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The Central Indian Campaign page 2


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It was in a country like this, and in weather like this, that our troops and their general had to march and tight. On the 19th the brigade halted, while cavalry and guns reconnoitred Jhansi, and on the 21st the whole force set out and halted before that place. Jhansi, the reader will remember, was the scene of one of the bloodiest tragedies in India; the scene of a foul massacre, accomplished by treachery, and only exceeded in magnitude by that at Cawnpore. The brave but vicious Ranee was like the Begum of Oude, determined to hold her own. Since she had been in full possession, she had repaired the strong walls which surround the city, mounted guns upon them and on the flanking bastions, cleared out the ditches, erected outworks well devised and well built; and even when the British encamped before her stronghold, her willing subjects were still hard at work throwing up fresh defences. She had been aided by Tantia Topee, a retainer of Nana Sahib. This remarkable man had served in the Bengal Artillery. He was a weaver by trade - hence his name, which means the weaver artilleryman. After leaving the British service he entered that of Nana Sahib at Bithoor, and when the latter struck for empire, the talents of his artilleryman soon came into play. Tantia Topee had the brain of a soldier without the heart. He could plan, and scheme, and raise armies, and direct their movements, but he could not lead them. An avowed coward, the natives regarded his cowardice as an infirmity, and were willing to accept his services without demanding from him qualities he did not possess. As Sir Hugh Rose appeared before Jhansi, Tantia Topee rode off to Calpee, there to organise a relieving army around the wreck of the famous Gwalior Contingent.

The British troops encamped on a plain without shelter of any kind, for, with great judgment, the Ranee had caused the trees to be destroyed. There were some groves near the wall of the town, but the fortress on its granite rock stood up in the midst of an arid plain. The troops depended upon Scindia and the Ranee of Tehree for supplies of firewood, forage, and vegetables. As soon as he encamped, Sir Hugh Rose surveyed the place thoroughly, riding all day in the burning sun, and seeing everything for himself. Thus he was enabled to direct the investment of Jhansi with his cavalry, a work which was completed on the 22nd. That night the first battery was constructed, about 300 yards from the town wall. It was done silently and effectually. But daylight disclosed the work, and the enemy began to pound it, soon getting the range; and to raise a counter battery intended to enfilade it. By the 24th four batteries were constructed and in action. Their shot silenced several guns and demolished the works of the enemy, and their shells set fire to the town; while the infantry, spread out in front, skirmished with the Sepoys in the cottages and enclosures. The force was now strengthened by the arrival of the 1st Brigade from Chandaree, and Sir Hugh immediately extended his front of attack, and established batteries on his left.

For the next five days the bombardment continued. The enemy fought his guns admirably, and showed great determination. Our troops grew excited with the work. They were eager to storm and sack a city infamous for the murder of so many of their countrymen and countrywomen, and they laboured in the summer heat with a cheerfulness and constancy which must have made glad the heart of Sir Hugh Rose. The infantry, the gunners, and the cavalry of the Hyderabad Contingent rivalled the Europeans. As the walls came tumbling down, as flames blazed up in the city, when an explosion occurred in the fort, the men cheered lustily, and laboured with redoubled ardour. The pluck of the enemy was manifest, and our men could not fail to respect it; but they grew more grim and earnest, and more resolute to win.

On the 31st anew danger, not wholly unforeseen, appeared. Sir Hugh, anticipating a movement of the rebel army at Calpee, had established a telegraph on the hills to the east, worked with flags. On the 31st the flags waved saying, "Here come the enemy in great force from the north." Sir Hugh was not at all disconcerted. He had expected that an effort would be made to relieve the place, and he had meditated on the best mode of thwarting it. As soon as he heard, therefore, that Tantia Topee had brought 20,000 men from Calpee, and placed them on his right flank, close to the city, ho knew what to do. It was evening when the news came. Knowing where the enemy was, the general prepared a surprise for them. He determined to fight the enemy and continue the siege - one of the hardiest resolutions ever taken by any general, especially when we consider the fact that he had only 1,200 men available for battle.

But his plan was masterly. As soon as it was dark he caused his 1st Brigade to strike tents, and then he marched them silently into a position on the left flank of the foe. Then he reinforced it by two 24-pounders, so placed that they swept the road to the city. The enemy were the more elated because they saw but few tents in our camp, and they halted at dusk close on the front of the 2nd Brigade, and made merry. But morning showed them another sight. At daylight we opened on them with artillery, cutting up their left flank. Our infantry were lying down, our horse held ready for a charge. The unexpected fire of the 1st Brigade guns soon shook them; and, swiftly discerning symptoms of unsteadiness, our cavalry went in with a crash, Rose leading one body, Prettyjohn another. The flank was rolled up in a moment, and the infantry following the cavalry, the enemy was driven back with great slaughter. Then the infantry, moving across the battle field, fell upon the opposite flank, cut the rebels off from the city, and followed them up with vigour. Tantia Topee had prepared a second line, but Rose left him no time to use it. Bursting in on both flanks, our troops forced the enemy to retreat upon the Betwa, and pursued so sharply that they drove the rebels over the river with the loss of every gun brought into the field. Thus did 1,200 men, of whom only 500 were Europeans, defeat 20,000, while their comrades carried on the siege with unrelenting vigour. This battle was fought on the 1st of April; on the 3rd it was resolved that Jhansi should be taken by storm. From the right batteries the wall& were to be carried by escalade; on the left the stormers were to sweep in through a breach; the signal was to be the opening of guns on the west face, as though an attack were to be made there.

The moon shone brightly as the columns marched out of their camps to appointed places. The Sappers, the 3rd Europeans, and the Hyderabad Infantry were to scale the walls; the 86th Foot and the 25th Native Infantry were to go in at the breach. The signal was given, and the men emerged from cover into the broad moonlight. The enemy were on the alert, and met the columns with a storm of shot. " We had upwards of 200 yards to march through this fiendish fire," writes Mr. Lowe, who, as medical officer to the Sappers, accompanied the right column, " and we did it. The Sappers planted the ladders against the wall in three places for the stormers to ascend; but the fire of the enemy waxed stronger, and amid the chaos of sounds, of volleys of musketry, and roaring of cannon, and hissing and bursting of rockets, stink-pots, infernal machines, huge stones, blocks of wood, and trees, all hurled upon their devoted heads - the men wavered for a moment, and sheltered themselves behind stones. But the ladders were there, and there the Sappers, animated by the heroism of their officers, keeping firm hold until a wound or death struck them down beneath the walls. It seemed as though Pluto and the furies had been loosed upon us; and inside bugles were sounding, and tom-toms beating madly, while the cannon and the musket were booming and rattling, and carrying death among us fast. At this instant, on our right, three of the ladders broke under the weight of men, and a bugle sounded on our right also for the Europeans to retire! A brief pause, and again the stormers rushed to the ladders, led on by the engineer officers. In a few moments Lieutenant Dick (Bombay Engineers) was at the top, fighting bravely, and calling on the 3rd Europeans to follow him; Lieutenant Meiklejohns (Bombay Engineers) had gained the summit of another ladder, and boldly leaped over the wall into the midst of the enemy; Lieutenant Bonus ( Bombay Engineers) was upon another. In a few seconds more Lieutenant Dick fell from the wall, bayoneted, and shot dead; Lieutenant Bonus was hurled down, struck by a log of wood or stone in the face, and Lieutenant Fox (Madras Sappers) was shot through the neck; but the British soldiery pushed on, and in streams from some eight ladders at length gained a footing upon the ramparts, dealing death among the enemy, who still contested every point of the attack in overwhelming numbers."

As soon as they were in they heard the shouts of the left column, who had broken in at the breach, and came rushing along the ramparts. The two columns joined and dashed into the town. No quarter was given. The city and its people were held to be accursed. Our men had too keen a remembrance of the massacre to show any mercy, except to women and children. There were fights in every street, almost in every house; and in the palace, in the stables, battle and slaughter and conflagration. The Ranee, who had fled into the fort, kept up a fire on the palace. Part of the town was in flames. In the midst of this uproar, the men were hunting on all sides for enemies and slaying them. The Sepoys and rebels were surrounded in the town and out of it, and very few escaped who stayed to bear the shock of fight. This went on all the 3rd and 4th, and on the 5th, Lieutenant Baigrie, of the 3rd Europeans, found the fort had been abandoned. Our loss in this storm of Jhansi was 300 killed and wounded.

Much property that had belonged to victims of the mutiny and the Ranee's treachery was found in the palace and other buildings, and sad relics of the slaughter. The burial service was read over the pit into which the bodies of the murdered had been thrown.

The weather was now so hot, and the force so exhausted, that Sir Hugh found himself obliged to give the troops some rest, and also to replenish his stores. He halted three weeks, and then, after leaving a garrison in the place, resumed active operations. The 1st Brigade marched for Calpee on the 25th; the 2nd a few days afterwards. The sufferings of the troops on the march were dreadful, chiefly from want of water - a want which the transport animals, even the camels, felt keenly. On the 5th of May the two brigades, reinforced by the 71st Highlanders, united. The enemy made a stand at Koonch, and was routed, with the loss of eight guns. The battle of Koonch would have been more disastrous for the enemy had not Brigadier Stuart held back his brigade. The sun killed more on our side than the enemy; and Sir Hugh Rose himself was prostrated three times with the heat.

The enemy, weakened and disheartened, drew up at Calpee. Here were the Ranee of Jhansi, the Nawab of Banda - driven off by Whitlock's column, which had slowly, and without adventure, worked its way as far as Banda - and Tantia Topee. Here they drew up among the tombs and ravines on the south side of Calpee. But Sir Hugh Rose swept round to the east, and encamping on the Jumna, entered into communication with Colonel Maxwell, who held his brigade on the opposite bank of the river. It was now the 15th of May. The strong front of the enemy's position had been turned, but he found in the ravines that ran between Sir Hugh's camp and Calpee endless facilities for attack; and every day until the 22nd the enemy made repeated attacks. On the 20th Maxwell sent over a few troops, and on the 21st his artillery shelled the town. On the 22nd the enemy came out in great force, and attacked Sir Hugh in position at Gowlowlee. This combat was, perhaps, the sharpest in which Sir Hugh had been engaged. The enemy, in thousands, not only attacked the front with great resolution, but repeatedly tried to turn the left flank. Several times his infantry charged up to the guns. For some time, so numerous were the assailants, it was with the greatest difficulty that our soldiers helcl their ground; and had not the right been promptly reinforced it must have been overpowered. But Sir Hugh Rose, at the right moment, assaulted the enemy's right with a vigour that was irresistible; and then, advancing the whole line, drove the enemy in disorder from the field. He retired to Calpee; but on the 23rd he was driven out without much trouble, pursued by the cavalry, and relieved of all his guns.

Such seemed to be the natural termination of this astonishing campaign in the hot season. The troops had traversed Central India from Indore to Calpee; had been four months in the sun, and were now literally exhausted. Thinking his labours were at an end, and dreaming of some rest for himself and his men, Sir Hugh issued a parting order to his force, which well deserves a place in our narrative. "Soldiers!" wrote the general, in manly language, "you have marched more than a thousand miles, and taken more than a hundred guns; you have forced your way through mountain passes and intricate jungles, and over rivers; you have captured the strongest forts, and beat the enemy, no matter what the odds, wherever you met him; you have restored extensive districts to the Government, and peace and order now reign where before, for twelve months, were tyranny and rebellion; you have done all this, and you have never had a check. I thank you with all my sincerity for your bravery, your devotion, and your discipline. When you first marched I told you that you, as British soldiers, had more than enough of courage for the work which was before you, but that courage without discipline was of no avail; and I exhorted you to let discipline be your watchword. You have attended to my orders. In hardships, in temptations, and in dangers you have obeyed your general, and you never left your ranks. You have fought against the strong, and you have protected the rights of the weak and defenceless, of foes as well as of friends. I have seen you in the ardour of the combat preserve and place children out of harm's way. This is the discipline of Christian soldiers, and this it is which has brought you triumphant from the shores of Western India to the waters of the Jumna, and establishes, without doubt, that you will find no place to equal the glory of our arms! " This noble address was issued on the 1st of June. Sir Hugh was ill. Five times in the battle of Gowlowlee had he been stricken down by the sun, and at one moment he directed the battle sitting under a tree, with his head swathed in wet cloths. Nearly all his staff were exhausted. He himself was about to go on leave, having obtained a sick certificate. But now came startling news. Gwalior was in the hands of the rebels, and the Maharajah Scindia a fugitive at Agra!

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Captain Sir William Peel
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