Great Wars: Panipat (1761) – Ferozeshah (1845)

of musketry were delivered by us at close quarters, and were returned just as
steadily by the enemy…..In all the previous actions….one or two volleys were as much as the Sirkar’s (the British
state’s) enemies could stand….these Sikhs gave volley for volley, and never
gave way until nearly decimated “

As yet another war gets kicked-off in the Middle East, it may be time to reflect on what is gained (and lost) through endless war-mongering. Indians have in particular, suffered from centuries of war imposed upon them both by desi elites and foreign invaders. It also needs to be stressed that without the help of the British Indian army, there would have been no sure path to victory for the allies in 1918 or in 1945.

The post-independence wars have been not been on such a grand scale as Panipat and Ferozepur Ferozeshah (thanks to Athar Saeed for the correction). On the other hand, it is now possible to envisage complete annihilation of the sub-continent, so we are not sure if this counts as progress.
Late afternoon on January 14,
1761, Maratha generals and soldiers fleeing the battlefield at Panipat took
with them an indelible memory of Ibrahim Khan Gardi’s artillery and musketeers
wreaking havoc on the enemy “like a knife slicing through butter”.
Despite their thinning ranks, the French-trained Telangi infantry, who called
themselves Gardis in the honour of their illustrious commander, fought like
true professionals. 

Though predominantly Muslim, they stayed loyal to the
Brahmin Peshwa and fought a Muslim coalition, ignoring blandishments and
threats till the very end.
If all Maratha generals had stuck to the original
plan drawn up by Ibrahim Khan-that of forming a hollow infantry square and
forcing a passage to Delhi by destroying the Afghan right flank-the result of
the Third Battle of Panipat could have been different.

But despite the defeat, Panipat made it clear to the Indians that subsequent
battles in the subcontinent will be won by the boom of artillery and rattle of

According to Dr Uday S Kulkarni’s exhaustive account of the battle
titled ‘Solstice At Panipat: 14 January 1761’, Maratha generals like Scindia,
Holkar and Gaekwad, who were staunch critics of Maratha commander-in-chief
Sadashivrao Bhau’s touching faith in Ibrahim Khan Gardi and his European style
of fighting, would change their minds and increasingly repose faith in
European-styled drilled infantry and artillery. 
In fact, they would also
abandon their traditional strength of guerrilla warfare or ganimi kava, a
process that started right from the Panipat battlefield. But the Marathas
weren’t alone in this: soon, most Indian rulers were racing one another to
modernise their armies. This phase also saw a gradual departure from the
mediaeval practice of assigning more weightage to cavalry than any other combat

But it was Nawab Shuja ud-Daulah
of Avadh who was among the first to utilise lessons learnt at Panipat.
He had
allied himself with Ahmed Shah Abdali, but neither he nor his forces took any
active part in the battle. In 1764, his moderately Europeanised army led by
westerners-including Walter Reinhardt Sombre or ‘Samru sahib’,
the husband of
Begum Samru-gave a tough time to the English at Buxar, the first battle fought
by the English for territorial control in India. 
Shuja’s army also had Rohillas
and Afghan cavalry, who were mostly veterans of Panipat. His artillery directed
devastating fire on the British. But the British held out with the wily Hector
Munro in command and some disciplined musketry by the infantry, the backbone of
which was formed by over 5,000 sepoys. Shuja’s forces, with all their bravery,
had no answer for the Anglo-Indian bayonet charge.

Despite the defeat, Shuja continued to modernise his army, raising 18
European-styled infantry battalions by the 1770s. But he would never get the
chance to measure swords with the English again as Avadh became a vassal state
of the English after Buxar.

Indian history books today, while recognising Buxar as a watershed moment in
our national history, skip another important point: that it was at Buxar that
the identity of the Indian sepoy as a match-winner for the British was
established (though four years earlier at Plassey, Robert Clive was disappointed
with Indian officers and made it a rule that Indian troops will only be
officered by Europeans-a condition that stuck on until the end of First World

And it was at Buxar that the foundation of the Indian Army of today was
laid. From that point on, the sepoy would be the backbone of English armies
conquering different Indian states one by one. The English would gradually
develop a blind faith in the Indian sepoy: a phase that would last until 1857
and continue again towards the end of the 19th century.

For the Marathas, it was Mahadji Scindia who broke new ground in
Europeanisation of his army. Scindia employed a brilliant French mercenary,
Benoit de Boigne, to raise a brigade that could dress, march and fight as a
European army.
A former officer in the French, Russian and Honourable East
India Company’s armies, de Boigne taught Scindia’s men the British musket drill
and everything else that he knew on the condition that he wouldn’t be made to
fight the English with whom he had cordial relations. 

Mahadji’s meteoric rise
as the dominant power in the north of India hinged on the shoulders of this
able Frenchman. Mahadji’s new, formidable army came to be known as
‘Fauj-i-Hind’ or ‘Army of Hindustan’. By 1790, it had 37,000 soldiers trained
in the European fashion, and 330 pieces of artillery. 

But after Mahadji’s death
in 1794, his less capable grandnephew and successor Daulat Rao Scindia would
fritter away the gains of his predecessor. He would wage fratricidal wars with
other Maratha chieftains and lose both territory and reputation fighting the
British. His army stopped attracting talent, both due to his own apathy and
some shameless nepotism practised by his French general, Perron. But they would
still give Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, his “toughest
battle” at Assaye.

Elsewhere in the south, Nawab Hyder Ali was raising a formidable army. Hyder
was impressed with the British and wanted their military assistance to
modernise his army. The British were reluctant, which led Hyder to seek help
from the French.
With French help, Hyder modernised his infantry and artillery,
but unlike other Indian powers of the day that ignored cavalry, Hyder’s focus
was always on his cavalry and he used it with great skill, always leading it
from the front. 

In fact, the Mysore cavalry, with its dash and daring, had
built for itself a fearsome reputation among its rivals. In the 1770s, Hyder
Ali had 20,000 cavalry, 20 battalions of infantry and an unknown quantity of
guns. Even the English grudgingly admitted Mysore cavalry’s superiority, though
they referred to its actions as that of a swarm of locusts on crops.

Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan also abandoned the common Indian practice of engaging
militias raised by provincial governors in war time and went for a fully
centralised recruiting and training system. A very rudimentary form of
regimental system was also followed. But by Tipu Sultan’s time, Mysore
artillery had attained a high degree of finesse. 

Tipu introduced a rocket
artillery corps organised in kushoons. Tipu’s guns were also known for their
longer range and accuracy. It’s not known how many artillery pieces he had; but
at the fall of Srirangapatnam and Tipu’s death in 1799, the British found 421
gun carriages, 176 12 pounders and 4,12,000 iron round shots ranging from four
to 42 pounds inside the fort.

A few years after Tipu Sultan’s
collapse, the process of the end of the Maratha Empire began as well. The
Peshwa signed the Treaty of Bassein with the English in 1802, agreeing to
station a 6,000-strong British force in his territory. The Poona Horse (now 17
Horse, Indian Army) was thus born.

After the Third Anglo-Maratha War ended in 1818, the Maratha Empire ceased to
exist and the Peshwa’s army was disbanded. Many former soldiers of the Peshwa found
service in the Bombay Army of the HEIC. They were placed in the Poona Horse,
Bombay Sappers and Miners and Maratha Light Infantry. Among the first to join
these regiments were the Gardis.

Up north, with the decline of the Scindia’s power and due to irregularities in
pay, many of Scindia’s well-trained troops left him and sought greener pastures
to the west. They soon found a new employer who was willing to pay them more,
both respect and money. He was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the lion of Punjab.

Ranjit Singh wanted to modernise his army. The visionary ruler knew a clash
with the British was inevitable at some point in the future and he wanted to be
fully prepared for that. He employed Europeans of different nationalities to
train his troops. Ranjit Singh organised his infantry on French lines, cavalry
on British as well as traditional lines, and artillery on European lines. 

English were so alarmed by this tremendous expansion of force that they ordered
the arrest of any Frenchman trying to cross the Sutlej.

Despite the build-up, the clash that Ranjit Singh foresaw didn’t happen in his
lifetime but after his death and when the Sikh state was in considerable decay.

Just before the First Anglo-Sikh War, the Sikh army had grown bigger than the
state could support. According to UK-based military historian Amarpal Singh’s
book, ‘The First Anglo-Sikh War’, in 1839, the Lahore state had an army
consisting just under 47,000 regular infantry,16,000 regular and irregular
cavalry, and 500 pieces of artillery. The artillery was mostly manned by Muslim

But after Ranjit Singh’s death,
there was a period of anarchy that saw too many court intrigues and rapid
decline in leadership of the army. The army, though, continued to expand (over
80,000 in 1845) and went out of control. It functioned through village
panchayats that were subservient to none. The soldiers were paid twice the sum
that a sepoy in HEIC’s army received every month. The soldiers also resorted to
loot and plunder whenever they wanted.

Amarpal Singh argues that the Lahore state engineered a situation whereby the
growing influence of this republican Sikh army could be curbed-by crossing the
Sutlej and inviting an English attack in 1845.

All through the war, the Sikh commanders abandoned the field, leaving their men
to fend for themselves, at early stages of battles. At Ferozeshah, for
instance, the Sikhs had clearly dominated the battlefield with their artillery
completely destroying the British artillery, and infantry returning fire with
amazing rapidity. 

Sitaram, a sepoy in the British army, as quoted by Singh in
his book, pretty much summed up the ground reality when he wrote: “Volleys
of musketry were delivered by us at close quarters, and were returned just as
steadily by the enemy. In all the previous actions in which I had taken part
one or two volleys at short range were as much as the Sirkar’s (the British
state’s) enemies could stand; but these Sikhs gave volley for volley, and never
gave way until nearly decimated…”

Yet, instead of moving forward and decimating the enemy, the commander, Lal
Singh, ordered a general retreat, much to the chagrin of his own troops.
Sikhs abandoned all their guns and equipment and left.




Brown Pundits