Battles of Maharajpore and Punniar 1843

THE BATTLE OF MAHARAJPORE

Gough, quick to react , ordered a full reconnaissance of the enemy positions (conducted by General Harry Smith, serving on his staff, and also accompanied by the Governor General Lord Ellenborough ) which suggested that he was faced with up to 15,000 men , including several thousand cavalry, and possibly 100 guns. The Mahrattas were drawn up with their left on the River Asan. Their right flank was open, as if they were expecting reinforcements from that direction. Several villages had been fortified, including the village of Maharajpore, some distance to the front of the main position. Having found out where the enemy were, Gough ordered a frontal assault whilst the enemy’s left was turned.

Goughs force was divided into three columns. The Right Column, under the one-armed veteran of the Peninsula and Waterloo, General Thackwell. and the Centre Column under General Valiant, were to fall upon and turn the enemy’s left flank, whilst the Left Column under General Littler would assault their front.

The terrain in front of the Mahratta positions was cris-crossed with ravines, but despite this all three columns, setting out before dawn, reached their start points without mishap or delay. Littler’s column reached their position first and halted about one mile from the village of Maharajpore. This village was fortified and held by a strong force of infantry and artillery Little could be seen of the rest of the enemy positions due to the extreme flatness of the ground and the high crops of corn which obstructed the view almost completely, Gough spent almost an hour within quarter of a mile of the Mahratta pickets, and did manage to observe that the village was too far in front of the main enemy line at Chonda and Shirkapore to be afforded any support. At 8.30am he ordered the assault to commence regardless of the fact that he had no real idea of the enemy strength and deployment, nor of the terrain to his front!

Gough ordered up his 8 ” howitzers to bombard the village whilst the horse artillery troops of Grant and Alexander deployed within 500 yards of two enemy heavy batteries, both of which they silenced, the position being stormed by infantry from Valiants brigade. Meanwhile Littler’s infantry was deploying under heavy artillery fire for an assault on the village whilst on the extreme left Scotts Native Cavalry Brigade had repulsed a determined attack by a large body of Mahratta horse. Some of Littler’s sepoys began to waver under the weight of fire, but were urged on by Gough. The 39th Foot led the assault with the bayonet. Casualties from artillery fire were heavy, but despite storms of grapeshot the village was reached and the gunners killed defending their guns to the last. Within half an hour the defenders of the village had been destroyed and the village itself was ablaze. The heavy howitzers were not responsible for this, as they had not yet opened fire.

There now remained the problem of the main enemy position, around Chonda and Shirkapore. Both were heavily entrenched and some of the batteries were so well hidden that they were almost invisible. Again no tangible intelligence of the enemy deployment was available and the attack went in blind.

General Valiant manoeuvred around Littler’s rear and attacked Shirkapore, led by H.M. 40th Foot. Casualties including the Colonel and Second-in-Command of the 40th were again heavy as three successive lines of previously unobserved entrenchments were stormed at bayonet-point before the village was taken. Again the Mahratta gunners stood by their guns to the last. The village taken, Valiant turned towards the right flank of the enemy main position.

Meanwhile, Grants Horse Artillery was again in the thick of it, having galloped to within point blank range of a battery 12 enemy guns. (The reason for this apparent dash may be that severely outranged by the enemy cannon, it was better to get in close and at least return their fire.) So rapid and accurate was Grant’s fire that the enemy gunners were several times driven from their guns for a while, which enabled Littler’s infantry, headed by H.M. 39th , to roll up the Mahratta line from left to right with far less loss than could have been the case . The capture, by the Grenadier company of H.M. 39th, of a small entrenchment mounting four guns on the far left of the Mahratta position marked the end of the engagement. The Mahrattas ceased to form an effective fighting force and withdrew from the field. leaving over 50 guns and much of their baggage. Pursuit was not possible as Thackwell’s cavalry were halted by an impassable ravine, although he was later censured by Gough for not having carried out a more effective pursuit. Exactly how is open to some conjecture.

Casualties were quite heavy (almost 800), the 39th losing over 200 and the 40th almost that number. The artillery suffered less than 50 casualties, despite its point-blank exchanges with the enemy. Of the native regiments, most were not engaged although the 16th Bengal Native Infantry were alone in suffering any great loss: 179 dead and wounded. It was the opinion of many that the sepoys fighting ability was becoming questionable at best! Criticism was made by Sir Harry Smith o the poor standard of training and initiative shown among the officers of the Indian Army , e. g. the heavy battery failed to engage the enemy because their commander would not open fire without direct orders to do so, despite being only half a mile from the enemy positions!

Meanwhile, General Sir John Grey had commenced his march on Gwalior. Finding his route blocked by the enemy, he turned south towards Punniar to outflank the Mahratta posItions.

His line of march took him parallel with some hills, at a distance of only a few hundred yards from his right flank Despite the fact that Grey must have known that the Mahrattas were in force somewhere on the other side of the hills. he failed to send out any sort of flank guard or even patrols to the summit of the hills to see what was on the other side! So, with a line of march some 10 miles long , with no idea of the lay of the land or he presence or location of any enemy , save what the vanguard and rearguard might have told him , the front of the column reached Punniar at around three in the afternoon , only to hear the sound of guns coming from the rear of the column. Panic stricken native cavalry reported that the rearguard was under attack and being cut to pieces!

Before too long the troops were reassembled and reinforcements of cavalry and artillery sent to the rearguard’s aid. It then dawned on Grey just what was happening – the Mahratta force he was trying to outflank had been marching parallel with him on the other side of the hills! Some of their artillery was entrenched in a village near Punniar taking pot-shots at his baggage, whilst their main body occupied some high ground on the other side of the hills about four miles to his east.

THE BATTLE OF PUNNIAR

Grey’s first order was to send H.M. 3rd Foot (The Buffs) and a detachment of Bengal Sappers and Miners straight over the hills to whatever fate befell them, as he had no idea whether they would encounter any enemy troops due to the dead ground between the hills and the main enemy position on hills further east! Predictably, they reported that the enemy were in position over the hills in great strength and requested reinforcements which Grey sent in the form of H. M. 50th Foot and two Bengal Native Infantry battalions under Colonel Anderson of the 50th Anderson’s Brigade crested the hills , under heavy but ineffective artillery fire, to the right of the Buffs, to face a deep valley filled with Mahratta infantry, behind which was an entrenchment holding four heavy guns. Descending the slope, Anderson’s troops took shelter in a dried upriver bed and commenced pouring volleys into the enemy. With the light fading fast, and Grey (possibly thankfully!) nowhere to be seen, Anderson ordered his men to charge. The valley was cleared and the guns taken, their gunners defending them to the death. On their left the Buffs, under even heavier fire, braved the storm of grape and captured eleven enemy guns. Again the Mahratta gunners stood by their pieces to the last and were killed to a man.

With this, and the onset of night, the extremely confused (and confusing) battle came to an end. Casualties among the two Queens battalions had again been high, as they had borne the brunt of the fighting. Out of a total loss of 213 casualties The Buffs lost 72, the 50th lost 42, and only the 39th Bengal Native Infantry suffered greatly with 62 out of a total of 97 Native casualties. Mahratta casualties were reported by Grey as being very heavy, but this is difficult to substantiate.

With these two battles the campaign was over, and on New Year’s Eve the Rani came into the British camp and a treaty was signed. The Gwalior army was greatly reduced, to around 10,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 32 guns. The native contingent, under British officers was reduced to a strength of 10,000 .

As for the Generals, it is possible to criticise Gough for his handling of the battle of Maharajpore insofar as he attacked headlong and totally blind against an enemy well entrenched and far his superior in numbers and artillery. By his own confession Gough underrated the Mahratta forces, and was influenced by the presence of a number of political personages including Lord Ellenborough, Governor General of India , and may have made decisions based on their advice or influence. Gough should have known better if he had any understanding of the effects of similar influence from ‘Politicals’ during the Afghan War, and a possibly unhealthy precedent was being set for a Governor General to accompany the Commander-in Chief with the Army into the field , e. g. Hardinge during the Sikh Wars.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that, like Napier in Sind. he unknowingly marched his army straight into a trap, like Napier he fought his way out of it to eventual total victory.

Grey at Punniar is another case altogether. His performance hardly suggests that he was a very competent commander, nor were his brigadiers much better. His failure to use his cavalry during the battle, or after in pursuit, and his orders to blind send a battalion over the top in the face of heaven knows what does not suggest any particular grasp of basic military theory. The officer in command of the brigade which included the 50th Foot had accidentally shot himself with a pistol a few days before the battle. Prior to this he had failed to demonstrate any ability at all, even for peace-time soldiering, and was constantly asking Colonel Anderson of the 50th for advice! It is therefore fair to say that had the Battle of Punniar NOT been a confused affair led by the Colonels of the two Queens battalions then the result may have been very different.

It is interesting to note one other aspect of this albeit which did much to set the seal on military tradition since then; that is the awarding of medals to all participants in the campaign, rather than just a few of the senior officers.

In order to make the most of the victory Lord Ellenborough issued a bronze medal to each of the soldiers of all ranks who had participated in the campaign. This was not unusual for him as at the close of the Afghan War medals had been issued to troops for Jalalabad, Ghazni and the Afghan Campaign as a whole. This had stirred up a lot of discontent from various quarters.

One school of thought , including the Duke of Wellington was against the issuing of campaign medals to all ranks (the Waterloo Medal didn’t count!) and the Duke of Richmond alluding to the Afghan disasters, stated in Parliament that “Only suffer a disaster, and you will get a medal to revive your spirits”. On the other hand persons like General Sir de Lacy Evans and Lord John Russell were for the awarding of campaign medals for all ranks, including back-dating such awards to include the Napoleonic Wars-no easy task! Whatever the arguments, the precedent was set and campaign medals have been issued as a matter of course to all ranks with clasps for different actions and rainbow ribbons, ever since Lord Ellenborough’s time as Governor General of India.

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