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Siege of Delhi 1857 Part II

Mirza Firuz Shah
Bahadur Shah II 1837–1857
Stacked Wooden Logs


Lieutenant George Alexander Renny VC at the Delhi Magazine, 16th December 1857 by David Rowlands

It may well have been the plight of the cavalry that made Nicholson so determined to achieve his last objective by capturing the Lahore Gate. But to do so he first had to take the Burn Bastion, which lay at the end of a narrow lane, 200 yards long, flanked on one side by the city wall and on the other by flat-roofed houses swarming with rebel snipers. Twice men from the 1st Bengal Fusiliers had tried to advance down the lane and twice they had been driven back with heavy losses, including their commander, Major Jacob, who was mortally wounded. Now Nicholson himself took charge. Calling on the demoralized fusiliers to follow him, he ran forward into the lane. But halfway down he realized that only a handful of men were still with him. He was in the act of calling the rest to come on, his sword above his head, when he was shot below his exposed right armpit by a sepoy firing down from one of the flat roofs. As he fell, a sergeant of the 1st Fusiliers caught him and dragged him into a small recess below the city wall. For some time he refused to be moved, saying he would stay until Delhi had been taken. Eventually he relented and was carried back to the Kabul Gate and placed in a doolie. The bearers were told to take him to the field hospital beyond the Ridge, but they preferred to plunder and left him on the side of the road a short way beyond the Kashmir Gate.

General Wilson had watched the start of the assault from the roof of Ludlow Castle. When it became clear that the first three columns had gained a foothold in the city, he rode with his staff through the Kashmir Gate and set up his advanced headquarters in the ruins of St Thomas’s Church. There he remained for the rest of the day, becoming ‘more anxious and depressed’ as report after discouraging report came in. ‘He heard of Reid’s failure,’ recalled Fred Roberts, ‘and of Reid himself having been severely wounded; then came the disastrous news that Nicholson had fallen, and a report (happily false) that Hope Grant and Tombs were both killed. All this greatly agitated and depressed the General, until at last he began seriously to consider the advisability of leaving the city and falling back on the Ridge. I was ordered to go and find out the truth of these reports, and to ascertain exactly what had happened to No. 4 column and the Cavalry on our right.’

Roberts had just ridden through the Kashmir Gate when he came upon an abandoned doolie. Dismounting to see if he could be of any assistance to the occupant, he discovered to his ‘grief and consternation, that it was John Nicholson, with death written on his face’. Nicholson told him that he was in great pain and wished to be taken to hospital. Roberts, observing no visible sign of injury, expressed the hope that he was not seriously wounded. ‘I am dying,’ replied Nicholson, ‘there is no chance for me.’ Roberts was shocked. He had seen many men die, but to lose Nicholson at that moment was to ‘lose everything’. Only with difficulty did he gather four doolie-bearers from the multitude of camp-followers who were looting property in the vicinity and place them under the orders of a sergeant of the 61st Foot. He never saw Nicholson again.

Continuing his mission, Roberts eventually came across the Cavalry Brigade. Delighted to discover that both Tombs and Hope Grant were still alive, and that there was ‘no need for further anxiety about Reid’s column’, he galloped back to the church to report to Wilson. The news cheered Wilson without entirely dispelling his forebodings — and these increased when word arrived soon after that Campbell’s column had been forced to retire from the Jama Masjid, its furthest point of advance, to the area around the church. This failure, coupled with the ‘hopelessness of Nicholson’s condition, and, above all, the heavy list of casualties which he received later,* appeared to crush all spirit and energy’ out of Wilson. He became more convinced than ever of the need to withdraw from the city and would, in Roberts’s opinion, have ‘carried out this fatal measure’ had it not been for the presence of his chief engineer, Richard Baird-Smith, who had insisted on remaining at headquarters despite suffering from dysentery and a painful leg wound. When asked for his opinion, Baird-Smith’s reply was emphatic: ‘We must hold on.’
* During the first day of the assault, 14 September 1857, the Delhi Field Force’s casualties were sixty-six officers and 1,104 men killed and wounded, or two men in nine.

Chamberlain gave the same response to a letter from Wilson, written at four in the afternoon, stating that ‘if the Hindu Rao’s picquet cannot be moved, I do not think we shall be strong enough to take the city’. It was, said Chamberlain, imperative to hold on to the last, not least because the ground already gained would have severely demoralized the enemy. The dying Nicholson was just as determined. When told of Wilson’s suggestion to retire, he rose up in bed and roared: ‘Thank God I have strength yet to shoot him, if necessary.’

Faced with this consensus of opinion, Wilson gave up all idea of retreating. But he could not dispel his fear of failure for some days yet, as his letters to his wife demonstrate. ‘We are now holding what we have taken, but nothing more,’ he wrote on the 15th. ‘Our position is from the Cabul Gate to the College, and I cannot say we have complete possession of that. I am in Skinner’s house . . . The Europeans with the Column with me got hold of lots of beer in the Shops, and made themselves helpless. I have not a Queen’s officer under me worth a pin, or who can preserve any sort of discipline except Jones of the 60th Rifles, in fact the men are so badly officered that they will and can do nothing tomorrow . . . All we can now expect to do, is to get on gradually, but this street fighting is frightful work. Pandy is as good a soldier at that as our men.’

The fighting technique employed by Lieutenant Lang and soldiers of the 1st Column in the vicinity of the Kabul Gate was to climb on to the roof of a house and fire down into the next yard while sappers picked a hole through the wall into the adjoining house. They would then storm through the hole, turn out any non-combatants* and secure the house. And so on. But on the 15th they were forced to concede some ground and spent the day erecting parapets on the rooftops out of ‘gaily painted doors and sandbags’.

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