Friday, 8 February 2013

The Battle of Chinhat and the Beginning of the Siege

The Battle of Chinhat was a much miscalculated effort by the British to show military might. Acting on intelligence received through native spies that a small force of insurgents was approaching Lucknow and it would be a quick way for the British to score a quick victory, Sir Henry Lawrence bowed to the pressure exerted upon him by his advisers and ordered three companies of the 32nd Regiment of Foot, several companies of the 13th NI , some detachments of other regiments, a small force of Sikh and European volunteer cavalry, as well as Bengal and Native Artillery to proceed along the Faizabad road to intercept, what he had been led to believe was a force no more than several hundred strong.

As it turned out, Lawrence (and his advisers for that matter) had been sadly deceived.  The insurgents outnumbered the British by approximately 6’000 to 600 – they fired on the British as they approached Ismaelganj close to the village of Chinhat- holding strong positions behind stone walls and in the village they soon inflicted heavy casualties on the British forces, especially on the 32nd Foot. The 13th NI attempted to attack to the right of village but the rebels were well entrenched and their leadership flawless. These insurgents were not a mindless rabble – consisting of retainers of local landowners and men of the East India Company Army they were led by Barkat Ahmad, a mutineer officer of the Company’s army – they were not only British trained, but to some extent “British” led. The British on the other hand were exhausted before the battle had begun – the merciless June heat and the fact that the soldiers had been sent out into the field without food or adequate drink, many soldiers died of heat stroke before a shot was fired and precious more were to die in the retreat from the same cause. It quickly turned into a rout for the British and was one of the few victories the mutineers ever obtained against them throughout the Mutiny.

Many of Lawrence’s soldiers, mainly the Indian artillerymen, switched sides during the battle, and the Sikh cavalrymen fled not from disloyalty but from a lack of decisive leadership. The British did the next best thing – they attempted to retreat. On their way back to Lucknow towards a bridge over the Kukrai stream, the rebel cavalry outflanked them, threatening to cut off their only route of escape. The 36 volunteer cavalrymen, most of them civilians, however, threw themselves against the rebels, causing a momentary confusion in their ranks and much of the British force was able to retreat over the bridge.  Lawrence, defeated as he was at Chinhat, now tried to turn the retreat at least into a victory – he ordered a battery of European artillery to occupy the bridgehead - a ruse - which paid off. The artillery had no ammunition left but their presence was enough to dissuade the rebels. To further break the momentum of the rebel pursuit, Lawrence ordered one company of the 32nd (who had not been at Chinhat, and were therefore, not exhausted) to hold the last bridge before Lucknow over the Gomti River. Their success and their orderly retreat, helped save many lives on what was otherwise an ill-fated day.

Besides the heavy loss of life incurred, the singular defeat at Chinhat proved to the rebels that the British were neither invincible nor as well prepared as they had been led to believe.  Following the battle, the rebels opened fire on the Residency. From the 30th of June 1857 until the 24th September (when the first relief force was able to break through) the British were on their own. The disaster haunted Sir Henry until his death and he never came to terms with the terrible losses. He placed the blame squarely upon himself, though it should have been equally carried by his rash advisers. 

From 11 a.m. on the 30th of June, the siege of the residency began. 

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