The Indian Mutineers selected Delhi as their capital, but, despite their attempts to drive the British off the nearby ridge, they failed to take the initiative. British reinforcements counterattacked the city and captured it after a desperate struggle.
Outnumbered British forces, surrounded and deprived of logistical support or hope of relief, fought on against determined Indian mutineers in 1857. Although unable to trust their formerly loyal subjects, the British made use of civilian and allied military personnel, especially the Gurkhas and Sikhs, not only to withstand sieges such as Lucknow, but also to maintain a siege of Delhi, even though the city was strongly held by far larger numbers of mutineers. The climax of the campaign was marked by the relief of Lucknow and other cantonments, yet it was the assault on Delhi that, in spite of all the orthodox principles of war, succeeded in breaking the back of the rebellion.
The outbreak of the mutiny, known in India as the First War of Independence (many civilians rose up alongside the nation’s troops), was sparked by the refusal of sepoys from the Bengal Presidency army to accept a new rifle. They resisted because its cartridges, which had to be bitten before use to release the gunpowder, were greased in pig and cow fat. Since the former animal was considered unclean by Muslims, and the latter sacred by Hindus, the greased cartridges were antagonistic to both faiths. The first unit that refused to obey orders, the 3rd Bengal Cavalry, was further angered by the subsequent punishment of 85 of their own sowars (troopers) and they rioted, killing their British officers. At Meerut, the seat of the mutiny, the British believed the outbreak was isolated and could be contained, but it soon became apparent that fissad (sedition) had infected much of the army. The mutineers marched off to Delhi, the capital of the old Mughal empire, to appeal to Bahadur Shah II to be their leader and rouse the entire subcontinent against the hated feringhees (foreigners).
At Delhi there were no British regiments, just three battalions of Bengal infantry. On the morning of 11 May 1857, the mutineers arrived quite suddenly and, despite the efforts of some British officers to close the entrances to the city, the rebels secured the southern Rajghat Gate. Noisily proclaiming the hour of deliverance, mobs of citizens saw an opportunity to loot and destroy the symbols of British authority. British officers and their families were soon being cut down and mutilated in the streets. At the palace, the chaplain and two girls were butchered. When some tried to seek refuge in the Main Guard, a bastion on the northern walls, the sepoys of the garrison joined the mutineers and slaughtered them. A handful of British officers then summoned two field guns and some sepoys not yet involved in the fighting and recaptured the Main Guard in hand-to-hand fighting. The main magazine of the garrison, protected by nine British officers and troops of doubtful loyalty, was confronted by hundreds of angry mutineers who began to scale the walls. This gallant little band kept their assailants at bay for five hours, but then their ammunition ran out. They knew their fate was sealed but resolved that the ammunition and powder of the arsenal should not fall into the rebels’ hands. Thereupon they decided to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Lieutenant Willoughby set the fuse, and soon after the entire building was obliterated by a gigantic explosion. The detonation tore down neighbouring buildings and killed scores of rebels. Miraculously, six officers survived the blast and, in all the confusion, they escaped the city. At this stage of the battle the sepoys who had helped recapture the Main Guard now threw in their lot with the mutineers, and the surviving British soldiers and civilians were forced to flee – most making for the ridge to the northwest of the city. From there, telegraph officers sent urgent warnings to other garrisons about what had occurred.
Although the rebels outnumbered the British survivors, they made no move against them. Inside the city, the mutineers refused to cooperate with each other, and there was even disagreement over the execution of 52 European civilians who had been captured alive earlier in the day. Some of the rural population had joined the revolt, but others saw merely an opportunity to loot or extort from both sides and cared little for liberation or loyalty.
By 17 May, the British survivors of Delhi were joined by the garrisons of Ambala and Meerut and, under the command of General Barnard, this small contingent managed to wrest the Delhi Ridge from a larger force of mutineers at the Battle of Badli-ki-Serai. The ridge lay just three-quarters of a mile from the Kashmiri Gate of Delhi, with a canal to its west. The British built a series of redoubts along the crest, and the centre of the position, known as Hindu Rao’s house, was occupied by the loyal Gurkhas of the Sirmoor Battalion. Unfortunately, the south of the ridge led into a maze of village streets and gardens, providing plenty of cover for the approach of their attackers. Through the days of May and June, more and more mutineers poured into the city from the south and east. From the ridge it was clear that Delhi was held too strongly for the British to even consider taking it by storm, unless they could muster greater numbers. It also became apparent that it was they who would be besieged, not the city of Delhi.
As early as 19 June, the mutineers made a major attack on the ridge, pushing in from three directions. The British and their allies were only just able to cling on and for a time contemplated evacuating the position altogether. Despite overwhelming odds, they fought on. Four days later the rebels tried again, and for a second time came within a hair’s breadth of victory. The ridge was wreathed in smoke, with much of the fighting at close quarters. When the smoke cleared and the mutineers pulled back, bodies could be seen strewn across the ridge and its approaches. For days, these corpses putrefied and a serious risk of contamination and disease, especially cholera, added to the burdens on the exhausted British force. The heat grew intense and the only relief from the sun was the camp of flimsy tents erected behind the ridge, just out of reach of the cannon fire and buzzing musket balls. Periodic alarms from the picquets in front of the ridge roused the British to stave off another attack, but each clash caused their numbers to dwindle still further. In one week in July, 25 officers and 400 men were killed or wounded resisting raids. While rebels possessed 10 cavalry regiments, 15 infantry regiments and an unknown number of well-trained artillerymen, the British lamented their lack of siege guns and transport, the result of earlier cost-cutting measures in peacetime.
Hopes were raised by the arrival of the Corps of Guides, an elite Muslim formation 600 strong. To support the soldiers on the ridge, the unit’s six companies of infantry and three troops of cavalry had braved the broiling sun and force-marched from the Punjab – travelling over 500 miles (800 km) in just three weeks. Soon after, Brigadier John Nicholson, a veteran of the Sikh Wars leading a force of 4,200 men and a siege train of guns, was within reach of the reinforced garrison. To prevent the British from mounting a bombardment with this new ordnance, the mutineers made a desperate sortie on 25 August at the height of the monsoon, but Nicholson had anticipated the move and routed the rebels at the Battle of Najafgarh. His technique was as much psychological as military: he had his guns open fire but ordered the infantry to march silently against the rebels until they were within just 110 yards (100 m), whereupon they delivered a single, devastating volley and then charged, bayonets levelled, with an indescribable war cry. The rebels bolted and most of the British force could concentrate on bayoneting and clubbing their way into a hastily built redoubt. The morale of the British on the ridge soared, but the mood among the rebels was one of bitterness and recrimination against their leaders.
The British redoubts were now filled with guns: 15 twenty-four-pounders, 20 eighteen-pounders and 25 mortars and howitzers, supported by 600 cartloads of ammunition. By stages, new batteries were c onstructed closer to the walls of Delhi. First, the rebels’ guns on the Mori Bastion on the western wall were silenced, and this led the mutineers to believe that the British would assault from this direction. New batteries were built opposite the Kashmiri Gate and northern wall, with one (at the old Customs House) constructed just 220 yards (200 m) away. It didn’t take long for the masonry and stonework to be smashed down, and a number of breaches appeared. Inside, the rebels were daily more disillusioned. One British officer wrote: ‘guns and mortars were pouring shot and shell without a moment’s interval on the doomed city. The din and roar were deafening; day and night salvos of artillery were heard, roll following roll in endless succession, and striking terror into the hearts of those who felt that the day of retribution was at hand.’ Every effort to overwhelm the British had failed and now the rebels’ own supplies of food and ammunition were reduced. Rumours of defeat were being spread by agents of the British inside the city. Despite their advantages, the assaulting British force was little more than 5,000 strong against many more thousands of rebels, both sepoys and citizens. The city itself was vast, and coordinating a major assault upon it was a significant challenge.
In the early hours of 14 September, it emerged that the mutineers had repaired some of the breaches during the night and so the attack on the city, planned for dawn, was rescheduled. The final assault was announced by a renewed British cannonade during the day, but the British had essentially lost the element of surprise. Now only hard fighting would decide the outcome. Two British columns each charged into a breach to open a savage struggle. The third column waited while two engineer officers, Lieutenants Home and Salkeld, rushed forward with gunpowder charges towards the Kashmiri Gate. Alerted to the direction of this attack, the mutineers tried to shoot down the two men as they set their explosives. It was a tense few minutes, but the charge detonated successfully and the third column fought its way through the debris into the city.
A fourth column, meanwhile, had attacked the Kabul Gate but was repulsed after initial success. It was bundled back so precipitously that the rebel counter-attack threatened to retake the Delhi Ridge altogether. With the British forces battling away in the north of the city, only the reserve and the British cavalry could stem the rebels streaming out of the Kabul Gate. Neville Chamberlain, an officer badly wounded in an earlier battle, directed the battery at Hindu Rao’s house from his stretcher. The British troops on the ridge were themselves pounded by rebel guns, including some of their own that had been captured in the withdrawal.
At the same time, in the city, their attack was also in danger of failure. Nicholson’s own column was twice thrown back because rebel musketeers could both pour fire down into the streets from flat rooftops and windows, and fire grapeshot from doorways down the narrow alleyways. Nicholson himself led a third charge towards the Burn Bastion and was mortally wounded. Checked at this point, the column pulled back to the area around the Church of St James. General Archdale Wilson contemplated abandoning the attack altogether, but Nicholson, although dying, would hear none of it. For two days, the combat went on in and around the British bridgehead.
Some rebel Muslim troops, calling themselves Mujahideen, wanted to fight to the death, but many of the rebels were dispirited by their losses and the sheer determination of their opponents to fight on. Gradually, the British managed to extend the area under their control. They retook the ruined magazine on 16 September and three days later recovered the palace. Bahadur Shah, the reluctant and inert leader of the revolt, had fled before they arrived, but he was captured by a detachment of cavalry soon after. Fearful that they might be trapped as the British took each bastion in turn, the majority of the rebels began to evacuate the city. On 21 September, after an epic battle lasting eight days, Delhi was back in British hands. Nicholson, satisfied, passed away two days later.
The force of British and loyal Indian troops had numbered 10,000, with Sikh, Gurkha and Pathan allies estimated at 3,000. In the final assault, over 5,700 of the British and their Indian allies had been killed or wounded. The casualty figures for the 42,000 rebels are unknown, but their losses may have been of a similar number. The stakes had been very high. The British knew that their ability to govern rested on breaking both the capability and the will of the rebel forces at India’s former capital; indeed, the fall of Delhi proved a major psychological blow for the rebellion. By retaking the city, the British had signalled their determination to reassert exclusive rule. Angered by the massacre of British civilians, there were many who advocated a punitive regime, but, despite isolated atrocities, both the British and the Indians were eager to restore peace and order.
In the defence of the Delhi Ridge, the British and their allies had suffered from critical shortages of everything required for war. They had been depleted by disease, debilitated by heat and harried by frequent raids or more serious attacks, yet clung to their position with great resolve. It is a principle of war that a force should not make an attack on an enemy position without odds greater than three to one, but at Delhi, in the final assault, the British were outnumbered by that same ratio. While they possessed a superior armament of heavy guns and rifled muskets, this counted for little in the close-quarter fighting of the assault: the narrow streets and labyrinth of fighting positions actually conferred all the advantages on the defenders. In all, the defence of the Delhi Ridge and the retaking of the city should both have failed, and the actions of those men during the desperate months provide an inspirational reminder of resilience and endurance. The force at Delhi, despite all the odds against them, had not only recaptured a city, they had, in effect, achieved a strategic victory that enabled Britain to dominate India more comprehensively than ever before.