HM 31st Foot attacking the Sikh line during the Battle of Moodkee.
Sir Henry Hardinge had known for several months, from reports sent by his agents in Lahore, that trouble was brewing. Yet he had made strenuous efforts not to provoke the volatile Khalsa. He knew that the HEIC directors were anxious to avoid another costly war (as was Peel’s government), and that the morale and discipline of the Indian Army had not fully recovered from the disasters in Afghanistan. If the Sikhs launched an unprovoked attack, however, he needed to be ready. As early as March 1845 he had ‘silently collected’ a force of 30,000 troops on the frontier ‘for defensive operations’. He had also, in his opinion, saved young Maharaja Dalip Singh’s life by his threat ‘not to recognize a successor if he be removed by violence’.
In September, with the situation worsening, Hardinge left Calcutta for the frontier. En route he overruled his commander-in-chief, Sir Hugh Gough, who, in response to reports of a build-up of Sikh forces across the Sutlej, had ordered part of the Meerut garrison to march north. Hardinge also ignored requests for reinforcements from the general commanding the frontier garrison at Ferozepur, telling the HEIC’s secret committee on 4 December that he did not expect any Sikh aggression. But four days later, by which time he had reached the frontier town of Ludhiana, he changed his mind and ordered the 80th (South Staffordshire) Foot to move north from Ambala. It had hardly begun its march when Hardinge learnt that the Sikhs had crossed the Sutlej in force on 12 December. A day later, citing a breach in the 1809 Anglo-Punjabi Treaty, Hardinge declared war.
The British, thanks to Hardinge’s wariness, were now in a ticklish position. About 50,000 Sikhs had crossed the Sutlej and were concentrated near the village of Ferozeshah, ten miles west of the main British frontier garrison at Ferozepur, under Major-General Sir John Littler. The British forces, by contrast, were split between a number of locations at varying distances from the river and each other: closest to the Sutlej were the garrisons of Ferozepur and Ludhiana, 7,000 and 5,000 strong respectively but divided by a distance of eighty miles; a further eighty miles separated Ludhiana from the main British striking force at Ambala, 10,000 men under the personal command of Sir Hugh Gough. The last remaining reserve of 9,000 troops was at Meerut, 130 miles east of Ambala. The British were not only heavily outnumbered but also dangerously divided. Hardinge and Gough knew that unless they were given enough time to concentrate their army, the Sikhs would surely destroy them in penny-packets (or ‘in detail’, as military theorists have it).
Fortunately for the British, the Sikhs chose not to make an immediate attack on Ferozepur. Lal Singh hinted at the reason when he sent a message to Captain John Nicholson, serving as one of Gough’s commissariat officers, describing his intentions and expressing the hope that they would remain friends. Many historians have taken this as proof of treachery on the part of the two Sikh commanders, both of whom were high-caste Hindus. Yet Lal, in typical Eastern fashion, may simply have been taking out an insurance policy in case of defeat. The commanders were not, in any case, completely inactive: having crossed the Sutlej, they split their forces, Tej taking the smaller portion to mask Ferozepur while Lal awaited the main British force in a strong defensive position at Ferozeshah. Given the marked superiority of Sikh artillery, in both number of pieces and calibre, it made good sense to fight a defensive battle.
By 17 December the main British Army, with both the commander-in-chief and governor-general in attendance, had reached Badhni, fifty miles south-east of Ferozepur. Despite being reinforced by troops from Ludhiana, it numbered only forty-two guns and 12,000 men, less than a third of whom were British. Most of the force had covered the hundred or so miles from Ambala in just four days, an incredible feat given the poor state of the roads (many of which were little more than sandy tracks), the inadequate water supplies and the wildly fluctuating temperatures. One soldier of the 31st (Huntingdonshire) Foot was so tormented by the ordeal that he took off his leather stock without permission and, when ordered to replace it, chose to shoot himself instead. Above all, the march was a triumph of logistics. An army of 12,000 men were accompanied by at least three times as many camp followers, ‘besides numerous elephants, camels, bullocks, horses, ponies etc.’. The amount of food needed to sustain this number of humans and beasts was scarcely credible. A typical regiment of British cavalry, 800 horses strong, required 8,000 pounds of corn a day. And all of it had to be transported in carts and wagons that themselves required extra livestock to pull. And so on.
The uneasy command structure was also a potential problem, for never before had the commander-in-chief of India been accompanied on campaign by a governor-general who also happened to be an experienced, if slightly junior, soldier. In theory Sir Hugh Gough was in charge of all military operations; yet he must have feared that his political superior would intervene at the critical moment (and his fears proved correct). It helped, however, that Gough was one of the doughtiest and most experienced fighting soldiers in the British Army. Of Irish gentry stock, and still possessed of a slight brogue, he had received his first commission at the age of fourteen and his first adjutancy a year later. He had fought in numerous theatres, including South Africa, the West Indies, the Peninsula, China and, most recently, in India during the Gwalior War of 1843, when he had twice beaten the once-mighty Maratha armies at the Battles of Maharajpur and Panniar. It was in the Peninsula, however, that he first rose to prominence, commanding the 87th (Royal Irish) Fusiliers at the victories of Barossa, where he captured a French Eagle, and Vitoria, where he went one better and captured the baton of Marshal Jourdan, the French commander. Seriously wounded at Nivelle in 1814, he was compensated with a knighthood and a pension.
But, for all his service under that great exponent of war, the duke of Wellington, Gough was a soldier of little subtlety. He preferred brute force to clever tactics in the sure knowledge that British courage and discipline would eventually win the day. He was, as one historian has put it, a disciple of the ‘Ritchie-Hook’ school of warfare, which held that victory came after constantly ‘biffing’ the enemy. In Gough’s eyes this meant rapidly closing with the enemy whenever, and wherever, he could be found. Such basic tactics were all well and good against an enemy possessing inferior equipment and training; but the Sikhs were not like any other Asian foe that Gough had encountered.
Gough was, however, extremely popular with his men. They were convinced he had their welfare at heart and that he would always share their discomfort and danger. He repaid that faith by wearing a long white ‘fighting coat’ in battle so they would know he was amongst them. A jovial man, with his white whiskers and easy manner, the men had nicknamed him ‘Tipperary Joe’. They would follow him anywhere, and, in a close fight, such blind devotion was often the difference between victory and defeat.
On 18 December, after a long 21-mile march, Gough and his men were approaching the village of Mudki when cavalry scouts reported it occupied by the enemy. At first Gough ordered his exhausted troops to form up for battle. But the order was rescinded when word arrived that the enemy troops were only cavalry, and that they were withdrawing. Aware that a larger Sikh force must be near, he gave fresh orders for patrols to be sent out and the column to camp on the outskirts of the village. The ground chosen was mostly flat and open, with a mile or so of undulating ploughed fields between it and a broad belt of dense jungle.
Arriving in camp at this nervous time was a 35-year-old Bengal sapper called Captain Robert Napier, yet another soldier destined for great things, who had just completed the 120-mile journey from Ambala in three days. He recorded:
Arrived at Moodkee at about 3½ p.m. Apparently an inextricable confusion of troops, elephants, camels, and baggage. The Governor-General and staff, and Major [George] Broadfoot [the senior political officer], assembled under a tree. The latter said, to one of the former, that his latest intelligence of the enemy informed him that they were aware that the discipline of the feringhees was too powerful for them in open field, but that, man to man, they were as brave and skilful as ourselves, and that they intended a night attack. Met Colonel Haughton who kindly invited me to General Gilbert’s quarters… I had scarcely taken the bridle from my horse when Major Codrington [one of Gilbert’s staff officers] said that the Seikh army were advancing to the attack; a cloud of dust announced their approach, boldly adopted at the moment when our troops were harassed from the extraordinary length of their march, and in apparent confusion.
The rapidly approaching Sikh force was made up of around 10,000 men – mainly cavalry – and twenty-two guns. Its task was to delay the British and give Lal Singh more time to prepare his defences at Ferozeshah. Though outnumbered, the Sikhs were partially screened by a belt of jungle and had the advantage of surprise. Gough responded by pushing forward his horse artillery and cavalry towards the edge of the jungle, while his infantry, some of which had not even arrived, was formed into line.
There were no units of Royal Artillery in India at that time, and among the Bengal Horse artillerymen who galloped forward that day was a tall, black-haired gunner called Nathaniel Bancroft. Born in India in 1823, the son of a soldier, Bancroft had followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a recruit at the age of nine. For nine years he served with various units of field artillery, but his ambition was always to join the horse artillery, the corps d’élite, and on 7 December 1841 he got his wish. That day, he wrote,
when leather breeches and long boots, brass helmets with red horse-hair manes, and jackets with ninety buttons… were the favourite dress of the Bengal horse artillery, who vaunted themselves, and with justice and reverence be it spoken, the finest specimens of that arm in the world; when shaven chins and upper lips, and mutton-chop whiskers (according to regulation) were the order of the day – the reader’s very humble servant attained the mature age of 18 years, and his service began to count towards a pension.
Horse artillery had been created by Frederick the Great in the eighteenth century as a mobile reserve that could be rushed to any part of the battlefield more quickly than field artillery; its chief role, however, was to support cavalry. The first British units of horse artillery (RHA) were formed in 1793. Seven years later the Bengal Army followed suit, and by the outbreak of the First Sikh War there were thirteen troops of Bengal Horse Artillery: nine European and four Indian. Each troop was armed with six muzzle-loading, smooth-bore guns: five 6-pounders, firing roundshot and canister, and one 12-pounder howitzer that lobbed exploding shells. (The heavier batteries of field artillery, by contrast, had five 9-pounder guns and one 24-pounder howitzer.) The guns were attached to limbers and drawn by teams of six horses, most of which were mounted by members of the gun team. Only the gun commander – usually a sergeant – rode a separate horse. In action the guns would be galloped to within 400 yards of the enemy and then unlimbered, with the horse team stationed just behind the gun in case it needed to be moved.
The action of firing the gun was a highly skilled – not to say hazardous – procedure. First the commander (or No. 1) would lay, or aim, the gun over open sights by moving the trail laterally and adjusting the elevating screw. The loader (No. 3) would then place the charge and projectile into the muzzle for the spongeman (No. 2) to ram home. Next it was the turn of the ventsman (No. 4) to pierce the charge through the vent hole with a small spike known as a ‘pricker’; that done, he would insert an explosive tube into the vent. Last, having received the order from the commander, the firer (No. 5) would light the tube with his slow-burning portfire. No sooner had the gun settled from its recoil than its bore was sponged with water to extinguish any burning fragments of gunpowder. If any of these tasks was poorly performed or badly coordinated, the gun team risked maiming or death.
At Mudki no fewer than five troops of horse artillery and two batteries of field artillery, forty-two guns in all, were pushed forward to engage the Sikhs. ‘We sustained many casualties in this purely artillery duel,’ recalled Bancroft, ‘and there were many narrow escapes.’ Few narrower than his own, when a musket ball passed through the ear of the horse he was riding and killed the mounted gunner behind. But none of the gruesome sights that assailed young Bancroft during his first battle was grimmer than that of a ventsman ‘running about disembowelled’, a shell fragment having ignited the powder bag that he wore at his waist. The most notable gunner casualty was Lieutenant Robert Pollock, son of the hero of Kabul, who refused to have his shattered leg amputated and died the following day.
With his artillery gradually gaining the upper hand, Gough ordered a general attack, a move for which he was sharply criticized after the battle by one of his divisional commanders, Sir Harry Smith. If he had remained on the defensive, argued Smith, he would have forced the advancing Sikhs into the open. With only two hours of daylight left, there was, in any case, hardly time to win a decisive victory. Yet Gough’s instinct was to take the initiative, and he knew, in addition, that the superior range of his percussion muskets was negated by the more powerful Sikh artillery pieces. So he attacked, with the cavalry on both flanks leading the way.
Not content with breaking through a far superior body of Sikh horse on the right, the 3rd Light Dragoons wheeled left and charged across the Sikh rear, overrunning some guns and capturing a Sikh standard in the process. (It was this charge that earned the 3rd their nickname ‘Mudki-wallahs’.) Close behind the 3rd was a squadron of the Governor-General’s Body Guard, whose adjutant, 23-year-old Reynell Taylor, recalled:
Conceive a brigade or column of troops galloping through a thick thorn jungle enveloped in clouds of dust so dense that the standard of my squadron was the only landmark I could recognize, approaching nearer and nearer to the thundering batteries of the enemy and the yelling crowd protecting them… Loud shouts of friend and foe arose on our right as our gallant dragoons dashed in, clearing all before them, and in another second we were in a mass of bloody-minded Sikh horse and foot, chiefly the former… I believe the men we were opposed to were, or thought themselves to be, cut off from escape by the dragoons, and they fought most furiously. I was personally engaged with five men at different times, and after a tussle of some seven or eight minutes in which our adversaries were all cut down, shot, or driven off, I found myself wounded in three different places, my reins cut and my horse ‘Pickle’ severely wounded by a sabre.
Meanwhile the infantry had passed through the line of British guns, with the right division, Sir Harry Smith’s, the furthest forward. His men inevitably suffered the severest casualties, particularly the 50th (Queen’s Own) Foot on the extreme right, which, at one point, formed square when threatened by Sikh cavalry. But the 50th continued to advance, as did the 31st Foot of its sister brigade, both units firing a final volley before charging the Sikh guns. The sepoy regiments in support did not perform so well, many hanging back and causing British casualties with their wild fire. A measure of their lacklustre showing is the fact that the 47th Bengal Native Infantry, brigaded with the 31st Foot, had fewer than 10 per cent of the British unit’s casualties.
As dusk was falling, the Sikhs withdrew, leaving the British in possession of the field and seventeen enemy guns. But victory had its price: 872 casualties, 506 of whom were British, with the 3rd Light Dragoons losing almost a quarter of their total. Many of those wounded and unhorsed in the epic charge had been killed out of hand by the Sikhs, prompting a similar ruthlessness, and the cry ‘Remember Mudki’, when the 3rd next took the field.
Among the senior British fatalities were a divisional commander, Sir John McCaskill, two brigadier-generals and the quartermaster-general, Sir Robert ‘Fighting Bob’ Sale, the ‘hero’ of Jelalabad, who had returned to India with his wife and daughter in 1844. Though a senior staff officer with no business in the thick of the action, Sale had ‘attached himself’ to Smith’s division and paid the ultimate price when a grapeshot shattered his thigh. ‘Most deeply do we lament the death of Sir Robert Sale,’ wrote the queen on hearing the news, ‘and most deeply do we sympathise with that high-minded woman, Lady Sale, who has had the misfortune to lose her husband less than three years after she was released from captivity and restored to him.’ The queen granted Lady Sale, who had published her Afghan journals to great acclaim in 1843, a special pension of £500 a year. She died on a visit to Cape Town in 1853, the inscription on her tombstone reading: ‘Underneath this stone reposes all that could die of Lady Sale.’
Those casualties who survived the Battle of Mudki were not well cared for. The army had advanced without field hospitals, and the regimental surgeons had to make do with the limited resources in Mudki Fort. ‘There were NO arrangements made for the wounded previous to this march of our Troops from cantonments,’ wrote one officer. ‘The suffering of the wounded from the want of attendance [was] dreadful and in many cases fatal.’ Hardinge would later criticize Gough’s staff for its inadequate preparation, noting that ‘no supplies had been laid in on the route to Feroz-poor.’ That was partly deliberate, so as not to alarm the Sikhs, but there was no excuse for the failure to bury all the Mudki dead, a number of whom were still lying where they had fallen a full month after the battle.
Like Smith, Hardinge now had serious misgivings about Gough’s generalship. They were heightened the morning after the battle, when a dust cloud seemed to herald a fresh Sikh attack. Typically Gough ordered the troops out; he was just as quickly overruled by Hardinge. It was a scene that Captain Napier hoped ‘never again to witness’. He wrote: ‘Orders were given by the C. in C.; counter orders by the Governor-General. Troops were told to go to their lines to cook, then to stand fast, then to cook, until the Sipahis [sepoys] wearied, said they preferred to remain where they were.’ It eventually proved to be a false alarm, but the men did not return to camp until 3 p.m.