Battle of Aliwal

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The Battle of Aliwal was fought on January 28, 1846 between the British and the Sikhs. The British were led by Sir Harry Smith, while the Sikhs were led by Ranjodh Singh Majithia. The British won a victory which is sometimes regarded as the turning point of the First Anglo-Sikh War.

Background

The First Anglo-Sikh War began six years after the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Ruler of the Punjab. The Punjab became increasingly disordered, while the British increased their military forces on their border with the Punjab. Eventually, the increasingly turbulent Khalsa, the army of the Sikh kingdom, was goaded into crossing the Sutlej River and invading British territory, under leaders who were distrustful of their own troops.

On December 21 and December 22, 1845, the British army under Sir Hugh Gough and the Governor-General of Bengal, Sir Henry Hardinge, fought the bloody Battle of Ferozeshah. The Sikh armies under Vizier Lal Singh and Tej Singh eventually retreated. Hostilities temporarily ceased. The British army was shaken by its heavy losses. Hardinge sought to relieve Gough of his command, blaming his tactics for the heavy casualties.

The Sikhs were temporarily disheartened by the retreats ordered by their commanders. However, they were reinforced by troops who had not yet seen action, and moved back across the Sutlej to occupy a bridgehead at Sobraon. Meanwhile, a detachment under Runjodh Singh Majithia (sometimes transcribed as Runjoor Singh), with 7,000 men and 20 guns, crossed higher up the Sutlej to besiege the British-held fortress of Ludhiana and menace Gough's and Hardinge's supply lines. The British commanders detached a division under Sir Harry Smith to clear this threat to their rear.

Campaign

On January 16, 1846, Smith recovered two outposts which the Sikhs had seized at Fategarh and Dharmkot. Meanwhile, although Runjodh Singh's irregular cavalry had raided over a wide area and set fire to part of the British cantonments at Ludhiana, his main body was advancing only slowly on Ludhiana.

Harry Smith first intended to attack Runjodh Singh's army at Buddowal. However, on learning of the Sikh strength, and receiving further orders from Gough, he instead force-marched his troops via Jagraon, collecting a British regiment there, to reach Ludhiana ahead of the Sikh main body. On January 21, as he left Buddowal, the Sikh irregular cavalry (the Gorchurras) continually attacked his rearguards. They captured most of Smith's baggage animals (mules, bullocks and elephants), and cut down any straggling troops. Nevertheless, Smith succeeded in reaching Ludhiana, with his troops exhausted. A brigade of troops from Delhi, including two Gurkha battalions, reinforced him.

After resting his troops, Smith once again advanced to Buddowal. The Sikhs had withdrawn to Aliwal on the Sutlej, awaiting reinforcements. On January 28, Smith advanced against them, cautiously at first.

Battle

The Sikhs had occupied a position four miles long, which ran along a ridge between the villages of Aliwal, on the Sutlej, and Bhundri. The Sutlej ran close to their rear for the entire length of their line, making it difficult for them to manoevre and also potentially disastrous if they were forced to retreat.

After the initial artillery salvoes, Smith determined that Aliwal was the Sikh weak point. He sent two of his four infantry brigades to capture the village, from where they could enfilade the Sikh centre. They seized the village, and began pressing forwards to threaten the fords across the Sutlej.

As the Sikhs tried to swing back their left, pivoting on Bhundri, some of their cavalry tried to threaten the open British left flank. A British and Indian cavalry brigade, led by the 16th Lancers, charged and dispersed them. The 16th Lancers then attacked a large body of Sikh infantry. These were battalions organised and trained in contemporary European fashion by Neapolitan mercenary, Paolo Di Avitabile. They formed square to receive cavalry, as most European armies did. Nevertheless, the 16th Lancers broke them, with heavy casualties.

The infantry in the Sikh centre tried to defend a nullah (dry stream bed), but were enfiladed and forced into the open by a Bengal infantry regiment, and then cut down by fire from Smith's batteries of Bengal Horse Artillery.

Unlike most of the battles of both Anglo-Sikh Wars, when the Sikhs at Aliwal began to retreat, the retreat quickly turned into a disorderly rout across the fords. Most of the Sikh guns were abandoned, either on the river bank or in the fords, along with all baggage, tents and supplies. They lost 2,000 men and 67 guns.

Aftermath

Smith wrote afterwards:

"I have gained one of the most glorious battles ever fought in India ... Never was victory more complete, and never was one fought under more happy circumstances, literally with the pomp of a field day; and right well did all behave."

Except for the 16th Lancers, who lost 144 men out of about 300, few of Smith's units had heavy casualties. Before the battle, it had been claimed that the Bengal Infantry regiments of the East India Company's army had been nervous and hesitant to attack the feared Sikhs. Afterwards, they were eager to do so.

References

Ian Hernon, "Britain's forgotten wars", Sutton Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7509-3162-0 Byron Farwell, "Queen Victoria's little wars", Wordsworth Military Library, 1999, ISBN 1-84022-216-6