This is the third and last part of a series on the artillery of the Sikh Army – covering its employment and performance during the two Anglo-Sikh Wars.
Within five years of the death of the One-eyed Maharaja in 1839, the artillery had doubled to 381 guns organized into 32 batteries and 11,500 gunners. The majority of these ‘new’ additions were refurbished old guns from forts and mounted on carriages. But it is still an impressive number. At one of his greatest victories at Austerlitz, Napoleon had 157 guns facing 318 guns of the Russians and Austrians, and at Waterloo, where he came close to defeating Wellington, he had 246 guns.
Another 150 guns of varying capability and calibers were with the Jagirdari Fauj i.e. the irregulars in service of the chieftains. Though the number sounds imposing, to keep all these guns supplied with the right size of cannon balls would have been a logistician’s nightmare. Not just that but the number of draft animals required to pull the guns was an army by itself. A heavy gun required 80 to 100 bullocks. And 6 to 8 horses were required to pull a 6- or 8-pounder gun in a horse battery.
Following the annexation of Sindh in 1843, the arrows of the East India Company (EIC) pointed towards Punjab. It was a rich kingdom and the last remaining one that had not succumbed. On the pretext that unstable conditions in the Punjab threatened the adjoining territories, the EIC prepared for war. Politically and militarily there was great disorder. All three successors of the Maharaja had been poisoned by the Sikh and Hindu Dogra factions vying for power and Ranjit Singh’s youngest wife Jind Kaur had become viceregent for the fourth. Her brother was butchered by the army which had emerged as an independent power base and had been unpaid. To break the power of the army, she along with the prime minister Lal Singh and the Army Chief Tej Singh – both were secretly cooperating with the enemy – goaded it to a contest with the EIC. In spite of nearly all European officers having left service, the Sikhs and Indian officers did well in maintaining the regulation and competence of Khalsa army which was almost immediately tested during the Anglo-Sikh Wars and proved themselves as equivalent to British.
Defying a treaty which had established the Sutlej as the boundary, 40,000 Sikhs with 40 guns crossed over. One army under Tej Singh advanced towards Ferozepur but made no effort to surround and attack the cantonment. Eighteen miles away, another under Lal Singh advanced on a British force that was resting at Mudki. The Sikh guns and infantry formed up in a dense jungle with the Ghorchurra (irregular cavalry) deployed on the flanks. Though better equipped than the British cavalry and highly skilled, they had never succumbed to the discipline imposed by Ranjit Singh on his infantry and artillery and proved to be the weakest link in most encounters. They were repulsed by a counter charge of the British cavalry that then struck the Sikh artillery and infantry but they stood firm even against a subsequent assault by the main British force. As darkness descended, the Sikh artillery which mainly consisted of heavy guns inflicted substantial casualties on the EIC troops with grapeshot. The Sikhs were driven from the field but the gunners managed to save more than half their guns.
General Gough remarked after the battle that, “Never did a native army, having so relatively slight an advantage in numbers, fight a battle with the British in which the issue was so doubtful as at Ferozshah”
Lal Singh now established a well-entrenched position at Ferozshah with 47,000 troops and 88 guns of all calibers. The battle opened with a terrific artillery duel in which the Sikh artillery outperformed that of the enemy. Since the barrels of the Sikh guns were heavier and could fire a bigger charge, they out ranged the British. Being better trained, the gunners also had a 3:2 advantage in the rate of fire. The artillery concentrated on the British battalions and the 4th Division broke. By the evening all four divisions of the Army of the Sutlej that had been assembled for battle by the EIC, had penetrated the Sikh ramparts but with heavy casualties.
Replying to a suggestion before the Battle of Gaugamela, to attack the Persian camp at night, Alexander declared “I do not steal victory”. The EIC had no such reservations and at Ferozshah there was a repeat of what happened a hundred years earlier at Plassey. During the night Lal Singh fled the camp with all his Ghorchurras and the crews of 60 guns and when Tej Singh arrived in the morning he declined to give battle. The British C-in-C General Gough remarked after the battle that, “Never did a native army, having so relatively slight an advantage in numbers, fight a battle with the British in which the issue was so doubtful as at Ferozshah; and if the victory was decisive, opinion remains divided as to what the result might have been if the Sikh troops had found commanders with sufficient capacity to give their qualities full opportunity.”
The British captured 72 pieces at the battle of Ferozshah in which there were 12 types of guns from 32 pounders down till 3 pounders with the majority 10 to 6 pounders horse artillery. They were transported all the way to Calcutta and put on display. According to a report published in the Illustrated London News in 1847, these guns “[…] are, with few exceptions, about to be broken up, to form a monumental column to the memory of those who fell in the war.” A few that survived are on display in the Museum of the Gun and Shell Factory at Cossipore (Kashipur) in Kolkata.
The Army of the Sutlej was too shaken to pursue the Sikhs who themselves were dispirited but with reinforcements arriving within a few weeks, they again established a bridgehead at Sobraon. A smaller force of with 7,000 men and 20 guns, crossed higher up the Sutlej to menace the supply lines of the British who detached a division under Sir Harry Smith to clear this threat to their rear.
Two military setbacks that caught the attention of the British public before and after the rebellion of 1857 were Maiwand in 1880 and Chillianwala, thirty years earlier
The two forces clashed at Aliwal where once again the Sikh artillery and infantry performed exceedingly well but the cavalry underperformed. However, except for the brigades commanded by the French officers, the other Sikh brigades lacked the ability to maneuverer and give battle. Like many other British officers, Harry Smith was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and won a ‘model victory’. Unlike other battles of both Anglo-Sikh Wars, the Sikhs’ retreat at Aliwal became a disorderly rout and they abandoned most of their guns.
General Gough who commanded the Army of the Sutlej through both campaigns was reluctantly persuaded to wait to attack Sobraon till the arrival of Harry Smith’s division and heavy guns. As at Ferozeshah, the Sikhs had established a strong entrenchment around their camp and a two-hour bombardment by heavy guns had little effect. After a feint, a British division attacked the Sikh right, where according to information provided by Lal Singh, the defenses were weaker. However, the division was driven back by the murderous fire of the Sikh artillery followed by counter-attacks, and its commander killed.
The British then attacked along the entire front and broke through in a number of places. The Sikh artillery was firing high because of a paucity of trained gunners. A large number had fallen in the previous battles. The weak right was finally breached and the cavalry and guns of the EIC pushed through. Once again treachery had prevailed both by Lal Singh as well as Tej Singh who left the battle early and with guns deployed across the river, fired at the bridge. Already under strain because of 3 days of rain that swelled the river, the bridge broke when the Sikh soldiers started crossing, trapping 20,000 on the far bank. None of them surrendered, fighting till the last.
In a treaty the Sikhs surrendered the whole of the Jallundar Doab and ceded Kashmir and the hill states between the Beas and the Indus. A limit was placed on the size of the army and a British resident was also placed at Lahore. However, there was resentment against the British interference in the affairs of the Kingdom grew into a general uprising that culminated in a second war.
The campaign in northern Punjab opened when a British contingent of cavalry and artillery with an infantry brigade failed to attain a surprise crossing over the Chenab at Ramnagar (present Rasulnagar below Wazirabad). A detachment of Sikhs on the left bank executed a planned withdrawal drawing British cavalry and horse artillery into the soft dry sand of the wide river bed where they came under heavy fire from heavy batteries well concealed on the right bank. The British horse artillery was outgunned and forced to retire and 3000 Ghorchurras crossed the river to follow-up the success. The main British contingent of two regiments of cavalry made a counter charge but recoiled after exposure to the Sikh artillery. For once the Ghorchurras responded well and wheeling back, struck the British cavalry, causing heavy casualties.
Two military setbacks that caught the attention of the British public before and after the rebellion of 1857 were Maiwand in 1880 and Chillianwala, thirty years earlier. It was one of the bloodiest battles fought by the EIC in spite of the fact that Sher Singh’s Army was not more than 10,000 but he had 60 well-serviced guns. General Gough had 15,000 with a 100 guns but his tactics as in some of the earlier battles were ill-thought and deeply criticized for headlong attacks resulting in heavy casualties. The Sikh artillery in combination with counter-charges by infantry and cavalry played an overwhelming role in stopping the advance of a division towards the right wing. The British brigade twice nearly reached the gun-lines but in the process was almost ‘broken’. On the other flank the British cavalry brigade lost direction, wheeled all the way back and masked their guns. Taking advantage of this, the Ghorchurras fell upon the British horse artillery. The C-in-C claimed a victory but actually the battle ended in a stalemate with doubts expressed by the British press about the results of the campaign.
General Gough’s blunder was the poor use of artillery. “With so tremendous a pack of artillery and supply of mortars as that at his disposal,” wrote a reporter, “It might have been imagined that […] our ordnance could have told on them fearfully at a range to which their shot could not have reached”.
Gough would not repeat this mistake at the final battle of the campaign at Gujrat a month and a half later. The Sikhs opened the battle with all their guns but the untrained gunners fired before the British were in range and revealed their positions. Capitalizing on this error, the British batteries safely redeployed and for the next three hours pounded the Sikh artillery. The heavy artillery advanced to successive forward positions driving back the Sikh, and the Horse and light field-batteries broke their ranks. The Sikh defenses were then practically a walkover but some of the gunners stuck to their guns till the bitter end ensuring the legacy of their artillery lived on.
In his monumental work on the two Anglo Sikh Wars, Amarpal Singh narrates from the records of a British battalion that when it advanced towards the Sikh lines just one gun from a battery of eight continued to fire steadily. The gunners serving it were gradually killed or wounded “[…] until at last only one fine old Sikh Artillerymen was left. Single handed, he persisted […] He fired several rounds on our advancing line, himself the target for shot, shell and musketry.” Finally his gun jammed and, “ […] he turned towards our advancing force, made a profound salaam, and then walked quietly away as if he was on his own parade ground.”
The Battle of Gujrat was the swan song of the Sikh kingdom and the remnants of Sher Singh’s army surrendered on the outskirts of Rawalpindi. The British were now masters of the whole of India from Bengal till Peshawar.