Havelock arrived back in India late in 1851 and in 1854 was appointed Quartermaster-General, promoted to full colonel. In 1855 he was promoted to Adjutant-General, responsible for the war-readiness of all the troops in India — a task he embraced with a vigour which was often resented but which proved vital and timely.
In January 1857 he received the unexpected offer of a divisional command for a Persian campaign, and was commissioned Brigadier-General under Lieutenant-General Sir James Outram.
The prospects for martial glory were grand, but the campaign was something of a damp squib — easy victory, at low cost. Havelock anticipated the lapsing of his commission and began petitioning for a command in the war in China.
At the same time, rumours began to come in about unrest among the native troops in India. Havelock sailed into Bombay on Friday 29 May 1857 to be informed that the sepoy regiments (native Indian soldiers employed by a conquering power) had mutinied at Meerut, and that the fortress at Delhi had fallen and unrest was spreading.
Although the careless ill-treatment of the native regiments had seen festering resentment growing, the lighting of the touch-paper was the belief that the cartridges of the new Enfield rifles, then being issued, were greased with animal fat (beef and pork).
The ends of these cartridges had to be bitten off before loading, and so the Hindu and Muslim troops were both (deliberately, troublemakers suggested) ‘defiling’ themselves in the act.
Havelock moved to take his place alongside General Anson, surviving a shipwreck on the way, and then discovering that Anson had died. Re-united with an old friend, Sir Patrick Grant, likely to be made acting Commander-in-Chief, Havelock’s understanding, attitude and vigour so commended themselves that, when he and Grant disembarked, Grant introduced him to Charles Canning, the Governor-General of India, with these words, ‘My lord, I have brought you the man!’ (John Pollock, The way to glory: Major-General Sir Henry Havelock: the Christian soldier; Christian Focus; p.174).
Havelock was re-appointed Brigadier-General at the head of a movable column to relieve certain of the besieged cities. Before Havelock marched from Allahabad, Cawnpore fell, with fearful slaughter, followed later by the massacre of about 120 women and children at the Bibigarh.
He was eventually able to depart for the relief of Cawnpore and Lucknow on Tuesday 7 July 1857, marching out into the heat and dampness of the worst of seasons for an Indian military campaign, undermanned and ill-equipped.
His first encounter with the enemy, following a forced march, was a resounding success. Havelock was elated — his first independent command in action a triumph, accomplished without the loss of a single British soldier to the enemy.
His column continued to set out in the early hours of each day, marching to stay ahead of the sun in their intended schedule. They enjoyed an effective though increasingly costly advance. Driving his willing men forward in the hopes of rescuing the hostage women and children at Cawnpore, Havelock drove his own sick and weary self even harder.
When Nana Sahib, commander of the mutineers at Cawnpore, met Havelock’s column, the fighting was bloody and Havelock had a horse shot out from under him, but this had become something of a regular occurrence for this brave soldier.
His troops halted by a withering fire, it seemed clear to Havelock’s son Harry, now serving under his father, that the critical moment in the advance — perhaps in the whole campaign — had come. If they turned back at that point, all was lost.
It was then that Havelock himself rode up before the 800 isolated men, lying down to escape the hail of shot. He turned his back to the enemy and said, ‘The longer you look at it, men, the less you will like it. Rise up! The brigade will advance, left battalion leading’.
The men obeyed, Harry following his father’s example of riding calmly toward the enemy when all the other officers dismounted. The successful battle lasted two hours and 45 minutes.
The men lay down, exhausted. The news arrived that, only two days before, the women and children had been butchered. Reconnoitring, Havelock found Cawnpore fired and deserted, and soon news filtered through that his friend, Sir Henry Lawrence, besieged at Lucknow, was also dead.
Leaving Cawnpore in British hands, Havelock, facing overwhelming odds, sickness, and all manner of other obstacles, marched for Lucknow with his small force.
Marching and fighting across Oudh (Uttar Pradesh), his supply and communication lines stretched to breaking point, as more news of mutinies and desertions rolled in, Havelock was forced to fall back to Cawnpore.
With meagre reinforcements, he set out again, re-taking the same territory. His force increasingly crippled by cholera, he was again obliged to retire, though dealing a fierce blow at the enemy as he did so, to cover his necessary retreat.
On his return, he discovered that his command was to be subsumed, together with another, under Sir James Outram, well known and well liked by Havelock.
Still, it was bitter for Havelock to lose his independence. However, in a stroke of hasty generosity, and in recognition of Havelock’s successes, Outram waived his right to command, undertaking to serve only in his civil capacity as Commissioner.
Unfortunately, in practice, Outram acted as if he retained or at least shared the command, and so introduced a measure of confusion that shackled the sensitive Havelock.
Finally, they advanced on Lucknow. The date for the assault was set for 25 September 1857. Thoroughly wearied, their physical and military resources low, the soldiers under Havelock began their assault. The fighting was brutal, the cost high, and, as the men entered Lucknow, they became engaged in what was essentially a running battle.
Nominally in charge, but practically under Outram’s command, Havelock was not his usual decisive self. It was growing dark when, despite tensions between the two commanders, the final push was made for the Residency where the surviving British were holed up.
Fighting past enemy warriors, some of them close enough to spit on their foes, they attained the Residency to great relief on both sides, though a number of their rearguard and wounded were massacred.
On the morning of 26 September, General Outram resumed his command of a force that had lost 535 men killed and wounded. When the enemy showed no sign of retreat, Outram decided to dig in and hold out until forces from England under the command of Sir Colin Campbell should arrive.
Victory and death
The defended area was extended and Havelock placed in charge of the new zone of control. Perhaps the greatest victory, in Havelock’s mind, was not his own but that of Christ, for it was only now that his wounded but slowly recuperating son, Harry, preserved through so many battles, bowed the knee to his Saviour.
By mid-November, Campbell and his troops were assaulting the city. Havelock’s men led the effort to meet up with them and Havelock had perhaps his closest military escape, so far, when the concussion of an exploding shell knocked him flat.
He was, for a moment, thought to have been wounded or killed. But he was again unhurt and walked with Outram to meet Campbell, who greeted both Sir James and (to Havelock’s delight) ‘Sir Henry’!
It was not until now that he discovered that he had been created Knight Commander of the Bath, as well as promoted Major-General. At home, unknown to Havelock, he was granted a baronetcy by the Queen and voted a substantial life pension by Parliament.
But, by 20 November, the 63-year-old Havelock was suffering the symptoms of dysentery. Two days later, he reported that he was dying, and, with Harry by his side throughout, he went to be with Christ on Monday 24 November 1857 at 9.30 in the morning, as the force he had led was preparing to leave Lucknow.
He was buried outside Lucknow, at Alam Bagh, with no opportunity for anything but the simple ceremony he had always desired, and the force continued its withdrawal.
In Britain and elsewhere, news of the death of a man who had become a spark of light and symbol of hope at a time of national shock and grief was greeted with widespread mourning.
To be continued
The author is pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, West Sussex.