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Delhi was retaken after six days of street fighting and vengeful slaughter

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about India first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Delhi retaken, pcture, image, illustration

Delhi is retaken by C L Doughty

‘The Mutineers of Meerut are masters of Delhi. The office must be closed.’

This was the last message which the telegraph clerk was able to send from Delhi before he was murdered at his post. In due course, the message was brought to the Commander-in-Chief, General George Anson, who was staying at the summer headquarters of the army at the pleasant hill station of Simla. Taking stock of the situation, Anson realised that it was desperate. Delhi, the ancient and magnificent capital of the Grand Moguls, who had once been the Mohammedan rulers of India, was now in the hands of a horde of bloodthirsty mutineers who had massacred hundreds of innocent people, and even more important than that, perhaps, they had trampled underfoot, the might of the British Raj, or rule. British prestige had suffered a shattering blow, and every day which passed without that prestige being restored, could only strengthen the resolve of other potential mutineers. Prompt action was vital.

But it was not as simple as that, as Anson fully realised. Thanks to the money-saving economic policy of the British, he was short of men, tents, transport, and even ammunition. In short, he was in no position to re-take Delhi. It was a realistic appraisal of the situation, but it was not one which commended itself to his superior, Sir John Lawrence, Chief Commissioner of the Punjab, who was convinced that the mutineers would surrender as soon as they saw a British force approaching the city.

Goaded by Lawrence into acting, Anson prepared to march on Delhi with a field force consisting of 3,000 Europeans, 1,000 loyal native troops and 22 guns, a poor enough army surely to be sent off to recapture Delhi, with its hordes of highly disciplined and well-armed sepoys lurking behind its cannon-bristling walls. But Anson was not even to see the walls of Delhi. On his way there at the head of his troops he was suddenly stricken down with cholera, and by the next day he was dead.

General Sir Henry Barnard was now in charge. On 8th June, after a series of skirmishes outside Delhi, the tiny British force established itself in front of the walls of the city. The advance through the suburbs had been a harrowing experience for the troops who had found traces of the massacre everywhere in the form of blood on the blackened walls of bungalows, strewn with broken furniture and shreds of clothing. This reminder of the barbarous behaviour of the mutineers filled every soldier with a fierce and overwhelming desire for revenge.

General Barnard, who was to die from sheer exhaustion, before the siege was over, took up his now famous position on the “ridge,” a rocky elevation of about 60 ft. above the general level of the city. The position was, by necessity, a defensive one because of the fewness of the British troops and the temporary want of heavy guns to hammer at the walls. From the start, the British who had come to besiege, found themselves the besieged. For more than three months their energies were consumed in fending off a series of sorties from the Delhi garrison, which steadily grew more and more ferocious as fresh mutineers continued to pour into the city. Relief came at last in the shape of the Punjab Movable column, led by the renowned Brigadier John Nicholson. His unique fighting force had already suppressed several local mutinies. Now it was to play a vital part in taking the city.

Even so, the main offensive did not start until 11th September, when a gigantic roar announced that the British guns were now bombarding the Delhi walls. A loud cheer burst from the throats of the artillery men as the smoke cleared to reveal huge blocks of stone tumbling down from the parapets of the city. Then, as suddenly as they had started, the guns fell silent. Now it was the turn for the infantry to go into action. Some 6,000 men, of whom about 1,200 were British soldiers, were going to take a walled city defended by 30,000 disciplined and desperate rebels. Doggedly ignoring the hail of bullets that were being rained down on them, the attackers headed steadily towards the walls. The first to reach them was a horde of soldiers led by Nicholson, who found a breach made by the British cannons and burst over the debris like an irresistible wave flooding over a breakwater wall.

But it was only the beginning of the battle. The besiegers found that they had done little more than gain a foothold within the walls, at a cost of 66 officers, including Nicholson, who had fallen mortally wounded in the first attack, and 1,000 men killed or wounded. Moreover the heroism evaporated suddenly when the British troops found the deserted shops and pavements littered with bottles of wines and spirits, which the rebels had deliberately left for them to drink themselves into a state of sodden intoxication. The British troops did not disappoint them. Before the day was out, the officers were vainly trying to cope with a large number of drunken troops who were slaughtering rebels without mercy.

After this regrettable lapse, the task of capturing the rest of the town was carried out day by day with skill and caution. After six days of street fighting, the sepoys began to flee from the city. One thing had to be done, however, if the victory was to be stamped indelibly on the minds of the people of India, Bahadur Shah, the last of the Mogul Emperors, who had given his support to the mutineers, had to be captured and brought to trial. Lieutenant Hodson, of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, pursued the Emperor and found him hiding in the tomb of one of his ancestors. Bahadur Shah surrendered to him in exchange for a promise that his life would be spared – a promise which Hodson kept.

But Hodson had given no such promise to the king’s two sons and his grandson who were also hiding in the tomb. After escorting Bahadur Shah back to Delhi, Hodson returned to the tomb and arrested the three princes. On the way back to the city, he deliberately shot them down one after another. If his action does not seem worthy of a British officer, one has to remember that many terrible things had been happening in India, things which could only be avenged with blood.

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