Frederick Engels in the New-York Tribune 1858

The Siege and Storming of Lucknow

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, January 30, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The last mails from Calcutta brought some details, which have made their way to this country through the London journals, from which it is possible to form a judgment as to Sir Colin Campbell’s performance at Lucknow. As the British press assert that this feat of arms stands forth in unrivaled glory in the history of warfare, the subject may as well be a little more closely examined.

The town of Lucknow is situated on the right bank of the River Goomtee, which at that locality runs in a south-easterly direction. At a distance of from two to three miles from the river a canal runs nearly parallel to it, intersects the town, and below it approaches the river, which it then joins about a mile further down. The banks of the river are not occupied by crowded streets, but by a succession of palaces, with gardens and insulated public buildings. At the junction of the canal and river, but on the right or southern bank of both, are situated, close together, a school, called La Martinière, and a hunting-palace and park, called Dilkhoosha. Crossing the canal, but remaining on the southern side of the river, and close to its bank, the first palace and garden is that of Secunderbagh; further west come barracks and Mess-house, and then the Motee Mahal (Pearl Palace), which is but a few hundred yards from the Residency. 14 This latter building is erected on the only high ground in the neighborhood; it commands the town, and consists of a considerable inclosure with several palaces and out-houses within it. To the south of this line of buildings is the compact portion of the town, and two miles south of this is the park and palace of Alumbagh.

The natural strength of the Residency at once explains how it was possible for the English to hold out in it against far superior numbers; but this very fact at once shows also what class of fighters the Oudians are. In fact, men who, partly drilled under European officers and provided plentifully with artillery, have never yet been able to overcome a single miserable inclosure defended by Europeans – such men are, militarily speaking, no better than savages, and a victory over them cannot add much to the glory of any army, however great the odds may be in favor of the natives. Another fact which classes the Oudians with the most contemptible opponents to be met with, is the manner in which Havelock forced his way through the very thickest portion of the town, in spite of barricades, loopholed houses, and the like. His loss, indeed, was great; but compare such an engagement with even the worst-fought street-battle of 1848! Not one man of his weak column could have made good his way had there been any real fighting. The houses cannot have been defended at all; it would have required weeks to take as many of them as would have secured a clear passage. As to the judgment displayed by Havelock in thus taking the bull by the horns, we cannot form an opinion; it is said he was compelled to do so from the great strait to which the Residency was reduced, and other motives are mentioned; however, nothing authentic is known.

When Sir Colin Campbell arrived he had about 2,000 European and 1,000 Sikh infantry; 350 European and 600 Sikh cavalry; 18 horse-artillery guns, 4 siege guns, and 300 sailors with their heavy shipguns; in all, 5,000 men, among which were 3,000 Europeans. This force was about as strong in numbers as a very fair average of most Anglo-Indian armies that have accomplished great exploits; indeed, the field-force with which Sir C. Napier conquered Sinde was scarcely half as large, and often less. On the other hand, its large admixture of the European element and the circumstance that all its native portion consisted of the best fighting nation of India, the Sikhs, give it a character of intrinsic strength and cohesion far superior to the generality of Anglo-Indian armies. Its opponents, as we have seen, were contemptible, for the most part rough militia instead of trained soldiers. True, the Oudians pass for the most warlike race of Lower Hindostan, but this is the case merely in comparison with the cowardly Bengalees, whose morale is utterly broken down by the most relaxing climate of the world and by centuries of oppression. The way in which they submitted to the “filibustering” annexation of their country to the Company’s dominions, and the whole of their behavior during the insurrection, certainly places them below the level of the Sepoys, as far as courage and intelligence are concerned. We are, indeed, informed that quantity made up for quality. Some letter-writers say there were as many as 100,000 in the town. They were, no doubt, superior to the British in the proportion of four or six to one, perhaps more; but with such enemies that makes little difference. A position can only be defended by a certain number, and if these are determined to run away it matters little whether four or five times that number of similar heroes are within half a mile. There is no doubt that many instances of individual bravery have been seen, even among these Oudians. Some among them may have fought like lions; but of what avail were these in a place which they were too weak to defend after the mere rabble among the garrison had run away? There appears to have never been among them any attempt at bringing the whole under a single command; their local chiefs had no authority except over their own men, and would not submit to anybody else.

Sir Colin Campbell advanced first on Alumbagh; then, instead of forcing his way through the town as Havelock had done, he profited by the experience gained by that General and turned toward Dilkhoosha and La Martinière. The ground in front of these inclosures was cleared of the Oudian skirmishers on Nov. 13. On the 15th the attack commenced. So neglectful had the enemy been that the preparations for intrenching the Dilkhoosha were not yet completed even then; it was taken at once, and without much resistance, and so was the Martinière. These two positions secured to the English the line of the canal. The enemy advanced once more across this obstacle to retake the two posts, lost in the morning, but they were soon routed, with heavy loss. On the 16th the British crossed the canal and attacked the Secunderbagh Palace. The intrenchments here were in a little better order, consequently Gen. Campbell wisely attacked the place with artillery. After the defenses had been destroyed, the infantry charged and took the place. The Samuck, another fortified position, was next cannonaded for three hours and then taken, “after one of the severest fights ever witnessed,” says Sir C. Campbell — and, adds a wise correspondent from the seat of war, “few men have seen more of hard fighting than he.” We should like to know where he saw it. Surely not in the Crimea, where, after the battle of the Alma he had a very quiet life of it at Balaklava, only one of his regiments being engaged at the battle of Balaklava and none at Inkermann.

On the 17th the artillery was pointed on the barracks and Mess-house which formed the next position toward the Residency. This cannonade lasted till 3 o’clock, after which the infantry took the place by storm. The flying enemy was hotly pursued. One more position remained between the advancing army and the Residency — the Motee Mahal. Before dusk this, too, was carried, and the communication with the garrison was fully established.

Campbell should be praised for the judgment with which he took the easier route and with which he used his heavy artillery to reduce the intrenched positions before he launched his columns. But the British fought with all the advantages of skilled soldiers obeying one chief over half savages commanded by nobody; and, as we see, they fully availed themselves of these advantages. They did not expose their men more than was absolutely necessary. They used artillery as long as there was anything to be battered down. No doubt they fought with valor; but what they deserve credit for is discretion. The best proof of this is in the number of the killed and wounded. It has not yet been published as far as the men are concerned; but there were five officers killed and thirty-two wounded. The army must have had, with 5,000 men, at least 250 to 300 officers. The English officers are certainly never sparing of their lives. To show an example of bravery to their men is in too many cases the part of their duty which they only know. And when in three days’ consecutive fighting, under circumstances and in positions which are known to cost more lives than any other to conquer, the loss is only one in eight or nine, it is out of the question to call it hard fighting. To take an example from British history alone, what is all this Indian fighting put together against the single defense of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte at Waterloo? What would these writers who now turn every little skirmish into a pitched battle say of contests like Borodino, where one army lost one-half and the other one-third of its combatants?