Chapter IX

The Fatal Day of Chinhut

Hawke returned to his horse with a strange sense of exhilaration. He knew that Ernest Lennard had proposed to Jean Atherton and had been rejected. He cared to know nothing more.

He was going into battle with a light heart. It was the 29th of June. Sir Henry Lawrence’s spies had brought word that the main body of the enemy would not reach Chinhut until the evening of the 30th; and Sir Henry had resolved to strike a decisive blow before the reinforcements arrived.

His determination was known only to the military officers. Mr Gubbins, the financial commissioner, between whom and Sir Henry there was a slight estrangement, was not aware of what was contemplated.

Hawke, among others, had received his orders; and, as he was not attached to any particular regiment, he joined the Volunteer Cavalry under Captain Radcliff. When Mrs Ross met him he was in the act of leading a horse to the stables to fit him with a saddle and put him in readiness for the expedition.

Meanwhile the whole of the British force yet remaining in the cantonments north of the river Gumti were ordered to move within the Residency, and from these Sir Henry made his selection. The little army was composed of 300 men of the 32nd regiment; 230 men of the Native Infantry; a small troop of Volunteer Cavalry, 36 strong; 120 troopers of the Oudh Irregulars, ten guns, and an eight-inch howitzer.

To this eight-inch howitzer a fatal interest is attached. All that need be said about it now is that it was discovered in a Lucknow house when a search was made for arms immediately after the outbreak on 30th May. Of the ten guns just mentioned, six were manned by natives, and four only by Europeans. The howitzer was on a limber or gun-carriage drawn by an elephant. Had it been left behind the greatest calamity of the siege might have been prevented.

The order was that the force should assemble at the iron bridge at daylight on the morning of the 30th. But there was unavoidable delay, and it was nearly six o’clock when some of the ladies in the Residency were awakened by the tramp of men and horse, the jingle of accoutrements, the rumble of the gun-carriages, and the shouts of the native drivers.

Jean was one of the first to be aroused. She had not slept well. Dr Lennard’s proposal had troubled her.

Directly she awoke and heard the noise she ran to the window. Another lady, the wife of a distinguished officer, was already there.

“What is the matter, Mrs Trafford?” she asked anxiously.

“I can’t tell you. I haven’t seen my husband since nine o’clock last night. I hope it doesn’t mean they are going out to meet the rebels. My dear, I have had a terrible dream within the last few hours.”

The lady shuddered and drew closer to Jean, as though the mere remembrance made her instinctively seek protection.

“You don’t believe in dreams, Mrs Trafford, do you?” said Jean.

“Of course not, but​—​oh, one never knows. I dreamt that our men went out just as you see them doing now, and that we were defeated. Ah, there’s my husband! I wish he were not going.”

At that moment Major Trafford of the 32nd rode by, and he raised his cap to his wife and to Jean. The latter scarcely saw him, for immediately after the 32nd came the Volunteer Cavalry and among the latter was Hawke. He glanced upwards at the Residency windows, and a triumphant smile irradiated his face when he recognised Jean. He, too, raised his cap​—​with a bold, masterful air Jean had never seen in him before.

It was, of course, quite an accident which led Jean to be at the window, and she never anticipated seeing Hawke. He went away with his impressions as to Jean’s feelings towards him confirmed.

“She loves me!” he muttered. “She loves me!”

No man set out for the fateful field of Chinhut that morning with a lighter heart than did Jack Hawke. He was in the humour to meet the enemy.

Sir Henry’s information led him to believe that the rebel force assembled at Chinhut, but eight miles from Lucknow on the Fyzabad road, intended to march to Lucknow early on the morning of the 30th. He started, in the hope of meeting the enemy at a disadvantage, either at the entrance into the suburbs of the city or at the bridge across the Kookrail​—​a small stream intersecting the Fyzabad road midway between Chinhut and Lucknow.

Up to the river the road was metalled and in good order. Beyond was a newly-raised embankment constructed of loose and sandy soil, in which every now and then gaps occurred indicating the position of projected bridges.

At the bridge over the Kookrail the force halted, and here Sir Henry proposed to await the coming of the enemy.

All in front was clear, so far as could be seen. The rebels, apparently, had altered their mind.

“We’re on a fool’s errand!” grumbled Hawke. “Look here, some of the fellows have got orders to return.”

“Wait a moment,” said a man at Hawke’s side. “I don’t think so. Sir Henry has one or two men with him who are not the fellows to go back without a blow at the enemy.”

“Anyhow, there’s the assistant adjutant-general speaking to Major Trafford, and to my mind it looks like a march back.”

Hawke was partly right and partly wrong.

The assistant adjutant-general had indeed arrived with orders from Sir Henry for the force to return to Lucknow, but other opinions were at work. Sir Henry, allowing himself to be persuaded against his own judgment, countermanded the order to return. The little army crossed the bridge, and entered upon the irregular ground and the loose soil.

“Where’s the commissariat?” growled a private of the 32nd. “We’ve ’ad the sun shining full in our faces for the last two hours, and I’m as dry as a limekiln.”

“Ay,” said his right-hand comrade. “There’s plenty of rum and biscuits, for I saw ’em packed, and there’s the river to mix wi’ the rum.”

All this was perfectly true. But by an oversight due probably to the uncertainty of opinion whether to advance or retreat, nothing was served out.

The little army advanced in regular order. An advance guard of cavalry, with vedettes thrown out, led. This was followed, first, by the eight-inch howitzer, then by four guns manned by natives. A hundred and fifty men of the 13th Native Infantry came next, with two guns manned by natives. The rear was brought up by 300 men of the 32nd Foot and the remaining native troops, 80 in number.

No enemy was seen. In view of what happened afterwards it is clear that the messengers who brought information to Sir Henry grossly deceived him. The British force marched on slowly till a long line of mango-groves came in sight. Suddenly, when the advance guard was about a thousand yards from this grove, a heavy artillery fire burst from among the trees.

Instantly the advancing column deployed into line. The guns were run forward and opened fire; the infantry threw themselves on the ground, and the shot went harmlessly over their heads. The battle, thus opened with a duel of artillery, seemed to lead to nothing. Our officers were congratulating themselves on an easy victory when all at once, on each side, a vast host of sepoys were seen, threatening the British force on both flanks.

The bitter truth was made evident. Instead of having to engage barely a thousand men, no less than seven thousand were opposed to comparatively a handful of British troops.

Chinhut itself was a large village, situated on a plain on the very banks of a very extensive jheel or lake. The camp of the enemy lay to the left of Chinhut; the village of Ishmaelgunge, where the action was really fought, to the left of the road by which the British were advancing.

The masses of rebel cavalry, infantry and artillery were seen advancing to the right and left. The British commander was by no means dismayed, and the howitzer and the musketry fire of the infantry held the enemy in check for some time.

Then came an unexpected disaster. Treachery was at work. One of the guns served by the native artillerymen was suddenly drawn to the side of the road.

The officer in command ran up in a passion, and demanded to know what the rascals were doing. The answer was given by a gunner, whose sword was uplifted and came down with a slash on one of the horses attached to the guns. The wounded animal sprang in the air, and the next moment the gun was overturned in the ditch. The rest of the men cut the traces and fled for their lives. A terrible scene of confusion ensued.

The men belonging to the remaining three guns followed the example of their traitorous comrades. They were deaf to all remonstrances. Sir Henry’s staff rode up, headed by the brigadier-general, who drew his sword upon the rascals; but all in vain.

At the critical moment a terrible fire opened from the village of Ishmaelgunge, running parallel to that part of our line occupied by the 32nd.

The fire from this village caught the regiment in flank, and in a very few minutes nearly half of the little force with a large proportion of its officers, including the commanding officer, Colonel Case, were lying dead or disabled on the ground.

The attack paralysed the 32nd. Deprived of their officers, the men threw themselves down in the shelter of a small undulation, firing at the enemy as fast as they could.

In the face of the overwhelming numbers surrounding the little army, there was but one thing to do​—​retreat. The order was given. The march back began under circumstances to which it would be difficult to find a parallel.

Ill-luck dogged the footsteps of the British that terrible day. The howitzer, to which reference has already been made, was doomed to work out its sinister destiny. The elephant which was to have carried it was half maddened by the fire. While the gunners were striving to attach the ponderous beast to its carriage, a bullet struck the lieutenant in charge, and the howitzer had to be abandoned.

Within forty-eight hours it was in action again, but alas, not on our side. It fell into the hands of the enemy, and from it, as will be seen later on, was fired the shot which killed the bravest and wisest of the many gallant leaders who gave their lives for their country and Queen in those terrible times.

The retreat had become general, when Captain Bassano, of the 32nd Foot, who had been searching for Colonel Case, discovered the gallant officer lying wounded. He offered to bring some of the men back to carry him away.

“Leave me to die here,” the brave fellow gasped. “I’ve no need of assistance. Your place is at the head of your company.”

Colonel Case was last seen lying on the roadside, with his eyes wide open, and his sword firmly grasped, in the midst of his companions in arms.

The enemy, by this time in rapid pursuit, were one moving mass of men. Like locusts they swarmed steadily towards the British force; the light puffs of smoke floating from every ravine and bunch of grass were followed by the spattering of showers of bullets.

As a rule the rebels showed little discipline in their fighting, but that day was an exception. They came on as steadily as possible. A field day on parade could not have shown better order. Their strength was in their numbers. There was no need to hurry; they knew that the tiny force in front of them was without supports.

Despite their terrible condition, the British never drifted into confusion. Many of the sepoys who remained faithful performed acts of noble self-sacrifice, some carrying their wounded officers on their backs for very long distances. But for this, scores of British soldiers must have died of their injuries, for there were no dhoolies (litters) for the wounded. At the very beginning of the action several of the bearers were killed. The rest were instantly seized with panic and fled.

The water-carriers also decamped. The European infantry were so exhausted by thirst and fatigue that they could scarcely drag themselves along, and only did so by the aid of the cavalry volunteers, each one of whom was encumbered by two, three, and even four foot-soldiers holding on by the hand of the horseman, or by his stirrup, or by the crupper or tail of his horse.

To add to the list of misfortunes, many of the muskets belonging to the men of the 32nd were useless. They had been kept loaded long without having been discharged, and had become foul.

During the retreat an officer shouted to a private by name, and ordered him to turn round and fire upon the enemy.

“I’ll do so if you wish,” growled the man, “but what’s the good? I’ve already snapped six caps and the piece won’t go off.”

At last the dispirited and sorely harassed men reached the Kookrail bridge, and here they were face to face with a new disaster.

The road in front was seen to be occupied by a dense mass of rebel cavalry, who had worked their way round unseen. Annihilation seemed inevitable. Sir Henry never wavered. He ordered the guns to be unlimbered, and they were pointed in readiness to be loaded with grape, when an officer rushed up to Sir Henry in great agitation.

“What are we to do, Sir Henry? We’ve no ammunition.”

“Never mind. Light the port fires all the same.”

The chief’s nerve and decision warded off rout and slaughter. The enemy believed the guns were loaded and shrank back. They had not the pluck to attempt to charge at a bridge defended by cannon.

“Now’s our time to show what we’re made of,” muttered Hawke to his next man. “Why doesn’t Radcliff order us to charge?”

The words were scarcely out of his mouth before Radcliff’s stentorian voice roared out, “Threes right. Trot.” The gallant little troop swept out of the trees at the side of the road, taking no heed of two nine-pounders which immediately opened fire upon them.

“Charge,” shouted Radcliff. The trumpet sounded and the volunteers, of whom some had never seen fighting before, hurled themselves at the advancing native cavalry. Thirty-five against five hundred, to say nothing of the guns! The five hundred never waited for the shock. The plucky thirty-five sabring all within reach, wheeled round and galloped to the rear of the slowly moving columns. The bridge was clear for the infantry and the wounded to cross.

But the enemy was by no means driven off. They harassed the retreating force right up to the iron bridge across the Gumti leading to the Residency.

The most extraordinary thing in this cavalry fight was that the enemy’s horse was apparently commanded by a European, who was seen waving his sword, and attempting to make his men follow him to the charge. He was a handsome-looking man, well-built, fair, about twenty-five years of age wearing the undress uniform of a European cavalry officer, with a blue and gold laced cap on his head.

In vain our men tried to get at him. When he saw that his troopers would not stand attack, he galloped off, and was not seen again. Everyone looked upon the incident as most mysterious, and many were the speculations as to who he could be. The mystery could not be solved. The man was believed to be a Russian, but the fact was never made clear.

Of all the men who took part in this unfortunate affair, Sir Henry Lawrence was the most active and untiring. He was seen in the most exposed parts of the field riding about, giving directions, or speaking words of encouragement, amidst a terrific fire of grape, roundshot and musketry, which struck down men on every side.

Forgetful of himself, conscious only of the danger and distress of the troops, at the moment of the crisis near the Kookrail bridge, when his little force appeared about to be overwhelmed by the dead weight of opposing numbers, he wrung his hands In agony, and exclaimed:

“My God​—​my God​—​and I brought them to this.”

And yet he had no cause to reproach himself. The retreat of the exhausted force from the Kookrail bridge to Lucknow, under the circumstances of the case, is one of the most marvellous incidents in the whole history of the Mutiny.

After passing the bridge Sir Henry gave over the command to Colonel Inglis, and, attended only by his secretary and staff officer, galloped to Lucknow, and through the city to the Residency. He knew what would follow the defeat at Chinhut, and he lost not a moment in making his preparations.

In the meantime the news of the disaster had reached the city as early as 9 A.M. A number of the Sikh cavalry and mounted artillerymen crossed the iron bridge at that hour, their horses flecked with foam, and themselves in mortal terror. But not one of them was wounded.

“Why did you run?” angrily cried the commissioner to whom they presented themselves.

“Ah, sahib, we were surrounded,” was the only answer they could give. Half-an-hour later a messenger who had been sent to gain information, returned to Lucknow bearing Sir Henry’s sword scabbard and a message that he was unhurt.

Shortly after the troops began to arrive​—​a sad procession of wounded and half prostrate men crawling along as best they could, without order or formation. Weak as they were, none of the natives of the city attempted to molest them. On the contrary, on approaching the suburbs, the natives​—​men, women and children, rich and poor​—​crowded round the weary and wounded fugitives, bringing water.

Had it not been for Sir Henry’s forethought, fearful carnage might have taken place on the iron bridge leading to the city. But on his arrival at the Residency he ordered out fifty men of the 32nd, under Lieutenant Edmonstone, to the bridge, and posted them in two houses on each side. Towards this bridge the yelling and triumphant enemy rushed; but here they stopped. They never attempted to cross it. These fifty Englishmen, supported by the fire from the two eighteen-pounders in the redan battery, held the bridge successfully till noon. The rebels then gave up the attempt and moved off towards the stone bridge farther up the river.

So ended the disastrous affair at Chinhut. The number of killed in comparison to the wounded was enormous. Out of a force of not 300 men, 112 British officers and soldiers were killed, and 44 wounded. Of the natives, there were nearly 300 killed and missing. Only 11 wounded returned to the city. Besides the howitzer three field-pieces were lost, with almost all the ammunition waggons of the native guns.

No estimate could be formed of the loss of the enemy, but the total number engaged was calculated at 5550 infantry, 800 cavalry and 100 artillery. The odds were fearful, and the only cause for wonder is not that so many of the British should have perished, but that any number should have escaped.

It was a terrible ordeal for the women, who, crowding to the Residency windows, saw the poor fellows staggering in at the Baillie Guard Gate. But there was no time for sentiment. The wounded had to be cared for, and one by one they were taken to the hospital, formerly the banqueting hall.

Jean was one of the first to offer her services. She had in imagination nerved herself for the terrors of the scene, but the reality far surpassed all she could conceive. After an hour or so Dr Macpherson sent her back. She was sick and faint.

Suddenly a fierce yell of triumph issued from a square building some little distance outside the Baillie Guard Gate. A lady burst into the room where Jean was, pale and agitated.

“The prisoners in the gaol have broken loose,” she screamed.

This was of comparatively little importance then. The prisoners were not fighters. They would not attempt to enter the Residency. They would go where plunder was to be had.

While the terrified ladies were watching the crowd of prisoners creeping, some lowering themselves out of the windows, others, out of sheer insolent bravado, climbing to the roof and shouting out abuse of their former masters, a flash of light was seen in the distance.

“What’s that?” whispered Jean, trembling in spite of her efforts to control herself.

The next moment she heard the sound of crashing masonry and bricks. A roundshot had struck the corner of the Residency. It came from the first gun fired by the rebels in the city.

The siege of Lucknow had begun.