161 Years Ago Today In History of Shahjahanabad | Siege Of Delhi – 11 May 1857

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161 Years Ago Today In History of Shahjahanabad | Siege Of Delhi – 11 May 1857

Early on 11 May, the first parties of the 3rd Cavalry reached Delhi. From beneath the windows of the King’s apartments in the palace, they called on him to acknowledge and lead them. Bahadur Shah did nothing at this point, apparently treating the sepoys as ordinary petitioners, but others in the palace were quick to join the revolt. During the day, the revolt spread. European officials and dependents, Indian Christians and shop keepers within the city were killed, some by sepoys and others by crowds of rioters.

The public crier still prefaced the proclamation of the Company’s orders with the words, ” People belong to God, the Empire belongs to the Emperor, and the order is from the Company Bahadur “–the Empire did belong to the Emperor, no matter who governed it on his behalf or even against his will. It was, therefore, obvious that the Emperor would always welcome an opportunity of throwing off the yoke of their control. On the morning of 11 May, 1857, he was suddenly disturbed by the shouts of the troopers. The sawars of the 3rd Light Cavalry of Meerut had crossed Jamuna and were addressing the Emperor from below the walls of the Fort for assistance in their fight for the faith.

In his memoirs Dastan-e-Ghadar, Tale of the Mutiny, Zahir Dehlvi, who was an official in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court and a poet, describes the events that unfolded on May 16 that year: ( Reference from Rana Safvi)

One early morning, I left my house for the Qila, and entering through the naqqarkhana reached the Diwan-e-Aam. From there I decided to go to the khan-samaani and meet Hakim Ahsanullah Khan [the prime minister] to find out if Huzoor had given any orders. With this in mind, I avoided the lattice door and entered the khan-samaani door. When I had walked a little beyond the Mehtab Darwaza, I saw the purbias bringing the prisoners out of the Bagh.

“Where are you taking them?” I asked.

“We will take them out of the Qila and keep them elsewhere,” one of them said.

“This is part of our agreement,” I protested. “Please don’t take them away.”

But they refused to listen to me. I was worried that they might play foul and so rushed to Ahsanullah Khan sahib, who was lying in the upper storey of the khan-samaani. I told him, “Khan Sahib, are you aware of what is happening?”

“What?” he asked.

“Those ruffians are taking the prisoners away. I am afraid that they will murder them. Please make arrangements for their safety.”

Ahsanullah Khan retorted, “What can I do?”

“Khan Sahib,” I said, “this is a test of our loyalty. If you want to save the emperor, please reason with the rebels and save the prisoners. Or remember that the British will raze Dilli to the ground.”

Ahsanullah Khan replied, “Miyan, you are very young. How would you know that man does not listen to reason when caught up in circumstances such as these? He does not think of the result of his actions. If we remonstrate with them now, they will kill us first, and then murder the prisoners.”

“It is better that a few of us are killed,” I said. “At least the Badshah’s empire will be saved.” Saying this, I left from there and came back to the deorhi.

I sent a message to the emperor through the khwaja-sara stating that the purbias had taken the prisoners whom Huzoor had kept in his special protection. The emperor gave immediate orders to call Hakim Ahsanullah Khan so that he could make arrangements to save the prisoners.

The khwaja-sara came outside the palace and sent a messenger to get Hakim Ahsanullah Khan post-haste. Two more messengers were sent one after the other, but though time was passing, Hakim ji did not move from his place. After some time, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan came to the tasbihkhana and entered the presence of Huzoor.

The emperor gave orders: “Call the officers and reason with them and save the prisoners.”

Hakim Ahsanullah Khan said, “All right. As you wish.” He came out to the Diwan-e-Khaas and sat down against the arch in the middle enclosure. Perhaps he sent a few people to call the rebel officers.

Suddenly we saw that two companies of purbias, bearing loaded guns on their shoulders, were coming from the door of the Lal Purdah. As soon as they came into the Diwan-e-Khaas, they surrounded us and stood in front of us with guns pointed at us. All of us were praying to God and reciting the kalima. There were ten or twelve of us and we thought that they would blow us up at any moment. For a few moments, they kept standing there like that. After that, two sawars lofted a red flag outside the Lal Purdah, which was an indication to the other sawars to put their guns back on their shoulders and leave.

A messenger came after a few minutes and gave us the news: “The prisoners have been murdered.”

— Excerpt from Dastan-e-Ghadar, Tale of the Mutiny, by Zahir Dehlvi, translated by Rana Safvi, Penguin Random House

The sepoys were not long in laying siege to the arsenal. Willoughby gave the order to ignite the vast piles of explosives. A shattering explosion informed the British that Delhi was lost. While the arsenal’s destruction deprived the insurgents of one supply of munitions, another magazine, located three miles outside the city and filled with some 3,000 barrels of gunpowder, had fallen into the hands of the mutineers and would keep them well-supplied. Miraculously, Willoughby and two of his officers had survived the blast and were able to reach British lines.

Watching from his command post on the Delhi Ridge, Brigadier Graves could see below him the damage caused by the arsenal’s explosion. But more worrisome than the loss of munitions was the effect the explosion had on the native troops, who were incited to even greater fury. Lieutenant Edward Vibart of the 54th Native Infantry, witness to this tableau of horror, later described it: ‘The horrible truth now flashed on me — we were being massacred right and left, without any means of escape! I made for the ramp which leads from the courtyard to the bastion above….Everyone appeared to be doing the same…the bullets whistled past us like hail. To this day it is a perfect marvel to me how any one of us escaped being hit.’

But some did escape. Under the broiling sun, the survivors of the Kashmir Gate massacre waded through streams and braved jungles in their efforts to find a safe haven. A few of the survivors sought temporary refuge within the Flagstaff Tower, where conditions were cramped and soon became unbearable. A Dr. Batson of the 74th, with Graves’ permission, struck out for Meerut on foot to plead for a relief column. Disguised as a native fakir, he finally reached Meerut after 25 days on the road. Twice Batson was caught and recognized as an Englishman despite his native dress, but he managed to talk his way out of trouble.

Having given Batson up for dead, Graves was convinced by J.A. Tytler of the 38th that his sepoys were reliable and permitted him to attempt to evacuate the women and children trapped on the ridge. The little caravan of rickety carriages was mercilessly harassed by the natives as it wended its way to safety, but finally, Tytler and his charges reached Karnal. The rapid spread of the mutiny in North India provoked unprecedented anguish and indignation in Britain. Army reinforcements were rushed from Rangoon, Ceylon and the Madras Presidency in South India. The British regarded Delhi as particularly important for symbolic and strategic reasons. If it was not soon retaken, the Punjab and Northwest provinces might be encouraged to revolt. Sixteen years earlier, during the First Afghan War, the Afghans had wiped out a British army — and with it the myth of British invulnerability. And only a year had passed since the Crimean War had dramatized the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia, reminding many Indians as well as Persians and Afghans that the great Russian bear to the north could still be played off against imperial Britain’s lion. Now the only sources of quick relief for Delhi were the Punjab and northern cantonments, where there were British regiments and relatively reliable native units.

The 75th (Stirlingshire) Highlanders and the 1st and 2nd Bengal Fusiliers, which were posted near the hill station of Simla, reached Umbala on May 23 to stage an assault on Delhi. Those units were joined by the 9th Light Cavalry and 60th Rifle regiments and a squadron of the 4th Irregular Cavalry, as well as two troops of the Horse Artillery, to make up two brigades under the command of Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Barnard. From Meerut came a column consisting of one wing of the 60th Rifles, two squadrons of the 6th Dragoon Guards, 50 troopers from the 4th Irregulars, two companies of native sappers and Scott’s battery of 18-pounders — all under the command of Colonel Archdale Wilson.

In searing heat, the British held off repeated efforts by the mutineers to retake the ridge. Intelligence reports reaching the British suggested a growing schism between Muslim and Hindu mutineers in Delhi. But whatever disputes may have divided the sepoys, retaking a fortified Delhi, whose forces far outnumbered the British, would not be an easy task. Barnard, commanding the ridge force, was reluctant to attack the entrenched positions of the mutineers without further reinforcements, including a proper siege train.

June 23, the 100th anniversary of Robert Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey, which had marked the completion and consolidation of the British East India Company’s control over India, was a difficult day for the British. On this day, bazaar folklore had it, the British Raj would be driven from the subcontinent. In what may have been an attempt to fulfill that prophecy, the sepoys launched a particularly savage attack on the ridge. The British won the day, however, driving the attackers back to their Delhi ramparts.

Adding to the difficulties of the British was Barnard’s sudden death on July 5 from cholera, a virulent disease that took a heavy toll on many of the ridge defenders. Major General Thomas Reed replaced Barnard, but he was too ill to command and was replaced a fortnight later. Given the temporary rank of major general, Archdale Wilson took command of a force now consisting of 4,023 infantrymen, 1,293 cavalrymen, and 1,602 artillerymen and engineers — a total of 6,918 effective troops, but still no match for the enemy behind Delhi’s walls.

Brigadier General John Nicholson’s flying column, which had dashed down the Grand Trunk high road from the Punjab to Delhi’s relief, arrived to join the British forces on Delhi Ridge in mid-August. The striking-looking, 6 foot 2 inch Irishman had served with distinction for 20 years, and his legendary reputation inspired all who fought under his command. A native cult that revered Nikolsen had even arisen in the Northwest Frontier area and northern Punjab. An admiring lady described his magnetism: ‘He could put his own heart into a whole camp and make believe it was its own.’

Nicholson’s arrival with his badly needed force was none too soon. The soldiers, riddled with cholera, were beginning to feel inadequate for the challenge awaiting them. There were, moreover, rumors of treachery in the native ranks and suspicions that in combat some sepoys had shot at their British officers from behind. A few native regiments were, in fact, dismissed from duty and sent off the ridge on suspicion of harboring rebellious intentions.

Nicholson was so concerned about the state of affairs on Delhi Ridge that, on September 7, he wrote the chief commissioner in the Punjab, Sir John Lawrence, ‘Wilson’s head is going; he says so himself, and it is quite evident he speaks the truth.’ Lawrence then wrote to Wilson, reminding him that the fate of the British throughout India demanded an immediate assault on Delhi. The commissioner understood that if the campaign failed, even the Sikhs would falter in their loyalty. Northwest India would rise, and the tragedy of the First Afghan War would be re-enacted on the flat plains of the Punjab. The eminent Lord Frederick Roberts later reminisced about an extraordinary talk he had with Nicholson during those tense days. The fierce-eyed warrior had said with uncommon conviction: ‘Delhi must be taken and it is absolutely essential that this should be done at once; and if Wilson hesitates longer, I intend to propose at to-day’s meeting that he should be superseded.’

As it turned out, on that day Wilson did order preparations for an assault to begin in earnest. The plan of attack called for General Nicholson to lead a 1,000-man column from the 75th Highlanders to mount the Kashmir Bastion, while another column from the 52nd (Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire) Light Infantry would force the Kashmir Gate, enabling the British troops to fight their way into the city itself. Other columns would breach the Lahore Gate. A total of 5,000 men would take part in the British assault on Delhi, whose estimated 30,000 sepoy defenders were now under the command of Bakht Khan, an artillery officer who had 40 years of military experience.

The attack was scheduled for 3 a.m. on September 14. ‘There was not much sleep,’ wrote one officer in a letter home that evening. ‘Just after midnight we fell in as quickly as possible, and by the light of a lantern the orders for the assault were read to the men. Any man who might be wounded was to be left where he fell.’ The Roman Catholic Chaplain Bertrand blessed the 75th Highlanders and prayed for mercy ‘on the souls of those soon to die.’

Nicholson signaled his column to charge. An earsplitting shout from the 60th Rifles was met by flame-belching rebel artillery. But not all went well. Nicholson’s storming party outran its ladder-bearers and was left exposed in the 16-foot moat, where they were raked by withering fire from the mutineers on the walls above them. When the ladder parties caught up with them, Nicholson led the survivors in a charge through a breach that had been made in the wall by his supporting artillery.

Colonel George Campbell rushed his column to within striking distance of the critical Kashmir Gate and sent a small party of Bengal Engineers, under Lieutenant Duncan Home, to pack explosives under the gate. A firing party of the 52nd covered them as best it could, but the exposed sappers drew terrible fire. Half of them were killed and Lieutenant Philip Salkeld was mortally wounded, but Sergeant John Smith finally managed to touch off the explosion that blew a hole in the gate. As Bugler Robert Hawthorne of the 52nd sounded the attack, the British troops poured through the opening to be met only by the charred corpses of the sepoy defenders. Home, Salkeld, Hawthorne and Smith later received the Victoria Cross for the part they played in blowing open the Kashmir Gate; Salkeld’s was the first VC to be awarded posthumously.

Now within the city gates, three columns joined forces in an area between the Kashmir Gate and the Anglican church. The fourth column, whose artillery failed to appear amid the confusion, had been forced to retreat beyond the field of fire due to heavy casualties. The troops within the Kashmir Gate had to make their way some 250 yards down a 10-foot-wide lane flanked by flat-topped buildings, from which sepoys maintained a constant rain of fire. Making matters worse were two artillery pieces at the head of the lane and some 1,000 mutineers waiting to fire on the approaching British from atop the so-called Burn Bastion.

The 1st Bengal Fusiliers took the lead in making the dash up the lane toward the Lahore Gate, which had to be opened to admit other British units. Powerless against the sheets of rifle fire from the rooftops, the fusiliers fell back. Nicholson then personally led a new attack on the Lahore Gate. Just as he flourished his saber, however, a mutineer fired on him point-blank from a window. Badly wounded, he mustered the strength to prop himself up on one elbow and once again shouted encouragement to his men, but his troops were unable to force this death trap and had to retire. In six hours, the British had lost 66 officers and 1,104 men.

The fight for the city continued in the face of the massed sepoys entrenched beyond the British foothold on the northern extremity of the city. The situation looked hopeless to almost everyone — except Nicholson, who fought for life as he rested near the Kashmir Gate. Sensing that Wilson was again losing heart, Nicholson was said to have muttered, ‘Thank God I have strength yet to shoot him if necessary.’

Ranking officers such as Colonel Richard Baird Smith, Wilson’s chief engineer, and Brig. Gen. Neville Chamberlain prevailed upon Wilson to keep up the struggle for Delhi. On September 16, the magazine that Willoughby had blown up was captured. To the delight of the British, some 171 guns and vast stores of ammunition had somehow escaped damage in the explosion. The narrow lane leading to the Lahore Gate was widened and made navigable by blasting the houses along its curbs. On September 19, the Burn Bastion was taken, and on the following day the Lahore Gate finally fell to the British. As the weary days of fighting continued, news of victories was welcome. News of Nicholson’s ebbing life was not. When the great soldier died, he was widely mourned and has ever since rested securely in the British pantheon of war heroes. The last remaining redoubt of the sepoys was believed to be the king’s palace, but when its gates were blown open, it was found to be nearly deserted. At dawn on September 21, a royal salute told all within hearing distance that Delhi had been taken by the Army of Retribution. The seat of the once-great Mogul Empire was forever gone.

Bahadur Shah, disillusioned and tired of being manipulated by the sepoys, had hidden a few miles north of the city in Emperor Homayun’s tomb. This was discovered by the intrepid but headstrong Major William Hodson, who was famous along the Northwest Frontier as the leader of hard-riding irregulars known as Hodson’s Horse and who now managed intelligence for the British at Delhi. With 50 of his men he set out on September 21 to bring in the errant king.

Bahadur Shah had huddled inside the cloisters of the tomb while thousands of his servants and well-wishers sullenly watched the approaching British horsemen. The king knew that resistance on his part would be pointless, and he accepted Hodson’s promise that the major would spare his life if he gave up quietly.

Followed by a vast entourage of Indians, Hodson led his captive back to Delhi. Then, he and 100 of his irregular cavalrymen returned to Homayun’s tomb, this time to bring back the king’s two sons and grandson. Despite a mob of royal retainers and partisans, many of whom were armed, Hodson was able to flush the young scions of the Mogul dynasty from their hiding place. Hodson, surrounded by a hostile crowd, did something that has ever since been criticized but may have saved his life and those of his escort — he raised his carbine and summarily executed the three princes. Amazingly, the shocked mob did nothing. Hodson, as he had done many times before, stunned his adversaries into submission by sheer audacity. The bodies were dumped unceremoniously at the spot where the king’s sons were thought to have committed atrocities against the English. As the British chaplain observed, ‘It was a dire retribution.’

Bahadur, humiliated by a trial, exiled for life in Rangoon and saddened by the death of his sons and grandson, described his feelings in a poem he wrote before his death on November 7, 1862: ‘All that I loved is gone/Like a garden robbed of its beauty by Autumn/I am only a memory of splendor.’

This article is outsourced from : Wikipedia, Dastan-e-Ghadar ( Translated by Rana Safvi) ,Article by John H. Waller and originally published in the March 1998 issue of Military History & Victoryweb.org

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