Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Fresh Look at a Great Battle at Chillianwala (1849): Anglo Sikh War

Personal Interest

 I have studied Indian military history and  there was a module at the Staff College, which I underwent. Just for the record I attended the 41st Staff College  course at Wellington( named after the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in 1815). One battle that has fascinated me is the Sikh-Anglo battle fought on the banks of the river Jhelum in January 1849, during the second Anglo-Sikh war.This is popularly referred to as the " Battle of Chillianwala" which was fought near the village of Chillianwala, now in Pakistan.
Visiting Chillianwala

I had always a great desire to visit Chillianwala to see for myself  the place where the most ferocious battle was fought in India. The British history museum rates this as one of the great battles of world military history and the greatest battle fought by the English in India.The battle resulted in a Sikh victory, but still the Sikhs could not hold Punjab and ultimately the English triumphed.
I got my chance to visit Pakistan as the executive director of the American firm and when in Rawalpindi expressed my desire to visit Chillianwala. My Pakistani hosts immediately agreed and a Mercedes Benz was arranged and we drove to Chillianwala.I must say the atmosphere was extremely friendly and when my host learn't that I was a Air Force Officer earlier, the hospitality was more profuse.

We reached Chillianwala and it is a lovely sight. In the centre is a tower monument, which is a tribute to the fallen English soldiers. Their names are inscribed on it and there are as string of graves of the fallen Englishmen. At one corner there is a star shaped unmarked grave which a local villager told me contained the mortal remains of Sher Sigh Attariwala, the Sikh general who commanded the Khalsa army.There is no monument to the fallen Sikh soldiers.
During the Second Anglo-Sikh war, Chillianwala was the place where SherSingh decided to face the English.The English knew the importance of the battle and from their experience during the previous battle of Mudki ( First Sikh war) had brought in English ethnic soldiers to face the Sikh army. Thus, the  English force consisted of almost 18000 English soldiers and their commander was the experienced General Lord Hugh Gough. The English had about 60 guns as well.In contrast Sher Singh Attariwala also had about 60 guns as well as a force of some 25000 soldiers. However all were no Sikhs and one part of the force consisted of Afghan Muslim soldiers. These Afghan Muslims were the weak link in the Sikh force.
The Battle

Another point that needs mention is that this was the same place where the great Hindu king and warrior Raja Purushottam( Porus) had defeated and stopped Alexander the Great in 326 BC. The curtain was thus drawn on a great battle between a predominant English staffed force  under Lord Gough against the Sikh force commanded by Sher Singh.
The battle commenced on 13th January 1849 and the Sikhs  took up fortified positions on the banks of the river. Lord Gough was of the opinion that a frontal attack would be a success as he felt that the English soldiers were better trained and likely to break the Sikh force. He ordered the assault at first light and the British advanced under cover of their guns. Lord Gough had forgotten one principle of war and that is to know your enemy very well. Perhaps he was unaware that the Sikh gunners had been trained by general Jean-Francois Allard, a French soldier who had fought under Napoleon and had now joined the army of Ranjit Singh. Allard died in 1839 in Peshawar.

The Sikh guns opened up and they fired with uncanny accuracy. The English advance stalled and Lord Gough had to call of the assault. The battle continued and the British suffered heavy casualties.  By afternoon it was clear to Gough that the Sikhs could not be defeated and he ordered a withdrawal. This had a traumatic effect on the English as it was the first time in the history of military operations of the British in India, that an English army had been repulsed.
The Finale

Heads had to roll and an aghast Governor General immediately sacked Lord Gough as the British commander. News also came from England that the Duke of Wellington himself ( he was almost 85 then) wanted to come and lead the English army against the "savage Sikhs". He recommended that Sir Charles Napier  be given command of the English army and Napier immediately sailed from England.
The Sikhs however could not build on this victory and the Afghans deserted and the predominant Muslim countryside was not enthusiastic about a Sikh victory. Lord Gough made amends and won the next battle at Gujarat as Sir Charles Napier took some time to reach India, as a voyage in those days took almost 2 months from England.
The Battle of Chillianwala is of great importance. It's a pity Indian school children know nothing about it. It's about time  Indians glorified their victories and take pride in the army.