The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Allyghur and Laswaree.

I sat down to write gravely and sadly, for (since the appearance of some of my adventures in a monthly magazine) unprincipled men have endeavored to rob me of the only good I possess, to question the statements that I make, and, themselves without a spark of honor or good feeling, to steal from me that which is my sole wealth — my character as a teller of THE TRUTH.

The reader will understand that it is to the illiberal strictures of a profligate press I now allude; among the London journalists, none (luckily for themselves) have dared to question the veracity of my statements: they know me, and they know that I am IN LONDON. If I can use the pen, I can also wield a more manly and terrible weapon, and would answer their contradictions with my sword! No gold or gems adorn the hilt of that war-worn scimitar; but there is blood upon the blade — the blood of the enemies of my country, and the maligners of my honest fame. There are others, however — the disgrace of a disgraceful trade — who, borrowing from distance a despicable courage, have ventured to assail me. The infamous editors of the Kelso Champion, the Bungay Beacon, the Tipperary Argus, and the Stoke Pogis Sentinel, and other dastardly organs of the provincial press, have, although differing in politics, agreed upon this one point, and with a scoundrelly unanimity, vented a flood of abuse upon the revelations made by me.

They say that I have assailed private characters, and wilfully perverted history to blacken the reputation of public men. I ask, was any one of these men in Bengal in the year 1803? Was any single conductor of any one of these paltry prints ever in Bundelcund or the Rohilla country? Does this EXQUISITE Tipperary scribe know the difference between Hurrygurrybang and Burrumtollah? Not he! and because, forsooth, in those strange and distant lands strange circumstances have taken place, it is insinuated that the relater is a liar: nay, that the very places themselves have no existence but in my imagination. Fools! — but I will not waste my anger upon them, and proceed to recount some other portions of my personal history.

It is, I presume, a fact which even THESE scribbling assassins will not venture to deny, that before the commencement of the campaign against Scindiah, the English General formed a camp at Kanouge on the Jumna, where he exercised that brilliant little army which was speedily to perform such wonders in the Dooab. It will be as well to give a slight account of the causes of a war which was speedily to rage through some of the fairest portions of the Indian continent.

Shah Allum, the son of Shah Lollum, the descendant by the female line of Nadir Shah (that celebrated Toorkomaun adventurer, who had wellnigh hurled Bajazet and Selim the Second from the throne of Bagdad)— Shah Allum, I say, although nominally the Emperor of Delhi, was in reality the slave of the various warlike chieftains who lorded it by turns over the country and the sovereign, until conquered and slain by some more successful rebel. Chowder Loll Masolgee, Zubberdust Khan, Dowsunt Row Scindiah, and the celebrated Bobbachy Jung Bahawder, had held for a time complete mastery in Delhi. The second of these, a ruthless Afghan soldier, had abruptly entered the capital; nor was he ejected from it until he had seized upon the principal jewels, and likewise put out the eyes of the last of the unfortunate family of Afrasiab. Scindiah came to the rescue of the sightless Shah Allum, and though he destroyed his oppressor, only increased his slavery; holding him in as painful a bondage as he had suffered under the tyrannous Afghan.

As long as these heroes were battling among themselves, or as long rather as it appeared that they had any strength to fight a battle, the British Government, ever anxious to see its enemies by the ears, by no means interfered in the contest. But the French Revolution broke out, and a host of starving sans-culottes appeared among the various Indian States, seeking for military service, and inflaming the minds of the various native princes against the British East India Company. A number of these entered into Scindiah’s ranks: one of them, Perron, was commander of his army; and though that chief was as yet quite engaged in his hereditary quarrel with Jeswunt Row Holkar, and never thought of an invasion of the British territory, the Company all of a sudden discovered that Shah Allum, his sovereign, was shamefully ill-used, and determined to re-establish the ancient splendor of his throne.

Of course it was sheer benevolence for poor Shah Allum that prompted our governors to take these kindly measures in his favor. I don’t know how it happened that, at the end of the war, the poor Shah was not a whit better off than at the beginning; and that though Holkar was beaten, and Scindiah annihilated, Shah Allum was much such a puppet as before. Somehow, in the hurry and confusion of this struggle, the oyster remained with the British Government, who had so kindly offered to dress it for the Emperor, while his Majesty was obliged to be contented with the shell.

The force encamped at Kanouge bore the title of the Grand Army of the Ganges and the Jumna; it consisted of eleven regiments of cavalry and twelve battalions of infantry, and was commanded by General Lake in person.

Well, on the 1st of September we stormed Perron’s camp at Allyghur; on the fourth we took that fortress by assault; and as my name was mentioned in general orders, I may as well quote the Commander-inChief’s words regarding me — they will spare me the trouble of composing my own eulogium:—

“The Commander-inChief is proud thus publicly to declare his high sense of the gallantry of Lieutenant Gahagan, of the —— cavalry. In the storming of the fortress, although unprovided with a single ladder, and accompanied but by a few brave men, Lieutenant Gahagan succeeded in escalading the inner and fourteenth wall of the place. Fourteen ditches lined with sword-blades and poisoned chevaux-de-frise, fourteen walls bristling with innumerable artillery and as smooth as looking-glasses, were in turn triumphantly passed by that enterprising officer. His course was to be traced by the heaps of slaughtered enemies lying thick upon the platforms; and alas! by the corpses of most of the gallant men who followed him! — when at length he effected his lodgment, and the dastardly enemy, who dared not to confront him with arms, let loose upon him the tigers and lions of Scindiah’s menagerie. This meritorious officer destroyed, with his own hand, four of the largest and most ferocious animals, and the rest, awed by the indomitable majesty of BRITISH VALOR, shrank back to their dens. Thomas Higgory, a private, and Runty Goss, havildar, were the only two who remained out of the nine hundred who followed Lieutenant Gahagan. Honor to them! honor and tears for the brave men who perished on that awful day!”


I have copied this, word for word, from the Bengal Hurkaru of September 24, 1803: and anybody who has the slightest doubt as to the statement, may refer to the paper itself.

And here I must pause to give thanks to Fortune, which so marvellously preserved me, Sergeant-Major Higgory, and Runty Goss. Were I to say that any valor of ours had carried us unhurt through this tremendous combat, the reader would laugh me to scorn. No: though my narrative is extraordinary, it is nevertheless authentic; and never, never would I sacrifice truth for the mere sake of effect. The fact is this:— the citadel of Allyghur is situated upon a rock, about a thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is surrounded by fourteen walls, as his Excellency was good enough to remark in his despatch. A man who would mount these without scaling-ladders, is an ass; he who would SAY he mounted them without such assistance, is a liar and a knave. We HAD scaling-ladders at the commencement of the assault, although it was quite impossible to carry them beyond the first line of batteries. Mounted on them, however, as our troops were falling thick about me, I saw that we must ignominiously retreat, unless some other help could be found for our brave fellows to escalade the next wall. It was about seventy feet high. I instantly turned the guns of wall A on wall B, and peppered the latter so as to make, not a breach, but a scaling place; the men mounting in the holes made by the shot. By this simple stratagem, I managed to pass each successive barrier — for to ascend a wall which the General was pleased to call “as smooth as glass” is an absurd impossibility: I seek to achieve none such:—

“I dare do all that may become a man,
Who dares do more, is neither more nor less.”

Of course, had the enemy’s guns been commonly well served, not one of us would ever have been alive out of the three; but whether it was owing to fright, or to the excessive smoke caused by so many pieces of artillery, arrive we did. On the platforms, too, our work was not quite so difficult as might be imagined — killing these fellows was sheer butchery. As soon as we appeared, they all turned and fled helter-skelter, and the reader may judge of their courage by the fact that out of about seven hundred men killed by us, only forty had wounds in front, the rest being bayoneted as they ran.

And beyond all other pieces of good fortune was the very letting out of these tigers; which was the dernier ressort of Bournonville, the second commandant of the fort. I had observed this man (conspicuous for a tri-colored scarf which he wore) upon every one of the walls as we stormed them, and running away the very first among the fugitives. He had all the keys of the gates; and in his tremor, as he opened the menagerie portal, left the whole bunch in the door, which I seized when the animals were overcome. Runty Goss then opened them one by one, our troops entered, and the victorious standard of my country floated on the walls of Allyghur!

When the General, accompanied by his staff; entered the last line of fortifications, the brave old man raised me from the dead rhinoceros on which I was seated, and pressed me to his breast. But the excitement which had borne me through the fatigues and perils of that fearful day failed all of a sudden, and I wept like a child upon his shoulder.

Promotion, in our army, goes unluckily by seniority; nor is it in the power of the General-inChief to advance a Caesar, if he finds him in the capacity of a subaltern: MY reward for the above exploit was, therefore, not very rich. His Excellency had a favorite horn snuff-box (for, though exalted in station, he was in his habits most simple): of this, and about a quarter of an ounce of high-dried Welsh, which he always took, he made me a present, saying, in front of the line, “Accept this, Mr. Gahagan, as a token of respect from the first to the bravest officer in the army.”

Calculating the snuff to be worth a halfpenny, I should say that fourpence was about the value of this gift: but it has at least this good effect — it serves to convince any person who doubts my story, that the facts of it are really true. I have left it at the office of my publisher, along with the extract from the Bengal Hurkaru, and anybody may examine both by applying in the counting-house of Mr. Cunningham.8 That once popular expression, or proverb, “are you up to snuff?” arose out of the above circumstance; for the officers of my corps, none of whom, except myself, had ventured on the storming-party, used to twit me about this modest reward for my labors. Never mind! when they want me to storm a fort AGAIN, I shall know better.

8 The Major certainly offered to leave an old snuff-box at Mr. Cunningham’s office; but it contained no extract from a newspaper, and does not QUITE prove that he killed a rhinoceros and stormed fourteen intrenchments at the siege of Allyghur.

Well, immediately after the capture of this important fortress, Perron, who had been the life and soul of Scindiah’s army, came in to us, with his family and treasure, and was passed over to the French settlements at Chandernagur. Bourquien took his command, and against him we now moved. The morning of the 11th of September found us upon the plains of Delhi.

It was a burning hot day, and we were all refreshing ourselves after the morning’s march, when I, who was on the advanced piquet along with O’Gawler of the King’s Dragoons, was made aware of the enemy’s neighborhood in a very singular manner. O’Gawler and I were seated under a little canopy of horse-cloths, which we had formed to shelter us from the intolerable heat of the sun, and were discussing with great delight a few Manilla cheroots, and a stone jar of the most exquisite, cool, weak, refreshing sangaree. We had been playing cards the night before, and O’Gawler had lost to me seven hundred rupees. I emptied the last of the sangaree into the two pint tumblers out of which we were drinking, and holding mine up, said, “Here’s better luck to you next time, O’Gawler!”

As I spoke the words — whish! — a cannon-ball cut the tumbler clean out of my hand, and plumped into poor O’Gawler’s stomach. It settled him completely, and of course I never got my seven hundred rupees. Such are the uncertainties of war!

To strap on my sabre and my accoutrements — to mount my Arab charger — to drink off what O’Gawler had left of the sangaree — and to gallop to the General, was the work of a moment. I found him as comfortably at tiffin as if he were at his own house in London.

“General,” said I, as soon as I got into his paijamahs (or tent), “you must leave your lunch if you want to fight the enemy.”

“The enemy — psha! Mr. Gahagan, the enemy is on the other side of the river.”

“I can only tell your Excellency that the enemy’s guns will hardly carry five miles, and that Cornet O’Gawler was this moment shot dead at my side with a cannon-ball.”

“Ha! is it so?” said his Excellency, rising, and laying down the drumstick of a grilled chicken. “Gentlemen, remember that the eyes of Europe are upon us, and follow me!”

Each aide-de-camp started from table and seized his cocked hat; each British heart beat high at the thoughts of the coming melee. We mounted our horses and galloped swiftly after the brave old General; I not the last in the train, upon my famous black charger.

It was perfectly true, the enemy were posted in force within three miles of our camp, and from a hillock in the advance to which we galloped, we were enabled with our telescopes to see the whole of his imposing line. Nothing can better describe it than this:—

           . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . A

— A is the enemy, and the dots represent the hundred and twenty pieces of artillery which defended his line. He was, moreover, intrenched; and a wide morass in his front gave him an additional security.

His Excellency for a moment surveyed the line, and then said, turning round to one of his aides-de-camp, “Order up Major-General Tinkler and the cavalry.”

“HERE, does your Excellency mean?” said the aide-de-camp, surprised, for the enemy had perceived us, and the cannon-balls were flying about as thick as peas.

“HERE, sir!” said the old General, stamping with his foot in a passion, and the A.D.C. shrugged his shoulders and galloped away. In five minutes we heard the trumpets in our camp, and in twenty more the greater part of the cavalry had joined us.

Up they came, five thousand men, their standards flapping in the air, their long line of polished jack-boots gleaming in the golden sunlight. “And now we are here,” said Major-General Sir Theophilus Tinkler, “what next?” “Oh, d —— it,” said the Commander-inChief, “charge, charge — nothing like charging — galloping — guns — rascally black scoundrels — charge, charge!” And then turning round to me (perhaps he was glad to change the conversation), he said, “Lieutenant Gahagan, you will stay with me.”

And well for him I did, for I do not hesitate to say that the battle WAS GAINED BY ME. I do not mean to insult the reader by pretending that any personal exertions of mine turned the day — that I killed, for instance, a regiment of cavalry or swallowed a battery of guns — such absurd tales would disgrace both the hearer and the teller. I, as is well known, never say a single word which cannot be proved, and hate more than all other vices the absurd sin of egotism; I simply mean that my ADVICE to the General, at a quarter past two o’clock in the afternoon of that day, won this great triumph for the British army.

Gleig, Mill, and Thorn have all told the tale of this war, though somehow they have omitted all mention of the hero of it. General Lake, for the victory of that day, became Lord Lake of Laswaree. Laswaree! and who, forsooth, was the real conqueror of Laswaree? I can lay my hand upon my heart and say that I was. If any proof is wanting of the fact, let me give it at once, and from the highest military testimony in the world — I mean that of the Emperor Napoleon.

In the month of March, 1817, I was passenger on board the “Prince Regent,” Captain Harris, which touched at St. Helena on its passage from Calcutta to England. In company with the other officers on board the ship, I paid my respects to the illustrious exile of Longwood, who received us in his garden, where he was walking about, in a nankeen dress and a large broad-brimmed straw-hat, with General Montholon, Count Las Casas, and his son Emanuel, then a little boy; who I dare say does not recollect me, but who nevertheless played with my sword-knot and the tassels of my Hessian boots during the whole of our interview with his Imperial Majesty.

Our names were read out (in a pretty accent, by the way!) by General Montholon, and the Emperor, as each was pronounced, made a bow to the owner of it, but did not vouchsafe a word. At last Montholon came to mine. The Emperor looked me at once in the face, took his hands out of his pockets, put them behind his back, and coming up to me smiling, pronounced the following words:—

“Assaye, Delhi, Deeg, Futtyghur?”

I blushed, and taking off my hat with a bow, said —“Sire, c’est moi.”

“Parbleu! je le savais bien,” said the Emperor, holding out his snuff-box. “En usez-vous, Major?” I took a large pinch (which, with the honor of speaking to so great a man, brought the tears into my eyes), and he continued as nearly as possible in the following words:—

“Sir, you are known; you come of an heroic nation. Your third brother, the Chef de Bataillon, Count Godfrey Gahagan, was in my Irish brigade.”

Gahagan. —“Sire, it is true. He and my countrymen in your Majesty’s service stood under the green flag in the breach of Burgos, and beat Wellington back. It was the only time, as your Majesty knows, that Irishmen and Englishmen were beaten in that war.”

Napoleon (looking as if he would say, “D—— your candor, Major Gahagan”). —“Well, well; it was so. Your brother was a Count, and died a General in my service.”

Gahagan. —“He was found lying upon the bodies of nine-and-twenty Cossacks at Borodino. They were all dead, and bore the Gahagan mark.”

Napoleon (to Montholon). —“C’est vrai, Montholon: je vous donne ma parole d’honneur la plus sacree, que c’est vrai. Ils ne sont pas d’autres, ces terribles Ga’gans. You must know that Monsieur gained the battle of Delhi as certainly as I did that of Austerlitz. In this way:— Ce belitre de Lor Lake, after calling up his cavalry, and placing them in front of Holkar’s batteries, qui balayaient la plaine, was for charging the enemy’s batteries with his horse, who would have been ecrases, mitrailles, foudroyes to a man but for the cunning of ce grand rogue que vous voyez.”

Montholon. —“Coquin de Major, va!”

Napoleon. —“Montholon! tais-toi. When Lord Lake, with his great bull-headed English obstinacy, saw the facheuse position into which he had brought his troops, he was for dying on the spot, and would infallibly have done so — and the loss of his army would have been the ruin of the East India Company — and the ruin of the English East India Company would have established my empire (bah! it was a republic then!) in the East — but that the man before us, Lieutenant Goliah Gahagan, was riding at the side of General Lake.”

Montholon (with an accent of despair and fury). —“Gredin! cent mille tonnerres de Dieu!”

Napoleon (benignantly). —“Calme-toi, mon fidele ami. What will you? It was fate. Gahagan, at the critical period of the battle, or rather slaughter (for the English had not slain a man of the enemy), advised a retreat.”

Montholon. “Le lache! Un Francais meurt, mais il ne recule jamais.”

Napoleon. —“STUPIDE! Don’t you see WHY the retreat was ordered? — don’t you know that it was a feint on the part of Gahagan to draw Holkar from his impregnable intrenchments? Don’t you know that the ignorant Indian fell into the snare, and issuing from behind the cover of his guns, came down with his cavalry on the plains in pursuit of Lake and his dragoons? Then it was that the Englishmen turned upon him; the hardy children of the north swept down his feeble horsemen, bore them back to their guns, which were useless, entered Holkar’s intrenchments along with his troops, sabred the artillerymen at their pieces, and won the battle of Delhi!”

As the Emperor spoke, his pale cheek glowed red, his eye flashed fire, his deep clear voice rung as of old when he pointed out the enemy from beneath the shadow of the Pyramids, or rallied his regiments to the charge upon the death-strewn plain of Wagram. I have had many a proud moment in my life, but never such a proud one as this; and I would readily pardon the word “coward,” as applied to me by Montholon, in consideration of the testimony which his master bore in my favor.

“Major,” said the Emperor to me in conclusion, “why had I not such a man as you in my service? I would have made you a Prince and a Marshal!” and here he fell into a reverie, of which I knew and respected the purport. He was thinking, doubtless, that I might have retrieved his fortunes; and indeed I have very little doubt that I might.

Very soon after, coffee was brought by Monsieur Marchand, Napoleon’s valet-de-chambre, and after partaking of that beverage, and talking upon the politics of the day, the Emperor withdrew, leaving me deeply impressed by the condescension he had shown in this remarkable interview.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00