The forgotten British reverse in India



The list of military disasters which the British suffered in India is long, but most of these were rationalised by British military historians by highlighting situational factors which made British defeat certain and inevitable and was in many cases due to circumstances involving overwhelming numerical inferiority, excessive battle exhaustion, adverse weather and terrain etc. The Battle of Chillianwala fought on 13 January 1849 is, however, one odd exception and stands out as a battle in which the British failed to defeat their opponents despite having the advantages of weight of numbers, ideal weather and terrain, superior logistics etc.

In Afghanistan the British disaster was explainable since the British force which was destroyed while retreating from Kabul to Jalalabad was a vastly over numbered exhausted and logistically very weak force of some 700 Europeans and 4,500 Native troops which was destroyed by a vastly superior Afghan force in adverse mountain terrain and very cold weather. At Bhurtpore the British failure to capture the mud fortress was ascribed by a British military historian to lack of adequate artillery.1 At Chillianwala a British Army which had a high European troop component large number Sepoy (regiments), sufficient artillery, two heavy cavalry brigades to ensure that no one could surprise the British army, excellent logistics, little campaign exhaustion having fought no major battle since assumption of hostilities, winter weather negating the possibility of heatstroke and cholera the worst killers of white soldiers in India,failed to defeat the Sikhs. Chillianwala thus stands out as a battle which changed Indian perceptions about British military effectiveness and had a direct link with the “Great Sepoy Rebellion” or “The Indian War of Independence” of 1857.

A succession of British military victories since 1757 barring few exceptions like Battle of Pollilore (September 10 1780), Siege of Bhurtpore (1804-1805), Monsoon’s Retreat (1804), Kabul Brigade’s Retreat (January 1842) which were dismissed as exceptions (to the general rule of “European Superiority) by virtue of exceptional numerical or other odds; it was assumed that no Native army of India, Nepal or Afghanistan could stand a determined bayonet charge by the Red Coats. A feeling of superiority was produced accompanied by the natural attitude of over confidence and rashness, and most British commanders felt that simply a direct march to the sound of guns and a simple frontal assault using “Cold Steel” was enough to disperse any native army however tough or well trained.

The uses of manoeuvre or taking into account the “Independent Will of the Enemy” and the fact that a British army could ever be surprised was dismissed as impossible. Thus once the British suffered a rude reverse accompanied by heavy casualties despite having all the advantages; public opinion in Britain was shocked. The British Commander in Chief General Gough was replaced by Charles Napier. Subsequently when the Sikhs were defeated at Battle of Gujerat (21 February 1849) British military historians rationalised their defeat at Chillianwala by laying the blame on “Bad Terrain” “Lack of Artillery” “Cowardice of the Native Troops” etc. Chillianwala was forgotten and Gough again became a hero. The damage done at Chillianwala to the prestige of British arms was enormous and played a major role in changing Indian attitudes about the British, leading directly to the “Great Sepoy Rebellion” in which the British almost lost their Indian Empire and the English East India Company whose private Bengal Army had fought Chillianwala lost India to the British Crown!


By 1799 the Sikhs occupied Lahore the capital of Punjab under the leadership of a brilliant military commander Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) who united the loose knit Sikh confederacy of various local chiefs and conquered whole of Punjab and large parts of the Indo-Afghan frontier till the Khyber Pass, Kashmir and parts of Ladakh (Tibet) creating a strong and stable state by 1818 and consolidating and enlarging its frontiers to their maximum extent by 1833.

It was Ranjit Singh who expelled the Afghans permanently out of Northwest frontier territory of India which the Afghans had occupied since 1739 by completing his conquest and annexation of Peshawar on 6 May 1834.3 From Indo-Pak history point of view this was a unique achievement since Peshawar area was re-occupied by a non-Muslim army for the first time since 1001 A.D4. Thus Ranjit’s re-occupation of Peshawar was reversal of 833 years of history of foreign (both ethnic as well as religious subjugation)! This disproves Indira Gandhi’s claim of having reversed 1000 years of history in 1971 once Pakistan lost the 1971 war. As a matter of fact Indira’s claim is ridiculous since the Low Caste Hindu Marathas occupied Delhi as early as 1758, more than 200 years before 1971!

Ranjit Singh was fully aware that survival lied in following European military methods and organisation introduced in India by the French and British since the Seven Years War. He induced many European soldiers of fortune who had reached India following the Napoleonic wars to join the Sikh Army. Thus two Europeans i.e Allard (French) and Ventura (Italian) who had served in Napoleon’s army till Waterloo were the pioneers among the total of some 36 Europeans and 3 Americans who joined Ranjit’s army between 1822 and 18395. The Europeans in the employment of Ranjit included some 12 Frenchmen, 7 Anglo Indians, 4 Italians, 3 Britishers, 3 Germans, 2 Greeks, 2 Spanish, 1 Russian, 1 Scotch and 1 Prussian.This varied composition meant that fresh diverse and varied influences from Europe incorporating the lessons of Napoleonic wars were directly transmitted to Ranjit’s army. Ranjit appreciated that confrontation with the English East India Company, which became Ranjit’s southern neighbour following the 2nd Maratha War (1803-5) would be costly and impractical. Therefore, Ranjit followed a policy of neutrality during the period 1809-1839.

From 1813 onwards Ranjit switched to a largely Punjabi Sikh regular army. In addition Ranjit also employed some Punjabi Muslims in the infantry and a much larger number of Punjabi Muslims in the artillery. As per one estimate there were 41 high ranking Muslim officers in the Khalsa Sikh army out of which two were generals, one i.e Ilahi Baksh from the artillery7.

Ranjit’s policy in this regard was to ensure Sikh preponderance in the army, while ensuring that there were Hindu and Muslim officers and soldiers in the army to act as a counter weight and source of information against any possible Sikh led conspiracy against Ranjit’s rule. Ranjit’s brilliant albeit Machiavellian ethnic/religious diversity policy paid rich dividends since Ranjit survived at least two serious Sikh coups masterminded by the Sindhianwala family.



The Sikh Army had not been destroyed in the First Sikh War.The Sikh soldier felt that he had not been defeated militarily but merely betrayed by his leaders who wanted the destruction of the Sikh Army and acted treacherously.

Dewan Mul Raj’s Rebellion at Multan

In April 1848 Diwan Mul Raj the Sikh Governor of the southern Punjab province of Multan who was a Hindu, rebelled against the British Regent and all the Sikh troops at Multan joined him. The British organised three columns to march towards Multan; one under General Sher Singh (3,382 cavalry and 909 infantry), one under Lieutenant Edwardes (4,033 cavalry and 7,718 infantry), the column of the neighbouring British vassal Muslim state of Bahawalpur under Lieutenant Lake (1,900 cavalry and 5,700 infantry). In addition a British Division under General Whish (8,089 men, 32 siege guns, 12 horse artillery guns) was also sent to co-operate with Sher Singh and assist him in capturing Multan.General Whish’s Division joined Sher Singh and the other three columns under joint command of General Cortlandt of the Sikh Army (an Anglo Indian soldier of watching Multan in August 1848 and formal siege operations were commenced against the fort city of Multan.The besiegers numbering nearly 32,000 against Mulraj holding Multan with 12,000 men 54 guns and 12 mortars11. On 14th September Sher Singh with all his Sikh troops went over to the rebel side. General Whish was forced to raise the siege and to withdraw few miles south of Multan and entrench himself awaiting reinforcements, waiting to be reinforced by another Division of the English East India Company’s Bombay Army marching from Sindh to reinforce Whish.

Mulraj did not trust Sher Singh and would not let him enter the fort! Both the leaders met outside the fort in a temple and Sher Singh agreed to move north and join his father Chattar Singh the Governor of Hazara province who had already rebelled on 20 August 184812. Mul Raj as a goodwill gesture decided to advance money to Sher Singh to pay his troops. Another possible reason why Sher Singh decided to move north was the fact that Multan was a 98 % Muslim majority area and the main Sikh population centres and the major Sikh troop concentrations were in areas north of Lahore.Thus on 9th October 1848 Sher Singh started marching northwards along the left bank of Chenab River.

Initially he moved to within 25 miles of Lahore but finally decided to take a position north of river Chenab and wait till the major Sikh Army formations north of Lahore joined him,finally launching an advance on Lahore.Meanwhile Sardar Chattar Singh rebelled (he shot Canard an American who refused to join him)13 along with his Sikh troops in November 1848 and marched towards the strategic Attock Fort on the river Indus.The Sikh troops holding Attock fort and those at Peshawar also joined him thus the British lost almost the whole of area north of river Chenab in addition to the Multan fort.Thus a local rebellion was transformed into a Sikh national rising.The major advantage which the British possessed however was the fact that 90 % of the population which was Muslim was with the British.Chattar Singh also lured Dost Mohammad Khan the ruler of Afghanistan to join him promising him cession of all old Afghan territory taken by Ranjit Singh west of river Indus.Dost Mohammad was not sincere about helping his old enemies and his prime interest was regaining Peshawar.Therefore he helped the Sikhs in a very lukewarm manner sending a mere 5,000 troops14.

Assembly of Gough’s Army of the Punjab and invasion of Punjab.

The government of the English East India company had meanwhile issued orders for the assembly of an army to invade Punjab and crush the Sikh rising under the leadership of the overall Commander in Chief India and also of the East India Company’s Bengal Army,General Sir Hugh Gough (C in C since 11 August 1843).It may be noted that General Gough a veteran of Napoleonic wars had already successfully commanded the Bengal Army in the First Sikh War.The Army of the Punjab started assembling at the frontier town of Ferozepur from mid October.The total strength of this army was about 16,000 troops.Gough wanted to start the advance as early as possible but was delayed due to procrastination on part of Lord Dalhousie the Governor General of India.15 Nevertheless Gough managed to send a cavalry brigade (H.M 3rd Dragoons, H.M 14th Light Dragoons, 8th Bengal Native Cavalry, 12th Bengal Irregular Cavalry) reinforced by one Royal Army and one Bengal Native Army infantry regiment under Brigadier General Cureton a very brave and capable cavalry officer to observe area north of Lahore along the line of river Chenab .This brigade crossed river Ravi on 2nd November and took an obseravtion position at Qila Deedar Singh (see map) ,over 50 miles Northwest of Lahore and 8 miles short of the Sikh advance position at Ramnagar; waiting to be reinforced by another infantry brigade. Soon another brigade ie Eckford’s brigade (two native infantry regiments) also joined Cureton.The aim of pushing Brigadier General Cureton’s Detatchment north of Ravi river was to act as a bait to entice Sher Singh to march south of Chenab river with his main body and to attack Cureton.

The situation in November 1848 was that Sher Singh had assembled a sizeable Sikh force north of Chenab river while a smaller force was guarding Ramnagar ford staying south of the river. Sher Singh’s father was assembling another Sikh force in Peshawar area, but very slowly and negotiating with the Afghans to reinforce the Sikhs.Gough wanted to destroy Sher Singh’s force before Chattar Singh could join him and make the Sikh position stronger. Chenab was however a complete water obstacle even in winters and not easy to ford except after careful reconnaissance. On 6th November Gough reached Ferozepur to take personal charge of the ongoing preparations for the invasion of Punjab.

On hearing news about the fall of Peshawar Gough became deeply concerned about the necessity to advance immediately and defeat Sher Singh before he could be reinforced by Sikh troops concentrating at Peshawar.Thus on 8th November he ordered Brigadier Colin Campbell (later to be famous as Lord Clyde) with an infantry brigade at Lahore to march Northwest wards and reinforce Curetons force and to also assume the command of the whole force.Campbell marched from Lahore on 10th November with two native infantry regiments.On 13 November th Gough reached Lahore and on 15th November authorised Brigadier Campbell to attack the advance Sikh position at Ramnagar ;in case of a favourable opportunity.On 16th November Gough started his advance with the main body of the Army of the Punjab from Lahore towards Campbells position south of Ramnagar.On 17th November Gough learnt that another Sikh force of troops who had also rebelled at Bannu west of river Indus had also joined Sher Singh’s main body north of Chenab.On 18th November Gough received intelligence that Sher Singh had withdrawn bulk of the troops of his advance position at Ramnagar north of Chenab,leaving some outposts south of the river.

On 21st November Gough joined Campbell with the main body at Campbells camp 8 miles south of Ramnagar.The whole of Gough’s army was now concentrated opposite Ramnagar except his two heavy artillery batteries.It may be noted that the highest authority in East India Company’s government in India was the Governor General;the 37 year old Lord Dalhousie.Dalhousie had issued clear orders to Gough that no operations north of river Chenab were to be undertaken till Multan was captured and the heavy siege train from Multan joined Gough16.


Sardar Sher Singh Attariwalla ambushes Gough at Ramnaggar

Dalhousie explicitly forbade Gough from any operation north of Chenab River. However this did not restrain him from attacking the reportedly small Sikh Detatchment at Ramnagar on the south bank of Chenab.Gough who was an impetuous Irishman was panting for action and decided to clear the Sikh outpost at Ramnagar on 22nd November.In reality unknown to the British the Sikh Detatchment south of Chenab was covered by two batteries of heavy guns on the north bank of the river and one battery deployed on an island dividing Chenab into two channels at Ramnagar.The British on the other hand could not effectively reply with counter bombardment since their two heavy batteries had still not joined them.(The heavy guns joined the main body on 30th November).In brief the British charged the Sikh infantry without adequate reconaissance,their cavalry got stuck into the sandy river bank and the net result of the action at Ramnagar on 22nd November was 12 officers and 84 men 52 of whom were killed including Brigadier General Cureton and Lieutenant Colonel Havelock commanding officer and the rest wounded. What had appeared at first sight a Sikh infantry Detatchment was covered by heavy artillery which was out of range of the British guns,covered in addition by Sikh cavalry which was hiding behind the sand bars.14th Light Dragoon saw a body of Sikh infantry at a distance in hasty retreat towards the north bank of Chenab. At this juncture Gough took the command of cavalry in his own hands and ordered 14th Light Dragoons and 5th Native light Cavalry to charge and intercept the Sikhs.In reality this was an ambush into which 14th light Dragoons had been unwittingly lured. Cureton watching from a distance had gallopped towards 14th light Dragoons in order to restrain them when he was struck by two matchlock balls, one going through the head .Cureton was an ex cavalry trooper who had served the entire Peninsular War in 14th Light Dragoons and risen to become an officer.Brigadier Colin Campbell who was present attributed this blunder to Gough’s interference in handling cavalry,not allowing Cureton to proceed according to his independent judgement17. The action at Ramnagar illustrated Sher Singh at his best and Gough at his worst. By a brilliant combination of artillery infantry and cavalry the Sikh imposed such a punishment at Ramnagar, that at least for the next seven days Gough lost his offensive spirit.

The Cannonade of Sadullapur.

Following the costly success at Ramnagar Gough became cautious, at least for some time, and decided to wait for his heavy artillery batteries, which joined him on 30th November.Now he decided to turn the flank of the Sikhs by sending a force up stream and crossing the Chenab at a ford reported 8 miles north of Ramnagar.For this purpose Major General Thackwell who had replaced Cureton as cavalry division commander was tasked. Thackwell was given some 7000 men (1 British cavalry regiment, 4 Native cavalry regiments, 2 British infantry regiments and 5 native infantry regiments) supported by 32 guns (30 field and two heavy). The mission given to Thackwell was to “cross at any ford that he might choose “...with the specific instructions that he must do so while ensuring that “ unless he could be sure of bringing his troops full and fresh upon the enemy’s flank opposite Ramnagar by 1 P.M the latest on the 1st of December, he should take a second day to complete the movement”18. Due to confusion in initial battle procedures instead of achieving surprise Thackwells force reached the reported ford at Runneeke at 11 o clock in the morning instead of an hour before first light as planned.The force discovered that there was no ford and the river bed was even wider than that at Ramnagar which was a proper ford.Three hours were wasted looking for another ford and this led the outflanking force a further 12 miles up stream and 20 miles from Ramnagar where they finally found some boats and crossed Chenab on the night of 01/02 December 1848.The whole force completed the crossing by two o clock on the afternoon of 2nd December,and found no Sikhs in front They advanced ten miles along the northern bank towards Ramnagar and halted at a village called Daurawalla. Thackwell also sent Gough a detailed despatch about his operations north of Chenab. Meanwhile Sher Singh came to know about Thackwells force around mid day on 2nd December.The British army at this moment was divided and could have been destroyed by Sher Singh in detail, if Sher Singh could concentrate bulk of his force against Thackwell.However Sher Singh took half measures, although initially he had resolved to march with his whole force and crush Thackwell, on second thoughts he adopted a compromise plan, under which he left a small infantry force with few guns opposite Ramnagar to deceive Gough into thinking that the main Sikh body was still opposite him,and marched to attackThackwell with a smaller force around 8 or 9 thousand.In the meantime Thackwell received Gough’s orders on the night of 2nd December to advance towards Ramnagar and attack Sher Singh, while Gough attacked him frontally19. Acting on Gough’s orders Thackwell commenced his advance early on the morning of 3rd December.

However as soon as few hours had passed Thackwell received another despatch to halt and wait to be reinforced by another infantry brigade which was crossing Chenab river via another ford which had been discovered six miles north of Ramnagar20. Thackwell halted and while he was waiting for Godby’s Brigade was fired upon by Sher Singhs artillery. The result was the artillery duel of Sadullapur in which both the armies exchanged artillery fire without coming into contact from 11 A.M to 4 P.M and after which Sher Singh withdrew northeastwards. The British losses did not exceed 73. The aim of Sher Singhs march towards Thackwell seems to have been to impose delay on him for few hours, while Sher Singh’s main body withdrew north towards Rasul into a very strong defensive position. In the meanwhile Gough was doing nothing on 3rd December except engaging what he thought were Sher Singh’s positions across Chenab with his artillery. Had Gough showed some audacity on 3rd December the British could have easily crossed the Chenab.Probably the rubbing received on 22nd November certainly had succeeded in at least momentarily dampening Gough’s offensive spirit, apart from Dalhousie’s instructions. Thus in words of J.W Fortescue the pro establishment historian of the British Army, “But the main fault lay with Gough himself, for he had been completely outwitted by Sher Singh”21. While Gough made no attempt to cross the Chenab at Ramnagar on 3rd December, all that the British artillery was pounding with full force was “half empty trenches and six guns” in words of Fortescue22. Godby’s brigade which was supposed to have joined Thackwell on the 3rd only partially joined him on the morning of 4th December. This delay occurred because this newly discovered ford was not a ford in reality and Goodbye had to use boats to cross it. After the battle of Saddulapur Gough blamed Thackwell for not attacking Sher Singh on 3rd December without waiting for Godby’s brigade and disowned the orders sent to Thackwell to stop on 3rd December 23!

Fortescue however excused Gough for all that had happened on 3rd December consoling the readers with the statement, “such miscarriages as these are the common places of war...his good faith cannot be called in question and as his staff kept no copies of the orders sent to Thackwell, Gough did not know what he had or had not bidden him to do” 24! But this is not all Fortescue went further and still extolled Gough’s conduct saying, “However, the passage of the Chenab had been won at a trifling cost, and that was after all, the main point”25. Fortescue even wants the readers to believe that there was a ford which Gough’s staff had discovered but, the whole situation changed because of an ecological change ie “it is certain that the ford had been carefully examined.......There is however,nothing more treacherous than a glacier fed river; and it is likely that the fords were never the same for twenty four hours together”26!

Initial Situation

Thackwell resumed his advance on 4th December with cavalry and saw no Sikhs in front. Gough also sent cavalry in the at 8 A.M on 4th December. Gough sent a long despatch to Dalhousie melodramatically describing the passage of Chenab; “ It has pleased Almighty God to vouschafe to the British arms the most successful issue to the extensive combinations rendered necessary for the purpose of effecting the passage of the Chenab, the defeat and dispersion of the Sikh force under the insurgent rajah Sher Singh.... 27” Gough wanted Dalhousie to fire a royal salute for the passage of Chenab but Dalhousie refused since he did not agree with Gough that the passage of Chenab was a great victory28. On 6th December Gough ordered Thackwell to form a standing camp at a place called Helan. On 18th December Gough crossed the Chenab across a bridge of boats laid at Ramnagar and joined Thackwell at Helan. Soon it became clear through reports that the main Sikh Army had not been dispersed but firmly entrenched at Rasul on the bank of river Jhelum. Meanwhile Gough since he had already exceeded his instructions did not attempt any major movement towards Sher Singh’s position at Rasul. The country between Helan and Rasul was a sandy waterless plain interspersed by patches of thick jungle.

Meanwhile a column of the Bombay Army had finally reinforced General Whish at Multan on 22nd December taking his force up to 15,000 regular troops apart from some 20,000 irregulars. Multan’s siege was resumed and the fort was assaulted beginning from 27th December.The city and suburbs were captured by 1st January and the Citadel captured by 22nd January.The British losses were 210 killed and 910 wounded 29.

Gough received news about arrival of Bombay column at Multan and the city’s capture on 6th January. On 7th January Dalhousie who was now at Lahore wrote to Gough that now that Multan had been captured, he would be rejoiced to hear of a similar blow being struck at the Sikhs upon the Jhelum30. Dalhousie’s despatches to Gough were however non-committal; thus he urged him to fight...”. If sure of a big success at small cost “.... “If he should deem himself strong enough,”31 27 Dalhousies vaguely worded despatch was enough for Gough to once again start the job begun at Ramnagar on 22nd November.Gough was under pressure to attack, but no explicit orders were given to him by Dalhousie. Finally the news of the fall of the strategic fortress of Attock on river Indus received on 10th January acted as a catalyst. Fall of Attock meant that all Sikh troops investing Attock and the Afghans could now easily reinforce Sher Singh at Rasul.Major Mackeson the political officer at Gough’s camp also urged Gough to attack following the news of fall of Attock.32

Gough’s advance to Chillianwalla

Finally on 11th Gough resolved to attack Sher Singh.His plan of attack was to advance to Dinga and from their march straight to Rasul and turn the Sikh left. Despite having ample cavalry British intelligence about the Sikh position was sketchy. As per Gough’s intelligence estimate the Sikh position extended from Rasul situated on a line of ridges parallel to river Jhelum to the vicinity of Mung a village 5 miles south west of Rasul and again very close to river Jhelum.Rasul was situated on a dominating height but immediately south of it was a plain intersected by dry channels and a belt of trees and thorny scrub. The Sikhs had entrenched the whole position but there was a wide gap between their left at Rasul and their centre and right, which extended till Mung.

Gough had calculated that after leaving troops to guard his baggage, he could muster 12,000 men and 66 guns to attack the Sikh position at Rasul. The information which he had about the Sikh position was vague i.e. that it extended from the village of Rasul on the left till Lakhni Wala 6 miles to the south and facing east in a concave line with the broad fast flowing Jhelum river to the rear. Fortescue who exaggerated the odds as a matter of habit placed the Sikh strength at 30,00033. Malleson who was dismissed by Fortescue as “pseudo historical” “inaccurate” “slovenly” and “untrustworthy”34 estimated the Sikh strength at Chillianwala to be in the neighbourhood of 23,00035.

British historians do not agree on what was General Gough’s exact plan for 13th January. Gough and Innes who wrote their book primarily to defend Gough stated that it was Gough’s intention to march from Dinga to Chillianwala,drive in the Sikh outposts and launch the attack on the main Sikh position on 14th January after detailed reconnaissance was carried out on the 13th January.36 Fortescue states that on the evening of 12th January Gough summoned his generals and gave them orders for the fateful morrow37. However Fortescue does not elaborate at all i.e. what were those orders for the fateful morrow!

On 12th January Gough advanced 11 miles north to Dinga and encamped there. On 13th January he left two regiments of Native infantry ,two of Irregular cavalry and 2 guns to escort and protect his baggage train which was to follow him and began his advance at about 7 A.M towards Rasul.Goughs’ army covered a front of a mile and half while in marching order . All the brigades marched in column with one cavalry brigade on each flank and the European regiments leading the advance of each brigade. The heavy guns were in the centre and the other horse and field batteries in the gaps between the four infantry brigades. After marching for five miles he halted at a place from where a track branched to the village of Chillianwala which was westwards off the road from Dinga to Rasul.Gough’s intention was to carry out a reconnaissance. Engineers were sent forward with cavalry to check whether the road was practicable for the heavy guns or not. Once this was confirmed, the march was resumed.

Soon however some Sikh Army deserters who were mostly Muslim arrived and informed the British through the political agent Major Mackeson that the Sikhs were occupying the villages of Mujianwala and Chillianwala on the left of the British in strength. It was probably at this juncture that Gough changed his earlier plan of advancing till Rasul and then taking the Sikh position by rolling up their left flank downwards. Gough ordered some heavy guns and infantry to dislodge the reported strong Sikh screen position at Chillianwala.This was successfully done since the Sikhs did not offered only token resistance instead of exploiting the dominating position of the mound over which Chillianwala was located and quickly withdrew into the thick jungle west of Chillianwala.Gough now personally rode to the village of Chillianwala while the British troops who had cleared Chillianwala were deployed 500 yards west of Chillianwala facing west ,to carry out personal reconnaissance and assess the situation himself.There was a thick jungle in front but Gough observed the Sikh positions parts of which were visible to understand that the Sikhs had swung their right and centre forward leaving their entrenchment and were now deployed some 4000 yards west of Chillianwala with the jungle in between masking their front and Chillianwala.

In response to the discovery of the Sikh positions so close to Chilllianwala,Gough extended his brigades into deployed formation .By the time Gough completed his reconnaissance it was two o clock in the afternoon and Gough decided to attack the Sikh position on the next day.Because of the proximity of the Sikh Army it was now no longer possible to stick to the old plan of marching to Rasul since this would have exposed the left and rear of the British Army to a Sikh attack from a position which they could barely observe from Chillianwala.Gough now decided to bivouac on the open ground west of Chillianwala and to launch his main attack on 14th January.While the British were making preparations to bivouac some Sikh artillery guns opened fire on the British , from the positions hidden by the jungle.The artillery fire was inaccurate and did little damage.Gough however ordered the heavy guns to return fire on the Sikh positions which could not be located.Once this was done , some thirty Sikh guns from different points in the jungle in front opened fire.Gough suddenly realised that he was too close to the Sikh positions and Sher Singh had full intention of fighting on 13th January38.

Sikh Dispositions and Plan of Battle

It is necessary to examine the Sikh plan in order to understand the developments till 2 P.M on 13th January.The Sikh position at Rasul was not an ideal one in terms of cohesiveness or frontage. With 23,000 men they were occupying a concave shape position extending over six miles with large gaps in between there left and their centre and right. The entrenched Sikh position extended with the left resting on Rasul and the right on Lakhni wala. All the six miles of this concave position were not held by the Sikhs and there were gaps in between, the most marked one between the Sikh centre and left. The Bannu garrison was deployed at Lakhni wala, approximately a regiment of cavalry and four infantry battalions, with eleven guns.

A mile to the north were Lal Singh’s two regiments of cavalry and ten infantry battalions and 17 guns deployed around Chak Fateh Shah, a further one mile north there was Sher Singh at Laliani with one regiment of cavalry, nine infantry battalions and some irregulars placed at 4,000 horse and 20 guns. The position from north of Laliani till Rasul was held by irregular levies.

39 There is no independent and reliable Sikh account of the battle, therefore we have relied on the above mentioned description based on Fortescue’s narrative which is true as far as general depolyment is concerned but highly exaggerated as far as the numbers are concerned, since Fortescue suffered from the usual Victorian malady of magnifying the odds. Fortescue40 placed the total number of Sikhs at Chillianwala at 30,000. A line of small ridges with thick vegetation in shape of trees and thorny bushes and scrub covered the entire Sikh front with small gaps right from Lakhni wala to Rasul.Rasul itself was located on a very dominating ridge.

The ridge on which the Sikh position was based sloped gently towards the eastern plain from which Gough’s army was expected to attack, but had abrupt slopes towards its northern side which lay south of river Jhelum.From Lakhniwala till Lulianee this ridge followed a roughly north south alignment, but beyond Lulianee it changed direction to an east west alignment, also gradually increasing in height till Rasul which was the highest point being roughly 90 feet higher than the adjacent plain to the south of Rasul.Durand who participated in the battle described the Sikh initial defensive position as, “ It was evident that the enemy occupied a position too extended for his numbers”.

41 Sher Singh’s original intention seems to have been to force the British to attack a well entrenched position under conditions of extremely limited fields of fire and observation due to the thick jungle in front,which ensured that British artillery could not effectively pound and soften up the Sikhs before the main infantry attack.Another important strong point of his position was the fact that the left flank was protected by river Jhelum while the right flank was refused by virtue of being inclined backwards towards Mung.It appears that Sher Singh decided on 12th January to slightly change his plan when he received news of Goughs advance Sher Singh now decided to bring his right and centre forward,ahead of the entrenchment’s and give battle to the British under more disadvantageous circumstances , rather than passively waiting for them , while they marched without being opposed till Rasul and from there roll up the whole Sikh position ,by attacking in oblique order.It appears that keeping in view the line of British advance Sher Singh decided to swing his right and centre forward and force the British to attack through thick jungle country rather than allowing them to skirt round the jungle and threaten him from his right flank . Whatever the actual case this decision of Sher Singh stands out as the most brilliant tactical decision of the entire Second Sikh War.

British Dispositions and Plan of Battle

The British possessed superiority in artillery42 in terms of calibre of guns. Most of the 60 pieces of Sher Singh were of small calibre, while Gough had 12 heavy guns and howitzers (8 eighteen pounders and 4 eight inch howitzers) ,17 nine pounders, 25 six pounders , and a number of horse artillery guns,66 in all.The British artillery was organised into two heavy batteries of four 18 pounders and ,two 8 inch howitzer each,three field batteries,and six horse artillery batteries,66 guns in all.The overall artillery commander was Brigadier Tennant and under him Brigadier Brooke commanded the Horse artillery brigade while Brigadier Huthwaite commanded the Foot Artillery. Once Gough ordered general deployment for battle at about two-o clock the artillery was deployed as following. The heavy gun batteries i.e two batteries of four 18 Pounders each and two batteries of two 8 inch howitzers each, under Majors Shakespeare and Ludlow with Major Horsford as the overall Heavy artillery commander, thus a total of 20 heavy guns, were all deployed in the centre of the British line. Three Troops of Horse Artillery (Colonel Brind) of six 6 Pounder guns each and two field batteries (Lieutenants Walker and Robertson) of 9 pounders under Major Mowatt were attached to the left attacking division i.e Campbells. The left attacking division i.e Major General Sir Gilberts was supported by three troops of Horse Artillery (Colonel Grant) and one Field Battery of 9 Pounders under Major Dawes.

The British army was as earlier stated, divided into two infantry divisions i.e Brigadier General Colin Campbell commanding the 3rd Division or simply the left division (and Major General Sir Walter Gilbert commanding the 2nd Infantry Division or left division. Both the infantry divisions were supported by one cavalry brigade each on the outer flanks i.e 1st Cavalry Brigade (HM 3rd Light Dragoons, 5th and 8th Bengal Native Light Cavalry) of Brigadier White on the left flank and 2nd Cavalry Brigade (HM 9 Lancers, HM 14 LD, 1st and 6th Bengal Native Light Cavalry) of Brigadier Pope on the right flank. Campbell’s division consisted of Brigadier Pennycuick’s Brigade (HM 24 Foot, 25 and 45 Bengal Native Infantry) and Brigadier Hoggan’s Brigade (HM 61 Foot, 36th and 46th Bengal Native Infantry). Major General Gilbert’s division consisted of Brigadier Mountain’s Brigade (HM 29 Foot, 30th and 56th Bengal Native Infantry) and Brigadier Godby’s Brigade (East India Company’s 2nd Bengal European Infantry Regiment, 31st and 70th Bengal Native Infantry). Brigadier Penny’s Brigade originally under Brigadier General Campbell was the army reserve with two infantry battalions i.e 15th and 69th Bengal Native Infantry. The 20th Bengal Native Infantry alongwith 3rd and 9th Bengal Native Irregular Cavalry alongwith three field guns was designated as baggage guard, with Brigadier Hearsay as baggage guard commander43.

We have earlier discussed that Gough ordered his army to form up for battle at 2 o’clock. By 3 o’clock Gough’s army was formed up to attack. Four infantry brigades each comprising two native and one British infantry battalion commenced their advance towards the Sikh position east of the thick jungle around three o’ clock. The jungle consisted of trees interspersed with thick undergrowth and extremely thorny trees and bushes sometimes referred to as “Musket” in the Punjabi Shikari (Hunting) terminology. The closest European equivalent to this term is brushwood.

Malleson states that Gough was a “thorough believer in the bayonet and looking upon guns as instruments which it was perhaps necessary to use but which interfered with real fighting, he, wild with excitement ordered his infantry to advance and charge the enemy’s batteries”. The reader may note that the Sikh position was at least 1760 yards from the British army and there was dense forest in between!44

Brigadier Pennycuicks Attack

We will now proceed brigadewise and briefly discuss the battle. Firstly we will deal with Brigadier General Campbell’s Division. Campbell was a Royal British Army officer born in 1792. He had seen action under Wellington in the Peninsular War and in 1849 had some 42 years of service behind him. Son of a Glasgow carpenter Campbell was helped getting into the class-conscious British army through the help of a rich relative. Campbell became, as was the norm at that time a colonel after some 30 years service. He was described by many contemporaries as “extremely brave” and “thorough” but “utterly devoid of dash” and “too cautious” and “ too selfish for any place”45 as is mostly the case with men with humble origins who progress upwards slowly mastering all the red tapism and bureaucratic obstacles in armies! Campbell like Gough was a firm believer in the power of the bayonet! Campbell’s prime responsibility was to command and co-ordinate the function of both his brigades. However keeping in view the adverse terrain he decided to accompany his left brigade i.e Hoggan’s brigade in the attack while ordering Pennycuick the right brigade commander to lead the attack on his own. . Gough and Innes well summed up Campbell’s decision as following, “ He abrogated the duties of a divisional commander to discharge with splendid success those of a brigadier”!46 However before the attack commenced Campbell rode to Pennycuicks brigade and after briefing Pennycuick about the attack rode on to HM 24th Foot, the British unit of Pennycuicks brigade and gave them the following orders, “ There must be no firing, the work has to be done with the bayonet” 47. HM 24th Foot 1000 bayonets strong had newly arrived in India.48 The unit was thus highly enthusiastic but highly inexperienced in the British Indian way of warfare! By some oversight or due to an out of proportion sense of excitement, once HM 24th Foot commenced its advance, it did so without loading its muskets!49 through some confusion the artillery designated to provide fire support to Pennycuick trotted to the left50. Pennycuick advanced rapidly towards the Sikh position, HM 24th Foot doing so more rapidly, full of enthusiasm to bayonet the accursed natives, that thin red line tipped with steel, as the British infantry at that time was known! The Sikh artillery whose overall commander was Illahi Baksh a Punjabi Muslim functioned admirably and as soon as 24 Foot came within round shot range of 800 yards, it was effectively engaged by Sikh artillery, and men starting falling. At 100 yards the Sikh infantry engaged the unit with musket fire, but the unit advanced stoically without firing back, their muskets unloaded, determined to do the work with the bayonet as ordered by Campbell. 24th Foot was the first to emerge in open ground west of the jungle outstripping both the native units of Pennycuick’s brigade i.e the 25 and 45 NI on the right and left flanks respectively. To add further bad luck to 24th Foot’s fate right across its axis of advance was a large water pond between the Sikh position and the British unit. 24th Foot thus had to break formation to cross the pond bypassing it from left and right while some braver souls attempted to wade through it. At this moment the Sikh artillery played havoc with 24th Foot causing inflicting great slaughter. 24th Foot did reach the Sikh guns but the punishment inflicted was too severe. As close quarter fighting started 24th Foot soon lost many officers including its commanding officer. The unit had not loaded its muskets and had advanced too fast thus reaching the Sikh position unsupported by both native units. Beveridge states that the unit advanced at a double time pace because of a misunderstanding on part of two officers leading the brigade , however this view is not substantiated by either Fortescue or Gough and Innes .The native units advancing more carefully, while preserving their energy for the final assault under the more experienced British officers of the East India Company’s private army did finally attack the Sikh position, a few minutes after 24th Foot’s attack, suffering many casualties in the process but by this time HM 24th Foot was close to the breaking point The Sikhs counterattacked and the 24th Foot broke up and withdrew in disorder back into the jungle towards Chillianwalla. The native units also withdrew. Pennycuick, his son Lieutenant Pennycuick and his brigade major all died in the bloody engagement. In all Penycuicks brigade lost some 376 men killed (244 from HM 24 Foot and, 112 from 25 NI, and 20 from 45 NI) and about 417 wounded (266 from HM 24 Foot, 92 from 25 NI and 59 from 45 NI). The brigade fought well but failed because of sheer tactical ineptitude of HM 24 Foot in advancing too rapidly and because of its blind obedience to Campbell’s instructions regarding use of bayonets apart from lack of artillery support. Pennycuick’s brigade’s remnants arrived in driblets back to their start line east of the jungle.51

Brigadier Hoggan’s attack

Campbell’s left brigade whom Campbell accompanied fared better. It was well supported by artillery and HM 61 Foot was a better-led and trained unit. The native units on the flanks of HM 61 Foot knew their job and their pace of advance in any case depended on the European unit in the middle .The reader may note that the British always cleverly placed the European unit in the middle so that the thankless and dirty job of looking after the flanks where most of the Enfilading fire came was assigned to the native units! Soon after commencing advance Hoggan’s brigade lost touch with Pennycuick’s brigade because of the jungle. Once it crossed the jungle it arrived right in front of a gap in the Sikh line 53 in between the Sikh left flank of their (Sikhs) right division and the right flank of the Sikh centre. Fortescue denies this and states that once Hoggan’s brigade appeared out of the jungle there were Sikh troops in front of it.54 However Fortescue does admit that Hoggan’s brigade was able to advance thanks to massive concentration of some 29 British artillery pieces i.e Mowatt’s battery on Hoggans right and Colonel Brind’s three horse-artillery batteries (troops) on the left55. These British guns as per Fortescue were able to silence an excellently sited Sikh heavy battery which otherwise was ideally placed to enfilade the advance of the entire brigade .

In any case whether there was a gap in front of Hoggan’s brigade as Malleson asserts or not as Fortescue would like us to believe Hoggan’s brigade successfully advanced onwards and after doing its job in the front wheeled northwards towards Pennycuick’s supposed position , while the cavalry brigade along with Colonel Brind’s horse artillery troops ably performed the task of flank protection and defeated a Sikh attempt to attack Hoggan’s brigade’s flank from the south by well directed artillery fire and a sharp cavalry charge. However in the process one squadron of HM 3rd Lancers lost contact with the brigade while pursuing the Sikh cavalry.

This squadron was in turn counterattacked by Sikh cavalry and in the process lost 23 men killed . This squadron only re joined its parent unit at the end of the days fighting and thus was a major reason why Brigadier White was unable to utilise his brigade more effectively to attack the Sikhs from the left .Hoggan’s brigade now advanced northwards wheeling right and took in the flank the Sikh troops which had defeated Pennycuicks brigade . The Sikhs were outflanked and fought well but Hoggan’s brigade evicted them from their position and continued its advance northwards rolling up the Sikhs flank from the south. Hoggan’s brigade continued its advance till it finally met Major General Gilbert’s left brigade. The reader may note that Hoggan’s brigade was sucessful in joining up with Mountain’s brigade i.e Sir Walter Gilberts left brigade because Mountain’s brigade attacked the Sikhs facing Hoggan’s brigade from their unguarded north rear.52

Major General Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert’s attack Major General Walter Gilbert commanding the right division consisting of Brigadier White and Mountain’s Brigades was a far more experienced man than Campbell or Gough.He had seen action in the First Sikh War and was not only an extremely brave leader of men but also a relatively more sensible man as compared to Gough and Colin Campbell. Walter functioned as an effective divisional commander and coordinated the advance of both his brigade’s well. Brigadier Mountain’s Brigade on the left encountered stiff Sikh resistance . The 56th NI its right flanking unit ran into an excellently sited Sikh position and was counterattacked by an overwhelming number of Sikhs. The unit fought well but was repulsed after losing in the process 8 officers and 322 men killed and wounded56. The other two units i.e HM 29th Foot and the 30 NI were however more successful and captured the Sikh positions opposite Lulianee spiking a large number of Sikh artillery guns and rendering them ineffective. As a result of success of HM 29 Foot and 30 NI 56 NI was rallied and joined the brigade . It may be noted that Mountain’s brigade attacked the Sikhs facing Hoggan’s brigade advancing from the south and thus enabled Hoggan’s brigade to defeat those Sikhs57. Gilbert’s right brigade i.e Brigade Godby’s brigade performed relatively better than Mountain’s brigade . The brigade ably supported by artillery sucessfully cleared all Sikh positions in its front and drove the Sikhs close to the river Jhelum opposite the village of Tupai. Godby then halted his brigade in order to reorganise before the final attack driving into the Sikh’s once he was suddenly attacked by the Sikhs in force from his rear. How this happened will be discussed in the following paragraphs.


Conduct of Pope’s Cavalry Brigade leading to diasaster on the right flank

We have earlier stated that Brigadier Pope’s cavalry brigade was tasked to protect the right flank of the army of Punjab. Pope’s cavalry brigade consisted of HM 14th Light Dragoons , HM 9th Lancers, 1st Bengal Native Light Cavalry (1 LC) , and 6th LC . The European cavalry regiment average strength was approximately 400 Sabres and Native Cavalry Regiment strength was approximately 300 sabres.58 Brigadier Pope was from 6th LC and had more than forty years service. He was a brave and dashing officer in his earlier years but was not really physically or mentally fit to command a cavalry brigade in action.59 The 6th Bengal Native Light Cavalry the readers may note was one of the most illustrious units of the native cavalry. One of its most illustrious feats was a daring charge at the battle of Sitabldi in the Third Maratha War where it dispersed a Maratha force of about 18,000 men including 3,000 Arab mercenaries.60 This battle was unique in the sense that there were no British units present and the battle was an all Indian show barring the British officers of the native units.

Pope notwithstanding his dash as a young officer , was an invalid in 1849 , and one who could hardly sit on horseback 61. As soon as the British advance commenced Pope with the cavalry brigade on the right flank also advanced. Immediately a body of Sikh cavalry emerging from the high ground around Rasul , made a threatening demonstration towards Popes right rear flank. Pope detached a wing (half regiment) each of HM 9th Lancers and 1st and 6th LC under the overall command of Colonel Lane to observe them and to act as a flank protection screen. Lane deployed his force a little northwards and thus lost visual contact with the remaining British army ,because of the intervening strips of jungle . Pope continued his advance westwards with the remaining brigade, some nine cavalry squadrons, i.e HM 14th Light Dragoons (HM 14 LD) and wing each of 1st and 6th LC and HM 9th Lancers. Soon another body of Sikh cavalry appeared in front of Pope’s axis of advance . The Bengal Horse artillery the best branch of the British immediately deployed into action to engage these Sikhs. However Pope , without thinking of anything decided to charge the Sikhs , also masking the British artillery’s fire in line formation . The result was a weak charge without any depth or artillery support , delivered in words of Gough and Innes without speed or momentum.62 The Sikh horsemen led by Jawahir Singh Nalwa63 the bold and dashing son of Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa now realising that poor execution and bad terrain had brought Pope’s apology of a cavalry charge to an absolute halt64 now counter charged. Jawahir Singh with his band of horsemen emerged, once again, through the wild Doab jungle, and charged Popes force, in the process of which some Sikh horsemen physically attacked Brigadier Pope, cutting him across the head with his Tulwar, and wounding him 65. At this critical stage of the battle Pope’s brigade which had already halted and was waiting for orders, now became leaderless. An event then occurred which the British historians right from 1849 onwards find hard to explain or account for. HM 14th Light Dragoon turned about and bolted! The native cavalry also panicked and followed HM 14th Light Dragoon rearwards, galloping through at top speed through their own horse artillery batteries backwards! Fortescue states that HM 14th Light Dragoon bolted because Pope gave them a word of command of “Threes Right” which they heard as something like “Threes about” 66 and that’s why the unit bolted! There is no doubt that had a native cavalry unit done so Fortescue’s verdict may have been much more harsh! Jawahir Singh Nalwa pursued Pope’s cavalry brigade with great elan, cutting down many British Horse artillerymen including Major Christie, one of the battery commanders , destroying six guns and carrying four guns intact apart from two ammunition wagons and fifty three horses as war trophies!67 Pope’s cavalry brigade from this moment onwards ceased to be a fighting formation! It was rallied with great difficulty by Gough’s staff and the regimental Chaplain of HM 14 LD, with his pistol! It was said that Gough recommended the Chaplain to be promoted to the rank of Brevet Bishop ,on the battlefield!68

The flight of Pope’s brigade resulted in a serious operational imbalance in the British position . Their right rear flank was now vulnerable to counter attack . Sher Singh Attariwalla immediately ordered a counter attack and Sikh infantry and cavalry west of Rasul immediately advanced down from the heights through the open gap encircling Gilbert’s division from the rear! It was Pope’s good luck that he died soon afterwards from wounds suffered in the battle.

Gilbert’s Counteractions and final British withdrawal

We had already left Gilbert discussing Major General Gilberts action when Gilberts brigades suddenly found themselves under attack from their rear. Brigadier Godby whose brigade bore the brunt of the Sikh counter attack from the rear reacted in a most resolute manner to the sudden Sikh threat from his rear! The day was however saved by brilliant handling of artillery by Major Dawes of No 17 Field Battery. Dawes immediately moved his battery to the right flank and brought such an effective fire on the Sikhs attacking Godby’s brigade that the Sikh counter attack was broken up. Almost at the same time Godby gave an order of “Right about face” to his brigade and attacked towards the rear scattering the Sikhs attacking his rear.69

Mountain’s brigade whose rear was also threatened, although relatively far less than Godby’s also counterattacked rearwards and dispersed the Sikhs threatening his rear . By this time the reader may note Hoggan’s brigade had also joined Mountain.70

At this stage of battle Brigadier Penny’s reserve brigade which had been ordered by Gough to take Pennycuick’s position after Pennycuicks brigades repulse had entered the jungle, lost its way and moved north-westwards instead of south westwards now suddenly emerged out of the jungle in front of Gilbert’s division, now breaking out eastwards and , also played a marginal role in reducing the Sikh threat to the rear of Gilbert’s division 71.

By now darkness was approaching and Colonel Lane, all throughout unaware of what was happening emerged from the jungle and attacked the retreating Sikhs, who had attacked Gilbert’s rear from his position in the right rear.72

Gough now decided to withdraw what remained of his demoralised army to Chillianwalla. All the wounded that could be found were carried back to Chillianwalla in the darkness 73. The British had failed to dislodge the Sikhs , the only adversary in India Afghanistan Nepal and Iran which checked a British army with more than three British infantry regiments and above 10,000 men in open country, without the safety of any fortress walls like Seringapatam Bhurtpore or Delhi or any mountain fastness like Nepal Afghanistan or the Trans Indus Frontier regions! It was a unique honour never broken by any other British adversary from 1757 till 1947!

British Casualties

The casualties that the British suffered were relatively much larger in proportion as compared to any battle that they fought later or earlier at least as far as unit averages were concerned. There are many aspects of this issue. Firstly native casualties Vis a Vis British unit casualties proved that the natives fought as well as the British despite no national motivation to do so. Secondly most British casualties especially those of HM 24th Foot occurred not because of greater valour but simple tactical ineptitude. Thirdly the casualties suffered were much higher at least in proportion to casualties suffered by the Indian Army in any subsequent war including the two world wars or even the 1965 and 1971 wars as far as the two Indo Pak armies are concerned. The total British casualties were 2,357 , sub divided as 602 killed (including 22 British officers) , 1,651 wounded and 104 missing (which in reality were killed) . The vast bulk of cavalry casualties was borne by Brigadier White’s brigade.