Sahib, p.45
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       Sahib, p.45

           Richard Holmes

  The firing was fearful – the enemy must have discovered from some spies that Sir Henry was at our house for the attack on the gate was fearful – we all gave ourselves up for lost for we did not then know the cowards they were and we expected every moment they would be over the garden wall – there was no escape for us if they were once in the garden. We asked [The Revd] Mr Harris to read prayers and I think everyone of us prepared for the worst – the shots were now coming in so thick into the verandah where Sir Henry was lying that several officers were wounded and Sir Henry was obliged to be moved into the drawing room. We gave out an immense quantity of rags to the poor soldiers as they passed up and down from the roof of the house wounded. Towards evening the fire slackened but we were not allowed to leave the tye khana [underground room] – at night Mr Harris came and read prayers again and then we all lay down on the floor without undressing. 204

  Kate Bartrum whose husband Richard was outside with the 3rd Oudh Irregular Cavalry, recorded the fate of so many of the children: ‘Mrs Clark’s infant died today,’ she wrote on 3 August. ‘Her other little child was taken care of by Mrs Pitt, but notwithstanding the tender care which was taken care of him, he sank from exhaustion and died about a fortnight after.’ Five days later she wrote that ‘poor Mrs Kaye has lost her child, such a sweet little thing it was petted and loved by all in the room’.205 Simply providing small children with nourishing food got ever more difficult. In August Julia Inglis reported that:

  A poor woman, Mrs Beale by name, whose husband, an over-seer of roads, had been killed in the siege, came today to ask me to give her a little milk for her only child, who was dying for want of proper nourishment. It went to my heart to refuse her; but at this time I had only just enough for my own children, and baby could not have lived without it. I think she understood that I would have given her some if I could.206

  On 27 August Maria Germon wrote that:

  Sir H. Lawrence’s stores were sold today and they fetched enormous prices – a bottle of honey 42 Rupees and upwards, a dozen of brandy 107 Rupees, a ham 70 Rupees, two tins of soup 55 Rupees, people seemed to bid recklessly, Charlie said – he would buy nothing. They were to be paid for on the first issue of pay which many I suppose think they will never live to receive. Charlie bought a pair of soldier’s highlows [boots] for 8 Rupees from a sergeant – more useful than truffled larks etc.207

  Prices continued to rise: on 10 September, 20 rupees were given for 2 pounds of sugar, whilst a leaf of tobacco cost 1 rupee.

  Surgeon Anthony Home, who had been on his way to China with HM’s 90th Foot when diverted to India, and who arrived with Havelock’s column, observed that almost everybody lived on chapatties, ‘that is, into cakes made of flour and water, well kneaded and toasted over hot embers; but though I ate these delicacies three times a day I endured them only – they wanted salt and everything to make them palatable’. The same flour also served ‘as a substitute for toilet soap … it answered very well, but it meant wasting bread at a time that we could not spare a crumb’. On 25 September, with food strictly rationed, Home spent the day busy with scalpel and bone-saw, and: ‘To the charity of a brother officer I owed the only food I had that day – consisting only of parched gram – a kind of pea used for feeding horses – and washed down with some water.’208

  Towards the end of the final part of the siege some food was strictly rationed. Men got 12 ounces of meat daily, women 6 ounces and children 2 ounces, ‘bone inclusive, which is sometimes nearly one half’. A group of seventeen received 15 pounds of flour for making chuppaties, and there was a little lentil to make dhal, some rice and just a little salt. ‘We still have a little tea,’ wrote Maria Germon, ‘but no sugar, milk, wine or beer – our beverage is toast and water, a large jug of which is always put on the table.’209 Dr Fayrer shot 150 sparrows and made a sparrow curry, but Mrs Germon could not be persuaded to try it.

  Soon everyone in the Residency compound was afflicted by what the ladies euphemistically referred to as ‘light infantry’, or hair lice. ‘More dreadful discoveries of Light Infantry,’ reported Maria Germon on 12 September. Four days later the news was worse: ‘Only two ladies of the garrison found free of Light Infantry.’ On 25 September she gave 5 rupees for ‘a small tooth comb’. It was a good deal of money, ‘but I am in such a state about keeping my hair free from Light Infantry’, she wrote; ‘poor Mrs Fayrer a little delicate creature was reduced to tears yesterday by having more discovered in her hair’.210 But keeping clean and decent became almost impossible in the crowded compound at the height of a blazing summer, and the flies were a particular trial, as L. E. Rees, a businessman serving as a volunteer, described:

  Lucknow had always been noted for its flies, but at no time had they been known to be so troublesome … They swarmed in their millions, and although we blew daily some hundreds and thousands into the air, this seemed to make no diminution in their numbers. The ground was still black with them, and the tables were literally covered with these cursed flies.

  We could not sleep in the day on account of them. We could scarcely eat. Our beef, of which we get a tolerably small quantity every other day, is usually studded with them; and while I eat my miserable dall [dhal] and roti … a number of scamps fly into my mouth, or tumble into the plate, and float about in it, impromptu peppercorns and … enough to make a saint swear.211

  Rees recalled that: ‘The stench from dead horses and bullocks and other animals killed by the enemy’s fire, was worse than disagreeable, it was pestilential, and laid the seeds of the many diseases from which we afterwards suffered.’212

  The garrison’s morale ebbed and flowed as hopes of relief were dashed and raised. They soared as Havelock’s force arrived but then drooped again: although the garrison was now able to hold a much wider perimeter there were more mouths to feed. In the great tradition of Victorian adventures, there were Scots amongst the relieving force. On 25 September the women and children had assembled ‘in trembling expectation’ outside Fayrer’s house. ‘How the rough and bearded soldiers of the 78th Highlanders rushed amongst them, wringing their hands with loud and repeated gratulations,’ wrote Surgeon Home. ‘How the rough-looking men took the children up in their arms, caressed them, and passed them back to others to be fondled … ’.213 Mrs Germon thought it:

  The most exciting scene I ever witnessed – the Piper sprang on a chair and he and Mrs Anderson claimed acquaintance – he asked her where she came from and – she said ‘Edinburgh’ and he answered ‘So do I and from the Castle Hill’ and then they shook hands and he sent round word that there was a lady from Edinburgh and then gave another tune on his bagpipes. The Sikh Ferozepore Regiment accompanied them and also some of the Madras Fusiliers. The confusion and excitement was beyond all description – they lost a great number of men coming through the city.214

  Both before and after the first, partial, relief the compound was bombarded daily, and snipers pecked away at gun crews, sentries and officers. There were several general attacks, one of which, on 4 August, was beaten off with the loss of perhaps 450 sepoys killed. The garrison mounted sorties of its own to dislodge nests of snipers that had pushed in too close, and in one of these Captain Bernard McCabe of the 32nd, commissioned in the field for gallantry at Sobraon, was killed. The mutineers showed some aptitude for mining, and had Havelock and Outram not arrived they might indeed have succeeded in blowing up part of the Residency and overwhelming the garrison.

  Throughout the siege a pensioner sepoy called Ungud took messages from Inglis to the relieving forces, carrying messages written in Greek and sealed into quills. When Campbell’s force was at last within striking distance, fighting hard in the suburbs, Thomas Kavanagh, a junior member of the Civil Service who had been serving as a volunteer, disguised himself to get through the enemy lines and tell Campbell how best to approach. Anthony Home thought that the disguise was:

  triumphantly successful. The exposed parts of his body dyed to the colour of an up-country native, and dressed l
ike one of their matchlock-men, with shield and tulwar, and accompanied by a very trusted spy, he left the entrenchment after dark, and, fording the Goomti River and recrossing it by the iron bridge, he got clear away into the city, and strode on through the most crowded street, and then onwards to the Alum Bagh. There was great joy in the entrenchment when his safe arrival was signalled.215

  William Russell, who rather liked Kavanagh, thought it a remarkable performance, for:

  He is a square-shouldered, large-limbed muscular man, a good deal over middle height, with decided European features; a large head, covered with hair of – a reddish auburn, shall I say? – moustaches and beard still lighter, and features and eyes such as no native that I ever saw possessed.216

  There was something of the high Victorian melodrama about the final relief in November. Havelock was wholly worn out and suffering from dysentery, and it was ‘the conviction of his own mind that he should not recover’. ‘I have for forty years so wholly ruled my life,’ he told James Outram, ‘that when death comes I might face it without fear.’ At the last moment he smiled and told his son to ‘see how a Christian can die’.217 Kate Bartrum and her baby son had survived the siege, but her husband Richard had been killed in September. She gained much comfort from hearing how bravely he had fought, and learning that an official memorandum declared that he would have been awarded the VC had he lived. Her doolie-bearers lost their way and it took her three hours to get back to the Dilkusha, whence the evacuation was to start, and her dress was ‘so coated with mud that it was with difficulty that I could get on’. She was given ‘some milk for baby, and a delicious cup of tea’, and lay down on the ground and slept till morning. Her story had no happy ending, for her son, also named Richard, died of fever in Calcutta in February 1858, the day before she had intended to leave India.

  The garrison and its dependants were taken to safety. ‘Never, I believe, was such a scene,’ declared Mrs Germon.

  The whole army marched except a few to keep the Dilkusha for a short time. One thousand sick were taken in doolies and 467 women and children in any kind of conveyance that could be got for them – doolies were not even allowed to ladies who were hourly expecting their confinement. Sir Colin said the wounded men must be first thought of as they had saved our lives. Never shall I forget the scene – as far as the eye could search on all sides were strings of vehicles, elephants, camels, etc. The dust was overpowering. We went across country to avoid the enemy – our road lay over cultivated fields and such ups and downs it was a wonder how the vehicles got over them.218

  There was a widespread recognition that Lucknow could never have been held at all without the loyal sepoys. It was a tragic example of the hazards inseparable from war that one of them, a valued member of the Baillie Guard garrison, was mortally wounded by ‘friendly’ fire as the relieving force arrived. ‘It was fated,’ he gasped to his sahib. ‘Victory to the Baillie Guard!’

  The other great sieges of the age occurred in Afghanistan. In 1841–42, Robert Sale’s brigade, with HM’s 13th Light Infantry, 35th BNI and Broadfoot’s Sappers and Jezailchis held Jalalabad, an important staging post between the Khyber Pass and Kabul. Sale arrived there on 12 November 1841, and found the place – ‘an irregular quadrilateral enclosed within earthen walls, with thirty-two semi-circular bastions, and a citadel at the south-eastern angle, the whole perimeter being rather over two thousand yards’ – in very poor condition.219 After some discussion Sale decided to hold the town, although he was short of supplies and had only 120 rounds of ammunition for each musket, and a small reserve. For the first two months there were only sporadic attacks, and Sale’s foraging parties were able to bring in food and fodder. Ensign Stapylton of the 13th recorded that: ‘we are all in very good spirits here, considering circumstances, spent a tolerably pleasant Christmas. Our band did not come in to play as all our music was lost and our band-master badly wounded.’220 Sale decided to pay no attention to a message from Elphinstone, in such difficulties up in Kabul, telling him to withdraw on Peshawar, and on 12 January 1842, Dr Bryden rode in with the shocking news of the destruction of the retreating British force. In an effort to attract more survivors, the colours of the 13th were flown above the main gate during the day and replaced by a lantern at night, and buglers sounded the ‘advance’ at half-hourly intervals. One man was brought in the next day, by an Afghan whose mulberry trees he had once saved from some Sikh soldiers, but he ‘only lived one day, being perfectly exhausted from his sufferings from cold and hunger’.221

  On 27 January, Sale held a council of war with his senior officers, and although there was a majority for a retreat on Peshawar, George Broadfoot spoke so strongly against it that a decision was deferred, and the following day Broadfoot swung the argument by congratulating the group ‘on the figure they would cut if a relieving force should be marching into Jelalabad, as they were marching out of it’. They were still negotiating with Akbar Khan, but eventually (though Sale himself, and Macgregor, his political agent, still favoured falling back) the council decided to hold fast, and ‘to break off negotiations and restore their honour’.222

  The whole garrison worked unrelentingly at building up the walls. Henry Havelock, a committed abolitionist, thought that the fact that there was no liquor in the stores was a decided advantage, and that they:

  gained full one-third in manual exertion by their entire sobriety. Every man has been constantly employed with shovel and pickaxe. If there had been a spirit ration, one-third of the effort would have been diminished in consequence of soldiers being the inmates of the hospital and guard-houses, or coming to their work with fevered brain and trembling hand, or sulky and disaffected, after the protracted debauch. Now all is health, cheerfulness, industry and resolution.223

  A severe earthquake levelled much of the new work and left three practicable breaches in the wall, but the men set to with a will. ‘The men spared no exertion,’ wrote Ensign Stapylton, ‘as they saw the absolute necessity of it.’ Red coats were put in the stores, and, over their canvas fatigue jackets or perhaps just their shirts, ‘the men slung their accoutrements and, with sleeves tucked up, laboured in good spirits with exceeding industry, the officers digging beside them’.224 Other officers, equipped with double-barrelled guns and sporting rifles, formed an ‘amateur corps, posting ourselves in the most favourable places around the fort and picking off any of the enemy who ventured to expose himself within range and in this way a good deal of execution was done’.225 Pewter was melted to make bullets, and officers, scuffling about in the fort’s ditch, could each pick up 80–100 musket balls an hour. The garrison even resorted to the old frontier expedient of coating suitably sized stones in lead. One officer reluctantly converted the gold mount of his wife’s miniature into a bullet, and gave one attacker the benefit of this affectionate keepsake.

  On 7 April, Sale mounted a substantial sortie which inflicted a sharp defeat on the besiegers and captured all their guns (some of them British pieces taken from Elphinstone). The episode was marred by the death of Lieutenant Colonel Dennie, commanding the 13th, who was killed when Sale directed him to attack a small fort. Its outer defences had been damaged, but at the centre there was a small tower with the door halfway up and its ladder removed: the place was effectively impregnable. Pollock’s relieving force arrived on 16 April, played in by the band of the 13th to a: ‘Jacobite melody – beautiful in itself, and full of meaning – all who heard acknowledged its fitness to the occasion. The relieving force marched the last two or three miles towards Jalalabad to the cadence of “Oh, but ye’ve been lang o’coming”.’226 The garrison was so exhausted by its efforts that it took three days to march from Jalalabad to Futtehabad. Although the first day’s march was only nine miles, thirty men fell out and four died.

  There were two major sieges in the Second Afghan War. One at Kandahar that followed Ayub Khan’s defeat of the British at Maiwand in July 1880, which was raised by Fred Roberts’s march from Kabul. Far more significant was th
e brief but decisive siege of Roberts’s fortified cantonment at Sherpur, just outside Kabul, which preceded it. Roberts had taken Kabul, but there was growing anti-British feeling and call for a jihad. There were scrambling engagements in the Chardeh valley in mid-December 1879, and, hearing from a subordinate that there were so many Afghans there that he was reminded of Epsom on Derby Day, Roberts ‘determined to withdraw from all isolated positions, and concentrate my force at Sherpur, thereby securing the safety of the cantonment and avoiding what had become a useless sacrifice of life’. He had only 7,000 men against perhaps 100,000 Afghans, but he had stockpiled supplies there, and the cantonment itself had proper entrenchments protected by barbed wire, with towers and artillery positions, covering an 8,000-yard perimeter. In addition to their own 12 9-pounders, eight 7-pounder mountain guns and two Gatling machine guns, Roberts’s gunners had pressed into service four Afghan 18-pounders and two 8-inch guns.

  The weather was crisp and snowy. Howard Hensman, war correspondent of the Daily News, wrote how:

  At ten o’clock I visited the bastion held by the 72nd Highlanders, and gained some idea of the work our men are called upon to do. The sentries in their greatcoats were simply white figures standing rigidly up like ghosts, the snowflakes softly covering them from head to foot and freezing as they fell.227

  Roberts and his chief of staff, Colonel Charles MacGregor, were not the best of friends, but both, as Mutiny veterans, knew that there was no room for failure. An officer recounted that:

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