The Siege of Lucknow, June– November 1857 (Part 2)
Now realizing the strength of the force opposing him, Lawrence ordered the men in the Muchhee Bhowan to withdraw from their position under cover of darkness and blow it up. Lieutenant-Colonel John Inglis of the 32nd, the second-in-command, writing to Calcutta with a report on the situation, identified the chief danger as well as his disappointment with Lawrence’s handling of the defence:-
Our heaviest losses have been caused by fire from the enemy’s sharpshooters, stationed in the adjoining mosques and houses of the native nobility, the necessity of destroying which had been repeatedly drawn to the attention of Sir Henry [Lawrence] by the staff of engineers.
As soon as the enemy had thoroughly completed the investment of the Residency they occupied these houses, some of which were within easy pistol shot of our barricades, in immense force, and rapidly made loopholes on those sides which bore on our post, from which they kept up a terrific and incessant fire, day and night, which caused us many daily casualties.
Moreover, there was no place in the whole of our works that could be considered safe, for several of the sick and wounded, lying in the banqueting hall, which had been turned into a hospital, were killed in the very center of the building.
Lawrence himself did not survive for long. On 2 July he was mortally wounded in his room by an exploding shell, and he died two days later.
Command devolved upon Inglis, who received a promotion to brigadier-general. Inglis took immediate action, launching a series of sorties against the mutineers’ forward posts and spiking their guns, thus raising the garrison’s battered morale and steeling it against the occasional attacks and regular sniping.
The siege settled into a wearisome contest punctuated by intermittent artillery bombardments, the regular rattle of musket fire, and constant sniping. On some days the mutineers would launch concerted attacks against the defenders, but all such forays were driven back, sometimes with heavy losses.
The outposts were obliged to remain ever-vigilant for fear of being overrun. A captain of the 25th Native Infantry, having fortified his house, described what would befall the whole of the garrison in the event of defeat:-
We well knew what we had to expect if we were defeated, and therefore each individual fought for his very life. Each loophole displayed a steady flash of musketry, as defeat would have been certain death to every soul in the garrison.
During this time even the poor wounded men ran out of the hospital, and those who had wounds in their legs threw away their crutches and deliberately knelt down and fired as fast as they could; others, who could do little else, loaded the muskets.
In time, as musketry was shown to be relatively ineffective against the British defences, the rebels adopted the practice of mining. Inglis’s engineers dug counter-mines and fought bitterly in the tunnels beneath the Residency walls, generally gaining the upper hand over the attackers. Nevertheless, on 10 August, the rebels managed to detonate a mine which destroyed 20ft (18m) of the defences and part of a house, in so doing creating a large enough breach to invite attack.
The explosion may have been premature, for the handful of mutineers who actually made for the gap were shot down or driven off by a devastating fire directed from the rooftop of the mess-house.
The mutineers were only one of the dangers facing those besieged in the Residency. A quieter, but equally deadly, enemy operated from within. Overcrowding and poor sanitation made an excellent breeding ground for diseases such as cholera, dysentery and small-pox, all exacerbated by the virtual impossibility of disposing of the dead. The women behaved with extreme patience and at times valor, undertaking nursing duties, improvising uniforms for soldiers, keeping ration records and lists of casualties, collecting firewood, and bringing tea and alcohol to the men manning the defences.
By the end of the siege, as many people had died of, or were incapacitated by, disease as by enemy fire. A chronic shortage of food, which resulted in scurvy and other diseases, compounded other problems, such as heatstroke, trauma, rashes, boils and nervous strain, all of which exacted a daily toll.
Doctors were scarce, though it is of note that amongst the garrison was Dr William Brydon, who had reached Jellalabad as one of the last survivors of the army that had left Kabul on its disastrous retreat in 1842 during the Afgan war.
Without adequate space for care of the wounded and sick, those without beds lay in rows on the floor, surrounded by flies and the dreadful stench of gangrene and decomposition. Still, those who could stand and fight did so when the alarm was sounded; the less fit loaded weapons if they had the strength to do so. All were acutely aware that their lives depended on a successful defence, for the fall of the Residency would result in wholesale massacre.
TO BE CONTINUED