The March Begins

Simla, Samuel Bourne, 1869

We have already met General George Anson – the well-spoken, horse racing whist player with a beautiful wife and fine manners. The man Canning found it impossible to argue with.
On the 12th of May, in his lofty abode in Simla, General Anson received a letter from Ambala, brought by hand by the son of General Barnard. It informed the Commander-in-Chief that an odd telegram had been received from Delhi, purporting that the Meerut sepoys had risen. Shortly afterwards, Anson received another message – the Native Cavalry prisoners at Meerut had escaped from the jail, and had joined the other rebels in Delhi, and that the Europeans at Meerut and Delhi had been murdered.

“The first telegram, as given in a letter from Anson to Lord Canning, ran thus: “We must leave office. All the bungalows are on fire —burning down by the Sipahis of Mirath. They came in this morning. We are off. Mr. C. Todd is dead, I think. He went out this morning and has not yet returned. We learnt that nine Europeans are killed.” This was received at three p.m. The second message, received at four, said : ” Cantonments in a state of siege. Mutineers from Mirath—3rd Light Cavalry—numbers not known—said to be a hundred and fifty men. Cut off communication with Meerut. Taken possession of the Bridge of Boats. 54th Native Infantry sent against them, but would not act Several officers killed and wounded. City in a state of considerable excitement. Troops sent down, but nothing- known yet. Information will be forwarded.”

General Anson had, at his immediate disposal, three English regiments. In Kasauli the 75th Foot, at Sabuthu and Dagshai the 2nd and the 1st Fusiliers while a Jatogh he had a regiment of Gurkhas. Upon receiving the message from Captain Barnard, Anson mobilized the 75th with orders to begin their march to Ambala; the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers were to follow suit as soon as possible and the 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers were to prepare themselves to march.

He sent express messages to Ferozepore, ordering that the magazine be placed under European guard, and to Jullundar where he requested a European detachment be sent to guard the fort.
On the 13th General Anson received clearer information regarding Meerut and decided to move the 2nd Fusiliers to march to Ambala without delay. He then messaged instructions to the magazine at Phillour – a third-class siege train was to be organised at once, spare waggons of the horse artillery troops were to be prepared for Ambala and a “quantity of small arms ammunition to be dispatched to the latter place.”
The Nasiri Battalion of Gurkhas from Jatogh were to march with all haste to Phillour and accompanied by a detachment of the 9th Irregular Cavalry, to accompany the siege train to Ambala, along with the native company of artillery from Nurpur and Kangra. He ordered the Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas from Dehra Dun and Roorkee Sappers and Miners to march to Meerut.
As for Anson himself, he left Simla on the 14th of May and travelled the 80 miles to Ambala, arriving at the station the following morning. The troops from the hills reached Ambala on the 16th.

The next day, he sent on a squadron of the 9th Lancers, two horse-artillery guns, and four companies of the 1st Fusiliers to Karnal, well on the road to Delhi. The rest of the force he had at his disposal he moved on as soon equipment was organised.
In a letter to John Lawrence who was currently rallying his forces in the Punjab, Anson wrote,
” But it was, and is, impossible to move for want of tents, &c. The second European regiment only arrived this morning, and all of them having been brought in such a hurry and so quickly, they have nothing with them. We hear that many regiments have joined the mutineers in Delhi, the gates of which are closed, and guns mounted on them. The walls would be nothing against guns of heavy calibre. But we have none nearer than Phillour, and only two troops with 6-pounders. At Meerut there is a light field battery of 9-pounders. My intelligence from Meerut is very scanty. I instructed General Hewitt to be prepared to join me with all the force he could spare, after providing for the protection of the cantonments. I have not heard from him what this would be.”
This was not the answer John Lawrence was hoping for – in his mind, Anson was dawdling. Anson added,

General the Hon. George Anson

“It becomes now a matter for your consideration whether it would be prudent to send the small European force we have here in an enterprise upon Delhi. I think not. It is wholly, in my opinion, insufficient for the purpose. The walls could of course be battered down with heavy guns when we got them up. The entrance might be opened and little resistance offered; but so few men in a large city, with such narrow streets, and an immense armed population who know every turn and corner of them, would, it appears to me, be in a very dangerous position. And if six or seven hundred were disabled, what would remain? Could we hold it with the whole country armed against us? Could we either stay in or out of it? My own view of the state of things now is, by carefully collecting our resources, having got rid of the bad materials which we cannot trust, and having supplied their places with others of a better sort, it would not be very long before we could proceed, without a chance of failure, in whatever direction we might please.”
John Lawrence was having none of it – he urged Anson make haste and for good measure, threw the weight of Clive at the Commander-in-Chief.

“Where have we failed when we acted vigorously? Where have we succeeded when guided by timid counsels? Clive with twelve hundred men fought at Plassey in opposition to the advice of his leading officers, beat forty thousand men, and conquered Bengal.”

In this case, Lawrence was wrong – Clive had had 3000 disciplined men and the solemn promises of various nawabs and generals who would hold back their troops at Plassey. Anson was facing an uncertain countryside, quickly filling up with mutinous, well-trained soldiers who were congregating behind the walls of a very large fortress. Had Anson started for Delhi without adequate ammunition, heavy guns and mortars and barely enough troops, history would probably have been written by very different victors.

Troops hastening to Umballa’, 1857 coloured lithograph, from The Campaign in India 1857-58′ by William Simpson, published by Day and Son, 1857-1858.

Events at Ambala
Ambala had had its own share of worries. Incendiary fires had been lit repeatedly for some weeks, and there was a general sense of disquiet throughout the station. The Collector and Magistrate, Thomas Douglas Forsyth had been in regular contact with John Lawrence and on the 10th of May he sent him a telegram.

This morning the 60th and 5th Regiments were in an excited state and under arms on the parade ground. Cavalry and Artillery ordered out, but no actual row. The guard over the treasury turned out under arms and were in an excited state. I ordered the Police Corps to be in readiness and in their own lines. I have consulted with the General who has posted an officer of the 5th to the Treasury Guard to dismiss the sepoys to their lines, if necessary. The General will not give disarming orders without your sanction. This step will not, I think be necessary unless some further disturbance takes place.”

The message was received in Lahore at 4.45 pm – shortly after Meerut would be in flames.
On the 11th of May, Brigadier Robert Dampier Halifax, station commander at Ambala sent a note to Forsyth to come to him at once- he had just received a message from Delhi, informing Ambala of the massacre of the Europeans. It just happened to be that George Carnac Barnes, the Commissioner of Ambala Division was in Kasauli, while the commander of the Sirhind Division, Major General Henry William Barnard happened to be in Ambala. He immediately sent his son, Captain Barnard to Simla, and by passing through Kasauli, informed Barnes to make ready the 75th Foot to march to Ambala.
Meanwhile, the 9th Irregular Cavalry at Ambala were sent off to patrol the civil station while the police were ordered to do the same, but in the city itself.
The news of Meerut only reached Ambala on the 12th of May from Robert Spankie, the Magistrate of Saharanpur. On the same day, Forsyth sought an audience with the Patiala Raja.

The Patiala State
In 1857, Patiala State was a self-governing princely state, Sidhu Jat rulers and aristocrats of the Punjab, called the Phulkian Maharajas. They governed the states of Faridkot, Jund, Nabha, Malaudh and Patiala. They had “survived the ruin of the old Sikh Empire” and were in the words of Sir John Kaye “secure in the possession of their rights, had been true to the English alliance…” It was lucky for the British that Phulkian Maharajas thought this way – had they been of a different mindset, the Patiala Raja alone could have cut off all communication with the rest of the Punjab, and as the leader of one of the most powerful aristocratic houses, he could have rallied the Sikhs against them. Too well aware of this, Forsyth wasted no time in contacting Maharaja Narender Singh. The effort paid off.

The Phulkian States

The Patiala Raja himself took up the call and rode out to a meeting place just outside Ambala, with a force of 1000 men, both infantry and cavalry. He put himself and his troops at the disposal of the British.

Portrait of Narender Singh, Maharaja of Patiala
Thomas Douglas Forsyth, ca. 1858, Lucknow, Felice Beato

It was not all the Patiala Raja would do.
His influence and Forsyth reached out to the other Phulkian Rajas – Sarup Singh of Jind, Bharpur Singh of Nabha and the Kapurthala Raja Randhir Singh. On directions of Forsyth, he sent his brother Dalip Singh with a force of men to Thanesar; it was then decided that Captain MacAndrew would accompany the Patiala and Jind forces to Karnal and there wait for the Europeans to catch up. The Patiala Raja then sent up a detachment of arms and three guns to Thanesar located between Ambala and Karnal.
Meanwhile, the British were moving into place and the area around Ambala was teeming with activity. HM’s 9th Lancers, a squadron of the 4th European Light Cavalry and the portion of the native cavalry that had not mutined on the 10th were already at Ambala- the 75th of Foot, 1st Europeans, 2 troops of horse artillery, 5th NI, 60th NI 4th Surajmukhi Police Battalion consisted of 200 sepoys, and detachments of the 4th and 9th Irregular Cavalry joined soon after. Out of this force, Anson created 2 brigades. Brigadier Robert Dampier Halifax took command of the first brigade, consisting of 2 squadrons of the 9th Lancers, the 75th Foot, 1st Europeans, and the 3rd troop of the 3rd brigade of the horse artillery. Colonel William Jones commanded the second – 2 squadrons of the 9th Lancers, one of the 4th Lancers, 2nd Europeans, 60th NI and the 2nd troop of the 3rd brigade of horse artillery along with 6 guns.
Within days, the 2nd Fusiliers arrived at Ambala – they too were moved onto Karnal, together with a squadron of the 9th Lancers, and 4 companies of the 1st Europeans.
While all of this was going on, it suddenly dawned on everyone that they could not leave Ambala unprotected.
4 companies of the 2nd Europeans consisting of 250 men were told off for duty in Amabala. To keep them company, it was decided to leave behind the native artillery from Kangra, one squadron of the 4th Light Cavalry and 5 companies of the 5th NI. A battery of nine pounders fresh from the Phillour depot was given to Major Frank Turner to replace those Anson had already taken from the station. With time permitting, the ladies and children were sent to the hills and Patiala Raja sent some of his own men into the cantonments.
The Patiala Raja would also assist Anson in supplying what was turning out to be a logistical impossibility. The European soldiers needed transport and the initial request was sent to Colonel William Beveridge Thomson of the commissariat department, who flatly refused. The same order was sent to Forsyth for

-700 camels
-2000 dhoolie bearers
-200 carts

Within a week Forsyth had outdone himself – he had 2000 camels, an equal amount of bearers and 500 carts, the Patiala Raja sent on a further troop of elephants, camels and carts.

The Deputy Commissioner, Captain William MacNeile had received all the news – on the 11th, he heard about Ambala, and on the 12th he was apprised of the mutiny at Delhi. His first concern was to move the women out of his station and on to Ambala and request Halifax for a European guard. He also sent a tehsildar with money to Pipli to look out for fugitives from Delhi. By sunset on the 12th, the first haggard escapees arrived, and the next worn-out group later on that night. MacNeile assembled them at his house and waited for news from Ambala.
It was quick in coming – Halifax answered MacNeile by sending a squadron of the 4th Light Cavalry who were deputed to take all the treasure from Thanesar and escort it back to Ambala. Instead of the Europeans MacNeile had hoped for, Halifax sent him men of the decidedly surly 5th NI. Realising he would have to hold out a little longer, MacNeil sent a detachment of Sikhs to guard the jail and under his own authority, destroyed all the station’s stamp papers. These foolscap pieces of paper were printed with a revenue stamp and carried monetary value (they are still used in India today to document business transactions and are used in courts of law but are being replaced by the e-stamp). Not a moment too soon – the 4th Light Cavalry, under no provocation, suddenly seized their arms and mounted their horses. The town panicked – shops shut, and the government officials fled to safety but nothing happened. The cavalry simply upped and rode back to Ambala.

The same evening, the Patiala Raja arrived in Thanesar, with 1500 men and 4 guns. When it became clear that there were no mutineers coming from Delhi (they were all going to the city, not leaving it!), the Raja returned to his own city but he left behind 1000 men and all the guns. A further 150 men he sent to Karnal. He would then concentrate his efforts on holding Karnal, Thanesar and Ambala, and keeping the road open from Karnal to Phillour. MacNeile would organise his own force of 350 volunteers – men sent from the surrounding landholders. Part of the Patiala forces would be used to keep the 5th NI in check.
Not that they were the only problems MacNeille had. In his jail he had several Ranghars from Hissar -their clansmen, according to his intelligence, were planning to attack the jail on the 31st of May and free their compatriots. MacNeille fortified the guard around the jail and waited, but the attack never happened. Wisely he removed the troublesome Ranghars to Ambala where there would be no chance of a rescue happening. With one problem solved, another showed itself – on the 9th of June, the Patiala forces withdrew, called back by the Raja to protect their own capital from the marauding Jalandhar mutineers. These however decided it was foolhardy to take on Patiala and carried on moving to Delhi; much to MacNeille’s relief, the Patiala force returned posthaste. He would have to wait until the 14th of July to disarm and disperse the 5th NI.

On the 17th the Jind Raja arrived with 400 men but he immediately marched on to Karnal with the beginnings of the Delhi Field Force behind him. It was due to him that the town of Panipat was restored to order (we have met the unfortunate magistrate, Mr. Macwirther who was killed at Delhi and his very prompt acting Deputy Collector, Mr. Richardes who stayed at his post when all others had fled), Simbhalka was taken back from the rebels and he then kept the road open between Karnal and Delhi.

We will meet the enterprising Phulkian Maharajas again – when they take the field against the rebels at the Siege of Delhi.

As for the 5th BNI

It must be said that the 5th BNI had not had an easy time of it. They had nearly been destroyed to a man in the Afghan fiasco of 1842, fever decimated their numbers when they were posted in Dhaka in the mid-1840s and they never regained their cohesion after so much unsettlement. Their commander in 1857, Major Frederick Maitland was known as a “quarrelsome man,” and “disposed to take too much on himself.” It is little wonder they had tried to mutiny on the 10th of May.
The 5th BNI remained in a suspended state of dissatisfaction for a few more weeks. No one was willing to punish the regiment that had already tried to revolt on the 10th at Ambala, but something had to be done. Instead of disbanding them outright, they were first dispersed into smaller groups and sent off in different directions through the countryside, under the pretence of keeping the peace with only one company sent to Thanesar. Major Maitland then halted the investigation into their conduct, forgave their trespasses and chose to give them the benefit of a doubt. It was short-lived. On the 29th of May, Maitland disarmed 5 companies of the 5th BNI at Ambala with the help of the 2nd Fusiliers; two further companies which returned from duty at Ropar were disbanded without pay, their native officers were tried by court-martial and hanged – without, it must be mentioned, the permission of the Commander-in-Chief. Thus ended the 5th NI and their history, which had begun in Chittagong in 1758, was erased.
As for Maitland, with his regiment mutinied, he was in need of new employment – and he found himself on the staff at Ambala, forwarding supplies to the troops heading for Delhi.

Enter William Stephen Raikes Hodson
“Hodson’s gallant deeds more resemble a chapter from the life of Bayard or Amadis de Gaul, than the doings of a subaltern of the nineteenth century. The only feeling mixed with my admiration for him is envy.”

History has been divided about this particular officer. No matter where one stands on the topic of Major William Hodson, no mutiny history would be complete without him.
We will explore the life and times of this charismatic officer in a later post but for now, it is May 1857.
Hodson’s outspokenness, and his obvious lack of regard for the dithering men in positions they no longer had the competence to hold had saddled him with an unfortunate reputation. In 1857 he was still fighting to clear his name after he had been charged with fraud in 1854 and censured for the arrest of a Pathan chieftain. Although the government would clear Hodson of dishonesty, it refused to reopen his case and his reputation was permanently damaged. In 1856, Hodson had been sent back to do duty with the 1st European Fusiliers – his regiment before he had joined the Guides. Hodson embarked on a year-long hunt to find the right administrator, commissioner or commander to hear his case: he was finally successful with General Anson.

I have had another interview with General Anson at Simla, and nothing could have been more satisfactory. He was most polite, even cordial, and while he approved of my suggestion of going down to Calcutta to have personal explanations with the people there, and evidently thought it a plucky idea to undertake a journey of 2500 miles in such weather (May and June), yet he said that I had better wait till I heard again from him, for he would write himself to Lord Canning, and try to get justice done me. I do trust the light is breaking through the darkness, and that before long I may have good news to send you, in which I am sure you will rejoice.

Fate would have it that six days later after this most positive interview, the mutiny would begin in Meerut. Anson would never get the chance to write to Lord Canning as promised but he would take Hodson under his wing. Appointing his assistant quartermaster general in charge of intelligence as soon as he reached Ambala, Hodson’s first order was to reopen communications with Meerut.
It was a masterstroke.
Leaving Ambala on the 21st of May, Hodson stopped briefly in Karnal where he was joined by the cavalry escort of the Raja of Jhind and reached Meerut – a distance of 76 miles – at daybreak on the 22nd.
Taking the dispatches sent by Anson straight to Brigadier Wilson, Hodson stayed in Meerut long enough to have a little breakfast, a bath and 2 hours of sleep before he was back in the saddle for the 76-mile ride back to Karnal with the last 30 miles a hard fight against sepoy cavalry. Resting but briefly in Karnal, Hodson rode on to Ambala, arriving early in the morning on the 23rd – he had covered 250 miles in 2 days.
It was just the good impression Hodson had been hoping to impound on the Commander-in-Chief. Anson, with no hesitation, commissioned Hodson to raise and command his very own irregular cavalry corps. The corps would consist mainly of Sikhs from Amritsar and Jhind and Lahore, they would be known to the world as Hodson’s Horse.

“My commission is to raise a body of Irregular Horse on the usual rates of pay and the regular complement of native officers, but the number of troops to be unlimited – i.e., I am to raise as many men as I please; 2000 if I can get them. The worst of it is, the being in a part of the country I do not know, and the necessity of finding men who can be trusted. Mr. Montgomery is aiding me wonderfully. He called upon some of my old friends among the Sirdars to raise men for me. Shumshere Singh is raising one troop; Tej Singh ditto; Emaumoodeen ditto; Mr. Montgomery himself one or two ditto. All these will be ready in about three weeks. Kauh Singh Rosah, my old friend who commanded the Sikh cavalry at Chilianuale, will be here in a day or two. I have asked to remain Assistant Quartermaster-General, attached to the Commander-in-Chief. This allows me free access to him at any time, and to other people in authority, which gives me power for good. The Intelligence Department is in my line, and I have for this Sir Henry’s old friend, the one-eyed Moulvie, Rujub Alee, so I shall get the best news in the country.”

British and native officers of Hodson’s Horse, 1858

We will return to William Hodson shortly.

The Delhi Field Force is Ready
What Anson had been striving to accomplish was finally coming together.

“The Chief was to advance with the attacking army, which consisted of
three brigades, two from Umballa and one from Meerut, thus organised

The whole force consisted of 3000 Europeans, 100 Indian soldiers and 22 field guns. From Ambala, the force was to march onwards to Karnal, reaching no later than the 30th of May, and meet up with the Meerut force at Baghput from whence the combined forces would march towards Delhi.
General Anson left Amabala on the 24th of May and arrived in Karnal the next day. He was at the head of an army, not glorious perhaps, but finally on the move, after so much lost time, soon on their way to Delhi. The Nawab of Karnal too had chosen his side. Addressing Mr. Le Bas (with words to this effect), he said, “Sir, I have spent a sleepless night in meditating on the state of affairs; I have decided to throw in my lot with yours. My sword, my purse, and my followers are at your disposal.” These were not empty words and the Nawab would keep himself true to all of them.
Everything was ready for this undermanned, under gunned but grimly determined force to enter the biggest fray of their lives – the Siege of Delhi. All except one.

General George Anson contracted cholera on the 25th of May. Scarcely 2 days later, he was dead.

“..on the 26th he was lying at Karnal, helpless and hopeless, General Anson, on the bed of death, in the mortal agonies of the great pest of the country. On the following day, Sir Henry Barnard arrived in Camp, a little after midnight, just in time, as he said, to receive the dying farewell of his chief. Anson was all but gone; but he recognised his friend, and, in a faint voice, articulated: ” Barnard, I leave you the command. You will say how anxious I have been to do my duty. I cannot recover. May success attend you. God bless you. Good-bye.” And another hour had not spent itself before General George Anson had passed beyond the reach of all human praise or censure.”

Grave stone at Karnal

The command of the Delhi Field Force was given to Major-General Sir Henry Barnard. A man of military experience his one fault was he had only just arrived in India, taking up his appointment at Ambala in April 1857. Determined to push on to Delhi, Barnard arrived with his force at Alipur barely 10 miles outside Delhi, on the 5th of June. The next day, the siege guns arrived. On the 7th of June they joined forces with the hardpressed Meerut brigade, now accompanied by the Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas under Major Charles Reid.

“Along the road came the heavy roll of the guns, mixed with the jingling of bits, and the clanking of the steel scabbards of the cavalry. The infantry marched on behind with a dull, deep tread; long lines of baggage camels and bullock – carts, with the innumerable sutlers and camp servants, toiled along for miles in the rear, while the gigantic elephants stalked over bush and stone by the side of the road.”

Sir John Kaye, “The Sepoy War,” Vol.II
Sketches of a march with elephants, camels, hackeries, horsemen and coolies, etc.

The Campaign in India 1857-58 – Captain George Francklin Arkinson, Day&Son, Lithographers to the Queen, 1859
Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, Vol II, 2nd Edition, 1892
Hodson of Hodson’s Horse or Twelve Years of a Soldiers Life in India – Edited by his brother George H. Hodson M.A., F.S.A., Vicar of Enfield, Prebendary of St. Paul’s, Late Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1883

Punjab Gazetteer, Karnal District for 1892
A History of the Indian Mutiny – G.W.Forrest, C.I.E., Vol. I, 1904

Annals of Karnal – Major C.H.Buck, Deputy Commissioner, 1914
White Mutiny: British Military Culture in India, 1825-1875 – Peter Stanley, 1998
The Indian Mutiny – Saul David, 2003