Battle of Chillianwala

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The Battle of Chillianwala was fought during the Second Anglo-Sikh War in the Punjab, now part of Pakistan. Although the battle may be considered a draw, it was a strategic check to Britain, and damaged British prestige in India.

Prelude

The Second Anglo-Sikh war broke out in the Punjab, which had recently been occupied by the British East India Company, in April 1848 when the city of Multan rebelled under Dewan Mulraj. The East India Company sent several forces of locally raised troops to help quell the revolt. One of these forces consisted largely of Sikhs under General Sher Singh Attariwalla. On September 14, General Sher Singh's army also rebelled. Other than opposition to the British, Mulraj and Sher Singh had no aims in common. Sher Singh decided to move his army north, to join that of his father, General Chattar Singh Attariwalla, who had also rebelled in Hazara.

The East India Company responded by forming an Army of the Punjab under Sir Hugh Gough. Gough wished to take the field immediately but was forced to delay operations until December when the monsoon season had ended. Meanwhile, Sher Singh fortified the crossings of the Chenab River.

In late November, Gough attacked Sher Singh's bridgehead at Ramnagar but was repulsed, raising Sikh morale. In December, Gough forged the River Chenab, but then halted, awaiting further instructions from Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India. Early in January 1849, news came that the British had recaptured Multan, but also that the garrison of the key fortress of Attock had defected, allowing Chattar Singh's army to move south. Dalhousie ordered Gough to seek out and destroy Sher Singh's main army before the Sikh armies could combine, without waiting for reinforcements from the army at Multan.

Initial Contact and Deployment

Marching towards the reported Sikh position at Rasul, on January 13 Gough's troops drove a Sikh outpost out of the village of Chillianwala. The village of Chilianwalla is situated on the left bank of the river Jhelum, about 85 miles (136 Km) north west of Lahore. At this point, Gough intended to march round to the north of the Sikh position and attack its left flank on the following day, but when some of his artillery engaged hovering Sikh cavalry, Sikh guns opened fire from hitherto concealed positions much closer than he had expected. Since the flank march was now a risky prospect, Gough determined to deploy immediately and attack frontally.

It was estimated by Frederick Mackeson, Gough's attached political officer, that Sher Singh's army numbered 23,000 (although most later British historians put it at 30,000 or more), with some 60 guns. It occupied an extended line almost six miles long, with the river Jhelum covering the left flank and rear. Most of the Sikh positions were concealed in or behind belts of scrub and jungle.

Gough's army was composed of two infantry divisions, each of two brigades, each in turn of one British and two Bengal Native infantry battalions. There was also a cavalry division of two cavalry brigades, of British and Indian cavalry regiments, and a brigade of Bengal Native troops in reserve. His artillery numbered 66 guns, from the Royal Artillery and the Bengal Horse Artillery.

The Left Division was commanded by Sir Colin Campbell. Because the jungle made it difficult to coordinate his two brigades, Campbell ordered the commander of his right-hand brigade, Brigadier Pennycuick, and its British regiment, the 24th Foot, to attack with bayonets, but then assumed command of his left-hand brigade. On his left flank was a cavalry brigade under Brigadier White.

The Right Division was commanded by the experienced Sir Walter Gilbert. On his right was a cavalry brigade under Brigadier Pope.

The battle

Gough ordered the advance to commence at about 3:00 pm. From the outset, Pennycuick's brigade was in difficulties. The 24th, newly arrived in India, advanced very rapidly, in the thick scrub they soon lost cohesion and communication with the rest of the brigade. They suffered heavily from Sikh artillery fire. When they reached the main Sikh positions, Sikh resistance was overwhelming and the 24th was driven back. Pennycuick's brigade eventually became completely disorganised and had to make its way back to the start line in small parties. Pennycuick himself was killed.

Campbell's other brigade and White's cavalry, supported by artillery, advanced more cautiously and had more success.

Gilbert's two brigades also successfully drove the Sikhs before them, capturing or spiking several guns. However, on their right Brigadier Pope (who was almost an invalid) first ordered an ineffective cavalry charge through thorn scrub which threw his brigade into confusion, and then panicked and ordered a retreat. One of his British cavalry regiments, the 14th Light Dragoons, was routed. The Sikhs fell upon the fleeing cavalry, capturing four of Pope's guns. They then attacked Gilbert's right-hand infantry brigade, commanded by Brigadier Godby, from the rear, halting Gilbert's advance.

By now, darkness was approaching. The Sikhs had been driven from many of their positions with heavy casualties, but were still fighting strongly. With some of his formations rendered ineffective, Gough ordered a withdrawal to the start line. Although his units brought back as many wounded as they could, many of them could not be found in the scrub. Many of the abandoned wounded were killed during the night by roving Sikh irregulars. Gough's retreat also allowed the Sikhs to recapture all but twelve of the guns the British had taken earlier in the day.

The final losses to Gough's army were 2,800 men killed, of whom nearly 1000 were Europeans and 89 were British and 43 native officers. HM 24th Foot suffered 590 casualties, over 50 percent. Sikh casualties were harder to estimate, but it is put at around 4,000. An obelisk erected at Chillianwalla by the British government preserves the names of those who fell in the battle.

Aftermath

Both armies held their positions for three days, at the end of which the British withdrew. Sher Singh later withdrew to the north. Both sides could claim a victory. However, the British repulse, together with the loss of several guns and the colours of the 24th and two other regiments, and the rout of the 14th Light Dragoons, dealt a severe blow to British morale and prestige.

Gough was severely criticised for his handling of the battle, and was relieved of command and replaced by General Charles James Napier. Before Napier could take over command, Gough had fought the decisive Battle of Gujarat.

The loss of British prestige at Chillianwala was one of the factors which contributed to the Indian Mutiny some nine years later. Within the British Army, such was the consternation over the events at Chillianwala that, after the disastrous 'Charge of the Light Brigade', when Lord Lucan remarked "This is a most serious matter", General Airey replied, "It is nothing to Chillianwala."

References

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.