You are here

Chapter 12: 1857

George Ricketts at Ludhiana--Pushing on to Delhi --In the camp before Delhi

The mail-cart rattled across the bridge of boats, and in less than an hour I found myself at Ludhiana, at the house of George Ricketts,[1] the Deputy Commissioner. Ricketts's bungalow was a resting-place for everyone passing through en route to Delhi. In one room I found Lieutenant Williams of the 4th Sikhs, who had been dangerously wounded three weeks before, while assisting Ricketts to prevent the Jullundur mutineers from crossing the Sutlej.

While I was eating my breakfast, Ricketts sat down by my side and recounted a stirring tale of all that had happened at Philour and Ludhiana consequent on the rising of the Native regiments at Jullundur. The mutineers had made, in the first instance, for Philour, a small cantonment, but important from the fact of its containing a fair-sized magazine, and from its situation, commanding the passage of the Sutlej. It was garrisoned by the 3rd Native Infantry, which furnished the sole guard over the magazine--a danger which, as I have mentioned, had fortunately been recognized by the Commander-in-Chief when he first heard of the outbreak at Meerut. The men of the 3rd remained quiet, and even did good service in helping to drag the guns of the siege-train across the river, and in guarding the treasury, until the mutineers from Jullundur arrived on the 8th June. They then gave their British officers warning to leave them, saying they did not mean to injure them or their property, but they had determined they would no longer serve the Sirkar. Twelve British officers (there could not have been more), confronted by 3,000 sepoys, felt themselves powerless, and retired to the fort.

Ricketts had with him at that time an assistant named Thornton,[2] who had gone to Philour to lodge some money in the treasury. This officer had started to ride back to Ludhiana, when he suddenly became aware of what had happened, and how perilous was the position. Had he consulted his own safety, he would have returned and taken refuge in the fort, instead of which he galloped on, having to pass close by the mutineers, until he reached the bridge of boats, which, with admirable coolness and presence of mind, he cut behind him, then, hurrying on, he informed Ricketts of what had taken place; and that the rebels might shortly be expected to attempt the passage of the river. Fortunately the 4th Sikhs from Abbottabad had that very morning marched into Ludhiana, and Ricketts hoped, with their assistance, to hold the sepoys in check until the arrival of the British troops, which he believed must have been despatched from Jullundur in pursuit of the mutineers.

The garrison of Ludhiana consisted of a detachment of the 3rd Native Infantry, guarding the fort, in which was stored a large amount of powder. The detachment was commanded by Lieutenant Yorke, who, on hearing Thornton's story, went at once to the fort. He was much liked by his men, who received him quite civilly, but told him they knew that their regiment had joined the rebels from Jullundur, and that they themselves could no longer obey his orders. Ricketts then understood that he had but the 4th Sikhs and a small party of troops belonging to the Raja of Nabha to depend upon. There were only two officers with the 4th Sikhs--Captain Rothney, in command, and Lieutenant Williams, the Adjutant. Taking three companies of the regiment under Williams, and two guns of the Nabha Artillery, one dragged by camels, the other by horses, Ricketts started off towards the bridge of boats. Galloping on alone, he found that the gap in the bridge made by Thornton had not been repaired, which proved that the rebels had not crossed by that passage, at all events. He widened the gap by cutting adrift some more boats, and then had himself ferried across the river, in order to ascertain the exact state of affairs at Philour. He learnt that no tidings had been received of any British troops having been sent from Jullundur in pursuit of the mutineers, who, having failed to get across the bridge, owing to Thornton's timely action, had gone to a ferry reported to be three miles up the river.

Ricketts recrossed the river as quickly as he could, and joined Williams. It was then getting dark, but, hoping they might still be in time to check the rebels, they pushed on in the direction of the ferry, which proved to be nearer six than three miles away. The ground was rough and broken, as is always the case on the banks of Indian rivers, swollen as they often are by torrents from the hills, which leave behind boulders and debris of all kinds. They made but little way; one of the gun-camels fell lame, the guides disappeared, and they began to despair of reaching the ferry in time, when suddenly there was a challenge and they know they were too late. The sepoys had succeeded in crossing the river and were bivouacking immediately in front of them.

It was not a pleasant position, but it had to be made the best of; and both the civilian and the soldier agreed that their only chance was to fight. Williams opened fire with his Infantry, and Ricketts took command of the guns. At the first discharge the horses bolted with the limber, and never appeared again; almost at the same moment Williams fell, shot through the body. Ricketts continued the fight until his ammunition was completely expended, when he was reluctantly obliged to retire to a village in the neighbourhood, but not until he had killed, as he afterwards discovered, about fifty of the enemy.

Ricketts returned to Ludhiana early the next morning, and later in the day the mutineers passed through the city. They released some 500 prisoners who were in the gaol, and helped themselves to what food they wanted, but they did not enter the cantonment or the fort. The gallant little attempt to close the passage of the Sutlej was entirely frustrated, owing to the inconceivable want of energy displayed by the so-called 'pursuing force'; had it pushed on, the rebels must have been caught in the act of crossing the river, when Ricketts's small party might have afforded considerable help. The Europeans from Jullundur reached Philour before dark on the 8th; they heard the firing of Ricketts's guns, but no attempt was made by the officer in command to ascertain the cause, and they came leisurely on to Ludhiana the following day.

Having listened with the greatest interest to Ricketts's story, and refreshed the inner man, I resumed my journey, and reached Umballa late in the afternoon of the 27th, not sorry to get under shelter, for the monsoon, which had been threatening for some days past, burst with great fury as I was leaving Ludhiana.

On driving to the dâk-bungalow I found it crowded with officers, some of whom had been waiting there for days for an opportunity to go on to Delhi; they laughed at me when I expressed my intention of proceeding at once, and told me that the seats on the mail-carts had to be engaged several days in advance, and that I might make up my mind to stay where I was for some time to come. I was not at all prepared for this, and I determined to get on by hook or by crook; as a preliminary measure, I made friends with the postmaster, from whose office the mail-carts started. From him I learnt that my only chance was to call upon the Deputy-Commissioner, by whose orders the seats were distributed. I took the postmaster's advice, and thus became acquainted with Douglas Forsyth, who in later years made a name for himself by his energetic attempts to establish commercial relations with Yarkand and Kashgar. Forsyth confirmed what I had already heard, but told me that an extra cart was to be despatched that night, laden with small-arm ammunition, on which I could, if I liked, get a seat, adding: 'Your kit must be of the smallest, as there will be no room for anything inside the cart.'

I returned to the dâk-bungalow, overjoyed at my success, to find myself quite an important personage, with everyone my friend, like the boy at school who is the lucky recipient of a hamper from home. 'Take me with you!' was the cry on all sides. Only two others besides the driver and myself could possibly go, and then only by carrying our kits in our laps. It was finally arranged that Captain Law and Lieutenant Packe should be my companions. Packe was lamed for life by a shot through his ankle before we had been forty-eight hours at Delhi, and Law was killed on the 23rd July, having greatly distinguished himself by his gallantry and coolness under fire during the short time he served with the force.

We got to Kurnal soon after daybreak on the 28th. It was occupied by a few of the Raja of Jhind's troops, a Commissariat officer, and one or two civilians, who were trying to keep the country quiet and collect supplies. Before noon we passed through Panipat, where there was a strong force of Patiala and Jhind troops, and early in the afternoon we reached Alipur. Here our driver pulled up, declaring he would go no further. A few days before there had been a sharp fight on the road between Alipur and Delhi, not far from Badli-ki-Serai, where the battle of the 8th June had taken place, and as the enemy were constantly on the road threatening the rear of the besieging force, the driver did not consider it safe to go on. We could not, however, stop at Alipur, so after some consultation we settled to take the mail-cart ponies and ride on to camp. We could hear the boom of guns at intervals, and as we neared Delhi we came across several dead bodies of the enemy. It is a curious fact that most of these bodies were exactly like mummies; there was nothing disagreeable about them.

Why this should have been the case I cannot say, but I often wished during the remainder of the campaign that the atmospheric influences, which, I presume, had produced this effect, could assert themselves more frequently.

We stopped for a short time to look at the position occupied by the enemy at Badli-ki-Serai; but none of us were in the mood to enjoy sight-seeing. We had never been to Delhi before, and had but the vaguest notion where the Ridge (the position our force was holding) was, or how the city was situated with regard to our camp. The sound of heavy firing became louder and louder, and we knew that fighting must be going on. The driver had solemnly warned us of the risk we were running in continuing our journey, and when we came to the point where the Grand Trunk Road bifurcates, one branch going direct to the city and the other through the cantonment, we halted for a few minutes to discuss which we should take. Fortunately for us, we settled to follow that which led to the cantonment, and, as it was then getting dark, we pushed on as fast as our tired ponies could go. The relief to us when we found ourselves safe inside our own piquets may be imagined. My father's old staff-officer, Henry Norman, who was then Assistant-Adjutant-General at Head-Quarters, kindly asked me to share his tent until I could make other arrangements. He had no bed to offer me, but I required none, as I was thoroughly tired out, and all I wanted was a spot on which to throw myself down. A good night's rest quite set me up. I awoke early, scarcely able to believe in my good fortune. I was actually at Delhi, and the city was still in the possession of the mutineers.

[Footnote 1: George Ricketts, Esq., C.B., afterwards a member of the Board of Revenue of the North-West Provinces.]

[Footnote 2: Thomas Thornton, Esq., C.S.I., afterwards Secretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department.]