The Corner

The Taste of Cold Steel

Apropos the recent bayonet charge in Iraq by the Argyll & Sutherland

Highlanders, a reader sent me the following stirring passage from Chapter 4

of Byron Farwell’s book “Queen Victoria’s Little Wars.” This is an incident

in the First Sikh War of 1845-46.

“Sir Harry Smith was in the thick of it and he described the action in a

letter to Sir James Kempt: ‘I carried the works by dint of English pluck,

although the native corps stuck close to me, and when I got in, such

hand-to-hand work I have never witnessed. For some twenty-five minutes we

were at it against four times my numbers, sometimes receding (never turning

round, though) sometimes advancing. The old 31st and 50th laid on like


“Hookhum Singh, a Sikh gunner manning a gun facing the 10th Foot, has left a

description of how the advance of the British infantry looked from his


“‘Nearer and nearer they came, as steadily as if they were on their own

parade ground, in perfect silence. A creeping feeling came over me; this

silence seemed so unnatural. We Sikhs are, as you know, brave, but when we

attack we begin firing our muskets and shouting our famous war cry; but

these men, saying never a word, advanced in perfect silence. They appeared

to me as demons, evil spirits bent on our destruction, and I could hardly

refrain from firing.

“‘At last the order came — Fire! — and our whole battery as if from one

gun fired into the advancing mass. The smoke was so great that for a few

minutes I could not see the effect of our fire, but fully expected that we

had destroyed the demons, so, what was my astonishment, when the smoke

cleared away, to see them still advancing in perfect silence, but their

numbers reduced to about one half. Loading my cannon, I fired again and

again into them, making a gap or lane in their ranks each time; but on they

came, in that awful silence, till they were wit a short distance of our

guns, when their colonel ordered them to to take breath, which they did

under a heavy fire.

“‘Then, with a shout, such as only angry demons could give and which is

still ringing in my ears, they made a rush for our guns, led by the colonel.

In ten minutes it was all over; they leapt into the deep ditch or moat in

our front, soon filling it, and then swarmed up the opposite side on the

shoulders of their comrades, dashed for the guns, which we still bravely

defended by a strong body of our infantry, who fought bravely. But who could

withstand such fierce demons, with those awful bayonets, which they

preferred to their guns – for not a shot did they fire the whole time – and

then, with a ringing cheer, which was heard for miles, they announced their



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