Sahib, p.38Richard Holmes
Charles MacGregor was wholly open about the connection between medals and promotion. ‘I have made up my mind to get the Victoria Cross,’ he wrote in 1857. ‘When I go out to reconnoitre the camp or position of the enemy I never feel a bit afraid of death itself, but I do feel afraid of what may come after death.’ At the end of the Mutiny, although he had been recommended for the award twice, he regretted that his ‘greatest ambition was yet unaccomplished – namely the Cross … I know many men who have got it for doing less than I would not mind doing half-a-dozen times.’ Posted to China for the 1860 campaign, he perked up at once: ‘I shall have another chance of the Victoria Cross.’ ‘Medals are a great nonsense,’ he wrote during the campaign itself, ‘but they do tell in your favour.’ He was badly wounded leading another flat-out charge on his twentieth birthday, and hoped that this might clinch his VC: but he was unlucky again. He fluttered like a stormy petrel through the smoke of campaign after campaign, repeatedly wounded, but with the VC always eluding him. In 1869, with campaigns in Abyssinia and Bhutan just under his belt, he wrote:
I hope either to get a CB or a C[ommander of the Order of the] S[tar of] I[India] for Bhutan, as I was specially recommended eight times, thanked by the Commander-in-Chief and Governor-General, and twice wounded in that campaign. I mean to find out whether they mean to include Bhutan in the frontier medal every one says they are going to give, and if not, I shall invite Lord Strathnairn [formerly General Sir Hugh Rose, the commander in chief] and General Tombs to use their influence to get it for us. If they give this, and one for Abyssinia, and I get CB or CSI, I shall have five medals, which will be pretty good for twelve years service.
He died a knight, but still without a gallantry award.89
DASH AT THE FIRST PARTY
THE SECOND BROAD PRINCIPLE affecting warfare in the subcontinent was that it was not until the Mutiny that British triumphs stemmed directly from technological superiority. The first century of British success came neither from superior weaponry which allowed them (as was the case in some colonial clashes elsewhere) to mow down the enemy from a safe distance, nor from skilled generalship, which featured an array of cunning turning movements or surprise attacks. There was an early recognition that in all but the most absurd numerical inferiority, the British ought to attack without delay and get to close quarters as soon as was practicable.
Captain Eyre Coote was a member of Clive’s council of war before Plassey, and his words might have been graven in stone over the gates of Addiscombe. ‘I give it as my opinion,’ he declared, ‘that we should come to an immediate action, and if that is thought entirely impossible, then we should return to Calcutta, the consequence of which will be our own disgrace and the inevitable destruction of the Company’s affairs.’90 Arthur Wellesley took much the same view, telling Colonel James Stevenson during the Assaye campaign that ‘the best thing you can do is to move forward yourself with the Company’s cavalry and all the Nizam’s and dash at the first party that comes into your neighbourhood … A long defensive war would ruin us and answer no purpose whatever.’91
A century later, Fred Roberts argued that:
It is comparatively easy for a small body of well-trained soldiers … to act on the offensive against Asiatics, however powerful they may be in point of numbers. There is something in the determined advance of a compact, disciplined body of troops which they can seldom resist. But a retirement is a different matter. They become full of confidence and valour the moment they see any signs of their opponents being unable to resist them, and if there is the smallest symptom of unsteadiness, weariness or confusion, a disaster is certain to occur.92
When Captain G. J. Younghusband wrote Indian Frontier Warfare in 1898, he declared that:
It has become an axiom sanctified by time, and justified by a hundred victories, for a British force, however small, always to take upon itself the role of the attacking party. From the battle of Plassey downwards has almost invariably brought success.93
And in his influential book Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, Charles Callwell agreed, writing that: ‘Asiatics do not understand such vigour and are cowed by it.’94
It was in fact a serious error to attribute the success of prompt British attacks to the enemy’s race, rather than his culture. Indeed, in 1942 the British lost Malaya to an Asiatic enemy who did precisely what they themselves had regarded as the guarantee of their success in India: the Japanese attacked whenever possible and pressed to close quarters. But against an opponent who lacked a single, determined commander, and whose force was often composed of heterogeneous parts, the instant offensive had much to recommend it.
However, it did not always work. In June 1857, Henry Lawrence was told that a large party of mutineers had reached Chinhut, about eight miles east of his Residency at Lucknow. He was well aware of the ‘strike first’ principle, and on the 30th he took part of HM’s 32nd Foot, two companies of sepoys, some Indian Irregular Horse and a few European volunteer cavalry, together with a battery of British-manned guns, a battery and a half of Indian-manned guns and an elephant-drawn 8-inch howitzer – about 700 men in all – to meet them. The little column came under accurate artillery fire as it approached Chinhut, and although Lawrence’s guns replied, with the 8-inch howitzer making very good practice, they could not check a force that outnumbered them perhaps ten to one. John Lawrence, riding with the volunteer cavalry that day, saw how:
It was one moving mass of men, regiment after regiment of the insurgents poured steadily towards us, the flanks covered with a foam of skirmishers, the light puffs of smoke from their muskets floating from every ravine and bunch of grass to our front. As to the mass of troops, they came on in quarter-distance columns, their standards waving in our faces, and everything performed as steadily as possible. A field day or parade could not have been better.95
The mutineers were doing exactly what would have been expected of them if their officers had still been British, coming on quickly in column and not getting bogged down in a firefight. Lawrence’s Indian-manned guns overturned (by design or accident) trying to get across the road embankment; the 32nd lost its commanding officer and about a third of its men, and many of the loyal sepoys made off. The howitzer had to be abandoned, and the column straggled back towards Lucknow: had it not been for a brave charge by the volunteer horse most would have been killed.
The retreat was illuminated by some flashes of bravery. Private Henry Metcalfe of HM’s 32nd heard one of his mates, badly wounded in the leg, announce: ‘I shan’t last long, and I know I would never be able to reach Lucknow.’ He told his comrades to leave him, and stayed behind, loading and firing steadily until he was overwhelmed. 96 The action at Chinhut cost Lawrence 365 casualties, almost half of them British: as no quarter was given, the number of dead, including 118 Europeans, was depressingly high. Henry Lawrence never forgave himself for risking the battle, and at the point of death he begged Brigadier James Inglis, who succeeded him in military command, to ‘ask the poor fellows I exposed at Chinhut to forgive me’.
‘In principle Lawrence was no doubt right to take the offensive,’ thought Sir John Fortescue, ‘but he should have left the business of commanding in the field to his officers.’ The troops did not leave Lucknow until the sun was up; they were ‘fidgeted backwards and forwards to no purpose’; and many muskets had been left loaded too long and did not fire when the time came. In contrast, the Indian commander, ‘whoever he may have been, knew his business’.97
SHOT AND SHELL
THE PRINCIPLE OF ATTACKING first was not simply intended to enable a small, swiftly-moving British force to impose its will on an opponent and, using its superior cohesion, to act consistently faster than he could react. It also recognised the fact that it was not until the Mutiny that the British generally enjoyed superiority in firepower. Eyre Coote, fighting the wily Hyder Ali of Mysore, admitted that the odds were stacked against him because his opponent outmatched him in guns, making an artillery duel unwise, and alway
His twenty-four and eighteen pounders commanding much more considerable distance than our light sixes and twelves give him an opportunity of attempting these distant cannonades with some idea of success, and Hyder always takes care that there is impeding or impassable ground between his army and ours; thus he is always sure of its being optional with him to draw off his guns in safety before our army can act offensively to advantage.98
If the British enjoyed an advantage in artillery on the coast, the further they got inland the greater the risk that, at the end of their long line of communications, they would encounter an adversary with heavier guns than they had been able to haul forward. Although neither Hyder nor Tipu were able to manufacture cannon using the Maritz principle (in which a cast barrel was precision lathed to drill out the bore), their older ‘cast-on’ construction method (with the barrel cast around an inner mould that produced the bore) nonetheless made some excellent guns. Both sultans also imported French and Dutch guns, and when Seringapatam fell in 1799, 927 cannon were captured, ten times as many as were possessed by the attacking force. Maratha guns were even better, and included both heavy field guns and howitzers, beautifully made according to the latest techniques. A British officer who survived Assaye wrote of ‘a most dreadful and destructive cannonade from a hundred pieces of cannon’.99 Some of these were so good that they were taken into British service. Sikh artillery was formidable, its accurate and unremitting fire was a grim feature of both Sikh Wars.
There were times when enemy gunners opened fire too soon – at an impossible 3,000 yards at Arguam and a very optimistic 1,600 yards at Maharajpore – causing the gunners to become exhausted from sponging, loading and ramming, and the guns themselves to be very hot by the time the advancing British were within their most effective range. The barrels of brass and bronze guns, so popular in India, drooped and sometimes burst when they reached high temperatures. At Gujrat the Sikhs opened fire before Gough’s infantry was within their effective range, enabling Gough to halt them at a safe distance and then send for his own gunners: ‘the Sikh fire became feebler as gun after gun was dismounted and group after group of the gunners was destroyed’.100
Indian guns were often very well sited. At Maharajpore Harry Smith, who had seen more fighting than most men, thought that the Maratha guns were ‘most ably posted, every battery flanking and supporting the other by as heavy a cross-fire as I ever saw’. They fired roundshot, then canister as the range closed, and finally old horseshoes and scrap iron in the last minutes before the attacking infantry came up to handstrokes.101 John Shipp complained that the defenders of Bhurtpore put similar rubbish in their cannon to fire at his storming party. ‘Pieces of copper coins, as well as bits of stone, iron and glass,’ he wrote, ‘were dug out of the wounds of those lucky enough to escape.’102 So badly made was some of the ammunition fired by the Marathas that ‘the guns labour and bellow most dreadfully, and the rough surface of the balls tears the muzzle to pieces’.103
Nevertheless, some Indian guns were remarkably accurate. Henry Daly was at Multan, where:
I stood under my first fire of being shot. Brown and I had walked out to look at a battery the Sikhs were busy erecting, and a sound indescribable was heard over our head, and about ten feet in our rear near a bank, a cross between an 18 and 24-pounder fell slap between the horses of an artillery wagon; the shock floored one, but killed none. The distance from which this came could not have been less than 1¾ miles. It is a gun which, from his constant visits since, has attained great celebrity in camp, under the name ‘Long Tom’.104
The quality of Indian artillery meant that, in pitched battles against serious adversaries, it was rarely wise for the British to play at long bowls. True, they could generally count on moving light guns much faster than their adversaries. Brigadier ‘Bully’ Brooke, commanding the Bengal Horse Artillery at Mudki, briefed his men before the battle:
Now, my men, when at the gallop, you see me drop the point of my sword, so, go as if the devil were after you: when I raise it so, pull up: and when I give the flourish, so (and he gave a tremendous one indeed) come about and unlimber.105
When horse gunners were on the move they were not easy to stop. Bancroft describes how, when his detachment was clipping along at a gallop under fire:
a ball struck the pole horse of the wagon in which the writer was seated in the stomach, and in an instant the poor animal’s intestines were hanging about his legs. The writer called to the rider to inform him of his mishap … by saying ‘Tom, Tom, Snarleyow has turned inside out and his insides are hanging about.’ Tom shouted to the corporal leading the team: ‘Joe, Joe, pull up; Snarly’s guts are hanging about his legs.’ To which the corporal coolly made the answer, ‘Begorra, Tom, I wouldn’t pull up at such a time as this if your guts were hanging out.’106
Captain Lumsden of the Bengal Horse Artillery recalled that it took his battery just over two minutes to gallop half a mile, come into action, and fire a shot.
Horse gunners could still get about sharpish even when they were down on their luck. Young Garnet Wolseley saw his fellow Irishman, the legendary Captain Billy Olpherts, leading his battery into action at Lucknow. They were:
going as fast as their wretched equipment would admit of. First came dear old Billy himself, clad in the garments he had worn in the Crimean war, a fez cap and a Turkish grégo, the latter tied round his waist with a piece of rope. About fifty yards behind came his well known battery sergeant major in a sort of shooting coat made from the green baize of a billiard table; then a gun, every driver flogging as hard as he could; and another a long distance in the rear.
In the attack on Lucknow the horse artillery was used for close-range breaching of walls. Wolseley saw how Olpherts’s guns hurtled past the Sikanderbagh ‘unlimbered, and came into action against the Shah Najaf. I never saw anything prettier or more gallantly done in my life.’ The very memory was almost too much for him as he wrote. ‘Would that he were alive to read these pages,’ lamented Wolseley. ‘I wonder if there is a lending library in heaven?’107 In fact, although Olpherts’s gallantry won him the brevets of major and lieutenant colonel, as well as the VC (not to mention the nickname ‘Hell-Fire Jack’), he died in his bed, a full general and a knight, in 1902. Charles MacGregor met him in the 1860s, and wrote admiringly: ‘He is the bravest of the brave, incredibly daring, up with his guns to within grape-distance before he fired.’108
British gunners often had the advantage in point of accuracy. John Shipp, advancing with Lake’s army against the Marathas, saw how:
A most impudent fellow, on a fine horse, beautifully caparisoned, came within a hundred yards of our column shouting abuse, and now and then firing off his matchlock. At last he wounded one of the Native Cavalry, which so annoyed me that I begged his Lordship to let me deal with the fellow. ‘Oh, never mind him, Shipp,’ said his Lordship, ‘we will catch him before he is a week older.’ … An officer commanding one of the six pounders came up just then, and told his Lordship that if he gave him leave he would knock the boaster over first shot, or lose his commission. ‘Well try,’ answered his Lordship. The man fired his matchlock at that moment and started to reload. The six pounder was unlimbered, laid, fired and the shot stuck the horse’s rump, passed through the man’s back and out through the poor animal’s neck and we said: ‘So much for the Pin.’109
When Havelock’s little army was making for Cawnpore it was confronted by the Nana Sahib’s army, apparently commanded by an individual who was gesticulating vigorously from the back of a richly caparisoned elephant. Captain Francis Maude, commanding the eight British guns, was urged to shoot at him.
Accordingly, I dismounted and laid the gun myself, a nine-pounder at ‘line of metal’ (700 yards range), and, as luck would have it, my first round went in under the beast’s tail and came out of his chest, of course rolling it over, and giving the rider a bad fall … It was said at the time that the man on
The combination of mobility and accuracy often enabled British guns to shoot in the counter-battery role, concentrating their fire on the enemy guns which, if left unchecked, would do so much damage to the infantry. At Mudki this worked well, and Gough reported that: ‘The rapid and well-directed fire of our artillery appeared soon to paralyse that of the enemy.’111 Much the same happened at Gujrat, where Gough had almost a hundred guns (perhaps twice as many as the Sikhs), and was content to let them do their work before he sent the infantry forward. But at Ferozeshah even Bully Brooke had to admit that he had lost the artillery duel, and could only make effective use of his light pieces by getting closer. ‘Your Excellency,’ he yelled at Gough above the din, ‘I must either advance or be blown out of the field.’ At Sobraon it was Gough’s realisation that the artillery battle was lost that impelled him to order his infantry to assault. Arthur Wellesley attacked the Marathas at Assaye by swinging round to fall on their left flank, but they redeployed to meet him, and he admitted that his own guns were badly mauled as they came forward: ‘Our bullocks, and the people employed to draw them, were shot, and they could not all be drawn on, but some were, and all continued to fire as long as they could be any use.’112
The ‘strike first’ principle committed the British to attacking, and the quality of Indian artillery generally meant that a sustained firefight was not in their interests. Accordingly, their infantry, both British and sepoy, usually advanced in column, to make it easier to move cross-country, then shook out into line within a few hundred yards of the enemy, and then pushed forward, perhaps stopping to fire a volley or two but, increasingly, being encouraged to ‘come at them with the bayonet’. At Buxar in 1764: ‘Major Champion ordered the right wing to advance, but not to give their fire until they could push bayonets: and they accordingly moved in with recovered arms … ’.113 The advance under fire with fixed bayonets was the hallmark of British infantrymen fighting in India: the ultimate pay-off for hauling him halfway across the world, and arriving on the enemy position, sweaty, powder-grimed and murderous; but it often decided matters.
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