Major General Sir Archdale Wilson, K.C.B., Baronet of Delhi (1803–1874)
We first hear of Archdale Wilson at the very end of Chapter 5, when Captain Sibold of the Meerut contingent rescues the Warreners and captains Dunlop and Masters at the small temple, and he tells them that Wilson has taken over from his colleague General Hewitt. (Hewitt makes his first appearance in the early part of Chapter 2, in connection with the British command’s failure to take action after the rebellion of the Meerut native troops.) Some accounts blame both Hewitt and Wilson of complacence and incompetence when it came to the matter of introducing the greased Enfield cartridges, and Wilson himself was not much more effective, hampered as he was by lack of transport, in taking action against the rebels.
Of his Meerut colleague, Wilson wrote: ‘[Hewitt] is a dreadful old fool and thinks of nothing but preserving his old carcass from harm.’ Captain Hodson evidently agreed with Wilson when, on breaking through enemy lines to re-establish communications with beleaguered Meerut, he described Hewitt as being in ‘a state of helpless imbecility.’
Hewitt is sometimes described s being in command of the advance towards Delhi from Meerut, hoping to meet up with General Anson (start of Chapter 7), but clearly he was in no fit state, and Archdale Wilson is usually credited with breaking out of Meerut and leading his men to the battle described in the story as taking place near the village of Ghazee-ud-deen-Nugghur. This is better known today as the battle of the Hindan River.
On 30 May, some Indian forces from Delhi attacked Wilson’s force at the British-built steel suspension bridge over the Hindan. Wilson’s infantry, the 60th Rifles, made good use of their Enfield rifles to drive the Indians from the field and capture five light guns. In the book, Henty describes how Wilson’s British forces overwhelmed the sepoys with the ferocity of their attack, but other accounts give a slightly different slant. On the first day the British did drive the enemy from the bridge in disarray, but they counter-attacked on the following day and fought fiercely. It ended up as an important victory for Wilson – and symbolic, only some miles from Delhi – but British casualties were so severed they almost stopped Wilson in his tracks. The general was even contemplating a retreat to Meerut when he was reinforced by the arrival of the Simoor Regiment of Gurkhas, under Colonel Reid, who was also looking to join Anson.
Thanks to the regular outbreaks of Cholera, Archdale Wilson quickly progressed to head the British force ‘besieging’ Delhi, when first Anson died in May and his successor, General Barnard, died on 5 July. The command then fell to elderly General Sir Thomas Reed – who was already very ill. Reed, was, thought Wilson, ‘old and feeble, more fit for the invalid couch than assuming command.’ He was right; Reed remained tent-bound for the days of his command, before retiring to Simla on the 17th.
Though a soldier of only moderate capacity, Wilson (promoted Major General) was quite the best of the surviving senior officers present, three of whom were passed over by his selection. Two of these, Congreve, Acting-Adjutant-General of Queen’s troops, and Graves, who had been Brigadier at Delhi when the Mutiny broke out, left the camp in frustration over; the third, Longfield, took Wilson’s place as Brigadier. Brigadier Neville Chamberlain, a much younger officer who might have provided better leadership, was severely wounded repelling a sortie on 14 July. Wilson himself was scarcely capable of exercising command at first, and in every letter he wrote, he complained of his exhaustion and prostration.
Wilson's succession to the command gave great relief to the troops on account of the systematic manner in which he arranged for the various duties, and the order and method he introduced. The comparative rest to the troops, as well as the sanitary improvements he put in place, did a good deal for the health of the force. Wilson also took advantage of the reinforcements he received to strengthen the British position on the ridge position. As far as possible he put a stop to the practice of following up the enemy close to the city walls when they were driven off after an attack – a practice which had cost many valuable lives – contenting himself with preventing the rebels from remaining in the immediate vicinity of British advanced posts.
By the evening of 20 September 1857, Delhi had fallen, and as the troops celebrated in the streets, Archdale Wilson and his headquarters staff toasted Queen Victoria over a dinner of ham and eggs, as he informed the world that ‘the days of Clive [of India] are again revived among us’.
Now the hero of Delhi, a grateful nation celebrated his victory as the government created the Baronetage of Delhi on 8 January 1858.
Many years later, Major General Sir Archdale Wilson, K.C.B., of Delhi returned to his old school to attend the annual dinner of Old Valpeians (people who benefit Norwich School through the provision of a legacy) at the Royal Hotel in Norwich, where he was the guest of honour. The club’s president, Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, presented Wilson with a dress sword of the Bengal Horse Artillery, to which Wilson had been attached for many years. In responding, Wilson said, ‘I can assure you that this handsome memorial of your esteem and regard will be highly prized by me as long as I may live, and I trust that, at some future day, some scion of the old blood may arise who will be found worthy to draw it in the service of his country.’
Sir Archdale Wilson
© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England
Appears in Chapters 5, 6, 7, 16