22 December 1845, halfway between Lahore and Ludhiana during the First Anglo-Sikh War, the “Indian Waterloo”, the Battle of Ferozeshah, ended with a very narrow British victory after one of the bloodiest engagements in Asia during the 19th century.
“You'll have difficulty finding Ferozeshah (or Pheeroo Shah, as we Punjabi purists call it) in the atlas nowadays. It's a scrubby little hamlet about halfway between Ferozepore and Moodkee, but in its way it's a greater place than Delhi or Calcutta or Bombay, for it's where the fate of India was settled - appropriately by treachery, folly, and idiot courage beyond belief. And most of all, by blind luck.“ (George MacDonald Fraser, “Flashman and the Mountain of Light“)
|A painting by an unknown artist, showing “HM 62nd Regiment attacking the Sikh fortifications at the Battle of Ferozeshah“*|
The Land of Five Waters, the Punjab region, was in a bit of a dilemma when the Sikh Empire’s founder Ranjit Singh died in 1839. Over three decades, the “Napoleon of the East” had reformed his army into the best organised, best disciplined and best equipped body of troops in Asia. They called themselves the “Khalsa”, actually the embodiment of all initiated Sikhs, meaning “the Pure” as well as “the Free”, numbering more than 40.000 men and they grew rapidly. On the other hand, the Sarkar Khalsaji, the state, lacked the administrative and political structures necessary to support a people’s army - the Khalsa was composed largely of men of the non-land-owning classes, comparable with France’s Revolutionary Army. Thus, in the early 1840s, various factions at the court in Lahore fought over dominance in the Punjab, while the Khalsa remained a “dangerous military democracy”, as a representative of the British East Indian Company observed, and a successor of Ranjit Singh could only rule if he met the high standards of his formidable army. As well as their increasing demands of pay. And while the intrigues and murders at court rose to a level that would put the Byzantines to shame and the army became increasingly uncontrollable, the British Viceroy and the East India Company did not do only their part to destabilise the political structures of their dangerous neighbour, but annexed Sindh, the region south of the Punjab, and began to concentrate troops along the Sutlej, the traditional border with British India, a welcome provocation, and under the command of Lal Singh and Tej Singh, war was declared and the Khalsa crossed the river on December 12th 1845 into British territory.
|John Company's troops crossing the the Sutlej, by Sir Henry Yule, 1846|
Whatever made the two Sikh leaders come up with the bright idea to part their formidable army in three parts is still unclear, but the British under Sir Hugh Gough could at least drive back Lal Singh’s advance guard of 10,000 men at Mudki on December 18th, but had to hurry 10 miles north to Ferozeshah, where the main body of the southern part of the Khalsa dug themselves in. Hugh's objective was to unite with the division of General John Littler, who had slipped away under the eyes of Tej Singh, whose part of the army was supposed to keep him pinned at Ferozepur, ten miles to the west. With now roughly 18,000 men and 69 guns at his disposal, “Paddy” Gough charged Lal Singh’s 30,000 men and 130 guns in their fortified encampment in the afternoon of December 21st and managed to push the Khalsa out of their position under heavy casualties when night fell. With no intelligence about Lal Singh’s remaining strength or even his whereabouts and his own troops scattered about the place, Gough decided to withdraw on Misriwala and regroup. On the following morning, Ferozeshah could be re-occupied, 71 Sikh guns were captured and advancing under heavy fire of the remaining enemy artillery, John Company's men drove Lal Singh’s army from the field. And while the battered British congratulated themselves, exhausted and virtually out of ammunition, the fresh 25,000 men from the part of the Khalsa commanded by Tej Singh appeared from Ferozepur.
|Francis Grant's (1803 - 1878) portrait of Paddy, the Viscount Gough, |
dressed in his famous white "battle coat" and sun hat
he wore during the Anglo-Sikh War (1854)
Gough drew up his remaining men in squares, Waterloo-style, under heavy artillery fire, awaiting the charge of the Sikh cavalry, that was disrupted by a break-neck flanking manoeuver from the 3rd Light Dragoons and when Tej Singh saw British horse artillery withdraw to get new ammunition, he allegedly feared his superior army to get encircled, broke off the engagement and fled the field. Gough’s army was miraculously saved and had won the Battle of Ferozeshah. It has been discussed ever since if Lal Singh and Tej Singh secretly conspired with the British to destroy the unruly Khalsa and their behaviour at Ferozeshah was more than conspicuous. However, 2,500 British and more than 3,000 Sikhs were dead or grievously wounded, the myth of the Khalsa’s invincibility shattered and the two military geniuses withdrew back across the Sutlej. The First Anglo-Sikh War ended after two further hard won battles, at Aliwal and Sobraon, with the Treaty of Lahore in March 1846 – that settled virtually nothing and the Second Anglo-Sikh War broke out three years later, ending with the British annexation of the Punjab in 1849.
* Image was found on http://www.britishbattles.com/first-sikh-war/ferozeshah.htm
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