Sahib, p.46Richard Holmes
the defence of the headquarter gateway had been given to a certain senior officer who, between ourselves, was a bit nervous. When his defences were prepared he went to Colonel MacGregor and said, ‘Now I have done the best I can; but what shall I do if the enemy force their way into the gate in overwhelming numbers, as I have no reserve left to fall back on … ?’ ‘Turn’em out!’ gruffly replied the chief of staff. ‘Yes of course, surely—but if they are too strong for us?’ ‘TURN THEM OUT!’ roared MacGregor. ‘That’s what you’re there for!’ And no other answer would he give him, as of course it was the first thing he would have done himself in a similar case.228
Roberts’s agents had discovered that the Afghans planned to launch feint attacks against the southern and western faces of the cantonment, and then stake everything in an assault on the eastern wall, where an unfinished section of defences had been shored up with logs. The signal for the attack was to be a signal fire lit on the nearby Asmai hills. Colonel H. B. Hanna saw how the troops got under arms silently well before dawn on the morning of 23 December:
In strained expectation, confident of ultimate victory, yet conscious that a life-and-death struggle lay before him, every man’s eyes were turned towards the east, watching for the predicted signal; yet when it came, so brilliant, dazzling was the light … that, for an instant, men’s hearts stood still with astonishment and awe. All saw that light and some fragment of the scene revealed by it … never did soldiers gaze upon a more glorious, yet more terrible spectacle … every stone and rock on the rugged, precipitous Asmai heights shone out as if traced by a pencil of fire, and on those heights, their figures dark against the snow below and the light above, men – watchers and waiters like those who now beheld them – were just starting into fierce motion, ready to throw away their lives in the endeavour to break through the obstacles that lay between themselves and their hated foe.229
The attack began at 6.00 a.m., and soon thousands of Afghans were running forward with shrapnel bursting over them and a withering fire from the walls cutting them down in their hundreds. Captain R. R. Lauder of the 72nd described how:
From the mouths of a score of cannon there played a lurid light, their hoarse thunder making the very earth tremble; while, from thousands of rifles, a stream of bullets poured incessantly into the darkness. This prolonged roar of musketry, the fearful sound of the Afghans’ voices, rolling backwards and forwards in mighty waves, was the most appalling noise I have ever heard. Then a bright star shell flew into the sky, bursting over the heads of the enemy, and coming slowly down with a glare, like electric lights, disclosing the dense masses struggling on, over ghastly heaps of wounded and dead. In the clear greenish light, they appeared to sink in writhing masses to the earth. It was truly a terrible scene.230
At this crucial moment Roberts’s head bearer, Eli Bux, ‘whispered in my ear that my bath was ready. He was quite unmoved by the din and shots, and was carrying on his ordinary duties as if nothing at all unusual was occurring.’231
The assault went on after the sun had come up, and at about 9.00 a.m. some of the tribesmen had gained a lodgement in the village of Bemaru, to the eastern end of the cantonment. Roberts was preparing a counter-attack, but it soon became clear, not long after 10.00, that the fire had gone out of the assault. As the Afghans fell back Roberts unleashed his cavalry upon them. Hensman saw how ‘all stragglers were hunted down in the nullahs in which they took shelter … Two or three lancers or sowars were told off to each straggler, and the men, dismounting, used their carbines when the unlucky Afghan had been hemmed in.’ Roberts had lost five men killed and twenty-eight wounded: he reckoned the Afghan casualties at 3,000. With its barbed wire, breech-loading rifles and artillery, illuminating shells and even the two primitive machine guns, the battle of Sherpur was light years away from Darby Fulcher cracking out his drags and paradiddles in the thin red line.
DUST AND BLOOD
THE ONE CONSTANT FACTOR in Indian battles was that wounds and death were their common currency. Disease, as we shall see later, was always a far greater killer than lead or steel in India, but battles were always bloody affairs. At Assaye, Arthur Wellesley lost 1,584 men killed and wounded, perhaps one-third of the troops actually engaged. On 18 December 1845, the 3rd Light Dragoons lost almost 100 men at Mudki, another 152 men were hit at Ferozeshah on the 21st, and thirty-two more at Sobraon on 10 February: almost half the regiment’s pre-war soldiers were killed or wounded in six weeks. At Mudki, HM’s 31st suffered 157 casualties, the 50th 109 and the 9th 52. The butcher’s bill for Ferozeshah was headed by the Bengal European Regiment with 284 casualties, HM’s 9th Foot with 280, closely followed by the 62nd with 260. None of this, however, can compete with the damage done to Pennycuick’s brigade at Chillianwallah, where it suffered 800 casualties, 500 of them in HM’s 24th Foot: the bodies of thirteen of the regiment’s officers were laid out on its polished mess table that night.
When HM’s 52nd Light Infantry assaulted Delhi in September 1857 it lost ninety-five men and five officers, almost exactly half the 200 or so who mounted the attack. The four attacking columns that day totalled some 3,700 officers and men; 66 officers and 1,104 men were hit. The grand total of battle casualties for Delhi was around 4,000, and at least another 1,200 died during the siege of cholera and other diseases. HM’s 32nd marched into Lucknow on 27 December 1856, 950 bayonets strong, and could muster barely 250 on 23 November 1857.
There were gradual improvement in medical techniques over the period. In 1718 Petit’s screw-tourniquet was introduced, making amputations far safer. The French surgeon Pierre-Joseph Desault developed debridement, the removal of necrotic tissue from infected wounds, and in 1827 army surgeon George Guthrie published his Treatise on Gunshot Wounds which established the doctrine of primary amputation. Ether was discovered in 1846 and chloroform the following year. However there briefly remained a belief that anaesthetics positively harmed the patient. Surgeon J. J. Cole, who served in the Second Sikh War, thought that chloroform was:
A highly pernicious agent … That it renders the poor patient unconscious is not to be doubted. But what is pain? It is one of the most powerful, one of the most salutary stimulants known. It often brings about reaction of the most natural kind … Have we not reason to believe that reaction began to appear with the application of the knife and was fairly brought about before it was laid aside?232
Views had certainly changed by the time of the Mutiny, and Surgeon Home thanked ‘my friend Dr John Brown of the Sikh Regiment’ for ensuring that:
I was supplied with a sufficiency of chloroform for narcotising sufferers in the most urgent cases requiring its use. With a forethought distinctive of him, on leaving the Alum Bagh on the 25th, he had taken with him a small bottle of chloroform – carried in his pocket. From time to time after our arrival in the Residency, he allowed me to have 30 drops of it ‘for the last time’ as he always protested, and, dear fellow, he always broke his vow. On one occasion at this time it startled me to find that a man about to undergo a most painful operation resolutely refused to be narcotised, and without the induced insensibility he endured the pain with extraordinary fortitude. 233
It was not until the late 1860s, with Pasteur’s work on microbiology and Lister’s on antisepsis, that the importance of scrupulous cleanliness was recognised. For most of the period, in India as in Europe, a soldier who underwent amputation of the leg was more likely to die of haemorrhage or shock during or immediately after the operation, of or post-operative infection later. Surgeons strove to extract musket balls, using a probe to trace the path of the missile (if the wounded man was up to it, it helped if he could assume the pose he had been in when hit) and then extracting it with forceps.
Amputation was a common treatment for limbs smashed by roundshot, shell fragments or the balls of heavy canister. John Shipp, characteristically well to the fore in Lake’s abortive attack on Bhurtpore,
was hit in the face by a match lock ball, which went in just over the ri
Captain Lindsay’s injuries were so bad that his leg had to be amputated in the battery before he could be got back to camp. And against all the odds, Lindsay lived on to be a colonel.234
Lieutenant Gordon-Alexander’s comrade, Captain Burrows, had a staircase blown from underneath him at Lucknow: a brick broke his leg, and then the wall fell on him and broke it again. Surgeon William Munro of the 93rd opposed amputation and splinted the leg instead, ‘and thereby probably saved Burrough’s life; for during all my service in India, I never knew or heard of a case when a patient survived the amputation of the leg’.235
Penetrating wounds of the abdomen were much feared, for they usually caused peritonitis, leading to a relatively quick but painful death. During the siege of Lucknow, Lieutenant John Edmonstone of the 32nd Foot was lucky. He was standing on a mortar when:
I got shot in the stomach; so little pain it was that I did not think it had entered, it was just as if a hard ball had struck me, it took my wind away, not hearing the ball drop and not finding it in my clothes I thought it would be advisable to go to hospital and see what sort of wound I had got. Directly I undid my belt I got quite sick. I found the ball had run along under the muscles of the stomach for about 7 inches where it was cut out. I was in hospital about a month, 4 pieces of cloth having remained in the wound which made it troublesome. After I was discharged and at my duty, the wound broke out again and I had to go to Hospital for another week then I came out and was at my duty for a fortnight but was very ill all the time with low fever, after walking 10 yards I used to go quite blind and have to sit down till my sight came again … 236
Fred Roberts was also fortunate. He was shot in the back in a skirmish before Delhi. ‘I suddenly felt a tremendous blow … which made me faint and sick,’ he wrote.
I had been hit close to the spine by a bullet, and the wound would probably have been fatal but for the fact that a leather pouch for [percussion] caps, which I wore at the front near my pistol, had somehow slipped round to the back; the bullet had passed through this before entering my body, and was thus prevented from digging very deep.
Nevertheless, it was a difficult time of year, for wounds healed badly in the damp weather, ‘and mine is discharging a great deal more than I expected’. He was on the sick list for six weeks.237 Another lucky fellow, Lieutenant Farquhar of 7th Light Cavalry, managed to confuse the doctors. A ball hit him in the face, leaving an entry wound but no sign of its exit. He wrote in his journal that:
when I got to the European hospital, I found Dr Boyd, of the 32nd, and Dr Fayrer, (both of whom I knew very well) ready to attend on me. They put me to a great deal of pain in probing the wound and taking out pieces of the fractured jaw; but they could not make out what had become of the ball, and I was not the wiser. The doctors believed at first that it was all up with me, thinking that the bullet had lodged in my head. Ten days afterwards, however, I discovered that I had swallowed it – my digestion must have been good at the time!238
One attempted suicide was a real puzzle. Major General John Meadows was so nonplussed by his part in the failure of Lord Cornwallis’s attack on Seringapatam in the Third Mysore War that, ‘after shutting himself up, secluded from all society, in his tent for three days’, he shot himself in the chest. He was found lying on the ground, ‘weltering in his blood’, and surgeons were called:
Upon examining and observing the wound, which they probed in every direction without being able to discover the ball, pronounced his death to be inevitable, notwithstanding which sentence, the patient continued for several days in the same state, then appeared to mend, and the wound looked favourable. Finally he recovered, from which the surgeons positively asserted that there could not have been any ball in the pistol; the General therefore, must in the agitation of his mind either have forgotten to put in the ball, or having introduced it, it must before he discharged the pistol have fallen out.
It was confidently expected that the general’s ‘high spirit’ would induce him to finish the job ‘in preference to living under the stigma of a failed attempt’, but the moment had passed. ‘He is still alive,’ wrote William Hickey, and ‘bears a lucrative command, and has long been a Knight of the Bath’.239
A regiment had its own doctor, ranking as surgeon or assistant surgeon in the Medical Department (equivalent in rank to captain and lieutenant respectively), supported by British hospital assistants and Indian doolie-bearers. While walking wounded would make their way back to the surgeon under their own steam, more serious cases were carried back in curtained stretchers, or doolies. It might take doolie-bearers some time to glean the harvest of a bloody field. Dr John Murray, Harry Smith’s field surgeon during the First Sikh War, wrote that: ‘Some of the wounded lay two or three days on the field at Moodkee and Ferozeshah & I have heard – officers – say they would much rather be shot dead than severely wounded under such conditions.’ John Pearman, picking up wounded comrades after they had spent a night in the open after Chillianwallah, saw that ‘the rain had washed their wounds as white as veal’.240
In small actions or on minor campaigns wounded might be cared for exclusively at regimental level, with the surgeon treating them as they were brought in and then consigning them to a small regimental hospital a short carry away. For more serious actions medical resources might be pooled to create a larger field hospital under a field surgeon, who presided over his regimental colleagues. This worthy, as Murray happily announced from his tent, ranked as a major and so drew a major’s batta, and so Murray concluded, ‘I will be entitled to almost five thousand rupees.’241
Lieutenant Bayley of HM’s 52nd Light Infantry described how the system worked after he was hit in the arm during the assault on Delhi:
Under a wall I found an assistant-surgeon of the 61st, who bound up my arm, and offered me some brandy, which I refused as I did not feel faint … he then put me into a dholey, the bearers of which he ordered to take me to camp; but they had previously been told to take all wounded men to the field hospital, in which, in spite of my remonstrances, I soon found myself placed under the amputating table, at which the surgeons were already busily employed. It was a horrible scene. Around were more than a hundred dholeys, each containing a wounded man. Next to me was a poor fellow of the 60th, the lower half of whose face had been entirely carried away; to the left one shot through the body; next to him one minus an arm; while above me on the table was a Sikh, whose leg was being amputated at the thigh. Luckily, it was not long before Innes, our ‘long Scotch doctor’ … found me out and, after a short inspection, forwarded me on to camp.242
Heat and overcrowding often made field hospitals places for which the overused word hellish is wholly appropriate. Lieutenant George Elers was taken to a hospital established in a palace at Seringapatam just after its capture:
On my arrival … at the palace I found all the private soldiers lying on the bare ground, some in the agonies of death. It was a shocking sight to behold. The heat and smells were dreadful. The upper rooms were assigned to the officers. Captain Buckeridge of ours and Lieutenant Percival went into this hospital sick. They both died there; indeed few who breathed this pestiferous air ever came out alive. Fortunately for me I was obliged to return to camp, there not being a vacant corner to place me in.243
Robert Cust, a civilian member of Hardinge’s staff during the First Sikh War, was shocked by what he saw after Ferozeshah, where the camp had become one vast hospital:
Every corner was occupied … I found the still warm but lifeless body of Sir Robert Sale, who had expired from the severity of his wounds. Nothing can describe the painfulness of the scene around me – friends or at least countrymen, o
In the tent next to where I slept … was a poor wounded officer who was calling out – ‘For God Almighty’s sake spare me this torture – spare me – I cannot bear it!’ There was the wounded sepoy exclaiming – ‘Mercy colonel – kill me, kill me!’ There were the mangled bodies of those killed in the action lying outside. There was the even more painful sight inside; the useless heaps of clothes in the dhooly ready to be conveyed to the grave – all that remained of a gallant officer and a valued friend.244
The Reverend Mr Rotton spent long hours in the joint field hospital of HM’s 8th and 61st Foot on Delhi ridge, with battle casualties lying alongside cholera patients:
The patients constantly retching made the place very offensive. The flies almost as innumerable as the sand on the sea shore, alighted on your face and head, and crawled down your back, through the opening given by the shirt-collar, and occasionally even flew into your throat, when you were engaged in reading or praying with a dying man; these and a thousand other evils which I cannot mention here … severely tested a man’s powers of endurance. My Bible, sadly marked in consequence of this plague of flies, recalls, every time I open its soiled pages, many an incident which occurred, and many a painful expression of countenance which I witnessed within these very walls, with a deep sight of unfeigned regret.245
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