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Reminiscences of the Indian Mutiny 1857-59

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Reminiscences of the Indian Mutiny 1857-59
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Author(s): William Forbes-Mitchell
Date Published: 2010/10
Page Count: 220
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-358-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-357-1

A Scottish sergeant tells his story of the Indian Mutiny

Those interested in military history need no special prompting to appreciate memoirs of military life told by ordinary soldiers who have been at the sharp end of war. This book by a Scottish soldier of the 93rd, the Sutherland Highlanders concerns his experiences with his famous regiment during the bloody days of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The 93rd had seen service in the Crimea when it was detailed to serve in China but found itself ashore in Calcutta on the sub-continent and on its way up country to Cawnpore—scene of the infamous massacre. Much of the authors narrative concerns the hard soldiering the British infantry knew as it battled to Lucknow and after fierce fighting assisted in effecting its relief. This excellent book takes the reader into the heart of Victorian-era warfare in company with the author and his Scottish comrades as the campaign reaches its climax with the defeat of rebel forces in Oude in 1859. Available in softcover and hardback with dust jacket.

After getting our three days’ rations and tea, the Ninety-Third were formed up, and the roll was called to see that none, except those known to be wounded or sick, were missing. Sir Colin again addressed the men, telling us that there was heavy work before us, and that we must hold well together, and as much as possible keep in threes, and that as soon as we stormed a position we were to use the bayonet. The centre man of each group of three was to make the attack, and the other two to come to his assistance with their bayonets right and left. We were not to fire a single bullet after we got inside a position, unless we were certain of hitting our enemy, for fear of wounding our own men. To use the bayonet with effect we were ordered, as I say, to group in threes and mutually assist each other, for by such action we would soon bayonet the enemy down although they might be ten to one; which as a matter of fact they were. It was by strictly following this advice and keeping cool and mutually assisting each other that the bayonet was used with such terrible effect inside the Secundrabâgh. It was exactly as Sir Colin had foretold in his address in front of the Alumbâgh. He knew the sepoys well, that when brought to the point of the bayonet they could not look the Europeans in the face. For all that they fought like devils. In addition to their muskets, all the men in the Secundrabâgh were armed with swords from the King of Oude’s magazines, and the native tulwârs were as sharp as razors. I have never seen another fact noticed, that when they had fired their muskets, they hurled them amongst us like javelins, bayonets first, and then drawing their tulwârs, rushed madly on to their destruction, slashing in blind fury with their swords and using them as one sees sticks used in the sham fights on the last night of the Mohurrum.5 As they rushed on us shouting “Deen! Deen! (The Faith! the Faith!)” they actually threw themselves under the bayonets and slashed at our legs. It was owing to this fact that more than half of our wounded were injured by sword-cuts.<br>
From the Martinière we slowly and silently commenced our advance across the canal, the front of the column being directed by Mr. Kavanagh and his native guide. Just as morning broke we had reached the outskirts of a village on the east side of the Secundrabâgh. Here a halt was made for the heavy guns to be brought to the front, three companies of the Ninety-Third with some more artillery being diverted to the left under command of Colonel Leith-Hay, to attack the old Thirty-Second barracks, a large building in the form of a cross strongly flanked with earthworks. The rest of the force advanced through the village by a narrow lane, from which the enemy was driven by us into the Secundrabâgh.<br>
About the centre of the village another short halt was made. Here we saw a naked wretch, of a strong muscular build, with his head closely shaven except for the tuft on his crown, and his face all streaked in a hideous manner with white and red paint, his body smeared with ashes. He was sitting on a leopard’s skin counting a rosary of beads. A young staff-officer, I think it was Captain A. O. Mayne, Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General, was making his way to the front, when a man of my company, named James Wilson, pointed to this painted wretch saying:<br>
“I would like to try my bayonet on the hide of that painted scoundrel, who looks a murderer.” Captain Mayne replied: “Oh don’t touch him; these fellows are harmless Hindoo jogees, and won’t hurt us. It is the Mahommedans that are to blame for the horrors of this Mutiny.” The words had scarcely been uttered when the painted scoundrel stopped counting the beads, slipped his hand under the leopard skin, and as quick as lightning brought out a short, brass, bell-mouthed blunderbuss and fired the contents of it into Captain Mayne’s chest at a distance of only a few feet. His action was as quick as it was unexpected, and Captain Mayne was unable to avoid the shot, or the men to prevent it. Immediately our men were upon the assassin; there was no means of escape for him, and he was quickly bayoneted. Since then I have never seen a painted Hindoo, but I involuntarily raise my hand to knock him down. From that hour I formed the opinion (which I have never had cause to alter since) that the pampered high-caste Hindoo sepoys had far more to do with the Mutiny and the cowardly murders of women and children, than the Mahommedans, although the latter still bear most of the blame.<br>
Immediately after this incident we advanced through the village and came in front of the Secundrabâgh, when a murderous fire was opened on us from the loopholed wall and from the windows and flat roof of a two-storied building in the centre of the garden. I may note that this building has long since been demolished; no trace of it now remains except the small garden-house with the row of pillars where the wounded and dead of the Ninety-Third were collected; the marble flooring has, however, been removed. Having got through the village, our men and the sailors manned the drag-ropes of the heavy guns, and these were run up to within one hundred yards, or even less, of the wall. As soon as the guns opened fire the Infantry Brigade was made to take shelter at the back of a low mud wall behind the guns, the men taking steady aim at every loophole from which we could see the musket-barrels of the enemy protruding. The commander-in-chief and his staff were close beside the guns, Sir Colin every now and again turning round when a man was hit, calling out:<br>
“Lie down, Ninety-Third, lie down! Every man of you is worth his weight in gold to England to-day!”<br>
The first shots from our guns passed through the wall, piercing it as though it were a piece of cloth, and without knocking the surrounding brickwork away. Accounts differ, but my impression has always been that it was from half to three-quarters of an hour that the guns battered at the walls. During this time the men, both artillery and sailors, working the guns without any cover so close to the enemy’s loopholes, were falling fast, over two guns’ crews having been disabled or killed before the wall was breached. After holes had been pounded through the wall in many places large blocks of brick-and-mortar commenced to fall out, and then portions of the wall came down bodily, leaving wide gaps. Thereupon a sergeant of the Fifty-Third, who had served under Sir Colin Campbell in the Punjâb, presuming on old acquaintance, called out:<br>
“Sir Colin, your Excellency, let the infantry storm; let the two ‘Thirds’ at them (meaning the Fifty-Third and Ninety-Third), and we’ll soon make short work of the murdering villains!”<br>
The sergeant who called to Sir Colin was a Welshman, and I recognised him thirty-five years afterwards as old Joe Lee, the present proprietor of the Railway Hotel in Cawnpore. He was always known as Dobbin in his regiment; and Sir Colin, who had a most wonderful memory for names and faces, turning to General Sir William Mansfield who had formerly served in the Fifty-Third, said, “Isn’t that Sergeant Dobbin?”<br>
General Mansfield replied in the affirmative; and Sir Colin, turning to Lee, said:<br>
“Do you think the breach is wide enough, Dobbin?” <br>
Lee replied, “Part of us can get through and hold it till the pioneers widen it with their crowbars to allow the rest to get in.”
The word was then passed to the Fourth Punjâbis to prepare to lead the assault, and after a few more rounds were fired, the charge was ordered. The Punjâbis dashed over the mud wall shouting the war-cry of the Sikhs, “Jai Khâlsa Jee!”6 led by their two European officers, who were both shot down before they had gone a few yards. This staggered the Sikhs, and they halted. As soon as Sir Colin saw them waver, he turned to Colonel Ewart, who was in command of the seven companies of the Ninety-Third (Colonel Leith-Hay being in command of the assault on the Thirty-Second barracks), and said: “Colonel Ewart, bring on the tartan—let my own lads at them.” Before the command could be repeated or the buglers had time to sound the advance, the whole seven companies, like one man, leaped over the wall, with such a yell of pent-up rage as I had never heard before nor since. It was not a cheer, but a concentrated yell of rage and ferocity that made the echoes ring again; and it must have struck terror into the defenders, for they actually ceased firing, and we could see them through the breach rushing from the outside wall to take shelter in the two-storied building in the centre of the garden, the gate and doors of which they firmly barred. Here I must not omit to pay a tribute of respect to the memory of Pipe-Major John M’Leod, who, with seven pipers, the other three being with their companies attacking the barracks, struck up the Highland Charge, called by some The Haughs of Cromdell, and by others On wi’ the Tartan—the famous charge of the great Montrose when he led his Highlanders so often to victory. When all was over, and Sir Colin complimented the pipe-major on the way he had played, John said, “I thought the boys would fecht better wi’ the national music to cheer them.”
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