Massacre at Cawnporeby V. A. Stuart
Meticulously researched and historically accurate, this depiction of the tragic story from the Indian Mutiny resonates in the struggles against religious fanaticism of our own time. Intense and inspiring, it describes the heroism of a handful of British soldiers and civilians who confronted swarms of vengeful sepoys and all but hopeless odds through the eyes of the
Meticulously researched and historically accurate, this depiction of the tragic story from the Indian Mutiny resonates in the struggles against religious fanaticism of our own time. Intense and inspiring, it describes the heroism of a handful of British soldiers and civilians who confronted swarms of vengeful sepoys and all but hopeless odds through the eyes of the characters Sheridan and his wife Emmy.
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Massacre at Cawnpore
The Alexander Sheridan Adventures, No. 3
By V. A. Stuart
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1973 V. A. Stuart
All rights reserved.
Soon after dawn on 6th June, the four mutinous regiments of the Cawnpore Brigade marched back to the city, bringing their artillery train with them. Within an hour of their arrival, a mounted messenger from the Nana Sahib presented himself at the entrance to the British entrenchment to deliver a written communication from his master. This, couched in arrogant terms and addressed to General Sir Hugh Wheeler, announced the Nana's intention to launch an attack on his position forthwith.
Such treachery on the part of the one Indian, above all others, in whose friendship and goodwill he had believed implicitly, left the old general stunned and heartbroken. For a long time he sat with his head buried in his thin, blue-veined hands, unable to speak coherently. Finally, at the urgent request of his second-incommand, Brigadier-General Jack, he consented to call a conference of his officers and to permit the alarm bugle to be sounded, as a warning to any who had left the entrenchment to re-enter it at once.
To the distant rumble of gunfire, the officers of the garrison made their way to the flat-roofed barrack block in which the general had set up his headquarters. All were aware of the significance of the gunfire and the sight of smoke and flames, once more ascending from the city and the civil and military cantonments, afforded proof — if proof were needed — of the return of the mutineers from their overnight camp on the Delhi road.
To Alex Sheridan, abruptly roused from an exhausted sleep, the sepoys' return came as no surprise. Since his meeting with the Moulvi of Fyzabad the previous morning, he had known in his heart what to expect. Despite the fact that one was a Mohammedan and the other a Hindu of Brahmin caste, an unholy alliance between Moulvi and Mahratta had always been in the cards. Both men were ambitious and hungry for power and, from the outset he was certain, both had been involved with the plotters of sedition in Delhi and elsewhere. There could be no doubt that the Moulvi had been one of the active instigators of mutiny in Oudh — although the Nana had vacillated, at pains to return on friendly terms with General Wheeler and his garrison lest, at the eleventh hour, the carefully planned sepoy rising should fail.
Alex hunched his shoulders despondently as he glanced across to the European hospital block where, last night, he had been compelled to part with his wife and new-born son. A few women were moving listlessly about the veranda, even at this early hour, but he could see no sign of Emmy. He was turning away when a tall, fair-haired officer in the scarlet shell jacket of the Queen's 32nd fell into step beside him and, following the direction of his gaze, observed wryly, "So near and yet so far, eh? I persuaded my wife to remove into that place, in the conviction that she and the children would be safer there than in a tent, and I've scarcely exchanged half a dozen words with her in private since her removal!"
His voice, with its hint of an Irish brogue, sounded familiar and Alex turned to look at him more closely, certain that they had met before but unable at first to recall where. The newcomer's insignia proclaimed him a captain; he was in his early thirties, tall and of powerful physique, with a humorous quirk to his mouth and the deeply tanned skin of one who evidently spent more time in the open than was usual for Queen's officers in India. A gleam of amusement lit his very blue eyes as he asked, in mock reproach, "Don't you remember me, Alex? Shame on you!"
"Good Lord!" Alex exclaimed, with genuine pleasure. "John Moore, by all that's wonderful! We last met at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, did we not? You were with the Turkish contingent and I —"
"You were General Beatson's second-in-command and you were with him in Silestria in '54. I'm delighted to renew your acquaintance, my dear fellow." They shook hands and Moore added, his smile fading, "Although I could wish that our reunion were taking place in happier circumstances. However ..." he shrugged resignedly. "Surely you're a fairly recent addition to the garrison? I don't recall having seen you here before and I've been here for the past three months."
"I arrived yesterday morning from Lucknow — after the electric telegraph wires were cut — with a despatch from Sir Henry Lawrence," Alex told him.
Captain Moore's fair brows rose in unconcealed astonishment. "And you stayed? Did you not realise the parlous state we're in? You would have been better off in Lucknow, my dear Alex."
"My wife and infant son are here. The baby was born prematurely less than three weeks ago. For his sake I dared not risk the journey."
"Emmy Sheridan — oh, yes, Caroline has spoken of her frequently. They've made friends but somehow I never connected her with you. Stupid of me but — I heard that you were seconded to the Political Service. Weren't you commissioner for one of the Oudh districts?"
Alex nodded. "I was, yes. For Adjodhabad — where both the irregular cavalry and the native infantry have just mutinied, murdering most of their officers. But I had been relieved of my civil appointment before that happened." He did not go into details, and Moore, after a quick glance at his face, did not pursue the subject. "Why are you still here?" Alex asked curiously.
"It's not from choice, I assure you. I'm in command of our invalids — 74 men, who weren't fit to move with the regiment to Lucknow — and I'm responsible for the wives and families, who were also left behind." John Moore spoke ruefully. "Would I were not! Frankly, Alex, I don't much relish the prospect of trying to defend this place against four regiments of Pandies — I take it we're about to be attacked by the mutineers, don't you? They appear to have abandoned the idea of marching to Delhi, more's the pity."
"Yes," Alex agreed. "They do, alas." They were passing one of the nine-pounder guns mounted on the north-western extremity of the entrenchment and he noticed, with shocked surprise, that no protection of any kind had been provided for either the gun or the team which manned it, apart from a few sandbags and a shallow trench which ran along inside the wall, and which appeared to be unfinished. No emplacement had been constructed and there was no shade; when the sun rose, the men would suffer acutely and only a few uncovered buckets of water had been provided, from which they could slake their thirst. Again following the direction of his gaze, John Moore gave vent to a sigh of frustration.
"I know, I know," he acknowledged, as if Alex had spoken his thoughts aloud. "Our defences are not completed and the coolies who were supposed to be working on the site have all disappeared. And — save for night alarms — the gunners have not been given permission to stand to arms in shirtsleeves order — none of us has. The general obviously was not expecting the mutineers to attack us, but perhaps, now he's realised that they intend to, he'll agree to relax some of the regulations which are likely to hamper us." He tugged at the high white collar of his shell jacket with an impatient hand. "Have you been on a tour of our defences yet?"
Alex shook his head. "No, not yet."
Moore repeated his sigh. "I'll take you when the conference is over. You'll find it alarming. Why in God's name the general didn't choose to defend the Magazine I'll never know! We could have held out there for months, with little danger to the women and children ... but old Wheeler insists that reinforcements are on their way and will reach us in less than a week. His main reason for choosing this site is, he says, because it's close to the Allahabad road and he doesn't want the reinforcements to have to fight their way through the city in order to reach us. He has a point, of course — if they reach us soon and in sufficient number. But if they don't ..." he made a rueful grimace. "May God help the poor innocents we are pledged to protect!"
Remembering the message he had brought from Lucknow, warning of an unforeseen delay which had halted the relief column at Benares, Alex maintained a discreet silence. The delay might not be as serious as anticipated and it was, in any case, for General Wheeler to break this news to his officers — or not — as he saw fit. He and Moore entered the cramped, low-ceilinged room in which the general had established his administrative headquarters and, there being no chairs, they took up their positions by the wall on the far side of the room, where an open window admitted what air there was.
The room was already full but more officers came crowding in after them, all correctly uniformed and wearing swords and medals, as if for a peacetime inspection. None looked particularly happy and several were openly grumbling, with varying degrees of annoyance, at the sudden summons and the confined space in which they found themselves. One late arrival, a red-bearded young giant in Native Infantry uniform, thrust a way through the press to join John Moore by the window and was introduced to Alex as Lieutenant Mowbray Thomson of the 53rd.
"Late of the 53rd," Thomson amended. He glanced with interest at Alex's uniform and his empty sleeve. "And you, sir, would seem to be late of the Third Light Cavalry. May I respectfully enquire whether you were at Meerut when your regiment earned the doubtful distinction of being the first to betray its salt?" Alex stiffened involuntarily but the question was asked in an apologetic tone, clearly prompted by a desire for information and not intended to give offence and, after a slight hesitation, he answered it without rancour.
"Yes," he said quietly, "I had the misfortune to reach Meerut on the eve of the punishment parade which led to the outbreak and, I fear, precipitated it." He heard John Moore draw in his breath sharply and, conscious that both he and Thomson were eyeing him expectantly, shook his head, anticipating the next question that both wanted to ask but were reluctant to put into words. "I regret I cannot tell you why the Meerut mutineers were permitted to reach Delhi, without any attempt on the part of the British garrison to stop them. I —"
"Cannot — or will not, Alex?" John Moore challenged dryly.
"In all honesty, John, I cannot," Alex assured him, careful to control his voice as a wave of remembered anger welled up into his throat. He saw again in memory the obese figure of General Hewitt, slumped in what Colonel Jones of the 60th Rifles had scornfully called "his bloody bath chair," heard the voice of the divisional commander raised in petulant protest when he, and a dozen others, had pleaded to be allowed to go in pursuit of the mutineers. Such memories filled him with shame; he had endeavoured to erase them from his mind but still they returned, like visions from a nightmare, to haunt his thoughts and torment his conscience. The Meerut garrison, barely a week ago, had fought the first gallant and successful action against the mutineers when, in overwhelming numbers and confident of victory, they had sought to bar the road to Delhi at the Hindan River bridge. Colonel Jones at the head of the Rifles, Charles Rosser with his two squadrons of Carabineers, Henry Craigie, Hugh Gough and Melville Clarke of his own regiment and even Brigadier Archdale Wilson had, it seemed, purged their memories of that night of failure and confusion in blood ... whereas he, who had shared it with them, had only the consciousness of failure on which to look back. He had failed to reach Delhi with the warning Brigadier Wilson had eventually entrusted to him and, before that, he ...
"You've nothing with which to reproach yourself, Alex," Moore said, breaking the brief silence that had fallen between them. "And you surely don't have to defend General Hewitt? For God's sake, everyone knows that he refused to allow any of his British troops to leave the station, even those who volunteered! He's to blame for the whole miserable affair, not the officers who were under his orders."
"I'd like to hear what really happened," young Mowbray Thomson persisted, his tone still apologetic. "From one who was there. That is, I — forgive me, sir, but there are so many rumours. One doesn't know what to believe. I've heard that General Hewitt is to be tried by court martial and ..." He broke off as a staff officer called for silence and General Wheeler entered, with Brigadier Jack and an aide-de-camp at his heels.
The assembled officers came to attention and the general took a paper from his A.D.C. with a visibly shaking hand. He was a small, spare man, with sparse white hair and of erect, soldierly bearing, whose boundless reserves of energy had hitherto belied his advancing years. In the past he had radiated a benign confidence but now, Alex thought as he watched him, white head bent, staring down at the papers in his hand, he seemed uncertain and hesitant, as if something — or someone — had dealt a mortal blow to his self-esteem.
Sir Hugh Massey Wheeler had a fine record of over fifty years' service with the Company's sepoy army, to which he had been posted as an ensign in 1805. He had seen action against Diraj Singh and in the Afghan War of 1839-40 and had fought with distinction as a brigade commander against the Sikhs. The only blot on his record had been his failure to act decisively, when bringing up reinforcements prior to the Battle of Aliwal, for which he had incurred some criticism, but he had lived that down and his personal courage during the battle, in which he had been severely wounded, had finally been rewarded with a knighthood at the end of the Punjab campaign, when he had commanded the Jullundur Frontier Force.
He looked anything but a hero now, however, as he addressed his tensely listening audience in a voice that was at once querulous and charged with emotion. "I shall not keep you from your posts for long, gentlemen," he promised. "But I feel in honour bound to inform you personally that the native prince, whom I have trusted and regarded as a friend, has repaid my trust with the basest treachery." He paused, glancing about him as if expecting comment but no one spoke and he went on bitterly, "The Nana Sahib of Bithur, gentlemen, after repeatedly assuring me that the mutinous regiments would, if they rose, march to Delhi and do us no harm, has himself ridden after them and brought them back to the city. At dawn this morning I received from him what amounts to a declaration of war." The general's voice broke as he read from the paper he had been holding. "'I am about to attack you,' he informs me and has the effrontery to sign himself Peishwa of the Mahrattas!"
At this there was a concerted murmur of outraged feeling which could not be contained and Mowbray Thomson exclaimed, with a shrug, "Well, what price the Magazine now!"
His voice carried and the general's pale cheeks were suffused with colour. "I am aware," he said, as the indignant murmurs faded into disciplined silence, "that many of you considered me to be at fault in choosing to defend this site, instead of the Magazine, and I am forced to concede that our present position will not be easy to defend against overwhelming numbers and resolute attack. Most of you know why I chose this site — it is close to the road from Allahabad, along which I believed and hoped that a relief column would come. I had intended, with the help of that column, to evacuate the women and children — of whom there are now 375 — to Allahabad, at the first possible opportunity. The last information I had from Calcutta, before the wires of the electric telegraph were cut, led me to believe that Colonel Neill was leading his regiment of European Fusiliers to our aid, and that we could expect his force within a week or, at most, ten days. However ..." again he paused, as if inviting comment and Alex, glancing at the faces of those about him, saw dismay mirrored in each one.
For a soldier to endure hardship or to fight against overwhelming odds was, as he knew well, no new experience for most of the officers of this garrison, many of whom were veterans of the Sutlej and Punjab campaigns ... but it was a very different matter when the lives of nearly four hundred helpless women and children were also at stake. Yet still no one voiced his dismay and General Wheeler sighed.
Excerpted from Massacre at Cawnpore by V. A. Stuart. Copyright © 1973 V. A. Stuart. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Meet the Author
V. A. Stuart wrote several series of military fiction and numerous other novels under various pseudonyms. Her settings span history and the globe, from the Napoleonic wars of Europe to India under the British Raj. Born in 1914, she was in Burma with the British Fourteenth Army, became a lieutenant, and was decorated with the Burma Star and the Pacific Star.
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