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Chapter II: On the march

After the excitement of the late executions we were prepared to relapse into our usual state of inaction and monotony, when, on the morning of June 13, a courier arrived from Lahore, the headquarters of the Executive Government of the Punjab. He brought instructions and orders from Sir John Lawrence to the Brigadier commanding at Ferozepore to the effect that a wing of Her Majesty's 61st Regiment was to proceed at once to reinforce the army under Sir Henry Barnard, now besieging the city of Delhi.

That force, on June 8, had fought an action with the mutineers at Badli-ki-Serai, four miles from Delhi, driving them from their entrenched position and capturing thirteen guns. The siege of the Mohammedan stronghold had begun on the next day, but the small band of English, Sikhs, and Goorkhas which composed the force was quite inadequate to the task entrusted to it, and, in truth, could do nothing but act on the defensive against the horde of rebellious sepoys, who outnumbered them by four to one.

It may be conceived with what joy the order to advance was received by the officers and men of my regiment. We had at length a prospect of entering upon a regular campaign, and the hearts of all of us beat high at the chance of seeing active service against the enemy.

To the Colonel commanding it was left to select the five companies composing a wing of the corps to march to Delhi. All, of course, were eager to go, and we knew there would be heart-burnings and regrets amongst those left behind.

The following companies were chosen out of the ten: Grenadiers, Nos. 2, 3, 7, and the Light Company. They were the strongest in point of numbers in the regiment, and with the fewest men in hospital, so that it could not be said that any favouritism in selection was shown by the Colonel. The wing numbered, all told, including officers and the band, 450 men--a timely reinforcement, which, together with the same number of Her Majesty's 8th Foot from Jullundur, would increase materially the army before Delhi.

No time was lost in making preparations for the march. Our camp equipage was ready at hand, a sufficient number of elephants, camels, and oxen were easily procured from the commissariat authorities, and by eight o'clock that evening we were on our way.

In those days a European regiment on the line of march in India presented a striking scene. Each corps had its own quota of camp-followers, numbering in every instance more than the regiment itself, so that transport was required for fully 2,000 souls, and often when moving along the road the baggage-train extended a mile in length. The camp, when pitched, covered a large area of ground. Everything was regulated with the utmost order, and the positions of the motley group were defined to a nicety.

We had been directed to take as small a kit as possible, each officer being limited to two camels to carry his tent and personal effects. Our native servants accompanied us on the line of march, and I must here mention that during the long campaign on which we were about to enter there was not one single instance of desertion among these faithful and devoted followers.

Everything being ready, we paraded a little before sunset on the evening of June 13. The terrible heat which prevailed at this time of the year prevented us from marching during the day-time. Moreover, it was necessary to preserve the health of the soldiers at this critical period, when every European in India was required to make head against the rebels. So on every occasion when practicable the English regiments moving over the country marched at night, resting under cover of their tents during the day.[1]

Shortly after sunset, we bade adieu (an eternal one, alas! for many of the gallant souls assembled) to the comrades we were leaving behind; the band struck up, and we set off in high spirits on our long and arduous march of more than 350 miles.

The night, as usual, was close and sultry, with a slight hot wind blowing; but the men stepped out briskly, the soldiers of the leading company presently striking up a well-known song, the chorus of which was joined in by the men in the rear. We marched slowly, for it was necessary every now and then to halt so as to allow the long train of baggage to come up; and it was nearly sunrise before we reached the first halting-ground. The camp was pitched, and we remained under cover all day, starting, as before, soon after sunset.

And thus passed the sixteen days which were occupied in reaching Delhi. Every precaution was taken to prevent surprise, as we were marching, to all intents and purposes, through an enemy's country, and expected attacks on our baggage from straggling bodies of mutineers.

June 18.--At Loodianah, five marches from Ferozepore, and which we reached on June 18, we were fortunate enough to find more comfortable quarters, the men moving into some of the buildings which had formerly been occupied by Her Majesty's 50th Regiment, the officers living in the Kacherri.

Here, behind tatties and under punkas, and with iced drinks, we were able to keep pretty cool; but, sad to say, soon after our arrival in the station that terrible scourge cholera broke out in our ranks, and in a few hours six men succumbed to this frightful malady. On every succeeding day men were attacked and died, so that, unhappily, up to July 1 we lost in all thirty gallant fellows.

This disease never left us during the entire campaign; upwards of 250 soldiers of my regiment fell victims to the destroyer; nor were we entirely free from it till the end of the year. Many more were attacked, who recovered, but were debarred through excessive weakness from serving in the ranks, and were invalided home.

June 23.--On reaching Umballah, we found the station all but deserted, nearly all the European troops having been sent on to join the Delhi force. The church had been placed in a state of defence, all its walls loopholed, and around it had been constructed a work consisting of a wall and parapet, with towers of brickwork armed with field-pieces en barbette at the angles.

In it were quartered some of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, lately brought down from Dagshai. About ninety of these marched with us to Delhi. Here also we were joined by four officers of the (late) 57th Native Infantry, who had received orders to join our wing, eventually to fill up vacancies in the native corps on reaching the scene of operations. With these we were in all twenty-four officers--rather a strong complement even for a whole regiment.

The concluding days of the march were trying in the extreme. Weary and footsore, and often parched with thirst, we tramped along the hot and dusty roads, often for miles up to our ankles in deep sand. We were so tired and overcome with want of rest that many of us actually fell fast asleep along the road, and would be rudely awakened by falling against others who were in the same plight as ourselves. At midnight we rested, when coffee and refreshment were served out to the officers and men. The halt sounded every hour, and for five minutes we threw ourselves down on the hard ground or on the hot sand and at once fell asleep, waking up somewhat restored to continue our toilsome journey.

From Jugraon onward we had rather long marches, and it was considered advisable to convey the men part of the way in hackeries; the arrangement being that they should march halfway, then halt for coffee and refreshment, and afterwards ride the remainder of the distance.

By this means they were kept fresh for the work before them, which, we had every reason to believe, would be anything but light. At Umballah I took the opportunity of calling on my friend Mr. George Barnes, the Commissioner of the Cis-Sutlej States. He had shown me boundless hospitality, and was like a father to me when I joined my regiment as a lad at Kussowlie. A man of great intellectual attainments and sound judgment, he was an honour to the Bengal Civil Service. There was no officer at that momentous period in whom Sir John Lawrence placed more confidence. His familiarity with the native character, and the friendship borne towards him by the Sikh chieftains, enabled him throughout the Siege of Delhi to keep open communication with the Punjab, and supply the force with stores, provisions, and ammunition. He would, without doubt, have risen to the highest honours in his profession had he not been stricken with a fatal illness in 1859, when holding the responsible post of Foreign Secretary to the Government of India.

A few marches from Delhi we passed over the historic field of Paniput, where three sanguinary battles had been fought in different ages, each deciding the fate of Hindostan for the time being. More than 100,000 men had been slain in these actions, and we felt we were marching over ground the dust of which was thickly permeated with the ashes of human beings.

Here first we heard the sound of distant cannonades, borne thus far to our ears by the stillness of the night--a sound which told us that our comrades before Delhi were still holding their position against the enemy.

At length, on July 1, just as the sun was rising, we emerged from a forest of trees on to the plain over which the army under Sir Henry Barnard had moved on June 8 to attack the entrenchments of the mutineers at Badli-ki-Serai.

July 1.--Eagerly we cast our eyes over the ground to our front, and with pride in our hearts thought of that gallant little force which had advanced across this plain on that eventful morn under a terrific fire from the enemy's guns.

Soon we reached the entrenchments which had been thrown up by the rebels to bar the progress of our soldiers, and, lying in all directions, we saw numerous skeletons of men and horses, the bones already bleached to whiteness from the effects of the burning sun. Dead bodies of camels and oxen were also strewn about, and the stench was sickening. We were now about four miles from Delhi, and were met by a squadron of the 6th Carabineers, sent to escort us into camp. They received us with a shout of welcome, and, while we halted for a short time, inquiries were made as to the incidents of the siege.

We learnt that our small army, with the tenacity of a bulldog, was holding its own on the ridge overlooking the city, that sorties by the rebels were of almost daily and nightly occurrence, and that the losses on our side were increasing.

With the Carabineers in our front, the march was continued, the white tents of the besieging force appearing in sight about eight o'clock. Then the band struck up "Cheer, boys, cheer!" and, crossing the canal by a bridge, we entered the camp.

Crowds of soldiers, European as well as native, stalwart Sikhs and Punjabees, came down to welcome us on our arrival, the road on each side being lined with swarthy, sun-burnt, and already war-worn men. They cheered us to the echo, and in their joy rushed amongst our ranks, shaking hands with both officers and men.


[Footnote 1: The heat even under such cover was intense, averaging 115° Fahr.]