My first article on Ranjit Singh’s Topkhana focused on the development of guns for the Sikh artillery. This second article describes how the organization of the artillery evolved and expanded under the Maharaja.
Under his one watchful eye, the military arm of the Sikh Khalsa went through a metamorphosis. It was converted from a force of irregular cavalry that had successfully conducted a guerilla campaign against the Marathas and the Afghans, into a ‘modern’ army with a strong artillery component. This followed the trend set by Napoleon and in fact, Victor Jacquemont a famous French botanist and geologist, who came to the court of Lahore, called Ranjit Singh a Bonaparte in miniature. Not only did both understand warfare, they also appreciated the central role of artillery. It came naturally to Napoleon who was an artillery officer but to Ranjit Singh it was the product of a very inquisitive mind. “I have spent a couple of hours on several occasions conversing with Ranjit”, records Jacquemont. “His conversation is a nightmare. […] He asked me a hundred thousand questions about India, the English, Europe, Bonaparte, this world in general and the next one, hell, paradise, God, the devil and a thousand things besides.”
By 1808, Ranjit Singh had collected around 40 guns from various sources and placed them under Mian Ghous Khan, the Darogha-i-Topkhana in three groups each commanded by a subordinate Darogha. The first was of light 5 and 6 pounders; the second of heavier 12 pounders and above. Most were country made except for a few pieces of European origin. The third group was of about 100 swivel guns (called Zamburak) on camels which operated on the flanks of the cavalry. In spite of its small caliber (between 1 and 3 pounders), both Nader Shah and later Ahmed Shah Durrani in the Third Battle of Panipat had employed a Zamburak corps of over 3,000 camels to devastating effect.
Expansion was slow because Ranjit wanted to give his chiefs time to appreciate the role of artillery and he himself was learning the art and science of employing this arm. In his book The Evolution of Artillery in India, Brigadier R.C. Butalia states that amongst the Moghuls, Marathas & Sikhs, it was only Ranjit Singh who regularly conducted a formal inspection of his troops including the firing of all types of guns.
The first test of Ranjit Singh’s new army came against the troops of the Durrani Afghans when a force under Dewan Mokham Chand seized Attock Fort in 1813. During the encounter which took place on the plains of Chuch, 8 km above Attock, Dewan deployed his predominantly cavalry force in three divisions with a lone battalion of infantry forming a square to protect the artillery which was commanded by none other but Mian Ghous Khan. One of the divisions was commanded by Hari Singh Nalwa who was only 21 years’ old and would become one of Ranjit Singh’s greatest commanders and administrators. He captured Multan, Kashmir, Peshawar and Hazara and the city of Haripur is named after him. An opening charge by the Afghans was repulsed by the artillery but a second charge threw one wing of the Sikhs in disarray. However, the Dewan led a counter-charge with the support of the Zamburaks and routed the Afghans.
Having proven the value of artillery in battle, over the next 10 years, Ranjit Singh expanded it along with the other arms. The first battery of horse artillery of 6 guns had been added in 1811 and in 1814 a second battery of 15 guns was raised. The artillery was now regrouped into horse drawn, bullock batteries, elephant batteries and Zamburak batteries. This expansion in artillery was possible due to the expertise that had emerged in the manufacture of guns and has been highlighted in the first part of this series on the Sikh artillery. The batteries were named after their commanders and did not have a fixed number of guns. Initially the guns were manned mostly by Muslims but as the Sikhs became convinced of their value, their number in this branch increased.
Two significant developments in light artillery during this period enhanced the effectiveness of the infantry which was emerging as the predominant arm. The first was providing them integral fire support with light guns that were manned by gunners on the strength of the infantry. These light guns known as galloper guns, supplemented the fire support provided by the Zamburaks. They were pulled by one horse and kept up with fast moving troops. However, the logistics of the crew and ammunition meant that the time required for their loading and firing did not give them any significant advantage.
Expansion was slow because Ranjit wanted to give his chiefs time to appreciate the role of artillery and he himself was learning the art and science of employing this arm
The other more noteworthy development was the raising of the nucleus of horse drawn artillery with light 6 pounder guns cast in Sikh foundries which were pulled by a team of 6 horses. The normal field artillery which was generally of larger caliber was also horse-drawn (or drawn by cattle) and its gunners were seated either on the gun carriage or wagons. In contrast, the crews of the horse drawn artillery accompanied the guns on horseback and rapidly brought it into action. Once in position, the gun crews were trained to quickly dismount, deploy or unlimber their guns and rapidly fire grapeshot, shells or round shot at the enemy. They could then just as rapidly limber-up and move to a new position, similar to the shoot-and-scoot tactics of the modern self-propelled artillery.
From 1822 onwards, Ranjit Singh started employing veterans of the Napolenic Wars and experienced officers from Europe and America to train his army. They brought about what in today’s parlance would be referred to as a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) of the Sikh army. The Sikh Army commenced a reorganization into all-arms brigades. The first such brigade with the title of Fauj-i-khas had four infantry battalions, two cavalry regiments and the artillery of Derah Illahi Baksh of 24 guns which had been increased from its original number of 15 guns. This Derah formed part of a new artillery group called the Topkhana Jinsi (Jinsi means mixed) with Field and Heavy Guns as well as howitzers. Illahi Baksh who was subsequently promoted to a general, took part in most of the campaigns of the Maharaja and was often called upon to display the skill and effectiveness of his batteries on ceremonial occasions. Unfortunately, he died an early death due to disease.
The swivel guns which ultimately were 500 in number were formed into the Topkhana Zamburkhana and mostly operated with the Gorchurra Fauj of irregular cavalry. The Horse Artillery (Topkhana Aspi), was created by withdrawing most of the horse artillery guns from the infantry, leaving each battalion with just two. Ranjit Singh told the explorer and traveler Alexander Burns who visited his court in 1831 that the Fauj-i-ain had 100 pieces of horse artillery grouped into 7 batteries. 25 guns were attached to the infantry battalions and the remaining 75 were grouped into a mobile reserve of guns that could be employed in keeping with Napoleon’s principles of artillery in mass. Concurrently, the size of the Derahs was standardized and reduced to a manageable scale e.g. the Derah of Illahi Buksh was reduced from 40 guns to 25 and ultimately most Derah’s were brought down to 8 guns with an average crew of 200. By 1832, the artillery consisted of 13 Derahs of Jinsi and Aspi and four of Zamburkhanas.
So far, the Maharaja had maintained a centralized control on his artillery and largely officered and manned it with Hindus and Muslims drawn from the defeated armies of the Marathas and shrinking army of the Mughals. However, as his trust in his chiefs increased and they came to accept the RMA, he not only permitted them to maintain their own artillery, it became contingent on them. In addition, a number of Sikhs were entrusted with the command of Derahs. These measures induced more Sikhs to join the artillery. It is estimated that at the time of the Maharaja’s death in 1839, the Sikh army had 300 guns and anywhere up to 500 Zamburaks. Of the 300, two thirds were with the Jinsi and horse batteries and the remaining were deployed in various forts. Similarly, a large percentage of Zamburaks were in the arsenal of Jagidars and forts.
It is very creditable that in spite of political instability and lack of leadership after the death of the Maharaja, the Sikh army retained a high standard of professionalism. It had two components – State and Jagirdar Fauj – the former having both regular and irregular troops and both having artillery. In 1845, the regular army had 13 brigades of sizes that varied from 1350 to 5,400 of the Fauj-i-Khas which was an elite brigade. Like the Fauj-i-Khas, the brigade commanded by General Avitable was also a heavy brigade with the former having a Topkhana of 30 guns and the latter of 18 guns probably because it had a 1000 men less.
The Khalsa boasted almost 54,000 regular infantry, 6,000 regular cavalry, 16,000 irregular cavalry, and 11,000 artillerymen. There were also thousands of irregular infantry and levies if needed. Under the Khalsa, management of the artillery was no longer centralized and some historians are of the opinion that its quality especially the accuracy of the guns diminished which had a telling effect on the outcome of the battles. However, in the words of Cunningham who wrote the History of the Sikhs, in 1849: “The guns of the Sikhs were served with rapidity and precision and the foot soldiers stood between and behind their batteries, firm in their order and active with their musket. The resistance met by the English on this occasion was wholly unexpected and it was at Ferozshah for the first time that the English and British soldiers of English armies met an equal antagonist with their own weapons – even ranks, and the fire of artillery.” Like the Battle of Waterloo which in the words of the Duke of Wellington, was “a damned near-run thing,” at Ferozshah on the banks of the River Sutlej, the army of the East India Company won a very narrow victory.