Sahib, p.3
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       Sahib, p.3

           Richard Holmes

  His side drum hangs, for the moment, over his right shoulder, skin flat against his bent back, and he holds it there by one of its pipe-clayed cords.5 When he needs to use it he will hook it onto the drum carriage, the broad white belt that crosses his right shoulder, but there is no sense in doing that too soon, for the drum will rub against his left thigh and gall his knee, where it balances when his leg is bent.

  Fulcher’s musical training derives from Samuel Potter’s book The Art of Beating the Drum, first published in 1810, but still passed on, becoming greasier with age, to successive drum-majors in the 50th. Potter advises:

  Before a boy starts practicing a drum place him perfectly upright and place his left heel in the hollow of the right foot. Put the drum sticks into his hands, the right stick to be grasped by the whole hand 2½ inches from the top, similar to grasping a sword or stick when going to play Back-sword. The left hand one to be held between the thumb and forefinger close in the hollow, leaving the top as much protruding resembling a pen when going to write.

  Fulcher begins each beat with his elbows level with his ears and the drumsticks meeting in front of his nose. He has long learnt ‘to beat the drum with ease to himself, and it will appear slight those who see him as it ought to be, the pride of every drummer to beat his Duty with an Air and Spirit’. He began by learning the Long Roll, and then went on to a series of rolls, flams, drags, strokes and lastly the paradiddle, a roll beaten with alternate sticks.

  The liturgy of his trade is now burnt into his young brain, and he can rap out all the calls of barrack life and field service, quickly telling his captain what call the commanding officer’s drummer has just begun. He knows that on a normal morning in the field, with no marching or fighting to be done, he will beat Camp Taps, ‘the First Signal on the Drum; it must be repeated from Right to Left of the Line by a drummer of each regiment and return back from Left to Right previous to the reveille’.6 On campaign, however, the jaunty drag and paradiddle of the General is usually appropriate, and its message is blunt: officers and men are to rise at once and prepare to fall in under arms, for there is business at hand.

  But this morning of 10 February 1846, the officers and men of the 50th fall in silently, without beat of drum, before daybreak, and set off in column, on a front of four men, company following company with short gaps between them, across a flat countryside liberally dotted with scrub. The morning smells of spice, smoke, urine and dung, shot through with a tang of tobacco – for many officers, even at this early hour, cannot be parted from a cheroot.

  Although the politics of the war mean little to Darby Fulcher and his comrades, nobody present that morning has any doubt that this conflict (later known as the First Sikh War) is a very serious contest between the armies of British India and the Sikhs, who had crossed the River Sutlej, which bordered their territory, in December 1845. They would be beaten, if that is quite the right word for such doggedly fought, bloody and inconclusive battles, at Mudki on 18 December and at Ferozeshah three days later. In these two actions the 50th lost a total of 244 of its officers and men killed and wounded, amongst them the grenadier company’s other drummer. The regiment fought in the altogether more successful battle of Aliwal on 28 January 1846, when another eighty-six men were hit.

  The dull odour of bodies in clothes changed too rarely is now heavily overlaid with the sulphurous, bad-egg stink of black powder, for British infantrymen still ply their trade with a smooth-bore muzzle-loading musket, and in the process smear both unburned powder and its greasy residue all over themselves.

  This is not quite the same musket carried at Waterloo, for in September 1841, earlier than most, the regiment received muskets with the new percussion lock. A man no longer has to tip powder into the musket’s priming pan, snap the steel shut over it, and hope that when he presses the trigger the flint will strike sufficient spark to ignite the priming and go on to fire the main charge. He now places a small copper cap filled with fulminate of mercury onto the nipple fitted to his musket-barrel, just where the touch-hole used to be. When the trigger is pressed the cock falls to burst the cap and, barring the most uncommon accident, fires the musket. The 50th, drawn up in line two ranks deep, can loose off four volleys a minute. Although a soldier has little chance of hitting an individual aimed at 200 yards away, volleys can do shocking damage at close range. However, any experienced officer trudging forward through the bushes in the half-light will tell you that battles are not won by endless volleying. Indeed, some harbour the conviction that firing actually defers a decision, and it is important to bring the bayonet – sixteen inches of fluted steel – into play as quickly as possible.

  This view would certainly have found favour with Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Gough, the sixty-seven-year-old Irishman in command of the British army during the First and Second Sikh Wars. A couplet composed by an officer with a classical education, for Alexander the Great had been stopped by the Sutlej, caught the feel of the man.

  Sabres drawn and bayonets fixed,

  Fight where fought Alexander.

  Old Paddy Gough’s a cross betwixt

  Bulldog and Salamander.

  At Mudki and Ferozeshah, Gough launched direct attacks on well-held Sikh positions, and before the day is out, when told that the ammunition for his heavy guns is running low, he will exclaim: ‘Thank God! Then I’ll be at them with the bayonet.’7 Yet nobody can say that Hugh Gough spared himself. With his mane of white hair and long white ‘fighting coat’, he is always to be found where the fire is hottest. ‘I never ask the soldier to expose himself where I do not personally lead,’ he later declared. ‘This the army knows and, I firmly believe, estimates.’8

  Gough’s plan this morning has an unusual measure of subtlety: two feint attacks. His Sikh opponents have now been pushed back across the Sutlej River into their own territory everywhere save here near the village of Sobraon, where they hold a strong position facing southwards. It is shaped like a long, flattish letter U, a mile and a half wide along its southern side, with its open end to the river, and a pontoon bridge behind it. A Spanish officer in the service of the Sikhs has designed formidable defences, consisting of two concentric lines of earth ramparts, twelve feet high in places, with arrowhead bastions jutting out in front of the embankments and a broad ditch in front of them. On the Sikh right the ground is too sandy for the construction of high ramparts, and on these lower earthworks – too unstable to bear the weight of proper artillery – the Sikhs have planted a line of 200 zumbooruks, light swivel guns usually fired from a camel’s saddle.

  The Sikh position is held by some 20,000 infantry with seventy guns, and there are more infantry and guns dug in on the north bank, covering the bridge. Gough has about the same number of men but fewer guns. However, drawing confidence from the fact that thirty of them are heavy howitzers and five are powerful 18-pounders, he decides on a three-hour bombardment by guns and rockets, followed by an infantry assault. His left-hand division, under Major General Sir Robert Dick, will attack the Sikh right, apparently their weakest sector, while his centre division, under Major General Sir Walter Gilbert, and his right division, under Major General Sir Harry Smith, will make feint attacks to prevent the Sikhs from concentrating to meet Dick’s assault. Gough’s situation is complicated by the fact that the Governor-General of British India, Sir Henry Hardinge, is present with the army. He is a lieutenant general too, and although he has volunteered to serve under Gough in his military capacity, he is not slow to exercise his superior civil authority if he feels it right to do so. He has approved the plan, but only in guarded terms. ‘Upon the fullest consideration of the question,’ he wrote, ‘if the artillery can be brought into play, I recommend you to attack. If it cannot and you anticipate a heavy loss, I would recommend you not to undertake it.’9

  All this is hidden from Darby Fulcher as his battalion moves forward without drumbeat, in column in the dark at about 4.00 a.m. Ahead of it marches HM’s 31st Foot, and, a little less than two miles from the east
ern face of the Sikh entrenchments, it deploys from column into line, with its right flank on the Sutlej and its left joining the 47th Bengal Native Infantry. The 50th swings into line about a hundred yards behind, with its grenadiers nudging the river bank and its light company, on the left of its line, in sight of the grenadiers of the 42nd Bengal Native Infantry. At the first sign of dawn, the whole line moves forward, to within range of the Sikh guns, and the men lie down. Even when the sun comes up it is still too misty to see what is happening, which is as well, for some of the British heavy guns are not yet in position.

  At about 6.00 a.m. the first shots are fired. One young artillery officer is to remember the scene well:

  On that day, when I first smelt powder, I served with the heavy howitzers and I can never forget the moment when old Gough (who was there in person) sent the order to ‘open fire’. No 1 fire! No 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Six 10-inch shells hurtled through the mist just lifting, and could be seen in the still dark morning light, bursting in the enemy’s camp and entrenchments. A minute’s pause, and then the hum of a surprised camp like a vast hive, followed by the drums beating to arms, and the trumpets of the Sikh host sounding the alarm.10

  Bombardier Nathaniel Bancroft, serving with a rocket battery this day, later recalled how:

  The action commenced by a salvo from the guns, howitzer, mortar and rocket batteries. Such a salvo was never heard in the length and breadth of India before … and the reports of the guns were distinctly heard by the wounded in the hospital at Ferozepur, five and twenty miles away. Our light guns opened fire near Chota Sobraon with a battery of howitzers, and before half past six the whole of our cannonade was developed and every iron-throated gun, mortar and rocket battery … was raining a storm of missiles which boomed, hissed and hurtled through the air onto the trenches of the Sikhs.11

  The excellent quality of Sikh artillery was no surprise to the British even before the war. In 1839 Captain the Hon. W. G. Osborne had been on an official visit to the Sikhs, and reported that although their European-trained infantry was perfectly adequate, their artillery was ‘by far the best and most powerful arm of the Sikh nation’. Its performance, firing grapeshot at a curtain 200 yards away, he thought:

  would have been creditable to any artillery in the world. At the first round of grape, the curtain was cut clean away, and their shells at eight hundred and twelve hundred were thrown with a precision that is extraordinary when the short period of time they have known of even the existence of such a thing is taken into account.12

  Mudki and Ferozeshah had demonstrated that Sikh gunners were not simply professionally adept, but were brave men too: they fought to the death even when their batteries were overrun by British infantry. Today at Sobraon they fire back with accuracy and determination, but the British artillery, too, is well handled. Private John Pearman, watching it all with the 3rd Light Dragoons, saw that ‘most of our artillery and field batteries had advanced to an easy range. The firing appeared like practice in Woolwich marshes.’ His regiment, on hand for pursuit when the Sikhs begin to give way, was not quite out of range. ‘We had in the regiment a half-breed greyhound,’ he recalled, ‘and the poor thing kept running after spent balls until the poor bitch could run no more, but she was not hurt.’13

  At the very moment that when Harry Smith, looking at the bombardment from beyond the eastern edge of the Sikh position, thinks that British artillery is beginning to win the firefight, its fire perceptibly slackens. Gough has just been told that his guns have brought far fewer rounds into the field than had been ordered, and the bombardment cannot go on much longer.14 For Gough this comes as something of a relief from politicking and technical advice, and he decides to bring the battle, as he puts it, ‘to the arbitrament of musket and the bayonet’.

  The prospect of another ghastly slogging match like Mudki or Ferozeshah has alarmed Hardinge, and Colonel Benson, one of his staff officers, gallops up to Gough with the suggestion that if he does not feel confident of succeeding without great loss he should break off the attack and treat the business as a siege, making deliberate approaches to the Sikh defences. Benson presses his point again, and when he ventures it a third time Gough explodes. ‘What! Withdraw the troops after the action has commenced, and when I feel confident of success,’ he roars. ‘Indeed I will not. Tell Sir Robert Dick to move on, in the name of God.’15

  Bombardier Bancroft saw how Dick’s infantry, flanked by batteries of artillery,

  moved to the close attack in magnificent order the infantry and the cannon aiding each other co-relatively. The former marched steadily in line, with its colours flying in the centre, and halting only to close in and connect where necessary; the latter taking up their respective positions at a gallop, until all were within three hundred yards of the Sikh batteries; but notwithstanding the regularity, the soldier-like coolness, and the scientific character of the assault … so terrible was the roar of musketry, the fire of heavy cannons, and of those pestilential little guns called ‘zumboorucks’ and so fast fell our dead and wounded beneath them all that it seemed impossible that the trenches could ever be won … But very soon the whole of our centre and right could see the gallant soldiery … swarming in scarlet masses over the banks, breastworks and fascines, driving the Sikhs before them within the area of their own defences over which the yellow and red colours of the 10th and 53rd were flying; and no less gallant was the bearing of the 43rd and 59th Native Infantry, who were brigaded with them and swept in with them ‘shoulder to shoulder’.16

  ‘Oh what a sight to sit on your horse,’ wrote John Pearman, ‘to look at those brave fellows as they tried several times to get into the enemy’s camp; and at last they did, but oh, what a loss of human life. God only knows who will have to answer for it.’17

  The Sikh soldier Hookum Singh watched the same awesome spectacle from behind his zumbooruk on the rampart:

  Nearer and nearer they came, as steadily as if they were on their own parade ground, and in perfect silence. A creeping feeling came over me; this silence seemed so unnatural. We Sikhs are, as you know, brave, but when we attack we begin firing our muskets and shouting our famous war-cry, but these men, saying never a word, advanced in perfect silence. They appeared to me as demons, evil spirits, bent on our destruction, and I could hardly refrain from firing.

  At last the order came, ‘Fire’, and our whole battery as if from one gun fired into the advancing mass. The smoke was so great that for a moment I could not see the effect of our fire, but fully expected that we had destroyed the demons, so, what was my astonishment, when the smoke cleared away, to see them still advancing in perfect silence, but their numbers reduced to about one half. Loading my cannon, I fired again and again, making a gap or lane in their ranks each time; but on they came, in that awful silence, till they were within a short distance of our guns, when their colonel ordered them to halt and take breath, which they did under a heavy fire. Then, with a shout, such as only angry demons could give and which is still ringing in my ears, they made a rush for our guns, led by their colonel. In ten minutes it was all over; they leapt into the deep ditch or moat to our front, soon filling it, and then swarming up the opposite side on the shoulders of their comrades, dashed for the guns, which were still defended by a strong body of our infantry, who fought bravely. But who could withstand such fierce demons, with those awful bayonets, which they preferred to their guns – for not a shot did they fire the whole time – then, with a ringing cheer, which was heard for miles, they announced their victory.18

  The cheer was premature. The Sikhs ‘took not the slightest notice’ of the fire of skirmishers thrown forward, on Gough’s orders, by Gilbert and Smith, but concentrated their efforts on counter-attacking Dick’s division, which was gradually forced back, out of the captured batteries. Sir Robert himself, a veteran of the Peninsular War, had already fallen, shot through the head. Gough’s plan lay in ruins, but he immediately ordered Gilbert and Smith to convert their feint attacks into real ones. As Gilbert’s me
n moved forward against earthworks so high that they could not be climbed without scaling ladders, even Gough’s courage faltered briefly. ‘Good God,’ he exclaimed. ‘They’ll be annihilated.’ Ensign Percy Innes, of the Bengal European Regiment, attacking with Gilbert’s division wrote of how:

  The air, charged with sulphur, was stifling and so heated that it was almost unbearable. Now on rushed the Bengal European regiment with a determination which promised to carry everything before it; soon reaching the ditch which formed the outer defence, and springing into it, they found themselves confronted by massive walls, which in the distance had appeared less formidable, for now they found these works too high to escalade without ladders. To retire again was to encounter the storm of fire through which they had just passed, to remain in their present position was annihilation; therefore the Regiment, mortified and chagrined, was forced to seek shelter under cover of the bank of the dry river which it had left just a short time before.19

  Harry Smith ordered his division forward as soon as he received the order to attack. Captain Longworth, who ended the day commanding HM’s 31st, later reported that the advance:

  was no sooner discovered by the enemy than they opened upon us a most tremendous fire of round shot from the whole of the guns upon the left flank of their entrenched camp; shell, grape, canister and a very heavy fire of musketry were showered upon us as we neared the fortifications – but in spite of this, I am proud to say, the regiment advanced steadily and in the best order till within thirty paces of the entrenched camp, when a most destructive fire from overpowering numbers forced us to retire for a short distance, for the purpose of re-forming, as we left a full third of the regiment on the ground … 20

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