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!