(Last Updated on : 27-03-2012)
Delhi was the focal centre of rebellion during the ongoing months of 1857. After rampaging various other places in the country, the native crusaders had but one place left to conquer, Delhi. The country was reeling under bloodbath. The English troops were falling short in open confrontations with the intimidating natives. Lord Canning had despatched urgently several brigadiers and generals for the cause of Delhi.
Fortifications had started off in right earnest, beginning from the Red Fort
. Several other nooks of the Imperial City had been reinforced. A surprise struggle had already ensued after the plannings. After a long night's endeavour, the English had obtained partial success.
On the 24th June, Neville Chamberlain came from Punjab to assume the post of Adjutant-General. Reinforcements, too, sufficient to raise the effective strength of the British force to 6,600 men, poured in from Punjab. But the rebels likewise had their share of fortune. On the 1st and 2nd of July, the Bareli (present day Bareilly
, Uttar Pradesh
) brigade, comprising four sipahi (soldier) regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, a horse-battery, and two post-guns, and commanded by a Subahdar of artillery, Bakht Khan, marched in. Khan was almost at once nominated Commander-in-Chief of the rebel forces in the city. Meanwhile, the arrival of reinforcements within the camp had resurrected the question of assault. Once more the plans had been arranged. Regiments were told off. The date, 3rd of July, had been fixed. Suddenly, the information that the rebels meditated a serious attack on the weakest part of the British position that very day, caused its deferment.
Baird-Smith of the engineers had hurried on from the small detachment he was leading in Roorkee, to take active part in the contemplated assault on the city. The rumour of this had reached him early. This man was destined to take a leading part in the eventual siege of Delhi. Summoned from Roorkee, he arrived at three o'clock on the morning of 3rd July, to find that the assault had been postponed.
Baird-Smith found that, as far as ordnance was concerned, the British force was in a very sticky situation. The heavy guns consisted of two twenty-four-pounders, nine eighteen-pounders, six eight-inch mortars, and three eight-inch howitzers. The rebels, on the other hand, could bring to bear on any point thirty guns and twelve mortars. What was still worse, the English had in store only sufficient shot for heavy guns for one day. The rebels had, on the contrary, almost inexhaustible supplies of the Delhi magazine in their midst. To add to the gravity of the position, the day after his arrival in camp, Barnard was seized with cholera. The disease took his life on the 5th. He was a meticulous man and a brave soldier, and his death was universally lamented. General Reed, who had remained in camp, succeeded to the command.
Before Barnard had been attacked by cholera, Baird-Smith had written to that officer to suggest the advisability of an assault. Smith was keenly alive to the difficulty of carrying on a regular siege with resources in guns and material so obviously inadequate. Barnard expired before the proposal could be considered, and it fell upon Reed to give the necessary decision. Reed neither rejected nor accepted the plan. But he kept it so long 'in contemplation ' that the opportunity passed away.
On 9th July, the rebels made another grand attack in force. They despatched the 8th Irregulars, the regiment which had mutinied at Bareli (Bareilly). The 8th were despatched through the right of the British camp, by the rear, and as their uniform was the same as that of the loyal irregular regiment in the camp. They were allowed to pass unchallenged. The consequences of this mistake were equally miserable and glorious. They were miserable because the cavalry picket at the Mound, halfway between the Ridge and the canal, on discovering their error, turned and fled. The artillery was not so. It was commanded by James Hills, one of the most gallant and daring soldiers in the world. Hills ordered out his two guns for action right away. But the rebels were upon him, and he had not time to fire. Then, with the cool courage of a man determined at all cost to stop the foe, he dashed into the midst of the advancing troopers, cutting right and left at them with splendid effect. At last two of them charged him and rolled over his horse. Hills speedily recovered to his feet, just in time to renew the combat with three troopers-two mounted, the third on foot. The first two he cut down. With the third the conflict was desperate. Hills had been shaken by his fall, and was held back by his cloak.
Twice did his pistol missfire. Then he missed a blow at his opponent's shoulder. The latter wrested his sword from his tired hand. But Hills was equal to the occasion. Closing in with his enemy, he hit him several times with his clenched fist in the face until he fell. Just at the moment Tombs, who had found his way through the enemy, seeing Hills's danger, shot the trooper dead. It was a magnificent pistol shot, fired at a distance of thirty paces. To reach that point Tombs had cut his way through the enemy, whose advance Hills had checked, but not completely stopped. The danger to them was not over then. It called for the sacrifice of another native trooper to insure perfect safety. But this was only accomplished at the cost to Hills of a sword-cut, which split his skull to the brain.
By this time the whole British camp was roused. After a while the rebel troopers were driven back towards Delhi. A fierce battle had been raging on, meanwhile, in Sabzimandi. This similarly ended in the rebuff of the rebels, but not until 233 men had been killed or wounded on the British side.
Five days later there was another hard-fought encounter. This time the rebels attacked Hindu Rao's house. Hindu Rao's house was left empty by its dwellers. Hence it was occupied by the British soldiers, situated to the right of the ridge where the garrison had pitched their tents. A vicious battle raged from eight o'clock in the morning till close upon sunset. Neville Chamberlain, with the 75th, Coke's Rifles (Punjabis), and Hodson's Horse, eventually drove back the rebels to the gates of Delhi. But again the loss was severe, amounting to seventeen men killed and 193 wounded, of whom sixteen were officers. Among them was Chamberlain, whose left arm was broken. In the week the battle raged, the besiegers had lost twenty-five officers and 400 wounded men.
Meanwhile, Gerald Reed's health had completely given way. On the 17th, then, he passed over his command to Archdale Wilson. The day following, the rebels made another sortie. But they were forced back by Colonel Jones of the 60th Rifles. The attack had been made, as often before, on the Sabzimandi. To prevent potential attacks in that quarter, the engineers cleared away the houses and walls. These afforded cover to the rebels, and connected the advanced posts with the main pickets on the Ridge. The effect of this was most beneficial. There were no more attacks on the Sabzimandi.
It was the day before this attack, the day, in fact, on which Wilson assumed command, that a report reached Chief Engineer, Baird-Smith. The report spoke about the question whether circumstances did not require the raising of the siege, in consideration of the great losses incurred. It further spoke about the impossibility of taking the place without further reinforcements. The issue would be considered at the next meeting of the General and his staff. Impressed with the unconditional necessity of retaining the grip they now had on Delhi, Smith took the very earliest opportunity of speaking to Wilson on the subject. He pointed out the massive calamities which the raising of the siege would entail. The result of the conversation was to confirm Wilson in his resolution to engage in the siege. To render its success certain, Wilson ordered up a siege-train from Firozpur.
On the 23rd, the enemy made a final attack before the arrival of Nicholson. This time it was directed against Ludlow Castle. The attack was repelled, but the British, pursuing the rebels too closely to the city walls, suffered severely.
On the 7th of August Nicholson arrived in advance of his troops. On 12th, Showers overthrew the rebels from Ludlow Castle, which meanwhile they had managed to occupy. On 14th, Nicholson's column arrived. On the 25th, he marched with a strong force, to attack the rebels. The rebels had moved from Delhi in great strength to intercept the siege-train. The march took him through marshy ground, interspersed with swamps, and lasted a good twelve hours. At last, close upon sunset, the weary soldiers spotted the rebels. They were composed of the Nimach brigade, occupying two villages protected by guns and covered by deep water, fordable only in one place. The British, however, waded through the ford, which was chest high, under a fire from the guns at the village. Nicholson directed his own attack against this. He sent his other troops against the villages. Addressing his men a few comforting words, he ordered them to lie down. Then the batteries of Tombs and Remmington opened fire. After a few rounds he ordered the men to rise. And he led them through the still marshy ground. Needless to say, they carried the position. At the same time the other troops had driven the rebels from the two villages. The sipahis fought well, but only the Nimach brigade was there. The one from Bareli (Bareilly), which had been ordered to support it, did not come up in time. When they found that they were beaten, the sipahis (soldiers) warmed up their guns and made for the bridge crossing the Najafgarh canal. But Nicholson pursued and caught them. He killed approximately 800 of them, and captured thirteen guns. He then blew up the bridge, and the troops returned the next day to Delhi, taking their spoils with them. Ten days later, 4th September, the siege-guns arrived. The remainder of the 60th Rifles arrived on the 6th, and the Jammu contingent, led by Richard Lawrence, on the 8th.
The arrival of reinforcements had increased the number of troops at the disposal of General Wilson to 8748 men, of whom 3317 were British. Barnard had directed the 'coup-de-main' of 12th June, when his entire force barely exceeded half that number. Yet, up to 20th August, Wilson could with difficulty make up his mind to gamble the assault, which, if successful, would break the back of the Mutiny. On that date he wrote to Baird-Smith a letter, to be subsequently forwarded to the Governor-General. In the letter he freely stated the reasons on which his hesitation was based, and asked the officer to return the letter. The answer given by Baird-Smith was emphatic, clear, and decided. He argued that the rebels are more numerous than the assailants, that their position is formidable, their resources are unlimited, their defences strong. But in war somethings must be risked to achieve success. In his opinion, the risk of a rebuff, in an attack well contrived and well organised, was less than the risk of further delay. Punjab, he argued, on the authority of Sir John Lawrence, stripped of its European troops, was fluttering in the balance. To wait for reinforcements would involve inaction, at a time when action alone, in all human probability, could secure the continued compliance of the Sikhs. And if the Sikhs were to rise, the danger would extend to the very camp in which Wilson commanded.
These reasons, clear, pointed, logical dawned upon Wilson. Though he still believed that the results of the proposed operations would 'be thrown on a hazard of a die,' he was willing, on the advice of the Chief Engineer, to try that hazard. Baird-Smith was solely responsible then, for the decision to assault the rebellious city. He at once, in alignment with his second in command, Alexander Taylor, drew up the plan of assault.
It was necessary that the attack should be directed against the northern face-the face represented by the Mori, Kashmir, and Water bastions, and the curtain wall connecting them. Fortunately the negligence of the rebels allowed the besiegers to concentrate on the curtain wall a fire sufficient to crush that of the defence. Thus, they could effect breaches through which the infantry could be launched. The plan of the Chief Engineer, then, was to crush the fire of the Mori bastion. That fire silenced the advance on the British left, which was covered by the river, would be secure. And there the assault would be precisely delivered. The evening of the 7th was fixed for the commencement of the tracing of the assaulting batteries.
That day Wilson issued a rousing order to the troops. That evening the engineers began their work. For No. 1 battery a site had been selected below the Ridge, in the open plain, within 700 yards of the Mori bastion. This battery was divided into two sections. The right one was to be commanded by Major Brind, intended to silence the Mori bastion. The left one was to be commanded by Major Kaye, designed to keep down the fire from the Kashmir bastion until the order for delivering the assault should be given.