Siege of Delhi

The Brits should have seen the Mutiny coming. They could not believe that their sepoys would rise up against them, they dismissed several minor revolts and they ignored the warnings of their Indian friends.

The mutineers in Meerut killed  a few British troops and their families on 10th May 1857 and deserted to the Moghul capital of Delhi 40 miles away, where they asked the 82 year old Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead them in their uprising against the British. The soldiers ransacked European homes and businesses in the city, killing women and children. Some fifty Europeans were brought to and incarcerated in the Red Fort, but they were later slaughtered.

Those who could get away, fled north to congregate at the Flagstaff Tower on the ridge overlooking Delhi. Telegraph messages alerted the rest of the British military posts. The East India Company troops prepared defences on the ridge and desperately fought off repeated assaults by the mutineers from the end of May until the end of August. They were lucky to hang on until they were reinforced.

Elsewhere in North India, some native regiments were disarmed, others were judged to be loyal (Sikhs, Pathans, Baluchis and Gurkhas) and kept their weapons. A relief force (the Punjab Movable Column) under General John Nicholson finally reached the ridge on 14th August.

In September, the British Army brought up siege cannons and mortars to attack the heavily fortified walls and on 14th, they launched an attack on the Kashmere Gate. It took a week of hand-to-hand street fighting before the British forces reached the Red Fort and the rebels left the city. It probably took so long because many of the soldiers broke into liquor stores, got paralytic drunk and became incapable of fighting. Jihadis fought bravely to kill as many attackers as they could. The soldiers sacked the city, looting and killing indiscriminately, in revenge for the murder of British civilians. Bahadur Shah Zafar was captured and brought back to the Red Fort after fleeing to Humayun’s Tomb. He was found guilty after a two month trial (if he was the King, how can he have rebelled against his own authority?) and sent to exile in Rangoon.

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See the sun trying to burst through the smog in the top left corner?

I went walking along the ridge last weekend. The smog was dreadful, obscuring the views over the city, much in the same way gunsmoke might have done so in 1857. Our group was led by two young ladies from Delhi University who gave short talks on the history, the wider causes of the rebellion, a feminist perspective, the propaganda of war, etc. We walked from Flagstaff Tower to the Guard House, past several mosques and to the observatory. From there we walked through the grounds of the Hindu Rao Government Hospital, which was the scene of bitter fighting between sepoys and Gurkhas. Finally, we arrived at the Mutiny Memorial.

This looks remarkably like the Albert Memorial opposite the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, but without the Albert bit. Just the Victorian gothic tower. Indeed both were constructed in the 1860s. Around the base of the red sandstone memorial were cream coloured plaques with details of the fallen. There was some graffiti, but the tower is surrounded by a high fence with a locked gate.

The casualties were very heavy on the British side. The army kept detailed records of this. 32 Victoria Crosses were awarded for valour during the campaign.

No one knows how many rebels died. Or how many innocent civilians were hanged or butchered by the victors, to “avenge the massacre of Cawnpore”.

Sixty years later, General Dyer justified ordering his troops to fire on unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh because he reckoned he was facing an insurrection which could have led to a widespread uprising, a second Mutiny. It was cold-blooded murder.

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“History is written by the victors” Winston Churchill.

 

 

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