Frederick Engels in the New-York Tribune 1858

Details of the Attack on Lucknow

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, May 25, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

At last we are in possession of detailed accounts of the attack and fall of Lucknow. The principal sources of information, in a military point of view, the dispatches of Sir Colin Campbell, have not yet, indeed, been published; but the correspondence of the British press, and especially the letters of Mr. Russell in The London Times, the chief portions of which have been laid before our readers, are quite sufficient to give a general insight into the proceedings of the attacking party.

The conclusions we drew from the telegraphic news, as to the ignorance and cowardice displayed in the defense, are more than confirmed by the detailed accounts. The works erected by the Hindoos, formidable in appearance, were in reality of no greater consequence than the fiery dragons and grimacing faces painted by Chinese “braves” on their shields or on the walls of their cities. Every single work exhibited an apparently impregnable front, nothing but loopholed and embrasured walls and parapets, difficulties of access of every possible description, cannon and small-arms bristling everywhere. But the flanks and rear of every position were completely neglected, a mutual support of the various works was never thought of, and even the ground between the works, as well as in front of them, had never been cleared, so that both front and flank attacks could be prepared without the knowledge of the defense, and could approach under perfect shelter to within a few yards from the parapet. It was just such a conglomerate of intrenchments as might be expected from a body of private sappers deprived of their officers, and serving in an army where ignorance and indiscipline reigned supreme. The intrenchments of Lucknow are but a translation of the whole method of Sepoy warfare into baked clay walls and earthen parapets. The mechanical portion of European tactics had been partially impressed upon their minds; they knew the manual and platoon drill well enough; they could also build a battery and loophole a wall; but how to combine the movements of companies and battalions in the defense of a position, or how to combine batteries and loopholed houses and walls, so as to form an intrenched camp capable of resistance — of this they were utterly ignorant. Thus, they weakened the solid masonry walls of their palaces by over-loopholing them, heaped tier upon tier of loopholes and embrasures, placed parapeted batteries on their roofs, and all this to no purpose whatever, because it could all be turned in the easiest possible manner. In the same way, knowing their tactical inferiority, they tried to make up for it by cramming every post as full of men as possible, to no other purpose than to give terrible effect to the British artillery and to render impossible all orderly and systematic defense as soon as the attacking columns fell upon this motley host from an unexpected direction. And when the British, by some accidental circumstance, were compelled to attack even the formidable front of the works, their construction was so faulty that they could be approached, breached and stormed almost without any risk. At the Imambarrah this was the case. Within a few yards from the building stood a pucka (sun-baked clay) wall. Up to this the British made a short sap (proof enough that the embrasures and loopholes on the higher part of the building had no plunging fire upon the ground immediately in front), and used this very wall as a breaching battery, prepared for them by the Hindoos themselves! They brought up two 68-pounders (naval guns) behind this wall. The lightest 68-pounder in the British service weighs 87 cwt., without the carriage; but supposing even that an 8-inch gun for hollow shot only is alluded to, the lightest gun of that class weighs 50 cwt., and with the carriage at least three tuns. That such guns could be brought up at all in such proximity to a palace several stories high, with a battery on the roof, shows a contempt of commanding positions and an ignorance of military engineering which no private sapper in any civilized army could be capable of.

Thus much for the science against which the British had to contend. As to courage and obstinacy, they were equally absent from the defense. From the Martinière to the Mousabagh, on the part of the natives, there was but one grand and unanimous act of bolting, as soon as a column advanced to the attack. There is nothing in the whole series of engagements that can compare even with the massacre (for fight it can scarcely be called) in the Secunderbagh during Campbell’s relief of the Residency. No sooner do the attacking parties advance, than there is a general helter-skelter to the rear, and where there are but a few narrow exits so as to bring the crowded rabble to a stop, they fall pell-mell, and without any resistance, under the volleys and bayonets of the advancing British. The “British bayonet” has done more execution in any one of these onslaughts on panic-stricken natives than in all the wars of the English in Europe and America put together. In the East, such bayonet-battles, where one party is active and the other abjectly passive, are a regular occurrence in warfare; the Burmese stockades in every case furnished an example. According to Mr. Russell’s account, the chief loss suffered by the British was caused by Hindoos cut off from retreat, and barricaded in the rooms of the palaces, whence they fired from the windows upon the officers in the court-yards and gardens.

In storming the Imambarra and the Kaiserbagh, the bolting of the Hindoos was so rapid, that the place was not taken, but simply marched into. The interesting scene, however, was now only commencing; for, as Mr. Russell blandly observes, the conquest of the Kaiserbagh on that day was so unexpected that there was no time to guard against indiscriminate plunder. A merry scene it must have been for a true, liberty-loving John Bull to see his British grenadiers helping themselves freely to the jewels, costly arms, clothes, and all the toggery of his Majesty of Oude. The Sikhs, Ghoorkas and camp-followers were quite ready to imitate the example, and a scene of plunder and destruction followed which evidently surpassed even the descriptive talent of Mr. Russell. Every fresh step in advance was accompanied with plunder and devastation. The Kaiserbagh had fallen on the 14th; and half an hour after, discipline was at an end, and the officers had lost all command over their men. On the 17th, Gen. Campbell was obliged to establish patrols to check plundering, and to remain in inactivity “until the present license ceases.” The troops were evidently completely out of hand. On the 18th, we hear that there is a cessation of the grosser sort of plunder, but devastation is still going on freely. In the city, however, while the vanguard were fighting against the natives’ fire from the houses, the rearguard plundered and destroyed to their hearts’ content. In the evening, there is another proclamation against plundering; strong parties of every regiment to go out and fetch in their own men, and to keep their camp-followers at home; nobody to leave the camp except on duty. On the 20th, a recapitulation of the same orders. On the same day, two British “officers and gentlemen,” Lieuts. Cape and Thackwell, “went into the city looting, and were murdered in a house;” and on the 26th, matters were still so bad that the most stringent orders were issued for the suppression of plunder and outrage; hourly roll-calls were instituted; all soldiers strictly forbidden to enter the city; camp-followers, if found armed in the city, to he hanged; soldiers not to wear arms except on duty, and all non-combatants to he disarmed. To give due weight to these orders, a number of triangles for flogging were erected “at proper places.”

This is indeed a pretty state of things in a civilized army in the nineteenth century; and if any other troops in the world had committed one-tenth of these excesses, how would the indignant British press brand them with infamy! But these are the deeds of the British army, and therefore we are told that such things are but the normal consequences of war. British officers and gentlemen are perfectly welcome to appropriate to themselves any silver spoons, jeweled bracelets, and other little memorials they may find about the scene of their glory; and if Campbell is compelled to disarm his own army in the midst of war, in order to stop wholesale robbery and violence, there may have been military reasons for the step; but surely nobody will begrudge these poor fellows a week’s holiday and a little frolic after so many fatigues and privations.

The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre — things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished — are a time-honored privilege, a vested right of the British soldier. The infamies committed for days together, after the storming of Badajos and San Sebastian, in the Peninsular war, are without a parallel in the annals of any other nation since the beginning of the French Revolution; and the medieval usage, proscribed everywhere else, of giving up to plunder a town taken by assault, is still the rule with the British. At Delhi imperious military considerations enforced an exception; but the army, though bought off by extra pay, grumbled, and now at Lucknow they have made up for what they missed at Delhi. For twelve-days and nights there was no British army at Lucknow – nothing but a lawless, drunken, brutal rabble, dissolved into bands of robbers, far more lawless, violent and greedy than the Sepoys who had just been driven out of the place. The sack of Lucknow in 1858 will remain an everlasting disgrace to the British military service.

If the reckless soldiery, in their civilizing and humanizing progress through India, could rob the natives of their personal property only, the British Government steps in immediately afterward and strips them of their real estate as well. Talk of the first French Revolution confiscating the lands of the nobles and the church! Talk of Louis Napoleon confiscating the property of the Orleans family! Here comes Lord Canning, a British nobleman, mild in language, manners and feelings, and confiscates, by order of his superior, Viscount Palmerston, the lands of a whole people, every rood, perch and acre, over an extent of ten thousand square miles. A very nice bit of loot indeed for John Bull! And no sooner had Lord Ellenborough, in the name of the new Government, disapproved of this hitherto unexampled measure, than up rise The Times and a host of minor British papers to defend this wholesale robbery, and break a lance for the right of John Bull to confiscate everything he likes. But then, John is an exceptional being, and what is virtue in him, according to The Times, would be infamy in others.

Meanwhile – thanks to the complete dissolution of the British army for the purpose of plunder – the insurgents escaped, unpursued, into the open country. They concentrate in Rohilcund, while a portion carry on petty warfare in Oude, and other fugitives have taken the direction of Bundelcund. At the same time, the hot weather and the rains are fast approaching; and it is not to be expected that the season will be so uncommonly favorable to European constitutions as last year. Then, the mass of the European troops were more or less acclimated; this year, most of them are newly arrived. There is no doubt that a campaign in June, July and August will cost the British an immense number of lives, and what with the garrisons that have to be left in every conquered city, the active army will melt down very rapidly. Already are we informed that re-enforcements of 1,000 men per month will scarcely keep up the army at its effective strength; and as to garrisons, Lucknow alone requires at least 8,000 men, over one-third of Campbell’s army. The force organizing for the campaign of Rohilcund will scarcely be stronger than this garrison of Lucknow. We are also informed that among the British officers the opinion is gaining ground that the guerrilla warfare which is sure to succeed the dispersion of the larger bodies of insurgents, will be far more harassing and destructive of life to the British than the present war with its battles and sieges. And, lastly, the Sikhs are beginning to talk in a way which bodes no good to the English. They feel that without their assistance the British would scarcely have been able to hold India, and that, had they joined the insurrection, Hindostan would certainly have been lost to England, at least for a time. They say this loudly, and exaggerate it in their Eastern way. To them the English no longer appear as that superior race which beat them at Moodka, Ferozepore and Aliwal. From such a conviction to open hostility there is but a step with Eastern nations; a spark may kindle the blaze.

Altogether, the taking of Lucknow has no more put down the Indian insurrection than the taking of Delhi. This Summer’s campaign may produce such events that the British will have, next Winter, to go substantially over the same ground again, and perhaps even to reconquer the Punjaub. But in the best of cases, a long and harassing guerrilla warfare is before them — not an enviable thing for Europeans under an Indian sun.