To the East Indies

Within a month of Coffey’s award of the VC, his brother’s military career took a very different turn. Timothy had often been absent without leave, and on 21 July 1857 at Edinburgh he disappeared for good. His reason is not difficult to surmise: he had been once to war and had no desire to go again.    

News had already been reaching Britain of mutiny among some Indian soldiers of the army of the East India Company, the body which was at that time responsible for British interests in India. It seems that conspirators both in and outside the army had grievances concerning the annexation of the Oudh region by the British and conditions within the army regarding pay and advancement. Rumours were spreading among Indian troops that the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle were greased with cow and pig fat, fanning fears that Hindus and Muslims were to be forcibly converted to Christianity.

With his brother now a deserter and his pregnant wife returning to Stirling, Coffey went with his regiment from Edinburgh to Portsmouth, and on 24 August embarked for India on the Golden Fleece (it has sometimes been said that Coffey was on his way to China when the Mutiny broke out, but this is based on a confusion - it was Coffeys old regiment, the 82nd, which was en route to China when it was redirected to India). Then, on arrival at Calcutta, the 34th went up the corpse-strewn river Hugli to Chinsurah, and after a few days proceeded by rail to Raniganj. Coffey would then have suffered an uncomfortable journey with three comrades in their covered bullock cart bound for Cawnpore (Kanpur), arriving on 23 November. Cawnpore had been the scene of a massacre of European women and children, and the sight of the place together with bloodstained items of clothing caused great rage among the British soldiers and the Mutiny was put down in a spirit of severe retribution.

The army was now commanded by Sir Colin Campbell, who had led the Highland Division in the Crimea and had also been in command at Hyde Park on 26 June. He, however, had gone to relieve the Europeans at the besieged city of Lucknow, leaving in command at Cawnpore General Windham, who had led the final assault on the Redan. Windham now had at his command a force of 2,000 men, but he faced a much larger rebel enemy led by their talented general, Tatya Tope.

With Coffey’s regiment on the left, Windham marched out of the town on 26 November and engaged the advanced division of the rebels with success. But he then pulled back towards Cawnpore, and the next day the enemy attacked in full force, ready to storm the fort in Cawnpore itself. The British then had to withdraw to their entrenchment, Coffey’s regiment losing all their tents, kits and bedding. On retreating through the town, a British gun was lost, and some men of the 34th were rewarded with an extra ration of rum for their part in retrieving it during the night.

But on 29 November there arrived the greater part of Sir Colin’s army returned from Lucknow, though accompanied by a procession of sick and wounded, women and children, stretching back as long as eight miles. The 34th was responsible for escorting these unfortunate souls to Allahabad, where they could be taken by steamer to Calcutta. And so on 4 December, 500 men took them safely on a march of some 140 miles through rebel-held territory. After ten days at Allahabad, the troops returned to Cawnpore, where they found Sir Colin had defeated the rebels and was awaiting the return of his transport so that the army could march on against the rebels at Fateghar, another scene of terrible massacres.

Returning from Cawnpore

The 34th take breakfast on the road back to Cawnpore
Illustrated London News

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