The actual Mutiny of the Bengal army broke out at Meerut on May 10, 1857. Events had happened in the Lower Provinces which foreshadowed the coming storm, and one regiment of native infantry had been disbanded; but no one, not even those in high authority, had the faintest suspicion that our rule in India was imperilled. So strong, indeed, was the sense of security from present danger that the Government, with almost culpable neglect, still confided to the care of the native army the large arsenals of Delhi, Ferozepore, and Phillour, in all of which immense quantities of ammunition and munitions of war were stored.
There was not a single white regiment stationed at Delhi, not even a European guard, the charge of the arsenal, the largest in Upper India, being entrusted to a few officers and sergeants of artillery. The same may be said of Phillour, in the Punjab--a small station, where only native troops were quartered. The fort of Ferozepore, near the left bank of the Sutlej River, was guarded by 100 men detailed from the sepoy regiments at that cantonment, and, with Phillour, constituted the only places from which ammunition could be drawn for the large force, European and native, guarding the newly-acquired province of the Punjab.
Her Majesty's 61st Regiment of Foot was stationed at Ferozepore in May, 1857. In that corps I held a commission as Lieutenant, and, during the absence of my Captain on leave in Kashmir, was in temporary command of the Grenadier Company.
The regiment at this time mustered nearly 1,000 men, half that number old and gallant veterans of from ten to twenty years' service. These had fought in many Indian campaigns, and on the terrible day of Chillianwalla, in January, 1849, when the Khalsa army rolled back in utter defeat a portion of Lord Gough's force, had, under the leadership of Sir Colin Campbell, altered the fortunes of the battle. Advancing in line under a tremendous cannonade, and without firing a shot, they marched as if on parade and in stern silence till within fifty yards of the Sikh batteries, when, with a shout which struck terror into the breasts of their enemies, they charged irresistibly and took the guns.
It was to men such as these that, fortunately for the maintenance of our Empire in the East, England trusted in the perilous days of 1857. As of my own regiment, so it may be said of all then quartered in India--sturdy, fine fellows, of good physique, of rare discipline, and inured to the climate, who, in the words of the Iron Duke, could march anywhere and fight anything. The army then had not been improved out of existence; reforms, if such they can be called, were received with considerable disfavour; for what amelioration could be effected in the discipline and steady courage of those who had stormed the heights of the Alma, had stood the shock of the Muscovite at Inkerman, and had not despaired on the bloody fields of Ferozeshah and Chillianwalla?
I may be excused if I thus energetically offer my tribute of praise to that army, and more especially to that regiment in which I passed my young days. I recall the numberless acts of devotion and courage, the tender solicitude with which the veterans of the Grenadier Company looked after the safety of their youthful commander, during the campaigns of 1857; and my pen falters and my eyes grow dim with tears as memory brings before me my gallant comrades in the ranks who fell before Delhi, or lost their lives through disease and exposure.
I had been absent from my regiment during the whole of 1856, doing duty at the Murree Convalescent Depot, and rejoined in March of the following year. Nothing occurred for the next two months to break the monotony of life in an Indian cantonment. Parade in the early morning, rackets and billiards during the day, a drive or ride along the Mall in the cool of the evening, and the usual mess dinner--these constituted the routine of our uneventful existence.
Many of the officers lamented the hard fate which had doomed them to service in the East, while the more fortunate regiments had been earning fame and quick promotion in the Crimea and in the recent Persian campaign. We little thought of what was in store for us, or of the volcano which was smouldering under our feet.
The signs of incipient mutiny in the native army had been confined, up to this time, to the Presidency of Bengal and to the regiments quartered there. With us at Ferozepore there was little, if any, indication of the coming outbreak. True it was that some of us noticed sullen looks and strange demeanour among the sepoys of the two battalions. They, on occasions, passed our officers without the customary salute, and, if my memory serves, a complaint of this want of respect was forwarded to their Colonels. Our billiard-marker, too, a high-caste Brahmin who had served on our side in the Afghan campaigns of 1839-42 in the capacity of a spy, a man of cunning and intelligence, warned us in unmistakable terms of the increasing disaffection among the sepoys of Ferozepore, and stated his opinion that the spirit of mutiny was rife among them. We laughed at his fears, and dismissed from our minds all alarm, vaunting our superiority in arms to the dusky soldiery of Hindostan, and in our hearts foolishly regarding them with lordly contempt.
Thus passed in the usual quiet the first twelve days of the month of May, 1857. The morning of May 13 saw us, as usual, on parade; then, adjourning to the mess-house, we spent a few hours over breakfast and billiards, and before midday separated to pass the heat of the day reading, lounging, and sleeping at our respective bungalows.
I occupied a large house some distance from the mess in company with a field-officer and the Adjutant of my regiment. The former, about 1 p. m., was summoned by an orderly to attend a meeting at the quarters of the Brigadier commanding the troops at Ferozepore. We paid no heed to this incident, as it occurred to us that the Major's advice and opinion were required on some matter of regimental or other routine.
Vicars and I were in the habit, since the hot weather began, of making ices every afternoon, and had become, from long practice, quite proficient at the work. At three o'clock we were in the midst of our occupation, our whole thoughts and energies bent on the accomplishment of our task. Clad in loose déshabillé, seated on the floor of the sitting-room, we worked and watched the process of congelation.
Presently a quick step was heard in the hall, the door was thrown open, and the Major, rushing in, sank breathless into a chair. The Adjutant and I jumped up, and in our haste upset the utensils, spilling on the floor the contents we had taken so much trouble to prepare. A minute or two passed, and still no word from our friend, who, portly in shape, and of a plethoric temperament, seemed overcome by some terrible excitement, and fairly gasped for breath.
"What on earth is the matter?" we asked.
Slowly, and as though uttered with considerable difficulty, the answer came:
"All the Europeans in India have been murdered!"
Now this was rather a startling announcement, and somewhat premature, considering that we three, at any rate, were in the land of the living, with no immediate prospect of coming dissolution. We looked at each other, at first serious and alarmed, as became the gravity of the situation, and utterly unable to comprehend what it all meant. This phase of the affair, however, did not last long, and soon changed from grave to gay. A merry twinkle appeared in Vicars' eyes, to which my own responded, and at last, fully alive to the absurdity of the gallant officer's remark, our pent-up sense of the ridiculous was fairly awakened, and we roared with laughter again and again.
This unlooked-for result of his dismal communication roused the Major, who first rebuked us for our levity, and, after an interval occupied in the recovery of his scattered senses, proceeded to acquaint us with the true facts of what had happened at the Brigadier's quarters.
A despatch by telegraph had arrived that morning from Meerut, the largest cantonment in Upper India, stating that the regiment of native light cavalry at that place had mutinied in a body on the 10th instant, and marched for Delhi. This had been followed by a revolt of all the sepoy infantry and artillery, a rising of the natives in the city, the bazaars and the surrounding country, who, almost unchecked, had murdered the European men and women on whom they could lay their hands, and besides, had set fire to and "looted" many houses in the station. Fortunately for the safety of the English in India, the miscreants failed to cut the telegraph-wires at Meerut till too late, and the news of the mutiny and outrage was as quickly as possible flashed to every cantonment in the country.
The Brigadier had therefore ordered the commanding and field officers of the different regiments stationed at Ferozepore to meet him in consultation at his quarters. Intelligence so startling as that just received required no small amount of judgment and deliberation in dealing with the native soldiers at this cantonment, and some time elapsed before the council decided as to what was best to be done under the circumstances.
Finally it was resolved that a general parade of Her Majesty's 61st Foot and the battery of European artillery should be held at four o'clock on the lines in front of the barracks of the former corps. The two regiments of native infantry were to assemble at the same time, and, with their English Officers, were ordered to march from their quarters, taking separate directions: the 45th to proceed into the country, leaving the fort of Ferozepore on their right, while the 57th were to march out of cantonments to the left rear of the lines of the European infantry. The commanding officers of these regiments were also instructed to keep their men, if possible, well in hand, to allow no straggling, and to halt in the country until further orders after they had proceeded three or four miles. The remaining regiment, the 10th Native Light Cavalry, for some reason or other was considered staunch (and as events proved, it remained so for a time), and it was therefore ordained that the troopers should parade mounted and under arms in their own lines ready for any emergency.
Thus far we learnt from the Major, and Vicars, whose duties as Adjutant required his presence at the barracks at once, donned his uniform, and, mounting his horse, rode in all haste to give directions for the general parade.
Shortly before four o'clock the Major and I also left the house and joined the regiment, which was drawn up in open column of companies in front of the lines.
Notice had previously been sent to the married officers in the station directing them to make immediate arrangements for the transport of their wives and families to the barracks. This order was obeyed without loss of time, and before half-past four all the ladies and children in the cantonment were safe under the protection of our soldiers at the main guard.
The barracks of the European infantry at Ferozepore were distant half a mile from the station, and consisted of ten or twelve large detached buildings, one for each company, arranged in echelon, with some thirty paces between each. In front of these was the parade-ground where we were drawn up, and before us an open plain, 300 yards in width, extending to the entrenched camp, or, as it was generally called, the fort and arsenal of Ferozepore. The space around the fort was quite clear, its position being directly opposite the centre of the cantonment, from which it was separated by some 200 yards.
From our situation on parade we had a direct and unbroken view of the localities I have endeavoured to describe, and holding this vantage-ground, we should be enabled to act as circumstances might require.
The regiment wheeled into line more than 900 strong. One hundred men under command of a field-officer were then detached, with orders to disarm the sepoy guard in the fort, and to remain there on duty pending any attempt which might probably be made by the two native regiments to gain forcible possession of the arsenal.
The detachment marched off, and we watched our comrades cross the plain, and enter without molestation the gates of the fort.
In anxious expectation we waited for the result, when, after a short interval, shots were heard, and we knew that our men had engaged the sepoy guard. The firing was continuous while it lasted, but soon died away. A mounted officer then rode out at the gate, and, galloping to where the Colonel was standing, reported that the sepoys, when ordered to lay down their arms, refused, and that one of them, taking direct aim at the Major, shot him in the thigh, leaving a dangerous wound. Our men then poured a volley into the mutineers, who fired in return, but fortunately without causing any casualty on our side. Two sepoys had been killed and several wounded, while the remainder, offering no further resistance, were disarmed and made prisoners.
Meantime the regiment stood under arms in line, and another company was sent to reinforce the men in the fort.
Amid great excitement, more especially among the young soldiers, we waited to see what would follow when the sepoy battalions marching from cantonments into the country appeared in sight. Eagerly it was whispered amongst us, "Will the rascals fight, or remain loyal and obedient to the orders of their officers?"
The evening was drawing on apace, but at last, about six o'clock, the heads of the columns emerged from the houses and gardens of the station, the 45th Native Infantry advancing in almost a direct line to the fort, while the 57th Native Infantry were inclined to their right, and followed the road leading to the rear of our lines. All eyes were turned on the former regiment, and its movements were ardently scanned.
Closer and closer they came to the fort, till, when only about fifty paces distant, the column wavered. We could see the officers rushing about among their men, and in another instant the whole mass broke into disorder and ran pell-mell in hundreds towards the ditch which surrounded the entrenchment.
This was of no depth, with sloping sides, and easy to escalade, and in less time than I take to write it the sepoys, with a shout, jumped into the trench, scrambled up the parapet, and disappeared from our sight into the enclosure.
It was not long before we heard the sound of firing, and shots came in quick succession, maddening us beyond control, for we thought of our men, few in number and scattered over the fort, opposed to some five or six hundred of these savages.
We had loaded with ball-cartridge soon after forming on parade, and the men now grasped their muskets, and cries and murmurs were heard, "Why do we not advance?" and all this couched in language more forcible than polite.
The order at last was given to fix bayonets, and then came the welcome words:
"The line will advance."
Every heart thrilled with excitement. All longed to have a brush with the mutineers, and help our comrades in the fort who were fighting against such odds.
Twenty paces only we advanced, and then, by the Brigadier's command, our Colonel gave the order to halt.
The men were furious, and could hardly be restrained from marching forward, when, looking towards the outer side of the fort, we saw some sepoys on the ramparts, evidently in a state of panic, throw themselves into the ditch, and mounting the other side, run helterhelterskelter into the country. These were followed by numbers of others, who all made off as fast as their legs would carry them, and then we heard a true British cheer, our men appeared on the walls shooting at the fugitives, bayonetting and driving them over the glacis.
The fight had continued some twenty minutes, and was pretty severe while it lasted. A few of our men were more or less hurt, but of the sepoys many had been killed and wounded. About 100 also had laid down their arms, and, begging for mercy, were taken prisoners.
Nothing could have been more culpable than the conduct of the Brigadier in not advancing a portion, at any rate, of my regiment to the fort at the time the sepoys broke their ranks and entered the entrenchment. Had he done so, it is probable that not one of the mutineers of the 45th Native Infantry would have escaped, nor would the havoc which afterwards occurred in the cantonment have taken place. But he was an old East India Company's officer, and had served upwards of forty years in the native army, having to the last, like many others at that eventful time, implicit confidence in the loyalty of the sepoys. He feared, also, the responsibility of letting loose the English soldiery to wreak their vengeance on the mutineers, knowing too well that, with passions roused and hearts steeled to pity by the murders and outrages committed at Meerut, and the late wounding of their field-officer, our men would have given no quarter. The Brigadier was one of the very few officers in high command at the outbreak of the Mutiny who were found wanting in the time of trial. His, no doubt, was a hard task; but, had he shown the smallest aptitude to meet the crisis, there would have been no difficulty, with the ample means at his disposal, in disarming without bloodshed the whole native force at Ferozepore, and so crushing the rebellion at that station.
Night came, and we still remained in line under arms without having moved a foot from where we were halted. Conjectures were rife as to what would next happen. Officers and men were grieved, no less than annoyed, at the state of inaction in which we had been kept, and an uneasy feeling prevailed that during the night the mutinous sepoys, aided by the badmashes, or bad characters, who swarmed in the bazaars and city of Ferozepore, would, under cover of the darkness, run riot over the cantonment, without our being called on to interfere.
And so, unhappily, it came to pass. The native cavalry at about eight o'clock marched down to our lines, and drew up on the right of the regiment, the European artillery being on our left flank.
Soon after their arrival the arms were piled and the men fell out of the ranks, some to lie down on the ground, others forming in groups and discussing the strange events of the day.
Suddenly a light was seen in the direction of the cantonment, which quickly turned into a blaze of fire. What new horror was this? Were our houses to be gutted and burnt before our eyes without any attempt to prevent such outrage?
The men, at the first appearance of fire, had sprung to their feet and almost involuntarily seized their arms. Surely a detachment would be sent to clear the cantonment of the incendiaries? Even this was not done: the Brigadier was absent, or could not be found, and our Colonel intimated to some officers who spoke to him on the subject that he could give no orders without the chief's consent.
So, incredible though it may appear, we stood and watched the fires, which followed each other in quick succession till the whole cantonment seemed in a blaze, and the flames, darting up in every direction, lighted up the surrounding country.
We could hear distinctly the shouts of the scoundrels, and pictured to ourselves the black wretches holding high carnival among the burning buildings and laughing at the white soldiers, who, with arms in their hands, remained motionless in their own lines.
That night more than twenty houses were burnt to the ground. The English church, we afterwards heard, was first fired, then the Roman Catholic chapel, our mess-house, and nineteen other bungalows. The sepoys, mostly of the 45th Native Infantry, attended by dozens of badmashes, marched unchallenged through the station with lighted torches fixed on long bamboo poles, with which they set fire to the thatched roofs of the various houses.
All night long we lay by our arms, watching the destruction of our property, and thankful only that the wives and children of our officers and men were safe under our care, and not exposed to the fury of the wretches engaged in their fiendish work.
Even after this long lapse of years, I cannot think of that night without a feeling of shame. Here were 700 men, mostly veterans, of one of Her Majesty's regiments, doomed to inaction through the blundering and stupid perverseness of an old sepoy Brigadier. The same unhappy events as those I have narrated occurred at the outbreak of the Mutiny in three other stations in the Bengal Presidency.
The commanders would not act against their trusted sepoys, who, as in our case, plundered, outraged, and destroyed all and everything that came in their way.
May 14.--The morning of May 14 dawned, close and hot, not a breath of wind stirring. The sun rose like a ball of fire, and shortly afterwards we were startled by an explosion which shook the earth under our feet, and sounded like a heavy peal of thunder in the still morning air. Looking in the direction of the report, we saw on the far right side of the cantonment a thick black column of smoke shoot up high into the atmosphere. A quarter of an hour passed, and then another detonation similar to the first sounded in our ears on the left rear flank, followed, as before, by a dense cloud of smoke.
We said to ourselves: "Will the arsenal next be blown up?" In the fort was stored an immense quantity of powder and munitions of war, and, fearing that perhaps some rebel might have found his way in for the purpose of devoting his life to the destruction of the entrenchment and the annihilation of the European guard, we remained anxiously expectant for some time.
No cause could be assigned for the explosions we had heard, but we were informed subsequently that, by the orders of our commander, the magazines or bells of arms belonging to the two native regiments had been blown up by a party of sappers in the fear that they might fall into the hands of the rebellious sepoys. It was a futile precaution, and a mere waste of ammunition; for nothing could have been easier than to send the contents of the magazines under our escort to the arsenal.
At eight o'clock we were dismissed to barracks, and left the spot where we had stood in line inert and inactive since four o'clock the previous afternoon.
Shortly after breakfast I was sent for by the Colonel to the orderly-room, and informed that it was the wish of the Brigadier that I should proceed with my company into the cantonments. I was ordered to make strict search for, and to take prisoner, any sepoys or bad characters that might be lurking about; and to this end I was to patrol the station from one side to the other. I was also to visit the commissariat quarters, disarm the native guard, using force if necessary, and secure the treasure chest, which contained some 20,000 rupees.
It struck me that this duty might very well have been performed many hours before. Why had not a company been detailed to patrol the cantonment the previous evening, or, at any rate, at the first sign of incendiarism?
However, I started without delay with ninety Grenadiers, and marched over a great part of the station, extending the company in skirmishing order whenever we passed through the numerous large gardens, orchards, and enclosures.
Not a soul was to be seen, and the place seemed entirely deserted. The sepoys, after their work of destruction, must have left during the night, and were now probably well on their way to Delhi, while the badmashes who had assisted them had returned quietly to their occupations in the bazaars of the city.
The cantonment presented a complete scene of desolation. The church and chapel were a heap of burnt-up and smouldering ruins, our mess-house the same, and numerous bungalows--former residences of the officers--were still on fire. The heat from the burning embers was intense, and as we passed slowly by we viewed, with anger in our hearts, the lamentable results of the timidity and vacillation, the irresolution and culpable neglect, of one man.
Lastly, we visited the commissariat quarters at the far side of the station. Here there was no guard, not even a native in charge. Strange inconsistency! It turned out that, some hours before our arrival, the sepoy guard, true in this respect to their trust, had procured a cart, taken the treasure to the fort, there handed it over to the officer at the gate, and then started for Delhi.
My duty was accomplished, and I marched the Grenadiers back to barracks, then reported the unsatisfactory result of my mission to the Colonel; and, thoroughly tired and worn out from want of rest, I threw myself on a bed and slept soundly for some hours.
We were told that afternoon that the 57th Native Infantry, who had marched to the rear of our barracks the evening before, had remained quietly in the country during the night without one sepoy showing any mutinous disposition. In the early morning, without molesting their English officers, about half the regiment signified their intention of marching down-country; while of the rest, some 300 men returned to their lines at Ferozepore, and on being called upon to do so by the Colonel, laid down their arms.
It must be recorded to the credit of these regiments that no officer was hurt by them, or even insulted. The sepoys quietly but firmly announced that they released themselves from the service of the East India Company, and were about to become enrolled as subjects of the King of Delhi. Then, in several instances even saluting their officers and showing them every mark of respect, they turned their faces to the great focus of rebellion, to swell the number of those who were about to fight against us in the Mohammedan capital of Hindostan.
The officers of these two corps were more fortunate than their comrades of other regiments throughout the land, many of whom were shot down by their own sepoys in cold blood under circumstances of signal barbarity. They saw their wives and children murdered before their faces, while those who escaped the fury of the sepoys wandered in helpless flight through jungles and plains, suffering incredible privations. Some few there were who reached a friendly station, or were succoured and hidden by loyal natives. But the greater number fell by the hands of the wretches who in these times of outrage and anarchy swarmed out of the low quarters of the cities, and swept unchecked over the whole country in hundreds and thousands.
The officers had taken up their quarters in the barracks in one or the centre buildings, which was reserved entirely for their use. Here we endeavoured to make ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, the large apartment serving at once as mess-house sitting-room and bedroom for us all. The Colonel alone lived apart, while the married ladies and their families for the present occupied the main guard bungalow pending arrangements for more suitable quarters.
The poor ladies, as was natural, were in a state of great agitation, and would not be comforted. We did our best to quiet their fears, telling them there was not the slightest danger as regarded their safety; that, even were we attacked by the rebels, they need have no dread of the result, for we were more than a match for double our number of sepoys. Still, it pained us much to see their distress, and we could only be thankful that, come what might, they were under the protection of British soldiers.
On the evening of May 14, at sunset, I was sitting smoking and chatting in the barrack-room with some of our officers when, quite unexpectedly, I was again called to the orderly-room, and directed to march with the Grenadier company on outlying picket to the left rear of the cantonment, and close to the lines of the disarmed sepoys. Two guns of the Light Field Battery, under a subaltern, were also placed under my orders, and I took with me a young ensign to assist me in my duties.
The Brigadier said he had received intelligence that an attack by the mutineers was expected from the direction of Lahore; and I was told to keep a sharp lookout, in case the enemy made during the night a flank movement on the station. I was also constantly to patrol the lines of the native regiments, to confine the sepoys to their huts, and to take prisoner any who ventured outside.
The short Indian twilight was drawing to a close when I arrived on the ground, and, without losing time, I drew up the Grenadiers in line, with the two guns a little in advance and on my left flank.
Two sentries were posted in front of the guns, two on the right and left of my small detachment, and two in the rear.
The plain extended before us for miles to the horizon, bare and treeless, without one intervening obstacle.
Evening closed and night came on--a night dark as Erebus, though the stars shone bright and luminous in the heavens. All nature was silent as the grave, and, save for the tramp of the sentinels and the marching away and return of the patrolling parties, for hours we heard no sound.
Before leaving barracks the picket had loaded the guns with grape and the old Brown Bess (there were no rifles in most of the Indian regiments in those far-off days) with ball-cartridge. I had also ordered the men to fix bayonets, and we were thus fully prepared to give a warm reception to any sepoys who might attack us. The arms were piled, and in silence we lay on the ground.
Presently, about midnight, one of the sentinels in front of the guns challenged:
"Who comes there?"
There was no answer, and the cry was repeated, the sentry at the same moment firing off his musket.
The company sprang to their arms, and I called on the sentries in front to retreat under cover of the guns. Almost simultaneously, and before the men could retire, flashes of fire appeared on the plain, and numerous shots came whistling over our heads, while, clear and distinct, a cry rang out, and we knew that one of the sentries had been hit. Close following the first came several straggling shots, but the rascals fired too high, and we had no casualty. I then ordered the men to fire a volley, and the artillery officer at the same time swept his front with grape from the two guns.
After these discharges all was still, and we strained our eyes in the darkness, but could see nothing. Then, taking with me a sergeant and four men, I proceeded to where the sentry had made the first challenge.
We found the poor fellow lying face downwards on the ground, and raising him up, saw that he was quite dead. Slowly and tenderly the body was borne to the picket, and on examination by the light of a lantern, we discovered that he had received a bullet over the region of the heart, and that death, therefore, must have been instantaneous. My heart sickened at the sight; this was my first contact with the horrors of war, and the remembrance will remain with me to my dying day.
The other sentinel was then questioned, and from him we learnt that, peering through the darkness when the challenge was first given, he had seen figures passing in his front across the plain. Soon they halted and fired, and then disappeared, probably having lain down to escape being hit by our men. Hearing this, I sent out a small reconnoitring party, which patrolled the plain for some distance. They returned with the news that all was quiet, and no human being was to be seen. Two fresh sentries were placed in front of the guns, and the men lay down as before, fully expecting another attack.
May 15.--All, however, passed off without further incident, and at sunrise I marched the picket to barracks and reported myself to the Brigadier. He made no comment on the events of the night, nor did he even ask for particulars as to the manner of the soldier's death. The mutineers, he said, were in scattered detachments still, no doubt prowling about the outskirts of the cantonment and in the neighbouring villages, taking advantage of every opportunity to harass and inflict loss on our soldiers.
From this time forward for nearly a month, with the single exception of one encounter with a body of mutineers, which I shall relate hereafter, no event of importance occurred at Ferozepore.
The chief danger had passed from our midst in the flight towards Delhi of more than half of the two battalions of sepoys, the disarmament of 300 of the 57th, and the imprisonment of those who had been captured fighting when attempting to take the arsenal.
Everything being thus comparatively peaceful, with no enemy in the vicinity, the Brigadier at last woke up to a sense of his duty; and extraordinary measures were taken by his command for the safety of the cantonments and lines of Ferozepore.
It was ordered that one company should be placed each night on advanced outlying picket, another on rear picket, and a third to be stationed at the main guard to furnish sentries as a cordon round the whole extent of the barracks. Two companies were to remain constantly in the fort in charge of a senior Captain, so that, out of the ten companies, six were always on duty.
Under the excitement which first prevailed, and the necessity of being prepared in case of a night attack from the roving bands of rebellious soldiery who from all directions were making for the imperial city, plundering and ravaging on the route, this duty was cheerfully undertaken. But as time went by, and week succeeded week, without a shot being fired to relieve the monotony of our lives, the work became irksome in the extreme.
The regiment therefore fell into a regular groove of guard and picket duty. We longed to have a fight with the enemy, and still were doomed to remain in a state of masterly inactivity. At the fort the work was most trying, and resolved itself into a course of manual labour. There it was ordered that under the ammunition sheds deep pits were to be dug in the ground. This duty was performed entirely by the English soldiers, and continued for a fortnight in the hottest season of the year. In the receptacles thus formed all the barrels of powder, as well as the small arms, ammunition, etc., were packed and stowed away, the whole being covered with earth to the depth of several feet. This was a very needful expedient, for a stray spark might have blown up the vast stores of munitions of war, without which it would have been impossible to carry on future operations against the enemy. No fires for any purpose were permitted in the fort, and, greatest deprivation of all, the men were not allowed to smoke during the twenty-four hours they were on guard.
Three or four days after the outbreak, and when everything seemed quiet in and around the cantonment, two officers and myself, taking with us some native labourers carrying spades and shovels, proceeded, under orders from our Colonel, to search for the silver plate buried under the ruins of our mess-house. We found the brick walls standing; but all inside the building was one mass of ashes and still-smouldering embers.
We knew the locality of the plate chest, and, setting the coolies to work, after infinite labour, which lasted some hours, we succeeded in removing a vast heap of cinders, and found portions of the silver. A little lower down we came on more; and here were seen spoons melted almost out of shape by fire. The large silver dishes, plates and cups--many of the latter of priceless value, for they had been acquired by the regiment during the Peninsular War--were lying one on top of the other just as they had been placed in the chest, but all ruined and disfigured, half melted and blackened from the intense heat.
Close by, where they had fallen off a table, were the four massive silver candelabra, the gift of distinguished officers who had formerly served in the corps. These were twisted out of all shape, and beyond hope of repair, of no value but for the bullion. Other articles there were, such as snuff-boxes, drinking-horns, and table ornaments; not one single piece of silver had escaped the action of the fire.
It was a sorry sight to look on the total destruction of our beautiful mess furniture. Costly goods had been sacrificed which no money could replace; not one single article belonging to the officers had been saved.
Gathering together all the silver we could find, and lamenting the incompetence by which we had lost property amounting in value to £2,000, we placed everything in a cart and conveyed it to the barracks.
Many months afterwards the Government directed a committee of officers to value the effects destroyed by the mutineers, to the end that remuneration might be granted to the regiment for loss sustained. This committee, after due consideration, placed the estimate at a very low figure--viz., £1,500. The parsimony of those in power refused us full payment of this just debt, intimated also that the demand was exorbitant, and closed all further action in the matter by sending us a draft on the Treasury for half the amount claimed.
For the first week or ten days after the outbreak at Ferozepore we knew very little of what was occurring down-country, as well as throughout the Punjab, the province of the "Five Rivers" to our north. In that newly-acquired territory there were twenty-six regiments of the native army, while the Sikhs, the warlike people who inhabited the land, had met us in deadly conflict only nine years before. From the latter, then, as well as from the sepoys, there was cause for great anxiety. Every precaution, therefore, was necessary to guard the Ferozepore Arsenal, the largest, next to Delhi, in Upper India. The temper of the Sikhs was uncertain; no one could foretell which side they would take in the coming struggle. Our Empire in Hindostan--during the month of May more especially--trembled in the balance. There was infinite cause for alarm for months afterwards even to the Fall of Delhi; but at no time were we in such a strait as at that period when the loyalty or defection of the Sikh regiments and people was an open question.
The genius of Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab, warded off the danger. That eminent man, the saviour of India, issued a proclamation calling on the Sikhs to aid us in our trouble. They came at once in hundreds--nay, thousands--to enlist on our side. Veterans of Runjeet Singh's Khalsa army, the men who had withstood us on equal terms in many sanguinary battles, animated by intense hatred of the Poorbeah sepoy, enrolled themselves in the ranks of the British army, and fought faithfully for us to the end of the war. Their help was our safety; without these soldiers, and the assistance rendered by their chieftains, Delhi could never have been taken; while, on the other hand, had they risen and cast in their lot with the mutinous sepoys, no power on earth could have saved us from total annihilation.
The Sikhs are the beau-ideal of soldiers. Tall and erect in bearing, wiry and well-knit, and of great muscular development, their whole appearance stamps them as men who look upon themselves as "lords of the soil," whom it would be difficult to conquer. And without doubt the campaigns of 1845-46 and 1848-49 were the hardest in which we had been engaged in India.
For 100 years they had dominated the land of the Five Rivers. Ever eager for war, their turbulent spirits gave them no rest. It had been a belief that they would in the future acquire the sovereignty of Hindostan, and I know for certain that among the soldiers for many years there had been a tradition that one day they would sack the imperial city of Delhi.
The latter expectation was in a manner fulfilled; but not as an independent nation or under their own leaders did they capture and plunder the Mohammedan capital: they accomplished that feat as loyal subjects of the British Crown.
Every now and then news reached us of the spread of the Mutiny, till from Calcutta to Peshawar there were few stations where the native troops had not joined in the rebellion. Cavalry, infantry, and artillery, all had risen in revolt. The wave of mutiny was surging to and fro throughout the land, and as yet little had been done to stem the tide. True, a small force was being assembled at Umballah, which, under the Commander-in-Chief, was about to march to Delhi, but of the doings of that army we could learn no satisfactory tidings.
The closing days of the month of May passed wearily by, and time hung heavily on our hands. We felt the inevitable reaction from the first few days of excitement, and also missed the comforts and ease to which we had been accustomed in former hot seasons. The barracks were close and stuffy, and the officers, in place of the luxury of their bungalows and their pleasant mess, had to endure privations of every kind.
Hot winds, parching up the already arid ground, blew fiercely every day. At sunset the breeze usually died away; and though the temperature lessened somewhat in degree, we felt a choking sensation from the effects of the dry, still atmosphere. No officer slept in the barrack-room; our servants carried the beds outside, and there, lying down and gasping for breath, we vainly courted the sleep that would not come.
There was, however, a humorous side to this desolate picture, which I must now relate, as it shows that, notwithstanding the state of dejection to which we had been reduced, there still lurked a spirit of fun and mischief among the officers.
For some time after the revolt we had "night-attacks" on the brain. Nothing was spoken of but the chance of our lines being assaulted by wandering bodies of mutinous sepoys. The order-book each evening, reminding us of the danger, inculcated strict vigilance on picket and on guard. So long did this last without any attack being made that the shadowy expectation of what never occurred became our bugbear, a chimera which haunted us night and day.
At last, in a happy hour, it entered into the mind of one of our young Lieutenants, an Irishman, imbued with the spirit of fun, and the jolliest fellow in the regiment, that this illusion under which we were all labouring might be made the subject for a frolic.
He communicated his ideas to myself and some others of the junior officers, and it was then and there decided that, as the sepoys would not attack us, we would create a little excitement and diversion by playing for the nonce the role of mutineers.
The council of war then agreed unanimously that an assault was to be made on the remaining officers when asleep outside the barracks, and that the weapons to be used should be bolsters and pillows.
A certain night was fixed on for the accomplishment of our purpose, and the signal for the attack was to be given by the originator of the plot, who would take upon himself to make sure that the enemy were off their guard, wrapped in the arms of Morpheus.
Everything had been arranged to our satisfaction, and the eventful night came. At ten o'clock lights were put out, and the assaulting party, consisting of six stalwart young subalterns, lay down on their beds outside the barracks, ranged here and there among those who were to play the part of the enemy, and waited for the signal from our commander.
Our opponents seemed to take an unconscionable long time in going to sleep, but at length, in the small hours of the morning, when all was quiet, the "alarm" was sounded in a low whistle.
Jumping up from our beds, each man armed himself with a bolster. In stern and solemn silence our force was marshalled for the attack, and then, without any word of warning, each one began belabouring with all his might the recumbent figures of the foe.
Startled out of their sleep, and in a half-dreamy state of unconsciousness, it may be imagined with what strange feelings they received this assault. Some, more especially the older officers (for in our zeal we spared no one), seemed perfectly bewildered, and in the midst of the shower of blows which rained on them without intermission vowed vengeance and threatened to put us under arrest. We answered them that this was a "night-attack," and they must prepare for defence, as no quarter would be given.
Even the fat and portly Major, notwithstanding his rank, felt the strength of our arms, and, almost bereft of breath between each blow, commanded us to desist. He might as well have spoken to the winds: our blood was up, and the spirit of fun had taken possession, so that I verily believe, had the Colonel or Brigadier been lying there, neither of them would have escaped our onslaught.
The enemy were now fully aroused, and, not relishing the fun of being buffeted unmercifully in their beds without resistance, they one and all turned out and, seizing their pillows, joined in the fight. The attack, begun with tactical judgment, turned now into a confused mêlée. Friend and foe were mixed up in one grand shindy, and for many minutes the battle continued without intermission. Blows fell fast and thick; there was a rushing about of half-clad figures swaying bolsters, and each one intent on the same object--namely, that of overcoming his antagonist for the time being. So weird, and yet so utterly ludicrous a sight, surely never has been seen before or since in India.
At length, from sheer exhaustion, the combat came to an end, and, sitting on our beds panting from fatigue, and overcome by the heat of the night, we discussed the incidents of the fight. Some of the senior officers seemed at first inclined to treat the attack as something more than a joke, and threatened to report us to the Colonel. We pointed out to them that such a proceeding would be absurd, for had they not also compromised themselves by joining in the fray? It was not long, however, before they were struck with the grand ridiculousness of this very strange episode; and the question at issue, as may naturally be supposed, ended in laughter. Peace being restored, we wished each other good-night, and, thoroughly worn out by our exertions, all slept soundly till break of day.
The affair was kept quiet as far as possible, but gradually got noised abroad among other regiments of Her Majesty's infantry. Great amusement was caused by the recital, nor for a long period afterwards was the comical "night-attack" at Ferozepore forgotten.
The trial of the sepoys who had been taken prisoners when resisting the detachment sent to disarm them in the fort, and of those also who attacked the arsenal on May 13, had been proceeding for some time. It was a general court-martial composed of thirteen officers, presided over by a Lieutenant-Colonel. Of the prisoners taken, some 100 were singled out as the ringleaders, the rest being put back for trial till a future occasion.
The evidence was most clear as to the heinous offences of mutiny and rebellion with regard to all these men, and they were accordingly found guilty. Sentence was at once pronounced on fourteen of the sepoys, and the punishment was death.
Two men of low caste were to be hanged, while the remaining twelve, comprising Mohammedans and high-caste Hindoos, were to expiate their crime by that most awful and ghastly penalty, execution by being blown to pieces from the mouths of cannons.
This terrible punishment had been but seldom inflicted during British rule in India, the last instance occurring in 1825, when a native regiment mutinied and refused to cross the sea to take part in the first Burmese War.
Neither was it from the English that this special death penalty originated. It had been for hundreds of years the recognized punishment for mutiny and rebellion throughout Hindostan, and in numberless cases was carried out by the Mogul Emperors.
With us at this period it was found necessary to strike terror into the hearts of the rebels, to prove to them that we were resolved at all hazards to crush the revolt, and to give warning that to those who were taken fighting against us no mercy would be shown.
On religious grounds also the infliction of the death penalty by blowing away mutineers at the mouths of cannons was dreaded both by the Hindoos and Mohammedans.
The Hindoo, unless the corpse after death is burnt to ashes with all ceremony, or else consigned to the sacred stream of the Ganges, cannot partake of the glories of the future state, nor dwell in bliss everlasting with the gods of his mythology.
So with the Mohammedan, the Koran enjoins that all true believers must be buried with the body in the natural state, and only those are exempted who have lost limbs in fighting against the infidel. The joys of Paradise, where ever-young and beautiful houris minister to the wants and pleasures of the faithful, were therefore not for those who met a shameful death and were denied or unable to obtain burial in the orthodox manner.
Thus, it will be seen, the terrors of future shame and dishonour resulted to both Hindoo and Mohammedan by the death we were about to inflict on them; and it was for the awe inspired by the punishment that the military authorities at this time thought proper to carry it out in this unaccustomed manner.
June 13.--The morning of June 13 was fixed upon for the execution. A gallows was erected on the plain to the north side of the fort, facing the native bazaars, and at a distance of some 300 yards. On this two sepoys were to be hanged, and at the same time their comrades in mutiny were to be blown away from guns.
We paraded at daylight every man off duty, and, with the band playing, marched to the place of execution, and drew up in line near the gallows and opposite the native quarter.
Shortly after our arrival the European Light Field Battery, of six guns, appeared on the scene, forming up on our left flank, and about twenty yards in front of the Light Company.
The morning was close and sultry, not a cloud in the sky, and not a breath of wind stirring; and I confess I felt sick with a suffocating sense of horror when I reflected on the terrible sight I was about to witness.
Soon the fourteen mutineers, under a strong escort of our men with fixed bayonets, were seen moving from the fort. They advanced over the plain at our rear, and drew up to the left front of, and at right angles to, the battery of artillery.
I was standing at the extreme right of the line with the Grenadier Company, and some distance from the guns; but I had provided myself with a pair of strong glasses, and therefore saw all that followed clearly and distinctly.
There was no unnecessary delay in the accomplishment of the tragedy. Two of the wretched creatures were marched off to the gallows, and placed with ropes round their necks on a raised platform under the beam.
The order was given for the guns to be loaded, and quick as thought the European artillerymen placed a quarter charge of powder in each piece. The guns were 9-pounders, the muzzles standing about 3 feet from the ground.
During these awful preparations, I watched at intervals the faces of the condemned men, but could detect no traces of fear or agitation in their demeanour. The twelve stood two deep, six in front and six in the rear, calm and undismayed, without uttering a word.
An officer came forward, and, by the Brigadier's order, read the sentence of the court-martial, and at its conclusion the six men in front, under escort, walked towards the battery.
There was a death-like silence over the scene at this time, and, overcome with horror, my heart seemed almost to cease beating.
Arrived at the guns, the culprits were handed over to the artillerymen, who, ready prepared with strong ropes in their hands, seized their victims. Each of these, standing erect, was bound to a cannon and tightly secured, with the small of the back covering the muzzle. And then all at once the silence which reigned around was broken by the oaths and yells of those about to die. These sounds were not uttered by men afraid of death, for they showed the most stoical indifference, but were the long-suppressed utterances of dying souls, who, in the bitterness of their hearts, cursed those who had been instrumental in condemning them to this shameful end. They one and all poured out maledictions on our heads; and in their language, one most rich in expletives, they exhausted the whole vocabulary.
Meanwhile the gunners stood with lighted port-fires, waiting for the word of command to fire the guns and launch the sepoys into eternity.
These were still yelling and raining abuse, some even looking over their shoulders and watching without emotion the port-fires, about to be applied to the touch-holes, when the word "Fire!" sounded from the officer in command, and part of the tragedy was at an end.
A thick cloud of smoke issued from the muzzles of the cannons, through which were distinctly seen by several of us the black heads of the victims, thrown many feet into the air.
While this tragic drama was enacting, the two sepoys to be hanged were turned off the platform.
The artillerymen again loaded the guns, the six remaining prisoners, cursing like their comrades, were bound to them, another discharge, and then an execution, the like of which I hope never to see again, was completed.
All this time a sickening, offensive smell pervaded the air, a stench which only those who have been present at scenes such as these can realize--the pungent odour of burnt human flesh.
The artillerymen had neglected putting up back-boards to their guns, so that, horrible to relate, at each discharge the recoil threw back pieces of burning flesh, bespattering the men and covering them with blood and calcined remains.
A large concourse of natives from the bazaars and city had assembled in front of the houses, facing the guns at a distance, as I said before, of some 300 yards, to watch the execution. At the second discharge of the cannon, and on looking before me, I noticed the ground torn up and earth thrown a slight distance into the air more than 200 paces away. Almost at the same time there was a commotion among the throng in front, some running to and fro, while others ran off in the direction of the houses. I called the attention of an officer who was standing by my side to this strange and unaccountable phenomenon, and said, half joking: "Surely the scattered limbs of the sepoys have not been carried so far?"
He agreed with me that such was impossible; but how to account for the sight we had seen was quite beyond our comprehension.
The drama came to an end about six o'clock, and as is usual, even after a funeral or a military execution, the band struck up an air, and we marched back to barracks, hoping soon to drive from our minds the recollection of the awful scenes we had witnessed.
Two or three hours after our return news arrived that one native had been killed and two wounded among the crowd which had stood in our front, spectators of the recent execution. How this happened has never been explained. At this time a "cantonment guard" was mounted, consisting of a company of European infantry, half a troop of the 10th Light Cavalry, and four guns, and two of these guns loaded with grape were kept ready during the night, the horses being harnessed, etc. Half the cavalry also was held in readiness, saddled; in fact, every precaution was taken to meet an attack.
As far as I can recollect, there were but two executions by blowing away from guns on any large scale by us during the Mutiny; one of them that at Ferozepore.
[Illustration: Plan of the Military Station at FEROZEPORE]
[Footnote 1: Brigadier-General Innes.]
[Footnote 2: Major Redmond.]
[Footnote 3: Colonel William Jones, C.B.]