Battle of Ramnagar

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The Battle of Ramnagar was fought on November 22, 1848 between British and Sikh forces during the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The British were led by Sir Hugh Gough, while the Sikhs were led by Sher Singh Attariwalla. The Sikhs were victorious.

Background

Following the Sikh defeat in the First Anglo-Sikh War, British Commissioners and Political Agents had effectively ruled the Punjab, using the Sikh army, the Khalsa to maintain order and implement British policy. There was much unrest over this arrangement and the other galling terms of the peace treaty, not least within the Khalsa which believed it had been betrayed rather than defeated in the first war.

The second war broke out in April, 1848, when a popular uprising in the city of Multan forced its ruler, Dewan Mulraj, into rebellion. The British Governor-General of Bengal, Lord Dalhousie, initially ordered only a small contingent of the Bengal Army under General Whish to suppress the outbreak (partly for reasons of economy, and partly to avoid a major campaign during the Hot Weather and Monsoon seasons). He also ordered several detachments of the Khalsa to reinforce Whish. The largest detachment, of 3,300 cavalry and 900 infantry was commanded by Sher Singh Attariwalla. Several junior Political Agents viewed this development with alarm, as Sher Singh's father, Chattar Singh Attariwalla, the Governor of Hazara to the north of the Punjab, was openly plotting sedition.

On September 14, Sher Singh rebelled. Whish was forced to raise the siege of Multan and retire. Nevertheless, Sher Singh and Mulraj (the Hindu ruler of a largely Moslem city-state, did not join forces. The two leaders conferred at a temple outside the city, where both prayed and it was agreed that Mulraj would supply some funds from his treasury, while Sher Singh moved north to join his forces with those of his father. This was not immediately possible, as Chattar Singh's army was pinned in Hazara by Moslem tribesmen fighting under British officers. Instead, Sher Singh moved a few miles north and began fortifying the crossings of the Chenab River, while awaiting developments. His army was swelled by deserters from those regiments of the Khalsa which had not yet rebelled, and by discharged former soldiers.

The Battle

By November, the British had at last assembled a large army on the frontier of the Punjab, under the Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Hugh Gough. In the early hours of the morning of November 22, he ordered a force of cavalry and horse artillery to move to the Chenab crossing near Ramnagar, apparently intending to capture the position by surprise.

At dawn, when the British force arrived at the ford, it became apparent that the Sikhs occupied strong positions on both banks of the river and on an island in mid-stream. The British artillery was outgunned and forced to retire. Sher Singh now sent 3,000 horsemen across the ford. Gough ordered the main body of his cavalry (the 14th Light Dragoons and the 5th Bengal Light Cavalry) to attack them. These drove back the Sikhs but were then hit by heavy artillery fire. The Sikh cavalry also turned about and hit their attackers, causing heavy casualties.

The Commanding Officer of the 14th Light Dragoons, Colonel William Havelock (the older brother of the future Major General Sir Henry Havelock) led another charge, apparently without orders. He and his leading troopers were surrounded and cut down. After a third charge failed, Brigadier C. R. Cureton, the commander of the cavalry brigade to which the troops belonged, galloped up and ordered a retreat. He himself was then killed by musket fire.

Results

Official British casualties were 21 killed, 55 wounded and 9 missing. This may have referred to the 14th Light Dragoons only. Sikh casualties were unknown.

Sher Singh had skilfully used every advantage of ground and preparation. Although his forces subsequently pulled back from their vulnerable positions on the east bank of the Chenab, they had undoubdtedly repulsed a British attack, and the morale of Sher Singh's army was boosted.

On the British side, several shortcomings were obvious. Gough and Havelock had both ordered foolish or reckless charges. Cureton, who ought to have been in command from the start, had a reputation from the First Sikh War as a steady and capable officer. His replacement was a semi-invalid who was later to panic at the Battle of Chillianwala and cause the disgraceful rout of his brigade.

Sources

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