The First Anglo-Sikh War - Book Review

The First Anglo-Sikh War

Author: Amarpal Singh Sidhu

Foreword by Professor Peter Doyle, Battlefield Archaeologist.

Reviewer: Gurmukh Singh, UK

The First Anglo-Sikh War

This is the first study of its type, which uses battlefield archaeology to give a graphic account of the battles fought during the First Anglo-Sikh War. The terrain and landmarks of each battlefield are described in detail “to give a comprehensive vision of the battlefield”. Satellite imagery on Google Earth has been used and there are many battlefield sketches and photographs.

This pioneering methodology also invites similar studies of other Indian battlefields. As Prof. Peter Doyle writes in his foreword to this excellent book by Amarpal Singh Sidhu, “Battlefield archaeology has grown out of a need to reinterpret battlefields, to place them in their correct geographic setting, to understand the events that were played out in past wars…”.

In addition to Indian sources, much new unpublished information, such as first hand accounts, maps and letters from that period over the last 100 years, has been included from UK sources such as the National Army Museum, British Library and a few other museums.

And so, the reader is given a tour of each battlefield as he retraces the clash between two great armies from 18 December 1845 to 10 February 1846. The stakes were high: loss of sovereignty for the Sikh state, or the end of colonial rule in India.

There are many well researched books written in recent years of the chaotic period after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death (27 June 1839) and the two Anglo-Sikh Wars ending in the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849. However, my question, “Why yet another book?”, is answered by the author in his preface, “Appreciation of the battlefields is important. No other single event can decide the fate of countries and nations in more dramatic fashion than trial of strength over a few square kilometres of often uncompromising land. Few other events are more galling than the loss of independence suffered after a defeat. On the battlefield are displayed the highest human qualities of bravery, camaraderie, and loyalty and also the basest vices of treachery and cowardice.”

In the introductory pages, the author done a concise analysis of the events which led to the First Anglo-Sikh War and the battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah, Bhudowal, Aliwal and the “slaugher” of the retreating Sikh army at Sabraon.

Clash between two great armies in India in the first half of the 19th century, was inevitable. The British colonial administrators and generals were waiting for the right opportunity but, for reasons discussed, they were in no hurry. “The pact of 1809 proved useful to the British because the powerful Sikh army was controlling the turbulent tribesmen in the north and west’ while “British rule was over the more placid states”. Therefore, “the Sikh empire provided security for the territories of the East India Company at no cost to the company itself.”

Meanwhile, the Sikh army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, north of Sutlej River, was not quite ready to take on a well disciplined colonial force maintained entirely at the expense of the subdued rulers of India through the devise of “Subsidiary Alliance”. In fact, until Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death, the waiting game was of mutual benefit to both sides.

The intrigue and treachery at Lahore Darbar following the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the subsequent loss of control over the Sikh soldiery, changed the mutual benefit equation. By 1945, the clash between British raj and Khalsa raj, which was inevitable, became imminent.

Following years of strife at Lahore after Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh generals had lost control over the army which elected “punchayats” and held ultimate power. The soldiers “went on vendettas or carried out looting”, and remained away from cantonments without leave for long periods. Taxes could not be collected and the treasury was empty.

The British too were getting regular reports of the events at Lahore and continued to make necessary preparations e.g. 60 iron boats were constructed at Bombay and brought to Khunda ghat near Ferozepore, so that these could be used to construct a double bridge across Sutlej when required. In March 1945, Raja Gulab Singh of Kashmir (influential at Lahore) had already written to the British Governor General to invade Punjab. “This would not be a war of conquest, however, but one organised specifically to annihilate the recalcitrant Sikh army.”

This plan was communicated in advance to the British and full support offered by Raja Gulab Singh, and in the battlefields, by Tej Singh Commander-in-Chief of the Sikh army and Lal Singh the Vizier or Prime Minister, who was second in command. None of the three were Sikh or even Punjabi.

With assurance of support from the treacherous triumvirate, British provocations and intrusions into Lahore territory became bolder as the British also continued to build up their border force. Finally, seizer of two villages in November 1845 by Major Broadfoot, the British agent at Ludhiana, probably sparked the first Anglo-Sikh War.

On the 11 December 1845, the Sikh army of 35 to 40 thousand crossed Sutlej with 150 guns. However, the army remained in defensive positions and within Lahore territory south of Sutlej. Even after declaring war, Sir Henry Hardinge, the Governor-General, had doubts about the legality, and rights and wrongs of the British campaign as he confided to his staff at Mudki, the site of the opening battle. It is significant that, despite provocation, the large Sikh army did not attack Ferozepore, and adopted a defensive position at Ferozeshah.

The Sikh army was divided into four separate contingents (including the one at Philaur), and kept waiting in defensive positions until the British were able to build up their attacking forces. As promised by the traitors at Lahore, throughout the War, British would be kept well informed about battle plans, deployment of forces, entrenchments and weaknesses in defences.

The book is in two parts: First part gives a systematic account of each battle. Strength and military formations of opposing forces, the battle itself, casualties and the aftermath of each battle, are based on original records and eyewitness evidence pieced together painstakingly. Clear description of the terrain is given and the detail about military units deployed on both sides, their locations and part played in each battle, is most remarkable.

The second part gives battlefield guides and locations of places of interest on, and near, the battlefields.

And so each battle is brought to life. Soldiers on both sides showed incredible bravery. None asked for mercy and no mercy was shown.

Both, Sir Henry Hardinge, the Governor General of India, an experienced military man himself, and Sir Hugh Gough Commander-in-Chief, were present at the main battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah, and Sabraon.

Due to well planned attacks by the British force with detailed knowledge of Sikh defences and weak points, the battles themselves were quite short. Sabraon, the last battle, was around 4 hours, Aliwal around 2-3 hours, Bhudowal even less. Only Mudki and Ferozehshah, the opening battles, lasted around 8-9 hours. It was mainly due to the Sikh commanders always keeping the Sikh army in a defensive position and not advancing during a British retreat that battles like Ferozeshah and Bhudowal ended prematurely.

Despite a much longer supply line, compared with the Sikh army, the British had better field intelligence and communication; their smaller numbers were deployed more efficiently, their battlefield tactics were better than the leaderless Sikh army; and they kept in battle formations and showed readiness to attack. The Sikh army remained divided and on the defensive and hardly used the cavalry.

The author has shown how opportunities to destroy the British army were missed by the Sikh commanders. With better military intelligence, some highly vulnerable targets like Ludhiana and Ferozepore with small contingents, and the military supply train from Delhi, could have been destroyed almost at the outset of hostilities, and even the capture of Delhi was well within Sikh grasp. Loss of confidence in the British invincibility would have brought forward the 1857 Indian mutiny.

The treachery of Tej Singh and Lal Singh claimed something like 10,000 lives at Sabraon where a single lane boat bridge had been partly destroyed by Lal Singh and Tej Singh “taking precaution to first retire across it themselves, their object being to effect, as far as possible, the annihilation of the feared and detested army.” (William Edwardes, Under Secretary to the British Government). As Gough and Hardinge watched the Sabraon battle from a watchtower at Rhodewalla village, Hardinge reminded a British officer, Thackwell, riding past, “When you get into the entrenchment, don’t spare them”.

The cavalry charge by Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala at Sabraon is described by eyewitnesses. Dressed in white, he mounted his horse “Shah Kabutar” and rallying 50 cavalrymen behind him he charged HM 50th Regiment on the British left. “He was later found riddled with seven shots. Hardinge later compared his attack to that of the Light Brigade, writing that “with Sham Singh fell the bravest of the Sikh generals.”

Gough’s pre-battle order not to spare any Sikh soldiers was carried out ruthlessly. “Now and then a few [Sikh soldiers] turned and rushed at us with their tulwars only to be caught on our bayonets or to be shot down. The slaughter was terrible.” (Pte Joseph Hewitt 62nd Foot). It is not clear if the Sikh soldiers had run out of ammunition at this stage.

In this war, the British captured a total number of 320 guns of which 80 guns “had a bigger calibre than anything seen in Europe.”

This study is a milestone achievement for Sikh historiographers in the comparatively new discipline of battlefield archaeology. It gives much new material for military analysts, historiographers, serious students of Sikh history and lay readers and tourists interested in understanding the battles in the First Anglo-Sikh War.

The book is well written. Perhaps the author could have given modern spellings for the names of some villages and places mentioned in the book.

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