The Siege & The Relief of Lucknow:1857-58
If Delhi was the symbolic centre of the Indian Mutiny, and Cawnpore provided its most horrific episode, it was Lucknow that caught the imagination of the British public and became, perhaps, the most well known action of all Britain’s 19th century wars. It had all the dramatic elements of a siege and even better, a happy ending. It became indeed a paradigm for later British colonial conflicts. There were the initial reverses, the spectacle of the ‘thin red line’ battling against overwhelming odds, heroism in the face of adversity, the stoicism of the ladies living in appalling conditions, the death of a gallant commander, finally the sound of bagpipes on the wind and a relief column marching into the British position with flags flying and kilted highlanders leading the way. It was said the news of the relief was sent in the shape of a Latin sentence that when translated read, “I am in luck, now.”
Lucknow, on the banks of the River Gomti, was the capital of Oudh. The state, annexed the year before in a move, which caused great resentment amongst the Indians, was ready to rise and Lucknow itself was full of the hangers-on of the old regime who were eager to reverse their recent dispossession. Henry Lawrence who, with his brother John, had recently worked wonders in the Punjab governed it. Lawrence knew the dangers of the British position in Lucknow and when mutiny swept through Oudh not long after the events at Meerut, he was reasonably well prepared. He decided to make his stand inside the Residency compound and unlike Wheeler at Cawnpore he fortified it strongly. Into this 33 acre refuge Lawrence gathered the entire European community of Lucknow and a garrison of about 1,700 men. Half the defending force were sepoys who had remained loyal to the British.
The only formed ‘unit of British troops’ were the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment, under the command of Colonel Inglis. Inside the Residency compound there were nine separate buildings and a high mud-wall strengthened by earthworks formed the perimeter. Lawrence had prepared the position as much as possible. Trenches and gun pits had been dug, wire-entanglements laid out and booby traps set. Unfortunately, the Residency was almost in the centre of the city. On its eastern side stood the old palace of the kings of Oudh. To the north flowed the river. All round, however, were the narrow streets and lanes of the old city sometimes coming up to the very walls of the compound itself.
The defence of Lucknow 1857
When the mutiny broke out in Lucknow toward the end of June, the sepoys did try to storm the walls but were always beaten back. Twice they breached the perimeter and British sallies to regain lost ground or eliminate strong points near the walls became necessary and commonplace. As at Cawnpore, the main problem was the constant barrage of artillery and musket fire that the mutineers were able to pour into the compound. One of the first shells killed Lawrence when it crashed into the billiard room in which he was staying. On being asked if he was hurt, he replied, “I am killed.” He wasn’t just then, but he died two days later. His death was a great blow to the British and a creeping fatalism began to spread through the Residency. Command passed to Colonel Inglis.
A further misery was soon added to the sniping, the shelling and the direct assaults on the perimeter – the sepoys began tunnelling. Trying to undermine the walls, the charges the sepoys detonated sometimes exploded well inside the compound. The 32nd were forced to counter-mine and some of the fiercest battles of the siege were fought deep in the hot clammy earth with pistols, shovels and fists. Many of the Cornishmen were former tin miners, who were used to working underground. Their experience overcame resulted in the failure of the mutineers to enter the Garrison. Sorties were mounted by volunteers to destroy the threat of the guns, the most famous of which was by Captain Bernand McCabe.
Captain Bernard McCabe’s sortie at Lucknow
Food started to run short, the casualties started to mount, rats swarmed everywhere and the July sun burned down on the now filthy, hungry and dispirited defenders. In the middle of August, a message reached Lucknow that told of a relief force beginning its march. Four days, the note promised, would see an end to their troubles. Welcome news indeed as the garrison had been reduced to 350 British soldiers and 300 loyal sepoys, with over 550 women, children, sick and wounded to look after. The four days came and went with no sign of any assistance. The days became weeks and still no-one came.
Finally, 90 days after the siege began, gunfire was heard on the outskirts of the city. Two days later, on September 25th, a mob rather than an army burst into the residency. The lead troops were highlanders and in their furious push into the Residency they bayoneted a few loyal sepoys by mistake. The highlanders’ uniforms were ragged and patched and their bearded faces were grimy with the smoke of powder. They were under the joint command of Sir Henry Havelock and Sir James Outram and had fought a gruelling campaign up from Cawnpore. Unfortunately, there were only a thousand of them and no sooner had the Residency gates closed behind them than the siege continued. Now at least the fear of the mutineers exploiting a breach in the wall had been considerably reduced, but the extra mouths to feed placed an almost intolerable burden on the already over-stretched commissary department. The bombardments and the mining continued and everything started to run out. Doctors had no more medicines to give the sick and wounded. The rations became smaller every day and it seemed as if Havelock and Outram’s gallant march might have been in vain after all. Once again eyes and ears were strained for signs of relief. Throughout it all, the Union Jack, which flew from the Residency roof, was never taken down, as custom dictated it should each evening. Day and night it hung limply from the flagpole – a symbol of British defiance.
The Residency in Lucknow
And then in October word came that another force was on the way. It was led by Sir Colin Campbell, a Crimean War veteran whose Highland Brigade had broken the Russian left flank at the Battle of the Alma and seen off their cavalry at Balaclava. A talented soldier of great courage, he was probably the only senior commander to have survived the Crimean war with his reputation intact. The arrival of the force was imminent. A tall Irish post office worker by the name of Henry Kavanagh came forward and volunteered to slip out of the Residency, make contact with the relief column and guide it back through the city. Kavanagh had gained a reputation for courage in the underground battles of the mines and countermines and his offer was avidly accepted. Wearing Indian clothes and with his face blackened with oil, Kavanagh made his way past sepoy checkpoints, swam the River Gomti and found a British picket. Eight days later he returned and led Havelock and Outram through the streets to a meeting with their rescuer. When the three generals met, surrounded by the cheers of the soldiery, Havelock announced in a singularly un-embellished sentence, “Soldiers, I am glad to see you.”
The Relief of Lucknow – November 1857
The relief force, which included the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment (later to form part of the KSLI) made no attempt to enter the Residency for its numbers were small. Instead it pacified the city long enough for the inhabitants of the Residency to be withdrawn. On November 18th the withdrawal began with, of course, the women and children leaving first. The city was not completely quiet and much of the withdrawal was made under fire. When the non-combatants were safe, the garrison left. It was no proud march past and the soldiers broke step to disguise their leaving. Finally the rearguard slipped out and the Residency and city of Lucknow were given up to the mutineers. The British remembered to take down the Residency flag before they left.
The whole force now made its way back to Cawnpore and safety. With their going the mutiny sputtered out into a sordid series of punitive hunts and guerrilla engagements. Lucknow was retaken the following year and though sporadic fighting continued into 1859, with the relief of the Residency the mutiny was effectively over and it was only a matter of time before the British re-established themselves as rules of the north of India.
In recognition of the gallantry of the 32nd at Lucknow, the following statement was issued from Buckingham Palace on 14th May 1858: “Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in consideration of the enduring gallantry displayed in the defence of Lucknow, has been pleased to direct the 32nd be clothed, equipped and trained as a Light Infantry regiment”. Although there had been ‘light troops’ in the British Army in the 1740s, such as the Highlanders at Fontenoy (1745), it was the colonial war between France and England in North America which established the concept of ‘Light Infantry’ in the British Army.
In the North American Wars of the 1750s, the heavy equipment, conspicuous red and white uniforms and close formation fighting of the British Army proved to be wholly unsuitable when operating in close country against Indians and French colonists, who had highly developed field-craft and marksmanship skills.
From the formation of the Earl of Huntingdon’s Regiment, in 1685, through to present day operations, the Light Infantry and its antecedent Regiments have distinguished themselves in often untold honour.