Gordon had a long military career. Indeed he became Surgeon General and this book has been extracted from his autobiography—'Recollections of Thirty-Nine Years in the Army'. Although his later carer took him on several interesting military missions as an observer including the Franco-Prussian War, the Leonaur editors have elected to concentrate this account of an actively involved British officer of the Victorian Age around those campaigns where the author found himself in the front line of events. We join Gordon during the early Victorian central Indian campaign of the Gwalior War and several field force expeditions. Service on the coast of Guinea is followed by the bloody days of the Indian Mutiny before service with the Azimghur Field Force. For those interested in the campaigns—particularly within the sub-continent—of the early to mid Victorian period this is an interesting eyewitness account by a military medical man.
At daylight on December 29 our force began its advance, its manner of distribution to make an attack simultaneously on front and flank of the position known to have been occupied by the Mahrattas the previous evening. But during the night they had taken up a new position, considerably in advance, and from it unexpectedly opened fire on our leading columns. The general force was at once directed upon the new position. Horse Artillery commanded by Captain Grant at full gallop rode directly at the Gwalior battery; opened fire upon it with crushing effect, and within the space of a few minutes reduced it to silence. Having done so, away again at full gallop Captain Grant led his battery against one on the left of the former that had meanwhile opened upon us, our infantry columns plodding their way, slowly but steadily, against its line of fire.<br>
Very soon that battery also was silenced. The infantry were at work with the bayonet with terrible effect upon the enemy, with very heavy loss to our own forces, in men, horses, and ammunition. A third battery began its deadly work upon other bodies of infantry, in motion onwards. Again Captain Grant led his troop against it with the same result; then arrived the infantry, including the 39th and 40th British regiments; then hand-to-hand conflict, and then—the positions were in the grasp of our forces.
While thus the conflict raged fiercely, the 16th, led by Colonel Rowland Smyth, together with the two cavalry regiments brigaded with them, were ordered to sweep round the rebel camp, cut off, destroy, or disperse those who, driven from their guns, might take to flight. The lancers dashed onwards at the charge, the bright steel and showy pennants of their weapons seeming to skim the ground, while at intervals stray rebels fell lifeless. The Gwalior men, anticipating such a manoeuvre, had taken precautions against its complete success; the position for heaviest guns selected by them had along its front a ravine of great breadth and depth.<br>
Upon its edge the cavalry suddenly came, nor is it clear by what means they escaped being precipitated into it. There was for a moment some confusion as the halt was sounded; eighteen guns directly in front, six others in flank sent their missiles through our ranks or high above them. To remain exposed to risks of more perfect practice would serve no good purpose; there was no alternative but to retire. The infantry were seen advancing; down one side of the ravine, lost to sight; up the further side, then onwards, into the batteries, and then—the fight was won.<br>
When at first the 16th took the position assigned to them on the field, it may have been that my endeavours to discover what was subsequently called “the first line of assistance” were unsuccessful; it may have been that they were not very keenly made, at any rate “the Brigadier”—for so was named the troop horse I rode—knew his right place in the ranks, and so enabled me to witness the events now described.<br>
Returning to my proper duties, I joined the parties who traversed the field of battle in search of wounded. Great, alas! was the number who lay prostrate,—many dead, many more suffering from wounds. Among the latter was General Churchill, his injuries of a nature to make him aware that speedy death was inevitable. While being attended to with all possible care, he requested me to take charge of the valuable watch he wore, and after his demise to send it to his son-in-law, Captain Mitchell of the 6th Foot, at that time serving in South Africa. During the night he died, and his request was carried out by me.<br>
At a short distance lay, in the growing crop that covered the field of battle, Lieutenant Cavanagh of the 4th Irregulars, loudly calling to attract attention, supporting by his hands a limb from which dangled the foot and part of the leg, his other limb grazed by a round shot which inflicted both wounds, and passed through his horse, now lying dead beside him. He was taken to the hospital tents, where meanwhile wounded soldiers and officers in considerable numbers had accumulated. The surgeons’ work begun, three of us mutually assisted each other.<br>
The turn of Lieutenant Cavanagh to be attended to having come, he made a request that we should “just wait a bit while he wrote to his wife,” for he had recently been married. This done, he submitted to amputation, and during that process uttered no cry or groan, though nothing in the shape of anaesthetic was given, nor had chloroform as such been discovered; then, during the interval purposely permitted to elapse between the operation and final dressing, he continued his letter to his young wife, these circumstances illustrating the courage and endurance so characteristic among men (and women) at the time referred to. His case was one of many men who had to be succoured that day.<br>
Meanwhile the force was in process of encamping on the field so gallantly won; the 16th paraded for roll call, the band of the regiment playing “The Convent Bells,” the notes of which long years thereafter recalled the day and occasion. Casualties among the men were only nine; but among the horses more numerous than they had been at Waterloo, whereas Light Dragoons the 16th so highly distinguished themselves.<br>
The arduous and responsible work of the day over, those of us who could do so withdrew to our tents, our hearts full of gratitude to the Almighty for individual safety, there to obtain such measure of rest and quiet as under the circumstances was procurable; for all through the evening and early hours of night the bright glare from burning villages, the dense smoke from others, the dull heavy sound of exploding mines made the hours hideous. Such was the battle of “Maharajpore.”