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The Siege of Lucknow (Hindustani: लखनऊ का घेरा, لکھنؤ کا گھیرا Lakhnaū kā Ghērā) was the prolonged defence of the Residency within the city of Lucknowmarker during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the First War of Indian Independence or the Indian Mutiny). After two successive relief attempts had reached the city, the defenders and civilians were evacuated from the Residency, which was abandoned.

Lucknow was the capital of the former state of Oudh (now spelt Awadh, and a region in the state of Uttar Pradeshmarker), in Indiamarker. The prolonged defence there by the British proved to be one of the key episodes in the unsuccessful rebellion. Mainly there were issues of prestige and morale involved, but Lucknow also became the point at which the main forces of both the British and rebels were concentrated.

Background to the siege

The state of Oudh had been annexed by the British East India Company and the Nawab (Wajid Ali Shah) exiled to Calcutta the year before the rebellion broke out. This high-handed action by the East India Company was greatly resented within the state, and elsewhere in India. The first British Commissioner (in effect, Governor) appointed to the newly acquired territory behaved tactlessly, and Sir Henry Lawrence, a very experienced administrator, took up the appointment only six weeks before the rebellion broke out.

The sepoys (Indian soldiers) of the Bengal Presidency Army had become increasingly troubled over the preceding years, feeling that their religion and customs were under threat from the evangelising activities of the Company. Lawrence was well aware of the rebellious state of the Indian troops under his command (which included the former army of the state of Oudh). On 18 April, he warned the Governor General, Lord Canning, of some manifestations of discontent, and asked permission to transfer certain rebellious corps to another province.

The flashpoint of the rebellion was the introduction of the Enfield rifle. The cartridges for this weapon were believed to be greased with a mixture of beef and pork fat, which would defile both Hindu and Muslim Indian soldiers. On May 1 the 7th Oudh Irregular Infantry refused to bite the cartridge and on May 3 they were disarmed by other regiments.

On May 10, the Indian soldiers at Meerutmarker broke into open rebellion, and marched on Delhimarker. When news of this reached Lucknow, Lawrence recognised the gravity of the crisis and summoned from their homes two bodies of pensioners, one of sepoys and one of artillerymen, to whose loyalty, and to that of the Sikh and some Hindu sepoys, the successful defence of the Residency was largely due.

Rebellion begins

Contemporary plan of the movements during the siege and relief of Lucknow
Beginning on May 23, Lawrence began fortifying the Residency and laying in supplies for a siege. Large numbers of British civilians made their way to the Residency from outlying districts. On May 30 (the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr), most of the Oudh and Bengal troops at Lucknow broke into open rebellion. In addition to his locally recruited pensioners, Lawrence also had the bulk of the British 32nd Regiment of Foot available, and they were able to drive the rebels away from the city.

On June 4 there was a rebellion at Sitapurmarker, a large and important station from Lucknow. This was followed by another at Faizabadmarker, one of the most important cities in the province, and outbreaks at Daryabad, Sultanpurmarker and Salonmarker. Thus in the course of ten days English authority in Oudh practically vanished.

On June 30 Lawrence learned that the rebels were gathering north of Lucknow, and ordered a reconnaissance in force, despite the available intelligence being of poor quality. Although he had comparatively little military experience, Lawrence led the expedition himself. The expedition was not very well organised. The troops were forced to march without food or adequate water during the hottest part of the day at the height of summer, and at Chinhat they met a well-organised rebel force, with cavalry and dug-in artillery. Some of Lawrence's sepoys and Indian artillerymen defected to the rebels, and his exhausted British soldiers retreated in disorder. Some of the fugitives died of heatstroke within sight of the Residency.

Lieutenant William George Cubitt, 13th Native Infantry, was awarded the Victoria Cross several years later, for his act of saving the lives of three men of the 32nd Regiment of Foot during the retreat. His was not a unique action; sepoys loyal to the British, especially those of the 13th Native Infantry, saved many British soldiers, even at the cost of abandoning their own wounded men who had been hacked to pieces by Indian sepoys.

Initial attacks

Lawrence fell back into the Residency, where the siege now began. The Residency was the centre of the defences. The actual defended line was based on six detached smaller buildings and four entrenched batteries. The position covered some 60 acres (243,000 m²) of ground, and the garrison (855 British officers and soldiers, 712 Indians, 153 civilian volunteers, with 1,280 non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children) was too small to defend it effectively against a properly prepared and supported attack.

Also, the Residency lay in the middle of several palaces, mosques and administrative buildings. (Lucknow had been the royal capital of Oudh for many years). Lawrence initially refused permission for these to be demolished, urging his engineers to "spare the holy places", and during the siege they provided good vantage points and cover for rebel sharpshooters and artillery. One of the first bombardments following the beginning of the siege, on June 30, caused a civilian to be trapped by a falling roof. The successful attempt to save him, under intense musket and cannon fire, resulted in the award of the Victoria Cross to Corporal William Oxenham of the 32nd Foot.

The first attack was repulsed on July 1, when the separate position of the Machchhi Bhawan palace to the east of the Residency was evacuated, and blown up. (Large amounts of powder and ammunition had been stored in it). The next day, Sir Henry Lawrence was fatally wounded by a shell, and he died on July 4. Colonel Sir John Inglis of the 32nd Regiment took military command of the garrison. Major Banks was appointed the acting Civil Commissioner by the dying Lawrence. When Banks was killed a short time later, Inglis assumed overall command.

About 8,000 sepoys who had joined the rebellion and several hundred retainers of local landowners surrounded the Residency. They had some modern guns with them, and also some older pieces which fired all sorts of improvised missiles. There were several determined attempts to storm the defences during the first weeks of the siege, but the rebels lacked a unified command able to coordinate all the besieging forces.

The defenders, their number constantly reduced by military action as well as disease, were able to resist all attempts made by the rebels to overwhelm them. In addition they mounted several sorties, attempting to reduce the effectiveness of the most dangerous positions held by the besiegers, and to silence some of their guns. The Victoria Cross was awarded to several participants in these sorties: Captain Samuel Hill Lawrence and Private William Dowling of the 32nd Foot and Capt Robert Hope Moncrieff Aitken of the 13th Native Infantry.

First relief attempt

Crossing the Ganges into Oudh
On July 16, a force under Major General Henry Havelock had recaptured Cawnporemarker, from Lucknow. On July 20, he decided to attempt to relieve Lucknow, but it took six days to ferry his force of 1500 men across the Ganges Rivermarker. On July 29, Havelock won a battle at Unaomarker, but casualties, disease and heatstroke reduced his force to 850 effectives, and he fell back.

There followed a sharp exchange of letters between Havelock and the insolent Brigadier James Neill who was left in charge at Cawnpore. Havelock eventually received 257 reinforcements and some more guns, and tried again to advance. He won another victory near Unao on August 4, but was once again too weak to continue the advance, and retired.

Havelock intended to remain on the north bank of the Ganges, inside Oudh, and thereby prevent the large force of rebels which had been facing him from joining the siege of the Residency, but on August 11, Neill reported that Cawnpore was threatened. To allow himself to retreat without being attacked from behind, Havelock marched again to Unao and won a third victory there. He then fell back across the Ganges, and destroyed the newly completed bridge. On August 16, he defeated a rebel force at Bithur, disposing of the threat to Cawnpore.

Havelock's retreat was tactically necessary, but caused the rebellion in Oudh to become a national revolt, as previously uncommitted landowners now joined the rebels.

First relief of Lucknow

Havelock had been superseded in command by Major General Sir James Outram. Before Outram arrived at Cawnpore, Havelock made preparations for another relief attempt. He had earlier sent a letter to Inglis in the Residency, suggesting he cut his way out and make for Cawnpore. Inglis replied that he had too few effective troops and too many sick, wounded and non-combatants to make such an attempt. He also pleaded for urgent assistance. The rebels meanwhile continued to shell the garrison in the Residency, and also dug mines beneath the defences, which destroyed several posts. Although the garrison kept the rebels at a distance with sorties and counter-attacks, they were becoming weaker and food was running short.

Outram arrived at Cawnpore with reinforcements on September 15. He allowed Havelock to command the relief force, accompanying it as a volunteer until Lucknow was reached. The force numbered 3,179 composed of six British and one Sikh infantry battalions, with three artillery batteries, but only 168 volunteer cavalry. They were divided into two brigades, under Neill and Colonel Hamilton of the 78th Highlanders.

The advance resumed on September 18. This time, the rebels did not make any serious stand in the open country, even failing to destroy some vital bridges. On September 23, Havelock's force drove the rebels from the Alambagh, a walled park four miles south of the Residency. Leaving the baggage with a small force in the Alambagh, he began the final advance on September 25. Because of the monsoon rains, much of the open ground around the city was flooded, preventing the British making any outflanking moves and forcing them to make a direct advance through part of the city.

The force met heavy resistance trying to cross the Charbagh canal, but succeeded after nine out of ten men of a forlorn hope were killed storming a bridge. They then turned to their right, following the west bank of the canal. The 78th Highlanders took a wrong turning, but were able to capture a rebel battery near the Qaisarbagh palace, before finding their way back to the main force. After further heavy fighting, by nightfall the force had reached the Machchhi Bhawan. Outram proposed to halt, and gain touch with the defenders of the Residency by tunneling and mining through the intervening buildings, but Havelock insisted on an immediate advance. (He feared that the defenders of the Residency were so weakened that they might still be overwhelmed by a last-minute rebel attack). The advance was made through heavily defended narrow lanes. Neill was one of those killed by the rebels' musket fire. In all, the relief force lost 535 men out of 2000, incurred mainly in this last rush.

By the time of the relief, the defenders of the Residency had endured a siege of 87 days, and were reduced to 982 fighting personnel.

Second siege

Originally, Outram had intended to evacuate the Residency, but the heavy casualties incurred during the final advance made it impossible to remove all the invalids and non-combatants. Instead, the defended area was enlarged. Under Outram's overall command, Inglis took charge of the original Residency area, and Havelock occupied and defended the palaces (the Farhat Baksh and Chuttur Munzil) and other buildings east of it. Another factor which influenced Outram's decision to remain in Lucknow was the discovery of a large stock of supplies beneath the Residency, sufficient to maintain the garrison for two months. Lawrence had laid in the stores but died before he had informed any of his subordinates. (Inglis had feared that starvation was imminent).
Outram had hoped that the relief would also demoralise the rebels, but was disappointed. For the next six weeks, the rebels continued to bombard the defenders with musket and artillery fire, and dig a series of mines beneath them. The defenders replied with sorties, as before, and dug counter-mines.

The defenders were able to send messengers to and from the Alambagh, from where in turn messengers could reach Cawnpore. (Later, a semaphore system made the risky business of sending messengers between the Residency and the Alambagh unnecessary). A volunteer civil servant, Thomas Henry Kavanagh, the son of a British soldier, disguised himself as a sepoy and ventured from the Residency aided by a local man named Kananji Lal. He and his scout crossed the entrenchments east of the city and reached the Alambagh to act as a guide to the next relief attempt. For this action, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Preparations for second relief

Grand Trunk Roads of northern India 1857.
The rebellion had involved a very wide stretch of territory in Northern India. Large numbers of rebels had flocked to Delhi, where they proclaimed the restoration of the Mughal Empire under Bahadur Shah II. A British army besieged the city from the first week in June. On September 14, they launched a storming attempt, and by September 21 they had captured the city. On September 24, a column of 2,790 British, Sikh and Punjabi troops under Colonel Greathed of the 8th Regiment of Foot marched through the Lahore Gate to restore British rule from Delhi to Cawnpore. On October 9, Greathed received urgent calls for help from a British garrison in the Red Fortmarker at Agramarker. He diverted his force to Agra, to find the rebels had apparently retreated. While his force rested, they were surprised and attacked by the rebel force which had been close by. Nevertheless they rallied, defeated and dispersed the rebel force. This Battle of Agra cleared all organised rebel forces from the area between Delhi and Cawnpore, although guerrilla bands remained.

Shortly afterwards, Greathed received reinforcements from Delhi, and was superseded in command by Major General James Hope Grant. Grant reached Cawnpore late in October, where he received orders from the new commander-in-chief in India, Sir Colin Campbell, to proceed to the Alambagh, and transport the sick and wounded to Cawnpore. He was also strictly enjoined not to commit himself to any relief of Lucknow until Campbell himself arrived.

Campbell was 65 years old when he left England in July 1857 to assume command of the Bengal Army. By mid-August, he was in Calcutta preparing his departure upcountry. It was late October before all preparations were completed. Fighting his way up the Grand Trunk Road, Campbell arrived in Cawnpore on November 3. The rebels held effective control of large parts of the countryside. Campbell considered, but rejected, securing the countryside before launching his relief of Lucknow. The massacre of British women and children following the capitulation of Cawnpore was still in recent memory. In British eyes Lucknow had become a symbol of its resolve. Accordingly, Campbell left 1,100 troops in Cawnpore for its defense, leading 600 cavalry, 3,500 infantry and 42 guns to the Alambagh.

The strength of the rebels investing Lucknow has been widely estimated from 30,000 to 60,000. They were amply equipped,the sepoy regiments among them were well trained, and they had improved their defences in response to Havelock's and Outram's first Relief of the Residency. The Charbagh Bridge used by Havelock and Outram just north of the Alambagh had been fortified. The Charbagh Canal from the Dilkuska Bridge to the Charbagh Bridge was dammed and flooded to prevent troops or heavy guns fording it. Cannon emplaced in entrenchments north of the Gumti River not only daily bombarded the besieged Residency but also enfiladed the only viable relief path. However, the lack of a unified command structure among the sepoys diminished the value of their superior numbers and strategic positions.

Second relief

Route taken by Colin Campbell in November 1857 in his relief of Lucknow.

At daybreak on the morning of November 14, Campbell commenced his relief of Lucknow. Campbell made his plans on the basis of Kavanagh's information, and the heavy loss of life experienced by the first Lucknow relief column. Rather than crossing the Charbagh Bridge and fighting through the tortuous, narrow streets of Lucknow, Campbell opted to make a flank march to the east and proceed to Dilkusha Park. He would then advance to La Martinieremarker (a school for British and Anglo-Indian boys) and cross the canal as close to the River Gomti as possible. As he advanced, he would secure each position to protect his communications and supply train back to the Alambagh. He would then secure a walled enclosure known as the Secundrabagh and link up with the Residency whose outer perimeter had been extended by Havelock and Outram to the Chuttur Munzil.

For three miles as the column moved to the east of the Alambagh, no opposition was encountered. When the relief column reached the Dilkusha park wall, the quiet ended with an outburst of musket fire. British cavalry and artillery quickly pushed through the park wall and the sepoys were driven from the Dilkusha. The column then advanced to La Martiniere. By noon, the Dilkusha and La Martiniere were in British hands. The defending sepoys vigorously attacked the British left flank from the Bank’s House but the British counter attacked and drove them back into Lucknow.

The rapid advance of Campbell’s column placed it far ahead of its supply caravan. The advance paused until the required stores of food, ammunition and medical equipment were brought forward. The request for additional ammunition from the Alambagh further delayed the relief column's march. On the evening of November 15, the Residency was signalled by semaphore, “Advance tomorrow.”

The next day the relief column advanced from La Martiniere to the northern point where the canal meets the Gumti River. By the fate of war, the damming of the canal to flood the area beneath the Dilkuska Bridge left the canal dry at the crossing point. The column and guns advanced forward and then turned sharp left to Secundrabagh.

The Secundrabagh is a high walled garden approximately 120 yards square with parapets at each corner and a main entry gate arch on the southern wall. Campbell’s column approached along a road that ran parallel to the eastern wall of the garden. The advancing column of infantry, cavalry and artillery had difficulty maneuvering in the cramped village streets. They were afforded some protection from the intense fire raining down on them by a high road embankment that faced the garden. Musket fire came from loopholes in the Secundrabagh and nearby fortified cottages and cannon shot from the distant Kaisarbagh (the former King of Oudh's palace). Campbell positioned artillery to suppress this incoming fire. Heavy 18-pounder artillery was also hauled by rope and hand over the steep road embankment and placed within sixty yards of the enclosure. Although significant British casualties were sustained in these manoeuvres, the cannon fire breached the southeastern wall.

Elements of the Scottishmarker 93rd Highlanders and Sikh 4th Punjabi Infantry rushed forward.Finding the breach too small to accommodate the mass of troops, the Punjabi Infantry moved to the left and overran the defences at the main garden gateway. Once inside, the Sikhs emptied their muskets and resorted to the bayonet. Sepoys responded with counterattacks. Highlanders pouring in by the breach shouted, “Remember Cawnpore!” Gradually the din of battle waned. The dwindling force of defenders moved northward until retreat was no longer possible. The earth was wet with dark red blood. The British numbered the sepoy dead at nearly 2000.

By late noon a detachment of the relief column lead by Adrian Hope disengaged from the Secundrabagh and moved towards the Shah Najaf. The Shah Najaf, a walled mosque, is the mausoleum of Ghazi-ud-din Haider, the first King of Oudh in 1814. The defenders had heavily fortified this multi-story position. When the full force of the British column was brought to bear on the Shah Najaf, the sepoys responded with unrelenting musketry, cannon grape shot and supporting cannon fire from the Kaisarbagh as well as oblique cannon fire from secured batteries north of the Gumti River. From heavily exposed positions, for three hours the British poured a strong cannon fire on the stout walls of the Shah Najaf. The walls remained unscathed, the sepoy fire was unrelenting and British losses mounted. Additional British assaults failed with heavy losses.

Retiring from their exposed positions was deemed equally dangerous by the British command. Gathering up 50 Highlanders, the party was dispatched to seek an alternate access route to the Shah Najaf. Discovering a breach in the wall on the opposite side of the fighting, sappers were brought forward to widen the breach. The small advance party pushed through the opening, crossed the courtyard and opened the main gates. Seeing the long sought opening, their comrades rushed forth into the Shah Najaf. Campbell made his headquarters in the Shah Najaf by nightfall.

Within the besieged Residency, Havelock and Outram completed their preparations to link up with Campbell’s column. Positioned in the Chuttur Munzil they executed their plan to blow open the outer walls of the garden once they could see that the Secundrabagh was in Campbell’s hands.

The Moti Mahal, the last major position that separated the two British forces, was cleared by charges from Campbell’s column. Now, an open space of only 450 yards separated the two forces. Outram, Havelock and some other officers ran across the space to confer with Campbell, before returning. Stubborn resistance continued as the sepoys defended their remaining positions, but repeated efforts by the British cleared these last pockets of resistance. The second relief column had reached the Residency.

The evacuation

Although Outram and Havelock both recommended storming the Kaisarbagh palace to secure the British position, Campbell knew that other rebel forces were threatening Cawnpore and other cities held by the British, and he ordered Lucknow to be abandoned. The evacuation began on November 19. While Campbell's artillery bombarded the Kaisarbagh to deceive the rebels that an assault on it was imminent, canvas screens were erected to shield the open space from the rebels' view. The women, children and sick and wounded made their way to the Dilkusha Park under cover of these screens, some in a variety of carriages or on litters, others on foot. Over the next two days, Outram spiked his guns and withdrew after them.

At the Dilkusha Park, Havelock died (of a sudden attack of dysentery) on November 23. The entire army and convoy now moved to the Alambagh. Campbell left Outram with 4,000 men to defend the Alambagh while he himself moved with 3,000 men and most of the civilians to Cawnpore on November 27.

The first siege had lasted 87 days, the second siege a further 61. The largest number of Victoria Crosses awarded in a single day was the 24 earned on November 16 during the second relief, the bulk of these being for the assault on the Secundrabagh.

The rebels were left in control of Lucknow over the following winter, but were prevented from undertaking any other operations by their own disunity and by Outram's hold on the easily defended Alambagh. Lucknow was retaken by Campbell on March 21, 1858.

Representation in fiction

  • The siege, with significant differences, was fictionalised in J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur. He made extensive use of memoirs and journals of survivors of the Siege, such as those of Mrs Julia Inglis and Mrs Maria Germon.
  • G.A. Henty's 'In Times of Peril' and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game also contain lengthy scenes set in the Residency during the siege.
  • Mark Twain's 'Following the Equator' devotes an entire chapter to the rebellion, quoting extensively from Sir G.O. Trevelyan.
  • M.M. Kaye's "Shadow of the Moon" (copyright 1956/1979) is a fictional account of the last days of the British Raj in India with many scenes set in Lucknow and environs. Most of the latter part of the book is set in Lucknow during the Siege.
  • Anurag Kumar's "Recalcitrance" is mostly based on the part played by commoners during the siege. It describes the siege as well as the final relief. It is almost entirely based on the events in Lucknow. It also describes the part played by Raja Jailal Singh a commander of revolutionary forces whose contributions were highlighted for he first time by the author through newspaper articles. His contributions caused a memorial park to be built around the place where this mysterious revolutionary soldier was hanged at the end of the Great Uprising of 1857. The novel was first published in 2008 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Uprising of 1857.
  • The plot of Phillip Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke relies heavily on fictional events that supposedly occurred during the siege.


  • Battles of the Indian Mutiny, Michael Edwardes, Pan, 1963, ISBN 0-330-02524-4
  • The Great Mutiny, Christopher Hibbert, Penguin, 1978, ISBN 0-14-004752-2
  • A History of the Indian Mutiny Volumes 1 - 3, G.W. Forrest, William Black and Son, Ediburgh and London 1904, reprinted 2006, ISBN 81-206-1999-4 and ISBN 81-206-2006.1
  • Story of a Soldier's Life Volume 1, Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, Westminster Archibald Constable & Company 1903

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