In the Second Anglo-Sikh War the British prevailed almost in spite of themselves, then employed the Sikhs in their own army.
General Hugh Gough’s army must have been a sight to behold, even by the standards of Imperial British India, as it collected itself throughout November 1848 for the march into the Punjab. The British were going to show rebels there that their citizens could not be killed with impunity and that Britannia not only ruled the waves but also the Punjabi province of Multan, rebellion or no rebellion. Gough’s army consisted of 24,000 fighting men in four columns that included elephant-drawn howitzers, some 3,000 cavalry, horse artillery, 18- pounders, light and heavy field batteries, bearers of every sort— and there at the head was “Paddy” Gough, clad in his famous white battle coat that fairly beckoned enemy fire as he personally commanded 22 infantry divisions. But the next year would see the British army come close to disastrous defeat in India.
Not that Gough was unaware of the capabilities of the army he was about to fight. During the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46, the Sikh army, or Khalsa (“the pure”), had proved to be well equipped and trained in modern European methods. The Sikhs, with their warrior culture, had as much guts as any of Gough’s hardened 6,400 European troops and more than most of his trained indigenous ones. If the Sikhs had a weakness, it was the intrigue and treachery that plagued the Khalsa of that period. Thanks to that, as much as his reckless aggressiveness, Gough had narrowly defeated them in the Battle of Sobraon. He had then marched into Lahore, where the southern provinces were ceded to Britain and the remainder of the Punjab declared a British protectorate.
From that time on the Sikhs, particularly the religious element within the Khalsa, waited for their opportunity for revenge. That opportunity arrived when two British officers, P.A. Vans Agnew and William Anderson, were sent to assume governance of Multan on April 18, 1848. On the 20th the Multanis rose in revolt, killing both men and sounding a clarion call to other Sikhs, who believed that their magnificent army had been betrayed rather than defeated in the first war. A general uprising and the revival of the Khalsa in full strength loomed.
Gough, now Baron Gough, was not as impetuous as he seemed when it came to making battle. He decided against immediate action, knowing that a renewed campaign would require at least 24,000 men with substantial artillery support, and those were simply not available then. Beyond that, he did not wish to antagonize the Sikhs by sending British troops back into the field so soon. With luck, the trouble might prove to be localized and containable. Therefore, for the time being he left the responsibility with the forces of the Sikh darbar (regent), with no more than “political” assistance from the British. Theoretically the British were only ruling the country until Duleep Singh, the young son of Ranjit Singh, who had united the Sikh kingdom into a powerful force, came of age to assume the throne as maharaja. Few Sikhs believed the stated intentions of the British, including Maharani Jind Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s widow. Implicated in the rebellion, she was shipped off to British India, which only further inflamed rebel passions. Meanwhile, the British garrison in Lahore was strengthened as unrest spread.
On June 18, some 8,000 Multanis clashed at Kineri with 5,000 mainly Pathan troops commanded by Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, who drove them off. Reinforced, he advanced toward Multan and hammered out another victory over the rebels on July 2. Gough greeted the news with relief, since it further delayed the outbreak of a general revolt. He was still unprepared and wished to avoid committing British troops during that time of year in the southern Punjab, India’s hottest region.
Edwardes, however, was by no means strong enough to storm Multan, the fortified city where Alexander the Great was gravely wounded leading a similar assault and subsequently killed every man, woman and child in reprisal. While Edwardes waited before the ancient walls for more troops and big guns, however, Chuttur Singh rebelled at Hariput to the north on August 6.
The vanguard of troops from Lahore that Edwardes requested reached Multan on August 12, and the remainder had arrived by the 25th. By then the Punjab was a merciless oven where men keeled over from even modest exertion in an army noted for exhaustive marches. At least 14 men of the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment died of heatstroke on the march, and 175 were sick. With the arrival of the siege train, work began on the first parallel line of trenches on September 7. An assault five days later enabled the besiegers to advance 800 yards and begin digging a second parallel. Almost immediately after that, however, a contingent of sepoys, Indian soldiers in service to Britain, deserted to the rebels. Edwardes decided that the siege could not continue until the arrival of the Bombay Army contingent from Sind.
A long delay seemed inevitable. Then, after three weeks, rebel leader Raja Sher Singh suddenly broke camp and marched away to the north along the Chenab River. Still, the British failed to move either in pursuit of him or against Multan. Troops from the darbar’s forces were regularly defecting to the rebels and only the Pathans, along with the British and Bengal Army contingents, were reliable. Finally, on November 7, Edwardes launched an assault on some Multani batteries, which despite the delays proved a resounding success.
In the meantime, the news of Sher Singh’s abandonment of the Multan fight reached Lahore. Further trouble erupted in the Jullundur Doab and rebellion broke out in the Bari Doab, threatening the security of the newly annexed British territory. A column was dispatched to deal with this new threat under Brigadier Hugh Wheeler, who swiftly occupied first the forts at Rangar Nagal and Morari, then at Kallanwala. By that time, the British government in Calcutta, finally beginning to realize the depth of the crisis, gave Gough freedom to make serious preparations. Gough requested that the Bengal infantry regiments be brought up to a strength of 1,000 and the cavalry to 500. The governor-general, James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, set off for the Punjab on October 10, after making a speech on the 5th saying that “the Sikh Nation has called for war and on my word sirs, they will have it with a vengeance,” without actually conveying that message to the darbar British Sikh regency.
It seems that Gough was in some doubt as to what he was preparing to suppress—a rebellion on behalf of the in Lahore, or one against the darbar himself. At any rate, darbar under Gough’s personal command the Army of the Punjab was now organized. The morale among the Bengal sepoys of the Indian regiments was much higher than it had been at the beginning of the First Sikh War, when they had been somewhat in awe of the Khalsa. This time they knew they could beat the Sikhs.
Sher Singh had gathered a large rebel force in the north and was moving toward Lahore, halting at Gujranwala some 35 miles away, leaving a trail of burning Muslim villages in his wake as he passed through the Rechna Doab. The British deployed a cavalry brigade to screen him and secure a bridgehead over the Ravi River. They expected Sher Singh to make a stand at Gujranwala, but after increasing his troops to some 6,000 men and 30 guns, he withdrew instead to the Chenab River at Ramnagar.
Gough took his main body into the Punjab on November 9, and by November 21 had concentrated his forces some eight miles from Sher Singh, most of whose men had withdrawn across the Chenab. The riverbed is extremely wide in this area, at some places up to three miles. It did not take long for Gough to grasp that this was no place for a cavalry operation but a fine target area for the highly skilled Sikh artillery. A broken fight ensued in which the British cavalry showed real gallantry that paid off in unnecessary casualties. Finally the Sikhs got the last of their troops across the river, and the British camped at Ramnagar.
The administrative arrangements with British governance were, as usual, less than ideal. Nevertheless, the British made the best of the circumstances—one account of the 2nd Bengal Europeans refers to several cricket matches. Reinforced or not, Gough was determined to cross the Chenab and defeat Sher Singh. A direct assault across the shifting sands of the riverbed straight into the teeth of emplaced artillery had little appeal, but he was relieved to learn that a ford had been discovered eight miles distant and another one five miles beyond that. The alternative was a 22-mile march to Waziribad.
A column under Maj. Gen. Joseph Thackwell set off for the nearest ford on the night of November 30, but due to poor staff work it was diverted to Waziribad. Reconnaissance on both sides was terrible, and by December 3, Thackwell’s column had not made contact and was out of rations. When the column finally reached Sher Singh’s position, he had left for the Jhelum River. Thackwell sent his cavalrymen in pursuit through the jungle country, where they found signs of a hasty retreat. Thackwell then halted at Heylah and waited for Gough to join him.
Gough, in no hurry to proceed until he secured his communications lines, finally crossed the Chenab on December 18, then waited a month for more reinforcements, knowing it would be folly to confront Sher Singh in his very strong position at the Jhelum. At the same time, other operations continued around Lahore, clearing pockets of bandits and small rebel forts. As long as the Khalsa was not threatening Lahore, or until there were signs that Sher Singh might be strongly reinforced, Gough could afford to wait.
At Multan the welcome arrival of the Bombay Army greatly increased the siege train and the reinforcements’ quality also impressed the besiegers, whose British troops thought they compared very favorably with their own Bengalis. The Bombay Army’s native officers were younger, and their discipline and equipment looked superior. They were certainly more prepared to get to work with pick and spade than the Bengali sepoys. A successful preliminary attack was made on December 27, prior to the main assault on the fort, which was scheduled for January 2, 1849.
On December 27, a young British officer, Charles Pollard, looked up to see a huge pall of smoke, like a rude, ink-black column, rise from Multan. A well-placed mortar shell had struck the Sikh magazine, which went up in a massive explosion. The assault on January 2 scattered all but 3,000 Sikhs, who holed up in the citadel. On the 22nd, those last defenders requested terms before an assault was necessary and subsequently surrendered. The remains of the two officers whose murder had touched off the war were reinterred with full military honors. Having left a strong garrison, the Multan siege force now moved to join up with Gough at Heylah.
On January 10, Gough had received news that Attok had fallen to Chuttur Singh, meaning that he would be free to join his son with Afghan reinforcements from the frontier area. At the same time, he was experiencing difficulty with Sikh agents trying to buy off his sepoys, and he therefore decided to take the offensive before being joined by reinforcements freed up by the sucess at Multan.
The Sikhs had chosen a position with their backs to the Jhelum River. From their left in the village of Russool, their position curved through a string of villages that sat on the top of some hills along the riverbank. Gough decided to aim at the village of Chillianwalla, which lay in the middle of the position about a mile away and where there was known to be water, absent from the rest of the position. From Chillianwalla, he would either halt or attack, depending on the circumstances.
On the morning of January 13, the army began to advance. The terrain made for tough going, but at about noon Gough’s force approached a Sikh outpost, which it drove in, and the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment seized a mound just beyond the village. Gough was well forward and climbed up the mound, from which he could see the full extent of the Sikh position. He realized he had very nearly walked into a trap and as it was he was virtually committed to a frontal assault.
Gough brought up his guns and opened a one-hour bombardment, hoping that would leave enough daylight for a follow-up infantry assault. One battery on the left flank became heavily engaged with a Sikh battery that was in a good position to enfilade Brigadier Colin Campbell’s division when it went forward. At some point, a staff officer appeared at another battery position that had been reduced from six to three guns, and ordered it to support the first. The staff officer was never identified, and Thackwell, whose flank it was, denied giving such an order, but in any case those additional guns silenced the Sikh battery.
As soon as that task was completed, Campbell’s infantry prepared to advance. The jungle in front of Campbell was too thick for him to control both his brigades, so he joined one and left Brigadier John Pennycuick’s brigade to proceed on its own. He thus fought the battle as a brigade and not a divisional commander, and also ordered the 24th’s troops to rely strictly on the bayonet. Captain A.G. Blachford, who was fated to command the regiment later that day, heard Campbell say, “Let it be said the 24th stormed the guns without firing a shot.” The 24th advanced in the center of Pennycuick’s brigade, with the 25th and 45th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) on either flank, and for some reason its troops were in full dress with tall Albert shakos. Moving quickly with élan, they left their flanking units behind and soon found themselves assailed from front and flanks. A Sikh counterattack forced the 24th on Chillianwalla, having lost 231 men killed and 236 wounded, including 26 officers. Pennycuick’s son, who was with the 24th, was last seen standing over his father’s body, defending it against the oncoming Sikhs. Both native regiments were also repulsed.
Campbell’s other brigade advanced with the 61st (South Gloucestershire) Regiment in the center and the 36th and 46th BNI on the flanks across some 800 yards of more-open though still heavily forested terrain, but without artillery support, which Campbell seems to have neglected. The 61st broke cover some 80 yards from the Sikh line and found itself facing cavalry. Its troops halted, fired a volley and charged, capturing a number of Sikh guns. The 36th was met and repulsed, but the 46th held off a counterattack by cavalry. The Sikhs now attacked the exposed right flank of the 61st, whose soldiers drove them off, turned and repulsed a counterattack, and then wheeled left to repulse a cavalry attack. The 46th had held its own all along, and the two regiments now combined and swept along the Sikh line, with the 61st eventually capturing 13 guns.
To the left of Campbell was Maj. Gen. Sir Walter Gilbert’s division. The 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment stormed through a cloud of grapeshot to charge an entrenched Sikh infantry position and 12 cannons, whose gunners defended their charges even to the point of grabbing the assailants’ bayonets with their bare hands. For a moment it seemed the 29th was isolated as the 56th BNI was overrun by Sikh cavalry. The 29th’s troops wheeled left and were counterattacked from the right; wheeling again, they drove off those assailants, only to see cavalry coming at them from the rear, which they fought off by an abrupt about-face. The 29th then joined the 30th BNI and approached the Sikh line, where they met the 31st BNI detached from its own brigade. All three regiments proceeded until they met Campbell coming the other way. The 56th had lost 330 soldiers and the 30th just under 300.
Once his division was moving, Gilbert had to devote his energies to his right-hand brigade after the British cavalry on the far right of the line had been driven from the field in panic, the origin of which is unclear but whose results were disastrous. The 2nd Europeans were in the center, with the 70th BNI on the right and the 31st on the left. The 70th halted and formed a square so that when the 2nd went forward, its troops found themselves being fired on from the rear, with Sikh cavalry preparing to charge. They faced about, and Gilbert coolly asked their commander: “Well major, how are you? Do you think you are near enough to give those fellows a charge?” The major replied “By all means,” and they swiftly overran their opponents. The veering off of the 31st created a gap in the British formation, but Gough filled it by ordering forward his reserve brigade.
Despite the rout of the British cavalry on the right and the chaotic nature of the fighting in the close country, Gough could consider the battle won now that his forces were firmly established in the middle of the Sikh position, and the enemy was beginning to withdraw. Gough was inclined to hold his positions and advance the next morning. But he was persuaded to withdraw to Chillianwalla to obtain water, and added, “I am damned if I will move until all my wounded are safe.” Indeed, the move did not commence until all the surviving casualties had been found.
Unfortunately for Gough, his decision to withdraw allowed the Sikhs to come forward and recover all the guns they had lost, as well as four British ones. They—or local villagers—also stripped many British corpses and mutilated some. British losses had totaled 2,331 of all ranks, but Gough received a tremendous ovation from his men when he toured the bivouac site.
The following four days were marred by heavy rain that made all movement very difficult. Gough was now determined to wait for reinforcements, as Sher Singh had now been joined by his father, Chuttur. The British threw up breastworks at Chillianwalla and waited. The loss of four guns and the continued existence of the Khalsa created a very bad impression in Calcutta and London, and Gough came in for considerable criticism. There was no doubt among the men of the British and Bengali regiments, however, that the “old man in the white coat” had led them to victory and would lead them there again.
Early on the morning of February 4, Sher Singh evacuated Russool and retired to the southeast in the direction of Gujrat. He was prepared to offer Gough battle only in a defensive position and consequently probably threw away his one chance of success, since he knew Gough would soon be reinforced. He had, however, taken the British by surprise, and it was some time before Gough was able to follow up his hard-won victory.
Moving up in short stages, Gough incorporated the troops coming up from Multan and by the evening of February 20 was concentrated around Shandiwal. The men from Multan were in equally good heart and had covered 235 miles in 18 days. The Sikhs were drawn up some 3,000 yards from the walled city of Gujrat between two nullahs. The left one, running down to the Chenab, had a very boggy bottom, while the nullah on the right-hand side was dry. The British advanced at 7:30 on the morning of February 21. Shortly before 9, the Sikh batteries opened fire, disclosing their positions, and Gough brought his artillery forward to engage them. The British gunners took heavy casualties but performed with consummate coolness and eventually got the better of their Sikh opponents. The whole British line moved forward, with the guns advancing before them.
A youngster whose letters home were later published under the pseudonym of “A. Subaltern” watched the massed British batteries pounding the enemy at 300 yards and the Sikh gunners replying with “great spirit and precision.” Corporal John Ryder was less impressed with the Sikhs’ accuracy but applauded the way they “stood and defended their guns to the last. They threw their arms around them, kissed them, and died.”
As this move was taking place, the Sikh cavalry deployed on both sides of the wet nullah moved forward. The two native regiments closest to them formed a square, but they were soon forced away by the British cavalry. Their tactics were not to close with the Sikh riders but to keep them at arm’s length and allow the horse artillery to deal with them. On the British right, where the infantry was approaching the village of Choto Kalra, the Sikh cavalry also tried to get in on the flank but was driven off by artillery, allowing the 10th (North Lincolnshire) Regiment, supported by the 8th BNI, to storm the village. That caused a gap to appear between them, and Gilbert directed his division toward the village of Bara Kalra, through which he feared the Sikhs would counterattack. The 52nd BNI was refused to meet this threat, while Gilbert ordered a reserve brigade up to fill the gap. That decision proved timely, for the reserves arrived just in time to repel a counterattack.
The attack on Bara Kalra was led once more by the 2nd Europeans, which cleared the village after a stiff fight among the houses. Meanwhile the 31st BNI had suffered badly at the hands of a Sikh battery that had not been silenced. When finally ordered forward, it stormed the battery, suffering 140 casualties.
Soon after that, what was intended as the main Sikh counterattack came down the line of the dry nullah, roughly at the junction between Gilbert’s and Campbell’s divisions. The Sikhs, however, were caught in the nullah by Campbell’s guns, suffering heavy losses, and their assault never really got going.
The Sikh cavalry displayed less enthusiasm for the fight than it had at Chillianwalla. At one stage, the 3rd (King’s Own) Light Dragoons reported that it “presented a front” to a body of enemy cavalry as it was escorting a battery of six guns and retired, drawing the Sikhs on until they were well within range of the 60th (King’s Royal Rifle Corps), whose troops promptly swept them with rifle fire, knocking out the gunners and enabling the 3rd to trot forward and spike the guns. On the right flank, the Scinde Horse and a squadron of 9th (Queen’s) Royal Lancers charged a much larger body of mainly Afghan horse. A fierce two–minute melée ensued before the Afghans broke and were pursued through the Sikh camp.
By 12:30 p.m., the battle was effectively over. A tragedy occurred when some soldiers of the 2nd Europeans joined some sepoys sitting on an ammunition limber and one of them lit his pipe. The entire party was blown up in the accidental explosion. Otherwise, the British and Bengali infantry advanced some two miles before halting, leaving the pursuit to the cavalry, which carried out that task with great vigor—and no mercy, for the killing of British wounded by the Sikhs at Chillianwalla gave the British an excuse for wholesale slaughter. Total British losses amounted to 766, and 53 Sikh guns were captured.
Pursuit operations continued until the British reached Rawalpindi on March 8, at which point the Sikhs returned all their prisoners and negotiations began. The Khalsa, which had suffered badly while passing through Muslim villages and was out of supplies, finally surrendered outright on March 14. As its soldiers formally marched out to lay down their arms in front of the British forces, some threw down their arms and exclaimed, “Now Ranjit Singh is dead.” Although the Sikhs were tired and hungry, their bearing was much admired by British observers.
While many of the Muslims regarded the British as liberators, Lord Dalhousie was soon able to report in glee of the absolute “subjection and humiliation” of the Sikhs. The Punjab was duly annexed and the British conquest of India was complete.
The British won their second triumph against the Sikhs almost in spite of themselves. The quality of leadership was poor at all levels, reconnaissance was weak and the cavalry, although generally brave, did not distinguish itself.
Given the equivocal nature of Gough’s victory at Chillianwalla, the British authorities chose Sir Charles Napier to supersede him, but by the time news of that arrived Gough had given the Khalsa its decisive defeat at Gujrat. Victor or not, his tactics in both Sikh wars remained the subject of bitter controversy. Recalled to England, he was made a viscount and—for the third time—received the thanks of both houses of Parliament, which granted him an annual pension of 2,000 pounds. He received an equal pension from the East India Company, but he saw no further active service. Colin Campbell’s performance in the Punjab had hardly inspired confidence, either, but he went on to greater distinction during the Crimean War in 1854, and went on to be commander in chief during the 1857 Indian Mutiny.
The Khalsa was not the force it had been—it contained many more irregulars than in the First Anglo-Sikh War—and although it had again fought bravely, it had signed its death warrant. The British were not slow, however, to take up the slack. Almost immediately after the Khalsa was disbanded, the British raised five Sikh regiments, and in due course they would rely upon the courage and discipline of Punjabi troops during the Indian Mutiny and beyond.
Jon Latimer lives in Wales and writes on a variety of military history topics. For further reading, he recommends: Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Lord of the Five Rivers, by Jean-Marie Lafont, and Private Correspondence Relating to the Anglo-Sikh Wars, by Ganda Singh.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.