Indian Rebellion of 1857: Siege of Lucknow

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Fighting during the Siege of Lucknow. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Siege of Lucknow lasted from May 30 to November 27, 1857, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Sir Henry Lawrence
  • Major General Sir Henry Havelock
  • Brigadier John Inglis
  • Major General Sir James Outram
  • Lieutenant General Sir Colin Campbell
  • 1,729 rising to approx. 8,000 men

Rebels

  • Various commanders
  • 5,000 rising to approx. 30,000 men

Siege of Lucknow Background

The capital city of Oudh, which had been annexed by the British East India Company in 1856, Lucknow was the home of the British commissioner for the territory.

When the initial commissioner proved inept, the veteran administrator Sir Henry Lawrence was appointed to the post. Taking over in the spring of 1857, he noticed a great deal of unrest among the Indian troops under his command. This unrest had been sweeping across India as sepoys began to resent the Company's suppression of their customs and religion. The situation came to head in May 1857 following the introduction of the Enfield Rifle.

The cartridges for the Enfield were believed to be greased with beef and pork fat. As the British musket drill called for soldiers to bite the cartridge as part of the loading process, the fat would violate the religions of both the Hindu and Muslim troops. On May 1, one of Lawrence's regiments refused to "bite the cartridge" and was disarmed two days later. Widespread rebellion began on May 10 when troops at Meerut broke into open revolt. Learning of this, Lawrence gathered his loyal troops and began fortifying the Residency complex in Lucknow.

The First Siege & Relief of Lucknow

Full-scale rebellion reached Lucknow on May 30 and Lawrence was compelled to use the British 32nd Regiment of Foot to drive the rebels from the city. Improving his defenses, Lawrence conducted a reconnaissance in force to the north on June 30, but was forced back to Lucknow after encountering a well-organized sepoy force at Chinat.

Falling back to the Residency, Lawrence's force of 855 British soldiers, 712 loyal sepoys, 153 civilian volunteers, and 1,280 non-combatants was besieged by the rebels. Comprising around sixty acres, the Residency defenses were centered on six buildings and four entrenched batteries.

In preparing the defenses, British engineers had wanted to demolish the large number of palaces, mosques, and administrative buildings that surrounded the Residency, but Lawrence, not wishing to further anger the local populace, ordered them saved. As a result, they provided covered positions for rebel troops and artillery when attacks began on July 1. The next day Lawrence was mortally wounded by a shell fragment and died on July 4. Command devolved to Colonel Sir John Inglis of the 32nd Foot. Though the rebels possessed around 8,000 men, a lack of unified command prevented them from overwhelming Inglis' troops.

While Inglis kept the rebels at bay with frequent sorties and counterattacks, Major General Henry Havelock was making plans to relieve Lucknow. Having retaken Cawnpore 48 miles to the south, he intended to press on to Lucknow but lacked the men. Reinforced by Major General Sir James Outram, the two men began advancing on September 18.

Reaching the Alambagh, a large, walled park four miles south of the Residency, five days later, Outram and Havelock ordered their baggage train to remain in its defenses and pressed on.

Due to monsoon rains which had softened the ground, the two commanders were unable to flank the city and were forced to fight through its narrow streets. Advancing on September 25, they took heavy losses in storming a bridge over the Charbagh Canal. Pushing through the city, Outram wished to pause for the night after reaching the Machchhi Bhawan. Desiring to reach the Residency, Havelock lobbied for continuing the attack. This request was granted and the British stormed the final distance to the Residency, taking heavy losses in the process.

The Second Siege & Relief of Lucknow

Making contact with Inglis, the garrison was relieved after 87 days.

Though Outram had originally wished to evacuate Lucknow, the large numbers of casualties and non-combatants made this impossible. Expanding the defensive perimeter to include the palaces of Farhat Baksh and Chuttur Munzil, Outram elected to remain after a large stash of supplies was located. Rather than retreat in the face of the British success, rebel numbers grew and soon Outram and Havelock were under siege. Despite this, messengers, most notably Thomas H. Kavanagh, were able to reach the Alambagh and a semaphore system soon was established.

While the siege continued, British forces were working to re-establish their control between Delhi and Cawnpore. At Cawnpore, Major General James Hope Grant received orders from the new Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant General Sir Colin Campbell, to await his arrival before attempting to relieve Lucknow. Reaching Cawnpore on November 3, Campbell moved towards the Alambagh with 3,500 infantry, 600 cavalry, and 42 guns. Outside Lucknow, rebel forces had swelled to between 30,000 and 60,000 men, but still lacked a unified leadership to direct their activities. To tighten their lines, the rebels flooded the Charbagh Canal from the Dilkuska Bridge to the Charbagh Bridge.

Using information provided by Kavanagh, Campbell planned to attack the city from the east with the goal of crossing the canal near the Gomti River. Moving out on November 15, his men drove rebels from Dilkuska Park and advanced on a school known as La Martiniere. Taking the school by noon, the British repelled rebel counterattacks and paused to allow their supply train to catch up to the advance. The next morning, Campbell found that the canal was dry due to the flooding between the bridges. Crossing, his men fought a bitter battle for the Secundra Bagh and then the Shah Najaf. Moving forward, Campbell made his headquarters in the Shah Najaf around nightfall. With Campbell's approach, Outram and Havelock opened a gap in their defenses to meet their relief. After Campbell's men stormed the Moti Mahal, contact was made with Residency and the siege ended.

The rebels continued to resist from several nearby positions, but were cleared out by British troops.

Aftermath

The sieges and reliefs of Lucknow cost the British around 2,500 killed, wounded, and missing while rebel losses are not known. Though Outram and Havelock wished to clear the city, Campbell elected to evacuate as other rebel forces were threatening Cawnpore. While British artillery bombarded the nearby Kaisarbagh, the non-combatants were removed to Dilkuska Park and then on to Cawnpore. To hold the area, Outram was left at the easily held Alambagh with 4,000 men. The fighting at Lucknow was seen as a test of British resolve and the final day of the second relief produced more Victoria Cross winners (24) than any other single day. Lucknow was retaken by Campbell the following March.

Selected Sources