Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Good Old Days

We've heard much hand-wringing and cries of despair from the very beginning: the fearful Afghan Winter, the dreadful Iraqi Summer, the inconceivable house-to-house fighting in Baghdad -- all of these would defeat us.

And now we hear cries of alarm, and threats from terrorists, about the redeployment of the famed Scottish Black Watch Regiment to the hotspots around Baghdad.

Well gather 'round.

I'd like to tell a little story about the good old days before everyone turned into frightened "girlie-men", that feature other Highland regiments.

The time: 1857.

The place: mutinous India.

In parts of India, a mutiny flared up. Most British outposts were taken by surprise as their native contingents suddenly changed sides and joined the mutineers and princelings. A new Emperor of Hindustan was declared, and a bin-Laden-like character Nana Sahib emerged as a rebel leader.

Many outposts were massacred outright, along with their women and children. Others found themselves besieged, isolated and in desperate straits.

One group of about 350 British troops with a few hundred natives troops of uncertain morale, and over 500 women and children, were trapped in the Residency compound at Lucknow.

What to do?

Declare a quagmire?

Beg for forgiveness?

Remember, this is 1857 -- before the days of body armor, helicopter medevac, and air superiority. Before antibiotics and anesthesia. Before humvees, armored or otherwise. Before tanks and armored personnel carriers. Before satellite-guided bombs.

This was halfway around the world, in a gigantic country, now hostile.

And at the peak of the hot season with 100-degree temperatures.

They'd have to march on foot through densely-populated cities in house-to-house fighting, and all they had were muskets and whatever supplies and artillery they could drag themselves.

Rather than fret in fear and doubt, the Brits got down to business.

This was May, and the Lucknow garrison believed it could hold out until September.

There being many trouble spots, the Lucknow relief force began with under 2,000 troops. And the Residence -- with only about 500 or so defenders -- was surrounded by between 50,000 and 100,000 mutineers.

Over 50,000!

Many of them not a rabble, but well-armed and trained former native troops.

Nobody kept carping that there "weren't enought troops" to get the job done, they just set out to do it, with discipline and determination.

By July, the relief column had reached Cawnpore, still some distance from Lucknow. And nobody was screaming "Quagmire!" even though 2 months had already gone by.

The original garrison of Cawnpore had negotiated a surrender, and upon marching out, all the men were immediately murdered. The hundreds of women and children were taken as hostages, and just before the relief column arrived, they were taken to a room and systematically hacked apart with swords and cleavers.

Among the relief column were the 78th Highlanders, and nobody in the world is as motivatible by sentimental fury as a Victorian Scot.

The Highlanders arrived to find the entire floor was drenched in blood. The walls were smeared red, with hack-marks matted with human hair. The room had a well, into which the dead and dying were stuffed, until it overflowed with body parts.

And if the newspapers of the day are to be believed, scrawled on the walls, presumably in blood, was the message "countrymen, avenge us!"

And nobody found that sentiment insensitive or offensive.

In the well was found the head of one of the former commander's daughters, from which the Highlanders requested cuttings of locks of hair. Passing them around, each Highlander counted the strands and swore a blood oath to personally slay at least one rebel for each hair received.

Eventually reinforced to a strengh of about 3,000 by September, the relief force finally forced its way into the Residency, spurred on by the battle cry, "Remember Cawnpore!"

But still being surrounded by a huge hostile force, they could not safely escort the defenders, many of them sick or wounded. The garrison was now, however, able to hold out longer with this injection of reinforcements.

Was the operation declared a failure? Did the media ask for an "exit strategy"?

No, a new force of around 5,000 was formed to finish the relief in November, which included 2 other Highland regiments (among others), as well as a naval artillery force. The 93rd Highlanders, newly arrived in country, were still in the tartan kilts and feathered bonnets.

Making its way through the maze of deadly streets and compounds, with attackers in every mosque (nothing has changed...) and alley the column would not be denied, the massacre at Cawnpore still fresh in their minds.

The sailors with the unit manhandled their heavy artillery right up to the skirmish lines, as if they were delivering broadsides from their warship at sea, to withering effect, and progress was good until they ran into the Secundrabagh, a large fortified and walled compound.

The plan was for the artillery to breach a small hole in the wall, through which a party of Highlanders would charge to open the gates for the rest.

As soon as the breach appeared, however, the Highlanders could not be restrained, and the entire regiment of 700 surged forward "with a terrifying yell of long-suppressed rage" as the pipes skirled up The Haughs of Cromdell, aka The Old Highland Charge, "the sound of which raised the men's fury to a berserk level."

There being no time to reload in the close-quarter fighting, this was to be an argument in cold steel, with death coming from distances under 3 feet from broadsword, dirk, and bayonet.

When it was all over, the bodies of over 2,000 mutineers were piled in the courtyard, with not a single one knowingly let to escape, for a loss of 22 Highlanders.

The next obstacle was the Shah Najaf mosque, an apparently even tougher nut, but after the bombardment started, given the grim outcome at the Secundabragh, the defenders soon abandoned the position.

And thus the Residency was relieved, and its occupants escorted to safety, after holding out for 6 months.

Mopping-up operations would continue for another year, with the Nana Sahib fleeing to the remote regions of Nepal, and was rumored to have died the next year but was never found.

We would do well to reclaim the steadfastness and confidence of the Victorians.

[this account paraphrased and quoted from "Impossible Victories" by Bryan Perrett.]

UPDATE: Other sources give the title of the Highland Charge as "The Haughs of Cromdale" rather than Cromdell (as in the source I quoted).


Blogger Spiney Widgmo said...

Keep up the good work. Scottish blood (among others) flows in my veins and that story brought tears to my eyes. Unfortunately, I fear a lot more atrocities close to home will need to happen before enough Americans hear the The Haughs of Cromdell.

12:32 AM, October 31, 2004  
Blogger Bandersnatchi said...

One reason that the "media" (such as it was) of the time may not have raised a hue-and-cry is that the British were dispensing of the undesirable Scottish men in a favorable (to them) manner. Had these been York or London boys, would it have been as endorsed by the civilians?

Nevertheless, the story does raise an interesting thought and point: media exposure to our war actions certainly colors our reactions as civilians. We have a much greater responsibility - not a lesser responsibility - to take the media reports and the situations seriously and with due consideration. I fear, however, that the opposite is the norm. :(

- MTLChris

5:03 PM, November 12, 2004  
Blogger RDS said...

MTLChris: "the British were dispensing of the undesirable Scottish men in a favorable (to them) manner. Had these been York or London boys, would it have been as endorsed by the civilians?"

I don't believe this assertion is accurate; at the time, the English (especially the upper classes), as far as I know, were romantically attached to the Scots, resulting, for example, in the revival of Highland Tartans, which became the latest fashion rage.

I merely focused on the Highland regiments, but many others were involved, including the York and Lancaster regiment, the North Staffordshire regiment, the King's Shropshire regiment, and the South Lancashire regiment, not to mention the Royal Welsh and the 9th Lancers.

So your question is answered with a resounding Yes.

Where has this notion of squeamishness come from? Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that public support for punitive war was in the recent past not a shocking concept? Indeed, that it was expected?

Perhaps you are confusing the Scots with the Irish...

As for public reaction to the media today, it should be followed, but it also should be well-informed -- which it isn't. That's why we are not, nor should we be, a pure democracy, subject to the mercurial whims of mob opinion; such a system (or its essential duplicate: representatives beholden to public opinion polls) was found by the Greeks to be a very, very, poor system that leads to ruin.

5:20 AM, November 16, 2004  
Blogger Bandersnatchi said...

I'll have to review that time period from a Scottish historian point of view when I get a chance. Victoria did, indeed, do much to revitalize and popularize a defeated culture within Britian. I believe the arguments I have read is that the Scottish youth had little choices for earning income shy of the army thanks to the greed of Scottish Lairds and the exploitation of the English. Be that as it may, it tracks far off your topic ;)

Regarding our current media, my original point had been about *our* responsibilities as media consumers. While I believe that this is the case, your point about the media being responsible is as important. Certainly our expectations and belief is that things are well researched and editorialization is adequately indicated. I suspect that this is not the case for the simple reason of competitive practicalities. As long as we - the consumers - are not demanding a better product from our news sources, such a product is not needed from a strict business point of view!

- MTLChris

2:47 PM, November 16, 2004  
Blogger RDS said...


I had no idea you were such a history buff!

Yes, I believe your point about the Lairds is accurate. Although this being the age of Dickens, with increasing industrialization and social upheaval, the conditions of the lower classes throughout Britain were likely of a similar situation. Yet surely, being still a warrior culture, many of the Highlanders must have actually looked forward to their vocation as soldiers. But as you said, this takes us far off track!

Ah, I see you point about the media. Yes, a well-educated and well-informed electorate is absolutely essential, and it is unfortunately ill-served on both counts.


1:26 AM, November 17, 2004  

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