The British army storm the batteries at Battle of Badli-ki-Serai near Delhi, during the Indian Rebellion, 8th June 1857. A lithograph by W. Simpson, after a drawing by Captain G. F. Atkinson. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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.
In 1855 John Lawrence asked Reynell Taylor, the temporary Commandant of the Guides, to undertake a thorough review of the charges against Hodson relating to financial wrongdoing. The subsequent report, presented in March 1856, exonerated the former commandant. Taylor had gone through the accounts with a fine-tooth comb and considered them to be ‘an honest and correct record from beginning to end’. He had examined every claim of alleged irregularity and had found ‘Lieutenant Hodson’s statements borne out by the facts of the case’. Though the accounts had been ‘irregularly kept’, Hodson had inherited a highly unorthodox system from his predecessor. In a covering letter Taylor recommended a second court of inquiry to consider his own findings. John Lawrence’s response was that neither the Commander-in-Chief nor the new Governor-General, Lord Canning, saw the need for a new inquiry. They were, however, prepared to grant Hodson a ‘full acquittance’ on matters relating to the Corps’ accounts and thereby hoped to put an end to ‘this harassing and painful business’.
Hodson saw his ‘full acquittance’ for what it was — an attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet — and continued to demand a public inquiry. In April 1857 he travelled to Simla to lobby Anson in person and received a sympathetic hearing. ‘He would write himself to Lord Canning and try to get justice done me,’ wrote a delighted Hodson to his brother. ‘I do trust the light is breaking through the darkness and that before long I may have good news to send you.’ Anson never did write to Canning. News of the mutinies at Meerut and Delhi reached Simla a few days after his meeting with Hodson and thereafter he had more urgent business to attend to. But he had been impressed by the forthright subaltern and, after reaching Ambala, appointed him assistant quartermaster-general with special responsibility for intelligence. Hodson’s first task was to re-establish contact with Meerut, from which place only ‘very imperfect’ information had been received. He set off on 21 May, paused for a time at Karnal, where he was joined by an escort of the Raja of Jhind’s cavalry, and finally reached Meerut at daybreak on the 22nd. ‘He had left Karnal (76 miles off) at nine the night before,’ wrote an officer at Meerut, ‘with one led horse and an escort of Sikh cavalry and, as I had anticipated, here he was with despatches for Wilson! . . . Hodson rode straight to Wilson, had his interview, a bath, breakfast, and two hours’ sleep, and then rode back the seventy-six miles, and had to fight his way back for about thirty miles of the distance.’ He rested for a few more hours at Karnal and then continued on to Ambala, arriving in the early hours of 23 May. He had covered more than 250 miles in two days.
Anson was impressed and at once commissioned him to raise and command a corps of irregular cavalry. So came into being Hodson’s Horse, mainly Sikhs from the Amritsar, Jhind and Lahore districts of the Punjab. They too wore khaki tunics and could be distinguished from the Guides Cavalry by their scarlet turbans and shoulder sashes. Their commandant was even more distinctive. ‘A tallish man,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘with yellow hair, a pale, smooth face, heavy moustache, and large, restless, rather unforgiving eyes.’ He still suffered from migraines and wore tinted spectacles to protect his bright blue eyes from the fierce Indian sun. Yet as one of his British officers observed: ‘As a cavalry soldier he was perfection, a strong seat on horseback (though an ugly rider), a perfect swordsman, nerves like iron, and a quick, intelligent eye, indefatigable and zealous, and with great tact.’
Anson arrived at Karnal on 25 May. He was billeted in relative comfort with General Palmer, a retired sepoy general; his staff had to make do with the dak-bungalow where they were crammed in six to a room. Nevertheless it was Anson who fell ill with cholera on the morning of 26 May and was dead within twenty-four hours. He lived long enough to appoint Sir Henry Barnard, just arrived in camp, as his successor. ‘Barnard,’ he said faintly, ‘I leave you the command. You will say how anxious I have been to do my duty. I cannot recover. May success attend you. God bless you. Good-bye.’ ‘Poor General Anson!’ wrote Colonel Keith Young in his diary. ‘[Colonel] Chester returned about three in the morning to say he was dead, poor man. Chester tells me that he must have felt himself quite unequal to the present emergency; and anxiety of mind has had much to do with his fatal illness. He seems to be popular with very few; and the Native troops have apparently a great hatred for him, honestly thinking that he was commissioned to convert them. Quite a private funeral in the burial-ground in the evening, Chester reading the service.’
Both before and after his death, Anson was widely criticized for his plodding response to the outbreak. ‘He ought to have been before Delhi days ago,’ wrote a doctor at Nowgong in central India on 29 May. ‘The natives even ask what he is doing. Such delay is unpardonable, particularly as so much depends upon the celerity of his movements.’ Even Canning, while recognizing that Anson had faced many problems, was convinced that he had delayed unnecessarily.
With Anson dead, Barnard took charge of the force at Karnal and the dithering General Reed succeeded by right to the command of the Bengal Army. Only the Queen, acting on advice from the British government, could appoint Anson’s permanent successor as Commander-in-Chief of India. Yet a temporary replacement was essential, and Canning and his advisers plumped for 53-year-old Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Grant, Commander-in-Chief of Madras and a former Adjutant-General of the Bengal Army. It was a brave decision because no Company officer had ever held the Supreme Command. But in the unique circumstances that then prevailed, it was thought right to appoint a vigorous officer who had an intimate knowledge of Indian troops. Grant did not reach Calcutta to take up his temporary appointment until 17 June. Until then, Reed was supreme in Bengal, and on 28 May, defying instructions from Calcutta to leave Barnard to his own devices, he left Rawalpindi to take charge of the force advancing upon Delhi. His already frail health deteriorated en route, however, and Barnard remained in command.
Born in Oxfordshire in 1799, the son of a parson, Barnard had been educated at Westminster and Sandhurst before joining the Grenadier Guards in 1814. Since then he had spent most of his career in staff appointments, including a stint as chief-of-staff to General Simpson, Lord Raglan’s successor in the Crimea. But he had also commanded a brigade and a division in the recent war against the Russians, and, though he had only been in India for a matter of months, Canning considered him the best man for the critical task of retaking Delhi. Described by a member of the headquarters staff as a ‘very good, gentlemanly little man’ who did not ‘want for pluck’, his early zeal seemed to confirm Canning’s judgement. ‘So long as I exercise any power,’ he wrote to Sir John Lawrence on 28 May, ‘you may rest assured that every energy shall be devoted to the objects I have now in view, viz., concentrating all the force I can collect at Delhi, securing the bridge at Baghpat, and securing our communication with Meerut.’
For a time Barnard was as good as his word. The bulk of his force set off from Karnal in the evening of 30 May and five days later was at Alipore, 11 miles north of Delhi. It left in its wake a trail of death and destruction. ‘We burnt every village,’ wrote Lieutenant Kendal Coghill of the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers, ‘and hanged all the villagers who had treated our fugitives badly until every tree was covered with scoundrels hanging from every branch.’ Some positively enjoyed this gruesome task. ‘There were eleven more villagers hung yesterday, to the great delight of Fawcett, Blair, and Evans, who nearly forfeited their dinner for the butchery,’ wrote an officer of the 9th Lancers to his wife on 4 June. ‘Hope [Grant, the CO] had to approve of their sentence, and gave directions about a strong enough rope just before he sat down. All this is very horrid work, preceding as it does the blood-stained horrors of the battle-field.’ Trials were little more than drumhead courts martial with officers and men vowing to kill prisoners whether they were found guilty or not. A private in the 9th Lancers wrote on 1 June:
News was gained today that it was here that some of the Europeans making their escape from Delhi were ill used and a Doctor, his wife and child, killed. Mr Hodson went to the village where the guilty parties were and some eleven prisoners were brought in. One among them, a young man who violated the lady and then killed her and also the infant child. They were all lodged in the Provost Guard and the Provost had hard work from keeping [the members of the guard] from taking the law in their own hands. As it was their heads were shaved and pork fat rubbed all over them and then spat in their mouths; according to their beliefs this sent their soul to hell and made them unclean. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon these men were all tried and sentenced to be hung at sunset. During the time their trial was going on a number of men assembled near to the tent armed with sticks and swore by all that was good if this man, the murderer, was not sentenced to be hanged they would beat his brains out on the spot. But when the Provost came out and announced their fate and pointing to a large tree at the same time, all were satisfied . . . At last they made their appearance under a strong guard. On reaching the tree the villains called upon their countrymen to avenge their blood, but not one dared to move. They were hung and buried under the tree . . . All these men confessed their guilt before death.
Sometimes trials were dispensed with entirely. Tales of atrocities against women and children, many of them exaggerated, had infuriated the British soldiers and almost any Indian male was considered fair game. Harriet Tytler, whose husband had been appointed paymaster to the Delhi force, was shocked to see the body of a harmless Muslim baker dangling from the branch of an acacia tree. ‘From what we could gather,’ she wrote, ‘this poor man had been late for several days with his bread for the men’s breakfast, so Tommie Atkins threatened to hang him if this happened again and so they did. I can’t understand how such a cruel deed was allowed, for they in turn should have been hanged, but I suppose a single soldier could not have been spared, even in the cause of justice.’
Meanwhile Brigadier Wilson’s force had finally left Meerut on 27 May. It was made up of six companies of the 60th Rifles, two squadrons of the 6th Dragoon Guards, a troop of horse artillery, a battery of foot artillery and a small number of Sappers and Miners: a total of one thousand men and fourteen guns, two of them 18-pounders. To avoid the worst of the sun the force marched at night and rested by day. The effect was debilitating none the less. ‘I hope Barnard’s force will move down soon,’ wrote Wilson from his camp at Ghazi-ud-din-Nagar on the left bank of the Hindan River, nine miles from Delhi, on 30 May, ‘for I am quite sure no European can long withstand the exposure we are now undergoing. The heat and dust are dreadful and we are all, particularly the officers, marching in the greatest discomfort, from the [Commissariat] not being able to supply us with carriage. I sit or lie all day with a wet towel round my head.’ He had, moreover, been sleeping in his boots, ‘ready to turn out at a moment’s notice,’ since the outbreak at Meerut. Second-Lieutenant Hugh Chichester of the Bengal Artillery found the dust a particular torment. ‘It is nothing but perpetual sand storms in the day,’ he informed his mother. ‘Your tent and everything one has gets covered, you swallow oceans, it is something abominable.’
At four in the afternoon of 30 May Wilson’s camp on the Hindan was fired upon by a mixed force of mutineers that had marched out of Delhi under the nominal command of Bahadur Shah’s grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr. The main rebel position was in a village on rising ground across the river. They had, in addition, placed two guns and a strong force of infantry to cover the 600-yard causeway across the Hindan. Ensign Everard Phillipps of the 11th Native Infantry was with two companies of riflemen ordered to take the bridge:
On reaching the bridge the two companies extended, two more came in support and the long range of the rifles forced the enemy to abandon the guns. The Colonel sent me down to order the two leading companies to reform on the causeway and take the guns at the point of the bayonets. One of the 11th’s colours was with the guns — the sepoys carried it off on our taking the guns. One sepoy, Dars Singh of the 11th, fired his musket into a cart full of ammunition. Captain Andrews, Wilton and myself and about nine men were around a tumbril when it blew up. Andrews was blown to pieces and four men killed. Wilton’s head was bruised — God only knows how I escaped. I’m merely bruised, just a little blood drawn from about five places . . . When the smoke cleared up the enemy had retired to a village strongly walled, on rising ground about 200 yards off. We fired a few shots and cleared it at the point of the bayonet. The sepoys fought like fiends — in one place we left about 35 dead all in a heap, killed altogether 50 and lost five men of rifles.
The rebels’ cause had not been helped by the antics of their inexperienced royal commander, who watched the early stages of the battle from the roof of a house near to the bridge. ‘From time to time,’ wrote Mainodin Hassan Khan, ‘he sent messages to his Artillery to tell them of the havoc their fire was creating in the English ranks . . . Presently a shell burst near the battery [at the bridge], covering the gunner with dust. The Commander-in-Chief, experiencing for the first time in his life the effects of a bursting shell, hastily descended from the roof of the house, mounted his horse, and galloped off with his escort of sowars into the rear of the position, not heeding the cries of his troops. A general stampede then took place.’ The British captured five guns, four of them heavy calibre.
That evening Wilson set up camp on the Delhi side of the river. The bridge was not considered strong enough to bear the weight of the guns so, with some difficulty, they were dragged through the quicksand of a nearby ford by teams of elephants and bullocks. The following day, shortly after noon, the rebels attacked again in even greater strength. ‘They had taken up nearly the same position as the previous day,’ wrote Second-Lieutenant Chichester, ‘only a little more to the right and a higher position. We could only see the muzzle of the guns peeping over the hill and they had a most capital protection from our firing. Having no end of heavy guns in position they made some excellent long and straight shooting. The grape rattled in amongst the troop of Horse Artillery like a hail storm, and the Artillery having only two heavy guns, the rest being 6- and 9-pounders, we found great difficulty in reaching them.’ Eventually the two 18-pounders were brought forward to support the horse artillery, causing the rebel fire to slacken. At this point Wilson ordered a general advance, and the enemy withdrew under the cover of a light field battery, so preventing the loss of any heavy guns. The British troops ‘were so knocked up by the sun and want of water’ that they were unable to pursue for long. Of the forty or so British casualties during the two-day battle, several died from the effects of the sun.
On 1 June Wilson’s small force was considerably strengthened by the arrival of six hundred Gurkhas of the Sirmur Battalion. With no news from Barnard it remained on the Hindan for two further days. Finally, during the evening of 3 June, the long-awaited order arrived: Wilson was to make for the bridge-of-boats at Baghpat and a rendezvous with the main force on the 7th. Both Hewitt and Hervey Greathed, who was accompanying Wilson as his political adviser, were against such a move because they thought it would expose Meerut and the Doab to rebel attack. Barnard and his staff considered such a threat to be negligible. ‘Our object is Delhi,’ recorded Colonel Young, ‘and everything must be sacrificed to this . . . as to Meerut itself, they have fortified the school of instruction and can hold their own against any number.’ Wilson was in agreement: ‘While we are before Delhi they will not dare to detach any large force from thence.’ Hewitt’s objections he put down to fear. ‘Old Hewitt is furious with me,’ he informed his wife on 3 June, ‘and says I shew him great disrespect because I pay no attention to his orders, quite forgetting that I am commanding a Field Force under the orders of Gen. Barnard and therefore independent of him. He is a dreadful old fool, and thinks of nothing but preserving his old carcase from harm.’ Wilson began his march on the night of 4 June and reached the bridge at Baghpat two days later. On the 7th he linked up with Barnard at Alipore. ‘I can’t tell you how well they all looked,’ Keith Young informed his wife, ‘the Brigadier himself in high health . . . [Captain] Edwin Johnson [Bengal Artillery] the picture of health; and Colonel Jones of the Rifles, as fat and rosy as ever.’
As the siege-train from Phillour had arrived a day earlier, there was nothing to prevent Barnard from continuing his march towards Delhi. He now had under his command the best part of four regiments of European infantry, two of European cavalry, three troops of horse artillery, two companies of foot artillery and a detachment of artillery recruits. The 60th Native Infantry and a squadron of the 4th Light Cavalry had been sent to Rohtak and Saharunpur respectively, and the only native troops now with Barnard were the Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas, fifty sowars of the 4th Irregular Cavalry and a small quantity of sappers and miners. The total strength of the so-called Delhi Field Force was now around 3,200 men, most of them Europeans, with twenty-two field guns and twenty-four siege guns.
Barnard knew, thanks to William Hodson and his scouts, that his advance was barred by a strong rebel force in well-constructed positions at the village of Badli-ki-Serai, halfway down the Grand Trunk Road between Alipore and Delhi. It numbered about 9,000 men and thirty guns, and was commanded by Mirza Kizr Sultan, the uncle of the disgraced Abu Bakr. Barnard’s plan was to attack the rebels from three directions: the two infantry brigades would advance on either side of the road, while the cavalry, under Brigadier Grant, crossed the canal to the west of the village ‘with a view to taking the enemy in the flank’. The plan could have been disrupted by the arrival in camp of General Reed in the early hours of 8 June. Fortunately Reed was suffering from ‘severe sickness and fatigue’ and did not interfere with Barnard’s arrangements.
The British force left Alipore in darkness and appeared before the enemy positions at Badli-ki-Serai six miles west of Delhi, at dawn. As the assault brigades deployed in the plain, the artillery advanced to engage the rebel guns. But the latter were mostly heavy pieces and got the better of the early exchanges. ‘I have never seen such splendid artillery practice as theirs was,’ noted Lieutenant Kendal Coghill. ‘They had the range to a yard and every shot told.’ One staff officer told his son that he ‘was never under a hotter fire, even at Chilianwalla’. Hugh Chichester, who was with four heavy British guns — two 18-pounders and two 8-inch mortars — recalled: ‘We had marched about 5 miles when all of a sudden a bomb was heard, and the shots went right over our heads killing several, amongst them one or two officers.’ The most grievous loss was Colonel Charles Chester, the adjutant-general, who was hit in the side by a roundshot that also killed his white horse, ‘Sir Walter’. Keith Young was on the opposite side of the road when Chester fell and was shocked when he came upon his body. ‘It seems he lived for a minute or two after he was struck down,’ wrote Young, ‘and young Barnard, the Aide-de-Camp, jumped off his horse and went to his assistance, holding his head until he died. He was quite sensible at first, and spoke to Barnard, asking him to raise his head that he might look at his wound; and seeing . . . that he couldn’t live, he wanted Barnard to leave him, which he would not do, but gave him some water to drink, on which he said, “What’s the use of giving me water?” But it seemed to revive him a little, and he died without apparent pain.’
Finding that his light field pieces were unable to silence the rebel guns, and that he was ‘losing men fast’, Sir Henry Barnard ordered the 1st Brigade to charge the left of the rebel defences. Lieutenant Kendal Coghill recalled:
When [the 1st Brigade were] within 300 yards [the rebels] poured awful volleys of round shot, shell and grape into the line, but a hearty good English cheer and a charge at the double brought the 75th Foot and 1st Fusiliers on their guns and the bayonets did the rest. About 3000 of the enemy’s infantry, some cavalry and horse artillery bolted across towards our lines on the left and met the 60th Rifles and 2nd Fusiliers who gave them a few well directed volleys and then ceased firing for close in their rear a wing of our 9th Lancers charged across, cut up a lot and captured 2 guns! It was then our turn for the sport, so the left Brigade (ours) brought its left round, went through a large jungle or forest, killed all we found, went through a large village, rooted them out and potted them and then fired it. We then turned their guns on them, gave them a few rounds of grape into the retiring mass and by half nine that position was ours . . .
As at Ghazi-ud-din-Nagar, the rebel commander was the first to flee. Intercepted by Mahbub Ali Khan, the King’s chief minister, Mirza Kizr Sultan explained that he was ‘hurrying back to the city for more artillery and ammunition’ and, ‘in spite of all remonstrances, galloped away’.
The victorious British troops were hot, thirsty and exhausted. But Barnard was determined to push on to the Ridge and allowed just half an hour’s rest before ordering an advance. A short way beyond Badli-ki-Serai, at a fork in the road, Barnard split his troops into two columns. Brigadier Wilson led one to the right down the continuation of the Grand Trunk Road towards the picturesque suburb of Sabzi Mundi at the bottom of the Ridge. Barnard took the other to the left through the destroyed British cantonments. ‘I soon found,’ reported Barnard, ‘that the enemy had posted himself strongly on the ridge over the cantonments, with guns in position, and under the range of which we soon found ourselves; upon which I determined on a rapid flank movement to the left, in the hope of gaining the ridge under cover of the cantonments, and taking the position in flank.’ Lieutenant Coghill, whose 2nd Bengal Fusiliers were at the point of the attack, recalled:
At the foot of the hill we extended in skirmishing order about 8 or 900 of us and when we got within 100 yards of the top the word to charge was given and with a yell like so many demons we rushed up and in ten minutes the battery was ours — we spiked the guns and rushed after them down the opposite side of the hill until we were fairly done and then we came up and finished off some lurkers and some wounded men who shammed dead and potted at us. We killed two blackguard Englishmen who begged for mercy swearing they had been compelled to fight but had aimed over our heads, but as they had served the guns and every shot had come into our columns and they were recognised as great blackguards by their own men, the artillery, no mercy was shown and they were killed on the spot.
These two English rebels were deserters who had converted to Islam. One British officer attributed the accuracy of the rebel fire to their expertise as former artillerymen. Their summary execution was inevitable.
At Hindu Rao’s House, the deserted former home of a Maratha nobleman on the southern end of the Ridge, Barnard ‘had the satisfaction of meeting Brigadier Wilson’, whose column had had to fight the rebels the whole way into Delhi ‘through the strongest ground, gardens and villages that could be imagined’. There many of Barnard’s officers urged him to continue on into the city. But he refused, saying, ‘No, no, we will fight them in the open.’ It was, according to Mainodin Hassan Khan, a mistake. ‘If they had instantly marched on the city, the place would have fallen easily into their power . . . The hesitation on the part of the English inspired the Sepoys with confidence and, arming the city walls with guns, they soon began to fire shots in the direction of the cantonments.’
Barnard responded by placing pickets and gun batteries at four strong-points along the Ridge: (from north to south) the Flagstaff Tower, a ruined mosque, an ancient observatory and Hindu Rao’s House. The Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas reached this last building, just 1,200 yards from the city walls, at around one in the afternoon. ‘Had just made ourselves comfortable,’ wrote Major Reid, ‘when the alarm was sounded. In ten minutes the mutineers were seen coming up towards Hindu Rao’s house in force. I went out with my own regiment and two companies of Rifles, and drove them back into the city. This, however, was not accomplished till five p.m., so that we were under arms for sixteen hours. Heat fearful. My little fellows behaved splendidly, and were cheered by every European regiment . . . They had (because it was a Native regiment) doubts about us; but I think they are now satisfied.’
Barnard may have missed a golden opportunity to retake Delhi. But he had won a great victory, nevertheless, thanks largely to the unflinching courage of his European infantry. Thirteen rebel guns had been captured, two of them 24-pounders, at a cost of 51 killed, 132 wounded and 2 missing. The rebel deaths alone were estimated at 400. As the fighting died down, Barnard ordered a tented camp to be set up on the old parade-ground, beyond the reach of the rebel guns on the city walls. The cantonments themselves were a scene of devastation, ‘only the walls standing, and things lying about the roads in every direction — broken dinner-sets, music-books, etc.’ But this was nothing compared to the carnage of the battlefield. Harriet Tytler, who accompanied her husband over the ground in the afternoon, remembered seeing scores of dead British soldiers lying neatly in a row. The rebels, including members of her husband’s regiment, were left where they fell. ‘I saw some of our fine, tall, handsome men,’ she wrote, ‘lying somewhat swollen by the heat of those four hours and stark naked, for every camp follower robbed them of their gold and silver jewels, and the last comers of the clothes on their bodies, leaving the poor fellows just as God had made them. Such handsome, splendid specimens of high caste Hindus. One man had a hole as large as a billiard ball through his forehead, a perfect giant in death. I could not help saying, “Serve you right for killing our poor women and children who had never injured you.”’
The following morning Henry Daly’s Corps of Guides marched into the British camp. One of the first officers to greet them was William Hodson, their former commandant. ‘It would have done your heart good to see the welcome they gave me,’ he wrote to his wife at Simla, ‘cheering and shouting and crowding round me like frantic creatures. They seized my bridle, dress, hands, and feet, and literally threw themselves down before the horse with the tears streaming down their faces. Many officers who were present hardly knew what to make of it, and thought the creatures were mobbing me; and so they were, but for joy, not for mischief.’ Everything about the new arrivals excited wonder in their onlookers. ‘The Guides Corps is a sight to see,’ noted a cavalry officer. ‘Their dress is highly peculiar and the men are chiefly of two sorts, viz., the tall, powerful, swarthy Afghan, and the short, muscular, olive-skinned Gurkha. They are the admiration of the camp, having marched 580 miles in twenty-two days — a feat unparalleled in the records of Indian marching.’ The epic trek was all the more incredible for having been accomplished during the feast of Ramadan and in the hottest time of the year.
The Guides had only been in the camp a matter of hours when they were given a further opportunity to impress. Shortly after two in the afternoon, the rebels launched a strong attack on the pickets at the southern end of the Ridge. Daly and his cavalry helped to drive them back to the walls of the city — but not without cost. ‘The men hotly engaged,’ recorded Daly, ‘Battye mortally wounded — noble Battye ever in front; Khan Singh Rosa hard hit; Hawes clipt across the face with a sword and many good men down. Men behaved heroically, impetuously.’ Lieutenant Quintin Battye, the popular commander of the Guides Cavalry, had been shot in the groin and died that evening. His last muttered words are typical of the patriotic sentiments expressed by many British officers at this time: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’
The British position on the Ridge was, in the words of one staff officer, ‘not only a coign of vantage for attack, but a rampart of defence’. The conundrum now facing Sir Henry Barnard was what to do next: dig in and await reinforcements or risk a surprise attack. Most of the officers on the Ridge, particularly the young ones, were for the bolder course. Any delay, they argued, would be to the advantage of the rebels, whose strength was increasing daily with the arrival of fresh mutineers. British numbers, on the other hand, could only decline in the short term. At first Barnard too seemed to favour the aggressive option. On 11 June he asked William Hodson and three young Engineer officers — Greathed, Chesney and Maunsell — to assess the feasibility of a sudden assault. That same day they reported that the Kabul and Lahore Gates had not yet been bricked up, that their bridges were still intact, and that troops could approach within 400 and 900 yards of them respectively under cover. They recommended blowing up both gates simultaneously, followed by a dawn assault by two columns.
Barnard approved the scheme and gave orders for it to be carried out during the morning of 13 June. The assaulting troops, including almost all the fit Europeans, were ordered to assemble at one in the morning. But at the appointed hour three hundred members of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers were missing. The duty officer, Brigadier Graves, was to blame. A couple of hours earlier he had received a verbal order from Barnard that all European troops on picket duty were to be withdrawn for special duty. This order included a ‘vague hint that a night-assault was in contemplation’. When Graves reached the Flagstaff picket, however, and realized that it was about to be left in the sole charge of Indian troops, he instructed the Europeans to stand fast while he galloped down to the general’s tent to seek confirmation of the original order. Barnard told him that every British infantryman was needed for an immediate assault. But he was evidently having second thoughts because he then asked Graves, who knew Delhi well, the assault’s chances of success. ‘You may certainly take the city by surprise,’ replied the brigadier, ‘but whether you are strong enough to hold it is another matter.’ This response is said to have shaken Barnard’s faltering resolve still further. It was, in any case, too late to carry out the original order, because, as one senior officer commented, ‘it would have been broad daylight before we could all get down to the Gates’. The operation had to be cancelled.
The majority of Barnard’s staff officers were secretly relieved. ‘Most fortunate, I think, that we did not attack,’ noted Keith Young in his diary, ‘for failure would have been death — and success was not quite certain; and we are not reduced to such a desperate state yet as to risk all. My own idea is — wait till the Sikh corps comes.’ There were, wrote Captain Norman, the acting adjutant-general, ‘few who did not feel that the accident which hindered this attempt was one of those happy interpositions in our behalf of which we had such numbers to be thankful for’.
But Barnard was still under intense pressure from Calcutta and the Punjab to capture Delhi. The plan for an assault, therefore, had been delayed rather than abandoned. ‘I have nothing left,’ Barnard informed Canning on 13 June, ‘but to place all on the hazard of a die and attempt a coup-de-main, which I purpose to do. If successful, all will be well. But reverse will be fatal, for I can have no reserve on which to retire. But, assuredly, you all greatly under-estimated the difficulties of Delhi. They have twenty-four-pounders on every gate and flank bastion; and their practice is excellent — beats ours five to one. We have got six heavy guns in position, but do not silence theirs, and I really see nothing for it but a determined rush, and this, please God, you will hear of as successful.’
The new assault was scheduled for the morning of 16 June. Twenty-four hours before it was due to take place, however, Barnard received word that 4,000 reinforcements were on their way from the Punjab. A council of war duly met in the afternoon of 15 June to decide whether the attack should go ahead. In attendance were Barnard, a fit-again General Reed, Brigadier Wilson, Hervey Greathed and the senior Engineer officers. Hervey Greathed was opposed to a further postponement on the political grounds that it would ‘disappoint expectations, protract the disorders with which the country is afflicted, increase the disaffection which is known to exist amongst the Muhammadan population in the Bombay Presidency, and cause distrust on the part of the Native allies’. Wilberforce Greathed, the young Engineer, was even more forceful in his advocacy of an immediate attack, ‘but his talk was too fiery and wild for any one to listen to’. Most of the senior officers present, on the other hand, were for delaying the assault until at least some reinforcements had arrived. Even Wilson, who had been urging an immediate assault, was now of the opinion that the Delhi Field Force was ‘perfectly safe’ on the Ridge and ‘with fresh troops’ would be able ‘to take Delhi with but little loss and with a certainty of destroying the mutineers’. But with so much at stake, a final decision was postponed until the following day.
At the reconvened council of war on 16 June, the balance was tipped in favour of delay by Archdale Wilson’s written assessment, which concluded: ‘It would be impossible, with the small force we now have, to leave a sufficient force for the protection of Delhi, and at the same time to send out such brigades as will be required. It appears to me a question of time only.’ Later that day Wilson informed his wife: ‘It has been decided principally at my recommendation to delay the assault till we are joined by the moveable column from Lahore.’ No one was more tormented by the decision than Sir Henry Barnard. ‘I confess,’ he wrote to Sir John Lawrence on 18 June, ‘that, urged on by the political adviser acting with me, I had consented to a coup-de-main . . . accident alone prevented it; it may be the interposition of Providence. From what I can hear, and from the opinion of others whom it became my duty to consult, I am convinced that success would have been as fatal as failure . . . Be sure that I have been guided by military rule, and that it required moral courage to face the cry that will be raised against our inactivity before Delhi; I can but act for the best, and wait any favourable opportunity for striking the blow.’
Was it a mistake to delay? Probably. General Rose would demonstrate during the Bundelkhand campaign of 1858 what a bold commander could achieve with limited resources. Every day that Barnard remained on the defensive at Delhi, his position became relatively weaker. By 21 June nearly half the native corps in the regular Bengal Army had mutinied, partially mutinied or been disbanded. They had been joined in rebellion by three local corps, the whole of the Oudh Irregular Force, the Malwa Contingent, the Bharatpur Legion and most of the Gwalior Contingent. A further thirteen regiments of native infantry, six of cavalry, seven companies of foot artillery and two troops of horse artillery had also been disarmed by this time. In the majority of cases — as if in confirmation of Ahsanullah Khan’s claim that it was agreed by the conspirators beforehand — the mutinous corps headed for Delhi. But only a relatively small number of trained Bengal troops, perhaps a couple of thousand in all, had reached the Mogul capital by the time the first council of war was held on 15 June. Over the next ten days, however, the rebels at Delhi were augmented by mutinous elements of a further ten regiments of infantry, two of cavalry and one artillery battery from stations as far afield as Nasirabad in Rajputana, Bareilly in Rohilkhand and Jullundur in the Punjab: roughly 7,000 troops in all. During the same period the British at Delhi received fewer than a thousand reinforcements. The possibility of a successful assault was becoming ever more distant; and while Delhi remained in the hands of the mutineers, the rebellion would continue to spread.