In the footsteps of the Raj: The siege of Lucknow

In 2005 I visited Lucknow, the capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It’s a fascinating city with a rich history, especially for those of us with a passion for British military history.

During the Indian Mutiny (aka the first war of Independence) of 1857/58, The battle for the city, particularly the siege of the British residency was a bitter one.

I don’t plan on retelling that story in great detail but instead, to share some of the pictures I took while visiting and to use them as a way to explore the battle.

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The main entrance to the Residency at Lucknow

The British Commissioner resident at Lucknow was Sir Henry Lawrence. Luckily for him and the British in the city, he had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound.

He had around 1700 men, including his loyal sepoy (locally recruited) troops. The rebels’ attacks were unsuccessful, and so they began a barrage of artillery and musket fire into the compound. Lawrence was one of the first casualties.

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The spot where Sir H. Lawrence died

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence KCB (28 June 1806 – 4 July 1857) died at this spot (according to the sign).

On 1 July, a shell had burst in his quarters in the upper part of the Residency, but he refused to move his quarters to a safer area. The next day, another shell burst beside him shattering his thigh.

Lawrence lingered until the second day and passed away at approximately eight in the morning on 5 July 1857.

According to Wikipedia: ‘He was buried that same evening in a soldier’s grave, and it is said that not a single officer saw the lowering of his body into the ground so furious was the fighting raging at the time. When Lawrence was critically injured, he is supposed to have said to those around him: “Put on my tomb only this; Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty.” This epitaph appears on his tombstone at the Residency graveyard.’

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The author looking much younger and thinner during my visit to the residency in 2005
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A map of the British positions at Lucknow

The cornerstone of the British defence at Lucknow was the 32nd Regiment of Foot. Their commander Colonel Inglis took command of the garrison after Lawrence’s death and in the subsequent fighting, the regiment was awarded four Victoria Crosses, including that of Private William Downing. His citation read:

For distinguished gallantry on the 4th of July, 1857, in going out with two other men, since dead, and spiking two of the Enemy’s guns. He killed a Soubadar of the Enemy by one of the guns. Also, for distinguished gallantry on the 9th of the same month, in going out again with three men, since dead, to spike one of the Enemy’s guns. He had to retire, the spike being too small, but was exposed to the same danger. Also, for distinguished bravery, on the 27th of September, 1857, in spiking an 18-pounder gun during a Sortie, he being at the same time under a most heavy fire from the Enemy.

A memorial to the regiment still stands in the residency grounds.

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The memorial to the 32nd Regiment of Foot

For me, one of the most interesting things about the battle is the participation of the teachers and pupils of La Martinière school.

La Martinière Boys’ College was founded in 1845 by the French adventurer Major General Claude Martin and it is the only school in the world to be awarded royal battle honours for their role during the siege.

They served alongside a detachment of the 32nd Regiment of Foot just thirty feet from the Rebel positions and were exposed to heavy shelling.

According to Wikipedia, “The Martinière contribution was officially recognised in Queen Victoria’s (1858) proclamation. The staff and the boys who served during the Mutiny were all awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal, inscribed with the words “Defence of Lucknow”, in recognition of their courage and steadfastness.”

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La Martiniere College. The field in front was flooded during my visit so I couldn’t clearly see the inscriptions on the monument

 

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A closer view of the school

The school was also the scene of a brief skirmish during the British relief operation. In Field Marshall Robert’s book, “Forty-one years in India” he says,

“We could see that the Martiniere was occupied; a crowd of Sepoys were collected around the buildings; and as we showed ourselves on the brow of the hill, a number of round-shot came tumbling in amongst us. Remington’s troop of Horse Artillery, Bouchier’s battery and a heavy howitzer brought up by Captain Hardy, now came into action, and under cover of their fire the 8th Foot and 1st battalion of Detachments attacked and drove the enemy out of the Martiniere, while the cavalry pursued them as far as the canal.”

As the relief force advanced through the city they had to face some hard fighting, including the assault on the Sikandar-bagh – a formidable position ringed with high walls that were loop-holed and flanked at the corners by circular bastions.

 

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The Sikandar-Bagh when I visited in 2005

The artillery, under heavy fire themselves, managed to open a small breach through which the brave men of the 93rd Highlanders with the 4th Punjab Infantry forced there way through. In the ensuing battle, it is thought that 2000 sepoys were killed. The way to the besieged residency was now open.

 

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