Frederick Engels in the New-York Tribune 1858

Windham’s Defeat

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, February 20, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

While during the Crimean war all England was calling for a man capable of organizing and leading her armies, and while incapables like Raglan, Simpson and Codrington were intrusted with the office, there was a soldier in the Crimea endowed with the qualities required in a general. We mean Sir Colin Campbell, who is now daily showing in India that he understands his profession with a master’s mind. In the Crimea, after having been allowed to lead his brigade at the Alma where from the rigid line-tactics of the British army, he had no chance to show his capacities, he was cooped up in Balaklava and never once allowed to participate in the succeeding operations. And yet, his military talents had been clearly established in India long before, by no less an authority than the greatest general England has produced since Marlborough, by Sir Charles James Napier. But Napier was an independent man, too proud to stoop to the reigning oligarchy — and his recommendation was enough to make Campbell marked and distrusted.

Other men, however, gained distinctions and honors in that war. There was Sir William Fenwick Williams of Kars, who now finds it convenient to rest on the laurels acquired by impudence, self-puffing, and by defrauding Gen. Kmetty of his well-earned fame. A baronetcy, a thousand a year, a comfortable berth at Woolwich, and a seat in Parliament, are quite sufficient to prevent him risking his reputation in India. Unlike him, “the hero of the Redan,” Gen. Windham, has set out to command a division against the Sepoys, and his very first act has settled him forever. This same Windham, an obscure colonel of good family connections, commanded a brigade at the assault of the Redan, during which operation he behaved extremely phlegmatically, and at last, no re-enforcement arriving, twice left his troops to shift for themselves, while he went to inquire about them himself. For this very questionable act, which in other services would have been inquired into by a court-martial, he was forthwith made a General, and shortly afterward called to the post of Chief of the Staff.

When Colin Campbell advanced to Lucknow, he left the old intrenchments, the camp and the town of Cawnpore, together with the bridge over the Ganges, in charge of General Windham and a force sufficient for the purpose. There were five regiments of infantry, whole or in part, many guns of position, 10 field guns and two naval guns, beside 100 horse; the whole force above 2,000. While Campbell was engaged at Lucknow, the various bodies of rebels hovering about the Doab drew together for an attack on Cawnpore. Beside a miscellaneous rabble, collected by insurgent Zemindars, the attacking force counted of drilled troops (disciplined they cannot be called), the remainder of the Dinapore Sepoys and a portion of the Gwalior contingent. These latter were the only insurgent troops, the formation of which can be said to go beyond that of companies, as they had been officered by natives almost exclusively, and thus, with their field-officers and captains, retained something like organized battalions. They were consequently regarded with some respect by the British. Windharn had strict orders to remain on the defensive, but getting no replies to his dispatches from Campbell, the communication being interrupted, he resolved to act on his own responsibility. On the 26th November, he advanced with 1,200 infantry, 100 horse and 8 guns to meet the advancing insurgents. Having easily defeated their vanguard, he saw the main column approaching and retired close to Cawnpore. Here he took up a position in front of the town, the 34th Regiment on the left, the Rifles (5 companies) and two companies of the 82d on the right. The line of retreat lay through the town, and there were some brick-kilns in rear of the left. Within four hundred yards from the front, and on various points still nearer to the flanks, were woods, and jungle, offering excellent shelter to the advancing enemy. In fact, a worse position could not well have been chosen — the British exposed in the open plain, while the Indians could approach under shelter to within three or four hundred yards! To bring out Windham’s “heroism” in a still stronger light, there was a very decent position close by, with a plain in front and rear, and with the canal as an obstacle before the front; but, of course, the worse position was insisted on. On the 27th November, the enemy opened a cannonade, bringing up his guns to the edge of the cover afforded by the jungle. Windham, who, with the modesty inherent in a hero, calls this a “bombardment,” says his troops stood it for five hours; but after this time, there happened some things which neither Windham, nor any man present, nor any Indian or British newspaper, has as yet dared to relate. From the moment the cannonade was turned into a battle, all our direct sources of information cease, and we are left to draw our own conclusions from the hesitating, prevaricating and incomplete evidence before us. Windham confines himself to the following incoherent statement.

“In spite of the heavy bombardment of the enemy, my troops resisted the attack [rather novel to call a cannonade against field-troops an attack] for five hours, and still held the ground, until I found from the number of men bayoneted by the 88th, that the mutineers had fully penetrated the town; having been told that they were attacking the fort, I directed Gen. Dupuis to fall back. The whole force retired into the fort, with all our stores and guns, shortly before dark. Owing to the flight of the camp-followers, I was unable to carry off my camp equipage and some of the baggage. Had not an error occurred in the conveyance of an order issued by me, I am of opinion that I could have held my ground, at all events until dark.”

Gen. Windham, with that instinct shown already at the Redan, moves off to the reserve (the 88th occupying the town, as we must conclude), and finds, not the enemy alive and fighting, but a great number of the enemy bayoneted by, the 88th. This fact leads him to the conclusion that the enemy (he does not say whether dead or alive) has fully penetrated the town! Alarming as this conclusion is both to the reader and to himself our hero does not stop here. He is told that the fort is attacked. A common general would have inquired into the truth of this story, which of course turned out to be false. Not so Windham. He orders a retreat, though his troops could have held the position at least until dark, had not an error been committed in the conveyance of one of Windham’s orders!

Thus, first you have Windham’s heroic conclusion, that where there are many dead Sepoys there must be many live ones; secondly, the false alarm respecting the attack on the fort; and thirdly, the error committed in the conveyance of an order; all of which mishaps combined made it possible tor a very numerous rabble of natives to defeat the hero of the Redan and to beat the indomitable British pluck of his soldiers.

Another reporter, an officer present, says:

“I do not believe any one can accurately describe the fight and retreat of this forenoon. A retreat was ordered. Her Majesty’s 34th foot being directed to fall back behind the brick kiln, neither officers nor men knew where to find it! The news flew rapidly about the cantonments that our force was worsted and on the retreat, and an overwhelming rush was made at the inner intrenchments, as resistless as the mass of water at the Falls of Niagara. Soldiers and jacks, Europeans and natives, men, women and children, horses, camels and oxen, poured in in countless numbers from 2 p. m. By nightfall the intrenched camp, with its motley assemblage of men and beasts, baggage, luggage, and ten thousand nondescript incumbrances, rivaled the chaos that existed before the fiat of creation went forth.”

Finally, The Times’s Calcutta correspondent states that evidently the British suffered on the 27th “what almost amounts to a repulse,” but that from patriotic motives the Anglo-Indian press covers the disgrace with the impenetrable vail of charity. Thus much, however, is also admitted, that one of Her Majesty’s regiments, composed mostly of recruits, one moment got into disorder, without however giving way, and that at the fort the confusion was extreme, Windham having lost all control over his men, until in the evening of the 28th Campbell arrived and “with a few haughty words” brought everybody to his place again.

Now, what are the evident conclusions from all these confused and prevaricating statements? No other than that, under the incapable direction of Windham, the British troops were completely, though quite unnecessarily defeated; that when the retreat was ordered, the officers of the 34th Regiment, who had not even taken the trouble to get in any way acquainted with the ground they had fought on, could not find the place they were ordered to retreat to; that the regiment got into disorder and finally fled; that this led to a panic in the camp, which broke down all the bounds of order and discipline, and occasioned the loss of the camp equipage and part of the baggage; that finally, in spite of Windham’s assertion about the stores, 15,000 Miniť cartridges, the Paymaster’s chests, and the shoes and clothing for many regiments and new levies, fell into the hands of the enemy.

English infantry, when in line or column, seldom run away. In common with the Russians, they have a natural cohesion which generally belongs to old soldiers only, and which is in part explained by the considerable admixture of old soldiers in both services, but it in part also evidently belongs to national character. This quality, which has nothing whatever to do with “pluck,” but is on the contrary rather a peculiar development of the instinct of self-preservation, is still very valuable, especially in defensive positions. It also, in common with the phlegmatic nature of Englishmen, prevents panic; but it is to be remarked that when Irish troops are once disordered and brought to panic, they are not easy to rally. Thus it happened to Windham on Nov. 27. He will figure henceforth among that not very large but distinguished list of English generals who have succeeded in making their troops run away under a panic.

On the 28th the Gwalior contingent were re-enforced by a considerable body from Bithoor, and closed up to within four hundred yards of the British intrenched outposts. There was another engagement, conducted on the part of the assailants without any vigor whatever. During it an example of real pluck occurred on the part of the soldiers and officers of the 64th, which we are glad to relate, although the exploit itself was as foolish as the renowned Balaklava charge. The responsibility of it, too, is shifted upon a dead man – Col. Wilson of that regiment. It appears that Wilson advanced with one hundred and eighty men against four guns of the enemy, defended by far superior numbers. We are not told who they were; but the result leads to the conclusion that they were of the Gwalior troops. The British took the guns with a rush, spiked three of them, and held out for some time, when, no re-enforcement arriving, they had to retreat, leaving sixty men and most of their officers on the ground. The proof of the hard fighting is in the loss. Here we have a small force, which, from the loss they suffered, must have been pretty well met, holding a battery till one-third of their numbers are down. This is hard fighting indeed, and the first instance of it we have since the storming of Delhi. The man who planned this advance, however, deserves to be tried by court-martial and shot. Windham says it was Wilson. He fell in it, and cannot reply.

In the evening the whole British force was pent up in the fort, where disorder continued to reign, and the position with the bridge was in evident danger. But then Campbell arrived. He restored order, drew over fresh troops in the morning, and so far repelled the enemy as to secure the bridge and fort. Then he made all his wounded, women, children and baggage cross, and held a defensive position until all these had a fair start on the road to Allahabad. As soon as this was accomplished, he attacked the Sepoys on the 6th, and defeated them, his cavalry and artillery following them up for fourteen miles the same day. That there was little resistance offered is shown from Campbell’s report; he merely describes the advance of his own troops, never mentioning any resistance or maneuvers on the part of the enemy; there was no check, and it was not a battle, but a battue. Brigadier Hope Grant, with a light division, followed the fugitives, and caught them on the 8th in the act of passing a river; thus brought to bay, they turned round and suffered severe loss. With this event Campbell’s first campaign, that of Lucknow and Cawnpore, is brought to a close, and a fresh series of operations must begin, whose first developments we may expect to hear of within a fortnight or three weeks.