Battle of Gujarat

From SikhiWiki
Jump to: navigation, search

The Battle of Gujarat was the decisive battle of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, fought on February 21, 1849, between British forces and the Sikhs. The depleted Sikh army, weakened by lack of supplies, was defeated by the Bengal and Bombay Armies of the British East India Company. After it capitulated a few days later, the Punjab was annexed to the East India Company's territories and its ruler, the infant Duleep Singh, was deposed.

Outbreak and course of the War

After the British victory in the First Anglo-Sikh War, the Punjab was indirectly governed by a British representative at the Durbar (court) in Lahore and Agents in several of the regions. The Sikh Army, the Khalsa, was kept in being and used to keep order in the Punjab and North West Frontier Region. The Khalsa regarded itself as betrayed rather than defeated in the first war, and several of its Sardars (Generals) plotted rebellion.

However, the first outbreak came at Multan on April 18, 1848, where rebellious troops murdered a British agent (Lieutenant Patrick Vans Agnew) and expelled a Sirdar imposed as ruler by the British Resident at Lahore. The former ruler, Dewan Mulraj, resumed his authority and prepared for a siege. Rather than use large forces from the British and Bengal Armies during the hot weather and monsoon seasons, the Governor General of Bengal, Lord Dalhousie, deployed part of the Khalsa and other irregular contingents against Mulraj. On September 14, the troops from the Khalsa at Multan also rebelled under Sirdar Sher Singh Attariwalla. They did not join Mulraj however, but moved north along the Chenab River into the main Sikh-populated area of the Punjab to gather recruits and obtain supplies.

Late in 1848, a large British and Bengal army took the field during the cold weather season under the Commander in Chief of the Bengal Army, General Sir Hugh Gough. Gough already had a reputation, whether deserved or not, for unimaginative head-on tactics. On November 22 at Ramnagar, his cavalry were repulsed attacking a Sikh bridgehead on the east bank of the Chenab. Then on January 13, 1849, he launched an attack against Sher Singh's army at Chillianwala near the Jhelum River without proper reconnaisance or artillery support. Gough's army was driven back with heavy casualties. Sher Singh's army was also hard hit and after the armies had faced each other for three days, both withdrew.

Prelude to the Battle

Rather than launch a counter-attack against Gough, Sher Singh's aim was to join force with the troops under his father, Sardar Chattar Singh Attariwalla. Chattar Singh's army had been confined to the Hazara region for several months by Moslem irregulars under British officers. At the start of 1849, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan of Afghanistan had sided with the rebellious Sikhs. His aim was to recover the area around Peshawar, which had been conquered by Ranjit Singh early in the nineteenth century, but his support was half-hearted. Nevertheless, when 3,500 Afghan horsemen approached the vital fort of Attock on the Indus River, its garrison of Moslem troops defected. This allowed Chattar Singh to move out of Hazara and link up with Sher Singh near Rawalpindi.

On the British side, once news of Chillianwala reached Britain, Gough was almost immediately superseded. His replacement was General Charles James Napier, who would require several weeks to travel from England. In the meantime, the Siege of Multan had resumed, and Mulraj was forced to surrender on January 22. This allowed the bulk of the besieging force to reinforce Gough's army. In particular, they brought large numbers of heavy guns with them. Gough, who had now received word of his dismissal but who remained in command until formally relieved, advanced against the Sikh army. He had three infantry divisions and a large cavalry force, with 100 guns of various weights and calibres.

In spite of his successes, Sher Singh, who commanded the combined Sikh forces, was running out of strategic options. His large army was unable to find enough food. Any move north or west to obtain supplies would involve abandoning the main Sikh-populated area of the Punjab and moving into potentially hostile Moslem areas. He therefore attempted a bold outflanking move against Gough. His army moved east, intending to cross the Chenab and recross lower down in Gough's rear. On reaching the river, his attempts to cross were thwarted by the high water levels, as a result of heavy rains, and irregular Moslem cavalry defending the fords.

Battle

Sher Singh withdrew to Gujarat, where his army hastily prepared a defensive position. The Sikhs constructed a double entrenchment, which was also protected by a ravine. Most of the artillery was grouped in a central battery, screened by hastily planted bushes. Several small villages were occupied by infantry, and the houses and buildings were prepared with "loopholes" for defence. Although the position was strong, it was exposed to British artillery fire, and the hastily erected screen of brush was not as effective as the belts of scrub and jungle which had hidden the Sikh artillery from view at Chillianwala.

Early on February 21, Gough advanced against this position. When the Sikh artillery opened fire and disclosed their position, Gough deployed his large numbers of heavy guns against them. In a three-hour duel, the outgunned Sikhs were forced to abandon their guns. Sikh and Indian sources were later to refer to the battle as the "Battle of the Guns". Once the Sikh artillery was largely silenced, the British infantry advanced, and there was desperate fighting for two small fortified villages. However, the British guns were being advanced in successive "bounds", and the Sikhs broke. Gough reported after the battle:

The heavy artillery continued to advance with extraordinary celerity, taking up successive forward positions, driving the enemy from those [positions] they had retired to, whilst the rapid advance and beautiful fire of the Horse Artillery and light field-batteries ... broke the ranks of the enemy at all points. The whole infantry line now rapidly advanced and drove the enemy before it; the nulla [ravine] was cleared, several villages stormed, the guns that were in position carried, the camp captured and the enemy routed in every direction

The Bengal Horse Artillery and British and Indian cavalry took up a ruthless and merciless pursuit, which turned the Sikh retreat into a rout over 12 miles.

Aftermath

The next day, a division under Major General Walter Gilbert took up the pursuit. The remnants of Sher Singh's forces retreated across the Jhelum and into progressively rougher country for eleven days, but Sher Singh was finally forced to agree to British terms for surrender. His army, reduced to 10,000 men (mainly irregular cavalry) and 10 guns, handed over its arms at a two-day ceremony on March 12 and disbanded.

The small Afghan contingent also hastily retreated, destroying the pontoon bridge at Attock behind them. Dost Mohammed later concluded a peace with the East India Company, acknowledging their possession of the Peshawar region.

The Punjab was formally annexed to British territoriy at Lahore on April 2.

At the end of his career, Gough had finally fought a model battle, using his vast superiority in heavy guns to drive Sher Singh's troops from their position without resorting to the bayonet as he usually did, and turning their retreat into a rout with his cavalry and horse artillery. He had also been able to operate for the first time without enduring contradictory instructions from Dalhousie. Throughout the war, Dalhousie had alternately goaded on and restrained Gough, usually at the most inconvenient moments.

After the British had withdrawn at Chillianwala, Sikh and other irregulars showed no mercy to abandoned British combatant wounded and the British at Gujarat showed no mercy to surrendered or fleeing enemies. However, both sides' documented war records show a deep level of respect and admiration for each other fighting prowess.

References

Ian Hernon, "Britain's forgotten wars", Sutton Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7509-3162-0

Charles Allen, "Soldier Sahibs", Abacus, 2001, ISBN 0-349-11456-0