By MAJOR P.J. SHUTE RAOC
Text reprinted with the kind permission of the RAOC Gazette, Feb 1988, pages 386 – 388 (Author unknown). The text Copyright remains with the RAOC Association
The causes of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 were complex and deep rooted. The British East India Company maintained armed forces of some 230,000 of which only one tenth were Queen’s Regiments of the British Army. They were divided into three: the armies of the Bombay Presidency, the Madras Presidency and the Bengal, and it was the latter that mutinied. Morale in the Bengal Army was low. The rapid expansion of British Rule in Northern India had required a corresponding expansion of the Army. Battalions were split in half and then raised to full strength without correspondingly doubting the complement of British officers; the quality of the Officer Corps had been reduced by seconding the most able in the Political Service to administer newly acquired territories (the kingdom of Oudh, an area the size of Scotland. had been annexed in 1856) and the developments in communications that led to wives and families joining their husbands meant that the close relationship that had existed between officers and their men in the early years of the century had been eroded.
The grievances of the Sepoys centred on pay. As today, there was a complicated system of deductions for food and accommodation and allowances for service in areas distant from a Regiment’s recruiting base. The latter had been steadily reduced or, in some cases, not paid. The concept of mutiny was not understood by the native Sepoy since the idea of patriotism was a European development. He struck a bargain with the East India Company in that he would give loyal service in return for specified terms and conditions, lithe company failed to keep their word then the bargain could be considered void. There was thus widespread discontent and this subsequently centred on the issue of the greased cartridges. New ammunition cartridges, which were topped with calico patches waterproofed with linseed oil and beeswax, were issued for troop trials. These patches had to be bitten off before they could be used. The rumour spread that they were coated with cow and pig fat and that biting them would therefore defile both Hindu and Muslims. A company of Sepoy at Meenat refused to do drills with the cartridges. The situation was badly handled, and eighty-five men were court martialed on 9th May for mutiny and harshly sentenced. On the night of 10th May 1857 they were released from gaol by the 3rd light Cavalry and the Indian Mutiny, which was to take eighteen months to suppress, had begun. After murdering their British officers the 3rd Cavalry, joined by the 11th and 20th Native Infantry, set off to march to Delhi thirty-eight miles away. The Garrison commander at Meerut failed to take decisive action and the British Regiments in station were kept in barracks.
Delhi was the old capital of the Mogul Empire and provided the mutineers with a natural rallying point. It was garrisoned by three native regiments and contained the math arsenals In Northern India. The events that happened in the Delhi magazine on the 11th May are described below in the official report submitted by Lieutenant Forest, second in command of the detachment of nine British soldiers who manned the magazine.
Meerut, May 27th, 1857.
From Lieutenant G Forest. Assistant Commissary of Ordnance, to Colonel A. Abbott, CS., Inspector-General of Ordnance and Magazines Fort William.
Sir, l have the honour to report for the information of Government, and in the absence of my commanding officer, Lieutenant Willoughby, Artillery, supposed to be killed on his retreat from Delhi to this station, the following facts as regards the capture of the Delhi Magazine by the mutineers and insurgents on the 11th inst. On the morning of that date, between seven and eight p.m.. Sir Theophilus Metcalf came to my house and requested that I would accompany him to the magazine, for the purpose of having two guns placed on the bridge, sons to prevent the mutineers from passing over. On our arrival at the magazine, we found present Lieutenants Willoughby and Raynor with Conductors Buckley, Shaw, Scully and Acting/Sub-Conductor Crow and Sergeants Edwards and Stewart with the native establishment. On Sir Theophilus Metcalf alighting from his buggy, Lieutenant Willoughby and I accompanied him to the small bastion on the river face, which commanded a full view of the bridge, from which we could distinctly see the mutineers marching in open column, headed by the cavalry, and the Delhi side of the bridge was already in the possession of a body of cavalry. On Sir Theophilus Metcalf observing this, he proceeded with Lieutenant Willoughby to see if the city gate was closed against the mutineers. However, this step was needless, as the mutineers were admitted directly to the palace, through which they passed cheering. On Lieutenant Willoughby’s return to the magazine, the gate of the magazine were closed and barricaded, and every possible arrangement that could be made was at once commenced on. Inside the gate leading to the park were placed two six pounders, double charged with grape, one under Acting/Sub Conductor Crow and Sergeant Stewart, with the lighted matches in their hands and with orders that if any attempt was made to force that gate both guns were to be fired at once, and they were to fall back on that part of the magazine in which Lieutenant Willoughby and I were posted. The principal gate of the magazine was similarly defended by two guns, with the chevaux de frieze laid down on the inside, For the further defence of this gate and the magazine in its vicinity there were two six pounders so placed that either commanded the gate and a small bastion in its vicinity. Within sixty yards of the gate and in front of the office, and commanding two cross roads, were three six pounders and one twenty-four pounder howitzer, which could be so managed as to act on any part of the magazine in that neighbourhood.
After all these guns and howitzers had been placed in the several positions above named, they were loaded with double charges of grape. The next step taken was to place arms in the hands of the native establishment, which they most reluctantly received and appeared, particularly the Mussulman portion of the establishment to be in a state not only of excitement but also if insubordination, as they refused to obey any orders issued by the Europeans. After the above arrangements had been made, a train was laid by Conductors Buckley, Scully and Sergeant Stewart, ready to be fired by a preconcerted signal, which was that of Conductor Buckley raising his hat from his head, on the order being given by lieutenant Willoughby. The train was to be fired by Conductor Scully, but not until such time as the last round from the howitzers had been fired. So soon as the above arrangements had been made, guards from the palace came and demanded the possession of the magazine in the name of the king of Delhi, to which no reply was given.
Immediately after this, the Subadar of the guard on duty at the magazine informed Lieutenant Willoughby and myself that the king of Delhi had sent down word to the mutineers that he would without delay send scaling ladders fro the palace for the purpose of scaling the walls, and these shortly after arrived. On the ladders being erected against the wall the whole of our native establishment deserted us by climbing up the sloped roofs on the inside of the magazine and descending the ladders on the outside, after which the enemy appeared in great numbers on the top of the walls. We kept up an incessant fire of grape on them, every round of which told well, as long as a single round remained. Previous to the natives deserting us they hid the priming pouches, and one man in particular, Kureem-buksh, a Durwan, appeared to keep up a constant communication with the enemy on the outside and keep them informed of our situation. Lieutenant Willoughby was so annoyed at this man’s conduct that he gave me an order to shoot him should he again approach the gate.
Lieutenant Raynor, with the other Europeans, did everything that possibly could be done for the defence of the magazine, and where all have behaved so bravely it is almost impossible for me to point out any particular individual.
However. I am duly bound to bring to the notice of the Government the gallantry of Conductors Buckley and Scully on this trying occasion. The former, assisted only by myself, loaded and fired in rapid succession the several guns above detailed, firing at least four rounds from each gun, and with the same steadiness as if standing on parade, although the enemy were then some hundreds in number and kept up a continual fire of musketry on us within forty or fifty yards. After firing the last round, Conductor Buckley received a musket ball in his arm above the elbow, which has since been extracted here; I, at the same time, was struck in the left hand by two musket balls which disabled me (or the time. It was at this critical moment that Lieutenant Willoughby gave the order for firing the magazine, which was at once responded to by Conductor Scully firing the several trains. Indeed, from the very commencement, he evinced his gallantry by volunteering his services for blowing up the magazine, and remained true to his trust to the last moment. As soon as the explosion took place, such as escaped from beneath the ruins, and none escaped unhurt, retreated through the sally port on the river (ace. Lieutenant Willoughby and I succeeded in reaching the Cashmere gate. What became of the other parties it is impossible (or me to say. Lieutenant Raynor and Conductor Buckley have escaped to this station. Severe indisposition prevented my sending in this report sooner.
I have, etc.,
(Signed) G. Forrest, Lieutenant, Assistant Commissary of Ordnance.
N B-After crossing the river on the night of the 11th, I observed the whole of the magazine to be on fire, so that I am in hopes that little of the property fell into the hands of the enemy. Park Sergeant Hoyle was shot about eleven a.m. by the mutineers in attempting to reach the magazine to aid in its defence.
This report is a remarkable piece of military writing by Lieutenant Forrest. It records the problems that faced Lieutenant Willoughby at the Delhi Magazine, the plans that he formulated to overcome them and their subsequent execution. It is devoid of any emotion or information that does not relate directly to the military situation. It is also the only account of the action as neither Lieutenant Raynor nor Conductor Buckley made depositions and Lieutenant Willoughby was murdered by villagers the next day. In a subsequent statement Lieutenant Forrest was to add seeing the moment had arrived to do so, he ordered the preconcerted signal to be made, which was done by Conductor Buckley turning to where Conductor Scully was standing, and lifting his hat. Conductor Scully seeing this, at once fired the train and the magazine was blown up that same second with a fearful explosion killing hundreds of natives about. Fragments of the building were said to have been thrown half mile and upwards, and several European women and children who had fled to the magazine were killed or severely injured.
It is known that the wife and four children of Conductor Buckley died that day; the fate of the families of the other defenders is not known. Only Forrest, Raynor and Buckley were awarded the Victoria Cross as the medal was not at that time awarded posthumously.
It is ironic that the magazine within the arsenal that the small group defended so gallantly was only the expense magazine of fifty barrels of powder from which practice ammunition was prepared. A few years before the Mutiny, Sir Charles Napier, the Commander-in-Chief, had been horrified to find that the principal arsenal of Northern India was within the walls of a recently conquered city. The Government would not allow him to have it moved but did agree to the main magazine being placed in the catonment three miles away from the city and this held some three thousand barrels of powder. When Brigadier Groves, the commander of the catonment, saw the explosion as the expense magazine was fired by its Ordnance defenders, he sent two officers to blow the main one. They were driven off by the native guard and the munitions fell into the hands of the mutineers who were thus subsequently able to pound their besiegers with shot and shell throughout the four months of the Siege of Delhi that commenced on 9 June. However, it is recorded that the arsenal contained nine hundred thousand cartridges, two complete siege trains and some eight to ten thousand muskets, much of which must have been destroyed when the expense magazine was demolished and which would otherwise have been invaluable to the mutineers.
Whatever the degree of materiel damage inflicted, nothing can detract from the cold blooded heroism that ensured the denial of warlike stores to an enemy. It was an act that was to send a thrill across the Empire and inspired determination throughout the British in India.