Sahib, p.4
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       Sahib, p.4

           Richard Holmes

  The 50th sets off in the wake of the 31st, in a line two-deep, its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Petit, with the colour party in the centre, captains on the right flank of their companies and sergeants and subalterns to the rear.21 Darby Fulcher marches just behind the centre of his company, smacking out the step with the steady drumbeat of ‘The Grenadiers’ March’, to which his comrades are entitled. The men are now stepping ‘uncommon stiff an’ slow’, with the straight-legged gait of fighting dogs, and are already walking over dead and wounded from the 31st. Some of these unfortunates still have fight left in them, and shout: ‘Come on, the old half-hundred! Pay them off for Mudki! Take the Brummagem to them, my darlings.’22 The fire from the embankment just 300 yards ahead is simply prodigious, with yellow flashes piercing a wall of white smoke, a mass of metal whooping overhead, some roundshot clearly visible as they bound along, and gusts of grape kicking up the yellow earth and clipping holes in the line.

  The men are dressing by the centre, glancing in occasionally to take station on the colours, and closing in to left or right as comrades are hit. Lieutenant Colonel Petit is still mounted (he had a horse shot under him at Mudki) and is in more danger at his height than he would be four feet lower, for a lot of the fire is going high. An officer will later admit that: ‘It is a miracle that we were not properly riddled, but … the guns had so sunk in the sand that the gunners could not depress the muzzles sufficiently, and therefore most of the grape went over our heads.’23 Petit shouts something inaudible, raises his drawn sword and sweeps it down to the left. Almost immediately a ruffle ripples out from the centre as drummers relay the order, and captains shout: ‘By the left … left incline.’ The battalion begins to swing like a great gate, pivoting on the light company, on its left, whose men are scarcely moving, their sergeants hissing: ‘By the left … Step short, step short.’ The grenadiers, in contrast, have ground to make up, and stride out boldly. Petit is edging leftwards to avoid the worst of the carnage ahead, and when he is satisfied with the new alignment, his sword comes up. Another burst of drumming, and captains repeat: ‘By the centre … For … ward.’

  The change of direction is little help. The ramparts are now only 100 yards ahead, and it is all too clear that the 31st has reached the end of its tether. Its commanding officer has been knocked from his horse by a flurry of grapeshot which has bent his sword double, and the regiment begins to drift backwards like tide ebbing from rocks, coming straight for the advancing line of the 50th. Lieutenant Colonel Petit’s sword-point comes up again. ‘50th … division into column … Quick march,’ he yells, and the drumbeats ripple out again. This time each of the companies swings from line into its own small column. Towards the end of his long life, Colour Sergeant Thompson still recalled the moment well:

  The thing that impressed me most in the whole campaign, was the steadiness with which the 50th at Sobraon, formed fours under tremendous fire, to allow the 31st, who were retreating in disorder, to pass through their ranks, and then formed up as if on parade … You know how catching a panic is, and it struck me as a most trying ordeal.24

  With the survivors of the 31st safely through, the eight little columns close back into line at once. There are shrieks just ahead, for some Sikhs have dashed down to cut up the wounded in the ditch. At its very edge the 50th halts, fires a single volley at point-bank range – its men aiming for the embrasures and parapet – and then charges, not with the coarse bark of formal hurrahs, but with a dreadful, sobbing, throaty roar. The Sikhs, wholly undaunted, wave swords and muskets, and shriek out their own war-cry ‘Sat Sri Akal’. Some attackers scramble up the earthworks, jump through the embrasures and set about the gunners who, true to form, lash out with rammers and handspikes. But most edge to the right, along the ditch, and begin to fan out across a narrow strip of open ground between the northernmost bastion and the river. Lieutenant Colonel Petit is down, and command passes quickly amongst the captains as they too are hit.

  Not that command means much now, with the regiment breaking up into little knots of men laying on with bayonet and butt. Most soldiers are giving clean, straight thrusts, as they have been taught, but some, in the passion of the moment, swing the bayonet upwards with ‘the haymaker’s lift’ that can carry a skewered opponent right off his feet. It is not a tactic to be recommended, for sometimes the bayonet snaps clean off, and this is no place to be defenceless. Sergeant Major Cantwell has just run a Sikh ensign through with his sword and seized his colour when he himself is cut down by a vicious blow from a tulwar (the Hindustani for sword): his body, stripped and gashed, will be found in the ditch at the end of the fighting.

  The 31st has already recovered itself not far behind, and it too returns to the attack, quickly losing Lieutenant Tritton, who has carried the Queen’s colour and Ensign Jones, with the regimental colour. Lieutenant Noel picks up the fallen Queen’s colour, and pushes on round the edge of the earthworks, while Sergeant Bernard McCabe takes the regimental colour and plants it on the rampart. Harry Smith has fought in dozens of battles in his fifty-seven years, and won his Spanish bride, Juanita, on that dreadful night in April 1812 when Wellington’s army stormed the Spanish town of Badajoz. But what followed his division’s entry into the Sikh entrenchment exceeded anything he had ever seen:

  And such a hand to hand contest ensued, for twenty-five minutes I could barely hold my own. Mixed together, swords and targets against bayonets, and a fire on both sides. I was never in such a personal fight for half the time, but my bull-dogs of the Thirty-first and old 50th stood up like men, well supported by the native regiments …

  In another letter he wrote that: ‘The old Thirty-first and 50th laid on like devils. This last was a brutal bull-dog fight.’25

  Although nobody on this part of the field has the least idea of it, the attackers have made good progress elsewhere, though at terrible cost. In the centre Gilbert is wounded and both his brigade commanders are dead, but at their third attempt his men have managed to get up onto the Sikh parapet by scrambling up on one another’s shoulders. There is movement on Gough’s left too, where Dick’s men are up on the rampart and beginning to seep down behind it. Whatever Gough’s limitations, he has an acute sense for the balance of a battle, and knows that this one has now begun to tilt his way. Part of Major General Sir Joseph Thackwell’s cavalry division is at hand, and he orders it forward. ‘It was now our turn,’ wrote John Pearman;

  It was given: ‘Forward, 3rd King’s Own Light Dragoons,’ an order the colonel used when he was in a good temper. On we went by the dead and dying, and partly over the poor fellows, and up the parapet our horses scrambled. One of the Sikh artillery men struck at me with his sponge staff but missed me, hitting my horse on the hindquarters which made the horse bend down. I cut round at him but cannot say where, as there was such a smoke on. I went with the rest through the Camp at their battalions which we broke up.26

  There would later follow an unedifying squabble as to whose attack was actually decisive, with Thackwell complaining that Gough’s dispatch did not do sufficient justice to his charge. But it seems true to say that it was the simultaneous concentric attack that was the Sikhs’ undoing. Nor were they helped by the fact that Tej Singh, their commander in chief, who had been in treasonable dealings with the British, had fled during the night. Yet even now this, the most formidable army ever encountered by the British in India, fought it out resolutely. Old Sham Singh, comrade-in-arms of Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh State, had sworn to conquer or die, and Captain J. D. Cunningham saw that he was as good as his word.

  Calling on all around to fight for the Guru, who had promised everlasting bliss to the brave, he repeatedly rallied his shattered ranks, and at last fell a martyr on a heap of his slain countrymen. Others might be seen standing on the ramparts amongst a shower of balls, waving defiance with their swords, or telling the gunners where the fair-headed English pressed closest together … The parapets were sprinkled with blood from end to end; the trenches were fill
ed with the dead and the dying. Amid the deafening roar of cannon, and the multitudinous fire of musketry, shouts of triumph or scorn were yet heard, and the flashing of innumerable swords was yet visible; from time to time exploding magazines of powder threw bursting shells and beams of wood and banks of earth high above the agitated sea of smoke and flame which enveloped the hosts of combatants … 27

  As the Sikhs began to give way, slowly and stubbornly, they found that ‘by a strange fatality’ the Sutlej had risen seven feet during the night because of rain upstream, and was now unfordable. The single bridge was their only means of escape, and Captain Arthur Hardinge, serving on his father’s staff, watched what happened:

  I saw the bridge at that moment overcrowded with guns, horses, and soldiers of all arms, swaying to and fro, till at last with a crash it disappeared into the running waters, carrying with it all those who had vainly hoped to reach the opposite shore. The artillery, now brought down to the water’s edge, completed the slaughter. Few escaped; none, it may be said, surrendered.28

  Robert Cust, also on Hardinge’s staff, wrote that:

  The stream was choked with the dead and dying – the sandbags were covered with bodies floating leisurely down. It was an awful scene, fearful carnage. The dead Sikh lay inside his trenches – the dead European marked too distinctively the line each regiment had taken, the advance. The living Europeans remarked that nought could resist the bayonet … Our loss was heavy and the ground was here and there strewn with the slain, among whom I recognised a fine and handsome lad whom I had well known, young Hamilton, brother of Alistair Stewart. There he lay, his auburn hair weltering in his blood, his forehead fearfully gashed, fingers cut off. Still warm, but quite dead.29

  Subadar Sita Ram, attacking with his regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, recalled that ‘not one’ of the Sikhs asked for quarter. But as he approached the bridge he saw:

  an English soldier about to bayonet a wounded Sikh. To my surprise, the man begged for mercy, a thing no Sikh had ever been known to do during the war. The soldier then pulled off the man’s turban and jacket, and after this I saw him kick the prostrate man and then run him through several times with his bayonet. Several other soldiers kicked the body with great contempt and ran their bayonets through it. I was told later that this was a deserter from some European regiment who had been fighting with the Sikhs against his comrades.30

  The fighting was over by midday. The Sikhs had lost around 8–10,000 men, many of them drowned in the Sutlej, lashed into ‘bloody foam’ by British grapeshot, and all the guns they had taken south of the river. Gough’s little army suffered 2,283 killed and wounded. Private Richard Perkes of the Bengal Europeans, who maintained an irregular correspondence with his brother in England, announced:

  I have been in the two greatest battles that ever were fought in India that is Frosheshaw and Saboon. I have gone through the whole of it without receiving one scar which I am very sorry to say that a great many of my comrades his laid low. It was a miracle how any off us escaped for the balls had yoused to come as thick as a shower of hail the same I wish never to see again.31

  The burden had fallen most heavily on the British infantry, although there was widespread agreement that the Indian troops, heartened by Harry Smith’s neat little victory at Aliwal, had fought much better than at Mudki or Ferozeshah. Sita Ram admitted that: ‘It is well known that the sepoys dreaded the Sikhs as they were very strong men, but in spite of everything their officers led them on.’32 And amongst the native troops it was the newly raised Gurkhas of the Naisiri and Simoor Battalions that attracted most interest. Bombardier Bancroft wrote that: ‘Our two battalions of Goorkhas, active and ferocious Nepalese armed with the short weapon of their native mountains, were a source of great terror to the Sikhs throughout the conflict and the subsequent fight.’33

  The survivors of the 50th formed up just outside the Sikh entrenchment under the command of Lieutenant Wiley, the senior surviving officer. Although the regiment was no stranger to loss, this had been a terrible battle, on a par with Ferozeshah. One lieutenant, the sergeant major, a sergeant and forty-three men lay dead; eleven officers, eight sergeants, a drummer and 177 men lay wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Petit survived his wound to be appointed a Companion of the Bath for this day’s work.

  Gough’s victory at Sobraon brought the war to an immediate end. He was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Baron Gough of Chinkiangfoo in China and of Maharajpore and the Sutlej in the East Indies, with a pension of £2,000 a year from the government and another £2,000 from the East India Company. The Governor-General became Viscount Hardinge of Lahore and Durham, with an even more generous pension. Juanita Smith became doubly a lady, for Harry was created a baronet with ‘of Aliwal’ added as special distinction, but sadly there was no son to inherit the title.

  Drummer Fulcher would rank rather lower in the list of rewards. He had jettisoned his drum after it was stove in by a piece of canister-shot and defended himself during the worst of the fighting with a discarded musket (using techniques more appropriate to alleys behind Portsmouth’s Commercial Road than to anything taught on the drill-square), received a nasty sword-cut behind the ear and ran his bayonet clean through the Sikh that inflicted it. More than a century later we might expect a young man to be indelibly marked by what he has seen and done, but Bandicoot Fulcher is showing little sign of it. Rum-and-water grog is being served out as the men are forming up, and it is clear that the quartermaster has overestimated the requirement: today almost half the 50th is taking its dram elsewhere. Fulcher receives a double ration of grog, and has already pocketed 30 Sikh nanaukshaee rupees and an assortment of lesser coins, the result of a little light pillaging amongst the dead up on the rampart. He will later receive a medal with the ribbon colours of Waterloo reversed, ‘which we all got. We also got twelve months batta [extra pay] and prize money, £7 12s 6d.’34 It might take Fulcher’s mother six months of hasty couplings to make as much. There are worse things, he thinks, than to be eighteen – pockets full of cash and head full of rum – and alive in a landscape so thickly populated by the dead.



  Now in Injia’s sunny clime,

  Where I used to spend my time

  A-servin of ‘Er Majesty the Queen …



  ON THE MAP the subcontinent seems like the head of an enormous elephant looking quizzically at the viewer. To our right, one of its great ears hangs down to give us Burma, while to the left the other flaps up towards Persia and the Gulf. The creature’s stern brow is wrinkled by the mountain ranges of the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. The island of Sri Lanka hangs just below its trunk, almost like a pineapple about to be devoured. Rivers furrow its great face. The Ganges flows from the Himalayas, eastwards across the great Indo-Gangetic plain, joined by the Jumna in the Doab (‘two rivers’) and going on to its many-mouthed estuary in the Bay of Bengal. It almost mirrors the Brahmaputra, which rises on the Tibetan Plateau to flow east before jinking south and west to the Bay of Bengal. On the other side of the elephant, the Indus, its waters fed by the Jelum, Chenab, Sutlej and Ravi, flows through the Punjab (‘land of the five rivers’) into the Arabian Sea. Other rivers crease the elephant’s upper trunk: the Mahanadi, the Godavari and the Cauvery flowing towards the Coromandel coast, and the Narmada and Tapti running into the Gulf of Cambay.

  Although the mountains of central and southern India cannot rival the Himalayas, they are anything but derisory. The Western and Eastern Ghats march parallel with the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, the Vindhya and Satpura ranges strike inland from the Gulf of Cambay, and the delightful Nilgiri Hills rise more gently in the south-west. It is a land of contrasts, with areas of impenetrable rain forest in Assam and Kerala, huge tracts of wooded plains, and the Thar or Indian Desert sprawling south of the Indus. But such is the sheer scale of the place that the traveller is often more awa
re of sameness than of change. A month’s ride on horseback across the North-West Frontier brings no relief from mountains and valleys, and a passenger aircraft travelling from Aurungabad, some 250 miles north-west of Bombay, down to Bangalore, as far inland from Madras, flies over a landscape of interminable red earth, speckled with jungle. The road journey from Mysore to Bangalore, not much more than a hundred white-knuckle miles, offers endless paddy fields and plantations, plantations and paddy fields, with each roadside village exactly like the last.

  It is a thousand miles from Delhi to Calcutta as the crow flies, about 1,300 from Calcutta to Bombay, and over two thousand from Delhi to Cape Comorin, India’s southernmost extremity. Until the development of railways from the 1850s, mass communications were poor, although Mughal officials and then British officers could avail themselves of a well-organised system which enabled individuals or small parties to cover the ground relatively quickly. The Mughals had built roads, some of which still have brick or stone watch towers at regular intervals, linking the major provincial centres of their empire to the great cities of Agra, Delhi and Lahore. Many of these had survived into British times, as Captain Albert Hervey discovered when travelling from Madras to Vellore in 1836:

  I travelled … by posting, or running dawk, as it is termed; which means travelling by relays of bearers, stationed at certain stages, where they change. When anyone wishes to travel in this way, an application is made to the Post-office authorities for relays of bearers being posted along the route he intends going: but before this arrangement can be made the traveller is obliged to pay a deposit of a certain sum, according to distance. The requisite sum being paid down, a day is fixed upon by the ‘Jack-in-office’ for the traveller’s starting, a certain time being absolutely required for the posting of the bearers, which done, the bearers for the first stage are sent to his residence, and these men prepare the palankeen in their own manner, by lashing and binding, and a variety of other preliminaries, too numerous for me to detail …

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