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Chapter 24: 1857

Henry Norman--The Shah Najaf--The mess-house--Planting the flag --A memorable meeting--The Residency

The operation which I have tried to describe in the last chapter was not completed until well on in the afternoon, when the movement towards the Residency was at once proceeded with. To the left as we advanced the ground was fairly open (with the exception of quite a small village) for about 1,100 yards in the direction of the British Infantry mess-house. To the right also, for about 300 yards, there was a clear space, then a belt of jungle intersected by huts and small gardens extending for about 400 yards farther, as far as the Shah Najaf,[1] a handsome white-domed tomb, surrounded by a court-yard, and enclosed by high masonry loopholed walls; and beyond the Shah Najaf rose the Kadam Rasul,[2] another tomb standing on a slight eminence.

But little opposition was experienced from the village, which was carried by the Infantry, while the Artillery were brought up to open fire on the Shah Najaf and Kadam Rasul. The latter was soon occupied by the 2nd Punjab Infantry, belonging to Greathed's brigade, which had by this time joined the main body; but the Shah Najaf proved a harder nut to crack. This building was almost concealed by dense jungle, and its great strength therefore remained unsuspected until we got quite close up to it.

Barnston's battalion of Detachments advanced in skirmishing order, under cover of our guns. One of the shells most unfortunately burst prematurely, wounding Major Barnston so severely that he died soon afterwards. Whether it was that the men were depressed by the loss of their leader, or that they were not prepared for the very damaging fire which suddenly poured upon them, I know not, but certain it is that they wavered, and for a few minutes there was a slight panic. The Commander-in-Chief, with Hope Grant, Mansfield, Adrian Hope, and their respective staffs, were sitting on their horses anxiously awaiting the result of the attack, when all at once it became apparent that there was a retrograde movement on the part of some of the men, who were emerging from the belt of jungle and hastening towards us. Norman was the first to grasp the situation. Putting spurs to his horse, he galloped into their midst, and called on them to pull themselves together; the men rallied at once, and advanced into the cover from which they had for the moment retreated. I had many opportunities for noting Norman's coolness and presence of mind under fire. On this particular occasion these qualities were most marked, and his action was most timely.

More Infantry were brought up, but without avail. The enemy evidently were determined to prevent the capture of the Shah Najaf. Fire was now opened upon us from a heavy gun on the other side of the Gumti (the first shot from which blew up one of the ammunition waggons belonging to the Naval Brigade), and all the cannon that were collected at the Kaisarbagh and mess-house were brought to bear upon us. The musketry fire was incessant, and Peel's men suffered so severely that one of his guns could not be worked.

Sir Colin was beginning to get extremely anxious, and no wonder--the position was most uncomfortable, and the prospect very gloomy. Three hours since the attack began! The day was rapidly drawing to a close, and we were no nearer our object; on the contrary, the opposition became every moment stronger, and the fire more deadly. A retreat was not to be thought of; indeed, our remaining so long stationary had been an encouragement to the enemy, and every one felt that the only chance for the little British army fighting against 30,000 desperate mutineers, with every advantage of position and intimate knowledge of locality in their favour, was to continue to advance at all hazards; and this our gallant old Chief decided to do. Placing himself at the head of the 93rd, he explained to the only too eager Highlanders the dangerous nature of the service, and called on them to follow him. There was no mistaking the response; cheer after cheer rent the air as they listened to the words of the Chief they knew so well, and believed in so thoroughly, assuring him of their readiness to follow whithersoever he should lead, do whatever he should direct. They moved off, followed by Peel's guns dragged by sailors and some of the Madras Fusiliers, the advance of the party being covered by Middleton's Field battery, which dashed to the front and opened with grape.

Almost instantaneously the narrow path along which we were proceeding was choked with wounded officers and dead and struggling horses. It was here that Sir Archibald Alison, Sir Colin's Aide-de-camp, lost his arm, and his brother (another Aide-de-camp) was wounded. Adrian Hope's horse was shot dead--indeed, very few escaped injury, either to themselves or their horses. I was one of the lucky few. On reaching the wall of the Shah Najaf enclosure, it was found to be twenty feet high, no entrance could be seen, and there were no scaling-ladders available, so there was nothing for it but to endeavour to breach the massive wall.[3] The 24-pounders hammered away at it for some time, but proved quite unequal to the task; though only a few yards off, they made no impression whatever, and it seemed as if the attempt to take the position must be abandoned. Peel was, therefore, ordered to withdraw his guns under cover of some rockets, which were discharged into the enclosure, and Hope was directed to retire as soon as he could collect the killed and wounded.

Captain Allgood, Sir Colin's trusted Assistant Quartermaster-General, was the bearer of the order. He and Hope, after consulting together, determined that before the latter obeyed they would try to discover if there did not exist an opening in some other part of the walls. Assisted by a sergeant of the 93rd, they set about their search, and actually did find a narrow gap, through which they could see that the enemy, terrified and thrown into confusion by the exploding rockets falling amongst them, were fast abandoning the building. The two friends helped each other through the gap, and, followed by some Highlanders, they proceeded across the now deserted enclosure to secure the only gateway, which was on the opposite side to that which we had attacked; and Allgood had the great pleasure of announcing to the Commander-in-Chief that there was no need to retire, for the formidable position was in our possession.

It was getting dark when at length we occupied the Shah Najaf; some of us got on to the top of the building to take a look round. There was just light enough to show us a sepoy sauntering unconcernedly up to the gate, evidently in happy ignorance of what had happened. He soon discovered that his comrades were no longer masters of the situation, and, letting his musket fall, he made all haste to the river, into which he dropped, and swam to the other side.

Sir Colin and my General took up their quarters in the Shah Najaf, but only nominally, for after a scratch dinner we all joined the troops, who bivouacked where they stood.

The force was disposed in a semicircle, extending from the Shah Najaf to the barracks. The wounded were placed in the huts near the Sikandarbagh, where they passed a most comfortless night, for when the sun set it rapidly got cold, and the hospital arrangements were necessarily on a very limited scale.

By this time I was dead beat, having been for sixty hours continually in the saddle, except when I lay down for a short nap on the night of the 14th.

We were not allowed, however, to have a very long night's rest. Hours before dawn on the 17th we were roused by the beating of drums and ringing of bells (an impotent attempt on the part of the rebel leaders to excite the enthusiasm of their followers), which caused the troops to prepare for an attack and stand to their arms. But the enemy were not in a mood to encounter us in the open, small as our numbers were; they had suffered heavily the day before, and they must have begun to realize that their strongest positions were inadequate against British pluck and determination.

The mess-house was the next point to be carried, but the Commander-in-Chief thought it would be prudent to make our left quite secure in the first instance. The duty of occupying the houses and gardens situated between the barracks and Banks's house was entrusted to Brigadier Russell. Four bungalows,[4] in which the officers of the 32nd Foot had lived, were first seized. Russell then pushed on towards Banks's house, which it was necessary to occupy, as it commanded the crossing over the canal, by which we communicated with the Dilkusha, and by which it was thought that the people rescued from the Residency would have to be brought away. Russell, avoiding the main road, advanced under cover of his Artillery, and forced the rebels to vacate this important position, and Banks's house was held during the remainder of the operations by 50 men of the 2nd Punjab Infantry, under Lieutenant F. Keen.[5]

In the meantime a heavy fire from Peel's guns had been opened on the mess-house--a double-storied building, situated on slightly rising ground, surrounded by a ditch 12 feet broad, and beyond that at some little distance by a loop-holed wall.

Our losses on the previous day had been very severe, and Sir Colin, anxious to spare his men as much as possible, decided to batter the place freely with Artillery before permitting it to be attacked. Peel's guns and Longden's mortars were therefore brought to bear upon it, and kept up a continual fire until 3 p.m., when the enemy seemed to think they had had enough, their musketry fire slackened off, and the Commander-in-Chief, considering the assault might safely be made, gave the order to advance. The attacking party was commanded by Brevet-Major Wolseley,[6] of the 90th Light Infantry, and consisted of a company of his own regiment, a piquet of the 53rd Foot under Captain Hopkins, and a few men of the 2nd Punjab Infantry under Captain Powlett, supported by Barnston's Detachments, under Captain Guise, of the 90th.

The building and its many outhouses were carried with a rush, and the enemy, who hastily retreated to the Moti Mahal,[7] were followed across the road, where our troops were stopped by the high wall which enclosed that building. Wolseley then sent for some Sappers, who quickly opened out a space through which they all passed. The Moti Mahal was hotly defended, but without avail, and ere the sun set the last position which separated the relieved from the relieving forces was in our possession.

As the party moved off to attack the mess-house, Sir Colin, who, on his white horse, was interestedly watching the proceedings, ordered me to procure a regimental colour and place it on one of the turrets of the building, that Outram might be able to judge how far we had advanced. I rode off accordingly to the 2nd Punjab Infantry, standing close by, and requested the Commandant, Captain Green, to let me have one of his colours. He at once complied, and I galloped with it to the mess-house. As I entered, I was met by Sir David Baird (one of Sir Colin's Aides-de-camp), and Captain Hopkins, of the 53rd Foot, by both of whom I was assisted in getting the flag with its long staff up the inconveniently narrow staircase, and in planting it on the turret nearest the Kaisarbagh, which was about 850 yards off. No sooner did the enemy perceive what we were about, than shot after shot was aimed at the colour, and in a very few minutes it was knocked over, falling into the ditch below. I ran down, picked it up, and again placed it in position, only for it to be once more shot down and hurled into the ditch, just as Norman and Lennox (who had been sent by Sir Colin to report what was going on in the interior of the Kaisarbagh) appeared on the roof. Once more I picked up the colour, and found that this time the staff had been broken in two. Notwithstanding, I managed to prop it up a third time on the turret, and it was not again hit, though the enemy continued to fire at it for some time.

Outram, unwilling to risk unnecessary loss of men, did not greatly extend his position until he was sure we were close at hand, but he was not idle. While Sir Colin was slowly working his way towards him on the 16th, he had gradually occupied such buildings as lay in the direction of our advance. From the mess-house we could see the British flag flying on the top of the engine-house, only a short distance beyond the Moti Mahal, which satisfactory piece of intelligence Norman went down to report to Sir Colin, who, with his Chief of the Staff, had just arrived. I followed Norman, and we two made our way to the western wall of the Pearl Palace enclosure, outside which Outram and Havelock were standing together. They had run the gauntlet of the enemy's fire in coming from the engine house; Colonel Robert Napier and two other officers who accompanied them, having been wounded, had to be carried back. Some of Lennox's Sappers set to work, and soon made a hole in the wall[8] large enough for these two distinguished men to pass through.

I had never before met either of them. In Afghanistan Outram had been a friend of my father, who had often spoken to me about him in terms of the warmest admiration, and his courage and chivalry were known and appreciated throughout India. It was therefore with feelings of the most lively interest that I beheld this man, whose character I so greatly admired. He was then fifty-four years of age, strong and broad-shouldered, in no way broken down by the heavy load of responsibility and anxiety he had had to bear, or the hardships he had gone through. Havelock, the hero of a hundred fights, on the contrary, looked ill, worn and depressed, but brightened up a little when Norman told him he had been made a K.C.B.

Sir Colin waited to receive these two heroes on the ground sloping down from the mess-house, and it was there that the meeting between the three veterans took place. A most impressive and memorable scene was that meeting, which has been well depicted in the historical picture by Barker.

As if to show the rage and disappointment of the enemy at this evidence of the success of our operations, every gun in the Kaisarbagh was turned upon us, and it was under a shower of shot and shell that the interview was held; it did not last long, for it was neither the time nor the place to discuss plans for the future. All Sir Colin could then say was that the troops should be removed outside Lucknow as soon as the women and children had been brought away, and he expressed his 'thankfulness that the relief of the garrison had been accomplished.'

Norman and I obtained permission to accompany Outram and Havelock back to the Residency. It was intensely but painfully interesting to visit this scene of so many acts of heroism, and of so much suffering endured with unexampled fortitude. We first went to the posts occupied by Havelock's force in the Chatta Manzil, and in other buildings which have long since disappeared. At one of these we stopped to watch the Artillery trying to silence the enemy's guns on the opposite side of the river. We talked to the men, who were keen to hear news from the outer world and the story of our advance. It was some little time before we discovered in one of them the Commander of the battery, Captain William Olpherts,[9] for in his soiled and torn summer clothing, his face thin, worn, and begrimed with smoke, it was difficult to distinguish the officer from his men, and it was under these levelling circumstances that I had the honour of making the acquaintance of my distinguished brother officer, whose audacious courage on the occasion of Havelock's advance over the Charbagh bridge had won the admiration of everyone in the force, and gained for him the Victoria Cross.

We next came to the Bailey-guard; and as we looked at the battered walls and gateway, not an inch without a mark from a round shot or bullet, we marvelled that Aitken and Loughman could have managed to defend it for nearly five months. There was plenty of evidence on all the surrounding buildings of the dangerous nature of the service which they and their gallant Native comrades had so admirably performed. Although we were pressed for time, we could not resist stopping to speak to some of the Native officers and sepoys, whose magnificent loyalty throughout the siege was one of the most gratifying features of the Mutiny.

At length we came to the Residency itself, where we met a few old friends and acquaintances, who welcomed us with the most touching enthusiasm. Mrs. (afterwards Lady) Inglis and the Rev. J.P. Harris and his wife I had known at Peshawar; there were also Mrs. Fletcher Hayes, the widow of the poor fellow whose murder by the men of his own escort near Mainpuri I have related, and Mrs. Case, the widow of the brave Major of the 32nd, who lost his life at the affair of Chinhut. Mrs. Inglis showed us the tiny room which she and her children had shared with Mrs. Case all through the siege; but it was difficult to get any of them to speak of their miserable experiences, which were too sad and terrible, and too recent to be talked about, and they naturally preferred to dwell on their thankfulness for the relief that had come at last, and to listen to our account of what had happened in other places.

It was too late then to go round the position; that had to be left for another day; indeed, it was quite dark when we returned to Head-Quarters, established by our Chief in the open, his soldierly instincts prompting him to remain with his troops.

[Footnote 1: Shah Najaf is the tomb of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, first King of Oudh, built by himself. It derives its name from Najaf, the hill on which is built the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of Mahomed, and of which tomb this is said to be a copy.]

[Footnote 2: The Kadam Rasul, or Prophet's footprint, a Mahomedan place of worship, which contained a stone bearing the impress of the foot of the Prophet, brought from Arabia by a pilgrim. During the Mutiny the holy stone was carried off.]

[Footnote 3: Lieutenant Salmon, R.N. (now Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon, K.C.B.), climbed up a tree overhanging this wall, in order to see what was going on behind it; he succeeded in obtaining useful information, but on being perceived, was fired at and badly wounded. He received the V.C.]

[Footnote 4: Marked D on the map.]

[Footnote 5: Now Major-General Keen, C.B. It was an extremely responsible charge for so young an officer with such a small party, as it was very isolated and exposed to attack.]

[Footnote 6: Now Field-Marshal Viscount Wolseley, K.P., Commander-in-Chief.]

[Footnote 7: Called the Pearl Palace from the fancied resemblance of one of its domes (since destroyed) to the curve of a pearl.]

[Footnote 8: A slab let into the south-west corner of the wall marks the spot.]

[Footnote 9: Now General Sir William Olpherts, V.C., K.C.B.]