The charge of the British 16th Lancers at Aliwal on 28 January 1846, during the Anglo-Sikh war
Sikh Akali religious warriors. The Akali were particularly formidable opponents at the Battle of Ferozeshah
A day later Hardinge was heartened by the arrival in camp of a British officer recently released by the Sikhs. He was Captain George Biddulph of the 3rd Bengal Irregular Cavalry, and his tale was scarcely credible. He had been captured and beaten by enemy horsemen during the morning of the 18th and taken to the huge Sikh camp at Ferozeshah. There he was paraded before the ill-tempered multitude, who abused and struck him anew. He was convinced that he would have been killed, there and then, had his escort not defended him. Eventually he was taken to the tent of the Sikh commander Lal Singh, whom he recognized from his ‘splendid dress’. But when he spoke to Lal he received ‘no answer’. Instead Lal ordered him to be placed in chains and handed over to General Bekani Ali Khan, the Muslim commander of artillery. That evening, chained to a gun, Biddulph listened nervously to the distant roar of the Mudki battle. As the artillerymen stood to their guns with lighted matches, he expected every moment to be his last. ‘I expected my head to be rolling on the ground,’ he wrote, ‘& in breathless anxiety, hoped to hear the Hurrah of our Dragoons & the clangour of their charge into the Sikh camp. The 3rd Dragoons did actually charge not very far from me, but darkness came on, & the guns ceased roaring.’
The following day, when it became clear that the Sikhs had lost the battle, Biddulph experienced less abuse and was even offered ‘employment in their army’. To keep him warm through the chill nights the artillerymen built a fire and gave him tobacco to smoke. Finally, on 20 December, General Khan announced his imminent release. As word spread, a crowd gathered and threatened to kill him. Fortunately the gunners stood firm and said they would fight anyone who attempted to harm him. Eventually a horse was brought and, escorted by the general’s brother, Biddulph rode out of the camp and over to the British, where he received a joyous reception he would ‘never forget’.
At dawn on 21 December – after three days’ rest at Mudki, burning captured gun carriages and storing cannon in the fort – the British resumed their march towards Ferozepur. Gough and Hardinge’s plan – for the latter was inevitably consulted – was to link up with the Ferozepur garrison, under Major-General Sir John Littler, and then attack one or other of the two Sikh armies. There was always the danger, of course, that Littler’s force would be destroyed before it could join hands with Gough’s; or that the Sikhs would concentrate first. Either way the Sikh commanders would need to take the initiative; yet, in their constant secret messages to the British camp, they seemed only too eager to remain on the defensive. But could these treasonable communications be trusted?
Gough’s force came within sight of the main Sikh position at Ferozeshah, a powerful horseshoe entrenchment, at around 10.30 a.m. on the 21st. There was no sign of Littler, who, thanks to a mix-up, had only left Ferozepur at 8 a.m. and still had some distance to cover. Gough was unconcerned and, after a brief reconnaissance of the Sikh defences, ordered an immediate attack. Fortunately for his troops, and possibly the fate of British India, Hardinge again intervened. No attack could take place, the governor-general insisted, until Littler had arrived. Gough was furious, not to say humiliated, but he bowed to his political superior. It was a wise move. Without Littler, the British had 13,000 men and forty-four guns; the Sikhs had the same number of troops but many more guns and the advantage of the defence. Even with the extra troops the battle could go either way.
The junction was made with Littler’s division – 5,500 men and twenty-one guns – a couple of miles south-east of Ferozeshah, at 1.30 p.m. The army was then deployed for battle: Major-General Sir Walter Gilbert’s division on the right, Brigadier-General Newton Wallace’s in the middle, Littler’s on the left and Smith’s in reserve; the cavalry were placed on each wing. But the broken terrain made movement difficult, and it was not until 4 p.m. that the tired and thirsty British troops began their attack. As at Mudki, the battle opened with an artillery duel, and, once again, the Sikhs got the better of it. Gunner Bancroft recalled:
It being found that our light six-pounder guns produced but slight effect on the enemy’s heavier metal… our major, evidently with the object of ascertaining how close it would be necessary for him to advance, laid one of the guns himself, ordering it to be fired; he stepped aside to note the result, which must have disappointed him, as he was observed to stamp his food impatiently. He turned round in search of his horse, and not seeing it, he said, ‘Bancroft, where is my horse?’ Pointing to the direction in which the animal was standing, the writer answered: ‘There he is, Sir!’ The words were scarcely uttered, when he saw the gallant major lying at a little distance from his horse – headless!… At the same moment the writer felt a dreadful shock on his right side, and his right arm involuntarily whirled round his head.
Bancroft had been hit by the same roundshot that decapitated his major. Fortunately for him, it passed between his body and right arm, ‘carrying away his pouch and belt on one side, and the soft parts of the arm itself on the other’. He watched the rest of the battle from the hazardous vantage of a limber-box.
The confusion caused by the heavy Sikh bombardment may explain why one of Littler’s brigades attacked prematurely, with disastrous results. With scant support from its two sepoy battalions, the 62nd (Wiltshire) Foot advanced virtually alone into a storm of grape and musket balls, losing sixteen officers and 283 men in a matter of minutes. Exposed in the open, their left flank threatened by Sikh cavalry, the survivors were ordered to withdraw. Littler’s other brigade was made up entirely of Indian soldiers, and only one battalion, the 33rd Native Infantry, advanced with any vigour. But it too was repulsed, and the whole division moved to the rear and took no further part in the battle. The only exception was a group of about fifty men of the 33rd, who joined a regiment in the neighbouring division.
At this point, with his left flank disintegrating and disaster looming, a less steadfast general might have cut his losses and ordered a retreat. But Gough knew only one battlefield manoeuvre – attack – and so ordered his remaining divisions to advance, with Smith’s replacing Littler’s on the left. Rising up from the ground, where they had been lying to avoid the heavy Sikh bombardment, the men of Gilbert’s and Wallace’s divisions raced forward, with Hardinge and Gough, unmistakable in his white ‘fighting coat’, leading them on. Once again the infantry advanced in echelon from the right, eighty yards between battalions, with the 29th (Worcestershire) Foot in the van. Advancing steadily and firing by files, the men of the 29th passed through the remnants of the horse artillery and paused only when they came to the hundred yards of open ground that lay between the edge of the jungle scrub and the Sikh entrenchment. This gave the neighbouring 80th Foot time to catch up, and, ignoring a hail of bullets, the two regiments charged together across the open ground, fired a last close-range volley, then broke through the wooden barricade, crossed the shallow ditch and rushed the Sikh gun platforms. The Sikh gunners fought desperately, but their swords were no match for the British bayonets, and they were soon overcome. Beyond the gun line the British were opposed by massed ranks of Sikh infantry, their first rank kneeling to fire a volley. So determined was the British charge, however, that the Sikh formation was quickly broken, and hundreds fled to the rear.
By now the neighbouring British brigade, led by the recently joined 1st Bengal Europeans, had also entered the Sikh camp. They were ably supported by the sepoys of the 16th Grenadiers, but the remaining regiment of Native Infantry, the 45th, held back during the advance and inflicted a number of ‘friendly fire’ casualties with its wild volleys. Major David Birrell, commanding the 1st Europeans, recorded:
On passing our Artillery, the gunners gave us a cheer, and when some distance past them, I prepared to charge, giving the word ‘Charge’ when about 200 paces from the enemy’s Batteries. At 80 paces or so all our front rank gave a volley from the hip almost as we received a volley of grape shot which caused many casualties in our ranks. We then rushed on capturing the guns in gallant style, the Siek gunners who had stood to the last being bayonetted and shot by our men who had reserved their fire.
Mounted on his horse, Birrell was one of the first over the trench and almost paid with his life. Attacked by two sword-wielding Sikhs in succession, he was saved by the intervention of his men, who bayoneted one and shot the other. He also narrowly avoided being blown to pieces by an exploding Sikh magazine, which killed a number of his soldiers as they advanced towards the village of Ferozeshah. An important factor in the successful advance of Gilbert’s division was the cover given to its right flank by the men of the 3rd Light Dragoons, who won fresh laurels by charging a battery of guns that could have been used to enfilade the British infantry. But, having sabred the gunners, the dragoons careered on through the supporting infantry, and many were shot down.
Units of the other two divisions also penetrated the Sikh camp, though Wallace’s men, particularly the 9th (East Norfolk) Foot, were badly cut up as they advanced over the same ground that had defeated the 62nd Foot. Again the performance of the sepoy battalions in the brigade was patchy. The 26th Native Infantry did well but not the vaunted 2nd Grenadiers. Among the latter’s officers was Ensign William Hodson, a 24-year-old Cambridge graduate, only recently arrived in India, who wrote home in disgust: ‘In the most dense dust and smoke, and under an unprecedented fire of grape, our Sepoys again gave way and broke… The Colonel, the greater part of my brother officers, and myself were left with the colours and about thirty men immediately in front of the batteries.’ It was, he added, a ‘fearful crisis’, and only the ‘bravery of the English regiments saved us’. So mistrustful of Indian troops did this experience leave Hodson that, after the war, he insisted on transferring to the 1st Europeans.
Lieutenant E. A. Noel of the 31st Foot, part of Smith’s division, described the battle as ‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive’. But he, like Hodson, had only contempt for his Indian comrades. ‘The Sepoys are fit for nothing,’ he wrote; ‘most of them bolted and their officers joined us. The papers of course will praise them, but this is only policy.’
The breaching of the Sikh defences, however, was far from the battle’s final act. British regiments became mixed up in the dust and smoke, and the Sikhs launched a number of counter-attacks. One was mistaken for friendly fire, and, in consequence, the 29th Foot was ordered not to shoot back. The mistake was compounded – according to Captain Robert Napier, acting chief engineer, who had entered the entrenchment with Gough and his staff – when Hardinge and his chief political officer, Major George Broadfoot, the hero of Jelalabad, ‘rode forward, as they supposed, to stop the fire of our regiment in front, as if they would have fired outward or to the rear, had they been our own’. Broadfoot was shot and killed; Hardinge narrowly escaped. Only now did the 29th advance and drive back the Sikhs.
With darkness falling, his units scattered and the Sikh camp a dangerous place to linger with its exploding magazines, Gough ordered his troops to withdraw 300 yards and bivouac in the open. They were, as a result, forced to abandon the guns they had captured at such great cost, many of which were turned on them by returning Sikh gunners. There was little order and no attempt to take up a defensive position. ‘Had the enemy known the condition of our troops and attacked them,’ wrote Napier, ‘they would have been slaughtered like sheep.’ One particular gun was causing havoc in Gilbert’s division. Eventually, on Hardinge’s orders, it was captured and spiked by the 80th Foot with the 1st Europeans in support. ‘After this,’ noted Major Birrell, ‘the force near [Hardinge and Gough] rested free from much annoyance from midnight to daybreak – but the troops with Sir H. Smith were exposed to a heavy fire nearly all night.’
The crisis for the British was far from over. Gough’s army had suffered heavy casualties, and many of its units were disorganized and out of touch. At any moment Tej Singh’s army might arrive to tilt the balance decisively in favour of the Sikhs. Little wonder that Hardinge later described that night as one in which ‘the fate of India trembled in the balance.’ So unsure was he of ultimate British success that he dispatched to the rear a reluctant Prince Waldemar of Prussia, who had been serving on his staff as an observer. He also sent back Napoleon’s sword, a present from the duke of Wellington, and ordered all state papers at Mudki to be burnt.
At dawn on the 22nd, word went round the British camp that Gough was about to withdraw to Ferozepur. Napier was horrified. ‘I consulted several of the staff,’ he recalled, ‘and then went to [Gough] and submitted my opinion, that if we moved we lost the fruits of our victory; that we could hold our present position, and find food in the enemy’s camp, prepare and make use of his artillery, and that our communication was open with our rear at Moodkee, and as good with Ferozepoor as if we were actually there.’ Gough voiced his agreement, and said he would do ‘all in his power to remain’, but ‘political considerations’ would have to come first. In fact it was the governor-general who was pressing a hesitant Gough to remain; not vice versa. ‘The C.C. came to me,’ recalled Hardinge, ‘& told me he felt the perilous & critical state in which we were – triumphant on the ground we had so severely contested but apparently surrounded by thousands of Sikhs.’ But, as Hardinge was determined to ‘fight it out’, orders were given to re-enter the Sikh camp. There was little opposition, and the guns, many of which had not been spiked, were soon retaken. With the camp in British possession, Gough and Hardinge were cheered to the echo as they rode along the line.
But, just when it seemed that the battle was won, scouts reported the approach of Tej Singh’s huge army from the west: he had appeared at last. Gough was now in a desperate position. His ranks were depleted, his remaining men tired and thirsty, and his ammunition almost exhausted. The Sikhs, on the other hand, were fresh and apparently eager for battle. To combat the mass of cavalry on each Sikh flank, Gough ordered his infantry to form squares in front of the entrenchment. Tej responded with long-range artillery fire, killing a brigadier-general, amongst others. The British troops lay down as their artillery was brought forward. But the guns were low on ammunition and out-ranged. ‘Seeing that we were losing men and horses every minute,’ wrote Captain G. H. Swinley of the BHA, ‘we retired under cover of the village and the entrenched camp.’