Sindis and Sikhs IV


The Battle of Ferozeshah, 22.12.1845. Painting by H.Martens

Gough made a desperate attempt to draw the fire from his infantry by riding out to a flank in his conspicuous white fighting coat. The bold gesture had little effect, beyond endangering his life. A number of camp followers began to vote with their feet, and they were followed by not a few sepoys and a whole regiment of Indian cavalry, which rode to the rear. To reduce casualties, Gough withdrew his infantry to the line of the entrenchments (where they probably should have begun the fight). Then, when it seemed that the situation could hardly get worse, most of the British guns and cavalry on the left of the line began to move off in the direction of Ferozepur. A junior staff officer, some say affected by sunstroke, had reissued Gough’s original orders without authority, and, incredibly, they were obeyed. ‘Can you imagine such a thing’, wrote Swinley to his sister, ‘as the whole of the artillery and very nearly all the cavalry of an army leaving the field of battle with the C-in-C and all the infantry still engaged?’

At this critical moment, the 3rd Light Dragoons came to the rescue once again by charging a much larger body of Sikh horse on the right flank. The Sikh riders fled, and before long the whole Sikh Army was in retreat. Tej later claimed to have issued the order because he did not think his troops were capable of driving the British from their defensive position. But he would never get a better opportunity to defeat Gough, and many historians suspect him of duplicity. The ‘verdict’ must be, wrote one, ‘that the Sikhs were deprived of the victory that their valour had richly deserved by the treachery of their leaders’. Tej followed Lal Singh back across the Sutlej, leaving the relieved, not to say astonished, British in possession of the field. Captain Swinley summed up the thoughts of many when he wrote: ‘It is a perfect riddle how a disciplined army like ours could have become so completely disorganized and not annihilated and still more wonderful is it that a battle was won.’

Gunner Bancroft was among the hundreds of British casualties taken by bullock cart and elephant to hospital tents in Ferozepur Fort. ‘The sights’, he wrote later, ‘were most harrowing. Most of [my] comrades of the horse artillery who were taken out of the carts had died on the field from loss of blood and scarcity of water, and some of them were at the door of death, gasping their last. They were all placed side by side on the ground; several of them had their limbs shattered with round shot and grape; and after the moribund had breathed their last, they were again put into carts and taken outside the fort to be buried in a pit dug for the purpose.’

With more reinforcements on the way from Meerut, Gough was in no hurry to re-engage the Sikhs, and on 27 December his army halted five miles from the Sikh bridgehead over the River Sutlej at Sobraon. Though Hardinge liked Gough as a person and admired his bravery, he did not think he was the right man to win the war. ‘We have been in the greatest peril,’ he informed Sir Robert Peel in a confidential letter of 30 December, ‘& are likely hereafter to be in great peril, if these very extensive operations are to be conducted by the com.-in-chief.’ His recommendation was for Gough to be replaced by Sir Charles Napier, who, at the time, was governor and military chief of Sind. The cabinet disagreed, preferring Hardinge to assume dual political and military control. But by the time its decision reached India the war was over.

Gough was reinforced by 10,000 men from Meerut on 6 January 1846. Thus strengthened, he moved closer to the Sikh bridgehead at Sobraon, which itself had been massively reinforced. He was keen to attack before the Sikhs could complete a bridge across the river. But the ferocity of the Sikh response to his initial bombardment on 14 January caused him to postpone the assault until his heavy guns had arrived. Instead he dispatched a column under Sir Harry Smith to counter various Sikh forays over the Sutlej to the east. While Smith was thus engaged, Gough received word of a much larger Sikh incursion in the vicinity of Ludhiana. Anxious to safeguard his slow-moving siege train, he at once ordered Smith to block the threat. But en route to Ludhiana, Smith blundered into the Sikh invasion force and, realizing he was hopelessly outnumbered, did his best to avoid battle. He could not, however, prevent Sikh irregulars from attacking his baggage train and causing about 200 casualties. On 28 January, with his column swelled by reinforcements to 10,000 men and forty guns, Smith met and decisively defeated the Sikh army of 13,000 men near the village of Aliwal, fifteen miles west of Ludhiana. This time the sepoys fought well, and the 500 British casualties were shared equally between Smith’s Indian and European troops. The Sikhs again lost 3,000 men and almost seventy guns.

Gough was now free to turn his attention to the Sikh bridgehead south of Sobraon. The Sikhs had not been idle, and the position now consisted of three lines of semicircular entrenchments, their flanks resting on the Sutlej. The 3,000-yard front line was the strongest: a ditch protected by a high earth bank that had been revetted (or strengthened) by wood. In most places the bank rose to an imposing ten feet; but on the right, where the soil was sandiest, it reached only six feet. Given that this was the position’s weak spot, it is odd that Tej Singh chose to protect it with his irregular infantry, who were less reliable; the regulars were massed in the centre and on the left, with the majority of the artillery also in the centre. To protect the flanks, and to cover the fords, the Sikhs had placed their cavalry and the rest of the artillery, under Lal Singh, on the far side of the river. Both banks were linked by a recently constructed bridge-of-boats.

Hardinge preferred to outflank the position by crossing the Sutlej near Ferozepur. Keen to avoid the inevitable casualties of a frontal attack, he may also have been influenced by recent communications with Gulab Singh of Jammu, the new vizier at Lahore, who was keen to negotiate a peace. But Gough was having none of it: a flanking manoeuvre would leave both his lines of communication and various British garrisons vulnerable to attack; far better to destroy the bulk of the Sikh Army while he could. By 10 February he was ready to attack. His siege train of nineteen heavy guns had arrived on the 7th, and Smith rejoined with his victorious troops a day later. Gough now had 15,000 men and about eighty guns. The total Sikh force on both banks was, according to Hardinge, ‘at least’ 35,000 men and up to a hundred guns. Yet Gough was unperturbed, and his plan of attack was, for him at least, a model of subtlety: to concentrate his main effort on the weak Sikh right, while simultaneous diversionary attacks were made on the centre and the left.

The British bombardment began as the morning mist lifted at 8.30 a.m. But inadequate ammunition supplies caused the barrage to be cut short and, with the fire slackening at 10.30, Major-General Sir Robert Dick was ordered to begin the main attack on the Sikh right. ‘Thank God,’ Gough is said to have remarked on being told of the ammunition shortage, ‘then we’ll be at them with the bayonet.’ The troops in Dick’s leading brigade might not have agreed. The initial advance went well, as men of both the 53rd (Shropshire) and the 10th (Northern Lincolnshire) Foot broke through the first line of the Sikh defence. But they were soon halted by enfilade fire from the far bank and from within the entrenchments. Then Dick himself was killed, urging his troops on, and a determined Sikh counter-attack forced the British to concede some ground. In desperation, Gough ordered the diversionary attacks on the Sikh centre and left to be made in earnest. They too were beaten back. Attacking in the centre, as part of Gilbert’s division, was Major Birrell of the 1st Europeans, who recalled: ‘Their guns opened upon us, but did little or no injury the shot going over us, but on getting about 60 or 70 yards from their entrenchment, the Infantry poured so destructive a volley of musketry upon us that it actually staggered the Regt. and in less than three or four minutes, 11 officers and 200 men of my Corps were killed and wounded, being half of the numbers engaged. This heavy loss compelled us to fall back a little and reform.’

But eventually the pressure on the centre and left told, as the Sikhs rushed troops across from their right, which in turn enabled Dick’s division to retake the ground it had lost. Prominent in the fight, as ever, was the 3rd Light Dragoons, which used a ramp to cross into the entrenchments before charging the enemy in concert with two units of Bengal light cavalry. Trooper John Pearman, a 26-year-old former railway guard who had just joined the 3rd with a draft from Britain, recorded:

On we went by the dead and dying, and partly over the poor fellows, and up the parapet our horses scrambled. One of the Sikh artillery men struck at me with his sponge staff but missed me, hitting my horse on the hindquarters, which made the horse bend down. I cut a round cut at him and felt my sword strike him but could not say where, there was such a smoke on. I went with the rest through the camp at their battalions which we broke up.

With Gilbert’s and Smith’s divisions also making headway, the Sikhs were being squeezed back into an ever-smaller area. Some fought on, but most followed Tej Singh’s lead by fleeing towards the bridge. It was quickly choked and began to break up, forcing whole regiments to swim for their lives. ‘We drove the enemy into the river,’ recalled an officer of the 63rd Native Infantry (part of Dick’s division), ‘where thousands of them were killed by our file-firing and by the grape and canister of 4 troops of Horse Artillery; and a great number must have been drowned.’ Gunner Bancroft, recovered from his wound at Ferozeshah, described the water as a ‘bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds’. No quarter was given, and Sikh losses were put as high as 10,000 men and all sixty-seven guns. British casualties were similar to those at Ferozeshah: 2,383 (but with just 320 killed).

The power of the Khalsa had been broken, and the road to Lahore was open. It was only left for Hardinge to decide on the severity of his terms for peace. He had no intention, he told his stepson two days after the battle, of annexing the whole of the Punjab. Such a move was contrary to government and HEIC policy and would, in any case, have required the presence of British bayonets at Lahore to enforce British rule, a state of affairs repugnant to Hardinge. Instead he proposed to ‘clip the state which has shown itself too strong, punish & disband the army, & give the Hindoos another chance’. The exact terms were thrashed out at a meeting between Hardinge and Gulab Singh at Kasur, on the road to Lahore, on 16 February. They included: the annexation of the Jullundur Doab, between the Sutlej and Beas Rivers; the restriction of the Sikh Army to twenty-five battalions, 12,000 horse and twenty-five guns; the imposition of a war indemnity of £1.5m; the stationing of a British garrison in Lahore until the end of 1846 (to guarantee the payment of the indemnity); and an undertaking by the Lahore government not to make war or peace without British permission. Gulab Singh – described by Hardinge as ‘the ablest scoundrel in all Asia’ – agreed to these harsh terms in return for the title of maharaja of Jammu. Uppermost in Hardinge’s calculations, of course, was the security of British India, and, to him at least, the emasculation of Sikh power and the establishment of a resident in Lahore seemed the best ways to achieve it.

As a sign of submission, Gulab had brought with him to Kasur the young maharaja of Lahore, Dalip Singh. ‘Conceive a beautiful little boy of 8 years old’, wrote Hardinge, ‘brought into the midst of cannon & feringees, amongst strangers represented as monsters who eat cows & destroy Sikhs by thousands. The brave little fellow showed no fear; I coaxed him & made him laugh, a great Eastern indecorum, gave him a musical box with a bird & trays of presents, which he looked at with curiosity. The talk was diplomatic, of old Runjeet his father (who was not his father), & after an hour the boy retired with a salute of 21 guns.’ With Dalip in tow, Hardinge and Gough entered Lahore and took possession of its magnificent red fort – built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century – on 20 February. The city was less impressive, with one officer describing it as the ‘dirtiest place I ever saw’. He added: ‘The streets are so narrow that two elephants could not pass each other, and in the centre there is a little drain full of stagnant water from which the smell is very offensive.’

The formal signing of the Lahore Treaty took place in a large marquee outside the city on 9 March. The British guard of honour was provided, fittingly enough, by the 3rd Light Dragoons, resplendent in their dark blue double-breasted coatees with scarlet facings, dark blue overalls and black beaver shakos. ‘In the tent’, recorded Trooper Pearman, ‘were Sir Henry Hardinge, Sir Hugh Gough and the staff officers, and about two hundred of us with drawn swords. The Sikh chiefs also had their guard of honour. It was a grand sight. The ceremony took two and a half hours, and then Sir Henry Hardinge ordered the durbar to be broken up.’ Henceforth the government of the reduced Punjab would be conducted in Dalip’s name by a regency council. The newly promoted Colonel Henry Lawrence, Broadfoot’s successor and the eldest of the famous Lawrence brothers, was the British resident appointed to keep it in line.

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