Last week I outlined the historical background to the siege of Cawnpore, as described in the second of my John Williamson novels, Cawnpore. The siege ran from 6th to 25th June 1857, so last Monday was the 165th anniversary of its start.
General Wheeler, the officer commanding the small European garrison, was, as I explained last week, convinced that the uprising among native troops would not extend to those in Cawnpore. However, he took some precautions, preparing what he called an Entrenchment in which civilians could shelter in the event of a rising.
The Entrenchment was an area of open ground of around 9 acres (3.6 hectares) which contained two barrack buildings. One was about 50 feet (about 15 metres) wide and 190 feet (60m) long, the other 60 (20m) feet wide and over 350 feet (100m) long. In addition there were some outhouses, a kitchen, a warehouse and a row of huts. The whole thing was surrounded by a shallow ditch and a rampart made from earth dug from the ditch. This was not a militarily defensible position, and was intended just as a temporary refuge while the problems with the local Indian population died down.
On 5 June 1857 the troops at Cawnpore mutinied. The Europeans were left alone in the Entrenchment while mutineers burned their houses in town before setting off to join the main rebel force in Delhi. For a few hours it looked as if General Wheeler had made the right call and the Entrenchment had served its purpose. The next day, though, the rebels changed their plans and returned to Cawnpore to lay siege to the Europeans.
Nobody is sure how many rebels there were. Certainly their numbers ran into thousands. Some were actual mutineers, and thus trained troops, including cavalry. Others were local Indian troops loyal to local leaders, in particular the Peshwa, Nana Sahib. General Wheeler, on the other hand, commanded around 60 European artillerymen with 6 guns, 84 infantrymen and about 200 unattached officers and civilians and 40 musicians from the native regiments. In addition, he had 70 invalids who were convalescing in the barrack hospital and around 375 women and children.
Wheeler held out from 6th to 25th June under constant artillery fire, resisting attacks by infantry and cavalry forces. The scale of the bombardment is clear in these photographs of the two large buildings, taken after the siege.
In the end, Wheeler was persuaded to surrender on the grounds that it was the only way to save the women and children trapped with him. Nana Sahib promised Wheeler’s forces safe conduct, but reneged on the promise. Only four men survived the subsequent massacre.
Accounts both then and now tend to concentrate on the massacre. The achievement of the British forces in holding a completely inadequate position against overwhelming forces for so long is often neglected. Details of the defence are harrowing. For example, the well was out in the open and water had to be drawn from it under fire. Water was therefore drawn at night, but the enemy would wait for the sound of the bucket being raised and then fire blind to where they knew the well to be. Despite the appalling danger, there were always volunteers for this task. Similarly, the cannon were always manned, although the inadequate height of the breastworks meant that the people firing them were exposed to enemy fire throughout. Despite constant casualties, the artillery fire was kept up.
Modern attitudes toward the memsahibs of 1850s India suggest, with some justification, that their attitudes and behaviour were often not particularly admirable, but the women took their positions alongside the men, reloading muskets in order to enable the soldiers to keep up a faster rate of fire when they were under attack. Women who had been used to a life of indolence, surrounded by servants, found themselves packed together in wholly inadequate accommodation with very limited sanitation, watching their children dying before their eyes. It is amazing that they continued to record phlegmatically what was happening to them. One of them left a poignant record of the fate of her family:
Entered the barracks May 31st
Cavalry left June 5th
First shot fired June 6th
Aunt Lilly died June 17th
Uncle Willy died June 18th
Left Barracks June 27th
George died June 27th
Alice died July 9th
Mam died July 12th
The writer, Caroline Lindsay, was killed with her sister, Fanny, when the women and children who had survived the initial massacre were all murdered on 15 July. The list of deaths was found in the room where they died.
The story of the insurrection that we call the Mutiny is full of deeds of great valour as well as of great cruelty on both sides. Today, though, I would like to remember the heroism of the defenders rather than dwelling (as most accounts do) on the horror of the massacre that concluded the siege.
Further reading and photo credits
If you want to know more about the events of 1857 at Cawnpore, the definitive modern account is Andrew Ward’s excellent Our Bones Are Scattered (John Murray, 1996).
The engraving is a contemporary propaganda image.
The photos were taken in 1858 by Felice Beato. They are held by the Paul J Getty Museum whose generosity in making them freely available is acknowledged.
A version of this post appeared on my blog last November, but I felt that the anniversary of the siege was a good reason for publishing it again.
Cawnpore is my favourite of all the books I’ve written. It provides a detailed account of the events leading up to the siege, the military action, and the subsequent massacres viewed from both sides. Until recently, Cawnpore was usually presented as illustrating the bravery of the British forces and the cruelty of the Indians. Nowadays it is as likely to be put forward as an example of the way in which the Indians rose in a struggle for independence against a rapacious invader. In fact, the situation was more nuanced than either interpretation suggests. My book tries to reflect the moral ambiguities on both sides of the battle as well as providing a gripping, if depressing, read. It’s available on Amazon in both paperback and e-book versions. Go to mybook.to/Cawnpore.