The Mutiny at Meerut, 10th May 1857
“Sudden and short lived liked a Summer gale”
As is well known, what is called in India “The First War of Independence” and in the UK “The Indian Mutiny” or “Sepoy Rebellion”, effectively began with a mutiny of units of the East India Company’s Bengal Army at Meerut on 10th May 1857. Outbreaks of mutiny were not unknown in India – as elsewhere – and the first stirrings of the uprising that devastated India in 1857-59 can be seen in a series of “disturbances” at military bases before the outbreak at Meerut, like that at Berhampore in February. The common response – as at Barrackpur in May 1857 when the 34th Bengal Infantry was disarmed by HM 53rd Regt. – was to arrest and try the ringleaders, disarm the men and if necessary disband the entire regiment.
The large town of Meerut, the site of a major military cantonment since 1807, lies 40 north-east of Delhi. In 1857, it was one of the largest and strongest army bases in northern India, housing two British regiments – the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabineers) and the 1st 60th Rifles, in addition to Bengal horse and foot artillery. The base, a popular posting, was also home to the largest of the East India Company’s artillery recruit depots and training schools, with several hundred new recruits undergoing basic training. In addition to these, Meerut housed three Indian regiments – the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry and the 11th and 20th Bengal Infantry. It was a powerful garrison whose Indian soldiers had rendered distinguished service in the past – and perhaps the least likely to have been expected to consider mutiny.
Before the rising at Meerut, there were problems with the famous “greased cartridges”. As is well known, rumours abounded that the cartridge for the recently-introduced Enfield rifle had to be bitten, to rip the top off, before the charge, ball and cartridge paper were rammed into the barrel. In the early months of 1857, rumours abounded in the military bases of northern India that the cartridges were greased with animal fat – either beef (inimical to Hindus) or pork (unacceptable to Moslems). Far from ignoring the disquiet that was clearly felt, the government realised early on that this issue was serious. They tried to convince Indian soldiers that the rumours were untrue – that vegetable oil or mutton fat were used – or proposed that they could grease the cartridges themselves with whatever was acceptable. It was also suggested that the cartridges need not be bitten but could be ripped open by hand and schemes to train men in that usage were already being organised – not that this affected in the slightest the extreme distaste felt for the possible handling of forbidden substances and distrust had settled too deeply. In unit after unit, it was rumoured that any of the new cartridges would be unacceptable and a growing wave of discontent and even open hostility began to sweep the depots of northern India, where it was widely claimed that “the Company” was trying to subvert the religion of its soldiers, causing them to lose caste and face before their families and even to convert them to Christianity.
Nevertheless, to try to prove the point that the new cartridges need not be bitten, the commanding officer of the 3rd Light Cavalry at Meerut ordered a parade on 23rd April in which a new way of loading the cartridges, without biting them, could be demonstrated. Given the known strength of feeling on the subject which was becoming apparent, it was an ill-advised move and it did not go well: the chosen skirmishers absolutely refused to touch the ammunition. As a result, 85 were arrested and tried by Native Court Martial (i.e. largely by Indian officers). On 9th May, they were publicly put into irons (a long and humiliating spectacle in front of their comrades) and marched off to the town prison, facing ten years behind bars. This event triggered the outbreak at Meerut.
An important point about the cantonment at Meerut is just how big it was – two miles from west to east and about the same from north to south, with the “lines” of the European regiments separated from the Indian lines by officers’ and civilians’ bungalows, by two extensive bazaars and by a wide nullah or valley, bridged in four places. Most of what happened in the “Native Lines” and bazaars was not necessarily (or quickly) apparent in the European section.
Things came to a head at about 5.00 p.m on a quiet, very hot Sunday evening on 10th May. For the Europeans, it had been an “ordinary” day of rest, with the usual round of church services, family visits and peaceful occupations to while away the time. But in the Indian lines, the seething discontent and resentment, especially amongst the 3td Light Cavalry, was reaching boiling point. That evening, the 60th Rifles assembled for the usual Church Parade at St. John’s – which was, incidentally, getting on for two miles away from the “Native Lines” – and civilians began to make their way there, with no inclination of what was to follow.
Possibly because the 60th was seen forming up, rumours went around the “Native lines” and bazaars that the Rifles were being sent to seize the arms of the Indian regiments. Something like a panic ensued, as the 20th Infantry raced to their own lines and broke into the “bells of arms”. Men of the 3rd Cavalry rode into the town, broke open the prison to release their comrades – and everyone else there, apparently to the number of over 1,200 people. Many of these began to attack Europeans and the local shops and stores – mass looting rather than mutiny.
British officers of the Indian regiments seem, with a few exceptions, to have been confused or paralysed with indecision as events unfolded – many were not on duty and those who did try to go to their regimental lines to reason with the men were simply driven away or attacked. The 11th Bengal Infantry seem to have been less disturbed at this stage, though they too had moved back into their “lines”. When he heard that his men were seizing their arms and attacking bungalows and Europeans, their Colonel, John Finnis, rode to the parade ground and tried to reason with men massing there – he had after all served with them for years. But as he spoke, a recruit shot him dead and this signalled the mass rising (or panic) of the 11th Infantry. The 3rd Cavalry, 20th Bengal Infantry and 11th Bengal Infantry were soon a state of disorder – to say the least – and few took any notice of their officers’ attempts to restrain them.
It has been suggested that much of the violence, arson and damage that ensued in the cantonment, bazaars and town was done by freed prisoners, vagrants and simple opportunists as much as by mutinous soldiers. Nevertheless, European civilians and soldiers were attacked wherever they were encountered or deliberately hunted down in their houses. The cantonment, officers’ bungalows, civilian homes, stores and government buildings were attacked, looted and burned. Some Europeans were murdered as they unwittingly rode or walked about in the open or rested in their homes and in some houses the residents were attacked before they knew what was happening. In others, loyal servants helped to hide or remove the women and children and not every Indian soldier joined the mutiny – as occurred in other (later) outbreaks, some stayed with their officers.
At a considerable distance from the violence and destruction – so large was the cantonment area – the 60th Rifles paraded to go into St. John’s church without any inkling of what was happening just to their south. Then a sentry came running forward, shouting that the Indian sepoys and sowars were running amok, torching houses and killing Europeans. The 60th unarmed, as was then the custom for church parades*, were immediately marched back to their lines to get their weapons and be issued with ammunition, a process which took valuable time. While some were posted to protect the Treasury and Magazine, the rest were marched off towards the Indian lines – which in fact were just about empty by then. There was no attack on the Bengal artillery school; indeed, as a strong, walled enclosure with lines of barracks and buildings it was deemed “the safest place in Meerut” and was quickly garrisoned, becoming the immediate refuge of the women, children and European civilians
The mutineers, who were no doubt equally in a state of alarm and confusion, had not stayed for the obvious British backlash and had made off; local looters had also cleared out very quickly once the damage was done. Nevertheless, one witness described :
…the city for the length of over a mile in flames. By this time the sun had set and the moon rose upon a lurid scene, the darkness illuminated by the burning roofs of thatched bungalows, amid which the forms of mounted sowars [ie troopers of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry] riding furiously about brandishing their swords could be clearly seen….
But in the event the feared attack never came. It was said at the time that decisive action by the sizeable British garrison (1500 men) could have ended the mutiny there and then by actively harassing the mutineers as they fled and serving as an example of swift retribution. But in a much-criticised lack of activity, neither the 60th Rifles nor the Carabineers made much effort to follow the mutineers (most of whom, after some indecision, headed towards Delhi).
There were perhaps good reasons for this – all of which were put forward to counter the mass of criticism that was levelled against the Meerut command. For example, as it was dark and no-one had any idea of which route (or routes) the mutineers had taken, it was pointless and even dangerous to try to follow scattered groups, since they might return to attack an undefended Meerut. It was also pointed out that many of the 6th Dragoon Guards – cavalry which might have pursued and over-taken the enemy – were barely-trained recruits, since the regiment had come to India after the Crimea badly below strength, and even lacked sufficient horses. The 60th Rifles, it was felt, were better used defending Meerut in case the rebels returned – no-one, after all, knew where they were likely to go or what they would do. At any rate, even on the next day only small-scale patrols were sent out, establishing after a few minor contacts with the rear-enders, that the mutineers had indeed made for Delhi, where their arrival fomented the uprising there on 11th May. This sparked off other mutinies across northern and central India, stretching British resources to their limit and threatening the actual existence of British rule in India. An arduous two-year campaign ensued.
*after this, British soldiers in India took their weapons into church with them (see below).
Casualties at Meerut on 10th May 1857.
There seem to have been around 60 casualties in Meerut – 22 military and about 34 civilians of whom most were killed. They were buried by the cantonment cemetery near St. John’s.
3rd Bengal Light Cav.
Lt. C. J. E. McNabb – murdered
Surgn. Robert Christie – severely wounded
Vet. Surgn. Charles Dawson – murdered [& wife]
Vet. Surgn. John Phillips – murdered
6th Dragoon Gds.
11th Bengal Infantry
Lt. Col. John Finnis – murdered. The first casualty of “the Indian Mutiny”.
[and an 11th BNI officer’s wife, Mrs. Chambers}
20th Bengal Infantry
Capt. D. MacDonald – murdered [and wife and 3 children]
Capt. J. H. G. Taylor – murdered
Lt. D. H. Henderson – murdered
Lt. Wm. Pattle – murdered
Bengal Horse Arty.
1/1 Gunner Peter Donohue – murdered
Bengal Field Arty.
[n/s] Cpl. Henry Bowring – severely wounded; died 26.5.57
Unposted Artillery Recruits :
Gunner John Amon – contusion to head
Gunner Wm. Benson – murdered
Gunner James Butler – contused wound to head
Gunner Thomas Crawford – bludgeon wound to head.
Gunner Peter B. Dunn – wounded in arm
Gunner Robert Lewis – bludgeon wound to head
Gunner Hugh McCartney – slightly wounded
Gunner John McCullum – slightly wounded
Gunner Thomas Passmore – slightly wounded in shoulder
Gunner Wm. Thompson – wounded in the head
Capt. E. Fraser – murdered
= 22 military victims : 11 killed ; 1 died of wounds ; 10 wounded.
It looks as if the “unposted” artillery recruit casualties (who form the largest single block of military casualties) may well have been off-duty men simply “out and about” in the cantonment and bazaar areas. Certainly, there are at least two accounts of artillery recruits who were walking round the bazaars being warned by other soldiers to get out fast! Four of these are named: Gunners McCartney, McAlroy, Caldwell and McQuade. Two other artillerymen are described as being badly beaten up as they fled the bazaar and they were lucky to get back to their lines alive. Robert Lewis, whose medal is shown here, may have been one of these men.
Medals to any of the units at Meerut during the outbreak – the 6th Dragoon Guards, 1/60th Rifles or the Bengal artillery – whatever they did on Delhi Ridge and elsewhere – would be an interesting link with a really momentous event.
Robert Lewis and 4/4 Bengal Artillery
4th Company 4th battalion, Bengal Artillery
Robert Lewis was born in Newto(w)n Crommelin, Antrim, in 1836. At the time of his wounding in Meerut on the day of the mutiny outbreak, 10th May 1857, Lewis was a newly-joined “unposted recruit” at the Bengal Artillery Depot and Training School in Meerut and later was posted to serve with 4/4 Bengal Artillery. He went on to serve over 20 years, transferring into the Royal Artillery in 1861 – as many of the former East India Company artillerymen did – and was discharged in 1875; his Mutiny medal and clasp were his only awards.
Little information survives about the mutineers’ actions at or against the Artillery School in Meerut, though it is recorded that once the mutiny was underway, the recruits were posted to the European barracks as a defence force and many of the civilians (especially women and children) were sent there for safety : a walled enclosure with lines of barracks was … “the safest place in Meerut” [Ball].
Since most of the casualties (certainly in terms of wounds and injuries) were to the Unposted Recruits, it seems likely that the mutineers attacked their camp or passed through it – or that the men were attacked at random in other places in Meerut.
Lewis subsequently served with 4th Company 4th (Heavy Field) Battalion Bengal Artillery – a heavy artillery unit.
The battery was initially based at Lahore in 1857 but moved southwards to Delhi when the mutiny began and the British put together a field force to advance on Delhi as part of the siege train; the garrison commander at Meerut was ordered to place in readiness 200 artillerymen to serve with the siege train heading south-wards from Lahore. Lewis was probably chosen for this pool, posted to 4/4. It is noted that the companies of 4th Bn. were very weak and were sometimes combined. He may have served with the artillery recruits manning 2 x 18pdrs on Delhi Ridge under Lt. A. Light. 4/4 seems to have been on Delhi Ridge by Sept. 7th, serving as heavy siege guns.
4/4 (“Stubbs’s Heavy Battery”) was serving as part of the garrison at the Sappers & Miners depot at Rurki under Brig. J. J. Jones by the Spring of 1858 and formed part of the Rurki Column. They served from Rurki as part of Jones’ column for the relief of Shahjehanpore on May 8th, defeating a small enemy force on 11th May and engaged in a few light skirmishes whilst reinforcements came up to join them. Jones was left at Shahjehanpore while Sir Colin Campbell operated in the surrounding areas.
The battery was engaged with Jones in the pacification of Rohilkund in May and drove back the rebels at Burnai, later blowing up the abandoned fort at Mohamedee before retuning to Shahjehanpore.
On the 31st, Stubbs’s battery was part of the column which marched to Shahabad and scattered the last of the rebels in Rohilkund, whose survivors fled into Oudh. The battery returned to garrison duty at Shahjehanpore.
In the Winter of 1858, 4/4 served in the last campaigning in Oudh, part of a column under Brig. C. Troup which marched to the east of the town and which on November 8th drove back rebel forces under Khan Bahadur Khan and Feroz Shah, who were covering the fort at Mithaulee. The guns shelled the fort, which was abandoned, and the rebels were pursued and defeated at Mehndi.