The Coming of Age: Reactionary Revolution and the Raj
Ours is a neo- age, and the template is the Victorian, our neo-liberalism, was their liberal trade, our neo-conservatism was their conservatism, our neo-classicism, was their classicism, our neo-imperialism, was their imperialism, their classical gold standard, the model for the modern monetary order. The legend that is presented is that that guilded age was a an age of rapid development, industrialization, and improvement in living standards, and that the policies of that time represented a kind of pinnacle of growth: low taxes, small government, national unity, and an abiding piety.
This order was imposed in a series of wars of unification and revolutions, the model for these, in many respects, was the Anglo-Indian War, often minimized as the "Sepoy Rebellion" or overstated as "The First War of Indian Independence." In truth, it was neither. It was the first war of a Reactionary World - the Realpolitick Revolution was on. Realism, the the ideology that dare not speak its name was about to shock the world. Got it? Then it's time to prelude and fugue...
In the first part, a thesis was put forward: that 1848 served as a shock to the European system, and that in its wake, a series of ideas, laws, technologies, and norms were put forward by the post-ancien order to meet the changed social and political context. Key to these were both accommodations to liberal sensibilities, as liberal was then construed, combined with an expanded reach of powers of state. This was done to reinforce a decentralized company/principality structure which allowed older interests to remain, even as such notions as the Doctrine of Lapse allowed the annexation or amalgamation of states that were deemed too weak.
“You may talk o' gin an' beer
When you're quartered safe out 'ere,
An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.”
Rudyard Kipling 1890
Kipling was born in 1865, but his world was born in 1857, and many of the characters in his books are drawn from the 1857-58 Anglo-Indian conflict. The state of India in 1857 was has an energetic governor-general, intent on "reform" and construction, had left it: with states being gobbled up by the East India Company, and a collision of a vast mass of the populace living as they had since the medieval, with new technologies sinking their claws as a large swathes of the population intertwined their destiny new English overlords, particularly in joining the military. The officer corps, which was noted even at the time, was superannuated, with many generals broken down, and having not seen combat with the new Minie type muskets which were being introduced. For all his faults, the previous governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, had been able by force of energy and force of personality to hold the factious company empire in a kind of rolling boil. There were revolts and rebellions, but his constant movement, and vast projects, such as irrigation along the Ganges, as well as decisive acts of pure patronage, managed to keep the company officer class together.
However, never in good health, he left, broken and tired, to die soon after leaving office.
The rebellion against the East India Company had three important military theatres. One was the reassertion of control up the Ganges by the company, centered around the rebel siege of Lucknow, and the attempts to relieve the defenders. The second was the quelling of insurrections and mutinies, as well as rolling up smaller states that had joined the general rebellion. The third was the siege of Delhi. Each of these actions would have lessons that would be reasons for dissolution of the East India Company's control, and the assertion of the Raj. These lessons would be repeated in the sequence of realist revolutions that would come. To see what they were, it is essential to go into some detail on the specifics of the campaigns.
There had been rebellions before, but this one, was different: almost immediately the tensions flew in every direction.
Dispossessed rulers saw a chance to take advantage of a ham handed introduction of new weaponry to generate open revolt. When a group of native infantry rebelled, other units organized to rescue them and then tore for Delhi, the old capital of the Mughal Empire, and petitioned the emperor to declare a pan-Indian state with himself at the head. The empire had from the late 1500's through the early 1700's been the dominate power on the Indian continent, ruling as many Islamic dynasties had, with a tolerance for local customs and authority, provided the vassal states obeyed commands and paid the high taxes regularly.
However by this point it was a islet of control in a growing sea of newer states, and had little to offer in the way of aid, other than Delhi itself: a well entrenched walled city, connected to much of Northern India, and therefore a logical center of rebellion. It also had a very small British presence, even though the British were nominally in control of the civil apparatus of the city, and were planning to annex the small state on the death of Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar, who at 82 had been told the title would lapse with his death. The rebels had moved over 60 miles in just over a day, and found fertile ground among the three Bengali regiments barracked in the city for expansion of the mutiny. However, their leaders had already decided that they wanted to be more than a mutiny against the East India Company's military officers, and they petitioned the emperor. Bahadur was not a hasty man, he made them wait. It was the 11th of May, 1857.
But the East India Company was not in hot pursuit, nor had warnings gone forth to other units, not by horse, foot, or then then new telegraph network, which had been under construction for 4 years, but already was linking major British centers of power. Instead, Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who had let the rebels in escape in the first place, sat. He was not alone among the Company officer corps. However, once roused, the Company attempted to put together a column to take Delhi. Sadly for their efforts, the logistical network and equipment had been disbanded after the Anglo-Sikh wars nearly a decade before, and the revolt made simply conscripting native help problematic at best.
Part of the increased urgency came from what the mutineers did late on the 11th: they became rebels with a single act: they attacked the armory and began slaughtering English citizens indiscriminately. The few British officers returned the favor by opening fire into their own troops and the crowd, and after holding out for a few hours, spiked the guns and blew up the tower. By several estimates half of the British civilians of Delhi were killed or kidnapped while trying to either gather at Flagstaff Tower, or flee the city.
On the 12th Baradur held a formal audience, the first in years, with the leaders of the rebellion, and decided to accept their petition, under some duress. At a stroke it both expanded, and doomed, the rebellion. By deciding to rebel, and declare sovereignty, he gave the rebellion a rallying point, and provided legitimacy. However, many of the rulers of states, dispossessed or interested in liberation, were no more interested in being under Mughal suzereignty, which their ancestors had often fought to overthrow, than they wanted to be absorbed in to the Company.
Baradur was riding the tiger: witnesses recounted how the officers acted in an overbearing manner, and refused to accept orders from Baradur or any of his sons. He had given assent, and that was all the needed. The officers of the three Delhi units joined in a fractious council of war which began issuing orders. Among their first was to hang 62 Europeans in the city, over the objections of the alleged ruler. It was the 16th of May, and the news of this action spread quickly. Canning, the new Governor General, and Anson, the Commander in Chief, began reaching out to the over-extended British forces, ordering units to return to Calcutta. The steamship resupply would take time, and Calcutta was the only port that would do.
On the 17th of May, the British under Anson finally roused themselves from their stupor and began gathering a column, which linked up at Karnal with General Wilson, the commander who had overseen the debacle at Meerut, and then allowed the rebels to flee. What came next was to become a familiar pattern: Anson died of disease, and command passed to a man as old and infirm in the form of Major General Henry Barnard. He organized the column and marched to Delhi, finally arriving on the 8th of June after defeating a large, but disorganized rebel force. By this point rebels were arriving from a half dozen cities in the north of India. Barnard began to construct siege works, hoping to move close enough to breach the walls with his lighter canons, when he too died of disease. So far the British had lost almost two full months to age, and ponderousness, of the Company's high officer corps.
They arrived at the old city of Delhi, whose 14 gates had been rebuilt in the early 19th century of Red Stone. The walls were as high as 21 feet in places, and often 12 feet thick of stone and earth. While the British were able to take a ridge in a quarter circle on the West of the city, overlooking these battlements, they were, effectively, a salient, not a siege. The city was open to the south and east. The great Lahore Gate opened to the road directly to the "Red Fort" an imposing central bastion which the emperor occupied, and down which commerce flowed both on foot and on a canal. The British force numbered less than 10,000 men, while the defenders already had twice that many. Wilson, a cautious man, decided against a direct assault, and set about a plan to bring his light artillery to the walls.
However, according to even the British officers, the local artillery was heavier, and the mean firing at them were better drilled, often getting off two shots for every one the British could fire. The defenders were entrenched, more numerous, and at least as skilled as the attackers.
According to Major Agah Humayan Amin the following regiments had already mutinied and were present in Delhi:
3rd Bengal Light Cavalry (504 men), Meerut Cantonment [1 Troop stayed loyal]
9th Bengal Native Infantry, Aligarh Cantonment
11th Bengal Native Infantry (780 men), Meerut Cantonment
20th Bengal Native Infantry (950 men), Meerut Cantonment
38th Bengal Native Infantry, Delhi Cantonment
54th Bengal Native Infantry, Delhi Cantonment
74th Bengal Native Infantry, Delhi Cantonment
According to Amin, the Europeans were not only outnumbered, but had only 30 or 70 rounds per man in ammunition.
One useful account is written by a man who had been in the army in India since 1851, but who would go on to be one of the most decorated commanders in the Empire. He would later be Field Marshall Lord Roberts of Kandahar, but at that time, he was Fred Roberts, and was attached as the quartermaster to the artillery by Anson. He describes the defenses of the city, which were being manned by native artillery men, and whose guns were heavier than the light infantry field cannons which the British had. Encamped on a ridge they were facing a formidable city, with more defenders, and better artillery, whose native garrison sent out daily sorties. Accounts from the siege showed a sharp divide in the army. Roberts was a member of a young wave of officers, and the armies non-commissioned officers were vigorous and hard-bitten, as the notes from A History of the Siege of Delhi by William Ireland show, with his relatively detailed accounts of how exchanges of musket fire occurred daily, until finally a sergeant berates the officers that men cannot take direct fire every day.
Finally after four generals had died, a young officer arrived, and though not in charge, and only 34, he change the complexion of the command when he reached Delhi in early August, on the 10th or 11th, with his column behind: Brigadier-General John Nicholson. Dashing, arrogant to the point of insubordination, and well known to be homosexual. However, he was already an experienced military man, having served in the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1847-48 as protege of Lawrence's "Young Men," who had been the core of Sir Henry Lawrence's staff in the Sikh War, and was imperious, overbearing, and beloved by his men. He one time hung the cooks for trying to poison the soup, he openly sneered at the old generation officers. With four general's dead from disease, and an army being hacked to pieces by the grind of sorties and swelling ranks of rebels, he decided that it was time for direct action.
“Everyone knew that the heavy artillery on route to Delhi would allow the British to assault the city, and the rebels had duly sent a force to intercept it. Nicholson took a detachment and met them at Najafgarh. Out numbered and against a rebel force that held the key ground and was digging in, he elected to attack their strong point. He delivered this speech before the battle:”
“As the Infantry were about to advance, Nicholson thus addressed them: "Men of the 61st, remember what Sir Colin Campbell said at Chilianwala, and you have heard that he said the same to his gallant Highland Brigade at the Alma. I have the same request to make of you and the men of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers. Hold your fire until within twenty or thirty yards, then fire and charge, and the serai is yours." Our brave soldiers followed these directions to the letter, and, under cover of Artillery fire, carried the serai. Front was then changed to the left as had been arranged, and the line swept along the enemy's defences, the rebels flying before them over the bridge. They confessed to a loss of more than 800 men, and they left in our hands thirteen field-pieces and a large quantity of ammunition, besides all their camp equipage, stores, camels, and horses. Our casualties were 2 officers and 23 men killed, and 2 officers and 68 men wounded-the officers mortally.”
41 Years in India, Lord Roberts, Chapter 16
The rebels were armed with older muskets, and Nicholson had heavy guns, but the tactics were straight from the Duke of Marlboro at Blenheim: a close barrage, with the infantry attacking the key point under cover, and delivering a single, short, shattering volley before closing hand to hand. The result was the expected devastation against short ranged muskets that had been raggedly firing. The same occurred a Delhi the same day, with a sortie repelled with only nominal casualties. The reality heavy guns had been known since Napoleon, and had been reinforced by the battles of the 1840s: heavy cannon fire could screen an infantry charge.
Returning to Delhi, he backed the plan to attack as quickly as possible. Roberts reported:
Nicholson was not a man of many intimacies, but as his staff officer I had been fortunate enough to gain his friendship. I was constantly with him, and on this occasion I was sitting in his tent before he set out to attend the council. He had been talking to me in confidential terms of personal matters, and ended by telling me of his intention to take a very unusual step should the council fail to arrive at any fixed determination regarding the assault. "Delhi must be taken," he said, "and it is absolutely essential that this should be done at once; and if Wilson hesitates longer, I intend to propose at to-day's meeting that he should be superseded." I was greatly startled, and ventured to remark that, as Chamberlain was hors de combat from his wound, Wilson's removal would leave him, Nicholson, senior officer with the force. He smiled as he answered: "I have not overlooked that fact. I shall make it perfectly clear that, under the circumstances, I could not possibly accept the command myself, and I shall propose that it be given to Campbell, of the 52nd, I am prepared to serve under him for the time being, so no one can ever accuse me of being influenced by personal motives."
In short Nicholson was willing to talk mutiny, in order to attack Delhi. The attack went forward on September 14th, but at enormous cost: to take the outer gates and walls was the work of a bloody week in late August, and costing three of the commanding officers their lives, including Nicholson. It proceed by bloody steps: artillery would clear a point, sappers would charge forward under cover to blow the wall or the gate, often losing 50% of their manpower on the charge: more than once the an who finally lit the gunpowder to demolish a gate, died while doing so. The problem was that despite having heavier shot, there were no effective explosive shells, so demolition work had to be done manually.
When finally in the gates were held, Wilson was about to order a retreat, as he had lost many of his best men and officers in the assault. However, the remaining officers, especially the younger junior officers, argued vociferously to hold what had been taken, and then reduce the city house by house. The new rifled muskets had been very effective in providing cover for charges, but at close range in street fighting, they were no better than the older weapons, with a similar rate of fire and no greater lethality. Slaughter was with blade, bayonet, and barrage. The defenders pulled field artillery from the walls to contest streets, and so the British had to attack from houses and roof-tops, at which point the artillery would withdraw a block, the process had to be repeated.
On the evening of the 18th, a group that Roberts was attached to discovered that there was a back route to the main street of Delhi - Chandni Chauk - and thence to the main Lahore gate. They returned to the main body, reported on the strength of the works, and the ability to take the gate from inside. The assault that had cost so many lives from the front, was achieved by swift surprise on the 19th with the cost of a life from behind. A lesson as old as Thermopylae was repeated
Contrast the slow assault with the effect of grape shot in clearing street mobs in Europe in 1848, and the effectiveness of the Prussian "needle gun" which concentrated on the rate of fire over accuracy, it also showed, contrary to what you may have been taught, that city walls were not obsoleted by gunpowder. The motivation for adopting the minie type bullet was that it made each bullet count for more with its longer range and greater accuracy, because supply lines were bad in Company controlled India, and indeed around the global British and French Empires, the choice for efficient, and therefore cheaper, muzzle loading long range weapons was almost a given. The Germans, without, yet, a global empire and long range supply problem, in fact, with the advantage of internal lines and a rapidly growing rail network, selected rate of fire for their weapons.
The result is that the British had to rely on elan. Assaults were brutal, and at high cost. However, once the Lahore gate was breached, and columns could enter from the other taken gates, the defenses of the city collapsed quickly, the British soon reached the hard defended points, and the 60th Rifles, one of the elite units the British had, stormed the last key point. Shortly thereafterwards, Major Hodson, in a very controversial act, ordered the summary execution of the emperor's three sons.
The British were, in a very real sense, masters of Delhi.
The lessons of the siege of Delhi were three: that company control through local principalities was incompatible with safety and rapidity of response, that the Company army, with its slow promotions and insular culture was incompatible with competence and good use of weapons, and that the Company lack of logistics had produced woeful and dangerous delay.
The British had a large supply depot in Delhi, and had control over the commercial organs, as well as a large civilian presence, but they relied upon the local authorities for legal legitimacy and protection. To protect such vital nexus points in future required control over all such cardinal points. This struck at the heart of long doctrine of how aristocracies functioned through companies, a cozy arrangement which had prevailed since the establishment of joint stock companies as royal arms starting in the 1500's, and accelerating through the 1700's. It also struck more particularly at the doctrine of the Congress of Vienna, the peace conference that had redrawn the map of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, and as importantly, established the "Concert of Europe," which was the architecture of the new peace. One aspect of that doctrine was that crowns remained on heads, without some provocation. Even the "Doctrine of Lapse" era had its limits. Crowns had acted through companies, and companies, in turn, through local legitimate authorities, waging war, signing peace treaties, collecting taxes, assigning concessions, and in general behaving as if they were sovereign states, only without the accountability of a state.
The second lesson dovetailed with the first. The Delhi column was slow to organize, slow to move, undersupplied and generally slow. While there was no question of their bravery and ability to fight, they would win all of the major encounters of the campaign, their state of supply and logistics, and the age and ill-health of their officers, was telling. Another telling fact was the generation banding of the officers. The generals were in their 60's, and fell to illness. There was another band of officers in their 30's. These were dashing, educated, brilliant horsemen and swordsmen, who were also capricious and bold to the point of foolhardy. These men, like Nicholson and Hodson, would die of combat wounds during the war. The youngest, while praising gallantry and heroics, were of a far more deft nature. Roberts would be part of taking the Lahore Gate without a loss, after Nicholson had died, along with a third of his troops hors-de-combat, bruising it from the front. Later in the war, officers from the Crimean War arrived to take command, and altered the complexion of the operation.
The third lesson underlined compounded these. The most devastating losses were caused by the scattered nature of the troops, the lack of supply, particularly medical supply, and the difficulty of getting orders changed. Men were moved by ship, not rail, and the only way to communicate with a moving ship, was by catching it with another moving ship, or intercepting it at re-coaling.
In summary, the mutiny turned rebellion exposed the weaknesses of the conservative ideology of the day: it was dangerously slow, woefully light and under-prepared, and filled with men who had an unfortunate habit of getting themselves killed. The success of Delhi would teach the young officers like Roberts the power of bravery, with preparation. It was a lesson that would conquer India and Africa, but, at the other side, produce a faith in infantry action that would lead to terrible slaughter in the First World War. In a very real sense, the fields of Flanders, were sown at the Siege of Delhi.