Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Archdale
WILSON, Sir ARCHDALE (1803–1874), bart., lieutenant-general and colonel-commandant royal (late Bengal) artillery, born on 3 Aug. 1803, was fifth son of the Rev. George Wilson of Kirby Cane, Norfolk, youngest brother of the first Lord Berners, and rector of Didlington, Norfolk, by his wife Anna Maria, daughter of Charles Millard, chancellor of Norwich. After passing through the military college of the East India Company at Addiscombe, he received a commission as second lieutenant in the Bengal artillery on 10 April 1819. He arrived in India in the following September, and was promoted to be lieutenant on 7 April 1820. He took part in the siege of Bhartpur in December 1825 and January 1826 and in its capture by storm on 18 Jan., was mentioned in despatches, and received the medal with clasp.
Wilson next had charge of the Saugor magazine; in May 1828 became adjutant of the Nimach division of artillery; was promoted to be brevet captain on 10 April 1834 and captain on 15 Oct. of the same year; commanded the left wing of the second battalion of artillery from March to August 1837; was appointed on 2 Oct. to officiate as assistant adjutant-general of artillery; in 1839 commanded the artillery at Lucknow, and in the following year the 5th battalion at Cawnpore; from 12 Aug. 1840 acted as superintendent of the gun foundry at Kossipur until 11 Nov. 1841, when he became superintendent. His management of it, until his resignation on 10 Aug. 1845, caused by promotion to the rank of major on 3 July, was considered especially satisfactory and creditable by the court of directors. After two years' furlough he was posted to the 9th battalion in December 1847, and on 1 Jan. following promoted to be lieutenant-colonel.
Wilson served in command of the artillery in the force under Brigadier-general (afterwards Sir) Hugh Massy Wheeler [q. v.] in the Jalandar Doab during the Punjab campaign, assisted in the reduction of Fort Kalawala in October 1848 and in the capture of the heights of Dulla in the following January, was mentioned in despatches, recommended for honorary distinction, and received the medal (see London Gazette, 7 and 20 March 1849). He served with the horse artillery in the Jalandar from 1850 to 1852. In January 1854 he was appointed commandant of the artillery at Dum Dum, with a seat on the military board, promoted to be colonel on 28 Nov., and given the command of the artillery at Mirat on his return from a year's furlough in March 1856.
When the mutiny broke out at Mirat, on 9 May 1857, Wilson was in temporary command of the Mirat division. In obedience to orders he marched towards Baghpat, on the river Jamna, with a column to co-operate with the force which the commander-in-chief was bringing from Ambala. On approaching Ghazi-ud-din-Nagar on the 30th he was attacked by the rebels in force. He drove them from their guns, which he captured, and fought brilliant and successful actions both on that and the next day, when he was again attacked. He joined Sir Henry Barnard [q. v.] and the Ambala column at Alipur on 7 June. The combined force routed the rebels at Badli-ke-Serai on the following day, and then, fighting its way through the Sabzi Mandi, established itself on the Ridge before Delhi. Wilson, who was mentioned in despatches for his services (see ib. 13 Oct. 1857), now commanded the artillery before the city. On the 9th it was proposed to take the place by assault; but a misunderstanding on the part of Colonel Graves prevented the attempt. When, on 2 July, all the reinforcements from the Punjab had arrived, and the effective force amounted to over six thousand men, the proposal to attempt a coup de main was revived, and the details of the assault were settled, but the attempt was ultimately abandoned by Barnard in deference to the criticism of Wilson and Reed.
On 17 July Major-general (Sir) Thomas Reed [q. v.], who had assumed the command of the Delhi field force on the death of Barnard (5 July), was compelled to resign on account of ill-health, and made over the command to Wilson, conferring upon him the rank of brigadier-general, in anticipation of the sanction of the government, as he was not the senior officer in camp. The selection was confirmed, and Wilson was promoted by the governor-general to be a major-general for special service on 29 July. He was promoted to the establishment of major-generals on 14 Sept. 1857.
The details of the fighting outside Delhi are authoritatively given in Norman's ‘Narrative of the Campaign of the Delhi Army,’ 1858, while those of the siege and the fighting inside will be found in the works quoted at the end of this article. On 25 Aug. Wilson was still occupying the Ridge in front of Delhi, preparing for the siege operations, and awaiting the arrival of the siege guns, when he learned that a body of the enemy had moved out to attack his rear. He despatched Brigadier-general John Nicholson [q. v.], with 2,200 men and twelve guns, to meet them at Najafgarh, where a most successful action was fought. Both the governor-general and Sir John Lawrence now wrote to Wilson to urge the political importance of the capture of Delhi as soon as an assault was practicable after the arrival of the siege train. But Wilson ‘was ill; responsibility and anxiety had told upon him. He had grown nervous and hesitating, and the longer it was delayed the more difficult the task appeared to him’ (Lord Roberts, Forty-one Years in India, chaps. xvii. and xviii.) The siege train had arrived by 5 Sept., and the reinforcements by the 8th. The siege proper began on 7 Sept., when Wilson issued a spirited order to the troops. He was nevertheless reluctant to incur the hazard of assault without more European troops. Colonel Richard Baird Smith [q. v.], the chief engineer, then sent him a memorandum emphatically in favour of immediate action; on this Wilson wrote a minute to the effect that to him it appeared that the results of the proposed operations would be thrown on the hazard of a die, but having nothing better to suggest he yielded to the judgment of the chief engineer (Kaye, Hist. of the Sepoy War, iii. 553). The breaches became practicable by the night of 13 Sept., and the assault next day placed Wilson within the city. When, however, he realised the failure of one column, the falling back of another, and the heavy losses sustained, he anxiously inquired whether he could hold what had been taken. Baird Smith's answer was prompt and decisive, ‘We must do so’ (Kaye, iii. 618). The capture of the city was triumphantly completed on 20 Sept., after much hard fighting, and the first decisive blow struck at the mutiny.
Wilson's conduct as a commander at Delhi has been the subject of controversy, some of it quite recent. His letter of 18 July, after taking over the command, written in French to Sir John (afterwards first Lord) Lawrence (Kaye, Hist. of the Sepoy War, ii. 589), threatening to withdraw to Karnal unless speedily reinforced; his draft to the governor-general of 20 Aug., holding out no hope of taking the place ‘until supported by the force from below;’ and his contemplation of the possibility of a retirement to the Ridge on the afternoon of 14 Sept., when the successful assault had placed him within the city—these have been given as instances of a want of that energy, determination, and dash which have always carried with them victory over the natives of India, and the want of which, had it not been for strong and resolute advisers, might have proved fatal to success.
On the other hand, it has been maintained that, ill informed of what was going on in the country, Wilson believed that reinforcements of European troops were available, and could be obtained if sufficiently pressed for. Lawrence, while deprecating delay, most earnestly impressed upon Wilson the disastrous and far-reaching consequences that would result from failure, and it is contended that the strongest minded man might have well hesitated to attack under such circumstances without adequate means. Moreover, a Fabian policy led the mutineers to continue to pour into Delhi instead of moving about the country in small bands, attacking weak places and murdering Europeans. Had there been a capable commander in the city, he could, without weakening the defence of the quarter attacked, have sent thousands of men to capture the Ridge camp, with the hospital, ammunition, and stores; and it is affirmed that if any hesitation were shown by Wilson as to holding on to Delhi on 14 Sept. it was due to his supreme anxiety for the safety of the Ridge and his sick and wounded there, together with a desire for encouragement to proceed.
The responsibility which rested upon the general was indeed a heavy one, and Wilson, good soldier as he was, with all his experience and distinguished service, was not a man of strong character. Fortunately he had with him resolute men who supported him, and upon whom he wisely, although reluctantly, relied [see Smith, Richard Baird; Nicholson, John, 1821–1857].
For his services at Delhi Wilson was made a K.C.B. on 17 Nov. 1857, and was on 8 Jan. 1858 created a baronet as Sir Archdale Wilson of Delhi; he received the thanks of both houses of parliament and the court of directors of the East India Company, a pension of 1,000l. a year and the war medal and clasp (London Gazette, 17 and 27 Nov. 1857 and 2 Feb. 1858). He was appointed to the divisional staff, Danapur, in January 1858, and commanded the whole of the artillery of the army of Sir Colin Campbell (afterwards Lord Clyde) [q. v.] at the siege of Lucknow in March 1858 and its capture on the 17th. He was mentioned in despatches and received the clasp for Lucknow (ib. 25 May 1858). He went on furlough to England in April 1858, and did not return to India. He was nominated colonel-commandant of horse artillery in October 1858, decorated with the grand cross of the order of the Bath, military division, on 13 March 1867, and was promoted to be lieutenant-general on 6 March 1868. He died on 9 May 1874.
Wilson married, in 1842, Ellen (who survived him), daughter of Brigadier-general Warren Hastings Leslie Frith, colonel-commandant Bengal artillery. He left no issue, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by Roland Knyvet, second son of his elder brother, Rear-admiral George Knyvet Wilson (1798–1866).[India Office Records; Despatches; Times (London), 11 May 1874; United Service Journal, 1874; Annual Register, 1874; Burke's Baronetage; Bosworth Smith's Life of Lord Lawrence; Medley's A Year's Campaigning in India, 1857–8; The Chaplain's Narrative of the Siege of Delhi, by the Rev. J. E. W. Rotton; Shadwell's Life of Lord Clyde; Colonel Dewé White's Complete History of the Indian Mutiny; Fortnightly Review, April 1883; Thackeray's Two Indian Campaigns; Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny; Kaye's History of the Sepoy War; Norman's Narrative of the Campaign of the Delhi Army, 1858; Holmes's History of the Indian Mutiny, 1888; Stubbs's History of the Bengal Artillery.]