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Alexander in India

By Arther Ferrill
Autumn 1988 • MHQ Magazine

The battle at the Edge of the Earth.

In a single decade of fighting, Alexander the Great conquered an enormous empire, as large as the one the Romans later painstakingly accumulated over hundreds of years. While the young Macedonian king was fortunate in at least one of his opponents—Darius, king of Persia, a faint-hearted commander who twice fled the field to avoid confronting him—Alexander personally deserved much of the credit for his victories. A courageous, inspirational leader, he repeatedly exposed himself to great danger in the field, and as a master of strategy and tactics he had no superiors and few equals in all of ancient history.

One of Alexander’s most interesting and romantic campaigns came near the end of his career during his march through India. There, at the edge of the earth (as the Macedonians believed), he faced King Porus of the Punjab. Porus, almost seven feet tall, was both literally and figuratively a giant of a man. For the first time in a major battle, Alexander’s Macedonian troops also encountered a large number of elephants, and the huge beasts, driven by their mahouts, terrified the ranks.

In 326 B.C., at the Battle of the Hydaspes, a tributary of the Indus, the elephants were awesome. Alexander and the Macedonians treated the beasts with wary respect, seeing them as fearsome instruments of war. The battle on the Hydaspes (today called the Jhelum River) turned into a hard-fought, near-run cavalry battle. Although many of the tactical details of the fighting are reasonably clear, there is still some confusion over the role of the squadrons on the Macedonian left and the Indian right, and in this confusion elephants figure prominently. By carefully reviewing the war against Porus and taking a critical look at the Battle of the Hydaspes, it may be possible to resolve some of the uncertainties.

Early in 326 B.C., as Alexander prepared to invade India, he sent the bulk of the Macedonian army under his close friend and companion Hephaestion over the Khyber Pass and down toward the Indus. As the main army moved south into the Punjab, the king took some crack infantry, skirmisher, and cavalry units by another route farther north in order to secure its flank. In extremely difficult fighting against fierce Indian hill peoples, the mobile force under Alexander seized walled villages and strategic strongholds, notably the city of Massaga in the valley of the Swat and the mountain fortress of Aornos on the upper Indus, a site that, according to Greek mythology, not even Heracles could storm.

When Alexander was ready to rejoin the main army, Hephaestion had already succeeded in building a brudge across the Indus. The Macedonian king and his men, 75,000 strong, knew little of what lay ahead. They believed, for example, that the valley of the Indus flowed through a large desert to the Upper Nile because there were crocodiles in the Indus’s tributaries, and the only other river in the world known by them to have crocodiles was the Nile. At that time, India was a land of mystery. The ancient Middle Eastern empire of Mesopotamia had traded with India, and Persia had exercised a nominal control over the Indus valley, but to Greeks and Macedonians India extended to the end of the earth and was inhabited by giants and elephants. Although Alexander went there mainly to round out his conquest of the Persian Empire, he also had a romantic desire to go to the edge of the world.

One of the most remarkable features of Alexander’s campaigns in India is that supply was almost never a problem. The Indus valley was extremely fertile and crossed by many navigable rivers. As a result, the collection of supplies proved relatively easy. While in India, Alexander’s army received a shipment of equipment that had been sent all the way from Macedonia. The streamlined logistical system created by Alexander’s father, Philip II, served the Macedonian army well, even though by one calculation Alexander’s troops had marched 17,000 miles from Pella, the Macedonian capital.

On a day in May, Alexander crossed the Indus and pushed into the Punjab. He anticipated little opposition for the initial part of the advance because the first major city to the east was Taxila, and its ruler, whom the Greeks called Taxiles, had already joined Alexander’s cause. Using Taxila as headquarters, the Macedonian king received emissaries from Kashmir and elsewhere before moving on against the great Porus, whose domain stretched Alexander in India 35 far to the east beyond the Hydaspes River. Because of spring rains the river was flooded. The Indian potentate had prepared a strong position on the east bank to defend his kingdom against the foreign invader. His army numbered approximately 35,000, including 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 300 war chariots, and 200 elephants.

Alexander knew that his horses would panic if he tried to send them on rafts directly across the river into the mass of elephants grouped on the opposite shore, so he decided against a head-on attack. Instead, he moved his army upstream under the cover of darkness and came down swiftly on Porus’s flank. Porus might have had time to wheel his entire line, including elephants, to face the Macedonians, so Alexander left part of his army behind under General Craterus with instructions to cross the river and attack Porus’s rear if this happened. If, on the other hand, Porus had left elephants on the riverbank to defend against a crossing, Craterus was ordered not to challenge them. As it turned out, the Indian king had left some elephants along the river, and Craterus did not figure in the fighting until the very end.

Since the surprise element was crucial, Alexander tried to deceive and lull Porus in several ways. To persuade the Indian leader that the Macedonians intended to wait for the river to recede, Alexander began openly to stockpile large quantities of supplies. He also made a great show of building rafts, presumably for use in a frontal attack on Porus’s position. Then he massed his cavalry every night, and with much noise and fanfare they pretended to prepare for crossing at different points along the riverbank. Porus responded at first by shifting his forces up and down the river night after night; when his men tired out, he simply stopped reacting to Alexander’s feints.

Finally, after personally inspecting the site, Alexander decided to execute a surprise crossing at a point almost seventeen miles upstream. A chief reason for selecting this spot—at Jalalpur—was that in midstream there was a large wooded island big enough to conceal the Macedonian force. Leaving Craterus behind in the main camp with a large part of the army, and leaving behind someone dressed to resemble himself, the king moved out in the night with a crack force of about 5,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry, including many of his best skirmishers. The operation ranks with Issus (in southern Turkey) and Guagamela (in northern Iraq) as one of Alexander’s most brilliant battles, and it has been compared with General James Wolfe’s Quebec campaign of 1759. Because of the distance Alexander and his men had to travel before coming into contact with the enemy, the extraordinarily diffcult nighttime river crossing, and the conflict with the expeditionary force sent by Porus to block the Macedonian advance, Alexander’s Battle of the Hydaspes is considered one of the most daring engagements in history.

When the Macedonians stole away from the main camp, they moved back some distance from the riverbank in order to approach the crossing undetected. With Porus having been lulled into thinking that Alexander’s night maneuvers were false alarms, this part of the ruse worked well, and a heavy rainfall helped cover the noise made by the troops. When Alexander and his men reached their destination upriver from Jalalpur, they assembled boats and rafts that had been taken there in sections earlier and prepared to launch them at the first light of dawn. The ability of Alexander’s engineers to construct, in sections, a fleet large enough to transport a force of 15,000 men and 5,000 horses has amazed modern military historians, but in fact similar troop movements had been mastered centuries earlier in the ancient Middle East by the Assyrians and Persians.

Just as the storm ended, the boats and rafts were ready, and Alexander personally led the flotilla in a 30-oared boat towing a raft bearing the royal foot soldiers. The entire force floated down the river in a narrow channel between the west bank and the island. When the vanguard reached the end of the island, it was spotted by Indian scouts who rushed off on horseback to warn Porus of the coming attack. Pushing on toward the opposite bank at the end of the island, Alexander and his men disembarked, thinking that they had reached the east bank. In fact they had landed on another island in the river. Realizing their mistake, they began to look for a place to ford, but the river was high. Finally they found a spot where they could barely wade across. The horses were submerged except for their heads.

Once ashore, Alexander moved out quickly with his cavalry, ordering the archers to follow as rapidly as they could and the infantry to advance at normal marching pace. He believed he had cavalry superiority over the Indians; events were to prove him right.

When Porus received the news of the impending crossing, he did not know whether it was the main attack or a ruse, since there seemed to be a large Macedonian force opposite him at the base camp. What he chose to do was a mistake. He sent his son with 2,000 cavalry and 120 charioty to intercept the attackers, but he lost so much time to indecision that Alexander had completed the crossing before his troops arrived. Also, the Indian force was much too large for reconnaissance, yet too small to deal with Alexander’s cavalry. Moreover, the ground was excessively muddy for their chariots. When Alexander realized that the Indians had actually deployed a reasonably large force rather than a simple scouting party, he charged with his cavalry in waves of attacks that totally demoralized the foe. The Indians lost 400 cavalry and all their chariots; probably much more important, Porus’s son was killed. This quick, decisive victory helped boost Macedonian morale, and Alexander continued to advance against Porus’s main force. As Alexander’s infantry marched downstream on the Indian side, other Macedonians began to cross the river from concealed positions along the west bank, rapidly swelling the numbers of his army.

When Porus learned of his son’s death, he decided to turn his main force against Alexander except for some elephants left behind to guard the river against a possible crossing by Craterus. Wheeling his army upstream, Porus advanced over muddy ground until he reached some dry, sandy terrain, where he assembled the men in battle formation. In so doing he surrendered the offensive to Alexander.

The Indian battle order was the traditional one—infantry in the center and cavalry on the wings—about 30,000 infantry altogether and 2,000 cavalry on each wing. But the situation was unusually threatening because Porus had stationed his elephants some 50 feet apart in front of his infantry in a line stretching for almost two miles. Ahead of the cavalry he had placed squadrons of chariots, 150 on each wing. Although the chariots were of doubtful utility against more mobile cavalry, the elephant screen made the center of Porus’s line nearly impregnable. Macedonian horses would react to the great beasts in terror, and foot soldiers would not advance through an elephant screen to attack the Indian infantry since the animals might turn and trample them from behind.

Alexander had outpaced his own infantry, so he delayed his advance long enough for it to catch up and rest a bit. But because the center of the Indian line seemed much too strong to penetrate with infantry, he decided to win the battle with his cavalry. He massed most of his horses on his own right wing, facing the Indian left wing, where the cavalry was under the personal command of Porus. Coenus, one of Alexander’s generals, was given two mounted units, totaling about 1,000 horses, and ordered to move across the field to the Macedonian left, facing the Indian right cavalry. That, at least, is the way most historians read a particular passage written in the second century A.D. by Arrian, the Greek historian whose account of Alexander’s campaign is the most reliable.

What Arrian actually wrote was that Coenus was to move “to [or against] the right.” There we have a bewildering quandary that occasionally faces every military historian. Did Arrian mean that Coenus was to go to Alexander’s right or the Indian right? Since in the previous sentence Arrian referred to Porus’s left, he must have been referring here to Porus’s right. That is the view of most, but not all, historians.

Having massed the bulk of his horsemen on his own right wing, Alexander expected Porus to move the Indian right cavalry to its left. Following the assumption above, Coenus’s orders were to pursue the Indian right cavalry if it tried to move to the left and to hit it in the rear. Macedonian infantry was not to charge until the cavalry had started a rout. At this point the stage was set for one of antiquity’s greatest cavalry battles.

Porus had yielded the initiative to Alexander by making a defensive stand; therefore it was up to the Macedonian king to make the first move. After his infantry had rested, Alexander launched the battle by sending his mounted archers forward to attack the chariots in front of Porus’s left cavalry. One thousand horse archers swept down on the Indian chariots and drove them off the field. Porus then reacted just as Alexander had expected he would. He ordered his right cavalry to move over to support the left, whereupon Coenus, primed for such a move, swung around behind the Indian right cavalry and came in on their rear just as they joined with the Indian left. This forced Porus to split his cavalry in two and to wheel one part about to face Coenus. At that point Alexander threw in his own main cavalry and drove the Indians into panic and confusion. As Indian horsemen fell back onto the elephants, Alexander ordered his infantry forward, and what had started as a battle quickly turned into a rout. Their mahouts killed, the elephants panicked in a storm of missiles hurled by Macedonian infantrymen. All the while wave after wave of Macedonian cavalry attacked the Indian left and left In Arrian’s words:

By this time the elephants were boxed up, with no room to maneuver, by troops all round them, and as they blundered about, wheeling and shoving this way and that, they trampled to death as many of their friends as of their enemies. . . . Many of the animals had themselves been wounded, while others, riderless and bewildered, ceased altogether to play their expected part, and, maddened by pain and fear, set indiscriminately upon friend and foe, spreading death before them. The Macedonians could deal with these maddened creatures comfortably enough; having room to maneuver, they were able to use their judgement, giving ground when they charged, and going for them with their javelins when they turned and lumbered back, whereas the unfortunate Indians, jammed up close among them . . . found them a more dangerous enemy even than the Macedonians.

When the elephants finally tired, Arrian continued, “Their charges grew feebler; they began to back away, slowly, like ships going astern, with nothing worse than trumpetings.” Alexander then surrounded them and the Indian cavalry and ordered his phalanx to lock shields and push forward. Many Indians fell before this awesome formation; the rest fled. Craterus followed the battle from the west side of the river and brought his fresh troops across just in time to set out in pursuit of the tired, frightened, and defeated foe. Twenty thousand Indian infantry and 3,000 cavalry fell in the Battle of the Hydaspes—far more fatalities than were suffered by the U .S. Marines in more than a month of fighting on Iwo Jima during World War II. All the Indian chariots were lost, and Porus sacrificed two more sons to the conquerors. Alexander’s losses were negligible, perhaps as low as 300 men.

Porus himself had fought bravely on the back of an elephant and continued fighting even after his troops had been routed, at least until he was wounded by a missile in the right shoulder. Alexander, impressed by the king’s bravery, sent his Indian ally Taxiles to bring Porus in, but Porus hated Taxiles and refused to accompany him. Alexander then sent one of Porus’s friends in the Macedonian entourage, who was successful in bringing the Indian king to him. When Alexander asked Porus how he wished to be treated, he replied, “as a king.” Arrian wrote that Alexander then restored the Indian leader to the throne and let him rule as a vassal over the Punjab, along with Taxiles (the two presumably were reconciled). So ended the Battle of the Hydaspes.

There is one controversy about the battle, however, that has never been resolved. It concerns the movement of the cavalry forces from the Macedonian left and the Indian right over to the other side of the field. When the Indian right cavalry was ordered to support its left wing, did it ride around behind the Indian line or in front of it? Assuming that the Indian right galloped behind the line, did Coenus follow behind the line too, or did he cross the field in front of it? Almost every battle plan in print shows a different version of what happened. Some plans show the Indian right going behind the line with Coenus following in the same path. Others show the Indian cavalry behind the line and Coenus in front. A few show both the Indian cavalry and the Macedonian cavalry wheeling around in front of the Indian line. Finally, a very few authors actually show Coenus attacking from the Macedonian right; these are the historians who prefer to read the controversial passage in Arrian “to [or against] the right” as indicating a move in that direction. The only major discussion by a scholar since World War II is one by the historian J.R. Hamilton, who argued in a paper published in 1956 that the Indian cavalry moved behind its own line. That has become the standard view.

But there are reasons to believe that the Indian cavalry must have moved in front of its own line. One of them is that, as Porus needed help on his left fast, it would have been shorter and quicker. Further, there would have been fewer impedimenta before the line than behind it, so it would actually have been easier to move that way. More important, Arrian seems to support the idea of a forward movement, since it clearly states that the Indian left cavalry had moved ahead of the elephants when it was joined by the right cavalry and then was attacked by the Macedonian left. for the right cavalry to have moved behind the line to join a unit that had taken a forward position makes no sense.

In September 1986, the author gave a lecture on this controversy to cadets and offcers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. At the end of the lecture, several offcers added another reason the Indian cavalry must have moved forward in front of the line: It would have been extremely demoralizing to the troops stationed nearby to see the cavalry withdrawing. No commander worth his salt would have appeared to be retreating at the outset of the battle. The consensus was that modern reconstructions of this famous battle are wrong on this matter. The Indian right cavalry must have moved in front of its own line, and Coenus and the Macedonians must have followed it on the field between the two opposing infantry formations.

The Battle of the Hydaspes was Alexander’s last great pitched battle. India proved to be much bigger than the Macedonians had supposed. The mouth of the Indus lay some 800 miles to the south, and they had not even seen the valley of the Ganges. Alexander moved his army on to the east, still hoping to find the end of the earth. When the troops reached the Hyphasis, the modern Beas River, they refused to go any farther. After a three-day standoff, the mortified king agreed to take his soldiers home. He nearly lost his life along the way in the siege of an Indian stronghold, and there were many minor confrontations, but never again was any army willing to risk conventional battle against Alexander. Tragically, much of this fine army was lost from hardships suffered while marching through the Cedrosian desert of southern Persia (now southeast Pakistan and Iran). That Alexander survived with any part of his army is one of the great miracles of world history. He had been lucky, yes, but he was also one of the best generals ever to lead troops.

Alexander’s conquests changed the course of cultural history by producing a fusion of Greek and ancient Middle Eastern civilization that we call the Hellenistic Age; but his romantic foray into India was not, in the long run, politically important. He garrisoned India and brought it administratively into the network of his vast empire, but his successors were unable to hold it for long. Several hundred years later India was almost as mysterious to the Romans as it had been to the Greeks. This fact in no way diminishes the greatness of Alexander’s military achievement. He stands above even Napoleon in the success of his strategy and tactics. The war for the Punjab is a superb illustration of his unparalleled prowess. MHQ

ARTHER FERRILL teaches history at the University of Washington. He is the author of The Origins of War and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1988 issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Alexander in India


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