Neville Chamberlain's presence of mind --The command of the Column--Robert Montgomery --Disarmament at Mian Mir --A Drum-Head Court-Martial--Swift retribution
While I was employed in the Chief Commissioner's office at Rawal Pindi it became known that the Mutineers intended to make their stand at Delhi, and immediately urgent demands came from the Head-Quarters of the army for troops to be sent from the Punjab. Sir John Lawrence exerted himself to the uttermost, even to the extent of denuding his own province to a somewhat dangerous degree, and the Guides and 1st Punjab Infantry, which had been told off for the Movable Column, were ordered instead to proceed to Delhi.
The Guides, a corps second to none in Her Majesty's Indian Army, was commanded by Captain Daly, and consisted of three troops of Cavalry and six companies of Infantry. The regiment had got as far as Attock, when it received the order to proceed to Delhi, and pushed on at once by double marches. The 4th Sikhs, under Captain Rothney, and the 1st Punjab Infantry, under Major Coke, followed in quick succession, and later on the following troops belonging to the Punjab Frontier Force were despatched towards Delhi: a squadron of the 1st Punjab Cavalry, under Lieutenant John Watson (my companion in Kashmir); a squadron of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry, under Lieutenant Charles Nicholson (John Nicholson's brother); a squadron of the 5th Punjab Cavalry, under Lieutenant Younghusband; and the 2nd and 4th Punjab Infantry, commanded respectively by Captains G. Green and A. Wilde.
We (Brigadier Chamberlain and I) remained at Rawal Pindi until the 24th May to give our servants and horses time to reach Wazirabad, and then started on a mail-cart for the latter place, which we reached on the 27th. Lieutenant James Walker, of the Bombay Engineers, accompanied us as the Brigadier's orderly officer.
The Grand Trunk Road, which runs in a direct line from Calcutta to Peshawar, was then in course of construction through the Punjab, and in places was in rather an elementary condition. The drivers of the mail-carts sent along their half-wild and entirely unbroken ponies at racing speed, regardless alike of obstacles and consequences. With an enterprising coachman the usual pace was about twelve miles an hour, including stoppages. As we were recklessly flying along, the Brigadier, who was sitting in front, perceived that one of the reins had become unbuckled, and warned Walker and me to look out for an upset. Had the coachman not discovered the state of his tackle all might have been well, for the ponies needed no guiding along the well-known road. Unfortunately, however, he became aware of what had happened, lost his head, and pulled the reins; the animals dashed off the road, there was a crash, and we found ourselves on the ground, scattered in different directions. No great damage was done, and in a few minutes we had righted the cart, re-harnessed the ponies, and were rushing along as before.
In order that the authorities at Rawal Pindi might be able to communicate with the Movable Column while on the march and away from telegraph stations, which were few and far between in 1857, a signaller accompanied us, and travelled with his instruments on a second mail-cart, and wherever we halted for the day he attached his wire to the main line. He had just completed the attachment on our arrival at Wazirabad, when I observed that the instrument was working, and on drawing the signaller's attention to it, he read off a message which was at that moment being transmitted to the Chief Commissioner, informing him of the death of the Commander-in-Chief at Kurnal the previous day. This sad news did not directly affect the Movable Column, as it had been organized by, and was under the orders of, the Punjab Government, which for the time being had become responsible for the military, as well as the civil, administration in the north of India.
The column had marched into Wazirabad the day before we arrived. It consisted of Major Dawes' troop of European Horse Artillery, a European battery of Field Artillery, commanded by Captain Bourchier, and Her Majesty's 52nd Light Infantry, commanded by Colonel George Campbell. In addition, and with a view to reducing the Native garrison of Sialkot, a wing of the 9th Bengal Light Cavalry and the 35th Native Infantry were attached to the column.
My first duty at Wazirabad was to call upon the senior officer, Colonel Campbell, and inform him that Brigadier Chamberlain had come to take over command of the Movable Column. I found the Colonel lying on his bed trying to make himself as comfortable as it was possible with the thermometer at 117° Fahrenheit. We had not met before, and he certainly received me in a very off-hand manner. He never moved from his recumbent position, and on my delivering my message, he told me he was not aware that the title of Brigadier carried military rank with it; that he understood Brigadier Chamberlain was only a Lieutenant-Colonel, whereas he held the rank of Colonel in Her Majesty's army; and that, under these circumstances, he must decline to acknowledge Brigadier Chamberlain as his senior officer. I replied that I would give his message to the Brigadier, and took my leave.
When Chamberlain heard what had occurred, he desired me to return to Campbell and explain that he had no wish to dispute the question of relative seniority, and that in assuming command of the column he was only carrying out the orders of the Commander-in-Chief in India. Campbell, who technically speaking had the right on his side, was not to be appeased, and requested me to inform the Brigadier of his determination not to serve under an officer whom he considered to be his junior.
This was not a pleasant beginning to our duties with the column, and Chamberlain thought that we had better take our departure and leave Campbell in command until the question could be settled by superior authority. Campbell was accordingly asked to march the troops to Lahore, to which place we continued our journey by mail-cart.
At the same time a reference was made to Sir John Lawrence and General Reed, which resulted in the decision that, under the peculiar circumstances of the case, it was essential that an officer of Indian experience should be in command of the column, and that Campbell, having only been a very short time in the country, did not fulfil this condition; but Campbell was told that, if he objected to serve under Chamberlain, he could remain at Lahore with the Head-Quarters of his regiment. Campbell, who at heart was really a very nice fellow and an excellent officer, would not be separated from the 52nd, and agreed to serve under the Brigadier, reserving to himself the right of protesting when the new Commander-in-Chief should arrive in India.
There was probably another reason for Campbell not wishing to serve under Chamberlain besides that of being senior to him in the army, in the fact that the Brigadier was a servant of 'John Company,' while Campbell belonged to the 'Queen's Service.' From the time of the establishment of a local army there had existed an absurd and unfortunate jealousy between the officers of the Queen's and Company's services, and one of the best results of the Mutiny was its gradual disappearance. This ill-feeling influenced not only fellow-countrymen, but relations, even brothers, if they belonged to the different services, and was distinctly prejudicial to the interests of the Government. It is difficult to understand how so puerile a sentiment could have been so long indulged in by officers who no doubt considered themselves sensible Englishmen.
On the 31st May we arrived at Lahore, where we found everyone in a state of considerable excitement. Lahore was and is the great centre of the Punjab, and to it non-combatants and English ladies with their children were hurrying from all the outlying districts. In the city itself there was a mixed population of nearly 100,000, chiefly Sikhs and Mahomedans, many of the former old soldiers who had served in the Khalsa Army. The fort, which was within the walls of the city, was garrisoned by half a regiment of sepoys, one company of European Infantry, and a few European Artillerymen. Mian Mir, five miles off, was the Head-Quarters of the Lahore division; it was a long, straggling cantonment, laid out for a much larger force than it has ever been found necessary to place there, with the European Infantry at one end and the European Artillery at the other, separated by Native troops. This arrangement (which existed in almost every station in India) is another proof of the implicit confidence placed in the Native army--a confidence in mercenary soldiers of alien races which seems all the more surprising when we call to mind the warnings that for nearly a hundred years had been repeatedly given of the possibility of disaffection existing amongst Native troops.
There were four Native regiments at Mian Mir, one of Cavalry and three of Infantry, while the European portion of the garrison consisted of one weak Infantry regiment, two troops of Horse Artillery, and four companies of Foot Artillery. This force was commanded by Brigadier Corbett, of the Bengal Army; he had been nearly forty years in the service, was mentally and physically vigorous, and had no fear of responsibility. Robert Montgomery was then chief civil officer at Lahore. He was of a most gentle and benevolent nature, with a rubicund countenance and a short, somewhat portly figure, which characteristics led to his being irreverently called 'Pickwick,' and probably if he had lived in less momentous times he would never have been credited with the great qualities which the crisis in the Punjab proved him to possess.
On receipt of the telegraphic news of the outbreaks at Meerut and Delhi, Montgomery felt that immediate action was necessary. He at once set to work to discover the temper of the Native troops at Mian Mir, and soon ascertained that they were disaffected to the core, and were only waiting to hear from their friends in the south to break into open mutiny. He thoroughly understood the Native character, and realized the danger to the whole province of there being anything in the shape of a serious disturbance at its capital; so after consulting his various officials, Montgomery decided to suggest to the Brigadier the advisability of disarming the sepoys, or, if that were considered too strong a measure, of taking their ammunition from them. Corbett met him quite half-way; he also saw that the danger was imminent, and that prompt action was necessary, but he not unnaturally shrank from taking the extreme step of disarming men whose loyalty had never until then been doubted--a step, moreover, which he knew would be keenly resented by all the regimental officers--he therefore at first only agreed to deprive the sepoys of their ammunition; later in the day, however, after thinking the matter over, he came to the conclusion that it would be better to adopt Montgomery's bolder proposal, and he informed him accordingly that he would 'go the whole hog.'
I do not think that Corbett's action on this occasion has been sufficiently appreciated. That he decided rightly there can be no doubt, but very few officers holding commands in India at that time would have accepted such responsibility. His knowledge as to what had happened at Meerut and Delhi was based on one or two meagre telegrams, and the information Montgomery gave him as to the treacherous intentions of the sepoys at Mian Mir had been obtained by means of a spy, who, it was quite possible, might have been actuated by interested motives.
Having made up his mind what should be done, Corbett had the good sense to understand that success depended on its being done quickly, and on the Native troops being kept absolutely in the dark as to what was about to take place. A general parade was ordered for the next morning, the 13th May, and it was wisely determined not to put off a ball which was being given that evening to the officers of the 81st Foot. The secret was confided to very few, and the great majority of those who were taking part in the entertainment were ignorant of the reason for a parade having been ordered the following morning--an unusual proceeding which caused a certain amount of grumbling.
When the sepoys were drawn up, it was explained to them in their own language that they were about to be deprived of their arms, in order to put temptation out of their reach, and save them from the disgrace of being led away by the evil example of other corps. Whilst they were being thus addressed, the Horse Artillery and 81st Foot took up a second line immediately in rear of the Native regiments, the guns being quietly loaded with grape during the manoeuvre. The regiments were then directed to change front to the rear, when they found themselves face to face with the British troops. The order was given to the sepoys to 'pile arms'; one of the regiments hesitated, but only for a moment; resistance was hopeless, and the word of command was sullenly obeyed.
The same morning the fort of Lahore was secured. Three companies of the 81st marched into it at daylight, relieved the sepoys of their guards, and ordered them to lay down their arms. Another company of the same regiment travelled through the night in carriages to Umritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, and occupied the fortress of Govindgarh. Montgomery had been very anxious about these two strongholds, and it was a great satisfaction to him to know that they were at length safely guarded by British bayonets.
Although, as I have said, we found Lahore in a state of considerable excitement, it was satisfactory to see how fully the situation had been grasped, and how everything that was possible had been done to maintain order, and show the people of the Punjab that we were prepared to hold our own. Montgomery's foresight and decision, and Corbett's hearty and willing co-operation, checked, if not altogether stopped, what, under less energetic management, would assuredly have resulted in very grievous trouble. Excitement was inevitable. There was a general stir throughout the province. Lahore was crowded with the families of European soldiers, and with ladies who had come there from various parts of the Punjab, all in terrible anxiety as to what might be the ultimate fate of their husbands and relatives; some of whom were with Native regiments, whose loyalty was more than doubtful; some with the Movable Column, the destination of which was uncertain; while others were already on their way to join the army hurrying to Delhi.
The difficulty with Campbell having been settled, Chamberlain assumed the command of the Movable Column, the advent of which on the 2nd June was hailed with delight by all the Europeans at Lahore. A regiment of British Infantry and two batteries of Artillery afforded a much needed support to the handful of British soldiers keeping guard over the great capital of the Punjab, and gave confidence to the Sikhs and others disposed to be loyal, but who were doubtful as to the wisdom of siding with us.
The disturbing element was the Native troops which accompanied the column. They had not shown openly that they contemplated mutiny, but we knew that they were not to be trusted, and were only watching for an opportunity to break out and escape to Delhi with their arms.
I was living with the Brigadier in a house only a few minutes' walk from the garden where the Native regiments were encamped, and the spies we were employing to watch them had orders to come to me whenever anything suspicious should occur. During the night of the 8th June one of these men awoke me with the news that the 35th Native Infantry intended to revolt at daybreak, and that some of them had already loaded their muskets. I awoke the Brigadier, who directed me to go at once to the British officers of the regiment, tell them what we had heard, and that he would be with them shortly. As soon as the Brigadier arrived the men were ordered to fall in, and on their arms being examined two of them were found to have been loaded. The sepoys to whom the muskets belonged were made prisoners, and I was ordered to see them lodged in the police-station.
Chamberlain determined to lose no time in dealing with the case, and although Drum-Head Courts-Martial were then supposed to be obsolete, he decided to revive, for this occasion, that very useful means of disposing, in time of war, of grave cases of crime.
The Brigadier thought it desirable that the Court-Martial should be composed of Native, rather than British, officers, as being likely to be looked upon by the prisoners as a more impartial tribunal, under the peculiar circumstances in which we were placed. This was made possible by the arrival of the 1st Punjab Infantry--Coke's Rifles--a grand regiment under a grand Commander. Raised in 1849, composed chiefly of Sikhs and Pathans, and possessing Native officers of undoubted loyalty, the 1st Punjab Infantry had taken part in almost every frontier expedition during the previous eight years. Its history was a glorious record of faithful and devoted service, such as can only be rendered by brave men led by officers in whom they believe and trust. The Subadar-Major of the corps was a man called Mir Jaffir, a most gallant Afghan soldier, who entered the British service during the first Afghan war, and distinguished himself greatly in all the subsequent frontier fights. This Native officer was made president of the Court-Martial. The prisoners were found guilty of mutiny, and sentenced to death. Chamberlain decided that they should be blown away from guns, in the presence of their own comrades, as being the most awe-inspiring means of carrying the sentence into effect. A parade was at once ordered. The troops were drawn up so as to form three sides of a square; on the fourth side were two guns. As the prisoners were being brought to the parade, one of them asked me if they were going to be blown from guns. I said, 'Yes.' He made no further remark, and they both walked steadily on until they reached the guns, to which they were bound, when one of them requested that some rupees he had on his person might be saved for his relations. The Brigadier answered: 'It is too late!' The word of command was given; the guns went off simultaneously, and the two mutineers were launched into eternity.
It was a terrible sight, and one likely to haunt the beholder for many a long day; but that was what was intended. I carefully watched the sepoys' faces to see how it affected them. They were evidently startled at the swift retribution which had overtaken their guilty comrades, but looked more crest-fallen than shocked or horrified, and we soon learnt that their determination to mutiny, and make the best of their way to Delhi, was in nowise changed by the scene they had witnessed.
[Footnote 1: The late General Sir Henry Daly, G.C.B.]
[Footnote 2: Now General Sir John Coke, G.C.B.]
[Footnote 3: Afterwards commanded by Lieutenant, now General, Sir Dighton Probyn, V.C., G.C.V.O., K.C.B.]
[Footnote 4: The late Major-General Sir George Green, K.C.B.]
[Footnote 5: The late Lieutenant-General Sir Alfred Wilde, K.C.B., K.C.S.I.]
[Footnote 6: The late General James Walker, C.B., sometime Surveyor-General in India.]
[Footnote 7: Now General Sir George Bourchier, K.C.B.]
[Footnote 8: Now, except for one short interval, every officer who has joined the Indian Army since 1861 must, in the first instance, have belonged or been attached to one of Her Majesty's British regiments: the great majority have been educated at Sandhurst or Woolwich, and all feel that they are members of the same army.]
[Footnote 9: The late Sir Robert Montgomery, G.C.B.]
[Footnote 10: During the operations in the Kohat Pass in February, 1850, within twelve months of the corps being raised, several of the men were killed and wounded. Among the latter was a Pathan named Mahomed Gul. He was shot through the body in two places, and as Coke sat by him while he was dying, he said, with a smile on his face: 'Sahib, I am happy; but promise me one thing--don't let my old mother want. I leave her to your care.']
[Footnote 11: Awe-inspiring certainly, but probably the most humane, as being a sure and instantaneous mode of execution.]