Under the excitement which first prevailed, and the necessity of being prepared in case of a night attack from the roving bands of rebellious soldiery who from all directions were making for the imperial city, plundering and ravaging on the route, this duty was cheerfully undertaken. But as time went by, and week succeeded week, without a shot being fired to relieve the monotony of our lives, the work became irksome in the extreme.
The regiment therefore fell into a regular groove of guard and picket duty. We longed to have a fight with the enemy, and still were doomed to remain in a state of masterly inactivity. At the fort the work was most trying, and resolved itself into a course of manual labour. There it was ordered that under the ammunition sheds deep pits were to be dug in the ground. This duty was performed entirely by the English soldiers, and continued for a fortnight in the hottest season of the year. In the receptacles thus formed all the barrels of powder, as well as the small arms, ammunition, etc., were packed and stowed away, the whole being covered with earth to the depth of several feet. This was a very needful expedient, for a stray spark might have blown up the vast stores of munitions of war, without which it would have been impossible to carry on future operations against the enemy. No fires for any purpose were permitted in the fort, and, greatest deprivation of all, the men were not allowed to smoke during the twenty-four hours they were on guard.
Three or four days after the outbreak, and when everything seemed quiet in and around the cantonment, two officers and myself, taking with us some native labourers carrying spades and shovels, proceeded, under orders from our Colonel, to search for the silver plate buried under the ruins of our mess-house. We found the brick walls standing; but all inside the building was one mass of ashes and still-smouldering embers.
We knew the locality of the plate chest, and, setting the coolies to work, after infinite labour, which lasted some hours, we succeeded in removing a vast heap of cinders, and found portions of the silver. A little lower down we came on more; and here were seen spoons melted almost out of shape by fire. The large silver dishes, plates and cups - many of the latter of priceless value, for they had been acquired by the regiment during the Peninsular War - were lying one on top of the other just as they had been placed in the chest, but all ruined and disfigured, half melted and blackened from the intense heat.
Close by, where they had fallen off a table, were the four massive silver candelabra, the gift of distinguished officers who had formerly served in the corps. These were twisted out of all shape, and beyond hope of repair, of no value but for the bullion. Other articles there were, such as snuff-boxes, drinking-horns, and table ornaments; not one single piece of silver had escaped the action of the fire.
It was a sorry sight to look on the total destruction of our beautiful mess furniture. Costly goods had been sacrificed which no money could replace; not one single article belonging to the officers had been saved.
Gathering together all the silver we could find, and lamenting the incompetence by which we had lost property amounting in value to L2,000, we placed everything in a cart and conveyed it to the barracks.
Many months afterwards the Government directed a committee of officers to value the effects destroyed by the mutineers, to the end that remuneration might be granted to the regiment for loss sustained. This committee, after due consideration, placed the estimate at a very low figure - viz., L1,500. The parsimony of those in power refused us full payment of this just debt, intimated also that the demand was exorbitant, and closed all further action in the matter by sending us a draft on the Treasury for half the amount claimed.
For the first week or ten days after the outbreak at Ferozepore we knew very little of what was occurring down-country, as well as throughout the Punjab, the province of the "Five Rivers" to our north. In that newly-acquired territory there were twenty-six regiments of the native army, while the Sikhs, the warlike people who inhabited the land, had met us in deadly conflict only nine years before. From the latter, then, as well as from the sepoys, there was cause for great anxiety. Every precaution, therefore, was necessary to guard the Ferozepore Arsenal, the largest, next to Delhi, in Upper India. The temper of the Sikhs was uncertain; no one could foretell which side they would take in the coming struggle. Our Empire in Hindostan - during the month of May more especially - trembled in the balance. There was infinite cause for alarm for months afterwards even to the Fall of Delhi; but at no time were we in such a strait as at that period when the loyalty or defection of the Sikh regiments and people was an open question.
The genius of Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab, warded off the danger. That eminent man, the saviour of India, issued a proclamation calling on the Sikhs to aid us in our trouble. They came at once in hundreds - nay, thousands - to enlist on our side. Veterans of Runjeet Singh's Khalsa army, the men who had withstood us on equal terms in many sanguinary battles, animated by intense hatred of the Poorbeah sepoy, enrolled themselves in the ranks of the British army, and fought faithfully for us to the end of the war. Their help was our safety; without these soldiers, and the assistance rendered by their chieftains, Delhi could never have been taken; while, on the other hand, had they risen and cast in their lot with the mutinous sepoys, no power on earth could have saved us from total annihilation.