Battle of Mudki

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The Battle of Mudki was fought on December 18, 1845, between the forces of the British East India Company and part of the Khalsa, the army of the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. The British army won an untidy encounter battle, suffering heavy casualties.

Background

When as a child Ranjit Singh's marriage was arranged by the widowed mother of his child bride the two most powerful misls of the Sikhs were united and the constant warring for advantage, gain and glory came to an end. But it was the young Ranjit who consolidated the misls and villages of the Punjab forging a united ever expanding Punjab. Maharajah Ranjit Singh was always the driving force of the Sikh kingdom when the Sikh rulers of the areas not under his control began to feel threatened by Ranjit's victories they sought protection from the British. It was a policy that the British had used well to spread their control of India, a policy called divide and conquer.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh. remembering all the infighting of his childhood chose not to put power in into the hands of other capable Sikhs. He cose instead to rule the Panjab by the same method the British had used so well. What power he did share he put into hands that he knew would be incapable of challenging him. Thus it was that he shared power at the top with Hindus and Muslims who had workrd hard to earn his trust. So it was that when he died there was no hier of his house that was prepared to rule.

Ranjit Singh had maintained a policy of friendship with the British East India Company, who held territories adjoining the Punjab, while at the same time building up the Khalsa, to deter aggression from the British and the Afgans. When he died in 1839, the Sikh kingdom fell into increasing disorder. As a succession of the Maharaja's sons were deposed, murdered or conviently suffered an opurtune death. The army became increasingly restive. Under Ranjit Singh they had tolerated the command of Rajputs, Muslims and Europeans. Now that they could see the Dogra brothers literally attempting to steal the keys to their kingdom they longed for more Sikh commanders such as the fabled Hari Singh Nalwa.

To secure their hold on power, some of the leaders in the Punjab goaded their forces into a war against the British. Nagaras were beat and Swords were rattled loudly. Oddly, the Sikhs taking command of their own units by using the old village Panch system bothered the British most. Their Monarchy had, afterall, had bad results when another Colony had earlier used Democracy to defeat them. They were much happier with Monarchs they could control as in the other Sikh principalities.

The then Governor General of the Bengal Presidency (and in effect, of all British-controlled India) was Sir Henry Hardinge. Receiving reports of the disorder in the Punjab, he wrote late in 1845, "... it is evident that the Rani and the Chiefs are for their own preservation, endeavouring to raise a storm which, when raised, they will be powerless to direct or allay." He increased the British military forces on the borders of the Punjab, stationing a division of 7,000 at Ferozepore, and moving other troops to Ambala and Meerut. This military buildup finally goaded the Khalsa into war, and they began to cross the Sutlej River, which marked the frontier between the Punjab and British territory on December 10, 1845.

British Advance

The main British and Bengal army, under its commander-in-chief, Sir Hugh Gough, began marching rapidly from its garrisons at Ambala and Meerut towards Ferozepur. Although the march took place in India's cold weather season, the troops were enveloped in choking dust clouds and water and food was short. Hardinge accompanied the army, exercising his right to command.

The British reached Mudki, 18 miles from Ferozepur in the afternoon of December 18. Having commandeered grain from the village, they began preparing their first proper meal for some days. A Sikh detachment under Lal Singh, Vizier of the Punjab, spotted their cooking fires and advanced toward the British camps. The terrain was a flat sandy plain, with occasional villages and patches of scrub.

Battle

In the late evening the Sikh guns opened fire. As 30 of Gough's light guns replied, the Sikh cavalry tried to outflank both sides of Gough's army. Although the irregular cavalry, the Gorchurras, were the elite of the Sikh army, and individually very skilled (for example, being able to spear a tent-peg out of the ground at full gallop), they were comparatively ineffective against the disciplined British and Bengal units. A counter-charge by a British light dragoon regiment cut down many Sikh gunners, but they in turn suffered heavy casualties from the Sikh infantry.

The British and Bengal infantry now advanced. In the gathering darkness, smoke and dust clouds, the advance quickly became disordered. Some Bengal infantry regiments caused casualties among the British units with confused fire. Although outnumbered five to one, the Sikh infantry resisted desperately, and the gunners kept firing volleys of grapeshot until overrun.

Eventually, after two hours of darkness, the last Sikhs were driven from the field. The British returned to their camp. The British army was unused to fighting or manoeuvering at night, and the battle was nicknamed, "Midnight Mudki" by the Sikhs.

Casualties among British senior officers were heavy. Among them were two brigade commanders ('Fighting Bob' Sale and John McCaskill). Another senior officer killed was Major George Broadfoot, formerly the British representative to the Punjab then on Hardinge's staff.

Results

By itself, the battle decided little.It did however confirm Hardinge in the belief that Gough was too bull-headed and unimaginative to command the army. The two officers would clash several times over strategy.

On the Sikh side,it was alleged that Lal Singh had fled the battlefield early, in league with the British.Although to be fair there was little scope for direction once the battle had been joined.

Sources

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