Sahib, p.43Richard Holmes
In 1857 an infantry brigadier sharply told his men that ‘the more you look at it, the less you will like it’, before adding conclusively: ‘the brigade will advance, left battalion leading.’ Indeed, it was not always helpful for cavalry to be able to see just how badly outnumbered they were. In November 1857, Lieutenant Hugh Gough was ordered by Hope Grant to attack 2,000 infantry and two guns with his squadron of Hodson’s Horse. Gough at once realised that a covered approach could make all the difference:
With my small body of men, my only chance of success was by making a flank attack, by surprise if possible. With this object I made a considerable detour, and managed, under cover of some fields of growing corn or sugar-cane, to arrive on the left flank of the enemy perfectly unseen. The guns were posted on a small mound and a considerable body of the enemy had an admirable position in rear of this mound, in front of and amid some trees and shrub. Between us and them lay a marshy jheel [lake or pond], with long reedy grass – an unpleasant obstacle, but which served admirably to cover our movements. I then advanced my men through this … at a trot, and so concealed our movements till we got clear, when I gave the word ‘Form line’ and ‘Charge’. My men gave a ringing cheer, and we were into the masses. The surprise was complete, and owing to its suddenness they had no conception of our numbers, and so the shock to them and the victory to us was as if it had been a whole brigade … The guns were captured, the enemy scattered, and the flight became a pursuit. Our loss was very trifling as is often the case in a sudden surprise.179
THE PETTAH WALL
INDIA WAS A LAND OF FORTRESSES, varying from a tinpot raja’s scrubby mud-walled fort to formidable structures like Gwalior and Bhurtpore. Most towns could boast a fortified suburb, the pettah, with a citadel within it. In 1791, for example, Bangalore was surrounded ‘by an indifferent rampart and excellent ditch, with an intermediate berm … planted with impenetrable and well-grown thorns’.180 Citadels were often sited on rock, so that they could not be undermined, and often possessed layers of defence designed to test an attacker’s resolution and skill.
Indian military engineers had an excellent grasp of the principles of fortification and siegecraft. Faced with a fortress of any size, an attacker would first have to cross an open, fire-swept glacis. He would then need to traverse a deep ditch, which might be wet or dry: that at Vellore was forty yards wide and the haunt of a famous tribe of alligators. Sometimes engineers inserted two ditches; at Bidar there were even three. The wall, topped with battlements which were generally provided with two rows of loopholes, rose on the far side of the ditch, often with an extra low wall in front of it which would prevent attackers using their battering guns against the base of the main wall. This latter was usually strengthened by regular towers, carrying out the same function as bastions in European artillery fortification, and enabled the defenders to apply flanking fire to troops trying to attack the wall. Gateways were routinely strengthened by barbicans, and sometimes shielded by detached mantlets which hid the gate from fire and view. Multan, besieged by the British in 1848–49, had ‘walls of burnt mud … flanked by thirty towers … ’; its fort had:
a hexagonal wall 40 to 70 feet high, the longest side of which faces the north-west and extends for 600 yards, and isolates it from the town. A ditch 25 feet deep and 40 wide is at the front side of the wall besides which is a glacis … Within the fort, and on a considerable elevation stands the citadel, in itself of very great strength. The ramparts bristle with eighty pieces of ordnance.181
British conquest of India was accompanied by a whole catalogue of storms and sieges, from brisk affairs which shoved a company of grenadiers over the pettah wall, to full-dress operations which would not have been out of place in seventeenth-century Europe. It was not until the very end of the period that a British army operating on the frontiers of India could afford to neglect the possibility of encountering fortifications which would require specialist treatment. Major Le Mesurier, brigade major, Royal Engineers, in the column which marched from Quetta to Kandahar in 1879, reported that the fortifications of Kandahar consisted of:
A ditch 25 feet wide and generally 10 feet deep, with means of filling it with water at pleasure, then an outer wall 10 feet high and 18 inches thick, then a chemin des rondes 18 feet wide, then a main parapet 20 feet high, average 15 feet thick in the centre, provided with a 6-foot wall on top, and then an interior way of 30 feet clear, where the town began. The material – mud built up in layers with chopped straw, might have withstood battering-guns for a length of time; in fact, some of the artillerymen doubted if any impression to speak of could be made.
Happily for the British, the walls were in poor repair, and there were breaches in the citadel.182
However, sun-baked mud and straw attained concrete-like hardness which could severely tax the power of the black-powder artillery which was in general use until the 1880s. The Reverend G. R. Gleig, Peninsular infantry officer turned army chaplain, described the bombardment of an Afghan fort in 1840:
At about noon on the 3rd [October 1840] a twenty-four-pounder howitzer, three nines, and two sixes, were got into position. They promptly opened their fire, and for three hours and a half maintained it with equal alacrity and precision. But the materials of which the fort was built would not admit of breaching. Heaps of soil peeled off and, as far as external appearances could be trusted, filled the ditch; but behind the ruins a thick rampart showed itself, in which the balls lodged without in any degree striking it.
The attackers then tried to storm the place using scaling ladders which (as was too often the case) proved too short: four officers reached the top of the wall but could not be supported and had to descend. The fort was eventually abandoned by its garrison.183
It was unwise, however, to tackle even the smallest forts without the benefit of some artillery, whatever its limitations. When Arthur Wellesley attacked Ahmednagar in August 1803, he first summoned the place to surrender, and then sent three storming columns against the ‘very lofty’ pettah wall. They used scaling ladders, and Captain Colin Campbell of HM’s 74th hung his claymore from his wrist to use both hands for climbing, and then laid about him mightily when he topped the wall.184 A Maratha officer thought that it was a remarkable performance. ‘The English are a strange people,’ he said, ‘and their General a wonderful man. They came here in the morning, looked at the pettah wall, walked over it, killed the garrison, and returned to breakfast. What can withstand them?’ Certainly not the fort itself. With the pettah in his hands, Wellesley established a four-gun battery whose fire speedily induced the governor to surrender.
A force with adequate artillery might try to gap the walls of pettah and citadel, in the hope that this would either persuade the commander to surrender or at least make a ‘practicable breach’ (a gently sloping hole in the walls through which at least two men could enter walking abreast without using their hands) which could then be attacked. An attack on a single breach would need to be supplemented by escalade, as John Pester of 1st BNI discovered in December 1802 when the combined grenadier companies of a small Bengal force assaulted the heavily fortified town of Sassneg.
We had nearly reached the glacis before the enemy discovered us … A galling fire now commenced upon us. Forty soldiers with the scaling ladders … preceded my section, which led the column … Everything depended on our placing the scaling ladders with precision … The first ladder I placed myself – our men were now dropping on every side of us. Sinclair and myself descended the first two ladders which we placed in the ditch, and instantly turned them and mounted the first side … but how shall I describe my feelings when I found the ladders would not reach the top by nearly ten feet! … A little to my right I observed the wall was somewhat sheltered … I got across from the top of one ladder to another, and with every exertion, unencumbered as I was, I reached the top of the wall alone … My sword was slung by the sword-knot round my wrist and I had both hands to scramble for it. My favourite havildar … was endeavouring
The attackers were forced to withdraw with heavy losses.
To avoid settling down for a lengthy siege, a commander might try to take a fortress by surprise, with an assault party of engineers blowing its gates in before infantry rushed the place. In July 1839, this worked well at Ghazni in Afghanistan. The place was strong – ‘a fairly regular quadrilateral, with sides about five hundred yards long, broken by a number of circular bastions of the usual oriental type’.186 Sir John Keane’s force had no heavy guns, and his light artillery made no impression on the walls which, rising sixty to seventy feet above the plain, were impervious to escalade, while a wet ditch made mining impossible. Keane only had food for three days, so could not hope to starve the garrison out. But he had heard that the Kabul gate, on the north side, had not been fully repaired after a previous siege, and he determined to launch a real attack on this gate and a false one against the southern side.
The attack was launched in the early hours of 23 July. Captain Peat, Lieutenants Durand and Macleod and a few sappers carried 300 pounds of powder in twelve bags across a masonry bridge over the ditch and laid them against the gate. Although heavy fire had opened from the ramparts, the low outer works covering the bridge were unguarded. Durand and Sergeant Robertson uncoiled the fuse, a cloth tube full of powder, which proved barely long enough to go from the gate to a nearby sally-port, under whose shelter were the two men – now under a very brisk fire, and having bricks, stones and assorted debris showered on them from above. It proved hard to light the fuse, and when the gate went up there was a good deal of confusion.
The bugler who should have signalled the advance was killed, and Peat, already flattened by the blast, tumbled heavily over some fallen masonry when running back to bring up the infantry. The ubiquitous George Broadfoot found him, heard what had happened and summoned the attackers: the leading four companies of HM’s 13th then rushed forward. A misunderstanding led to the ‘retire’ being sounded, and the supporting column paused; but the error was soon discovered. Major John Pennycuick, then of HM’s 17th Foot, recalled that:
In one or two cases serious resistance was made at the gateway on first entry – and afterwards at the bastion or tower to the right of the gate where Dost Mahomed’s son and his followers as it afterwards appeared were stationed – I happened to be detached with a party of 17 men to this quarter. We found a number of houses full of armed men who refused to surrender – a great slaughter took place in consequence not fewer than 58 having been killed in one house. The Governor, Dost Mahomed’s son, must have concealed himself amongst the dead – as he was afterwards found in the house and gave himself up a prisoner to an officer who had no part in the fight with his people but will in all probability receive praise for what others are more entitled to.187
The fortress at Ghazni, ‘by native tradition impregnable’, was taken for the loss of seventeen killed and 165, including eighteen officers, wounded.
The small but impressive fort of Khelat was attacked in a similar way by Major General Willshire on 1 November 1839. He formed three attacking columns, one of HM’s 2nd Queen’s Royal Regiment, the second of HM’s 17th Foot, and the third of the 31st BNI, and sent them in against three field fortifications just outside the eastern walls. The attackers were to carry these redoubts and then, if possible, ‘enter the fortress on the backs of the fugitives’. Willshire’s 6-pounders burst their shrapnel so accurately over the redoubts that the defenders could not stand it and began to stream back into the fort. Willshire quickly followed up, ordering HM’s 2nd and 17th to make for the Kandahar Gate. John Pennycuick was commanding the storming party of the 17th:
Having given my men a little breathing time I noticed a little wall, within about 30 yards of rampart & gate – and having formed behind the ruin in the order I intended to advance … we rushed every man as fast as his legs could carry him across the plain, under the heaviest fire I ever saw – Capt Lyster of the Queens’s was wounded, and a number of the men fell, even two dogs which accompanied us were killed. We gained our objective however, and sheltered ourselves pretty well, keeping up as heavy a fire as we could, at the loopholes above and either side of the gate, which was still shot. Our fire cleared the ramparts about it and enabled the artillery to advance closer, and a few discharges more knocked it down. This was answered by a loud hurrah. Out we started, without a moment’s delay towards the gate, I was the first that entered it closely followed by all ranks. We met with little opposition about the gate, apart from a few straggling matchlocks.
Pennycuick pressed on to the citadel, and there,
The ramparts were very high and in addition to the fire from it, the fellows kept pitching down large stones amongst us, which did us more damage than their matchlocks – something must be done, it would not do to stand here long, so I got about a dozen of my men up close to the gate, and made them point their muskets to the point where I thought the bar was keeping their muzzle within six inches of the door, they fired at once, and the door flew open with a force that made the rock shake.
Inside, the attackers found themselves in ‘a dark subterranean passage’ seventy or eighty yards long, opening out onto the central square of the citadel. Here the defenders counter-attacked so vigorously that ‘several of our men fell, a sort of panic seized the rest, at least those in front, back they turned, upsetting those behind … ’. Pennycuick rallied his men, shouting ‘Halt front!’ and telling them that the exit from the passage had just been taken. They then turned and fought their way back, eventually forcing their way into a square which held the Khan of Khelat and his chiefs.
One of the chiefs called out ‘Amman!’ which means mercy, but the Khan himself, blowing his match, called out loudly ‘Amman Nay’ and fired, and in less than a minute perhaps he and his chiefs were lifeless corpses, and several on our side were too. It was an awful sight.
The remaining defenders took refuge in the palace, and Pennycuick used Lieutenant Creed, an engineer officer ‘who spoke Hindoostanee very well’, to negotiate with them. Eventually it was agreed that if Pennycuick ‘would swear by Jesus Christ that their lives would be spared, they would come down’. They eventually did so and: ‘Thus finished the capture of Khelat.’188 The action cost thirty-one killed and 107 wounded, twenty-two of the former and forty-seven of the latter coming from the Queen’s, which had started the day with only 200 men.
The attack on a fortress of any size usually called for a ritual as arcane as the war dance of a tribe of South Sea islanders, and mirrored the techniques of siegecraft developed in late-seventeenth-century Europe. First, the attacker would try to mask the fortress, cutting it off from communications with the outside. This was more easily said than done in India, where fortresses were often vast and attacking armies small: at Delhi, for example, the British had no chance of encircling the city, and were hard-pressed to maintain their position on the ridge. A camp would be constructed for the besiegers, and artillery and engineer parks would be established to contain the specialist equipment required. A battering train of heavy pieces would be summoned from a major arsenal such as Allahabad, and once it reached the camp operations could begin in earnest.
The chief engineer would advise the commander on the favoured approach and, working under cover of darkness, the attackers would establish a ‘first parallel’ of trenches opposite the point of atta
Although all this work went on under the direction of engineers, the real burden of the siege fell on the infantry, who furnished endless working parties to dig trenches, shift earth, and fill the wicker gabions which protected the fronts of batteries. Once practicable breaches had been established, the governor might be given a last chance to surrender. If he refused, then the attackers would attempt to storm the breaches, spearheading their assault with volunteers or picked troops – the ‘forlorn hope’ – and possibly mounting diversionary attacks elsewhere.
John Clark Kennedy watched the siege train arrive before Multan in 1848:
Such a curious sight! First came the escort and the twenty-four pounders each drawn by twenty magnificent bullocks with an elephant behind each one. This put down its head and gave the gun a shove whenever they got to a steep place. In the rear came the smaller guns and mortars; then the stores, and finally the ammunitions camels carrying thousands of rounds of ammunition on their backs.189
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