The Indian Army (1858)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 21 July 1858

Source: New York Daily Tribune, July 21, 1858
Collection(s): New York Tribune
Keywords : India, War, Army, England, Colonialism

The war in India is gradually passing into that stage of desultory guerrilla warfare, to which, more than once, we have pointed as its next impending and most dangerous phase of development. The insurgent armies, after their successive defeats in pitched battles, and in the defense of towns and entrenched camps, gradually dissolve into smaller bodies of from two to six or eight thousand men, acting, to a certain degree, independently of each other, but always ready to unite for a short expedition against any British detachment which may be surprised singly. The abandonment of Bareilly without a blow, after having drawn the active field force of Sir C. Campbell some eighty miles away from Lucknow, was the turning point, in this respect, for the main army of the insurgents; the abandonment of Calpee had the same significance for the second great body of natives. In either case, the last defensible central base of operations was given up, and the warfare of an army thereby becoming impossible, the insurgents made eccentric retreats by separating into smaller bodies. These movable columns require no large town for a central base of operations. They can find means of existence, of re-equipment, and of recruitment in the various districts in which they move; and a small town or a large village as a center of reorganization may be as valuable to each of them as Delhi, Lucknow, or Calpee to the larger armies. By this change, the war loses much of its interest; the movements of the various columns of insurgents cannot he followed up in detail and appear confused in the accounts; the operations of the British commanders, to a great extent, escape criticism, from the unavoidable obscurity enveloping the premises on which they are based; success or failure remain the only criterion, and they are certainly of all the most deceitful.

This uncertainty respecting the movements of the natives is already very great. After the taking of Lucknow, they retreated eccentrically — some south-east, some north-east, some north-west. The latter were the stronger body, and were followed by Campbell into Rohilcund. They had concentrated and re-formed at Bareilly; but when the British came up, they abandoned the place without resistance, and again retreated in different directions. Particulars of these different lines of retreat are not known. We only know that a portion went toward the hills on the frontiers of Nepaul, while one or more columns appear to have marched in the opposite direction, toward the Ganges and the Doab (the country between the Ganges and the Jumna). No sooner, however, had Campbell occupied Bareilly, than the insurgents, who had retreated in an easterly direction, effected a junction with some bodies on the Oude frontier and fell upon Shahjehanpore, where a small British garrison had been left; while further insurgent columns were hastening in that direction. Fortunately for the garrison, Brigadier Jones arrived with re-enforcements as early as the 11th of May, and defeated the natives; but they, too, were re-enforced by the columns concentrating on Shahjehanpore, and again invested the town on the 15th. On this day, Campbell, leaving a garrison in Bareilly, marched to its relief; but it was not before the 24th of May that he attacked them and drove them back, the various columns of insurgents which had cooperated in this maneuver again dispersing in different directions.

While Campbell was thus engaged on the frontiers of Rohilcund, Gen. Hope Grant marched his troops backward and forward in the South of Oude, without any result, except losses to his own force by fatigue under an Indian Summer’s sun. The insurgents were too quick for him. They were everywhere but where he happened to look for them, and when he expected to find them in front, they had long since again gained his rear. Lower down the Ganges, Gen. Lugard was occupied with a chase after a similar shadow in the district between Dinapore, Jugdespore and Buxar. The natives kept him constantly on the move, and, after drawing him away from Jugdespore, all at once fell upon the garrison of that place. Lugard returned, and a telegram reports his having gained a victory on the 26th. The identity of the tactics of these insurgents with those of the Oude and Rohilcund columns is evident. The victory gained by Lugard will, however, scarcely be of much importance. Such bands can afford to be beaten a good many times before they become demoralized and weak.

Thus, by the middle of May, the whole insurgent force of Northern India had given up warfare on a large scale, with the exception of the army of Calpee. This force, in a comparatively short time, had organized in that town a complete center of operations; they had provisions, powder and other stores in profusion, plenty of guns, and even founderies and musket manufactories. Though within 25 miles of Cawnpore, Campbell had left them unmolested: he merely observed them by a force on the Doab or western side of the Jumna. Generals Rose and Whitlock had been on the march to Calpee for a long while; at last Rose arrived, and defeated the insurgents in a series of engagements in front of Calpee. The observing force on the other side of the Jumna, in the mean time, had shelled the town and fort, and suddenly the insurgents evacuated both, breaking up this their last large army into independent columns. The roads taken by them are not at all clear, from the accounts received; we only know that some have gone into the Doab, and others toward Gwalior.

Thus the whole district from the Himalaya to the Bihar and Vindhya mountains, and from Gwalior and Delhi to Joruckpore and Dinapore, is swarming with active insurgent bands, organized to a certain degree by the experience of a twelve months war, and encouraged, amid a number of defeats, by the indecisive character of each, and by the small advantages gained by the British. It is true, all their strongholds and centers of operations have been taken from them; the greater portion of their stores and artillery are lost; the important towns are all in the hands of their enemies. But on the other hand, the British, in all this vast district, hold nothing but the towns, and of the open country, nothing but the spot where their movable columns happen to stand; they are compelled to chase their nimble enemies without any hope of attaining them; and they are under the necessity of entering upon this harassing mode of warfare at the very deadliest season of the year. The native Indian can stand the mid-day heat of his Summer with comparative comfort, while mere exposure to the rays of the sun is almost certain death to the European; he can march forty miles in such a season, where ten break down his northern opponent; to him even the hot rains and swampy jungles are comparatively innocuous, while dysentery, cholera, and ague follow every exertion made by Europeans in the rainy season or in swampy neighborhoods. We are without detailed accounts of the sanitary condition of the British army; but from the comparative numbers of those struck by the sun and those hit by the enemy in Gen. Rose’s army, from the report that the garrison of Lucknow is sickly, that the 38th regiment arrived last Autumn above 1,000 strong, now scarcely numbers 550, and from other indications we may draw the conclusion that the Summer’s heat, during April and May, has done its work among the newly-imported men and lads who have replaced the bronzed old Indian soldiers of last year’s campaign. With the men Campbell has, he cannot undertake the forced marches of Havelock nor a siege during the rainy season like that of Delhi. And although the British Government are again sending off strong re-enforcements, it is doubtful whether they will be sufficient to replace the wear and tear of this Summer’s campaign against an enemy who declines to fight the British except on terms most favorable to himself.

The insurgent warfare now begins to take the character of that of the Bedouins of Algeria against the French; with the difference that the Hindoos are far from being so fanatical, and that they are not a nation of horsemen. This latter is important in a flat country of immense extent. There are plenty of Mohammedans among them who would make good irregular cavalry; still the principal cavalry nations of India have not joined the insurrection so far. The strength of their army is in the infantry, and that arm being unfit to meet the English in the field, becomes a drag in guerrilla warfare in the plain; for in such a country the sinew of desultory warfare is irregular cavalry. How far this want may be remedied during the compulsory holiday the English will have to take during the rains, we shall see. This holiday will, altogether, give the natives an opportunity of reorganizing and recruiting their forces. Beside the organization of cavalry, there are two more points of importance. As soon as the cold weather sets in, guerrilla warfare alone will not do. Centers of operation, stores, artillery, intrenched camps or towns, are required to keep the British busy until the cold season is over; otherwise the guerrilla warfare might be extinguished before the next Summer gives it fresh life. Gwalior appears to be, among others, a favorable point, if the insurgents have really got hold of it. Secondly, the fate of the insurrection is dependent upon its being able to expand. If the dispersed columns cannot manage to cross from Rohilcund into Rajpootana and the Mahratta country; if the movement remains confined to the northern central district, then, no doubt, the next Winter will suffice to disperse the bands, and to turn them into dacoits, which will soon be more hateful to the inhabitants than even the palefaced invaders.