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Windrush - Jayanti's Pawns

Windrush - Jayanti's Pawns

Book excerpt


Lucknow, India, March 1858

'Welcome to Lucknow!' Lieutenant Elliot ducked behind the embankment as an enemy cannon ball screamed overhead. 'When I’m an old man, I’ll bore my grandchildren with tales of this campaign.'

'If we live to have grandchildren.' Jack leaned against the trunk of a gul-mohur tree beside the sunken track. 'These mutineers are giving us harder fighting than the Ruskies did at Inkerman.'

'Aye, that's for sure.' Elliot cautiously peered over the embankment. 'They never give up, do they? We beat them again and again, and still they come back.'

'Sir Colin will sort them out,' Jack said. 'We have thirty-one thousand men now, and over a hundred guns, ten times the number we had with Havelock last year. This time we'll capture Lucknow and hold it against all comers.'

The mutineers' artillery opened up in a frenzy of flame and smoke, hammering at the British positions. Jack glanced at his men. He didn’t need to order them to keep their heads down; they were veterans of a score of battles and skirmishes from the earlier campaigns of Lucknow and Cawnpore, while some had been with him through the nightmare of Crimea. Two or three had even fought in Burma, six years ago. They looked back at him with steady eyes in nut-brown faces, tobacco-chewing professionals in this vicious game of war.

'Bloody pandies,' Private Thorpe muttered as a roundshot landed among the Sikh infantry to their right. 'Why don't they give up now? They know they haven't a hope with old Campbell against them.'

'It's because they're scared, Thorpey.' Coleman ejected a stream of tobacco juice onto the ground, narrowly missing a column of ants. 'Remember how General Neill treated them, even before Cawnpore?'

'He hanged the bastards,' Thorpe said. 'He hanged every one he caught.'

'That's why they're still in the field.' Coleman lifted his Enfield rifle and sighted at the walls of the Little Imambarra . 'They know what will happen if they surrender.'

'We'll hang them all.' Thorpe spoke with savage satisfaction. 'We'll hang all the murdering, backstabbing women-raping bastards.'

Jack listened without emotion. He understood the men's venom. His veterans had witnessed the well at Cawnpore where the mutineers had thrown the mutilated bodies of the British women and children they had murdered. Men such as Coleman, Riley and Thorpe had ensured the replacements were aware of the full horror of that atrocity, adding as many embellishments as they felt suitable. At a time when British men often treated their women with veneration, the Cawnpore murders created intense hatred.

'The boys are still angry,' Jack said.

Elliot nodded. 'They haven’t forgotten.'

Jack checked his revolver, chamber by chamber. 'Nor have you.'

'I never will.' Elliot touched the hilt of his sword. 'I never will. The Lord tells us to forgive us our enemies, but I'll never forgive what the pandies did at Cawnpore.'

'I doubt any of us will fully trust them again.' Jack inched to the lip of the embankment, lifted his binoculars and scanned the enemy positions. He could see the heads and smoking cannon-muzzles of the defenders. Despite the British numbers, their impending attack would be a bloody experience.

'Can I take the Colours now, please, sir?' Ensign Green looked as if he should still be sitting at a school desk, rather than commanding men in battle. His face was too smooth to have felt the kiss of a razor while his long eyelashes would undoubtedly endear him to a plethora of girls.

'Not yet, Green. Wait until Sir Colin orders us forward,' Jack said.

'Yes, sir.' Green hesitated. 'This is my first battle, sir.'

'I know, ensign.' Jack forced a smile he didn’t feel. 'I'm sure you'll be a credit to your family. Follow orders and do your duty.' He tapped Green's sword. 'You might have the opportunity to use that.'

'Yes, sir!' Green looked eager.

'Good luck, ensign,' Jack said. 'Now get back to your men. They need your leadership.' He watched as Green's slim figure darted back to the men. 'Sometimes, Arthur, I feel very old.'

'You are very old, respected captain, sir,' Elliot said. 'You must be all of twenty-four now.'

'I was twenty-five last month,' Jack said. 'I feel like eighty-five when I see children like Green all keen to go to war.'

'We were like that once,' Elliot said.

'It seems a long time ago.' Jack lifted his binoculars again and studied the triple row of earthworks that protected their objective, and the mutineers that waited for them.

The Little Imambarra loomed ahead, another palace within a walled garden. If the British took the Little Imambarra, there would be nothing between them and the palace of the Kaisarbagh. Beyond the Kaisarbagh lay Lucknow, with its army of mutineers and rebels that defied the right of the British to own India.

Elliot lifted a battered silver hip flask to his lips, swallowed, and offered Jack a drink.

'No, thank you.' Jack concentrated on the Kaisarbagh. In common with nearly all the palaces that adorned the ancient city of Lucknow, a massive wall surrounded a rectangular enclosure in which was a series of gardens and once-beautiful buildings of marble. Although the elite had built the compounds for their pleasure, each made a natural defensive position that the British had to assault on their slow advance. The mutineers had added earthworks and ranks of cannon.

'Thirty thousand trained mutineers are inside Lucknow, they say,' Elliot murmured, 'with another fifty thousand volunteers.'

Jack didn’t ask where Elliot obtained his figures. 'It's the volunteers that bother me,' he said. 'We can beat the mutineers; after all, we trained and armed them, so we know how they fight. These matchlock-men and warriors, the Indian soldiers loyal to a native Rajah, or to Oudh.' He shook his head. 'They're not fighting for some fancied grievance over greased cartridges or some such. They're fighting for their monarchs, much as we are fighting for the queen. They’re patriots, and that makes them more dangerous.'

'As long as our men are even more dangerous,' Elliot said, 'I won't worry too much about the pandies.'

A trio of British rockets whooshed off, each leaving a trail of red sparks. One veered off course and soared straight into the sky, while the others exploded before they reached their target, leaving a smudge of white powder smoke drifting in the air.

'That'll scare the birds,' Elliot said. 'It certainly won't do anything else.'

'I hope Sir Colin gives the order to attack soon.' Jack slid back onto the track and bit the tip of a cheroot. 'The longer we wait, the less daylight we'll have to fight in.'

'He's not the fastest of commanders.' Elliot scratched a Lucifer and lit Jack's cheroot. 'He is the most thorough, though. He won't attack until he's certain of victory.'

'Windrush!' Colonel Grey strode along the 113th's position, not deigning to duck when the mutineers fired a salvo of grapeshot.

'Yes, sir.' Jack hid his irritation. He needed to concentrate on the impending attack; he did not wish his commanding officer to distract him.

'I want you to take Number Two Company to the left flank.' Grey stroked his whiskers as the enemy musketeers fired a volley. One musket ball raised a tiny puff of dust as it hit the embankment between Jack and the colonel.

'Yes, sir.'

'You'll know that Nana Sahib led the uprising at Cawnpore,' Grey said.

'Yes, sir.' Why do senior officers state the obvious?

'Nana Sahib's bodyguard is said to be in the Little Imambarra.' Grey said. 'If you see them, destroy them.'

'Yes, sir,' Jack said. 'How will I recognise them?'

'You'll know them when you see them.' Grey nodded and strode away.

'He's a queer beggar,' Elliot said. 'We've to destroy Nana Sahib's bodyguard. So what do we do?'

'We take the left flank and destroy everything that opposes us,' Jack said. 'As we always do.'

Jack lifted his head as a bugle blared in the rear. 'That's it! We're going in.' He raised his voice. 'Ready, Number Two Company of the 113th!'

The bugle sounded again, its brassy notes clear against the batter of artillery. There was no hesitation as the British and Sikhs rose to the attack.

'Oh Lord, I shall be very busy this day,' Elliot whispered. 'I may forget thee, but do not forget me, a sinner.' Taking another quick pull at his silver hip flask, he stood up and drew his sword. 'Follow me, lads!'

'Cry Havelock!' Coleman gave the battle cry that Elliot had created the previous year when they formed part of Havelock's small army that battered its way to Cawnpore. 'And let loose the dogs of war!'

'Let loose the dogs,' Thorpe echoed and looked at Coleman for approval.

Ensign Green held the Colours high, the yellow-buff fly with the number 113 faded by sun and damp, torn by musket balls but still proud. Two yards away, rangy Sergeant Greaves held the Queen's Colours. The multi-crosses of the Union Flag announced that Queen Victoria's fighting men were returning to reclaim the city.

After days when the British artillery had thundered to breach the defences, and the mutineers' guns had responded with a will, now the bayonets of the British and Sikhs and the kukris of the Nepalese would contest the issue with the matchlocks and tulwars of the defenders.

Mutineers and warriors lined the wall of the Little Imambarra, firing muskets at the advancing British lines. White powder smoke jetted out to lie thick in the dense air, so the British seemed to be moving towards a fog that partially concealed the first defensive wall. Orange muzzle flares flashed through the smoke and men began to fall. The Sikhs forged forward, with the 10th Foot – the Lincolnshires, matching them step for step.

'Keep moving!' Jack yelled. 'Leave the wounded for the doolie-bearers.' He spoke for the benefit of the replacements. The veterans didn’t need instructions. Jack flinched as a musket ball whizzed past his head, swore and increased the pace. His men followed, cursing and stumbling, with Riley singing a soft song.

'Wait there, you bastards,' Logan muttered. 'Wee Donnie's coming for you. Don't run away, you pandy buggers.'

'They won't run,' Riley said. 'They'll still be there.'

'I hate crossing open ground under fire.' Thorpe ducked as something flicked at his shako. 'Bloody hell!'

'Think of it as penance for all those sins and crimes you've committed,' Coleman said. 'And the reward will be killing these murdering buggers.'

Twenty yards now, with the mutineers' musketry increasing. A six-pounder cannon roared, spreading grapeshot among the Sikhs, who raised their pace, stepped over the dead and writhing wounded and yelled their war cry.

Jack grunted as he heard 'Jai Khalsa Ji' – “Victory to the Khalsa”, the old battle cry when the Sikhs had been an independent nation.

'Follow me, lads or the Sikhs will beat us to it!' Jack broke into a run, tripped over a loose rock, staggered, recovered and swore as Elliot overtook him.

'Come on, sir!' Riley hesitated. 'Are you hit?'

Shaking his head, Jack ran on.

Logan, the smallest man in the regiment, was first to the wall. 'I cannae get up!' Logan glared upwards jabbing uselessly with his bayonet, until Riley threw himself up the wall, lay along the top and extended a hand downward.

'Come on Logie and watch you don't stick your bayonet in me!'

Scrambling up, Logan slashed at the defenders, using his bayonet as a sabre to clear a space. 'Come on you bastards; wee Donnie's here!'

In front of Jack, the artillery had done its job and tumbled in a section of wall, with sword-wielding warriors waiting in the breach. They looked like something from the Middle Ages – lithe, dark-skinned men with turbans and round shields.

Jack shot one, staggered as another slammed at him with a shield, fired again and missed. A warrior lifted his sword, screaming his hatred, and doubled over as Ensign Green thrust the staff of the Regimental Colour into his stomach.

'Good man, Green.' Jack rolled away, aimed and fired. The bullet smashed into the warrior's chest, knocking him backwards.

'Thank you, sir.' Green looked shocked at the carnage around him.

'Come on, ensign!' Jack saw Elliot exchanging sword strokes with a long-bearded Rajput as the Sikhs surged onward to his right and the 10th Foot charged at a second defensive line.

'To me, 113th!' Jack ran on. 'Don't let the Poachers get in front of us!'

Mutineer infantry clustered around a small battery of artillery, firing muskets in support of the six-pounders. A sudden roar from the rear alerted Jack, and he saw the Sikhs burst open an arched gate and charge into the enclosure. A slender, active man rallied the defenders with shouts in a high, if muffled, voice. Rough grey cloth covered the lower half of his face, while he had pulled a black turban low over his forehead, emphasising the intensity of his eyes.

'That man looks dangerous,' Elliot gasped. 'He might be Nana Sahib's bodyguard that Colonel Grey told us to look for.'

'In that case, he should be with Nana Sahib.' Jack levelled his revolver, fired and missed. 'Damn the man.'

The man in the black turban lifted his tulwar high and shouted something Jack couldn’t understand. The mutineers gathered around him, facing the advancing British, panting, some yelling, bayonets and swords held ready.

Something plucked at Jack's sleeve as he looked around for his men. They followed Ensign Green with the Colours, khaki-clothed, sweat-stained and swearing.

'Come to me and keep your discipline, lads!' Jack roared. 'We'll hit them together, not as a mob of individuals.'

The 113th stopped for a moment to dress their lines and pushed on, bayonets levelled.

The man in the black turban brandished his tulwar. 'Maro Firinghi Soor’ – “kill the foreign pigs”, and his followers repeated his words.

'Maro Firinghi Soor!'

'Remember Cawnpore!' the British replied.

'Bole so nihal Sat siri Akaal’ – “The one who believes in the truth of God is immortal” the Sikhs shouted as they rushed forward.

The defenders were fighting hard, with warriors clashing swords against the bayonets of the 10th and 113th Foot, firing their clumsy matchlocks while the mutineers, the men who had recently been sepoys in the Honourable East India Company's Bengal Army, fired and withdrew in sullen discipline. Jack saw the man in the black turban lead a counter-attack to check the advance of the 10th Foot.

Jack lunged forward, only for a surge of desperate warriors to halt him. 'Get that fellow!' He pointed to Black Turban. 'He's rallying the enemy.'

'Yes, sir!' Green shouted.

'Logan! Riley – go with the ensign!' Jack motioned two of his veterans forward.

The fighting intensified as the mutineers once more rallied behind the man with the black turban. Jack levelled his revolver and fired, missing again. 'Damn this thing!' Running closer, he saw Logan shoot at a mutineer and then lunge forward with the bayonet as Riley knelt and aimed at a desperate farmer armed with a crude hoe.

The man in the black turban man swapped his tulwar from his right hand to his left and slashed sideways. One of the British replacements fell, staring as his intestines tumbled out in a pink and white coil. He opened his mouth in a silent scream, trying to replace his insides as the man in the black turban parried the swing of a Sikh sword, disarmed his adversary with a twist of the wrist and decapitated the man. The Sikh's head lifted on a jet of blood and landed on the ground.

'Jesus, that fellow is good,' Jack said.

'I'll get him, sir!' Holding the Colours as a lance, Green charged forward.

'No, Green!' Jack knew the youngster would have little chance against a man who was so expert. Aiming his revolver, Jack fired again, to see his target immediately duck. Who the devil are you?

'Green! Come back!'

The man in the black turban man straightened up, saw Green with the Colours and stepped forward. As if in slow motion, Jack saw Green swing the staff, miss, and Black Turban slice forward with his tulwar. The blade took Green across the face. He screamed shrilly as a child and fell, dropping the Colours.

'Save the Colours!' Jack yelled, jumping forward. The Colours were the soul of the regiment and to lose them was a major disgrace. He felt sympathy for Green, but the lad had signed on as a soldier and had to take his chance.

Black Turban shouted something, and a rush of mixed warriors and mutineers charged between the 113th and the Colours. One lifted the staff and held it high, with the yellow-buff fly crushed and stained with Green's blood. A surge of mutineers came to help, cheering at their psychological triumph.

'Come on, lads!' Logan led the counter-charge, sliding under a mutineer's bayonet to gut him, roll across the ground and rise in the middle of the enemy ranks. When Riley followed, with Coleman and Thorpe at his back, all the fight left the mutineers, and they fled in disorder. The warriors remained, standing around their leader, clashing their tulwars on round shields and flaunting their prize. The man in the black turban stepped to their front, lithe, slim and undoubtedly in command.

Windrush - Warriors Of God

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