Two vital recollections of the great Indian uprising
This is another Leonaur volume which includes two essential perspectives of a single conflict within one book for great value reading. The first account sees the Mutiny from the perspective of a hastily thrown together unit of irregular cavalry. The author—a gentleman volunteer—saw much hard riding, tough campaigning and brutal action. He has recorded it all here for posterity in this rare but vital first hand account. By contrast, Private Metcalfe's is an authentic voice of the ordinary infantryman of the Queen Empress's regular army. A soldier of the 32nd Foot from the age of thirteen Metcalfe was of the stuff that 'kept the map red'. Rough, tough, nostalgic and capable of acts of violence and great kindness by turns, Metcalfe possessed almost limitless endurance, stoicism and good humour throughout one of the most demanding actions of the war—the siege of the Residency at Lucknow.
On came the enemy, like swarms of locusts, the serried lines of gleaming bayonets bristling above an extensive belt of brushwood indicating the masses coming up in long succession, and forming behind the vegetation masking their advance. At this juncture any offensive demonstration was impracticable, for they had not yet emerged from under cover; but the suspense was soon cut short by a shell from the naval guns bursting in their midst, and stirring them up for action.
Their advance, by the notes of bugles, was covered by a sweeping fire from heavy artillery posted on the main road, and a withering discharge of musketry from the surrounding fields, in which the Sepoys swarmed by thousands. And what a strange spectacle it was, to be sure, to see these veteran troops now engaged in a deadly struggle against those with whom, in former days, they had fought side by side in many desperate wars! <br>
In vain the gallant Jack Tars poured torrents of grape into their thronged ranks, before which they went down like ninepins; in spite of the marines showering volley after volley into their advancing columns, and the Sikhs and Gurkhas, shoulder to shoulder, bravely holding their ground, the rebels step by step pressed on. Flushed with temporary success at Belwa, and backed by an immense numerical superiority in men and guns, they had recklessly imagined victory as easily gained in the open field, as with characteristic vanity they claimed one—in a fortress—from which we had prudently retired.<br>
While every man of the Brigade was desperately engaged in beating down the overwhelming obstinacy experienced in front, and the fury of the action had extended to our flanks, alarm was raised that the rebels were outflanking us, and making for the camp. Then in that critical moment a desperate movement was resorted to, which happily resulted, it may be said, in turning the doubtful fortunes of the day. <br>
The cavalry was ordered to pass forward, and charge a surging column of mutineers pushing on to support the centre of their line. Accordingly, the instant the word “charge” was given, the Yeomanry gave the spur to their horses, and encountered a deadly hand-to-hand struggle, which they terminated by annihilating the head of the column.<br>
So far, so good. But the immediate effect of this charge was electrical on the main body; for, hearing with surprise the din of the desperate mêlée, they hesitated in their advance, recoiled, then rallied, and in dense, disorderly masses pressed in towards their centre, while the “broken column,” disorganised by the charge, likewise collapsed with confusion in the same direction. An opportunity thus occurred for attacking them to advantage, which was not permitted to escape. The brigadier seized on the moment, and charging with the whole force in line burst through everything that opposed him. Meanwhile the exterminating fire of the sailors paved the way for the infantry, as with levelled bayonets they rushed on to the guns. There the conflict raged fiercely, the cold steel doing its murderous work unrelentingly, as evidenced by the jags in our sabre-blades retaining pieces of bone, and blood-besmeared hair.<br>
In thus dealing out this stern retribution, it must not be imagined that in revenge we were thirsting for blood. On the contrary, we were weary of shedding it, God knows. But the reader will bear in mind, that it was “war to the knife,” and that if we had shown any mercy to these ferocious scoundrels, they would assuredly have shot us down the next moment. It was a matter of life or death, to kill or be killed; and if we had stayed our hand, we should undoubtedly have courted our own destruction.<br>
At length, unable to sustain the combined assault of a force fighting like enraged tigers, the rebels yielded reluctantly, contesting each position as they abandoned it. <br>
The action closed in the afternoon, and on the Brigade’s return to the camp, a salute from the captured guns (nine with ammunition, tumbrels complete) proclaimed to the surrounding country the triumphant victory, which saved the district a second disastrous invasion.<br>
But, although victory after victory continued to follow our arms in succession, the abovementioned salute was our first, and last one during the campaign, for not a grain of powder could be spared subsequently.