Meanwhile, the King’s 78th came up with pipes skirling, past the temporarily disordered sepoys, every Highlander in perfect step and kilts snapping in unison. Red tunics, white belts, gleaming weapons and tall black bearskins made them appear superhuman. The Madras sepoys were good soldiers too and clamoured for another chance. Wellesley took them to their places on the right of the line, made sure they were properly positioned with their battalion guns between each units and had them lie down.
Once his own infantry was all in position, Wellesley ordered Stevenson and Wallace to take the whole British line forward cautiously. Wellesley personally galloped off to the head of his cavalry column which had halted for orders. He advanced with the four cavalry regiments – with Dallas sick and Maxwell killed, they lacked an experienced field officer – and their eight gallopers into the flat, but canal-bisected area well to the east of the Sirsoli–Argaum nullah. The cavalry could usually see over the millet; the enemy line opposite them stretched to the east for a considerable distance, more than the British cavalry could efficiently occupy. But this was unimportant; there was nothing in the rear for the enemy to attack save Bisnapah’s Mysore cavalry which was more than capable of caring for itself.
Wellesley advanced to within 800 yards of the enemy and formed his cavalry into line, each unit slightly separated from the next. He ordered the troopers to dismount, but had the eight cavalry gallopers advance another 200 yards or more until the gunners could see the enemy line clearly; they then opened fire. Wellesley instructed each unit commander separately. They were to wait until the 6-pounders made an impression on the enemy and then to attack, but Wellesley cautioned them not to charge headlong into a canal.
The British commander then returned to his infantry in the centre. He had ordered his own and Stevenson’s battalions to advance in rough alignment while he was taking forward the cavalry. The infantry, which consisted of three fine King’s regiments and ten veteran EIC units with a total of twenty-eight guns in pairs, placed in the intervals between the battalions and on the flanks, was no more than 1,000 yards from the enemy when Wellesley returned. Infantrymen could rarely see the Mahratta line because of the level ground and the millet, but every man knew it was there. The canals were not difficult to cross either on foot or mounted, but ranks had temporarily to be broken. Where necessary, field guns were unlimbered and manhandled over the narrow cuts and reassembled on the other side. All units had been kept roughly in line by Stevenson, Wallace and their own mounted officers. The old colonel on his elephant had an advantage in this terrain.
The infantry had advanced for about 2,000 yards under desultory Mahratta fire but suffered only a few casualties because the enemy gunners were initially at almost maximum range. Later on they were fatigued. In the muzzle-loading era, even the best of artillerymen did not shoot well when they were tired and dirty and their pieces overheated. The Mahratta gunners were handling poorer weapons than Pohlmann had at Assaye, and their targets were mostly hidden by the millet.
Wellesley allowed his infantry to continue its slow advance until it was within 500 yards of the enemy. Then he gave a prearranged signal, perhaps with his hat. The white Mysore artillery bullocks, five pairs per team, wheeled to the rear and brought the gun muzzles to bear on the enemy. The European gunners, the matrosses and the Indian lascars unlimbered smartly, loaded and fired. The first rounds that day were aimed at the opposing infantry. Each piece was cool, clean and handled by a skilful, disciplined crew. They appeared not to hurry, but they were probably delivering three rounds per minute. Round shot and grape tore into the Mahratta infantry and artillery. By this time the enemy guns were so hot that they were almost useless.
Back to the British cavalry on the extreme right. Their eight 6-pounders were in action for ten minutes before they began to accomplish what Wellesley had anticipated. They probably knocked out any artillery the Mahratta cavalry might have had, and then sent solid shot ploughing through the semi-formed enemy horse. Field guns were important in cavalry actions in India; one shot often caused several casualties and had a tremendous effect on morale. Both Hindoos and Muslims had a fatalistic acceptance of death which made them extremely, but passively, brave. They could not, however, stand artillery fire and their units began to waver visibly. The commanding officers of the 19th Dragoons and the three Native Cavalry regiments, four corps that had been companions for many months of active campaigning, went forward individually and with caution. When each unit came within about 200 yards of the enemy and the ground was clearly practical for horse, they increased the pace to a full trot which was about the optimum speed for the proper employment of shock from momentum and weapons.
For a few seconds each British regiment had a real fight. The Mah-rattas were good horsemen. Many were well armed and partially armoured. A few had the courage and ability with their tulwars to challenge British troopers individually. But they lacked the coordination of discipline and training and the uniform weapon efficiency that is the result of practice. British sabres were better because of the temper of the steel and the strong muscles of the men who used them. Hours of sword exercise produced skill, dexterity and power for cutting and thrusting. Most important of all, the British cavalry were in formation so that every trooper could use his weapons and to some extent support his comrades on either side.
The cavalry combats on the right flank were all successful. Berar’s Mahrattas broke and went off in panic, leaving perhaps a few misfit artillery pieces and some other fairly useless equipment. The British units did not immediately pursue, although some of Bisnapah’s horsemen may have done so even at this early stage of the action.
In the centre where Wellesley was personally in command, the opposing Mahratta infantry probably had been unable to see the cavalry action just described, although it apparently was concluded before the central part of the battle began in earnest. Because of flat terrain, high grain and deep ditches, the battle appears to have been fought in three separate parts.
The artillery assigned to British infantry battalions did not find it easy to disorganize the enemy regular infantry. The Mahratta commander in this area was the Rajah of Berar’s brother, Manoo Bappoo, a braver man than either the Rajah or Scindia. He kept his disciplined infantry steady and sent forward a unit of 1,000 to 1,500 Arabs, the best professional soldiers in India. They came on unsupported and attacked the two King’s regiments in the centre of Wellesley’s section of the British line. They fell almost to a man, mostly by the fire of the Highlanders and the British artillery, but some survived the hail of lead and iron to die on Scottish bayonets.
One wonders if Manoo Bappoo realized that both King’s units of Wellesley’s army were in the centre of his line; their normal places were on the flanks. At 500–600 yards one line of men in red jackets and white belts looks much like another, especially through growing millet. Manoo Bappoo’s Arabs might have fared better against EIC units.
Perhaps a few minutes before, the two left flank battalions of Stevenson’s section of the infantry line, the 1/6 and the 2/11 Madras, were attacked by Scindia’s cavalry. The Mahratta horsemen came within about one hundred yards, but were already in the process of refusing to close when the two EIC battalions delivered their volleys. The action appears to have become little more than a feint.
Soon after the elimination of the Arabs, Wellesley sent the entire infantry-artillery line forward; the units moved individually and carefully, not in a line en echelon assault as at Assaye. The infantry guns were manhandled forward beside the battalions to which they belonged, keeping up a slow fire during the advance. Both infantry and artillery had to cross ditches in order to get at the enemy.1 One battalion after another would cross a canal, form on the other side, and continue the attack.
Manoo Bappoo’s regular infantry probably numbered no more than 15,000 including artillerymen. They were well posted and reasonably well led, but weakened by seeing the Arabs defeated and receiving perhaps twenty minutes of intermittent artillery fire. Some, though probably not all, units tried to exchange volleys of musketry with the British battalions. The battle in the centre was decided in these isolated infantry duels. In every case the King’s and EIC units quickly won. Manoo Bappoo’s men withdrew to the rear in panic. As often happened, once the better troops of an Indian army were defeated, the rest fled. The large body of enemy infantry in the second Mahratta line seems not to have fired a shot before it went to the right about and headed for safety. Victory in the centre came at least half an hour after Wellesley’s cavalry had won on the right.
We know less about what happened on the British left, Stevenson’s flank, mainly because there were only a handful of Europeans involved, none of whom wrote a surviving account. Lieutenant-Colonel A. Sentleger competently commanded a composite EIC and Mogul cavalry force, but we do not know the details. I assume that he employed essentially the same tactics as Wellesley on the right.
Scindia’s negotiators were still with Wellesley’s army. They had tried unsuccessfully to persuade him not to attack their master because of the armistice, but Wellesley pointed out that the armistice was not to go into effect until Scindia had complied with its terms. Instead of going fifty miles east of Ellichpoor, he had actively joined Berar. Wellesley obviously had no choice except to consider him an enemy.
Scindia’s army at Argaum was all cavalry and formed in two large divisions one behind the other. As already mentioned, Scindia’s horsemen attacked early in Stevenson’s advance. Sentleger’s cavalry may have had a part in the action. Both EIC and Mogul mounted units appear to have had light field pieces attached to them which probably opened fire in the same manner as Wellesley’s had done. They may eventually have charged, but the fighting on the left cannot have been severe. Stevenson’s two EIC cavalry regiments lost a total of two Europeans and eleven Indians wounded, one Indian killed and one missing. Scindia’s army certainly left the battlefield before Wellesley’s infantry attack in the centre had been completed.
On the other hand, when the Mahratta centre finally did break, Sentleger as senior cavalry officer present seems to have taken over Wellesley’s four British regiments as well as his own two and the Mogul horse and continued the pursuit of the unfortunate enemy infantry for two days. Thousands of Mahrattas were killed, especially during the first moonlit night. Elephants, camels, horses and bullocks, many of them laden with baggage, were captured. Wellesley himself was in the saddle until midnight. The Mysore horsemen under Bisnapah went after the enemy throughout the hours of darkness. The Mahratta allies under Goklah and Appah Dessaye joined in the next morning.
The total casualties for both British armies appear to have been 361, with only fifteen European and thirty-one Indian deaths. The Mahratta losses may have been as high as 5,000 or even 10,000. They lost all their artillery, thirty-eight pieces, and their ammunition. Argaum was a magnificent victory won at relatively small cost.
One wonders why the Mahrattas fought here at all. They had lost at Assaye when they had Scindia’s Regular Battalions instead of Berar’s against a British force half as powerful. An obvious answer is that the Mahratta generals did not know that Wellesley and Stevenson had joined forces. Bisnapah and his Mysore light cavalry had covered the junction of the two armies splendidly and screened their subsequent advance. The tall millet may have been a contributing factor.
Another answer may be Manoo Bappoo’s pride in his own regular infantry and his confidence in the Arabs. He probably had not been at Assaye and may not have seen British troops in action. Once he knew that he was opposing both Wellesley and Stevenson, his control of an enormous army may have been so faulty that a retreat from his carefully taken position was next to impossible.
The relative ease of victory should not tempt us to overlook either the sound professional performance of the British commander and his armies or the disadvantages under which they fought. As usual Wellesley’s army had marched their eighteen miles by noon and moved on at least a further four miles to Sirsoli. Most units probably covered nearly twenty-four miles before they began to fight the battle. Stevenson’s army probably covered about twenty miles. But all British units continued as required without complaint.
The British armies at Argaum did full justice to their training and their months of active campaigning. The artillery was particularly efficient; Wellesley praised both artillery commanders. But the guns were a part of infantry-artillery and cavalry-artillery teams, not a separate arm. All units handled themselves well on an exceptionally difficult battlefield. Wellesley’s two King’s infantry regiments resoundingly defeated the ill-conceived attack of the Arabs, suffering moderately severe casualties. Stevenson’s 1/6 and the 2/11 Madras defeated Scindia’s horsemen at long range; they suffered hardly at all; during the whole day only eleven sepoys were wounded. The only unit in Stevenson’s army to suffer moderately was his King’s regiment, the 94th Foot, to use its new name. It lost two killed, thirty-seven wounded and two missing.
We should look again at the slightly unusual order of Wellesley’s infantry battalions which may have contributed to the momentary panic at Sirsoli. The pickets led as usual, with two King’s half companies at their head. Harness’s Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Adams of the 78th came next, but with the battalions reversed. The 78th was at the rear, the 1/10 in the middle, and the 2/12 next to the pickets. Adams may not have realized at the beginning of the battle that he was in charge of the brigade. As mentioned earlier, Harness tried to carry out his regular duties, but Wellesley had to order him back into his palanquin. Had the 78th been in front, there would have been no panic except perhaps from six sepoy half companies. The momentary discomfiture, if it was caused by the battalion transposition, was more than made up for by the presence of Wellesley’s two battalions of Scots in the middle rather than at the ends of the line when they defeated the Arabs in the only serious infantry combat of the entire battle.
Wellesley’s personal contribution to the victory at Argaum began days before when he sensed that he and Stevenson should again move closer together. For only the fourth time in more than seven months, the two armies were in sight of each other. The first had been at Aklooss in mid-April; the second and third had been before and after Assaye.
At Parterly as at Naulniah, Wellesley was faced with the decision whether or not to attack with units which would undoubtedly not be at their best because of fatigue. Again he chose to fight immediately, because if he let the opportunity slip the enemy would surely have retired during the night. It should be clearly understood, however, that the British forces were not really over-tired. There is no indication that any unit was ineffective, and they were all in fine marching trim.
Wellesley’s personal reconnaissance before Argaum involved less riding and included nothing as dramatic as the discovery of the ‘secret ford’ at Assaye. But during his ride north, apparently along the central nullah and then probably to the east of it, he was able to get the entire battle area firmly in mind and issue his orders on that basis. His rallying of two and a half battalions of sepoys may have been of extreme importance.
Once the infantry of both armies was in position, Wellesley left them with appropriate orders under veteran commanders to take charge of the cavalry himself. He personally positioned the four regiments and gave them definite and simple instructions. He then returned to the combined infantry line because the battle would be won or lost there. He was on guard against and finally overcame the problem of the ‘canals’ which might have defeated a less able commander. In a few minutes he evolved a shift in tactics to fit the unusual circumstances the ditches presented. He accomplished with fire from both artillery and infantry what he could not do with a single shock assault. He remained at hand to see that all went well.
In spite of his illness Stevenson made significant contributions to the victory at Argaum as well as to the successful campaign which it terminated. After a quarter of a century in India he had in 1799 come under the influence and intermittent command of a man almost young enough to be his son, but he never complained and did his level best. It cannot have been easy for him to learn a new strategy and new tactics; he had grown up in the ‘God will provide’ school of logistics under commanders who moved ponderously when they moved at all. By the time of Argaum, however, he had assimilated the ideas of his mentor about precise movement, efficient staff work and the importance of detail.
Stevenson had learned neither quickly nor painlessly; Wellesley’s coaching was effective but not always pleasant. When Stevenson took counsel of his fears or allowed Mahratta brindarries to annoy him, he received prompt admonishment. But he persevered in the use of Wellesley’s advice and found that it worked. On several occasions he became audacious and beat the enemy at their own game, but he did not go too far and bring on a battle when unsupported. In fact, ‘the colonel with great prudence and propriety halted’ so that the two armies could meet at Parterly at noon on the 29th.
Stevenson’s movement towards Gawilghur – after he had equipped his army for the siege at Asseergurh – had brought on the battle at Argaum. He fought there propped up in the howdah of an elephant, but he fully deserved Wellesley’s praise; he had definitely become what is quite rare in military history, a capable subordinate commander of a semi-independent army.