The Post Office, the Telegraph and 1857

“We must leave office; all the bungalows are being burnt down by the sepoys of Meerut. They came in today morning. Mr. Todd, we think, is dead. We are off.” – This short message sent on a telegraph line from Delhi into the Punjab in 1857 probably changed the course of India’s First War of Independence. It was actually sent by two young boys, William Brendish and J.W Pilkington who worked as signalers at the newly formed Delhi Telegraph Office. Clerks, sending and receiving messages as ordered to.
The first telegraph line was tested in 1837 between Calcutta and the nearby Diamond Harbour. Nothing much came of the experiment, till Lord Dalhousie put his influence to work for a telegraph network for India after which funds and materials starting flowing for it from 1850 onwards. By the beginning of 1857, telegraph lines connected Calcutta to Peshawar via Agra, Delhi, Ambala and Lahore. A line connected Mumbai to Madras and Mumbai to Delhi. Another connected Calcutta to Mumbai forming a network that stretched thousands of miles and covered over forty towns. The telegraph wire revolutionized communications. Thus far, sending messages had always meant physically delivering a piece of paper. Speed was dependent on good roads and good horses, which no matter how good required days for getting a message from Delhi to Calcutta. Now the same could be done in few hours! 1857 actually was not the first time that the telegraph was used in battle in India – the honour goes to the Anglo Burmese Wars, when news of the British victory was relayed to Calcutta in advance of messengers reaching there with letters. A few months delay in the Delhi – Frontier telegraph line might well have changed the course of history! The leaders of the sepoys in 1857 were fully aware of the importance of the telegraph system. One of their first acts was to destroy the telegraph office at Barrackpore, effectively cutting the Agra – Kanpur – Calcutta line. It still worked in bits and pieces, and by sending messages via Mumbai but the potency of sending a message directly from Calcutta to Delhi had finished. Then the Meerut – Delhi line was cut on the 11th of May. But the lines from Delhi onwards were still active. Seeing that the chatter from Meerut had stopped abruptly, Mr. Todd, who was in-charge of the Delhi Office, left to check the lines suspecting some damage near the Yamuna only to be killed by sepoys who had already entered Delhi. With the city burning around them, the young signallers managed to send a message to Ambala and Lahore in the nick of time. The capture of Delhi was known the day it fell. Thanks to the telegraph, the British came to know about the events at Delhi and Meerut before the sepoys in the Punjab did. The fire that had started in Awadh could be nipped by the EIC before it engulfed the entire Grand Trunk Road. General Anson, the C in C quickly moved to have complete control over the munitions depots in the Punjab. He further took the various Punjab chiefs, such as Patiala and Nabha, into confidence. The result being that almost no help could come from the Punjab to the succor of the rebels at Delhi. Reasons were various, but swift action by the EIC following the messages received from Delhi had played its role. In fact, remarked Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner of Lahore, – “The Telegraph saved India” (for the East India Company that is). A freedom fighter remarked that it was the rope that had strangled them!
The Post Office also played a crucial role. It had roots going back to 1774 and by 1857, the Indian Post Office was already a robust country wide network. During the war, it performed two duties for the EIC that of intelligence and transport. It had, apart from two legged postmen, entire trains of bullock carts and horse drawn carriages. It also ran a palanquin service over its large network and had rest houses or Dak Bungalows. The present avtaar of the Post Office dates to 1837 , when it was standardized by a Government Act. Coincidentally, the first telegraph wire was tested the same year !
General Havelock, who took command of the troops at Allahabad and would later fight at the siege of Lucknow, ordered the entire Bullock Train of the Post Office to be put at the army’s disposal for transporting stores and ammunitions. Yes, the East India Company utilized bullock carts on the war front! The other two services of India Post – the Horse Train and the Dak Palkhi or palanquin service were also fully utilized for various purposes. The Dak Palkhis being used like some sort of ambulance service and later on for transporting civilians to safety. With the doab in chaos, letters were routed from Delhi to Calcutta via Mumbai! The Post Office filled in where the telegraph did not exist or had been destroyed, providing crucial communication and transport links. The freedom fighters themselves were not averse to the importance of Post Offices viz communications and hence, many postmen were attacked and killed and bags of letters looted. Dak Bungalows were set afire in few places and generally the lines of communication disrupted. Not just the epicenters of the revolt, but Post Offices were burnt as far afield as Indore and Kolhapur! In view of the ongoing warfare, Field Post Offices were developed , which were Post Offices operating out of a tent and moving with the camp of Gen Havelock or the Malwa Field Force. Thus, forming a communication channel, that along with the telegraph had helped the East India Company greatly in winning the war in 1857.
A stone monument – the “Delhi Telegraph Memorial” still stands at the spot where the famous “we are off” message was sent. It commemorates the services rendered by the two signalers and the office in-charge, Charles Todd.