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What We Learned... from the Hydaspes River

By Richard A. Gabriel 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: December 26, 2007 
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Alexander the Great had come 2,500 miles since crossing the Hellespont in 334 bc and conquering the Persian Empire to the Indian frontier. Now, planning to attack India itself, he ordered shipwrights to prepare landing craft for use on the Hydaspes and Indus Rivers, which flanked the border. In March 326 bc, Alexander crossed the Indus and seized Taxila, establishing a base for the invasion. Here he learned that Porus, an Indian prince, was marshaling his army on the banks of the Hydaspes. Alexander marched his army 110 miles from Taxila to the Hydaspes, where Porus' army of 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 300 chariots and 200 elephants waited on the far bank. Alexander faced a forced river crossing opposed by a strong enemy.

Alexander's army comprised 23,000 Greek heavy infantry, 1,000 Iranian horse-archers and 8,000 heavy cavalry. While calling up his landing craft, he sent for large supplies of wheat to persuade Porus that he would wait until the rainy season ended before crossing. For several nights Alexander marched his cavalry up and down the riverbank as if searching for a crossing point. At first Porus moved to keep him in check, but after concluding that Alexander had no intention of crossing, Porus remained in camp. Alexander's forces now roamed the riverbank unchallenged.

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Alexander divided his army into three parts. A force of 3,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry under Craterus stayed directly opposite Porus' position. Alexander led the turning force of 5,000 cavalry and 10,500 infantry, including 2,000 archers, while a reserve force of 1,000 cavalry and 4,500 infantry under Meleager waited for Alexander's force to secure the far bank. One night a terrible storm arose, with rain, wind and thunder. Using the weather as a screen, Alexander moved his turning force into position 17 miles upstream.

His chosen crossing point was a headland that jutted into the river toward a wooded island, providing concealment for his landing craft. By dawn Alexander's force had crossed the river and begun moving toward Porus' camp.

With Alexander approaching, Porus faced a dilemma. Was this a feint or the main attack? Porus sent 2,000 of his cavalry to intercept Alexander, reserving his main force to deal with Craterus' expected attack. Alexander destroyed the Indian cavalry and continued his advance. Porus then switched to the defensive, deploying his infantry in a line, each wing protected by only 1,000 cavalry and some elephants.

Alexander attacked Porus' left with 4,000 cavalry and his right with 2,000 horsemen. Porus ordered the cavalry on his right to circle behind the battle line and reinforce his left, so Alexander's 2,000 Greek cavalry simply followed them. Alexander then shifted his 1,000 horse-archers against Porus' left while moving his heavy cavalry to envelop the Indian infantry. Porus extended his left to block the envelopment, which created a gap in his line. Alexander sent his heavy cavalry into the gap while the Greek cavalry riding behind the battle line shattered Porus' left.

Porus rallied his troops into a phalanx to meet Alexander's frontal infantry attack, so Alexander ordered his cavalry to encircle the packed Indian phalanx. Then his infantry and cavalry attacked in concert. Craterus soon arrived on the field with fresh troops, turning the battle into a slaughter. Eight hours later, Alexander had lost 280 cavalry and 700 Greek infantry, while Porus suffered 12,000 killed and 9,000 taken prisoner. The road to India was open.

Lessons:

  • Seize the initiative. Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke once said, "The offensive knows what it wants, whereas the defensive is in a state of uncertainty."
  • Conceal your intentions. Alexander deceived Porus into thinking he wouldn't cross the Hydaspes until the dry season.
  • Use darkness and weather to your advantage, as Alexander did. The Germans did the same at the Battle of the Bulge.
  • Force your enemy into a tactical mistake and then exploit it. Alexander compelled Porus to extend his flank then sent his cavalry into the resulting gap.
  • Know the terrain. Alexander never fought a battle without first examining the field.
  • Learn from history. Napoléon studied Alexander's campaigns. At the 1809 Battle of Wagram, he faced the same problem on the Danube that Alexander had faced on the Hydaspes and solved it the same way: Napoléon kept a pinning force across from the enemy camp, sent a turning force upstream, crossed on an island and turned the enemy flank—all in a driving rain.


22 Responses to “What We Learned... from the Hydaspes River”


  1. 1
    sandeep says:

    "Alexander had lost 280 cavalry and 700 Greek infantry, while Porus suffered 12,000 killed and 9,000 taken prisoner. The road to India was open."
    i have serious doubts about your website's credibility. Please update yourself.

  2. 2
    cprunk says:

    Please be more specific as to the lack of credibility of the web site. Any critical comment should refute the facts provided.

  3. 3
    anirban bandyopadhyay says:

    1. The historian writing here does not understand what corroded mud means, greeks can never fight in that land, indians are master of walking and running through mud ground.

    2. How alexander avoided mad elephant army? It was greatest strength of indian kings. Only way indian's used was fire ball. In the heavy rain Alexander could not use that. How did he manage then?

    3. There is a basic addition of soldiers problem in this text. While cooking the story, historian forgot that by his statistics 26000 porous army faught against 23,000 greek army in a dark muddy jungle known to indians only. and still 12,000 indians died. Are you joking??????

    4. Prous had large army of archers? Where is that information? Indians for 5000 years were the master of archering arts, they are the inventors of various different kinds of bows with massive impacts, many evidences were there. In india at that time, archery was the most effective war tool.

    5. Please ask some european team to cross beas in a stormy rainy night using 2000 years old boats. Do you have any idea how big boats are required? And how many to cross the river? Alexander never faced such river earlier, all these processes went on and Porous was sleeping???? Do you think they were idiots, seeing 30,000 army moving and enjoying????

    6. By indian legend there were several attempts by Alexander to cross the river by boats and he suffered heavy casualties. Just think, they could not even walk in the back they were staying, how could they think of crossing the river and attack. Come to India, I will train you how to walk on a muddy clouds, it is very tricky and you have to be very concious always, forget of war. Your mental state becomes restless under these rains and a frustration comes to every common people, because you just cant do anything.

    Before cooking a story please think.

  4. 4
    Wesley says:

    What seems clear is that by all accounts Alexander foresaw the difficulty he faced with Porus. A strong, diverse army with a huge advantage in terms of position and knowledge of the terrain.

    He clearly knew he needed the weather as a screen and foresaw the difficulty in the crossing which is why he led the initial crossing and attack, as apposed to a feint led by a subordinate, which Porus seem to at least initially anticipated.

    My question to those with knowledge of Indian accounts, are there alternate accounts of the crossing? Why would it seem unlikely that Alexander's forces would be able to handle the Indians (once engaged),who by all accounts had yet to fight a 'Western Army' (heavy infantry based supported by Calvary).

    But I would agree that Alexander was clearly impressed with not only Porus but also his soldiers as is evident in him allowing Porus to remain in control of his territory. If he were following his previous lessons, it seems he would have been inclined to replace Porus as the leader of the Indians, who did not share a religion or social establishment of the previously conquered peoples, making them indifferent to Alexander’s status as divine ruler of the West and ‘East’. Such admiration would suggest that the battle did not end in a massacre as the text suggests, but rather was at least a difficult victory for the ‘Greeks.’

  5. 5
    Anand says:

    All that talk for great army, the greatest Alexander had to face ever and almost defeated, army mutined, ran away. Oh la la .. the fact is Porus is not even among the famous kings of era. The so called Alexander was alomost killed in fighting small tribals warlords while retreating, how could you think of facing real enemy? .. Had these might kingdoms of India attacked, probably we could have conquered all. It appears to me that Alexander is all but big hot air ball, as most of your writings is based on authors who interpreted 2 centuries later OR he and his army must have been tired and exhausted. History is always biased with too much adjectives. Interesting to see what this author had to write if Porus had crossed the river.

  6. 6
    Michael says:

    There seems to be a seriously out of Punjabi proboscis or two! If one is to take the short summary to task it might do well to stick to the facts as received.

    The fact is that this battle – although much studied for its tactics – is a minor or peripheral battle; a little in the mold of Granicus. Alexander took on what was, demonstrably, a Rajah's territorial array. This was no Persian Royal army and it was far from the Greek coalition that would embarrass Antipater in 323.

    Although the source tradition for this battle is frustratingly defective, there are some reasonably clear points. The first of which are the three divisions of the army to occupy Porus’ attention. Another is the assault or “turning” force. The article claims:

    "Alexander led the turning force of 5,000 cavalry and 10,500 infantry, including 2,000 archers…"

    Arrian is clear in his listing of this force (and actually repeats the total that he comes to when he gets to listing casualties):

    "Alexander picked the select body-guard called the Companions, as well as the cavalry regiments of Hephaestion, Perdiccas, and Demetrius, the cavalry from Bactria, Sogdiana, and Scythia, and the Daan horse-archers; and from the phalanx of infantry the shield-bearing guards, the brigades of Clitus and Coenus, with the archers and Agrianians."

    After the crossing Arrian repeats the listing of the infantry and, although the passage is faulty suffers from a scribal gloss, the import is the same: the royal hypaspists, the regular hypaspists and the units (2) of the phalanx which the faulty text describes as the “other shield-bearing guards, as each happened at the time to have the right of precedence”. Along with the Agrianes, archers and javelin men this would amount to something in the order of 8,000. Certainly the hypaspists and two phalanx regiments will have numbered 6,000.

    It is with this force that Alexander takes on Porus’ main army. This should give pause to those entertaining a large Indian host awaiting him. The descriptions given of this army are, like the Persian armies earlier, exaggerated. Porus is variously described as fielding 30-50,000 infantry and 85-200 elephants. These elephants, in contrast to the article, are not posted on the wings. They are, as the sources describe, posted along the front of the infantry and resemble a “city wall” with Indian infantry between them (and on the wings). Arrian describes these 200 elephants as being posted at 100 foot intervals (some 30 metres). This makes a battle line of some six kilometres in width. This is obvious exaggeration and such a line is most unlikely to be taken on by a Macedonian force whose line can amount to little more than 900 metres.

    That says much about the numbers of Porus’ levy. Curtius is likely much closer with his 85 elephants.

    Other points need to be raised. Alexander had with him 5,000 cavalry. He cannot have mounted a 2/4 split of this. Also Arrian is clear that the assault force took on the Indians and fought the battle. Reconstructions that include Meleagher’s force or Craterus’ do so without the support of the sources. Arrian plainly states:
    AT the same time Craterus and the other officers of Alexander’s army who had been left behind on the bank of the Hydaspes crossed the river, when they perceived that Alexander was winning a brilliant victory. These men, being fresh, followed up the pursuit instead of Alexander’s exhausted troops, and made no less a slaughter of the Indians in their retreat.

    The battle is clearly won when Craterus and “the other officers” (Meleagher et al) finally make it across. To seal the point later Arrian gives casualty figures for those engaged in the original attack.

    I realise that the article is merely a “synopsis” but Porus’ main problem was not a gap or extending his left. His biggest problem was combating the Macedonian cavalry assault on his left. To do this he transferred his right cavalry behind the infantry to his left. Unfortunately it was pursued by Coenus and forced onto both the elephants and infantry.

    That Alexander could surround the Indians with his assault force clearly indicates a number far less than the Greco-Macedonian sources give.

    For the fellow wondering about the Indian archers, the source material clearly indicates they were ineffective due to the fact they could not brace their bows in the mud.

    The fact is the Indian Rajah Porus lost the battle. His force was not large and his major ally was the Hydaspes which he reckoned the Macedonian would not bother attempting to cross in the face of opposition. He seriously underestimated the nature of the enemy commander.

  7. 7
    Shaun says:

    I feel that getting bogged down in a nationalistic bunfight over the performance of Indian arms is a mistake. Sources for this period were notorious for lionising Alexanders achievements. He had a veteran, highly capable force at his back, and put this up against what appears to have been a regional army.
    The historical record is clear that Alexander made no lasting impression upon the sub-continent, and arguments above stating that Alexander chose to leave Porus in control of his domains, probably should be changed to "was unable to unseat Porus from his throne".
    The Tyranny of distance ended Alexanders conquests. His troops, after marching from greece, across Anatolia, into Mesopotamia and Iran, taking in Syria and Palestine along the way, ere a long way from home, and despite being elite veteran troops, were at the end of their tether.
    It is highly doubtful whether Alexander, even with the full support of his troops, would have had any long term success in India. He would have had to campaign for several years, far from reinforcements and logistical support, against entrenched rulers with their own professional armies fighting in their own backyard. Alexanders troops mutinied at the prospect of this. As Alexanders successors were to find, even hanging onto the conquest he had made already was to be a difficult task, as local elites, partially hellenized at times, gradually reasserted their own autonomy over the next few decades.
    There is no doubt that Alexander was a genius military leader in the tactical sense. However his long temr strategic goals (if in fact he had any, apart from conquering everything) appear to have been ill-thought out. He put little time into properly constituting the governance of his vast conquests, and his premature death led to a glorious but ultimately fractured legacy.

  8. 8
    Michael says:

    The historical record is clear that Alexander made no lasting impression upon the sub-continent, and arguments above stating that Alexander chose to leave Porus in control of his domains, probably should be changed to “was unable to unseat Porus from his throne”.

    "Unable" is likely a touch too strong. "Unwilling" to do so and invest the manpower to keep it so is more likely.

    You are correct about the "lasting impression' (not) that the Macedonian made. India was slipping by the time of his death. The last realistic hold over the area slipped after Antiochus III ("The Great") lost interest. Even so, this was more an alliance with the Greco-Bactrian kingdom whereby Antiohus was recognised as "overlord"; at least untill he looked towards Egypt and ultimate defeat by Rome.

  9. 9
    Raj says:

    I have a keen interest in the history of Alexander and admire him to be a great leader and warrior, however I have always questioned western accounts of the battle at the Hydapses river. I am of SriLankan origin and therefore it can not be argued that my view is tainted by national pride.

    The current account of the battle is made on the notes taken by either Greek or Roman historians who lived 200-300 yrs after the death of Alexander. Please correct me if I'm wrong? These accounts where based on accounts made by greeks/macedonians who where with Alexander. Why do people or western historians consider the possibility that those accounts could be lies? Even in these modern times world leaders always attempt to put a possitive spin on a defeat and try to change actual events by distorting facts to make them look better. Why not during the time of Alexander?

    As far as I am aware, every Kings or leader who fought against Alexander either ended up dead in battle or executed after the battle and replaced by Alexander. However, Porus despite being "defeated" get to keep his kingdon!? Yes, the Greeks say that Alexander did this becaise he respected Porus but I dont buy that story. If the greeks had won why did they never ever return to conquer India? Why, according to some accounts, that after the battle the greeks returned to Baylon demoralised?

    This is my account of the battle, it ended either in a defeat to Alexander or a stalemate where both Kings agreed to part their seperate ways.

  10. 10
    Michael says:

    As far as I am aware, every Kings or leader who fought against Alexander either ended up dead in battle or executed after the battle and replaced by Alexander. However, Porus despite being “defeated” get to keep his kingdon!?

    Then you are somewhat unaware of Mazeus being appointed to Babylonia ofter Gaugamela? Of Atropates, part of the 'rebellion' under Bessus, who was appointed to Media?

    If the greeks had won why did they never ever return to conquer India? Why, according to some accounts, that after the battle the greeks returned to Baylon demoralised?

    Again, the Indian rajah led a smaller army that credited. Alexander, far from returning to Babylon demoralised after the battle, expanded his domain. The Macedonians refused to go beyond the Hyphasis. Porus ruled as client king a practise the Romans were later to near formalise.

    As I've written, Alexander was not interested in investing the manpower to control the kingdom. It is likely they did not want to be so left.

    For an area not ever conquered we hear much about Indian revolts against Macedonian rule at this time and after. Somehow, though, we are expected to believe that whlst Alexander contolled areas north and soutn of Porus, he was left "unconquered"? Unlikely.

  11. 11
    Michael says:

    Yes, the Greeks say that Alexander did this becaise he respected Porus but I dont buy that story. If the greeks had won why did they never ever return to conquer India?

    A statement that betrays a lack of knowledge of events post Alexander. The "Greeks" – for which read the Macedonians – were much preoccupied with the squabble for empire. The satraps of the "upper" satrapies (Bactria, Soghdia, Arachosia, Parapamisadae, India, etc) engaged in a major war against the aggrandising Peithon and then fell into the second Diadoch War which culminated in the great battles of Paraetecene (Nov 317) and Gabiene (early January 316). After the settlement imposed by Antigonus Monophthalmus, the far eastern satrapies gradually slipped as attention turned to the great struggle between Antigonus, Lysimachos, Seleucus, Ptolemy and Kassander. By the time this was decided (Ipsos and Corupedium) the “upper” satrapies would be largely out of Macedonian control until Antiochus III (The Great) and his anabasis.

    The fact of the matter is that Alexander did not want to commit the manpower necessary to hold India and, by the time of the campaign in Iran (317) the south of India was lost. Further, Alexander's successors had little or no interest in the Indian satrapies preferring to control the heart of empire Persis to the west) even unto allowing the Bactrian satrapy to become a quasi-independent eventually becoming the Greco-Bactrian state which fell about 150 BC.

  12. 12
    Samrat says:

    Whereas every kingdom conquered before was pillaged and its womenfolks raped, Porus and his folk were let off just because he wanted to be treated king like? How does one explain that? Couple this with the fact that Porus ends up with more Gold and Land after he was supposedly defeated? How is this supposed to happen?

  13. 13
    John Merkatatis says:

    1)The western sources the Indian friend doubts are mainly Arrian and to a certain extent Plutarch but Arrian draws his sources from writers contemporary to Alexander and taking part in the campaign either in the scientific group(Callisthenes,nephew of Alexander's tutor Aristoteles) or Greeks who had no love for Alexander or at best were impartial towards him like Onesicritus,Nearchus Aristobulous and mainly Ptolemy's biography of Alexander with a lot of information from Aristobulous and since many of them are also sited by Diodorus the
    Sicilian,the cross-checked information must be considered accurate.
    2)Arrian and Diodorus agreed with Alexander's army strenth being between 36000 and 45000 and Porus losses numbering 21000 but Diodorus classifies 9000 of them as prisoners.
    A word of caution here:the Greek historians and chroniclers in counting an army strength number only the citizen soldiers of the phalanx and allies not subject peoples(see A.R.Burn "Persia and the Greeks" where he gives examples of that standard practice);the same
    by extention applies to Alexander's army,Agrianes as allies and the secret weapon of Alexander's cavalry-javeliners charging with the horse cavalry-allies are mentioned but the silver-shields 10000 of them trained with Macedonian standards ofHypaspists and all youngPersian noblemen are not mentioned aswell as other specilized cavalry units and others,greately outnumbering The Greeks by two to one,all elite Persian professional troops.of Darius are not mentioned.Porus indian troops were inferior to them since the persians had conquered that part of India and it constituted part of the Persian Empire.Don't forget Alexander wanted to conquer the Persian Empire and that part of India constituted part of it and that is why Alexander's army didn't want to advance further.These Indians,conquered by the Persians were paying tribute Alexander let porus govern as those before him and tribute was more usuful than leaving behind expensive occupation forces.The same system was generally followed by the Romans later with few exceptions on strategic grounds.Alexander never executed defeated leaders;our Indian friend is misinformed;Alexander used leaders to govern people through them.
    3) India could not fight Alexander to a standstill let alone defeat him;the hardest nut to crack for Alexander had been Afganistan(Bactria,Sogdiana) due to the hazardous terrain and the ferocity of its inhabitants which taxed his skill and endurance to the outmost;;there Alexander had to show his powers of adaptation and his skills on the ground;India was never up to Alexander's standards in respect of organization,training and tactical ingenuity.

  14. 14
    John Merkatatis says:

    I like to point out another important matter; Alexander invaded Asia when he was still a boy(22 years old) a talented tactician but no stragegist;He became one as his campaigns progressed and acquired the awareness of high strategy that leads to war policy.
    He had already destroyed two great Carthagenian cities,Tyre and Sidon and new that he had an enemy in the west and also learned about the growing power of Rome.When he returned from India in Babylon already discussions were under way about future plans;and
    two possibilities arose:Arabia or West.
    The death of Alexander,the war in Greece and the wars of the successors(diadohoi) made India fall into low priority but not abandoned;Antiochus the Great showed that.

  15. 15
    Michael says:

    Agrianes as allies and the secret weapon of Alexander’s cavalry-javeliners charging with the horse cavalry-allies are mentioned but the silver-shields 10000 of them trained with Macedonian standards ofHypaspists [...] are not mentioned…

    I admit to being somewhat confused at this. Numbers for Alexander's arrays always included the Agrianes, Balacrus' "javelin men" and the hypaspists. Indeed, the hypaspists are clearly named as part of the assault force that Alexander takes across the river with two taxeis of the phalanx. These troops at no stage are numbered to the tune of 10,000 in Alexander's army. Three units of 1,000 are mentioned.

    The numbers of Persian armies are rediculously exaggerated in the Greco-Macedonian sources. The numbers for Porus are similarly exaggerated as I've suggested above.

  16. 16
    bobby says:

    I noticed that you didn't say that Alexander was killed in this battle, and some of the infromation was misleading.

  17. 17
    dinil says:

    please update the article, i find it highly misleading

  18. 18
    Dionysiac says:

    Far from bieng a matter of nationalistic pride the indians were no match for the macedonians which had already conquered better trained and equipped armies. Not to mention the most modern and largest cities of the world at the time. I find the idea that the sources and histories were made up naiive history has taught us that the victors always write the accounts.

  19. 19
    Dionysiac says:

    Furthermore Alexander's idea was to reach the edge of the world the great ocean that the greeks believed was on the other side of India. His army mutinied when it became apparent that he would never stop and a great ocean was still not to be found. Not losing a medium size battle with Indians as is suggested.

  20. 20
    RIPU says:

    First of all I would like to make clarification here, that repeatedly people are referring to Porus as king of Indians, but reality is that, he was a king of a very small province in the north western part of Indian Sub continent. Secondly he had a small army, and there is no doubt about that, so defeating Porus did not meant that Alexander defeated indian Emperor, who at that point of time was Dhananand, a king of Nanda dynasty, with seat of power at Patliputra(now Patna). Porus was just like a big landlord, and the Battle between the two was also not a major battle and in Indian history text books also there are only minor references to it.
    History always keeps on changing according to will of those in power, and the truth of the moment is that West is powerful today, so they have all the logic in the world to glorify there past. People talk in a way as if they were present there and watching everything with their own eyes….

  21. 21
    Shashank says:

    Guys do you really believe that a Man who defeated so many kingdoms in west and aded their army to his, while his way to India had so small army? Well i don't believe this. If he won the battle, why did he returned? People say his troops were tired and were homesick. Then why they all didn't went back? his satraps stayed in northwest part of India. Do you think they were able to stay without their own significant army in the unknown area?

    If you think logically, Satraps stay and become strong only when the leader dies. The Alexander may have wounded in the battle with Porus and died. Then His satraps retreated and stayed at whatever territory they were able to hold. Seleucus is most famous among them.

    While going through this article i felt that Macedonians and Greeks had four hands and they were 9 feet tall, While Indians were weak and small people.

    It is a fact that Porus was very small king (territory wise), if you compare other kingdoms in india of that time and it was his greatness and bravery that he is still remembered for the last battle in Alexander's life and probably Alexander's death too.

  22. 22
    Shashank says:

    With due respect to Mr. John Merkatatis's pride of western supremacy of organization,training and tactical ingenuity, I would pray to god to provide the same qualities to current Greek leaders, so that thay can make their nation debt free and progressive, Similar to what Chanakya did for Mourya empire.



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