Every year, September 21 marks the day when East India Company (EIC) troops regained control of Delhi which had emerged as a psychological and physical center of the Sepoy Rebellion of May 10, 1857 (This conflict was given various names like mutiny and rebellion by the British, and War of Independence by most peoples of the subcontinent. However, since initially only the native soldiers from British military units had rebelled, as at that time the officers were only British, therefore, many scholars have called it Sepoy Rebellion and Sepoy Army to the fighting soldiers to convey the strength, level and magnitude of this war for drawing correct military lessons). Though, technology had been critical earlier on but from mid-1850s its impact on the war effort was becoming predominant and phenomenal. Soldierly traits like courage and steadfastness kept on playing a pivotal role in every tactical battle but newly found technologies in communications, shipbuilding, gunnery, rifle making proved central if not catalyctic. Crimean Campaign (1854-56) is taken as the first war fought under the growing impact of Industrial Revolution, hence, 1857 War of Independence was bound to witness the impact of technology both in physical and psychological domains.
By July 1, 1857 soldiers’ riots had spread in most of India. Delhi had been occupied by the freedom fighters and old King Bahadur Shah Zafar had been reinstated on the Delhi throne. Two sons of the King took command of rebel troops which had amassed inside the walled city of Delhi. Towards East though, large town of Lucknow, with a small British garrison, had been besieged by the rebel troops and Cawnpore had been taken over. Rebel leaders must have felt confident with Delhi in their hands along with the critical towns of Lucknow, Cawnpore and uprising in Jhansi and Gwalior. Should the British start clearing from Calcutta towards the West as it must have been perceived that it could be a long-drawn war with prospects of general uprising in the length and breadth of India. From the British perspective, though primary port cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay remained firmly in the hands of British, it was Punjab where most of the Army units were stationed that appeared as a critical concern for them. Should the soldiers fully armed from those battalions deployed there rebel, the situation could be catastrophic for the EIC. Nonetheless, since the bias of the British units was also in Punjab, therefore, they could depend upon a force capable of enforcing authority. Hence, for British planners the rebellion appeared confined to the central portion of Northern India which could be dealt with from West with forces in hand and from the East only after the arrival of reinforcements from outside. Admittedly, in a very bold move, 4000 British troops in the adjoining areas of Delhi, like Meerut and Shimla, marched towards Delhi and established a foothold on a low ridge just outside the city’s walls. It was June 8, 1857 and the force was called as the Delhi Field Force under Major General Henry Barnard, a Crimean war veteran. Repeated dislodging attempts by the Sepoys from the city proved unsuccessful. Lacking siege artillery as well as facing sanitation problems, the British troops also had to endure acute summer heat and disease while waiting for reinforcements from Punjab. Which, when arrived along with adequate siege artillery, Delhi was retaken by end September i.e., much before Cawnpore and Lucknow. Erupting as a Sepoy mutiny or rebellion, morphing into a War of Independence, it ended up as a chain of uncoordinated localized resistance movements dealt piecemeal with brutal consequences, consuming a little over a year. Though railway had been introduced in India but its spread was far too less to impact the progress of “1857 Indian Rebellion” for the British Army. The salient aspects that new technology played and proved crucial in the outcome of the war are highlighted here.
Role of the Telegraph
It would not be wrong to accept when it is said that “the Empire was saved by a Telegram”. By 1857, over 6000 kms of telegraph line had been laid in India and Calcutta had been linked with Peshawar. Another line ran East-West and linked Madras with Bombay. At Agra both the lines joined together, hence a fairly established system of communication which outmatched all previous methods. British officers in Lahore and Peshawar became aware of the happenings in Delhi by May 12 through a famous telegram sent to Ambala station before the line was severed. Secretly, but promptly, only 600 Europeans disarmed the 2,500 sepoys on May 13 in Lahore, who had no clue of the happenings in Meerut and Dehli that took place three days ago. By some analysts: “The lightening fast action in Lahore secured India. The rest was merely critical sacrifice and action”.
Actions following the disarming were more important. The British sealed off all flow of information and eliminated all persons who could facilitate communication. All 'tonga' (horse cart) and 'rehra' (self-driven cart) traffic between Lahore and Amritsar, Ferozepur and Sheikhupura was stopped and all carriages confiscated. The postal service was put under military control and every letter read. All unofficial 'harkaras' were arrested. Ferry services on River Ravi were stopped and the ferries confiscated. Gujjar community was rounded up and all their goatskins were confiscated. The ancient tradition of 'parwanas' was halted. When the sepoys at Lahore and Sialkot finally did revolt in July and August 1857, they were brutally killed. Around 200 were shot dead and collectively buried at Mahmood Buti. Similarly, in Peshawar, native Regiments were disarmed and the situation was effectively controlled barring one unit which disobeyed and was scattered in Mardan. Within six weeks entire Punjab was secured. In contrast to the British, the sepoy army depended upon harkaras who jogged from one village to another and could not cross rivers at the place of their own choosing, besides being vulnerable to be captured. Visibly, EIC enjoyed a technological advantage over the sepoys. Remarkably the line between Lahore and British Forces at Delhi was also kept operational throughout. London had not been connected through cable, therefore, the news of the debacle arrived on June 26, i.e., 6 weeks later. An anonymous sepoy is allegedly quoted to have said, while waiting to be hanged, ‘That is the accursed wire that strangled us”.
Emergence of Steamers
By 1850s a new but disruptive technology had emerged which was fundamentally revolutionizing sea travel. Steamers with paddle wheels could move along the sea routes but were not dependent on the favorable winds. Though restricted to shorter travels, yet connected, it afforded a predictable timetable throughout the year. Hardly a few decades ago, the journey to England from India took six months one way on a standard sail ship or at best four months on a fast sail ship dedicated for mail only, via the Cape of Good Hope i.e., Southern tip of Africa. By 1850 a much shorter route had emerged which exploited the combined advantages of railways on land and steamers on sea through Egypt, taking a little over six weeks as opposed to six months. The news of 1857 Mutiny reached England via Cairo in 45 days whereas 100 years ago the news of 1757 Bengal clashes reached England in one and a half year. What really emerged as an unprecedented impact was the ability of the British to cobble together a response which was spread to the known corners of the globe. Reinforcements were shipped to India from England via Cape of Good Hope taking 80 days but troops from South Africa, Mauritius, Ceylon and Singapore started arriving at Calcutta sooner i.e., by the end of June. Regiments from Malta were there, too. By the first week of August 1857, an entire Army under Lord Elign destined for China was disembarking in Calcutta. Largest steam frigate of the time, “Shannon” along with “Pearl” were among the mainstays of sea transport. The last to arrive were eight regiments and six companies of artillery from England. Steamer, telegraph and railway enabled the British to conceive a grand time sequenced reinforcement plan spread over half the globe, while inland steam gunboats plying on Jumna played the critical role of supplying munitions. At the start of the rebellion there were only 22 British Units but within three months these had doubled and later trebled.
Rifle-Musket Enfield Pattern 53
Enfield P53 was introduced to the Indian troops in 1856. It was an advanced version of previous muskets with a longer range and greater accuracy. It employed a percussion cap and rifled barrel. In a way it practically demonstrated the amount of trust the British were prepared to put in the Indian sepoys, but it took a negative start as soon as it was inducted. Since it was rifled, it required a tighter fit of musket ball which in turn required good lubrication. Lubrication was provided through waxed/greased paper cartridges which generated a controversy among Hindu and Muslim troops. Though some genuine efforts were made to address the issue like the use of ghee as a lubricant and amending the drill which required biting the cartridge to tear it open but it was too late. The point of highlighting this aspect is scientific in nature. Though the concerns of both Hindus and Muslims regarding the composition of grease were justified yet by refusing it and rebelling at the same time in fact put them at a severe disadvantage of accuracy and range. Therefore, in Delhi the rebel troops had smoothbore Brown Bess muskets while the rest of the sepoys were equipped with Mughal era matchlocks. Therefore, despite being three times in numbers i.e., a 30,000 Sepoy Army could not dislodge 10,000 troops under the British from a low ridge outside Delhi’s wall. On numerous occasions, courageous and determined attacks by the sepoys were repulsed by an inferior number of British troops using Enfield Pattern 53. The British infantry had a definite technical edge over the rebels in the sphere of handheld firearms which compensated for their inferiority in numbers.
Engineers and Artillery
Though Delhi had 7 miles of wall 40 feet in height with 10 massive gates and numerous gun emplacements in a sharp contrast to Europe, it was not modernized to fend off breaching by heavy artillery. Despite the fact that the Sepoy Army had mounted 114 pieces of heavy artillery on the walls of Delhi, they couldn’t generate the combined effectiveness which engineers branch would have enabled by constructing battery positions and trenches etc. Sepoy Army under General Bakht, an Artillery Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), neither had engineers nor cohesively proficient gun detachments of various types of guns, cannons and mortars. Aware of the vulnerabilities of Delhi’s walls against the heavy artillery, General Bakht boldly sallied out and led an ambush of siege train before it could arrive at Delhi. Brigadier Nicholson successfully intercepted the sallying forces at Najafgarh and took possession of their guns and forced them to retreat. This single event played a critical role in the minds of sepoy leaders, especially General Bakht. On the British side, artillery and engineering branch suffered the greatest number of casualties i.e., about 17.8% of the total strength of engineers and 26% of artillery’s total strength. Arguably the artillery and engineers played the most important role. As per historian John Kaye, sepoys could have constructed high ramparts and continue fire from heavy guns denying British the critical spaces. The Sepoy leadership proved simply incapable of thinking such simple expedients, perhaps owing to the absence of officers. They instead kept repeating courageous assaults which could not only be beaten with ease given the British edge of handheld firearms but also resulted in the steady depletion of trained manpower and horses. Lack of ammunition and expertise compelled the sepoys to reuse traditional Mughal era rockets and canons both of which lacked accuracy and range. On the other hand, the British could concentrate fire which was sufficient enough to crush the defenders’ fire and affect breaches through which infantry assaults could be launched. Soon after the arrival of siege train, 3 breaching batteries were constructed, Number 2 Breaching Battery with nine 24-pounder guns and two 18-pounder guns and seven 8-inch howitzers being the heaviest was ordered to destroy the Kashmir Bastion and breach the wall near Kashmir Gate. Firing continued both during night and day from September 7 till the noon of September 10. By September 13, the breaches were considered practicable and the infantry assault was delivered on the morning of September 14 and by September 21, Delhi had been retaken. While in the East, the sailors were asked to unload the ship guns and march towards the places of battles to make up for the shortages of manpower and artillery. These became known as Naval Brigades which participated well in sieges of Cawnpore, Lucknow and Gwalior. Their success was also attributed to the similarity of artillery guns and rifles with the ground forces.
Emergence of Press and Mass Media
Earlier on news depended upon the first ships arriving and leaving the seaport with no clear time predictability. There were long gaps between the flow of information, often out of chronological order. These gaps were filled by either speculation or manipulated information, hence, the public mind was driven by opinions rather than factual reporting. Crimean War became the first-ever conflict which was photographed and directly reported upon by war correspondents of newspapers. By the time of “Indian Rebellion”, press in Britain started witnessing a major expansion and technology had made printing of newspapers an affordable form of mass media.
The net effect of telegraph, steamers and railway coupled with the printing of newspapers was that now the public opinion didn’t have to wait for detailed accounts of wars being fought months after these were over. Incidentally “1857 Indian Rebellion” came under the sharp focus of general public in Britain and other colonies. Reporting of atrocities by Indians, especially against white women and children in Meerut and Cawnpore, generated a highly revengeful attitude towards the Indians. This not only impacted the behavior of the retributions but also the way individual British soldiers fought against the Indians. Beheading of two Mughal princes in front of the Emperor appeared a just act and killing of women and children by Nana Saheb in Cawnpore emerged as the central focus and was painted as atrocious and barbarous, hence, punishable.
Non-adoption of Infantry
At a bigger scale, the Mughals in particular and Indians in general, proved very slow to understand the growing ascendency of infantry supported by artillery over cavalry charges and the role of light and mobile horse artillery in the support of pre-thoughtout infantry and cavalry actions. Not very different from the Battle of Plassey, Sepoy Army kept relying on cavalry charges against the small British contingent outside the Delhi Walls mostly unsupported by mobile artillery. Loss of artillery horses and inadequacy of trained artillery detachments proved decisive in turning the odds against superiority in numbers. Perhaps the link between social superiority of a horseman with land holdings still proved unbreakable as infantry soldiering was considered undignified. Nevertheless, by the time of World War I, Indian Army had become a proud Infantry-heavy Army bound to play roles in the region and beyond. Today, after over 150 years, the gap between technology plays a decisive role as it all began during the Industrial Revolution. At present, Infantry appears to be under pressure to give space to technology driven arms as more and more tasks are being taken over by mechanization and digitization.
In present times, the public opinion is driven by internet at real time speeds and telegraph appears to be slow and primitive. The battle of technology still goes on.
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