Karl Marx in the New-York Tribune 1857

The Revolt in India

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, October 13, 1857;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The news received from India by the Atlantic yesterday has two prominent points, namely, the failure of Gen. Havelock to advance to the relief of Lucknow, and the persistence of the English at Delhi. This latter fact finds a parallel only in British annals, and in the Walcheren expedition. The failure of that expedition having become certain toward the middle of August, 1809, they delayed re-embarking until November. Napoleon, when he learned that an English army had landed at that place, recommended that it should not be attacked, and that the French should leave its destruction to the disease sure to do them more injury than the cannon, without its costing one centime to France. The present Great Mogul, even more favored than Napoleon, finds himself able to back the disease by his sallies and his sallies by the disease.

A British Government dispatch, dated Cagliari, Sept. 27, tells its that

“the latest dates from Delhi are to the 12th of August, when that city was still in possession of the rebels; but that an attack was expected to be made shortly, as Gen. Nicholson was within a day’s march with considerable re-enforcements.”

If Delhi is not taken till Wilson and Nicholson attack it with their present strength, its walls will stand till they fall of themselves. Nicholson’s considerable forces amount to about 4,000 Sikhs — a re-enforcement absurdly disproportionate for an attack upon Delhi, but just large enough to afford a new suicidal pretext for not breaking up the camp before the city.

After Gen. Hewitt had committed the fault, and one may even in a military point of view say the crime, of permitting the Meerut rebels to make their way to Delhi, and after the two first weeks had been wasted, allowing an irregular surprise of that city, the planning of the siege of Delhi appears an almost incomprehensible blunder. An authority which we shall take the liberty of placing even above the military oracles of The London Times, Napoleon, lays down two rules of warfare looking almost like commonplaces: 1st. That “only what can be supported ought to be undertaken, and only what presents the greatest number of chances of success;” and 2dly. That “the main forces should be employed only where the main object of war, the destruction of the enemy, lies.” In planning the siege of Delhi, these rudimental rules have been violated. The authorities in England must have been aware that the Indian Government itself had recently repaired the fortifications of Delhi so far that that city could be captured by a regular siege only, requiring a besieging force of at least 15,000 to 20,000 men, and much more, if the defense was conducted in an average style. Now, 15,000 to 20,000 men being requisite for this enterprise, it was downright folly to undertake it with 6,000 or 7,000. The English were further aware that a prolonged siege, a matter of course in consequence of their numerical weakness, would expose their forces in that locality, in that climate, and at that season, to the attacks of an invulnerable and invisible enemy, spreading the seeds of destruction among their ranks. The chances of success, therefore, were all against a siege of Delhi.

As to the object of the war, it was beyond doubt the maintenance of English rule in India. To attain that object, Delhi was a point of no strategical significance at all. Historical tradition, in truth, endowed it in the eyes of the natives with a superstitious importance, clashing with its real influence, and this was sufficient reason for the mutinous Sepoys to single it out as their general place of rendezvous. But if, instead of forming their military plans according to the native prejudices, the English had left Delhi alone and isolated it, they would have divested it of its fancied influence; while, by pitching their tents before it, running their heads against it, and concentrating upon it their main force and the attention of the world, they cut themselves off from even the chances of retreat, or rather gave to a retreat all the effects of a signal defeat. They have thus simply played into the hands of the mutineers who wanted to make Delhi the object of the campaign. But this is not all. No great ingenuity was required to convince the English that for them it was of prime importance to create an active field

army, whose operations might stifle the sparks of disaffection, keep open the communications between their own military stations, throw the enemy upon some few points, and isolate Delhi. Instead of acting upon this simple and self-evident plan, they immobilize the only active army at their disposal by concentrating it before Delhi, leave the open field to the mutineers, while their own garrisons hold scattered spots, disconnected, far distant from each other, and blocked up by overwhelming hostile forces allowed to take their own time.

By fixing their main mobile column before Delhi, the English have not choked up the rebels, but petrified their own garrisons. But, apart from this fundamental blunder at Delhi, there is hardly anything in the annals of war to equal the stupidity which directed the operations of these garrisons, acting independently, irrespectively of each other, lacking all supreme leadership, and acting not like members of one army, but like bodies belonging to different and even hostile nations. Take, for instance, the case of Cawnpore and Lucknow. There were two adjacent places, and two separate bodies of troops, both very small and disproportionate to the occasion, placed under separate commands, though they were only forty miles apart, and with as little unity of action between them as if situated at the opposite poles. The simplest rules of strategy would have required that Sir Hugh Wheeler, the military commander at Cawnpore, should be empowered to call Sir H. Lawrence, the chief Commissioner of Oude, with his troops, back to Cawnpore, thus to strengthen his own position while momentarily evacuating Lucknow. By this operation, both garrisons would have been saved, and by the subsequent junction of Havelock’s troops with them, a little army been created able to check Oude and to relieve Agra. Instead of this, by the independent action of the two places, the garrison of Cawnpore is butchered, the garrison of Lucknow is sure to fall with its fortress, and even the wonderful exertions of Havelock, marching his troops 126 miles in eight days, sustaining as many fights as his march numbered days, and performing all this in an Indian climate at the hight of the Summer season — even his heroic exertions are baffled. Having still more exhausted his overworked troops in vain attempts at the rescue of Lucknow, and being sure to be forced to fresh useless sacrifices by repeated expeditions from Cawnpore, executed on a constantly decreasing radius, he will, in all probability, have at last to retire upon Allahabad, with hardly any men at his back. The operations of his troops, better than anything else, show what even the small English army before Delhi would have been able to do if concentrated for action in the field, instead of being caught alive in the pestilential camp. Concentration is the secret of strategy. Decentralization is the plan adopted by the English in India. What they had to do was to reduce their garrisons to the smallest possible number, disencumber them at once of women and children, evacuate all stations not of strategical importance, and thus collect the greatest possible army in the field. Now, even the driblets of re-enforcements, sent up the Ganges from Calcutta, have been so completely absorbed by the numerous isolated garrisons that not one detachment has reached Allahabad.

As for Lucknow, the most gloomy previsions inspired by the recent previous mails a are now confirmed. Havelock has again been forced to fall back on Cawnpore; there is no possibility of relief from the allied Nepaulese force; and we must now expect to hear of the capture of the place by starvation, and the massacre of its brave defenders with their wives and children.