders to go around – in fact as much blame as there was generals.
Some we have already met.
Brigadier-General Henry Lawrence, General Hewitt, and General Sir Hugh Wheeler
Henry Lawrence was undoubtedly a gifted administrator. He had the ability to move freely at all levels of society, something which many colonials of their time (and their wives, no less) were unable, or unwilling, to do. He followed his intuition, rationally assessed the situation he was facing and made the necessary preparations, thus, in effect, saving the Lucknow garrison from starvation and ultimate defeat. It is hard to see how the actions of this sensitive and above all, incredibly sensible man could be construed as heroic, when it seems, from our modern point of view, it is nothing more than anyone else in his shoes would have done. Yet what sets Henry Lawrence apart from his contemporaries, like General Wheeler of Cawnpore, or General Hewitt at Meerut, is when faced with an impossible situation, they are remembered for what they did not do.
Henry Lawrence was not the only leader faced with a crisis in 1857. From Meerut to Cawnpore, from Jhansi to Gwalior, Sitapore to Allahabad, the Indian countryside was in flames, burning under the might of a furious presidency. The revolt spread swiftly – not everyone had the time to plan and prepare as Henry Lawrence had done, however had others been following the signs and portents, as Henry Lawrence had done, the damage might have been better controlled.
At the extreme end of the scale, in Meerut, when mutiny broke out on the 10th of May, the station’s commanders did nothing at all to counteract the initial outbreak. As the station burned and the Christian community was hunted down and murdered, Hewitt, for one, in the words of Fitchett,
“..had neither the energy or the resolution. He had drowsed and nodded his way through some fifty years of routine service, rising by mere seniority. He was now old, obese, indolent and notoriously incapable. He had agreeable manners and a soothing habit of ignoring the disagreeable. Lord Melbourne’s favourite question, “Why can’t you leave it alone?” represented General Hewitt’s intellect…In General Hewitt’s case, the familiar fable of an army of lions commanded by an ass, was translated into history once more.”
General Hewitt failed not only as a commander, but as a man -an unpardonable sin. Comparatively speaking, Meerut was the station in the Bengal Presidency where the mutiny should have failed as it had some 2,028 Europeans against 2,057 natives soldiers. Meerut lacked a Henry Lawrence. Instead, it had what many stations had in 1857, a General Hewitt; a man who had never taken leave in 50 years of service in India, and now at the end of his career, was overly fond of the table and had probably long since forgotten war – he hadn’t seen one since the First Burmese War in 1824.
In his defence, Hewitt said,
“As soon as the alarm was given, the artillery, carabineers, and 60th Rifles were got under arms, but by the time we reached the native parade ground, it was too dark to act with efficiency in that direction; consequently the troops were retired to the north of the nullah, to cover the barracks and officers lines of the artillery carabineers and 60th Rifles, which were, with the exception of one house preserved!”
What it came down to finally, was a matter of red tape. Hewitt explained that while he was responsible for the district, Archdale Wilson was in fact commanding the station. However, Wilson believed he was under the directions of Hewitt, and since Hewitt ordered nothing, he, in consequence did nothing. Hewitt’s masterly inactivity was complete; he did not even send a warning to the city the mutineers were heading to next: Delhi was taken completely by surprise.
If Meerut had been commanded by a young and clever commander, could the course of the mutiny have been changed? Perhaps it could have been stayed for a while – the deplorable humiliation of the men on the parade ground should never have happened – but most likely, it would have come to an outbreak in the end anyway. Lord Roberts (of Kandahar fame) believed that a pursuit of the mutineers by the Meerut force would have been futile and nothing that the commanders could do would ultimately have saved Delhi.
Of course in the rogues gallery of Meerut, we cannot forget Archdale Wilson.
As we will be seeing a lot of General Wilson in the upcoming siege of Delhi, it is just as well he makes his appearance here.
As the Brigadier Commandant of Bengal Artillery at Meerut, Wilson came under his fair share of blame for pursuing a course of doing not much while Meerut burned. As explained above, he felt Hewitt was in charge – basically, he shifted the blame to regulations. Like Hewitt, Wilson had not seen much active service – at the age of 53, his last battle of note was in 1826 at the siege of Bhurtpore, and then he took part in some smaller skirmishes during the Second Sikh War some 8 years previous. According to Lord Roberts, (in 1857 only Lieutenant Roberts), Wilson was a “soldier of moderate capacity” and this appears to sum him up rather well. Unfortunately for Hewitt, Wilson had better friends – Hewitt was thrown to the dogs for his handling of the troops at Meerut and Wilson was, of all things, promoted to the position of commander of the Delhi Field Force no less. He was, as things go, the best senior officer at Delhi which does not say much for the army.
Wilson would prove he was a capable organiser and the Delhi Field Force would certainly benefit under his methods. He was a capable artilleryman at least and his directions to the officers prior to the assault showed skill. But it is unlikely that the tactical planning was actually his, even though he was give much credit for it. While in Delhi, Wilson had to be prevented several times from withdrawing the entire force and his persistent dithering (in Meerut he hid behind regulations, in Delhi, his prime excuse was he didn’t have enough men) regarding any action at all, led many officers to question Wilson’s actual capabilities. Although Wilson received many accolades and is remembered today as great general, it is highly unlikely that many of his contemporaries, especially those who served under him Meerut, would agree.
As for Lieutenant-Colonel. George Munro Carmichael-Smyth –
“The impression which one has about him is that of a possibly disappointed and difficult character, a man shadowed by promise not fulfilled and certainly deficient in judgement; a deficiency which often ruins all”
He would accompany Wilson to Delhi, serve as a political officer and then die of sickness in September following the assault and he and his 47 year career in the army would fade out of history.
Another spectacular failure during the Mutiny was Cawnpore. The commander of that ill-fated station was General Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler. At 75, he was no longer fighting fit –
“(and a man) no matter how brave, in whose veins ran the chill and thin blood of old age, was tragically handicapped in a crisis so fierce.”
General Wheeler, unlike Hewitt and Wilson, did plenty. He set up his defences, albeit inadequate and severely lacking in common sense. Instead of choosing the Cawnpore Magazine as the place to make his last stand, where he would at least have had strong buildings, a huge supply of guns and ammunition and 3 acres of space to shelter the civilian population, he chose a patch of ground 6 miles away, with practically no water supply. Around it he built a thin wall of dirt and into it, he crowded the European population of Cawnpore. The outcome was predictably disastrous.
Where did General Wheeler fail? Unkindly, many of his contemporaries believed it was his close associations with “natives” that was his downfall – his wife was the daughter of an English officer and an Indian woman. In reality, he took too many things for granted. Like many other commanders at the time, General Wheeler did not believe the entire force would mutiny and in the same effect, he also believed that if they did, they would march immediately to enforce their brethren in Delhi. He also had implicit faith in Nana Sahib. Of course, he wasn’t the only one – the Nana had convinced many in Cawnpore of his fidelity and loyalty to the British, but it was Wheeler who was in charge. After 21 days of siege and catastrophic losses, the entrenchment at Cawnpore surrendered to the Nana Sahib, who had proved himself to be as vengeful an opponent as they come. His name became synonymous with the ultimate massacre of the garrison at the Satichaura Ghat, and the infamous slaughter at the Bibighar but it is General Wheeler who has been held responsible for all history.
However, General Wheeler has been described variously as heroic, and as a man, gallant. His main problem was not his leadership, it was argued, but that he was encumbered with some 700 hundred civilians, many of whom were the wives and children of the men of the 32nd, stationed at Lucknow. He only had 300 fighting men to face down a well trained army of thousands. So was the downfall of Cawnpore really his fault alone? Had he been without the civilians, as outnumbered as he was, it is unlikely he would have fared any better. However, the garrison of Cawnpore could have made a noble last stand and would have gone into the Victorian mind as valiant men grimly facing adversity to the bitter end comparable perhaps to the last stand at Gandamak. Their ending was finally only horrifically tragic and served to feed the public’s growing lust for macabre tales of the mutiny.
Perhaps Sir Hugh would have found some comfort in the Victoria Cross bestowed posthumously on his grandson, George Godfrey Massy Wheeler. “In April 15, 1915, at Shariba, Mesopotamia, Major Wheeler led his squadron to attempt to capture a flag which was the centre point of a group of the enemy who were firing on one of their pickets. He advanced and attacked the enemy’s infantry with the lance, causing the enemy to swarm out of hidden ground. He was next seen far ahead of his men, riding single-handed straight for the enemy’s standards, when he was killed in the attack. For most conspicuous bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on August 31, 1915.”
The Generals Who Couldn’t and Wouldn’t
There are three men who could have changed the course of events – had they had a chance.
Major-General The Hon. George Anson, CB
Having had only a few months active service as a subaltern, even if some of those included the Battle of Waterloo, he had been gone on half-pay as a lieutenant-colonel in 1825. Anson made more of a mark as a politician than as an army officer – as MP for Great Yarmouth from 1818 to 1835, Stoke-on-Trent 1836-1837 and the southern division of Staffordshire from 1837-1853.
As ADC to Wellington in 1842, Anson was promoted to Major-General in 1851. In 1853, he made the jump to a staff position in the army in India, and was placed in command of the Meerut Division. Not that this lasted very long – by 1854 he was Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army and swiftly stepped up to Commander-in-Chief of the entire army in India in 1855. It was not promotion by merit or based on experience and was seen as “Horse Guards Patronage at it’s worst.”
Having come from the Queen’s Army, Anson showed considerable bias against the East India Company army; his ADC’s were all Queen’s men and he showed disdain against the sepoys in general, saying he could never look a sepoy sentry “without turning away in disgust at his un-soldier like appearance.” He also believed the sepoys were ” pampered – and have grown insolent beyond bearing”. In March 1857, following the incident with Mangal Panday in Barrackpore, Anson, at the time in Ambala, did try to quash the rumours that the government was meddling with caste and creed by addressing Indian officers on parade, and he also ordered the immediate cessation of all target practice in the depots to prevent further problems caused by the new drill. While an investigation into the rumour regarding the grease used on the cartridges themselves was also ordered by him, he did not actually seem to take a real interest in the general feeling of the army. As an officer later stated, “Redress and inquiry were both inconvenient so the headquarters’ camp marched to Simla.” Along with his entire staff, the Commander-in-Chief was safely enjoying the cooler climes of the hills when he probably threw some fuel at a an already smouldering fire – it was with Anson’s sanction that the court martial took place in Meerut and his approval was given for the punishment of the 85 men.
On the 12th of May he received first word from Ambala that something was terribly amiss in the plains.
From his post in the Punjab the brother of Sir Henry, the rather feistier and certainly less patient John Lawrence started urging Anson to march on Delhi, as quickly as possible – the mutiny was in it’s starting stages and a quick, decisive action – even if it could not have stopped it – would have been an outward sign of strength. Yet the best men for the job of stamping out a mutiny were all in the Punjab; Bengal unfortunately was at the mercy of “idiot after idiot,” and the Commander-in-Chief was seen as “dilatory” and “undecided” which is a little unfair as Anson did after all order that all the arsenals in the Punjab be secured, and he also had three European infantry regiments close at hand. The 75th Foot at Kasauli were ordered on the 12th of May to Ambala, and by the 14th the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers at Dagshai and the 2nd at Subathu were also marched off. Anson then ordered the Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas at Dehra Dun and the Sappers and Miners at Roorki were sent to Meerut. Although he had not been idle, obviously making good use of the telegram (although while in Simla, despite receiving news via telegram he insisted most vehemently on waiting for the post!) Anson himself seemed reluctant to proceed to Delhi. On the 17th of May, despite the badgering from Lawrence in the Punjab and Lord Canning’s remonstrances from Calcutta that Delhi be retaken as quickly as possible, Anson wrote to Lawrence, “ It becomes now a matter of for your consideration, whether it would be prudent to risk the small European force we have here in an enterprise on Delhi. I think not. It is wholly, in my opinion, insufficient for the purpose.” To Lawrence’s absolute horror, Anson further stated he could not imagine he would be anywhere near ready to move for at least another 20 days, 16 at the earliest.
Lawrence’s reply was anything but kind – insisting that since the harvest had been good, supplies on route would not be a problem and if Anson really wanted to, he could be ready in three days and a succession of riding and marching would not do the army any harm.
With his logistical problems -whether real or imagined – not making an impression on either Canning or Lawrence, Anson now in Ambala, finally did march on the 23rd of May.
Not that he got very far. On the 27th of May, General Anson died in Karnal of cholera.
His successor was “a dear old gentleman, always chatty and jolly” by the name of Sir Henry Barnard.
Sie Henry Barnard
Though rather easily swayed by the opinions of others, everyone liked Sir Henry. His gentlemanly manners and his “desire to please everyone when it lay in his power” he was certainly more respected than his predecessor. Everything Barnard had, he had worked for- unlike Anson, he was at least a true military man even if most his appointments had been on staff. Born in 1799, he was educated at Westminster and Sandhurst, joining the Guards at the age of 15. He then served in France, Jamaica and Canada and then in the Crimea where was made Chief of Staff to General Simpson before arriving in India in 1857.
Eager to prove he was more forceful than Anson, he pushed the army at some speed to reach Delhi despite the searing May heat. Unfortunately, Barnard did little to stop the obvious vengeful blood lust of his subordinates who now took it upon themselves to burn every village they crossed on their way to Delhi hanging any villager they could find on the pretence of only punishing those who had treated the fugitives badly. Trials, if indeed there were any trials, were quick, trumped up affairs followed by swift hanging. Even the tongue lashing given to the men by Colonel Hope Grant who admonished them that more harm would come of their behaviour than good, the violence did not stop. Mutiny by one had given way to revenge by the other. Vicious retribution would become a mainstay of the uprising for its bloody remainder.
Barnard’s decisive victory at Badli-ki-Serai (an event which shall be mentioned in more detail in a later post) the British regained the Ridge at Delhi, and according to the historian, Kaye,
“‘It gave us an admirable base of operations—a commanding military position—open in the rear to the lines along which thenceforth our reinforcements and supplies and all that we looked for to aid us in the coming struggle were to be brought. And, great as this gain was to us in a military sense, the moral effect was scarcely less; for behind the ridge lay the old cantonments, from which a month before the British had fled for their lives. On the parade-ground the British headquarters were now encamped, and the familiar flag of the Feringhees was again to be seen from the houses of the imperial city.’
What followed was four weeks of stalemate with neither the sepoys in the fortified city of Delhi nor the British on the Ridge making any headway – it would have been any easy victory but the sepoys did not seem to understand that they outnumbered the British 6 to one or out gunned them 4 to 1 – relentless as the fighting was, the sepoys could not get the British off the Ridge.
On the 5th of July, Sir Henry William Barnard succumb to cholera. It would be another 11 weeks before Delhi would be retaken.
General Sir Thomas Reed took over where Barnard left off – commanding the Delhi Field Force and in the position of Provisional Commander-in-Chief in Bengal. Despite his long career which included Waterloo and various battles in India, Reed was settling in as commander of troops in the Punjab, based in Rawalpindi – at the age of 61, he was not expecting this unwelcome promotion. Yet leave he did and by the 8th of June he had joined up with the Delhi Field Force. A senior most officer in Bengal by rights he should have been Commander-in-Chief and not Sir Henry, but ill-health forced Reed to leave the position with Barnard instead. Upon Barnard’s death, he could no longer refuse.
No one really expected much of General Reed, and he was readily ridiculed in Delhi for ” his slender talents” and his obvious procrastination, refusing outright to move upon the city without substantial reinforcements. Not that it really mattered. By the 17th of July, the constant worries, stress and ill-health forced Reed to resign his position, writing to the Governor General, Lord Canning that ‘my shattered state of health has compelled my medical officers to urge my immediate removal to the hills, and I accordingly leave camp for Simla to-night.’ Before leaving he appointed Archdale Wilson as his successor – he was not the most senior officer but simply seen as the most capabale. Wilson carried on much as he had always done – by doing not terribly much.
For General Sir Thomas Reed the mutiny was over. Seeing no further field service, but receiving a few more promotions he was placed on the retired list finally in 1877, dying at home in Romsey in 1883.
The Sinners and the Saints
The Mutiny, like any war is studded liberally with dreadfulness and it cannot be quantified in measures. Our modern view point is somewhat narrow and we want our villains and heroes to be clearly distinguishable from one another. Following this logic, the argument that the British should not have been in India in the first place, is often made, while choosing to forget that the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch were there too, albeit in smaller numbers and obviously confined to much smaller areas. While on the face of it this is true – no nation has the right to colonise another, but I do not hear the same condemnation being flung at the Mughals who, by the time the British got there were on a slow and steady decline, but their initial take over of India was not exactly paved with roses and good will.
However, where I find myself torn in this argument is when it comes to indiscriminate slaughter. Whether one was supposed to be somewhere or not is beside the point – people like the family of Mary Carshore had made India their home and they were neither converting or killing anyone. For all intents and purposes, Mary might have been Irish in blood but her heart belonged to India. This is the same for countless others, unfortunately in our modern world we refuse to understand this.
Whereas the death of a military man can be seen as an occupational hazard even if his death was undeserved no matter how young or old he happened to be, the killing of civilians has no decent excuse. The saying, “when we kill a snake we kill it’s young, ” I have heard as an explanation as to why women and children were killed during the Mutiny; even if that was the prevalent belief by the sepoys, it is no less horrifying. I cannot and will not, accept this as a blanket explanation for the atrocities committed in 1857.
In the same light, I do not accept the British lust for revenge. They matched their foes in cruelty and then some – though blowing from guns was not originally a British idea, the Moghuls came up with that one. It was senseless, barbaric and as inexcusable as it was unnecessary. Nor can it be put down to “that is what happens in war.” Though some of the men, like Clifford who had been fed horrible stories of his sister’s death at Delhi, Thomason likewise of that of his fiancée Miss Jennings, Berkley who survived the Magazine but lost his family, Vibart who was racked with guilt and anguish thinking of his family slaughtered in Cawnpore, the countless families torn apart and destroyed – maybe there could be some understanding for their need to avenge their loved ones but the accesses taken by men like General Neill on his march into Cawnpore are without excuse. The indiscriminate killing of villagers, the looting and ransacking of city after city by the so-called army of vengeance is beyond most words. There is nothing wholesome in the story of war and we should not forget that.
Which is why, I plead with you my dear reader, to take this next section in the context of its times. The men listed here are not being presented here as heroes. They were men placed in extraordinary positions in impossible times to do a duty, which rightly or wrongly, called on extreme measures.
The One Who Could
The most vilified person of 1857 is of course, Brigadier General John Nicholson. As he shall be the centre point of the Siege of Delhi, he needs his introduction.
You may rely upon this – that if ever there is a desperate deed to be done in India, John Nicholson is the man to do it.” – Herbert Edwardes to Viceroy Lord Canning, 1857
Arriving in India at the age of 17, John Nicholson would immediately be thrust into war. His regiment, the 27th Native Infantry was sent to Afghanistan. With the retreat of the British Army from Kabul, John would find himself besieged in Ghazni with the rest of his regiment, waiting for the relief force that never came. Unable to hold their position, Colonel Palmer agreed to surrender the Fort – even though this would spell certain death to the Hindu portion of the soldiers present. Standing by his men, Nicholson gripped his musket and threatened to bayonet any Afghan who dared approach them. Colonel Palmer was not of the same mindset – ordering Nicholson to lower his weapon, John threw his weapon at his Colonel’s feet and burst into tears. Within minutes any Hindu refusing to convert to Islam was put to death – something John Nicholson had tried desperately to prevent.
Over the next six months, he would be held captive along with nine other officers, starved and otherwise mistreated. It was not an easy trial for a man with Nicholson’s temperament – the abuse he could handle but injustice he could not. During a rough search of his person for any valuables, one of his captors found a locket in which Nicholson kept a lock of his mother’s hair – realising he was about to be robbed of his dearest and last possession, Nicholson flew into a violent rage and threw the locket at the would be thief. What should have ended in his death, probably saved his life – the Afghan, impressed that Nicholson showed no fear, ordered his men to return the locket and not touch it again.
Although the relief army did eventually arrive, and Nicholson was able to return to his unit, his journey through Afghanistan was far from over. He would meet George Lawrence in Kabul and by recommendation eventually meet Henry and John – three men who would all play parts in his career. In Afghanistan he would also meet his only true friends – Herbert Edwardes, Neville Chamberlain and Joe Lumsden (and be briefly reunited with his younger brother Alexander who arrived in 1840).Together they would become Henry Lawrence’s Young Men or otherwise known as the Paladins of the Punjab – men who showed exceptional talent, handpicked by Henry Lawrence “to act as a friendly adviser to the native officials.”
16 in all, they laid the foundations of British rule in the Punjab and into the Northwest Frontier starting from the First Afghan War and right up to the Mutiny. Their names all hold places in history but in the course of these writings, we will not meet all of them yet I shall list them just the same.
- James Abbott
- Lewin Bowring
- Neville Bowles Chamberlain
- John Coke
- Henry Coxe
- Henry Daly
- Herbert Edwardes
- William Hodson
- George Lawrence
- Harry “Joe” Lumsden
- Frederick Mackeson
- Philip Melvill
- John Nicholson
- Richard Pollock
- Reynell Taylor
- Patrick Vans Agnew
Nicholson would stay on in Afghanistan for the duration of the war – and on the very final retreat of the British forces in 1842, he would find the naked, mutilated body of his brother with his genitals stuffed in his mouth. Nicholson buried the boy where he lay, in a rocky grave at the Khyber Pass. The Afghan War and undoubtedly the death of his brother had a profound effect on Nicholson. He found a strength in his survival – seeing it as an act of God no less, he left the impression to anyone who met him of one whose destiny was set. Never one given to many words, his silence would often be mistaken for rudeness – but he was genuinely weary of strangers and plagued with shyness. Standing 6ft 2 inches, with broad shoulders, a long beard and deep voice, he led his men from the front and on the battlefield he showed neither fear nor mercy. He would be a man who made the frontier, certainly one who was made of sterner stuff than even his contemporaries. Nicholson ruled by force of personality – and indeed a cult of it, with men under his command creating a religion in his name “Nikal Seynis” – the last worshipper died in 2004 in Abbottabad.
He was a man for his time in a province that required a man of his nature. He spoke several languages, he could listen with patience and fight like a soul possessed but Nicholson gained the respect of the hill men of the North-West Frontier Province and as their administrator he brought the one thing no on could – an end to all crime up and down his entire district. Whether for fear of Nicholson’s wrath or because he never let his guard down, when he finally left to lead the Movable Column in 1857, he left behind a province in peace.
“It is often forgotten that Nicholson was an effective, if stern, colonial administrator. Ironically, the latter gave him the freedom he needed to be a good soldier, independent and unfettered by regimental ties and obstructions. For Nicholson was a frontier’s man, with all that implies about being betwixt cultures; beyond the mores and laws of established society; and a figure of depth and mystery, echoing the terrain and uncertainties of those regions where British India stopped.“
Unlike the popular image of Nicholson, he did not kill for the sake of killing – and although he did believe “the punishment for Mutiny is death”, he did not kill women and children and even though his violence shocked his contemporaries,
“The nature of that brutality needs to be commented upon. Nicholson’s violence was institutional violence, primarily the violence of campaign and battle. It is said that he knew no fear. The psychologist might well add that Nicholson’s social dysfunctionality resulted in a tendency to drive him to extremes. He was certainly an officer who led from the front and it might be argued with justification that a lack of fear meant a lack of restraint. And yet this is the officer who pressed on one occasion for the sparing of the lives of young insurgency troops whom he considered had been misled.“
The Mutiny would prove to be the event that John Nicholson was meant for – a man coming into his own, everything his years of loneliness amongst the wild hill men had taught him to be. A man who took no prisoners and gave no quarter, who would stride into Delhi with a mission to fulfil and would be shot as victory turned in his favour. The Siege of Delhi would be Nicholson’s last fight.
The Other One Who did
There is of course scope to continue this article into endlessness – there are in fact too many generals, colonels, majors and others to choose from. We will meet many of them in the course of these writings but I will end with one who was often over looked in his life and remains so in death. I have chosen in this place, Sir Henry Havelock, KCB.
Born in 1795, he entered the army at the age of 20, but he would not see active service until he arriving in India in 1824- in time for the First Anglo-Burmese War, following which he returned to England, married and then made it back to India for the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1839. For the next 10 years, his life was spent on campaigns which had started in Afghanistan and ended in with the Sikh Wars. Havelock was as much as fighting man as an analytical one, taking the time to produce reports on all the battles and skirmishes he was involved in, which in turn were published in newspapers back in England. This particular talent would serve him well -when Sir James Outram chose Havelock to command a column whose principle mission was to destroy and defeat all mutineers and insurgents between Allahabad and Cawnpore, he would use his extensive studies of war to lead his vastly outnumbered force to one victory after another. As he arrived in Cawnpore too late to be of any help to General Wheeler, he did manage to fight his way not just through Lucknow but into the Residency itself, extending the defendable grounds and adding to the fighting population – it wasn’t the relief they had been hoping for, but without General Havelock, there might not have been a garrison for Sir Colin Campbell to save come November.
Havelock was not a fashionable figure. Lady Canning, upon meeting him in Calcutta thought he looked “almost ridiculous,” standing barely 5 feet tall, and holding his back so straight it was if he wore ramrods in his jacket. He was never seen without his sword and he always dined with it wearing all of his medals as well, leading Lady Canning to conclude it looked as if he was carrying all of his money “bunched around his shoulders.” With his white, old fashioned whiskers he was deemed too outdated for normal company, but “all the same we believe he will do well. No doubt he is fussy and tiresome, but his little, old stiff figure looks as fit and active for use as if he were made of steel.”
Havelock’s prime ambition in life had been to command an army in the field but he had been passed over in his career by “three sots and two fools”. He finally achieved his goal at the age of 62 leaving some to comment of his arrival in India that he was “an old fossil dug up and only fit to be turned into pipe clay.” He was perhaps everything one could expect of an earnest and industrious soldier and yet he proved himself to be a fine leader of men. His tactics were often misunderstood as he frankly refused to discuss them with anyone outside his own private circle, his reasoning was sound. He did what he could to save as many of his men as he could and if that meant taking a longer route or withdrawing when others would have stood fast, so be it. Havelock understood strategy and he knew that he would be arriving in Lucknow with a badly disease hit force – he was at least going to make sure at least some of them made it there.
Whereas John Nicholson might have believed God had spared him in Afghanistan for other tasks, Havelock believed he had been chosen by God to “perform a Christian duty.” The spectre of religion was never very far from Havelock but in his army there was none of the indiscriminate killing that followed General Neill around the Oudh countryside and when he died in November 1857 he extolled his son in whose arms he lay, to “see how a Christian can die.” There was not blaze of glory for Henry Havelock only the slow, painful wastage of dysentery.
A History of the Sepoy War in India – John William Kaye, 1888
Forty-one years in India. From Subaltern to Commander-in-Chief – Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1897
The Tale of the Great Mutiny – W.H. Fitchett, 1904
The Great Mutiny, India 1857 – Christopher Hibbert, 1978
Soldier Sahibs: The Daring Adventurers Who Tamed India’s Northwest Frontier – Charles Allen, 2001
The Indian Mutiny – Saul David, 2003