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Chapter 9: 1857

John Lawrence's wise measures--Disarmament at Peshawar --Salutary effect in the valley

I will now continue my story from the time I left Peshawar to join the Movable Column.

On the 18th May Brigadier Chamberlain and I arrived at Rawal Pindi, where we joined the Chief Commissioner, who had got thus far on his way to his summer residence in the Murree Hills when tidings of the disaster reached him. One of Sir John Lawrence's first acts after talking over matters with Chamberlain was to summon Edwardes from Peshawar, for he wished to consult with him personally about the question of raising levies and enlisting more frontier men, the only one of Edwardes's and Nicholson's proposals regarding which the Chief Commissioner had any doubt; it appeared to him a somewhat risky step to take, and he desired to give the matter very careful consideration before coming to any decision. I remember being greatly struck with the weight given by Lawrence to Edwardes's opinion. He called him his Councillor, he eagerly sought his advice, and he evidently placed the utmost reliance on his judgment.

During the six days that we remained at Rawal Pindi waiting for the Movable Column to be assembled, I spent the greater part of my time in the Chief Commissioner's office, drafting or copying confidential letters and telegrams. I thus learned everything that was happening in the Punjab, and became aware of the magnitude of the crisis through which we were passing. This enabled me to appreciate the tremendous efforts required to cope with the danger, and to understand that the fate of Delhi and the lives of our countrymen and countrywomen in Upper India depended upon the action taken by the authorities in the Punjab. I realized that Sir John Lawrence thought of every detail, and how correct was his judgment as to which of his subordinates could, or could not, be trusted. The many European women and children scattered over the province caused him the greatest anxiety, and he wisely determined to collect them as much as possible at hill stations and the larger centres, where they would be under the protection of British troops; for this reason he ordered the families of the European soldiers at Sialkot (who were being withdrawn to join the Movable Column) to be sent to Lahore. But, notwithstanding all that had occurred, and was daily occurring, to demonstrate how universal was the spirit of disaffection throughout the Native Army, Brigadier Frederick Brind, who commanded at Sialkot, could not be brought to believe that the regiments serving under his command would ever prove disloyal, and he strongly objected to carry out an order which he denounced as 'showing a want of confidence in the sepoys.' John Lawrence, however, stood firm. Brind was ordered to despatch the soldiers' families without delay, and advised to urge the civilians and military officers to send away their families at the same time. A few of the ladies and children were sent off, but some were allowed to remain until the troops mutinied, when the Brigadier was one of the first to pay the penalty of his misplaced confidence, being shot down by one of his own orderlies.

We had not been long at Rawal Pindi before we heard that the uneasiness at Peshawar was hourly increasing, and that the detachment of the 55th Native Infantry[1] at Nowshera had mutinied and broken open the magazine. The military force in the Peshawar valley had been considerably weakened by the withdrawal of the 27th Foot and Corps of Guides; it was evident that disaffection was rapidly spreading, and what was still more alarming was the ominously restless feelings amongst the principal tribes on the frontier. Nicholson encountered considerable difficulty in raising local levies, and there was a general unwillingness to enlist. Our disasters in Kabul in 1841-42 had not been forgotten; our cause was considered desperate, and even Nicholson could not persuade men to join it. It was clear that this state of affairs must not be allowed to continue, and that some decisive measures must quickly be taken, or there would be a general rising along the frontier.

Matters seemed to be drawing to a head, when it was wisely determined to disarm the Native regiments at Peshawar without delay. This conclusion was come to at midnight on the 21st May, when the news of the unfortunate occurrences at Nowshera reached Edwardes, who had returned that morning from Rawal Pindi. He and Nicholson felt that no time was to be lost, for if the sepoys heard that the regiment at Nowshera had mutinied, it would be too late to attempt to disarm them. Going forthwith to the Brigadier's house, they communicated their views to Sydney Cotton, who thoroughly appreciated the urgency of the case, and, acting with the most praiseworthy decision, summoned the commanding officers of all the Native regiments to be at his house at daybreak.

When they were assembled, the Brigadier carefully explained to the officers how matters stood. He pointed out to them that their regiments were known to be on the verge of mutiny, and that they must be disarmed forthwith, ending by expressing his great regret at having to take so serious a step.

The officers were quite aghast. They were persistent and almost insubordinate in expressing their conviction that the measure was wholly uncalled-for, that the sepoys were thoroughly loyal, and that, notwithstanding what had occurred in other places, they had perfect confidence in their men.

The Brigadier, who knew the officers well, felt that every allowance should be made for them, called upon as they were to disarm the men with whom they had been so long associated, and in whom they still implicitly believed. But although he regarded the officers' remonstrances as natural and excusable, Cotton never wavered in his decision, for he was experienced enough to see that the evil was widespread and deep-seated, and that any display of confidence or attempt at conciliation in dealing with the disaffected regiments would be worse than useless.

The parade, which was ordered for 7 a.m., was conducted with great judgment. The European troops were skilfully disposed so as to render resistance useless, and four out of the five regular Native regiments were called upon to lay down their arms. The fifth regiment--the 21st Native Infantry[2]--was exempted from this indignity, partly because it had shown no active symptoms of disaffection, was well commanded and had good officers, and partly because it would have been extremely difficult to carry on the military duties of the station without some Native Infantry.

The two regiments of Irregular Cavalry were also spared the disgrace of being disarmed. It was hoped that the stake the Native officers and men had in the service (their horses and arms being their own property) would prevent them from taking an active part in the Mutiny, and it was believed that the British officers who served with them, and who for the most part were carefully selected, had sufficient influence over their men to keep them straight. This hope proved to be not altogether without foundation, for of the eighteen regiments of Irregular Cavalry which existed in May, 1857, eight are still borne on the strength of the Bengal Army; while of the ten regiments of Regular Cavalry and seventy-four of Infantry, none of the former, and only eleven of the latter, now remain.

How immediate and salutary were the effects of the disarmament on the inhabitants of the Peshawar valley will be seen by the following account which Edwardes gave of it. 'As we rode down to the disarming a very few Chiefs and yeomen of the country attended us; and I remember judging from their faces that they came to see which way the tide would turn. As we rode back friends were as thick as summer flies, and levies began from that moment to come in.'

The Subadar-Major of the 51st--one of the four regiments disarmed--had a few days before written to the men of the 64th, who were divided amongst the outposts, calling upon them to return to Peshawar in time to join in the revolt fixed for the 22nd May. The letter ran; 'In whatever way you can manage it, come into Peshawar on the 21st instant. Thoroughly understand that point! In fact, eat there and drink here.' The rapidity with which the disarmament had been carried through spoilt the Subadar-Major's little game; he had, however, gone too far to draw back, and on the night of the 22nd he deserted, taking with him 250 men of the regiment. His hopes were a second time doomed to disappointment. However welcome 250 muskets might have been to the Afridis, 250 unarmed sepoys were no prize; and as our neighbours in the hills had evidently come to the conclusion that our raj was not in such a desperate state as they had imagined, and that their best policy was to side with us, they caught the deserters, with the assistance of the district police, and made them over to the authorities. The men were all tried by Court-Martial, and the Subadar-Major was hanged in the presence of the whole garrison.

On the 23rd May, the day after the disarmament, news was received at Peshawar that the 55th Native Infantry had mutinied at Mardan, and that the 10th Irregular Cavalry, which was divided between Nowshera and Mardan, had turned against us. A force was at once despatched to restore order, and Nicholson accompanied it as political officer. No sooner did the mutineers, on the morning of the 25th, catch sight of the approaching column than they broke out of the fort and fled towards the Swat hills. Nicholson pursued with his levies and mounted police, and before night 120 fugitives were killed and as many more made prisoners. The remainder found no welcome among the hill tribes, and eventually became wanderers over the country until they died or were killed. Poor Spottiswoode, the Colonel, committed suicide shortly before the Peshawar troops reached Mardan.

[Footnote 1: The Head-Quarters of this regiment had been sent to Mardan in place of the Guides.]

[Footnote 2: Now the 1st Bengal Infantry.]