Argaum I

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Argaum I

The British pursuit of Scindia and Berar began almost thirty-six hours after the battle of Assaye. On the morning of 25 September 1803 Stevenson’s army, less most of the surgeons, moved north to the Ajanta ghaut and down it. They recovered four brass field guns abandoned by the enemy, but apparently failed to find a further fourteen which had been hidden during the retreat. Wellesley’s hircarrahs reported 120 cannon in the Mahratta armies before Assaye, none of which appear to have got down the ghaut. The Begum Sumroo’s four Regular Battalions certainly had their field pieces, probably sixteen to twenty of them, when they left the Borkardan camp before the end of the battle.

Even after thirty-six hours there were unmistakable signs of a panic. Bodies of men and animals dotted the road, especially down the ghaut itself which at that time represented a kind of border. The route was strewn with baggage and equipment, most of it useless. The people here were subjects of the Nizam. The Mahrattas had treated them as enemies and suffered for it on the night of the 23rd and all during the 24th. Villagers along the way killed wounded Mahratta soldiers who were unable to keep up, and collected abandoned personal possessions for their own use. They may well have buried the missing gun tubes; brass was and is valuable for many purposes in India.

Wellesley’s first concern in connection with his own army was to care for his wounded. Some were collected into ‘hospital’ groups on the night of the 23rd, but most remained where they fell. There were not enough surgeons or medical supplies for more than 1,000 injured men. All that could be done for most of them on the 24th was to make them as comfortable as possible on the ground, protect them from marauders and the burning Indian sun, and make sure that all had plenty of water. This treatment was neither as inhumane nor as harmful to the wounded men as it seems today. The weather was warm and dry. Casualties who did not bleed to death on the first night were often better off with wounds undressed. The surgeons had more knowledge and skill than we realize, but they worked with unsterilized instruments and bandages and nature unaided often did a better job.

Once the wounded were collected, there was the problem of burying the dead and collecting equipment. The dead of both sides lay in irregular heaps, especially where the 74th had rallied round its colours. The pioneers were set to digging orderly graves for the British and allied casualties west north-west of Assaye near the Juah. Enemy dead were counted approximately and then interred in multiple graves.

The twenty-six iron guns captured around Assaye were burst by being double-charged and having shot wedged in their bores. They were destroyed because they were not worth moving, but the brass pieces were ‘so good and so well equipped that they [some of them, at least] answer for our service’. The British also secured thousands of small arms and other personal possessions of the enemy of some value.

Wellesley’s next problem was to replace casualties. The King’s 74th had been removed from the active roster. Every officer was either killed or wounded; all the survivors were needed to care for their wounded comrades. Maxwell of the cavalry was dead; so was Captain Hugh McKay of the 4th Native Cavalry. Mackay had been detached for months and was doing outstanding work in handling all the ‘public’ bullocks, including the magnificent Mysore draft beasts. He had asked Wellesley for permission to return to his squadron for the battle, but had been refused. He joined against orders, charged at the head of his squadron and lost his life. There were other damaging losses: two of Wellesley’s small staff were severely wounded.

The five EIC battalions had not lost enough rank and file to make them ineffective for combat, but the 1/8 had lost four and the 2/12 six European officers, including its commander.

Wellesley recalled the 1/3 Madras, one of the two EIC battalions sent away before Assaye to reinforce Poona. They were no longer necessary to prevent its capture because the enemy too had lost heavily, especially in the Regular Battalions. Perhaps Captain Vesey of that corps had learned his lesson.

Wellesley, who could not spare enough British soldiers for a fortified hospital without weakening his army excessively, wanted to accommodate his wounded in Dowlutabad. It was a strong, commodious fortress on a conical hill, and lay only fifty miles away with no major streams on the route. Dowlutabad belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad, had an ample garrison and presumably enough supplies. Wellesley asked Stevenson to apply for permission to use the place through Rajah Mohiput Ram who appears to have been the senior officer in the Nizam’s army under Stevenson’s command. However, the killadar of the fortress refused to receive the wounded and their attendants. The garrison was unusually jealous of details of the fortress’s construction and would not allow English officers to approach within 500 yards.

There were only two other choices, Aurungabad and Ajanta. At that time Aurungabad was not a strong place, just a sprawling group of fortifications more or less connected and poorly garrisoned. Scindia’s Regular Battalions – even the four which had not been destroyed at Assaye – could easily have taken it. Ajanta was better and closer than Aurungabad, only about twenty-three miles away. Fortress and town, connected by a stone bridge, were smaller than Dowlutabad and Aurungabad, but comfortable and strong enough to offer some resistance even to a regular Mahratta army with artillery, but not sufficiently powerful for the Nizam’s killadar to refuse to receive the British wounded. The journey north had to be slow and easy and was postponed until all wounded men had received the full medical amenities available. Their transfer was begun about 1 October and apparently completed on the 8th, or perhaps a day or two earlier.

While the wounded were moving into Ajanta, both Wellesley and Stevenson had moved down the ghaut to the north. The two armies remained separate but would co-operate to defeat the enemy in battle where possible and capture his bases if he would not fight. It was known now that both Scindia and Berar had retreated to Burhampoor where some of the former’s infantry had taken refuge. Stevenson was ordered to take the city and arrived there on 8 October.

The Mahratta cavalry had moved west from Burhampoor and threatened to raid the Peshwa’s territory around Poona and further south. Wellesley consequently moved west from the bottom of the Ajanta ghaut to protect the area in case Scindia and Berar were serious in their intentions. He received information to the contrary, however, and was back in Ajanta on the 8th.

The enemy again threatened to march on south. Again Wellesley moved in the same direction, this time above the ghauts. He was halfway back to Aurungabad on the nth, only to receive intelligence that the two Mahratta armies had separated, at least temporarily. Scindia had retired west; Berar had moved back towards Burhampoor but was too weak to threaten the Hyderabad army seriously.

Stevenson took Burhampoor on 16 October without serious fighting and collected some money from the civilian population in accordance with Wellesley’s orders. He moved further north on the 24th and after a short siege captured Asseergurh, which was much stronger than Burhampoor and full of military supplies. These two places with Ahmednuggur, Jalna and Baroach had been Scindia’s important military bases in the Deccan. Now all of them were taken.

Perhaps more important than the fall of the fortresses was the surrender of ten of Scindia’s European officers who confirmed that Pohlmann’s thirteen Regular Battalions had disbanded during the retreat after Assaye. One of the officers, Major John James Dupon (or Dupont) who surrendered or was captured in Burhampoor or Asseergurh, had commanded Filoze’s four-battalion compoo. However, there were apparently still at least ten more such officers, eight with British names, in Scindia’s service.

We should note some manoeuvring of the field armies during Stevenson’s sieges. Wellesley moved north on 17 October to be within supporting distance of the Hyderabad force, and was at Ferdapoor, a day’s march north-east of Ajanta, on the 19th. He made the move in case the Mahratta armies had reunited and were about to attack Stevenson. The enemy junction did not take place, however, so Wellesley moved no further. Stevenson was strong enough to beat either Mahratta force separately, a fact the two chiefs undoubtedly appreciated.

Berar did not try to save Scindia’s fortress of Asseergurh, but instead marched south and east as if to raid the Nizam’s territory. His army actually passed between the two British forces about 20 October. Wellesley learnt of Berar’s movements and returned to Ajanta the next day. The following eight days saw some of the finest marching ever done by a British army in India. Wellesley moved south and east covering as much as thirty miles a day, siege train and all. At least once he came within sight of Berar’s army. The Mahrattas are said to have been driven from five campsites in two days until finally Berar lost his nerve and moved north-east again towards his own capital.

We should note the significance of Wellesley’s ‘two army’ strategy. He used Stevenson to capture places of importance while he himself prevented the enemy from raiding friendly territory. When the Mahratta chiefs moved with cavalry only, they were reasonably safe but could accomplish little. A force of cavalry alone could not even take a mud-walled village. Scindia in early September and Berar in late October could have made a dash for Hyderabad City, but they held back because Wellesley would have followed them. They might not have been caught but would have been prevented from plundering in their fashion. Since Mahratta cavalry served mostly for plunder, an arduous and dangerous raid deep into Hyderabad with small expectations of profit was not attractive.

Berar would not cross the Godavery with his cavalry only and retreated north to join his regular infantry and artillery. Wellesley learnt of this decision on 10 November and for a week stopped where he was, near Chicholi, fifteen miles north of the Godavery. Stevenson was to get ready to move on Gawilghur, the principal enemy fortress in the hills which separated Berar’s country from Hyderabad. Wellesley had already decided that Gawilghur would be Stevenson’s next objective.

On the 11th Scindia’s vakels (negotiators) had arrived in Wellesley’s camp asking for an armistice. Wellesley was not surprised; he had detailed information about General Lake’s victories against Perron, Scindia’s semi-independent French subordinate who ruled a vast area to the north, including Delhi and Agra. As has already been mentioned, Lake began hostilities against Perron independently of Wellesley’s declaration against Scindia. He marched from Cawnpore on 7 August, one day before Wellesley moved on Ahmednuggur. Lake took several important fortresses, including Alyghur, during the next month. He won a battle at Delhi on 11 September and occupied the old Mogul capital. However, according to Wellesley’s most recent information Perron’s army was still undestroyed and active early in October. Lake’s magnificent victory at Laswaree was still three weeks away.

Scindia would benefit from an armistice in his southern theatre of operations if he could quickly transfer any of his strength north against Lake. But this was hardly practical. The two theatres were too far apart for Scindia to shuttle units from one to the other. The journey would have taken nearly two months. Besides, Perron was not really subordinate to Scindia any longer.

Wellesley saw no harm in granting Scindia an armistice for a short time, if he could separate him from Berar. The British armies would then be able to take Gawilghur and move on against Berar’s capital more easily. Wellesley agreed to a cessation of hostilities, but insisted that it begin only if and when Scindia moved his entire force fifty miles east of Ellichpoor. Thus his army could neither help Berar nor suddenly move against Poona or Hyderabad. Wellesley did not count on any good faith from Scindia, but he had nothing to lose and a good deal to gain if the armistice terms were met.

By then Wellesley’s system of intelligence was functioning almost perfectly as regards any major enemy movement. Small Mahratta detachments were able to march without having their movements reported, but not the main armies. The British commander knew Berar had moved towards his own infantry and artillery at about the same time as the armistice agreement with Scindia’s negotiators was completed. Scindia was moving in the same direction, either to unite with Berar and continue the war, or fulfil the conditions of the armistice agreement. Stevenson had begun his march for Gawilghur on 15 November. A day later Wellesley began his own to the north and east from the Godavery to join the older commander in that area. Since the four forces were converging on roughly the same point, something was likely to happen.

Wellesley’s army was at Rajoora on the 23rd and at Akola on the 27th. He sent word to Stevenson that he would meet him near Parterly on the morning of the 30th. The two commanders met on schedule, conferred briefly, and then about noon climbed to the flat top of a fortified tower in Parterly. It was unusually large and well built and allowed an all-round view of the country from the top. The Mahrattas, presumably both Scindia and Berar’s forces, were in plain sight to the north. Bisnapah’s Mysore light cavalry was expertly skirmishing with the opposition; he would undoubtedly report soon.

Wellesley got out his telescope and began to examine the area behind the skirmishing horsemen. He could see a large army to the north, beyond the village of Sirsoli but south of the village of Argaum. It was already formed into something resembling a line. Was another battle imminent? Wellesley’s mind began to work like a computer on times, positions and probable speeds. If the Mahrattas had formed their line – and it certainly looked as if they had – they would be unlikely to retire before nightfall.

Though Berar had infantry and artillery with him, those of Scindia in the Deccan were known to be nearly wiped out. The Begum’s Regular Battalions were north of the Tap tee. The enemy forces could not be more numerous than at Assaye and probably not of such quality. Wellesley now had both British armies at hand. The only problem was one of fatigue: his own army had moved eighteen miles since dawn; Stevenson’s appears to have moved hardly less; and it had been a hot day. Wellesley was once more faced with the choice of attacking with an exhausted army or allowing the enemy to slip away. Again the decision was to attack, and orders to that effect were given quickly.

The baggage and siege trains of both armies went into separate camps sufficiently secure to be proof against Mahratta cavalry of any strength. As at Naulniah, Wellesley chose his camp guard carefully. It was composed of his favourite 1/8 Madras, the pickets of the day before, and about three squadrons of Mysore horse. The guard had several field pieces as well as the four 12-pounder siege guns.

The British armies advanced north from Parterly apparently in four columns. Wellesley’s cavalry was on the extreme right; his infantry came next. Stevenson’s cavalry was on the extreme left with his infantry adjacent to Wellesley’s. Stevenson’s total British infantry force was only slightly, if at all, less numerous than Wellesley’s because his one King’s infantry and his five EIC battalions were stronger individually than Wellesley’s two King’s and five EIC battalions. Stevenson was weaker in British cavalry; he had only two EIC regiments against Wellesley’s one King’s and three EIC units, but he still had several thousand Mogul cavalry which were more numerous and more effective in battle than Wellesley’s Mysore light horsemen. Wellesley’s Mahrattas were marching separately at this time; his orders to them were carried by a messenger who ‘missed his road’ so ‘they were not engaged during the 29th’.

Stevenson’s infantry column was led by his pickets of the day; his strong European infantry battalion, now officially the King’s 94th Foot came next followed by his five full-strength EIC Madras battalions. I believe their order was the 2/2, the 2/9, the 1/11, the 2/11, and the 1/6. These battalions were fresher than Wellesley’s; their order was undisturbed by their halt near Parterly.

Wellesley’s infantry battalions were not in order, probably because one brigade had countermarched. His pickets of the day were in the lead, but were followed by the 2/12 and the 1/10 Madras. Then came the King’s 78th, the King’s 74th and three more EIC Madras units, the 1/2, the 1/3 and the 1/4.

The four British columns approached the village of Sirsoli and the plain of Argaum from the south. This area is in the black-earth section of Nagpoor State and is now noted for its production of wheat and cotton. At that time it was covered with millet, the individual stalks of which were seven to nine feet tall. A man on foot could neither sec nor be seen. When Wellesley had observed the country from the tower in Parterly, his elevation and the fact that the whole flat plain is slightly tilted up to the north had allowed a distant but unobstructed view of the enemy’s Argaum line. Now he could see little from around Sirsoli even on horseback. The plain was still exceptionally flat, but it was cut almost haphazardly by deep narrow canals. A nullah or wet-weather river ran generally north and south from before Sirsoli almost to Argaum.

Wellesley made a quick personal reconnaissance to the north and reached a spot from which he could see that the Mahrattas were still in place. The deep narrow canals caused him considerable anxiety. Almost certainly, the enemy had taken up a situation behind one or more of them. He did not like attacking a Mahratta army head-on in a position of its own choice, but there appeared to be no alternative unless he did not attack at all. There were only about three and a half hours of daylight left, enough for a careful assault, but not for any extensive preliminary manoeuvres. Wellesley again decided on attack.

He returned to Sirsoli as the head of his infantry column passed the village. He ordered them to oblique slightly to the right to clear a bend in the central nullah; Wallace was told to guide his pickets of the day to the east for about 1,000 yards, enough space for seven and a half under-strength battalions to form into line, with battalion guns between each unit. The infantry line was then to halt.

Wellesley met Stevenson near Sirsoli. The old colonel was too weak from sickness to mount a horse, but his mind was clear. He exercised all command functions from a comfortable seat in the howdah of an elephant. Arthur quickly explained his battle plan. Stevenson’s infantry line would form in line with his own, but on the west side of the nullah. The colonel’s cavalry under an exceptionally able EIC officer, Lieutenant-Colonel A. Sentleger of the 6th NC, was to protect the left or western flank of the entire infantry line with Stevenson’s two EIC mounted regiments and presumably several thousand Mogul horse. Wellesley’s own cavalry was to protect the right or eastern flank.

So far everything appeared to be going perfectly. Another ten minutes and the British armies would be in formal combat alignment, a considerable accomplishment in view of the fact that the two commanders and their forces had been more than twenty miles apart at sunrise. But battles seldom go as planned. As Wellesley’s pickets passed the nullah, changed direction and began to march east, they came clearly into the view of the Mahratta gunners south of Argaum; the millet did not grow in the semi-dry water course. The sight of the British column may have given the Mahratta commander the first sure evidence of the presence of a considerable British force.

In any event, the enemy guns opened fire, although the range was about 3,000 yards. In the era of solid-shot artillery a column almost in line was a tempting target regardless of range. A round ball from one of the Mahratta guns, frequently 18-pounders even for field service, could kill several men. As often happened in those days, the first rounds were more accurate than those which followed. The air overhead was filled with the awe-inspiring sound of the passage of large shot; perhaps many of them were visible too. One of the balls struck a British bullock-drawn 6-pounder. The ten animals attached to it appear to have survived, but wheeled to the rear and went off in panic. Another gun team did likewise, although apparently it was undamaged.

The two runaway guns drawn by panicking bullocks careered back into the two King’s and six EIC half companies which made up the pickets of the day. The Europeans dodged the guns and kept their position, but the sepoys unaccountably broke. A mass of 250 men, twenty bullocks and two guns pushed back without warning into the next two battalions. Although the sepoy units had fought valiantly at Assaye, they were also seized by the unreasoning fear that sometimes causes the best of soldiers to misbehave. Fortunately, Wellesley himself was within 150 yards. He rode towards them and endeavoured to stop their flight. When this did not succeed, ‘… instead of losing his temper, unbraiding them, and endeavouring to force them back to the spot from which they had fled, he quietly ordered their officers to lead the men under cover of the village.’

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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