Frederick Engels in the New-York Tribune 1858

The Relief of Lucknow

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, February 1, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

We have at last before us the official dispatch of Sir Colin Campbell on the relief of Lucknow. It confirms in every respect the conclusions we drew from the first non-official reports on this engagement. The contemptible character of the resistance offered by the Oudians is even more apparent from this document, while on the other hand Campbell himself appears to take more pride in his skillful generalship than in any uncommon bravery displayed either by him or his troops. The dispatch states the strength of the British troops at about 5,000, of whom some 3,200 were infantry, and 700 cavalry, the rest artillery, naval brigade, engineers, &c. The operations commenced, as stated, with the attack on Dilkhoosha. This garden was taken after a running fight. “The loss was very trifling; the enemy’s loss, too, was trifling, owing to the suddenness of retreat.” There was, indeed, no chance of displaying heroism on this occasion. The Oudians retreated in such a hurry that they crossed at once through the grounds of La Martinière without availing themselves of the new line of defense offered by this post. The first symptom of a more obstinate resistance was shown at the Secunderbagh, a high-walled, loopholed inclosure 120 yards square, flanked by a loop-holed village about 100 yards distant. There Campbell at once displayed his less dashing but more sensible mode of warfare. The heavy and field artillery concentrated their efforts on the main inclosure, while one brigade attacked the barricaded village, and another drove back whatever bands of the enemy attempted the open field. The defense was lamentable. Two intrenched positions like those described flanking each other by their fire, in. the hands of indifferent soldiers, or even of plucky undisciplined insurgents, would require a deal of fighting to take. But here there appears to have been neither pluck, nor concert, nor even a shadow of sense. We do not hear of any artillery used in the defense. The village (evidently a small cluster of houses) was taken at the first onset. The troops in the field were scattered without an effort. Thus in a few moments the Secunderbagh was quite isolated, and when, after an hour’s cannonading, the walls gave way in one point, the Highlanders stormed the breach and killed every soul in the place; 2,000 natives are said by Sir C. Campbell to have been found dead in it.

The Shah Nujjeef was the next post — a walled inclosure prepared for defense, with a mosque for a reduit; again one of those positions which a commander of brave but half-disciplined troops would exactly wish for. This place was stormed after a three hours’ cannonade had opened the walls. On the next day, Nov. 17, the Mess-house was attacked. This was a group of buildings inclosed by a mud rampart and a scarped ditch twelve feet wide — in other words, a common field redoubt with a slight ditch and a parapet of problematical thickness and bight. For some cause or other, this place appeared rather formidable to Gen. Campbell, for, he at once resolved to give his artillery full time to batter it down before he stormed it. The cannonade accordingly lasted the whole morning, till 3 o’clock p. m., when the infantry advanced and took the position with a rash. No sharp fighting here, at all events. The Motee Mahal, the last post of the Oudians on the line toward the Residency, was cannonaded for an hour; several breaches were made and then taken without difficulty, and this ended the fighting for the relief of the garrison.

The character of the whole engagement is that of an attack by well-disciplined, well-officered European troops, inured to war and of average courage, upon an Asiatic rabble, possessing neither discipline nor officers, nor the habits of war, nor even adequate arms, and whose courage was broken by the consciousness of the double superiority possessed by their opponents, as soldiers over civilians and as Europeans over Asiatics. We have seen that Sir Colin Campbell nowhere appears to have been opposed by artillery. We shall see, further on, that Brigadier Inglis’s report leads to the conclusion that the great bulk of the insurgents must have been without fire-arms; and if it is true that 2,000 natives were massacred in the Secunderbagh, it is evident they must have been very imperfectly armed, otherwise the greatest cowards would have defended the place against one assaulting column.

On the other hand, the conduct of the fight by Gen. Campbell deserves the highest praise for tactical skill. From the want of artillery in his opponents, he must have known that his progress could not be resisted; accordingly he used this arm to its full extent, clearing first the way for his columns before he launched them. The attack upon Secunderbagh and its flanking defenses is a very excellent specimen of the mode of conducting such an affair. At the same time, having once ascertained the despicable nature of the defense, he did not treat such opponents with any unnecessary formality; as soon as there was a gap in the walls, the infantry advanced. Altogether, Sir C. Campbell ranks from the day of Lucknow as a general; hitherto he was known as a soldier only.

By the relief of Lucknow we are at last put in possession of a document describing the occurrences which took place during the siege of the Residency. Brigadier Inglis, the successor in command of Sir H. Lawrence, has made his report to the Governor-General; and, according to Gen. Outram and the unisono of the British press, here is a conspicuous case of heroism, indeed — for such bravery, such perseverance, such endurance of fatigue and hardships, have never been seen at any time, and the defense of Lucknow stands unparalleled in the history of sieges. The report of Brigadier Inglis informs us that on the 30th of June the British made a sortie against the natives, who were then just concentrating, but were repulsed with such heavy loss that they had at once to confine themselves to the defense of the Residency, and even to abandon and blow up another group of buildings in the vicinity, containing 240 barrels of powder and 6,000,000 musket cartridges. The enemy at once invested the Residency, taking possession of and fortifying the buildings in its immediate vicinity, some within 50 yards of the defenses, and which, against the advice of the engineers, Sir H. Lawrence had refused to raze. The British parapets were still partly unfinished, and only two batteries were in working order, but, in spite of the terrific and incessant fire “kept up by” 8,000 men firing “at one time into the position,” they were enabled to complete them very soon, and have 30 guns in battery. This terrific fire must have been a very wild and random kind of firing, not at all deserving the name of sharp-shooting with which Gen. Inglis adorns it; how otherwise could a man have lived in the place, defended as it was by perhaps 1,200 men? The instances related to show the terrific nature of this fire, that it killed women and children, and wounded men in places considered well sheltered, are very poor examples, as they occur never oftener than when the enemy’s fire, instead of being aimed at different objects, is directed toward the fortification at large, and consequently never hits the actual defenders. On the 1st of July Lawrence was mortally wounded, and Inglis took the command. The enemy had by this time 20 or 25 guns in position, “planted all round our post.” Very lucky for the defense, for if they had concentrated their fire on one or two places of the ramparts, the position would in all likelihood have been taken. Some of these guns were posted in places “where our own heavy guns could not reply to them.” Now, as the Residency is on commanding ground, these places can only have been so situated that the guns of the attack could not fire at the rampart, but merely at the tops. of the buildings inside; which was very fortunate for the defense, as that did no great harm, and the same guns might have been far more usefully employed in firing at the parapet or barricades. Upon the whole, the artillery on both sides must have been miserably served, as otherwise a cannonade at such short range must have been very shortly put a stop to by the batteries mutually dismounting each other; and that this did not take place, is still a mystery.

On July 20, the Oudians exploded a mine under the parapet, which, however, did no damage. Two main columns immediately advanced to an assault, while sham attacks were attempted at other places; but the mere effect of the garrison’s fire drove them back. On the 10th of August another mine exploded, and opened a breach,

“through which a regiment could have advanced in perfect order. A column charged this breach, flanked by the subordinate attacks; but at the breach only a few of the enemy advanced with the utmost determination.”

These few were soon disposed of by the flank fire of the garrison, while at the flank attacks hand-grenades and a little firing drove the undisciplined masses back. The third mine was sprung on the 18th August; a new breach was formed, but the assault was even more spiritless than before, and was easily repelled. The last explosion and assault took place on the 5th September, but again hand-grenades and musketry drove them back. From that time to the arrival of relief, the siege appears to have been converted into a mere blockade, with a more or less sustained fire of muskets and artillery.

This is, indeed, an extraordinary transaction. A mob of 50,000 men or more, composed of the inhabitants of Lucknow and the surrounding country, with perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 drilled soldiers among them, blockade a body of some 1,200 or 1,500 Europeans in the Residency of Lucknow and attempt to reduce them. So little order reigned among the blockading body, that the supplies of the garrison appear never to have been completely cut off, though their communications with Cawnpore were. The proceedings of what is called “the siege” are distinguished by a mixture of Asiatic ignorance and wildness, with here and there a glimpse of some military knowledge introduced by European example and rule. There were evidently some artillerymen and sappers among the Oudians who knew how to construct batteries; but their action appears to have been confined to the construction of shelter from the enemy’s fire. They even appear to have brought this art of sheltering themselves to great perfection, so much so that their batteries must have been very safe, not only for the gunners but also for the besieged; no guns could have been worked in them with any effect. Nor were they; or how is this unparalleled fact to be explained, that 30 guns inside and 25 outside worked against each other at exceedingly short ranges, some not more than 50 yards, and yet we hear nothing of dismounted guns or one party silencing the artillery of the other? As to the musketry fire, we first have to ask how it is possible that eight thousand natives could take position within musket range from the British batteries without being sent to the right about by the artillery? And if they did, how is it possible that they did not kill and wound every soul on the place? Still we are told that they did hold their own, and did fire day and night, and that in spite of all this the 32d Regiment, which could at the very outside count 500 men after June 30, and had to bear the brunt of the whole siege, still was 300 strong at its end? If this is not an exact counterpart of the “last surviving ten of the Fourth (Polish) Regiment,” which marched into Prussia 88 officers and 1,815 rank and file strong, what then is it? The British are perfectly right that such fighting was never seen as there was at Lucknow — indeed it was not. In spite of the unassuming, apparently simple tone of Inglis’s report, yet his queer observation about guns placed so that they could not he fired, at, about 8,000 men firing day and night, without effect, about 50,000 insurgents blockading him, about the hardships of bullets going into places where they had no business to go, and about assaults carried out with the utmost determination, yet repulsed, without any effort — all these observations compel us to acknowledge the whole of this report is full of the most glaring exaggerations, and will not stand cool criticism for a moment.

But then surely the besieged underwent uncommon hardships? Listen.

“The want of native servants has also been a source of much privation. Several ladies have had to tend their children, and even to wash their own clothes as well as to cook their scanty meals entirely unaided.”

Pity the sorrows of a poor Lucknow lady! True, in these times of ups and downs, when dynasties are made and unmade in a day, and revolutions and commercial crashes combine to render the permanency of all creature comforts most splendidly insecure, we are not called upon to show any great sympathy if we hear of some ex-queen having to darn her own stockings, and even to wash them, not to speak of her cooking her own mutton-chop. But an Anglo-Indian lady, one of that vast number of sisters, cousins, or nieces to half-pay officers, Indian Government writers, merchants, clerks, or adventurers, who are, or rather were, before the mutiny, sent out every year, fresh from the boarding-school, to the large marriage-market in India, neither more nor less ceremoniously, and often far less willingly, than the fair Circassians that go to the Constantinople market — the very idea of one of these ladies having to wash her own clothes and cook her scanty meals entirely unaided — entirely! One’s blood boils at it. Completely without “native servants” — ay, having actually to tend their own children! It is revolting – Cawnpore would have been preferable!

The rabble investing the Residency may have counted 50,000 men; but then the large majority cannot have had any firearms. The 8,000 “sharp-shooters” may have had firearms; but of what description both arms and men were, the effect of their fire is there to tell. The twenty-five guns in the battery have been proved to have been most despicably served. The mining was as much at random as the firing. The assaults do not deserve the name even of reconnaissances. So much for the besiegers.

The besieged deserve full credit for the great strength of character with which they have held out for nearly five months, the greater portion of which time they were without any news whatever from the British forces. They fought, and hoped against hope, as it behooves men to do when they have their lives to sell as dearly as they can, and women and children to defend against Asiatic cruelty. Again, full credit do we give them for their watchfulness and perseverance. But, after the experiences of Wheeler’s surrender at Cawnpore, who would not have done the same?

As to the attempt to turn the defense of Lucknow into a piece of unparalleled heroism, it is ridiculous, especially after the clumsy report of Gen. Inglis. The privations of the garrison were confined to scanty shelter and exposure to the weather (which, however, did not produce any serious disease), and as to provisions, the very worst they had consisted in “coarse beef and still coarser flour!” fat. more comfortable fare than besieged soldiers are accustomed to in Europe! Compare the defense of Lucknow against a stupid and ignorant barbarian rabble with that of Antwerp, 1832, and the Fort of MaIghera near Venice, in 1848 and ’49, not to speak of Todtleben at Sevastopol, who had far greater difficulties to contend with than Gen. Inglis. MaIghera was attacked by the best engineers and artillerymen of Austria, and defended by a weak garrison of raw levies; four-fifths of them had no bomb-proof shelter; the low soil created malaria more dangerous than an Indian climate; a hundred guns played upon them, and during the last three days of the bombardment, forty rounds were fired every minute; still the fort held out a month, and would have held out longer, if the Austrians had not taken hold of a position necessitating their retreat. Or take Dantzig, where Rapp, with the sic k remnants of the French regiments returned from Russia, held out eleven months. Take in fact any respectable siege of modern days, and you will find that more skill, more spirit, and quite as much pluck and endurance were shown against quite as great odds as in this Lucknow affair.

The Oude insurgents, however, though contemptible in the field, proved, immediately after the arrival of Campbell, the strength of a national insurrection. Campbell saw at once that lie could neither attack the City of Lucknow with his forces, nor hold his own. This is quite natural, and will appear so to any one who has attentively read the French invasion of Spain under Napoleon. The strength of a national insurrection does not lie lit pitched battles, but in petty warfare, in the defense of towns, and in the interruption of the enemy’s communications. Campbell accordingly prepared for the retreat with the same skill with which he had arranged the attack A few more positions about the Residency were carried. They served to deceive the enemy as to Campbell’s intentions, and to cover the arrangements for the retreat. With a daring perfectly justified in front of such an opponent, the whole army, a small reserve excepted, was employed to occupy an extensive line of outposts and pickets, behind which the women, the sick and wounded, and the baggage were evacuated. As soon as this preliminary operation was performed the outlying pickets fell back, concentrating gradually into more solid masses, the foremost of which then retreated through the next line, again to form as a reserve to the rear. Without being attacked, the whole of this maneuver was carried out with perfect order; with the exception of Outram and a small garrison left at Alumbagh (for what purposes we do not at present see), the whole army marched to Cawnpore, thus evacuating the Kingdom of Oude.

In the mean time unpleasant events had taken place at Cawnpore. Windham, the “hero of the Redan,” another of those officers of whose skill we are told that they have proved it by being very brave, had on the 26th defeated the advanced guard of the Gwalior contingent, but on the 27th he had been severely beaten by them, his camp taken and burned, and he himself compelled to retreat into Wheeler’s old intrenchment at Cawnpore. On the 28th they attacked this post, but were repulsed, and on the 6th Campbell defeated them with scarcely any loss, taking all their guns and train, and pursuing them for fourteen miles. The details of all these affairs are so far but scanty; but this much is certain, that the Indian Rebellion is as yet far from being quelled, and that, although most or all British re-enforcements have now landed, yet they disappear in an almost unaccountable manner. Some 20,000 men have landed in Bengal, and still the active army is no larger than when Delhi was taken. There is something wrong here. The climate must make terrible havoc among the newcomers.