In 1857 the city of Delhi was largely confined within its 8km (5 miles) of medieval walls, forming a semi – circle on the west bank of the River Jumna. Some triangular bastions and general repairs had been carried out when the British first took over the city in 1804, but otherwise no attempt had been made to modernize the defences. Nevertheless the walls were some 7.3m (24ft) high and massively constructed, so that breaching them was difficult, even with ample heavy artillery and abundant ammunition. As was usual in Indian fortresses, the gates were formidable enough in themselves. The only real weak point was assumed (wrongly) to be the suburb of Kishangunj lying outside the Kabul Gate. The siege was eventually ended after an artillery bombardment breached the wall near the Kashmire Gate and the city was taken by regular infantry assault.
Major-General Sir Archdale Wilson
Major-General Sir Archdale Wilson’s thoughts now returned to his chief objective: the capture of Delhi. But even after the arrival of the siege-train* on 4 September he was loath to order an assault. By 6 September reinforcements had increased the number of effectives to more than 11,000 men† (though 2,200 of them were the Maharaja of Jammu’s troops and of doubtful quality); a further 3,000 men were in hospital and the number was rising daily. Wilson had been told by Sir John Lawrence that he could expect no more troops and that an assault was imperative. ‘Every day disaffection and mutiny spread,’‡ wrote Lawrence on 29 August. ‘Every day adds to the danger of the European Princes taking part against us.’ Wilson knew that the number of sick was steadily rising. Yet still he procrastinated. Fred Roberts, then on Nicholson’s staff, wrote later:
* Thirty-two howitzers and heavy mortars and more than a hundred bullock-carts of ammunition.
† But only 3,317 were European troops: 580 artillery, 443 cavalry and 2,294 infantry. The infantry regiments were shadows of their former selves, the strongest numbering 409 effectives. The 52nd, which had arrived 600 strong, had already dwindled to 242 fit for duty.
‡ Particularly in the Punjab. There had already been an attempted conspiracy of Muslim tribes in the Murree Hills and an insurrection in Gogaira; moreover, many Sikhs were unconvinced about the durability of British rule and were refusing to enlist. Late August also saw three mutinies by disarmed corps in the Punjab: the 10th Light Cavalry at Ferozepore, the 51st Native Infantry at Peshawar, and the 62nd and 69th Native Infantry at Multan.
Everyone felt that the time had come for the assault to be made, and Wilson’s hesitation caused considerable anxiety. For some unaccountable reason he kept hoping that assistance would come from the South. I say unaccountable because we all knew: —
That Cawnpore had fallen into the enemy’s hands.
That Henry Lawrence was dead and that Lucknow was still being besieged.
That Havelock had written on the 25th July that he had found it impossible to force his way through to Lucknow and had been obliged to fall back upon Cawnpore.
That all the British troops and residents at Agra were shut up in the fort.
In the early days at Delhi we had hoped that troops would arrive from England in time to help us, but by September it was clear that this was impossible . . . There was no place to retreat to and on the slightest sign of our giving in the Punjab would have risen — in more places than one disturbances had already broken out.
When Wilson first took over the command he did very well — far better than either of his two predecessors. We artillerymen especially were proud of having an officer of our own regiment at the head of the Delhi Field Force. But six weeks of responsibility told heavily upon him. The strain was tremendous, and there is no doubt he was quite broken down by the beginning of September.
Wilson confirmed as much in a letter to his wife of 5 September: ‘We are busy preparing for the final struggle, and my work is almost more than I can carry through. I get so exhausted and my head so confused that I at times almost despair. It is made worse by my not sleeping well at night.’ The consequences of a failed assault were clearly uppermost in his mind; at the same time the pressure on him to act was becoming irresistible. No one was more voluble in this respect than his chief engineer, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Baird-Smith, who ‘fully appreciated the tremendous risks which an assault involved’, but who felt ‘they were less than those of delay’. Baird-Smith was strongly supported by his executive engineer, Lieutenant Alex Taylor, and most of the senior officers on the Ridge, including Nicholson, Chamberlain, Daly and Norman, the acting adjutant-general. At last Wilson bowed to the pressure and agreed to let the engineers prepare a plan of attack. But his objections continued. Baird-Smith recalled: ‘I believe his mind to have been a little off its usual balance all the time we were at work, and he was literally more difficult to deal with than the enemy. It was only by constantly reminding him that if he interfered with my plans, I would throw the whole responsibility for the consequences on him, that I could get on at all.’
The question of an assault finally came to a head at a council of war in Wilson’s tent on 7 September. Fred Roberts recalled:
I was sitting in [Nicholson’s] tent before he set out to attend the council. He had been talking to me in confidential terms . . . and ended by telling me of his intention to take a very unusual step should the council fail to arrive at any fixed determination regarding the assault. ‘Delhi must be taken,’ he said, ‘and it is absolutely essential that this should be done at once; and if Wilson hesitates longer, I intend to propose at today’s meeting that he should be superseded.’ I was greatly startled, and ventured to remark that, as Chamberlain was hors de combat from his wound, Wilson’s removal would leave him, Nicholson, the senior officer with the force. He smiled as he answered: ‘I have not overlooked that fact. I shall make it perfectly clear that, under the circumstances, I could not possibly accept the command myself, and I shall propose that it be given to Campbell of the 52nd; I am prepared to serve under him for the time being, so no one can ever accuse me of being influenced by personal motives’.
As it happened, Nicholson’s resolve to overthrow his commander was not put to the test because, at the council of war, Wilson bowed to the inevitable. He accepted Baird-Smith’s plan of assault in its entirety, but with the proviso that the chief engineer would take the blame if it failed. In a letter to Sir John Lawrence, an elated Nicholson could not hide his contempt for Wilson: ‘I have seen lots of useless generals in my day; but such an ignorant, croaking obstructive as he is, I have hitherto never met with . . .’ The purport of his last message in reply to the Engineers ran thus: ‘I disagree with the Engineers entirely. I foresee great, if not insuperable difficulties in the plan they propose. But as I have no other plan myself, I yield to the urgent remonstrances of the chief engineer.’
The engineers’ plan was to build batteries close enough to the city walls for the new siege guns to be effective. The site chosen was the area between Ludlow Castle, the commissioner’s residence that the rebels had left unoccupied, and the Kashmir and Water Bastions at the north of the city. A ravine here, running east to west, offered the sappers a modicum of cover as they worked. The intention was first to establish a heavy battery on the western side of the ravine to suppress the fire from the Mori and Kashmir Bastions. Then three siege batteries could be constructed in front of Ludlow Castle, the closest only 180 yards from the walls. These would make the breaches. It is unclear who was chiefly responsible for the plan: Baird-Smith has generally been given the credit because he was the senior engineer; but Taylor was the one who, with Nicholson, undertook the hazardous task of reconnoitring the sites and who personally supervised their construction.
Work began on the first battery, known as No. 1, during the night of 7 September. By sunrise its four 24-pounders, five 18-pounders and one 18-inch mortar were ready to open fire. The adjutant of the 75th Foot recalled:
The Moree proceeded to administer its usual dose to the piquets, but the smoke had scarcely spurted from its embrasures when the leafy screen was torn from our battery and we could see the iron hail strike the wall, sending up clouds of dust and bringing the masonry down into the ditch. It must have been an astonisher to the fellows in the bastion, but they quickly recovered from their surprise and turning the guns on the battery commenced a regular duel with it; our fellows continued to fire salvos, that is, all the guns fired together like an infantry volley, and the effect of such a weight of metal striking the walls at once soon became apparent, for the Moree began to look like a large heap of earth, and gun after gun was disabled in the front of it till at length not one was fit for service.
That evening, Ludlow Castle was occupied and work began on No. 2 Battery, just 500 yards from the Kashmir Bastion. The rebels had assumed that the focal point of any British attack would be against the Kabul and Lahore Gates on the west side of the city. Now, disabused of that notion, they did everything they could to prevent the siege batteries from being constructed. But the engineers would not be deterred. No. 2 Battery* was ready on 11 September, the remaining two† a day later. No. 3 Battery, the closest to the walls, had been built under ‘a constant fire of musketry’ that inevitably cost the Indian workmen‡ many casualties: thirty-nine during the first night of work. Fred Roberts, who was in charge of two guns in No. 2 Battery, had nothing but admiration for the bravery of these unarmed pioneers. ‘As man after man was knocked over,’ he wrote, ‘they would stop a moment, weep a little over a fallen friend, place his body in a row with the rest, and then work on as before.’
* Seven heavy howitzers, two 18-pounders and nine 24-pounders.
† No. 3 Battery comprised six 18-pounders and twelve 5½-inch mortars; No. 4 Battery, sited between 2 and 3, ten heavy mortars.
‡ The British camp on the Ridge was a magnet for thousands of Indian camp-followers who were prepared to risk their lives for a few annas a day.
The morning of 12 September saw the combined fire of all four batteries — a total of fifty guns and mortars — unleashed upon Delhi’s walls. The rebels, unable to fire from their ruined bastions, brought their guns out into the open and enfiladed the siege batteries. They also sited a gun in the curtain wall near the Kashmir Bastion, fired rockets from one of their towers and ‘maintained a perfect storm of musketry from their advanced trench and from the city walls’. British casualties alone were more than three hundred during the six days prior to the assault.
At dusk on 13 September two pairs of engineer officers — Lieutenants Lang,§ Medley, Greathed and Home — went to reconnoitre the breaches near the Kashmir and Water Bastions. Lieutenants Lang and Medley made it across the ditch and were about to ascend the rubble in the breach when the appearance of two sepoy sentries forced them to retire. Both pairs reported to Baird-Smith that the breaches were ‘practicable’. He, in turn, convinced Wilson that to delay any longer would be fatal. Finally Wilson gave orders for the attack to take place the following morning.
§ Lieutenant Arthur Lang, who arrived at Delhi from Lahore on 27 July, had already carried out a daring daytime reconnaissance on the breach near the Kashmir Bastion, but was sent back in company with Medley to ascertain whether ladders would be required to scale the ditch.
The infantry assigned to the assault was divided into five columns:* the first, commanded by Brigadier-General Nicholson, was given the task of storming the broken face of the Kashmir Bastion and the nearby breach in the wall, before clearing the ramparts and bastions as far as the Ajmir Gate; the second, under Brigadier Jones of the 61st Foot, was to storm the breach in the Water Bastion and follow Nicholson as far as the Kabul Gate; the third, led by Colonel Campbell of the 52nd Light Infantry, was to enter through the shattered Kashmir Gate and head through the heart of the city towards the Jama Masjid mosque; the fourth, under Major Reid of the Sirmur Battalion, was to attack the suburbs of Kisenganj and Paharipur, and support ‘the main attack by effecting an entrance at the Cabul Gate after it should be taken’; the fifth, under Brigadier Longfield, was to cover Nicholson’s column and form a reserve. In addition the Cavalry Brigade, under Brigadier Hope Grant, was to take up a position on the right of No. 1 Battery to oppose any attempt at taking the storming columns in the flank. With so many soldiers devoted to the attack, only a thin covering screen of cavalry, artillery and convalescents was available to protect the camp. ‘A very insufficient guard,’ wrote one officer, ‘when it is considered that the enemy might well, out of their vast numbers, have detached part of their horsemen and infantry to harass, if not imperil, its safety and that of the many sick and wounded.’
* The 1st column (1,000 men) was made up of HM 75th Foot, 1st Bengal Fusiliers and 2nd Punjab Infantry; the 2nd column (850 men) of HM 8th Foot, 2nd Bengal Fusiliers and 4th Sikhs; the 3rd column (950 men) of HM 52nd Light Infantry, Kumaon Battalion and 1st Punjab Infantry; the 4th column (860 men) of the Sirmur Battalion, Guides Infantry and various other units, as well as 1,200 men of the Jammu Contingent; the reserve column (1,000 men) of HM 61st Foot, 4th Punjab Infantry and the Baluch Battalion, as well as 300 of the Jhind Contingent.
The plan was to attack at dawn. But many of the men assigned to the storming columns had been on picket duty and it took some time for them to re-join their corps. A further delay was caused by the need to destroy the partial repairs to the breaches that the rebels had effected during the night. It was, therefore, daylight when the breaching guns ceased fire and the order to advance was given. ‘No sooner were the front ranks seen by the rebels,’ recalled Fred Roberts, who was watching with Wilson from Ludlow Castle, than a storm of bullets met them from every side, and officers and men fell thick on the crest of the glacis. Then, for a few seconds, amidst a blaze of musketry, the soldiers stood at the edge of the ditch, for only one or two of the ladders had come up, the rest having been dropped by their killed or wounded carriers. Dark figures crowded on the breach, hurling stones upon our men, and daring them to come on. More ladders were brought up, they were thrown into the ditch, and our men, leaping into it, raised them against the escarp on the other side. Nicholson, at the head of a part of his column, was the first to ascend the breach in the curtain. The remainder of his troops diverged a little to the right to escalade the breach in the Kashmir bastion.
The engineer officer leading this party was Lieutenant Arthur Lang, who recorded:
Up went our ladder, but once on the berm we instantly saw that there was no place for placing our long ladders, so we scrambled just a steep, crumbling wall of masonry. I have seen it since in cold blood, and wondered how we got up at all. I was just falling backwards on our own bayonets when a Gurkha pushed me up luckily, and presently over we were, and, with the 75th and men from the Water Bastion breach, were tearing down the ramp into the Main Guard behind the Kashmere Gate.
While the 1st and 2nd Columns were storming the breaches, the 3rd Column was attacking the Kashmir Gate. On reaching the ditch in front of the gate, the infantry were ordered to lie down while Lieutenants Home and Salkeld of the Bengal Engineers, eight sappers and a bugler from the 52nd Light Infantry went forward to blow the gate. The bridge in front of the gate had been destroyed, and it was no easy task for Home and the men carrying the powder-bags to cross the single beam that remained. All the while the rebels kept up a stream of fire from the top of the gate, the city walls and through the open wicket, killing Sergeant Carmichael and wounding Havildar Madhoo. But their comrades managed to nail the bags to the gate before dropping down into the ditch to make way for Salkeld and the firing party. Salkeld was about to fire the charge when he was hit in the leg and arm. He handed the slow-match to Corporal Burgess, who, though mortally wounded, managed to complete the task.* As the noise of the explosion died away, Bugler Hawthorne sounded the advance. Ensign Wilberforce, part of the storming party of the 52nd that was sheltering in the ditch, remembered:
* Four of the eleven-strong party received the Victoria Cross: Lieutenants Duncan Home and Philip Salkeld (Bengal Engineers), Sergeant John Smith (Bengal Sappers and Miners) and Bugler Robert Hawthorne (HM 52nd Light Infantry). Both officers were dead within a month: Home was killed at Malagarh; Salkeld died of his wounds.
Away we went. Inside that sheltering glacis was security from the murderous fire to which we had been exposed . . . I saw my Captain, Crosse, go in through the Gate. It was only large enough to admit one at a time. I was going next when Corporal Taylor pushed me on one side and got second. I came next — third man in. Through the gateway we saw an open square, the sunlight pouring into it — empty. Under the arch of the gateway stood a nine-pounder gun . . . Near to and around the gun lay some dead bodies, the defenders of the Gate, the men who had shot the devoted Salkeld . . . The Gate was soon thrown open, and our men, Coke’s Rifles, and the Kumaon battalion, which formed our assaulting column, poured in after us.
As the 3rd Column entered the open space between the Main Guard and the charred ruins of St James’s Church, its men met and mingled with soldiers from the first two columns. Gradually the columns sorted themselves out and set off towards their various objectives: the 1st and 2nd Columns up the narrow road that followed the ramparts; the 3rd Column towards the Jama Masjid and the kotwali. For a time, however, the 1st Column was without Nicholson because he and Alex Taylor had taken a wrong turn towards Skinner’s House. Instead it was left to Lieutenant Lang to lead the way. He recalled:
On we rushed, shouting and cheering, while the grape and musketry from each bend, and from every street leading from our left, and from rampart and housetop, knocked down men and officers. It was exciting to madness and I felt no feeling except to rush on and hit: I only wondered how much longer I could possibly go on unhit, when the whole air seemed full of bullets . . .
We poured past the Kabul Gate and we went swimmingly along until we nearly reached the Lahore; then a short check was given by a barricade with a gun firing grape from behind it. Brig. Jones came up and called for the Engineer officer and asked where the Kabul Gate was . . . ‘Far behind,’ I said. ‘We shall have the Lahore presently.’ Alas, he declared that his orders were to stop at the Kabul.
Lang and others in the vanguard were all for continuing. But the opposition had stiffened and it was as much as they could do to hold the ground already gained. ‘As long as we rushed on cheering and never stopping, all went well,’ recalled Lang. ‘But the check was sad: the men, crouching behind comers, and in the archways which support the ramparts, gradually nursed a panic.’ Assailed by a storm of rebel musket and cannon fire, the advance troops began to retire in ones and twos. The officers did their best to stem the flow. But, within half an hour, the trickle had become a flood, and the officers were swept along in the headlong retreat back to the Kabul Gate.
It was now that Nicholson re-joined his column and resumed command. Minutes earlier he had been spotted on the walls of the Mori Bastion by Brigadier Hope Grant, commander of the cavalry brigade supporting the 4th Column. Nicholson had shouted down to Grant that all was going to plan, and that he was about to attack the Lahore Gate. Grant had less encouraging news: the 4th Column’s attack, led by Major Reid of the Sirmur Battalion, had been repulsed from the suburbs outside the Kabul Gate. A rebel counter-attack was now driving the entire column back to its starting point in the gardens of Sabzi Mundi. ‘We saw the repulse of Reid’s column,’ wrote the recuperating Neville Chamberlain, who was watching from his stretcher on the roof of Hindu Rao’s house, ‘and could not fail to admire the conduct of the mutineer native officers as they rode along in front of their regiments endeavouring to incite their men to press home their advantage against the Cashmere Contingent . . . The Jummoo troops bolted,* lost the whole or a portion of their guns, came back on our men, created a panic, and we were driven back in confusion . . . So critical did affairs then look that it seemed possible the enemy might succeed in passing through, or might turn our right defences and attack them from the rear.’ Chamberlain’s response was to order his bearers to carry him down to the gardens, where he rallied the beaten troops and organized a defensive position from his stretcher.
* Wilson also blamed the failure of the attack on ‘the cowardice of the Jummoo contingent, who ran away leaving their guns to the enemy’ (Wilson to his wife, 15 September 1857, Wilson Letters, NAM, 6807-483).
All this time Grant’s cavalry brigade had been watching helplessly, unable to ride to the assistance of Reid’s column because of the broken and built-up nature of the ground. Instead they had moved round to a position on the far right, less than 500 yards from the Lahore Gate. But the failure of Reid’s column to take the ground in front of the Kabul Gate, and Nicholson’s inability to progress beyond the same point within the city, meant that Grant’s men were subjected to a galling fire from the untouched heavy guns of the Burn Bastion and Lahore Gate. Grant and four of his staff had their horses killed under them; two of them were wounded, and Grant himself was hit by a spent musket-ball. Tombs’s troop of horse artillery lost half its 50 men and a further 17 horses; the 9th Lancers had 38 casualties and 71 horses wounded. ‘Nothing daunted,’ wrote Grant, ‘those gallant fellows held their trying position with patient endurance; and on my praising them for their good behaviour, they declared their readiness to stand the fire as long as I chose.’