Sunday, 18 April 2010

Ahmednagar and the Commencement of the Central India Campaign in the Indian Mutiny.

Captain John Dobree Woollcombe, (1822-1875)
4th Battalion 2nd Company Bombay Artillery in 1858. [1]
Please click on image for a larger version.

If asked to recall a single event from the history of the British presence in India, the vast majority of people would respond with "the Indian Mutiny," and therefore for anybody like myself who had a great great grandfather who was present in India with the East India Company Army, at this time it is inevitable that I should wonder what his role must have been?

In the case of my great great grandfather Lieutenant Charles James Barton, this has proved to be very long and difficult search, because he doesn't appear to have been in any of the major campaigns, and he doesn't appear in any account that I can find so far that would link him to any of these events.

We know from Spring's list of Bombay Artillery Officers [2] that as a Lieutenant Charles Barton had been Adjutant of the 1st Battalion, Bombay Foot Artillery since the 6th of January 1853, and that he would remain so until he was promoted to Captain on the 26th August 1859 shortly after the end of the Mutiny.

However despite the lack of any written evidence that he took any active part in the campaign, it would appear from some surviving photos that have passed down in our family that he was probably involved in the Central India Campaign under Sir Hugh Rose.

Otherwise it is hard to account for the inclusion of quite so many of these photos in his albums.

The following is an attempt to piece together the accounts of Sir Hugh Rose's campaign and to place in context some of these photos which include many of the officers like Captain Woollcombe who are present in the albums and who played such important roles in these events.

For troops of the Bombay Army, the Indian Mutiny became a reality on the 9th of June 1857, when the 14th Light Dragoons were ordered by Major General Woodburn to leave Kirkee, a cantonment just north of Poona or Pune as it is called today. The Regiment was under orders to march to Ahmednuggur, or as it is known today, Ahmednagar.

Two days later the Dragoons who were a regiment recruited in Britain, were joined on their march by the 25th Bombay Native Infantry under Major Follett. There was an uneasy tension as the Dragoons wondered, as probably did the infantry battalion's officers, whether this regiment would go over to the mutineers as so many of the Bengal Armies units had done.

On the following day the force passed through Seroor the weather broke.

"On the third day of the march of our small Force, the monsoon burst in full strength over us, just as we left Seeroor, and by the time our halting-place was reached the darkness and rain were thick and heavy, the black cotton soil was knee-deep in mud, so that the horses could not be kept at their pickets, and dashed about in the darkness like so many wild ones; and the mea whose tents and baggage had not arrived, got shelter as they best could, and, soaked through cloak and tunic, hailed the daylight, and order to march again, with something like satisfaction. Thus, battling with rain and mud, with the worst of carriage for our baggage, which had to be dragged over the worst of roads, and in the worst of seasons, for as yet rebel leaders had not taught us the value of animal transport, and limited baggage, we reached Ahmednugger. The Brigadier here was importuned by Civilians on all sides to send troops."[3]

"Sally Port & Bridge at Ahmednuggar Fort 1857."
Please click on this and subsequent images for a larger version.

Troops were being assembled as fast as possible from the widely separated cantonments across the Deccan. This was leaving many civilians and administrators highly exposed if the insurgents became any more successful.

"On the 19th of June Captain H. O. Mayne arrived, with the ladies and children, from Aurungabad, and with such other tidings as induced the Major-General to march at once on that station; our force having the very acceptable reinforcement of the 4th Battalion 2d Company Bombay Artillery, manned by Europeans and commanded by Major Woolcombe, C.B. The roads were vile, and the Godavery river girth deep, but we did not stay to pitch our tents, and merely halted to feed. and give the Infantry and horses rest. The men were so overpowered by sleep that we halted from 11 p.m. till 3 a.m., on the road side, near Dygaon. Here, lining the road, the whole Force was to be seen fast asleep, without the slightest shelter, and the rain pouring steadily down on them."[4]

"Mrs Woollcombe, 1857."

I have to presume that Mrs Woollcombe had been living with her husband in his garrison when the mutiny had begun, and it must have been an extremely anxious moment for them both, when he and his battery received orders to move out.

It appears that she may have remained in Ahmednuggur when her husband moved off with his unit. It is probable that the town was a refuge for many soldiers and officers wives.

The town appears to have been reinforced in the days and weeks after the town was re-taken by Major General Woodburn's force, and then was used to support the campaign as it moved inland.

On the following morning the troops set out to capture and punish the first mutineers that they had encountered so far. These mutineers had already left the town and barracks.

At 10 A.M. on the morning of the 23rd, we reached our destination, and were joined by Captain Abbott and other officers. of the Contingent, who had remained in the mess-house with those officers and men of the 1st Regiment of Cavalry who were trustworthy,. and it was with the faithless of these corps that we had to deal. They were encamped on high ground beyond the cantonment on the Jaulna road'. Our column proceeded there,. and formed up, the Battery with 25th Regiment in square on its right flank, one squadron of Dragoons. on its left, the remaining squadron in its rear. The Major General and Staff now proceeded to the front,. and ordered the men of the Contingent to parade, which for the most part they did, and mild measures were resorted to to induce them to return to their allegiance. Many did so, but one native officer, seeing so many going against his cause, summarily ended the affair by discharging his pistol at Captain Abbott, which brought a shot in return. Neither of the missiles took effect, though but a few paces separated officer and trooper. The Brigadier now gave the order to open fire, and pour grape upon the troopers, who had all flown to their horses, ready saddled, in the lines; but unluckily the guns each had a nine-pounder shot in them, and these had first to be shot out, and now the mutineers were in full flight, and the 14th Dragoons were ordered to pursue. Captain Gall led his Troop after those escaping by the Jaulna road, and Captain Barrett followed the few who took the open country, Captain Abbott and some loyal sowars joining in pursuit. Few were overtaken, the tired horses of the Regulars, so heavily laden, being unable to catch the fresh, lightly-mounted cattle of the mutineers. I have no doubt Brigadier Woodburn was led to believe that the men simply required a little pacification, and they would return to. their duty. In order to prevent any disturbance in the Cantonment among the Native Infantry and Artillery, two guns, two Companies of the 25th Regiment, some Madras Sappers and Miners, and Dragoons, all under command of Lieutenant Leith,were judiciously placed near the bridge over the river leading to the Cavalry lines.

"The new barracks Ahmednuggur, 1857."

As was to be the case in so many other places in India at that time little time or mercy was shown towards the mutineers.

This affair having been disposed of, and the prisoners marched into Camp, Courts Martial immediately commenced. The first prisoner tried was Meer Fider Ali, who attempted to prove an alibi, but the following day the whole of the troops in the station, including the Contingent, were paraded to see him hanged. This was done by placing him on a cart, which, after the adjustment of the noose, was driven from beneath him, and the whole Force present were marched past that they might have an uninterrupted view.

The Fort at Ahmednagar from Google Earth.

As soon as the town had been secured, the expeditionary force set off into the interior in an attempt to secure treasure from it's being lost to the mutineers.

That evening a Squadron of the 14th Dragoons, two of Woolcombe's. guns, two of the Nizam's, as well as some Contingent and Bombay Native Infantry,. all under command of Captain Gall, marched at dusk on Boldana in Berar, as there was a large sum of money in the treasury there, guarded by a troop of this mutinous corps of the Nizam's.

The town then became a base for further operations and I believe that it was as part of the reinforcements that poured into the area that Lieutenant Barton arrived in the town. It is quite possible that he became responsible for running the arsenal at Ahmednagar, which is shown in the following photograph.

"Arsenal Nuggur."

It is probable that when he first arrived at Ahmednagar that he was living in the building illustrated in the following photograph that appears to be a converted tomb or possibly temple.

Does this building still survive?

What was its former purpose?

"Adjutant's Qrs. N. I. Lines, Nuggur."

However it appears that his wife and children may have joined him a little later in the year, because the following bungalow became their home.

"Porch of our house at Nuggur 1857."

The cantonment would no doubt have struck a modern soldier as being rather basic, but it did at least have a library, in another converted building.

"Station Library Ahmednuggur Fort."

The cantonment also had a purpose built church where no doubt many soldiers wives prayed especially fervently for the safe return of their husbands away fighting the insurgents.

"Church Nuggur."

It appears that the security situation must have become safe enough for the officers and wives to start visiting local monuments and beauty spots by January 1858, because amongst the photos are several of Happy Valley.

"Salabut Khan's Tomb near Nuggar 1857"

I would love to hear from anybody who can tell me if these buildings still survive. What are they called today? What was their history?

"Aringaum, Nuggur"

Is this a tomb, or perhaps a Serai?

"Fevrah Bagh, Nuggur."

Picnics were a favourite family activity for officers and their wives, and must have helped to relieve the tension and anxiety of the previous months when they can often have wondered if they were not to suffer the same fate as those other officers and their families at places like Meerut and Cawnpur.

"Happy Valley No 3 EGH"

I have no idea who took the photos, and so while it is possible that Charles Barton took them himself, it is probably more likely that there was a photographer active in the town during 1857.

Could this photographer had a name with the initials EGH?

The same initials appear elsewhere in the album.

"The Happy Valley near Nuggur Janry 1858. No 2. EGH"

"Happy Valley No 4."

Is this valley still a popular resort today?

How far is it from the town itself?

If you have found this blog post and you come from Ahmednagar, I would love to see photos of these locations today, and it would be great if it were possible to locate where they were taken in the town.

If you are aware of any further sources of information on the activities of the Bombay Artillery at this time that can fill in the gaps in my knowledge, I would also very much like to hear from you.

[1] Colonel F.W,H. Spring, The Bombay Artillery List of Officers who have served in the Regiment of Bombay Artillery, Publ 1902. Page 95 has a short summary of Woollcombe's career.
[2] Spring, page 99.
[3]John Henry Sylvester, Recollections of the Campaign in Malwa and Central India under Major General Sir Hugh Rose. Published 1860.
[4] Sylvester. Page 4.