Volume: 14, No: 09 ; September-2020
On the banks of River Ganges in Kanpur (then called and spelt as Cawnpore) is Wheeler’s Entrenchment. When driving from Lucknow to Kanpur via Unnao we cross Ganges and actually this river separated the Kingdom of Awadh (British called Oudh) from the erstwhile Cawnpore that was the head quarter and probably had the largest military base of East India Company that included second Light Cavalry, 61 gunners and First, Fifty-third & Fifty-sixth Native Infantry, having twenty-four pounders and nine pounder under the command of Major General Hugh Massy Wheeler. Cawnpore also had families of Her Majesty’s thirty-second Foot that was posted in Lucknow which then was the capital of Oudh. Cawnpore also had a huge population of British civilians who were wealthy traders and connected to different walks and then a substantial numbers of Indian Christians (including Anglo-Indians).
Major General Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler KCB (KCB is the most honourable Order of the Bath – Knight Commander) was born in Clonbeg, County Tipperary on 30 June 1789 to a Hugh and Margret Wheeler. Hugh the senior was a Captain in the East India Company and Margret’s father Hugh Massy was the First Baron Massy. Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler went to the Bath Grammar School and then joined the Bengal Army in 1803. Just two years later he reached India in 1805 to join Lord Lake’s forces. In his military career he commanded the troops during the 1st Anglo Afghan War and in both Anglo-Sikh Wars, the 1st and the 2nd, before joining as the Garrison Commander in Cawnpore (Kanpur) in 1856 where he lived with his wife and two small daughters while his son, George Godfrey Massy Wheeler from the First Infantry, also aide-de-camp was posted here along with him.
When the news came
When Major General Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler got the news of skirmishes and the outbreak of the mutiny in Meerut which started on 14th May 1857, he was prompted to secure the families that resided in Cawnpore. He then ordered a mud construction of a boundary wall and some temporary barracks around the existing ones near his house, so that in case of a rebellion, he could move families in this area and secure them from any threats. This action of Wheeler was criticized then and is somewhat questionable today too but he did what he thought was best in those times and circumstances. This area was called the ‘Wheeler’s Entrenchment’.
Critics point out that the better place would have been a permanent structure which was about 11 kilometres away and stored the supplies of ammunition. Plus it would have been hard for the rebels to reach the place in case of any eventuality as it was at a distance and not so easy then. The story of Wheeler’s Entrenchment would have been quite different had the location been this magazine and surely not as gruesome as it became later. General Wheeler probably thought that rebels if get active in Cawnpore, would repeat their strategy of Meerut and move towards Delhi, abandoning Cawnpore thus arrangements for a temporary siege was required and that too for a limited period.
Fake news that made all come together
On 20 May 1857 a fire broke in the lines of 1st Infantry which the British thought to be the beginning of the rebellion in Cawnpore. The same day 2nd Cavalry defected after they heard that British were out to destroy and crush them. Probably it was a hoax message brought by a soldier of the 56th. Based on these two events, Wheeler asked all European women and children to be brought to the barracks in the entrenched area at least for the night. Cawnpore summers are harsh, really harsh, and that prompted many to return to their own homes which were much cooler and had better arrangements than the accommodation in the entrenchment. Also, many British trusted their native guards and were overly confident in spite of the threats, or so it is believed by many historians. Wheeler himself was underestimating the threat; still he had asked Sir Henry Lawrence to send reinforcement. On this request 55 soldiers from Thirty-Second Foot reached Cawnpore.
Nana Sahib (birth name: Dhondu Pant) was the adopted son of the last Peshwa, the Maratha prince Baji Rao-II. Baji Rao had been dethroned in 1818 by the British and was granted a pension for life of Rupees Eight Hundred Thousand. He took up residence at Bithoor near Cawnpore (Kanpur) and had adopted Dhondu Pant as his son, calling him ‘Nana Sahib’. Baji Rao petitioned the British Government that Nana Sahib be allowed to inherit the title and benefit of the pension his natural heir, but British did not agree to it as Nana Sahib was not a natural heir. After the death of Baji Rao in 1851, the then Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, turned down the request for pension to Nana, this in spite of a recommendation from the British Commissioner who was responsible for the Peshwa’s estate. But Nana Sahib never gave up and fought for his father’s pension and the title for himself.
Trust that was betrayed
When the information of the rebellion in Meerut reached Cawnpore, Nana Sahib, the Raja of Bithoor, who had a good hold on the natives and was a leader assured Charles Hillersdon (British tax collector and magistrate in Cawnpore) of all support. Also, reassuringly Nana Sahib gave his place to the family of Hillersdon as a safe-house plus a force of fifteen hundred of his men to crush the mutiny, if it erupted in Cawnpore.
Azimullah Khan who was the advisor of Nana Sahib, who spoke good English and often acted as a messenger of Nana, mediating between Nana Sahib and the British. Azimullah went to meet Lt. M.G. Daniell and during the meeting, in reference to the entrenchment remarked, “Fort of Despair“, to which Daniell said it was “Fort of Victory“. This conversation between the two was somewhat a signal of things to come and quite contradictory to what Nana Sahib had assured Charles Hillersdon.
Planning was afoot
On 1st June 1857 there was a secret meeting between Nana Sahib, Subedar Tika Singh, Havaldar Major Gopal Singh and another four sepoys. This meeting lasted for about 2 hours and was held on the boat. In this meeting Nana Sahib was convinced to step in and join the rebel forces.
The news of this meeting reached Charles Hillersdon through his clerk. Then Hillersdon asked Nana Sahib directly about it, but Nana again reassured him that the soldiers will not deter and that Nana himself was ensuring the same. Hillersdon seemed to have been convinced about Nana’s loyalty and efforts and once again believed Nana Sahib.
Just five days later on 6 June 1857 Nana Sahib camped in Cawnpore and declared himself as the Peshwa. Tika Singh, the Subedar of Second Light Infantry who had met Nana Sahib in the secret boat meeting on 1 June was now appointed as his General commanding the Cavalry while Subedar Ganga Din and Jamaadar Dalganjan Singh were given the rank of Colonel and made the commanders. Two flags were adopted, one that represented Lord Hanuman to garner support of Hindus while another for the Muslims to win the trust of Mahommedans.
Tantya Tope played a very crucial role of garnering support and raising troops. In fact Tantya Tope was a much better commander than the ones who were officially appointed by Nana.
Nana asked the Maratha troops who were under the command of Tantya Tope to hoist a flag at the old Residency in Nawabganj, denoting that it was his rule now and that he had taken over from the British. Many men on horses now moved around the city of Cawnpore, plundering and killing the British and the Indian Christian community that was still living there and had for some reason not shifted to the entrenchment. Even the Indians, both Hindus and Muslims who helped British and Indian Christians hide, were not spared. Cawnpore had many British businessmen who owned shops and establishments, they too were not spared and shot by these men on horses who set out for this task.
By now Wheeler’s Entrenchment had about nine hundred men, women and children, most of these were British. It is believed, there were two hundred and ten soldiers who included sixty-one from artillery, seventy were wounded or ill and fifteen were from Madras Fusiliers. Then, there were seventy British officers, about one hundred non-military personnel (traders etc) and three hundred and thirty ladies and children were also in the entrenched area. About one hundred Indian servants, forty drummers and twenty loyal sepoys were also a part of this.
On their marks and ready on 5th June 1857
Now Nana ordered the guns from the magazine (the place where many suggested should have been the entrenchment. Ref. Paragraph: 2) to be placed near the entrenchment in position. A letter was then sent by Nana Sahib to Gen. Hugh Wheeler warning him of the attack at 10 am. This shocked Wheeler as he always thought the rebels would move to Delhi. All officers reported to Wheeler in haste, leaving all their belongings and allowing rebels and Nana’s men who were on the prowl to loot all of it.
Finally the first shot fired on 6th June 1857
The very first shot fired by the rebel forces was from a nine pounder and it struck the mud-wall. It landed on the roof of a concrete barrack. Many ladies and children were outside the barrack and the sound of bugle prompted all to take their post.
During the day the firing was much fierce. The first to be killed was a gunner, McGuire. The chaos now took over inside the entrenchment where screams of ladies and children could now be heard and all aimlessly rushed for safer shelter. Those who were influential, got the priority in safer places while the rest were running from one place to another in search of a safe place to be in.
Mornings had passed and later by afternoon, no less than fourteen guns were set around the Wheeler’s Entrenchment. Initially the British gave a befitting reply with their Howitzer, killing about nineteen including twelve civilians who had only gathered to see the action. But now, the British inside the entrenchment had to be conservative with their ammunition which was nothing as compared to what mutineers had in their procession, nor did they have an supplies forthcoming. When the sun had set and light was dim, taking advantage of the darkness, rebels reached within the range of only forty-five meters of the entrenchment’s mud-wall to fire shots from their muskets.
Unbearable scenes of blood and flesh
It is recorded that two children aged only eight years or so were left in a barrack by their parents, assuming it to be safe inside, though when they returned to take them, the scene was unbearable for any parent. A shell had ripped the roof and fell on the children blowing their bodies and splashing the blood, pieces of bones, flesh and parts of brain all over the room. To collect the remains, parents had to walk carefully so as to avoid stepping on any remain of their loved children’s bodies.
Another tragic death was that of Charles Hillersdon, who had faith on Nana Sahib and considered him to be his good friend, trusting him all the while. Next day of the siege Hillersdon reached his wife Lydia who was then pregnant leaving his post. Lydia was living with one Mrs. Ewart and to get some private time with his wife, Charles Hillersdon led her out from the room to the verandah outside. As both stood talking to each other, a gunshot struck Charles’ stomach ripping it apart in front of his wife who was horrified and motionless. Her own death was destined on 9 June 1857 when heavy firing buried her alive with her unborn child in the debris of her own room. Her almost headless body was dragged out as her head was smashed badly but as there was no opportunity to bury the body of Charles Hillersdon’s wife Lydia, it was thrown in the well outside. It is recorded that when the siege at the Wheeler’s Entrenchment ended this well was stuffed with no less than 250 dead-bodies piled in it.
Interestingly on Tuesday, 9th June 1857 a letter was written by Emma Ewart Larkins, wife of George Larkins, an artillery officer, who was in the entrenchment with her husband, three small children and a loyal native ‘Ayah’ (Nanny). She wrote quite a few letters for her family and friends from within the entrenchment and these were presumably posted by her ‘Munna’, the loyal Ayah. One of them was addressed to her sister-in-law, George’s sister and interestingly the letter was posted and reached England too, though much later. Excerpt from this letter read: “I write this dearest Henrietta in the belief that our time of departure is come’. The whole of the troops rose here & we took refuge in a Barrack. We are so hemmed in by overpowering numbers that there seems no hope of escape”.
Summer heat, sultry weather and lack of medicines was yet another curse
Then there was havoc played by the north-Indian summer heat when temperature usually goes up to 40C during the day and at least the first week of June could be unbearably humid. Now Major George Larkins who was one of many senior artillery officers unable to bear the intense heat wave, coupled with fatigue and continued lack of sleep, died. Similarly, Wheeler’s subordinate Brig Jack, a decorated officer who too died of intense heat and unkind conditions, just like Sir George Parker, the magistrate.
This had already shaken Wheeler’s confidence to the core and just then he lost Col. Williams of Fifty-Sixth who was though wounded but actually died due to the cruel June weather on Sunday night of 7th June and his body could not be buried all day and was left in the courtyard of the Wheeler’s room, horrifying the wife and the two teenage daughters of Wheeler, who just could not be consoled despite best of efforts.
The stock of medicine and all medical supplies were now over and the condition was pitiable with no respite in sight. Now it was not only the gun shot that could kill, but also heat and above all lack of medical aid. The temporary structures were almost destroyed and one and a half feet trenches were only shelters, if at all they may be called so. Though these too were of no good, and no less than dug-up graves with harsh sun above and enough to kill the ones in it.
Now was the turn of food and water
Siege was at its peak, with no reinforcement coming to rescue and now it was the turn of food supplies reaching an end. Some flour and dal was what was left and that too just a handful and not enough to feed all who were in the Wheeler’s Entrenchment.
Horse-meat was yet another option that was now being looked upon. An old horse strayed into the entrenched area and it was immediately cut into pieces and without peeling off the skin properly or washing the meat, the pieces were roasted on fire and distributed among the now hungry inhabitants of the entrenchment. Each part of the horse’s body was put to use, including its head and other waste parts, which were boiled in water and given to the ladies and children as soup, without letting them know what it was made of.
One can survive without food for a few days but now all hell broke loose, when water was in short supply within the entrenchment. A single well catered to the requirement of the entrenchment. The rebels probably knew this or as a strategy they blew off the brick and the wooden structure around the well, leaving it exposed. Even the pulley apparatus that was used to draw water was now gone. This site acted as bait, rebels would fire at anyone seen around it, even in the night. Now only strong men and that too the brave ones could draw water, as drawing water had become tough without the pulley and the site was now the riskiest spot. Some native labourers and soldiers were being paid half a Pound for just a pitcher of water. This too did not last long and one after another the labourers and privates were killed.
One civil servant John Mckillop became the self-appointed in-charge of the well. Despite he being a civilian he was quite courageous and took upon himself, selflessly, the task of drawing water from the well and supplying it to all. This continued for a week till he was shot in groin. He was so sincere for his work that when he was being taken on a stretcher, he requested the bearers to send someone to the well to draw water for a lady whom he had promised to supply. By now water was in such a short supply that a bucket of water which had blood of a lady injured by a shell in it, was without any hesitation drunk. Small children were sucking old bags, leather belts and clothes to retrieve some drops of moisture and sweat from these.
A message sent to Lucknow with hope
Finally Wheeler was devastated seeing the conditions and wrote to Martin Richard Gubbins in Lucknow, which was itself preparing to counter a rebellion: “We have been besieged since the sixth by the Nana Sahib, joined by the whole of the native troops, who broke out on the morning of the fourth. Our defence has been noble and wonderful, our loss heavy and cruel. We want aid, aid and aid. If we had 200 men, we could punish the scoundrels and aid you”.
This letter by General Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler was deliver in Lucknow to Gubbins on 16 June 1857 by a servant who is said to have been paid Rupees Five Thousand in lieu of this most difficult task. This letter was replied by Brigadier General Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence: “I am very sorry indeed to hear of your condition and grieve that I cannot help you. I have consulted with the Chief Officers about this, and except Gubbins, they are unanimous in thinking that with the enemy’s command of the river, we could not possibly get a single man into your entrenchment. Pray don’t think me selfish. I would run much risk could I see a commensurate prospect of success. In the present scheme I see none…..God grant you his protection”.
Nana’s forces only grew stronger and much more confident too
Tuesday, 16 June 1857 further two reinforcements of the mutineers under fourth and fifth Oudh Infantry crossed the river Ganges and informed Nana Sahib that in the next two days the entrenchment will be taken-over fully by them. Nana was so elated that he asked his men to arrange for sweets and give utmost respect to this contingent which he thought was really brave and would help him realize his dream of taking over from the British much sooner. Sadly for Nana and luckily for the British, on 18 June other rebels did not support this contingent much as they could have and there was no success and they were crushed.
All hopes on 23rd June 1857 – centenary of the Battle of Plassey
Somehow the rebels believed that exactly after a century of the Battle of Plassey which had to fall on Tuesday, 23 June 1857, the British rule would come to an end and that the day was of great importance for the rebel forces to succeed. At one of their meetings, it was thus decided that the final assault should be made on 23 June 1857. One Subedar Maj Radhey Singh, who belonged to the First Infantry, had a deep connection to it. His regiment had largely been responsible to lead British to victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Radhey Singh was actually living in this guilt that the regiment to which he belonged to, had sided with the British to make them victorious in the Battle of Plassey hundred years ago. Now he thought was the time, to correct the fault of his regiment by defeating the British and so he took oath in the name of Ganges, either to take over the Wheeler’s Entrenchment on 23rd June 1857 or to die.
As the sun of 23 June was visible about four thousand mutineers got ready to attack and this number had to be countered by only two hundred and fifty men from British side. As the charge was ordered horsemen of Second Cavalry charged with swords in their hands and dust blew all around. As they advanced towards the boundary of the entrenchment and were only about ninety meters away, Wheeler ordered Nine-Pounders and gun shots to be fired. This brought down quite a few horsemen from the Indian side and the rest fled in confusion and chaos. Probably the rebels were overconfident and expected this the least.
This success of Wheeler’s forces was though very short lived and just then from towards the church white clouds could be seen advancing and these were stacks of cotton wool that were scattered by the mutineers belonging to the First infantry, who now advanced and when were about hundred and fifty meters away, they fired to cover the main attack while the ones who were behind, yelled in the peak of their voice to create panic among the inhabitants of the Wheeler’s Entrenchment. This attack was led by Subedar Major Radhay Singh who tried to scale the wall but was immediately shot dead, causing a great deal of blow to all under his command.
Just then, about five hundred rebels attacked a post and were given a befitting reply by the British forces, though mutineers had caused eighteen casualties on the British side, until Capt John Moore with a force of twenty five arrived to disperse them.
Wheeler was now a shaken man
By that noon the mutineers seized fire. Gen. Wheeler now from the trench returned to his room and hell broke loose. He was shocked to see his son Godfrey who was from the First Infantry and also aide-de-camp, dead. Godfrey’s head had blown into pieces, parts of the skull, hair and the brain strewn all over and the blood splashed on the walls. This was a result of a nine-pounder shell. For Wheeler as a father to see the body of his son in this manner was just enough to break him much more than the war outside.
Next day Wheeler wrote another letter to Lawrence: “British spirit alone remains, but it cannot last forever….We have no instruments, no medicine, provision for a few days at further and no possibility of getting any, as all communication with the town is cut off. We have been cruelly deserted and left to our fate: we had not two hundred and twenty soldiers of all arms, at first. The casualties have been numerous”.
The most crucial and the worst attack was presumably over and possibly there wouldn’t have been any more of this intensity, yet the entrenchment was devastated with about one third of the inhabitants dead, so many injured and the rest were so battered that it was hard to recognise them as human beings. This was the ruling class, the superior British who were now reduced to the condition which was worse than death. The entrenchment was full of foul smell of human and animal flesh, each drop of water now available inside was mixed with blood and smelt of rotten flesh. Disheveled, stinking and lifeless men, women and children now occupied the so called garrison.
Jonah Shepherd approached Wheeler, who was by now week in just these eighteen days of the siege since 6 June. He looked to have aged and become feeble. Shepherd told Wheeler that he intended to go in disguise to check on the enemy and understand their condition, and for this in return, he be permitted to exit along with his family. To this Gen. Wheeler at first was furious and thought Shepherd was deserting all and being selfish, but when Shepherd explained if this were the case, he anyway would have earlier deserted and wouldn’t have come to Wheeler to seek his permission. Gen. Wheeler understood and allowed Shepherd. In the afternoon of 24th June 1857, Jonah Shepherd changed into the dress of a khansama and put on a native turban to reach the enemy area. Shepherd was taken into custody for interrogation by Nana’s army, in which he successfully could prove he was a native khansama. Shepherd was asked about the Wheeler’s camp and if the British wanted to exit and surrender. Shepherd did not reply in affirmative and fringed ignorance but at the same time added that the ladies and children surely wished to come out and if an acceptable offer be made, they might accept. He was asked, if he agreed to carry a letter from Nana Sahib written to Gen. Wheeler regarding the offer, to which he immediately agreed. Probably this created a bit of doubt for Shepherd in the enemy camp. No one said anything to him though, but the body language of the interrogator was such and he left without a word. After sometime, Shepherd came to know that an old lady is being sent to the Wheeler’s Entrenchment with a letter or offer of release. Shepherd was quite happy to learn this and was now confident that the day of hope was not far now.
Treaty in sight and hope in despair
Same evening at a distance, Wheeler’s men spotted someone and assumed him to be a spy, planning to shoot him down but as he came closer, they could make out this was a woman with a child, walking without her shoes towards the entrenchment. Captain Mowbray Thompson of 53rd Native Infantry recognised her as Mrs. Greenway from the family of a merchant and helped her come in. She was weak and quite sick and almost fainted. When she regained consciousness, she handed over a letter which was addressed to, ”The Subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria”· The letter was opened by Gen. Wheeler and it read, “All those who are in no way connected with the acts of Lord Dalhousie, and are willing to lay down their arms, shall receive a safe passage to Allahabad.” But this letter was not signed by Nana Sahib, thus Wheeler did not accept it as factual and doubted its intent.
Next day on 26 June 1857 in the morning another message reached the garrison in an envelope and this time through a Eurasian lady Mrs. Jacobi, who till now was in captivity of Nana Sahib. Mrs Jacobi was sent with this message but Nana as her guarantee to return, had kept her children captive with him and had warned her that if she did not return, her children would be killed. The letter was handed over to Gen. Wheeler and this time it was under the signatures of Nana Sahib.
Wheeler then called a meeting of senior officers such as Francis Whiting, John Moore and Edward Vibart so that a consensus could be reached, to accept or to reject the offer of Nana Sahib. Wheeler still wanted to face the rebels as he was not trusting Nana and then somehow was confident of relief forces reaching soon to Cawnpore. But then, Moore was concerned about the ladies and children in the camp and raised the point of food supplies that would only last for only the next three days and that there were no medicines to treat the sick and the injured. Above all, the ammunition was very limited and would not last. To this Whiting sided with Moore and wanted to surrender and opt for the safe passage as promised by Nana. Thompson though differed with Moore and took sides of Wheeler who wanted to go on fighting. But Wheeler gave in as he really could not see the plight of ladies and children in the camp and got convinced with Moore, agreeing to get into a treaty with Nana – one that promised hope for ladies and children.
Now by the same afternoon, a meeting between the British under Wheeler and the rebels under Nana Sahib was held. Azimullah Khan and Jwala Prasad were the envoys of Nana Sahib, who reached on their horses while the British side was represented by Whiting, Moore and Roche (Mr.Roche was a British postmaster in Cawnpore) who reached walking at a common designated point. Azimullah Khan started speaking in English but as Jwala couldn’t understand, he wanted all of it to be translated in Hindi for him and asked Azimullah to talk in Hindi instead. Probably there was some trust deficit between the two, Azimullah and Jwala, else Jwala wouldn’t have protested. Anyway, the offer from Nana Sahib was that he will allow all in the entrenchment to leave for Allahabad (now Prayagraj) through the river route on the covered boats and for this, British side will have to surrender all ammunition and treasure before leaving for Allahabad.
Francis Whiting, John Moore and Roche disputed the terms of offer and wanted to retain personal fire-arms and some ammunition. Also, they wanted each boat to have food supplies, including some goats on it and that the injured and the sick be carried on stretchers till the boarding point of the boats on the closest bank of Ganges. A horseman with this term then left to meet Nana and to get his opinion about it. The horseman returned after an hour, only to announce Nana Sahib’s acceptance of all terms and wanted the British to leave in the evening the same day. Though Wheeler was of the opinion that they wouldn’t be able to get ready in such a short time, thus should look at the next day as the day of departure. Treaty was then drafted and taken to Nana Sahib in Bithoor, his headquarters, by one Mr. Todd who was Nana Sahib’s former teacher and was now a part of the garrison.
There was celebration all around the Wheeler’s Entrenchment as if each man, woman and child had been injected with a dose of happiness. With joy people were dancing and children after so many days started playing and jumping with joy as if their childhood was back. No shots from the enemy side were now heard and after many days, all inside the camp could eat well as there was no fear of food finishing early. Well was now accessible and all could now quench their thirst without the fear of being killed by the enemy. Some of course were still doubtful and only questioned, if they will really be able to get to Allahabad and will they live, but the mood in the Wheeler’s Entrenchment was so jovial that there was absolutely no room for any pessimism. This was the first night when most of the inhabitants of the garrison slept well with hope.
While men got busy in cleaning the guns and stocking up the allowed ammunition, others were seen collecting their belongings in the barracks. Many had something to carry along while many others were left with absolutely nothing. Children were holding on to their dolls and toys, some ladies were busy hiding jewels in their clothes. There were a few who had hid boxes of valuables in the earth and now were digging it to carry along on the boat to Allahabad. Some only had the holy Bible to carry along.
The final journey for a new
Next day on 27 June 1857 as decided, all left the Wheeler’s Entrenchment for the banks. And the entrenchment wore a war-torn look with flesh-stench, scattered belongings bullet and shell marks. Many had lost their loved ones and many saw devastating scenes which would have haunted them always such as Charles Hillersdon being killed in front of his pregnant wife Lydia and the dreadful death of Godfrey, Hugh Wheeler’s son. Devastation of Wheeler Entrenchment had seized but what followed was worse…
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