The Siege of Delhi was one of the decisive conflicts of the Indian rebellion of 1857.
The rebellion against the authority of the East India Company was widespread through much of Northern India, but essentially it was sparked by the mass uprising by the sepoys of the units of the Army which the company had itself raised in its Bengal Presidency (which actually covered a vast area from Assam to Peshawar). Seeking a symbol around which to rally, the first sepoys to rebel sought to reinstate the power of the Mughal Empire, which had ruled the entire Indian subcontinent during the previous centuries. Lacking overall direction, many who subsequently rebelled also flocked to Delhi.
This made the siege decisive for two reasons. Firstly, large numbers of rebels were committed to the defence of a single fixed point, perhaps to the detriment of their prospects elsewhere, and their defeat at Delhi was thus a very major military setback. Secondly, the British recapture of Delhi and the refusal of the aged Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II to continue the struggle, deprived the rebellion of much of its national character. Although the rebels still held large areas, there was little co-ordination between them and the British were inevitably able to overcome them separately.
75th (Stirlingshire) Regiment of Foot, Indian Mutiny, 1857
The attack was scheduled for 3 a.m. on 14 September. The storming columns moved into position during the night of 13 September. The future Field Marshal Lord Roberts, then a junior staff officer, recorded their composition:
1st Column – Brigadier General Nicholson
75th Foot – 300
1st Bengal Fusiliers – 250
2nd Punjab Infantry (Greene’s Rifles) – 450
Total – 1000
2nd Column – Brigadier Jones
8th Foot – 250
2nd Bengal Fusiliers – 250
4th Sikhs – 350
Total – 850
3rd Column – Colonel Campbell
52nd Foot – 200
Kumaon Battalion (Gurkhas) – 250
1st Punjab Infantry (Coke’s Rifles) – 500
Total – 950
4th Column – Major Reid
Sirmur Battalion (Gurkhas)
Total – 850
Plus Kashmir contingent in reserve – 1000
5th Column – Brigadier Longfield
61st Foot – 250
4th Punjab Infantry (Wilde’s Rifles) – 450
Baluch Battalion (one “wing” only) – 300
Total – 1000
Detachments (totalling 200) of the 60th Rifles preceded all the columns, as skirmishers. Engineers and sappers were attached to lead each column.:479
There was also a cavalry brigade in reserve, under James Hope Grant, which probably consisted of:
6th Carbineers (one “wing” only)
1st Punjab Cavalry (one squadron)
2nd Punjab Cavalry (one squadron)
5th Punjab Cavalry (one squadron)
Hodson’s Horse (irregular levies)
The British and Company forces were disordered. Many British officers had been killed or wounded, and their units were now in confusion. The British foothold included many of the liquor stores and over the next two days, many British soldiers became drunk and incapacitated on looted spirits. However, the rebel sepoy regiments had become discouraged by their defeats and lack of food, while the irregular mujahhadin defended their fortified compounds with great determination but could not be organised to make a coordinated counter-attack.
Wilson eventually ordered all liquor to be destroyed, and discipline was restored. Slowly, the attackers began to clear the rebels from the city. They captured the magazine on 16 September. Another Victoria Cross was earned here, by Lieutenant Thackerey for extinguishing a fire in the magazine, whilst under musket fire. Bahadur Shah and his entourage abandoned the palace on 18 September, and a British force captured the great mosque, the Jama Masjid, and the abandoned palace the next day. They also captured the Selimgarh Fort, attached to the palace and dominating the bridge of boats over the River Yamuna. Most rebels who had not already left the city now did so before the Company forces captured all the gates and trapped them.
The city was finally declared to be captured on 21 September. John Nicholson died the next day.