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Delhi Field Force March to Dehli

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December 16, 1857
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Mirza Firuz Shah
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Military
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Bahadur Shah II 1837–1857

Delhi Field Force March to Dehli

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The British army storm the batteries at Battle of Badli-ki-Serai near Delhi, during the Hindustan Rebellion, 8th June 1857. A lithograph by W. Simpson, after a drawing by Captain G. F. Atkinson. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


In 1855 John Lawrence asked Reynell Taylor, the temporary Commandant of the Guides, to undertake a thorough review of the charges against Hodson relating to financial wrongdoing. The subsequent report, presented in March 1856, exonerated the former commandant. Taylor had gone through the accounts with a fine-tooth comb and considered them to be ‘an honest and correct record from beginning to end’. He had examined every claim of alleged irregularity and had found ‘Lieutenant Hodson’s statements borne out by the facts of the case’. Though the accounts had been ‘irregularly kept’, Hodson had inherited a highly unorthodox system from his predecessor. In a covering letter Taylor recommended a second court of inquiry to consider his own findings. John Lawrence’s response was that neither the Commander-in-Chief nor the new Governor-General, Lord Canning, saw the need for a new inquiry. They were, however, prepared to grant Hodson a ‘full acquittance’ on matters relating to the Corps’ accounts and thereby hoped to put an end to ‘this harassing and painful business’.


Hodson saw his ‘full acquittance’ for what it was — an attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet — and continued to demand a public inquiry. In April 1857 he travelled to Simla to lobby Anson in person and received a sympathetic hearing. ‘He would write himself to Lord Canning and try to get justice done me,’ wrote a delighted Hodson to his brother. ‘I do trust the light is breaking through the darkness and that before long I may have good news to send you.’ Anson never did write to Canning. News of the mutinies at Meerut and Delhi reached Simla a few days after his meeting with Hodson and thereafter he had more urgent business to attend to. But he had been impressed by the forthright subaltern and, after reaching Ambala, appointed him assistant quartermaster-general with special responsibility for intelligence. Hodson’s first task was to re-establish contact with Meerut, from which place only ‘very imperfect’ information had been received. He set off on 21 May, paused for a time at Karnal, where he was joined by an escort of the Raja of Jhind’s cavalry, and finally reached Meerut at daybreak on the 22nd. ‘He had left Karnal (76 miles off) at nine the night before,’ wrote an officer at Meerut, ‘with one led horse and an escort of Sikh cavalry and, as I had anticipated, here he was with despatches for Wilson! . . . Hodson rode straight to Wilson, had his interview, a bath, breakfast, and two hours’ sleep, and then rode back the seventy-six miles, and had to fight his way back for about thirty miles of the distance.’ He rested for a few more hours at Karnal and then continued on to Ambala, arriving in the early hours of 23 May. He had covered more than 250 miles in two days.


Anson was impressed and at once commissioned him to raise and command a corps of irregular cavalry. So came into being Hodson’s Horse, mainly Sikhs from the Amritsar, Jhind and Lahore districts of the Punjab. They too wore khaki tunics and could be distinguished from the Guides Cavalry by their scarlet turbans and shoulder sashes. Their commandant was even more distinctive. ‘A tallish man,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘with yellow hair, a pale, smooth face, heavy moustache, and large, restless, rather unforgiving eyes.’ He still suffered from migraines and wore tinted spectacles to protect his bright blue eyes from the fierce Indian sun. Yet as one of his British officers observed: ‘As a cavalry soldier he was perfection, a strong seat on horseback (though an ugly rider), a perfect swordsman, nerves like iron, and a quick, intelligent eye, indefatigable and zealous, and with great tact.’


Anson arrived at Karnal on 25 May. He was billeted in relative comfort with General Palmer, a retired sepoy general; his staff had to make do with the dak-bungalow where they were crammed in six to a room. Nevertheless it was Anson who fell ill with cholera on the morning of 26 May and was dead within twenty-four hours. He lived long enough to appoint Sir Henry Barnard, just arrived in camp, as his successor. ‘Barnard,’ he said faintly, ‘I leave you the command. You will say how anxious I have been to do my duty. I cannot recover. May success attend you. God bless you. Good-bye.’ ‘Poor General Anson!’ wrote Colonel Keith Young in his diary. ‘[Colonel] Chester returned about three in the morning to say he was dead, poor man. Chester tells me that he must have felt himself quite unequal to the present emergency; and anxiety of mind has had much to do with his fatal illness. He seems to be popular with very few; and the Native troops have apparently a great hatred for him, honestly thinking that he was commissioned to convert them. Quite a private funeral in the burial-ground in the evening, Chester reading the service.’


Both before and after his death, Anson was widely criticized for his plodding response to the outbreak. ‘He ought to have been before Delhi days ago,’ wrote a doctor at Nowgong in central India on 29 May. ‘The natives even ask what he is doing. Such delay is unpardonable, particularly as so much depends upon the celerity of his movements.’ Even Canning, while recognizing that Anson had faced many problems, was convinced that he had delayed unnecessarily.


With Anson dead, Barnard took charge of the force at Karnal and the dithering General Reed succeeded by right to the command of the Bengal Army. Only the Queen, acting on advice from the British government, could appoint Anson’s permanent successor as Commander-in-Chief of India. Yet a temporary replacement was essential, and Canning and his advisers plumped for 53-year-old Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Grant, Commander-in-Chief of Madras and a former Adjutant-General of the Bengal Army. It was a brave decision because no Company officer had ever held the Supreme Command. But in the unique circumstances that then prevailed, it was thought right to appoint a vigorous officer who had an intimate knowledge of Indian troops. Grant did not reach Calcutta to take up his temporary appointment until 17 June. Until then, Reed was supreme in Bengal, and on 28 May, defying instructions from Calcutta to leave Barnard to his own devices, he left Rawalpindi to take charge of the force advancing upon Delhi. His already frail health deteriorated en route, however, and Barnard remained in command.


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Ismail Mazari

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Very good information.

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