General Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) directing the 2nd Battalion 12th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry (now part of Punjab Regimental Centre, Pakistan Army) at the Battle of Assaye, 1803
The British advance against the Maratha army at Assaye on 23 September 1803.
On 23 September 1803 British troops chased the line of Maratha troops back and broke them, forcing them back into Assaye and then across the Juah river.
Considered by the Duke of Wellington to be his finest victory, the Battle of Assaye was one in which a small but well-trained British army faced native forces well equipped and well tutored in European combat techniques. Won against overwhelming odds, it demonstrated the indomitable spirit of the colonial powers when faced with militarily sophisticated opponents. Assaye also served as an early showcase for the Duke of Wellington’s talents.
European imperialism began in earnest in the 16th century with the conquest of the Americas. European soldiers operating in the New World overcame the native cultures with surprising ease. A number of factors accounted for this, among which were logistical organization and extraordinary bravery, by means of which handfuls of Spanish conquistadors were able to defeat great kingdoms such as that of the Aztecs. A similar pattern was repeated elsewhere in the world, with native cultures being confronted, found to be ill-prepared and far less able to withstand the early modern warfare techniques which confronted them. The Russians conquered Siberia, while in India the trading stations of Portuguese, French and British merchants were turned into the stepping stones of empire.
BRITAIN IN INDIA
Britain’s involvement in India during the 18th century had reached a crucial point with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when Robert Clive defeated the nawab (governor) of Bengal. The nawab’s army was ten times the size of Robert Clive ‘s force of two thousand sepoys (native soldiers trained by the British) and nine hundred Europeans. Despite the overwhelming odds, Clive was victorious and the nawab was executed. This victory secured Britain’s possessions in the subcontinent and entitled it to raise massive revenues from the native population, which Britain then used to increase its military presence further.
The influence of the Mughals, the most dominant power in southern Asia up to that point, had been in decline since 1707 with the death of Aurangzeb. The British were clearly in the ascendant, but unlike those in the Americas, where native cultures never really rose to the challenge posed by European military power, the rulers of India understood the nature of the force they were up against. While the British considered themselves as successors to the Mughals, there was an indigenous force in the form of the Maratha confederacy that also claimed the right to rule India. The confederacy was a grouping of various influential clan chiefs under the leadership of a peshaw (chief minister); at times, the clans warred with one another, particularly for leadership, but they also combined in various coalitions to resist the British. The result was three Maratha wars fought in 1775-82, 1803-05 and 1817-18.
Recruiting European military advisers, frequently from one of the competing imperial powers, such as the French, the peshaws and clan chiefs rapidly transformed their feudal armies and equipped their soldiers with artillery, muskets and Western-style military training. In a very short time, these native armies could rely on twice as many cannons as the British. Major Thome, a veteran of many battles in the region, complained of ‘the changes that have taken place among the warlike tribes of India through the introduction of European tactics and French discipline, which, combined with their natural courage, often bordering on enthusiastic frenzy, and their numerical superiority, has rendered our conflicts with them sanguinary in the extreme’.
By the late 18th century it was no longer easy for Britain to overawe its opponents in India. And yet, such was their hunger for the wealth to be derived from India that the British took on ever more difficult and challenging campaigns in an effort to subdue the native population. Against such a background, the Battle of Assaye emerges as being typical of a period in which British forces outfought – rather than outgunned – otherwise impressive native armies. It is also interestmg to note that the British were commanded by a young Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington. Assaye demonstrates the strength of British fighting skills in the face of superior numbers; Wellington, when asked forty years later which was his finest moment in battle, answered with one word: ‘Assaye.’
WAR WITH THE MARATHAS
The Marathas had replaced the Mughal dynasty m central and northern India, and in 1779 they defeated the British at the Battle of Wadgaon, following Britain’s attempt to favour a candidate for peshwa. It was only a matter of time before there would be a further clash, and in 1803 it arose. This time the British were determined to intervene more forcefully. Richard Wellesley. governor general of Bengal, sent his younger brother Arthur to offer protection to Peshwa Baji Rao II, who had been defeated by the Holkar clan. Other clans then objected to the British intervention. Wellesley penetrated Maratha territory and stumbled across an army at the junction of the Juah and Kaitna rivers. It was an impressive array: some 30,000 cavalry; 10,000 infantry, trained and equipped in the Western style by French soldiers; and 200 pieces of artillery. All Wellesley commanded was 4.500 regulars, mostly sepoys, and half of these were cavalry. Despite this, Wellesley was supremely confident, demonstrating efficiency and organization in abundance.
Later historians have praised Wellesley ‘s logistical abilities above his triumphs in battle, and it is important to consider how the British supported their armies in India, because it frequently proved decisive in campaigns. Throughout history, most armies had supported their troops by taking what they needed from the lands they passed through. Understandably, this alienated local people, who frequently fought back and added to the difficulties of a campaign. The British forces in India, however, adopted a system in which they bought food and supplies from merchants who came to their camps. This not only resulted in less incidental fighting, but also ensured the goodwill of the local population. Intelligence information could also be obtained at these military bazaars, sourced from merchants acting as spies. The relatively wealthy British enjoyed the support of merchants who were not slow to exploit their generosity. Wellesley did not invent this system but, with his excellent eye for detail, he ran it superbly and it gave him an added edge over his Maratha opponents.
Having left his baggage train in the village of Naulniah, which he instructed to be fortified, Wellesley rode out to inspect the position of his enemy at Assaye. Wellesley was well practised in this process of reconnaissance, getting to know the landscape of the forthcoming battle so as to be able to use it to his advantage. Ignoring the suspect knowledge of his guides, he discovered a ford across the Kaitnathat he could make use of to speed up the transport of his troops without making them vulnerable. It meant he could also surprise the enemy. Wellesley led the way into the river, but as his troops waded into the water, some Maratha artillery opened up. Fortunately for him, it was half-hearted fire and it ceased when Wellesley formed his men up on the opposite shore.
Wellesley placed his Madras sepoys between two units of regular British troops and began the advance. Maratha cavalry were reported to have crossed the river further west and could have threatened Wellesley ‘s rear, but because his baggage tram was well fortified, he did not mind losing communication with it for the duration of the battle. The Marathas had lost the advantage of having their troops protected by the river, but they still possessed superior numbers and a formidable array of cannons. As the two lines of artillery began to duel, Wellesley knew he would lose the encounter if it was prolonged and so he ordered his men forward, with the kilted troops of the 78th Highlanders leading the way.
Sheer aggression was the only way to win this contest; the British fixed their bayonets and charged the well-trained Maratha troops. The two Maratha commanders, Berar and Scindia, lacked the courage of Wellesley and retired from the fighting, but their senior European adviser, Pohlmann, a Hanoverian, remained in command of the Indian troops. The 78th Highlanders halted at 55m (180ft), fired their muskets in a mighty volley, then charged and plunged in with their bayonets.
It was this sort of hard, close-quarters fighting that the British favoured and which would frequently send their enemies reeling, in theatres of war from India to Spain.
Having taken a line of Maratha artillery, the 78th Highlanders fired a second volley, which finally broke Pohlmann’s troops on the southern flank. The Madras sepoys followed up on this success and also broke the Maratha line. Carried away by their triumph, however, some of the sepoys became disorganized and vulnerable to the nearby Maratha cavalry, but the British cavalry was there to protect their flank and the sepoys regrouped. At the forefront of the action, Wellesley had his horse shot from beneath him. On the northern flank, the 74th Highlanders came under intense fire and had to form a defensive square with ramparts composed of the bodies of their dead comrades. They stood their ground long enough for the British cavalry to gallop past and clear the ground before the village of Assaye.
The entire British line now swung round and pushed Pohlmann’s men back to the Juah. Wellesley became caught up in the fighting and a second horse was fatally wounded beneath him. His bravery must have inspired his men; it certainly stood in stark contrast to that of the Maratha leaders, who seemed more concerned with their personal safety. Faced by a renewed British attack, the Marathas decided they had had enough and crossed the river, leaving behind much of their equipment.
Wellesley’s victory decisively curbed Maratha power in central India, but his losses had been heavy, with some 1,500 troops dead and wounded – a casualty rate of more than 27 per cent. The Marathas had lost at least 1,200 dead and had abandoned 98 cannons on the battlefield. A further British victory at Argaum ended the war, but the British had many more campaigns to fight in India against tough opponents, and their final conquest of the subcontinent was a very hard-won experience not achieved until the middle of the 19th century.