Sahib, p.40Richard Holmes
the line seemed to extend as each man sought more room for the play of the most terrible of all weapons in the hands of a British soldier … The long hoped-for time had come at last … and a wild shout or rather a yell of vengeance went up from the Line as it rushed to the charge. The Enemy followed our movements, their bayonets were also lowered and their advance was steady as they came on to meet us, but when that exultant shout went up they could not stand it, their line wavered and undulated, many began firing with their firelocks from their hips and at last as we were closing in on them the whole turned and ran for dear life followed by a shout of derisive laughter from our fellows. In three minutes from the word to charge, the 75th stood breathless but victors in the Enemy’s battery.128
Much the same procedure was followed for an attack on a serai, a walled enclosure, at Najufghur in August 1857, as recalled by Lieutenant Edward Vibart, doing duty with 1st Bengal European Fusiliers:
A column composed of ourselves, a wing of Her Majesty’s 61st Foot and the 2nd Punjab Infantry, was then told off to attack it and, having advanced to a point about three hundred yards from the building, we were directed to deploy, halt, and lie down, while the General [Nicholson] and his staff rode out to the front to reconnoitre the position. Immediately afterwards a battery of Horse Artillery galloped up and, unlimbering at close range, poured in a heavy fire of round shot for a few minutes on that face of the serai which faced us. The order was then given to the attacking columns to stand up and, having fixed bayonets, the three regiments, led by General Nicholson in person, steadily advanced to within about one hundred yards of the enclosure, when the word of command rang out from our commanding officer, Major Jacob, ‘Prepare to charge!’ ‘Charge!’ and in less time than it takes to relate we had scaled the walls, carried the serai and captured all the guns by which it was defended. Only a few of the rebels fought with any pluck, and these were seen standing on the walls, loading and firing with the greatest deliberation until we were close upon them. But few of these escaped, as they were nearly all bayoneted within the enclosure.129
All the vital ingredients of a successful attack were there. The assaulting troops were kept well in hand, and did not have too much ground to cover; their attack was prepared by the close-range fire of horse artillery; and there was brave leadership from the local commander.
Garnet Wolseley, fighting his first little battle in Burma, discovered that a charge needed real weight and determination. The men of 67th BNI went to ground, and their officers could not get them on. The 4th Sikhs were altogether better, but their commanding officer was ‘knocked over by a bullet that hit him at the top of his forehead, which it smashed and, to all appearances, lodged in his brain. It was a dreadful wound but, strange to say, it did not kill him.’ His own men were ‘undrilled recruits, and there were too few of us, and there was not enough backing-up from behind. Had a formed company with its officers been there the whole thing would have been over in a very few minutes.’ He was conscious of a never-to-be-repeated sensation of satisfaction and joy, but then he was hit in the thigh by a bullet from a jingal and was carried from the field: the attack had failed.130
When he led his company against the Mess House at Lucknow things were different. Sir Colin Campbell had just spoken to the officers, and ‘impressed on us the necessity of using the bayonet as much as possible when we got into the city, and not halting to fire when we could avoid doing so’. There was a feeling amongst the men that Campbell had showed undue favouritism to his Highlanders, and this ‘made them determined that no breechless Highlander should get in front of them that day. I overheard many of them express that determination in very explicit Anglo-Saxon.’ When the moment came to charge, Wolseley led them ‘at a good steady double’ for the Mess House. Then ‘I steadied my men and “whipped them in” at the garden wall as we swarmed over it, and then made for the open doorway of the Mess House itself’. Beyond it they were stopped by a loopholed wall, but got possession of the loopholes and fired through them while crowbars and picks were sent for to make gaps. As soon as a hole was big enough for a man, an ensign scrambled through – ‘I have never heard of a more dare-devil exhibition of pluck’ wrote Wolseley – and the place was secured. Wolseley’s brigadier, Adrian Hope, warned him that Campbell was furious with him for going beyond the Mess House and depriving his Highlanders of more glory. By the time they met – Campbell was sleeping on the ground, and awoke when somebody put the leg of a wooden bed on his stomach – ‘His anger had left him, and no man ever said nicer or more complimentary things to me than he did then.’131
In European war it was axiomatic that bayonets were rarely crossed, but one side or the other recalled an urgent appointment elsewhere just before contact. Indeed, the French General Louis Trochu, whose eventful military career included the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars, recalled only three bayonet fights, one of them the result of a collision in the fog.
Things were different in India. Indian troops armed and equipped on European lines carried musket and bayonet. For much of the period this was a muzzle-loading flintlock weapon like the British Brown Bess, equipped with a triangular-bladed socket bayonet. Flints are not indigenous to India, and so the preferred firearm for many Indians was the matchlock musket. This embodied a more primitive form of ignition. Instead of the powder in the flash-pan being ignited by the spark of flint against steel, the firer used a match, a length of slow-burning cord, to set off the charge. However, many Indian matchlocks were not the clumsy and inaccurate weapons used in seventeenth-century Europe, but were well-made weapons whose ability to function with local supplies and repairs made them useful until well on in the nineteenth century. Jezailchis, irregulars armed with matchlock jezails, were still in service in the Second Afghan War.
Indians equipped with musket and bayonet often preferred to use the sword when at close quarters. Even the Company’s sepoys had ‘unofficial’ swords. In 1772 a sepoy was sentenced to ‘be drawn asunder by tattoos’ (that is, pulled apart by horses) for the crime of killing his captain. The gruesome process went badly: ‘The horses being fastened to his limbs, many attempts were made to draw them from the body, but wanted effect, and the Sepoys were ordered to put him to death, which they did with their swords.’132 In 1849 Gough directed that the men of his Indian light cavalry regiments ‘who are so inclined’ might ‘arm themselves with their own Tulwars (which they are understood in general to possess) in lieu of the Government sabres they at present carry’.133 The most common sword was the tulwar (the word simply means sabre in Hindustani), a curved weapon with a cruciform guard, sometimes extending to a single knuckle-bow, and a characteristic dish-shaped pommel.
The tulwarwas used almost exclusively for slashing, and was always carefully honed. It was kept in a wooden scabbard covered with leather: Indians rightly believed that the metal scabbards favoured by Europeans tended to dull a sword’s edge. Some of them kept their tulwars tied securely into the scabbard to prevent any movement at all. Near Delhi in 1857 Lieutenant A. R. D. Mackenzie saw how:
one unfortunate fellow, who fell to my lot, threw himself off his horse when I had very nearly overtaken him, and boldly facing me on foot, tried to draw his tulwar; but the more he tugged the less it would leave the scabbard. For a moment I thought fear had paralysed his arm, but I discovered afterwards that he had tied the hilt to the scabbard, and in his hurry and very natural agitation had forgotten all about the fastening. It was not at all an unusual practice with native swordsmen to thus fasten up their tulwars, with the view of preventing their keen edges from getting blunted by friction.134
When British infantry reached their opponents, having passed through artillery fire and musketry, it was generally a matter of bayonet against sword. According to Harry Smith, even the Sikh infantry, trained on European lines, threw down their muskets ‘and came on sword and target (they all carry excellent swords) like the ancient Greeks’.135 A trooper in the 16th Lancers agreed, He wrote that at Aliwal
The ‘target’, like the Scots targe, was a small round shield carried on the left arm and, again like the targe, it was made from hide. It could catch a misdirected bayonet thrust and enable its owner to use his tulwarwith effect. The bayonet, however, had a longer reach, and soldiers were often taught to work in pairs, with the rear-rank man covering his front-rank comrade. But there was no room for error. As the 93rd Highlanders stormed Lucknow, two brothers were killed by an Indian who got a single good cut at each of them. Sergeant Forbes-Mitchell then saw how the surviving third brother then bayoneted the man, and:
seized the tulwar that had killed both his brothers, and used it with terrible effect, cutting off heads of men as if they had been heads of cabbage. When the fight was over I examined the sword. It was of ordinary weight, well-balanced, curved about a quarter-circle, as sharp as the sharpest razor, and the blade as rigid as cast-iron. Now, my experience is that none of our very best English swords would have cut like this one. A sword of that quality would cut through a man’s skull or thigh-bone without the least shiver, as easily as an ordinary Birmingham blade would cut through a willow.137
Most British infantry officers used regulation swords. Until 1822 the officers of battalion companies carried a straight sword with a single knuckle-bow, while their comrades of the light and grenadier companies carried sabres. From 1822 to 1892 all carried a sword with a lightly curved blade and an elegant half-basket hilt. There was wide agreement that these weapons were outclassed by the tulwar. Ensign Wilberforce recounted that when the British stormed Delhi:
a brother ensign and myself had an opportunity of testing our swords. We attacked a man, not both together, but one at a time. I had the first try, and my sword bent almost double against the man’s chest without inflicting any wound. My companion fared but little better, for his sword glanced along a rib, inflicting a long, shallow skin wound, and had not the revolver been handy, it might have been awkward for one or both of us.138
In 1879 Major Le Mesurier admitted that: ‘Some of the Afghans died hard, and from the nature of their clothing and head-dress it was difficult to make any impression on them with the sword.’ Afghan swords, however, ‘were of native manufacture, and as sharp as steel should be’.139 Lieutenant Arthur Lang and his comrades spent some time ‘sharpening our swords, kukris and dirks, and tried cutting silk handkerchiefs after breakfast: my favourite “fighting sword”, Excalibur, one of Aunt Mary’s presents, has now an edge like a razor and a surface like a mirror’. However, once he was inside Delhi:
I found that I was no hand at using a sword; I cut at several, but never gave a death blow; to my surprise I didn’t seem able to cut hard, but it was of no consequence, as a Gurkha’s kukri or European’s bayonet instantly did the business.140
On the frontier, sword and bayonet were often pitted against the local Khyber knife, a formidable weapon with a straight, single-edged blade up to twenty inches long. In a savage hand-to-hand battle near Kabul in 1870, a brother officer saw Captain Spens of the 72nd Highlanders run an Afghan chief through with his claymore, mortally wounding him. But ‘as if possessed with an extraordinary amount of vigour in his dying effort, the Afghan flashed his terrible knife, like lightning, in the air, and the gallant Spens fell dead, cut almost in two’.141
Towards the end of the Mutiny, Captain Garnet Wolseley, then a junior staff officer and as such, mounted, was challenged by an individual mutineer.
As I approached at a canter he had just planted a green standard about fifty yards in front of a battery he was evidently serving with. He cried out in the most defiant Hindustanee ‘come on with your tulwar’. I had only a regulation infantry sword, and I had not been trained to fight on horseback, but I would not shirk such a challenge. So drawing my sword, I put spurs to my horse and rode for him just as hard as ever I could. Just as I reached him, I made my horse swerve in order to knock him down, and he cut at me at the same moment; but in trying to avoid my horse with a sort of jump to one side he stumbled and nearly fell, and before he could ‘right himself’ my Sowar Orderly, who was behind me, finished him with his lance. I was not very proud of this achievement, so I kept it to myself at the time.142
Charles MacGregor, himself a keen swordsman, was on foot when a sowar of 2nd Light Cavalry jumped up,
snatched a tulwar from underneath the grass, and rushed at me. As I was not prepared for him, he was on me before I knew where I was, and had given me a cut on my head with his tulwar. I saw the brute’s eyes shine as he gave me the cut, thinking he had done for me, and expecting to see me drop; but thanks to a solah topee and a good puggree, the blow did not touch my head. I went for him at once, and gave him a cut across his cheek; but my sword not being sharp, it did not floor him as I expected, so I was expecting to give him Point 3 in his stomach, when he turned and bolted. I went after him, and instead of giving him the point in the stomach, gave it him through his back. He fell heavily on my sword, and broke it.
He was better prepared next time, although his adversary was:
a pretty tolerable swordsman. However I had not quite forgotten my lessons at Angelo’s, and besides, these fellows can’t quite understand the point; so I waited, not trying to hit my man, but keeping my eye on him (which, by the way, was very necessary, as he danced and jumped about like a madman … ) I gave him a sharp jabbing kind of cut on his knuckles, his sword [-point] dropped, and I was just about to give him No 3 through his body, but he picked it up again too sharp for me, and began cutting at me again; but it was no use, he couldn’t hold it, and he received the long-delayed No 3 in his stomach. Over he went at once, and I picked up his tulwar and cut off his head pretty neatly with it.143
A broken sword could be a catastrophe. In 1794, Major Bolton, commanding 18th BNI, ‘being a powerful man, he cut down four of the enemy with his own hand; but in making a stroke at the fifth, his sword broke in the hilt, and he was then cut in pieces’.144 And even a pig-sticking spear might be put to use. In March 1880, Major S. J. Waudby of 19th BoNI, on the lines of communication near Kandahar with five of his soldiers, fought to the death when his little post was overwhelmed, using revolver, sword and lastly his spear: eleven dead tribesmen were found near the bodies of Waudby and his men.
Despite Colin Campbell’s demands that his soldiers should trust to their bayonets in Lucknow, there had already been a marked change in tactics. The Enfield rifle, whose introduction into the Bengal army had played its part in bringing about the Mutiny, significantly outranged the smoothbore musket. Musketry was rarely effective beyond about 200 yards: the Enfield was sighted up 1,000 yards. As the mutineers’ cannon were progressively captured, and British-manned artillery arrived from England, so the balance of firepower swung decisively in favour of the British. At Badli ke Serai on 8 June, Sir Henry Barnard decided to attack because he could not win the artillery duel, and was ‘losing men fast’. Lieutenant Kendall Coghill observed that: ‘I have never seen such splendid artillery practice as theirs was. They had the range to a yard and every shot told.’145 The assault that followed would have delighted old Gough.
Just over a month later Henry Havelock attacked the mutineers at Fatehpur, and made full use of Francis Maude’s well-handled battery and the fact that two of his battalions, 1st Madras Fusiliers and HM’s 64th, had the Enfield rifle. Havelock told his wife that:
Twelve British soldiers were struck down by the sun, and never rose again. But our fight was fought, neither with musket nor bayonet, nor with sabre, but with Enfield rifles and cannon; so we lost no men.
The enemy’s fire scarcely touched us; ours, for four hours, allowed him no repose.
He went on to tell his troops that they owed their victory:
To the fire of the British artillery, exceeding in rapidity and precision all that t
It took some time for British soldiers to take the Enfield to their hearts. In Richard Barter’s regiment, HM’s 75th, a proportion of the men had the new rifle and the remainder carried the old smoothbore. Because the rifles required more maintenance, those issued with them maintained that they had been happier with their muskets. Sergeant Forbes-Mitchell also noticed that the 93rd’s rifles were prone to fouling.
We discharged our rifles at the enemy across the Goomtee, and then spunged them out, which they sorely needed, because they had not been cleaned from the day we advanced from the Alumbagh. Our rifles had in fact got so foul with four day’s heavy work that it was almost impossible to load them, and the recoil had become so great that the shoulders of many of the men were perfectly black with bruises.147
But it was hard to argue with the effect of the new weapons, and Assistant Surgeon Sylvester observed that the skirmishers of Probyn’s Horse, just eleven men under Lieutenant G. V. Fosbery, fired 2,000 rounds from their Enfields in a single operation.
There were, though, moments when local adversaries might still have the technological edge. One spectacular example of British loss of technological advantage was the battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880. A strong brigade, under Brigadier General G. R. S. Burrows, was sent out from Kandahar to prevent Ayub Khan from crossing the River Helmand. Burrows had two Indian cavalry regiments, the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry and the 3rd Scinde Horse, and three infantry battalions, HM’s 66th Foot, 1st BoNI (Grenadiers) and 30th BoNI (Jacob’s Rifles). There was one battery of Royal Horse Artillery, a battery of captured smoothbores manned by men of the 66th, and a company of Bombay Sappers and Miners. The 66th carried the Martini-Henry rifle, with which they had been told they could march the length and breadth of Afghanistan as they pleased, and the native infantry had the Snider, a more primitive breech-loader based on the old Enfield.
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