People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 13, 2007

The Capture Of Delhi


Friedrich Engels


WE will not join in the noisy chorus which, in Great Britain, is now extolling to the skies the bravery of the troops that took Delhi by storm. No people, not even the French, can equal the English in self-laudation, especially when bravery is the point in question. The analysis of the facts, however, very soon reduces, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the grandeur of this heroism to very commonplace proportions; and every man of common sense must be disgusted at this overtrading in other people’s courage, by which the English paterfamilias who live quietly at home, and is uncommonly averse to anything that threatens him with the remotest chance of obtaining military glory, attempts to pass himself off as a participator in the undoubted, but certainly not so very extraordinary, bravery shown in the assault on Delhi.


If we compare Delhi with Sevastopol, we of course agree that the sepoys were no Russians; that none of their sallies against the British cantonment was anything like Inkerman; that there was no Totleben in Delhi, and that the sepoys, bravely as every individual man and company fought in most instances, were utterly without leadership, nor only for brigades and divisions, but almost for battalions; that their cohesion did not therefore extend beyond the companies; that they entirely lacked the scientific element without which an army is nowadays helpless, and the defence of a town utterly hopeless. Still, the disproportion of numbers and means of action, the superiority of the sepoys over the Europeans in withstanding the climate, the extreme weakness to which the force before Delhi was at times reduced, make up for many of these differences, and render a fair parallel between the two sieges (to call these operations sieges) possible. Again we do not consider the storming of Delhi as an act of uncommon or extra heroic bravery, although as in every battle individual acts of high spirit n doubt occurred on either side, but maintain that the Anglo-Indian army before Delhi has shown more perseverance, force of character, judgement and skill, than the English army when on its trial between Sevastopol and Balaklava. The latter, after Inkerman, was ready and willing to re-embark, and no doubt would have done so if it had not been for the French. The former, when the season of the year, the deadly maladies consequent upon it, the interruption of the communications, the absence of all chance of speedy reinforcements, the condition of all Upper India, invited a withdrawal, did indeed consider the advisability of this step, but for all that, held out at its post.


When the insurrection was at its highest point, a movable column in Upper India was the first thing required. There were only two forces that could be thus employed – the small force of Havelock, which soon proved inadequate, and the force before Delhi. That it was under these circumstances, a military mistake to stay before Delhi, consuming the available strength in useless fights with an unassailable enemy; that they army in motion would have been worth forth four times its value when at rest; that the clearing of Upper India, with the exception of Delhi, the re-establishing of the communication, the crushing of every attempt of the insurgents to concentrate a force, would have been obtained, and with it the fall of Delhi as a natural and easy consequence, are indisputable facts. But political reasons commanded that the camp before Delhi should not be raised. It is the wiseacres at headquarters who sent the army to Delhi that should be blamed – not the perseverance of the army in holding out when once there. At the same time was must not omit to state that the effect of the rainy season on this army was far milder than was to be anticipated, and that with anything like an average amount of the sickness consequent upon active operations at such a period, the withdrawal or the dissolution of the army would have been unavoidable. The dangerous position of the army lasted till the end of August. The reinforcements began to come in, while dissensions continued to weaken the rebel camp. In the beginning of September the siege-train arrived, and the defensive position was changed into an offensive one. One the 7th of September the first battery opened its fire, and on the evening of the 13th two practicable breaches were opened. Let us now examine what took place during this interval.


If we were to rely, for this purpose, on the official dispatch of Gen. Wilson, we should be very badly of indeed. This report is quite as confused as the documents issued form the English headquarters in the Crimea ever were. No man living could make out from that report the position of the two breaches, or the relative position and other in which the storming columns were arranged. As to the private reports, they are, of course, still more hopelessly confused. Fortunately one of those skilful scientific officers who deserve nearly the whole credit of the success, a member of the Bengal engineers and artillery, has given a report of what occurred, in The Bombay Gazetter, as clear and business-like as it is simple and unpretending. During the whole of the Crimean war not one English officer was found able to write a report as sensible as this. Unfortunately he got wounded on the first day of the assault, and then his letter stops. As to later transactions, we are, therefore, still quite in the dark.


The English had strengthened the defences of Delhi so far that they could resist a siege by an Asiatic army. According to our modern notions, Delhi was scarcely to be called a fortress, but merely a place secured against the forcible assault of a field force. Its masonry wall, 16 feet high and 12 feet thick, crowned by a parapet of 3 feet thickness and 8 feet height, offered 6 feet of masonry besides the parapet, uncovered by the glacis and exposed to the direct fire of the attack. The narrowness of this masonry rampart put it out of the question to place cannon anywhere, except in the bastions and Martello towers. There latter flanked the curtain but very imperfectly, and a masonry parapet of three feet thickness being easily battered down by siege guns (field pieces could do it), to silence the five of the defence, and particularly the guns flanking the ditch, was very easy. Between wall and ditch there was a wide berm or level road, facilitating the formation of a practicable breach, and the ditch, under these circumstance, instead of being a coupegorge for any force that got entangled in it, became a resting place to re-form those columns that had got into disorder while advancing on the glacis.


To advance against such a place, with regular trenches, according to the rules of sieges, would have been insane, even if the first condition had not been wanting, viz., a force sufficient to invest the place on all sides. The state of the defences, the disorganisation and sinking of the defenders, would have rendered every other mode of attack than the one pursued on absolute fault. This mode is very well known to military men under the name of the forcible attack (attaque de vive force). The defences, being such only as to render an open attack impossible without heavy guns, are dealt with summarily by the artillery; the interior of the place is all the while shelled, and as soon as the breaches are practicable the troops advance to the assault.


The front under attack was the northern one, directly opposite to the English camp. This front is composed of two curtains and three bastions, forming a slightly re-entering angle at the central (the Cashmere) bastion. The eastern position, from the Cashmere to the Water bastion, is the shorter one, and projects a little in front of the western position, between the Cashmere and the Moree bastions. The ground in front of the Cashmere and Water bastions was covered with low jungle, gardens, houses, etc. which had not been levelled down by the sepoys, and afforded shelter to the attack. (This circumstance explains how it was possible that the English could so often follow the sepoys under the very guns of the place, which was at that time considered extremely heroic, but was in fact a matter of little danger so long as they had this cover). Besides, at about 400 or 500 yards from this front, a deep ravine ran in the same direction as the wall, so as to form a natural parallel for the attack. The river, besides, giving a capital basis to the English left, the slight salient formed by the Cashmere and Water bastions was selected very properly as the main point of attack. The western curtain and bastions were simultaneously subjected to a simulated attack, and this manoeuvre succeeded so well that the main force of the sepoys was directed against it. They assembled a strong body in the suburbs outside the Kabul gate, so as to menace the English right. This manoeuvre would have been perfectly correct and very effective, if the western curtain between the Moree and Cashmere bastions had been the most in danger. The flanking position of the sepoys would have been capital as a means of active defence, every column of assault being at once taken in flank by a movement of this force in advance. But the effect of this position could not reach as far eastward as the curtain between the Cashmere and Water bastions; and thus its occupation drew away the best part of the defending force from the decisive point.


The selection of the places for the batteries, their construction and arming, and the way in which they served, deserve the greatest praise. The English had about 50 and mortars, concentrated in powerful batteries, behind good solid parapets. The sepoys had, according to official statements, 55 guns one the attacked front, but scattered over small bastions and Martello towers, incapable of concentrated action, and scarcely sheltered by the miserable three feet parapet. No doubt a couple of hours must have sufficed to silence the fire of the defence, and then there remained little to be done.


On the 8th, No. 1 battery, 10 guns, opened fire at 700 yards from the wall. During the following night the ravine aforesaid was worked out into a sort of trench. On the 9th, the broken ground and houses in front of this ravine were seized without resistance; and on the 10th, No. 2 battery, 8 guns, was unmarked. This latter was 500 or 600 yards from the wall. On the 11th, No. 3 battery, built very boldly and cleverly at 200 yards from the Water bastion in some broken ground, opened fire with six guns, while ten heavy mortars shelled the town. On the evening of the 13th the breaches – one in the curtain adjoining the right flank of the Cashmere bastion, and the other in the left face and flank of the Water bastion – were reported practicable for escalade, and the assault was ordered. The sepoys on the 11th had made a counter-approach on the glacis between the two menaced bastions, and threw out a trench for skirmishers about three hundred and fifty yards in front of the English batteries. They also advanced from this position outside the Kabul gate to flank attacks. But these attempts at active defence were carried out without unity, connection or spirit, and led to no result.


A daylight on the 14th five British columns advanced to the attack. One, on the right, to occupy the force outside the Kabul gate and attack, in case of success, the Lahore gate. One against each breach, one against the Cashmere gate, which was to be blown up, and one to act as a reserve. With the exception of the first, all these columns were successful. The breaches were but slightly defended, but the resistance in the houses near the wall was very obstinate. The heroism of an officer and three sergeants of the Engineers (for here there was heroism) succeeded in blowing open the Cashmere gate, and thus this entered also. By evening the whole northern front was in the possession of the English. Here Gen. Wilson, however, stopped. The indiscriminate assault was arrested, guns brought up and directed against every strong position in the town. With the exception of the storming of the magazine, there seems to have been very little actual fighting. The insurgents were dispirited and left the town in masses. Wilson advanced cautiously into town, found scarcely any resistance after the 17th, and occupied it completely on the 20th.


Our opinion n the conduct of the attack has been stated. As to the defence – the attempt at offensive counter-movements, the flanking position at the Kabul gate, the counter-approaches, the rifle-pits, all show that some notions of scientific warfare had penetrated among the sepoys; but either they were not clear enough, or not powerful enough, to be carried out with any effect. Whether they originated with Indians, or with some of the Europeans that are with them, is of course difficult to decide; but one thing is certain; that these attempts, though imperfect in execution, bear a close resemblance in their ground-work to the active defence of Sevastopol, and that their execution looks as if a correct plan had been made for the sepoys by some European officer, but that they had not been able to understand the idea fully, or that disorganisation and want of command turned practical projects into weak and powerless attempts.

(Written by Engels on November 16, 1857. Published in the New York Daily Tribune No. 5188 of December 5, 1857, as a leading article)