Madhaji Sindia was the greatest man India produced in the last century. He towered above his contemporaries. He was a greater warrior and a more far-sighted statesman than Haidar Ali of Maisur; he possessed none of the cruelty or the habitual and senseless perfidy of Nizam Ali of Haidarabad; amongst the Marathas not a single man equalled him in intellectual power. Alone amongst his countrymen he detected the necessities of the English position, the alternative of further conquest or annihilation which lay before them, the life struggle which must ensue between them and the princes of India. To prepare for that life struggle, to avoid internecine national quarrels, to effect a union amongst all castes and races against the ever-encroaching foreigner, had been for many years the aim of his policy, the darling desire of his life. At one time he had contemplated the bringing of Haidar Ali and the Nizam within the confederacy. He had been forced to wait, however, till his own position should be consolidated, his own influence in Western India supreme, before he could give the final touch to the scheme. Before that time arrived Haidar had died, after a vain attempt to accomplish, single-handed, that which a combined effort on the part of all the races of India
might have secured; and Tipu, foiled in another unsupported effort, had been shorn of half his dominions. But in June 1793, Madhaji had attained the summit of his wishes. He swayed the destinies of Central India, and, as far as and including Aligarh, of North-western India; his troops, trained and commanded by Frenchmen and other Europeans, occupied the strong places from Ujjen to Agra and Dihli; his only possible rival in Central India, Tukaji Holkar, was at his feet; and at Punah, the capital of the Peshwa, he was rapidly gaining a supreme influence. He wanted but a few short years to work out his dream. He had not seen quite sixty summers, and had lived a temperate and active life. The expectation that a brief time might yet be granted to him was not extravagant. It proved, however, to be fallacious. When yet on the last step of the pedestal he had spent the preceding thirty years to attain, he was struck down by fever, and died. With him perished the last hope of unity of action against the foreigner.
The direction of the fabric which Madhaji Sindia had raised with much patience, so much skill, and so much forethought, devolved upon a boy of fifteen – a boy possessing a character, which, if still unformed, had displayed waywardness, indecision, and a dislike of control.
This boy was Daolat Rao Sindia. He succeeded very suddenly to a position which demanded all the qualities of a ripened statesman. The influence he had inherited was predominant at Punah, and events very shortly happened which called upon him to exercise it. Unhappily he was too young or too wilful to take up the large scheme bequeathed to him by Madhaji; and when events convinced him of its wisdom and forced its principle upon him, he had descended many steps from the height to which Madhaji had attained.
The first great event which demanded his prompt action was the sudden death of the Peshwa. On the 25th October 1795, Mahadeo Rao Narayan, the last but one who bore that title,
threw himself, in a fit of profound melancholy, from a terrace of his palace, and two days later died from the effects of the injuries he then received. When this event happened, Daolat Rao, marching at the head of his army towards Gwaliar, had reached Jamgaon. Recognising the importance of the situation he promptly replied to the invitation sent him by the minister of the late Peshwa, and returned to Punah, arbiter, if his capacity bad been equal to his power, of the destinies of Western India.
His capacity was not, however, equal to his power. He allowed himself to be hoodwinked, deceived, and led in leading-strings by a man who, at the age of twenty-one, had gained the reputation of being the most consummate intriguer of the day – a man at that time under surveillance in his own camp – the cousin of the late Peshwa – the notorious Baji Rao Raghunath. By the influence he managed to exercise upon Daolat Rao, Baji Rao became Peshwa. He immediately began to intrigue for the departure of his too powerful patron.
In the hands of the new Peshwa Daolat Rio was a mere child. By degrees Bail Rao undermined his influence, raised enemies against him even in his own household, stirred up Holkar to attack him, until at last, Daolat Rao, wearied and disgusted, saw himself forced to quit Punah to defend his own dominions from attack (November 1880).
He was but just in time. Before he could muster his forces in full strength Jeswant Rao Holkar had inflicted two successive defeats on detachments he had sent for the protection of Ujjen (June 1801). The following month his great park of artillery was saved from falling into the hands of the same daring rival, by the gallantry of an Englishman in his service, named Brownrigg. But in October he was ready, and on the 14th of that month he inflicted upon Holkar a crushing defeat in front of his capital, Indur, which, as a consequence, fell into his hands. Had Daolat Rao followed up his victory there had been an end for ever to the career of Jeswant Rao. But not recognising the
importance of the situation he preferred to negotiate. Again was he duped. Jeswant Rao, whose intellect was subtle and whose insight was keen – who was, in fact, an intriguer of intriguers – amused Daolat Rao till, with the marvellous recuperative power always displayed by the Marathas, he had recruited his army. He then suddenly broke off, renewed hostilities in Khandesh, and defeated Sindia’s army, led by his general, Sheo daseo Rao, near Dinah (25th October 1802).
This defeat was productive of the most disastrous consequences to the Marathas. It broke up for ever the Maratha confederacy. It was one of those incidents which, slight in themselves, yet suffice to change the course of events. The defeat of one Maratha, power by another Maratha power brought upon the scene, in a manner as marvellous as it was unexpected, the power which was destined to control them all. The result was due mainly to the obstinacy and short-sightedness of Daolat Rao.
The defeat of Sindia’s army near Punah on the 25th October 1802 caused the Peshwa, Baji Rao, to flee in trepidation from his capital. From Suwarnadurg (Severndrug), where he took refuge, Baji Rao addressed pressing solicitations to Sindia, then in camp at Ujjen, to come to his aid. It is not too much to say that the fate of India was, at that moment, in the hands of Daolat Rao Sindia. Had he marched to the aid of his suzerain he would have regained by force of arms the position he had lost by intrigue; there would have been no treaty of Bassein; the Maratha confederacy would have presented an unbroken front to the foreigner.
But Daolat Rao had not yet grasped the full conception of his astute predecessor. He cast away the opportunity never to recur, and declined to march to the assistance of the Peshwa. The Peshwa in despair threw himself on the protection of the British. The result was the treaty of Bassein.
The Treaty of Bassein was the greatest diplomatic triumph which the world has ever witnessed. On the eve of a contest,
impending, which could not have been long delayed, between the Maratha Confederacy and the British, it broke up the Maratha Confederacy: it relieved the English of the danger which had long threatened them of having to face at one and the same time the united power of a league whose territories comprehended the north-west provinces of India, Central India, and the greater part of western India; and allowed them to meet and to conquer each section of that league singly. Above all, it paralysed the vast influence which attached to the name and to the authority of the Peshwa.
By the Treaty of Bassein, negotiated under the orders of Marquess Wellesley by Sir Barry Close, the Peshwa engaged to admit the thin end of the wedge of British protection, that wedge always fatal to the independence of a native dynasty. He engaged to receive from the British a subsidiary force of six battalions, with guns, and to cede certain districts for their payment; to refer to the British Government all his disputes with the Nizam and his claims against the Gaikwar. The British, on their part, undertook to restore the Peshwa to his dominions, to defend him against all hostility or aggression whatsoever “in the same manner as the rights and territories of the Honourable Company are now maintained and defended.” Other articles bound the Peshwa even more closely to his foreign defenders.
The news of the Treaty of Bassein and the information he received as to its nature, roused Daolat Rao Sindia to a sense of his errors. In that treaty he saw plainly not only a bar to a complete Maratha Confederacy, but a threat against himself. Then, probably for the first time, he fully grasped the statesmanlike plans of Madhaji, at the very moment when the realisation of those plans had been rendered impossible for ever. Then he bestirred himself. He refused, after some hesitation, the invitation he received to become a party to the defensive portion of the treaty; and then, as earnest and active as he
had been vacillating and dilatory, he strove to unite the Marathas against their one dangerous foe. But he was too late. The Peshwa had been bought off by the British, and Jeswant Rao Holkar, though he recognised as clearly as did Daolat Rao the gravity of the situation, allowed his policy to be overruled by his personal jealousy. It is more than possible that that jealousy was whetted by the conviction that the contest between the British and Daolat Rao would be prolonged, that it would leave the rival combatants exhausted; and that he, Jeswant Rao, would then step in – the master of the situation. At all events, he refused his aid.
With Raghuji Bhonsle, Rajah of Barar, Daolat Rao was more successful. That Maratha prince, equally penetrated with the danger of the situation, agreed to bring all the influence and power of the Bhonsle to support the national cause.
The two allies proceeded at once to make preparations for war. But though they masked their designs with secrecy, those designs did not escape the penetrating glance of the Governor-General; and he, on his side, prepared for the inevitable struggle. Not content with that, as soon as his own arrangements had been well advanced, he demanded of Sindia an explicit declaration of his intentions. Sindia, not yet prepared, replied that it was necessary, before he could answer, to consult with his ally, the Rajah of Barar. He marched at once with his own troops to take up a position in proximity to the position occupied by that ally, close to the western frontier of the territories of the Nizam.
Long negotiations followed the meeting of the two chieftains, negotiations protracted on their side by the hope that Holkar might yet be tempted to unite his cause with theirs. Wearied at last of continued evasions General Wellesley, who commanded the main English force in that quarter, proposed as a test ultimatum that the armies of the several Powers should retire within the boundaries of their own territories; engaging, for his part, that if Sindia would retire to the North-west Provinces
and the Bhonsle to Barar, he would withdraw every British soldier within the limits of British territories. Finding it impossible to evade a reply to this practical proposal, the two chieftains rejected it. As a consequence, the British Resident withdrew from their camp, and war ensued.
Marquess Wellesley, with that thoroughness which was a marked characteristic of his Indian administration, had made preparations to attack his enemies simultaneously on more points than one. Whilst, then, the commander-in-chief of the army in India, General Lake, marched from Kanhpur, on the 5th August, at the head of about 8,000 men, to drive Sindia’s troops from the North-West Provinces; whilst a smaller force of 3,500 assembled at Allahabad to act on the side of Bundelkhand, and another of 5,216 marched to the eastward to conquer the districts of which Katak (Cuttack) was the capital; other, and, taken altogether, larger armies had been made ready to move in western and southern India. It is with these armies alone that we have to do just now.
In the Dakhan and Gujarat the forces assembled by Lord Wellesley’s orders amounted to 35,596 men. Of these, 3,595 were assigned for the defence of the cities of Punah and Haidarabad. To cover these places General Stuart, who commanded in chief in this part of India, at the head of 7,826 men, occupied a central position between the rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra. In advance of this covering army were three field forces; one, of 8,930 men, commanded by General Wellesley, was at Walki, eight miles south of Ahmadnagar; another, of 7,920 men, led by General Stevenson, but subordinate to Wellesley, was some miles to the east of Jalnah. The third field force was in Gujarat. It was composed of 7,352 men; but as 3,071 of these were required to garrison the strong places in that province there remained available for field operations only 4,281; these were commanded by Colonel Murray, who was subject to the control of General Wellesley.
But if the number of the British troops was considerable – enormous, in fact, if we compare it with the handful of men whom we have seen struggling, under Clive and Adams and Munro, to lay the foundations of empire – the forces wielded by their enemies were greater still. The combined forces of Sindia and the Bhonsle have been estimated at 100,000 men; and of these 30,000 were troops trained and armed after the European fashion, disciplined, and, in many instances, officered and led by Europeans. About two-thirds of these trained sipahis occupied, however, Sindia’s possessions in the North-West Provinces and in the more north-eastern parts of Central India. Besides the 10,000 of these regular troops, the allies had in south-western India some 40,000 horsemen, a splendid park of artillery, extremely well manned, and a mass of matchlockmen, very irregular infantry, formed on the old native system, which had degenerated into being no system at all. This army, when hostilities broke out, occupied a position below the Ajunta pass, on the frontiers of the Nizam’s dominions, about fifty-five miles from Jalnah.
Before I proceed to give a detailed account of the events of the war, I propose to glance for a moment at the characters of the rival leaders. Of Daolat RAO Sindia the reader will by this time have formed an opinion. A man possessed of a slow brain and a vacillating nature can never be a great general. Throughout his life Daolat Rao was in leading-strings; he was the puppet of the man who for the moment had acquired the greatest influence over him. At this particular moment that influence was possessed by his ally, Raghuji Bhonsle. Raghuji was but a poor counsellor in difficult circumstances. He understood war, however, in the sense in which war was understood by the great founder of the Maratha empire. According to him, war meant the ravaging of the country over which his enemy must march; the hanging on his flanks and rear; the avoiding of a general action; the cutting off his supplies. Raghuji impressed
these counsels upon Sindia, and so long as he was by his side Sindia was disposed to conform to them. But the two chiefs could not always be together, and, when Raghuji was absent, Sindia was swayed by men who dilated on the excellence of his trained troops, of his cavalry, and of his artillery, of his superiority in numbers, of the great advantage of striking a decisive blow. The result was an attempt to combine two opposite systems, an attempt which could not but end in failure.
The commander of the advanced British forces in south-western India, General Arthur Wellesley, was the very last man in the world in whose presence operations of the nature I have described could be carried out with impunity. Born in the year 1769, Arthur Wesley – as he was then called – had entered the army at an early age and had, in the days when everything was possible to a young man of good birth, very soon attained the command of a regiment. We find him, even in 1794, commanding with spirit and intelligence a brigade in the rear-guard which covered the retreat of the Duke of York’s beaten army from Holland. In 1795, his regiment, the 33rd, was ordered to the West Indies. A succession of tempestuous weather accompanied by contrary winds, tossed the fleet for six weeks in the waters of the Atlantic, and compelled it finally to return to England. It became necessary to land the 33rd, and before it could be re-embarked, its destination was changed to India. Wesley, prevented from accompanying it, followed a few months later, and landed in Calcutta in February 1797.
At that time the Governor-General was Sir John Shore, afterwards Lord Teignmouth, a man distinguished amongst his other high attainments for his keen perception of character. It is said that after Wellesley – for his family shortly afterwards adopted this form – had retired from their first interview, – which took place at a levee – Sir John Shore turned to the gentlemen who surrounded him, and exclaimed, “If Colonel Wesley
should ever have the opportunity of distinguishing himself he will do it – and greatly.”61
Shortly after Wellesley had rejoined his regiment he was called upon to take part in an expedition against the Manilas. He seized the occasion to submit a recommendation to the effect that prior to such an attack the Dutch settlements of Java should be destroyed. The expedition sailed, and had reached Penang, when it was recalled to India in consequence of the hostile dispositions of Tipu Sahib. For the moment, however, these dispositions did not lead to warfare.
Shortly afterwards, 17th May 1798, Colonel Wellesley had the gratification of welcoming the arrival in Calcutta of the greatest of the many great men sent from England to govern India, – his brother – the Earl of Mornington – better known as Marquess Wellesley. Lord Mornington’s arrival was coincident with the last effort made by the ruler of Maisur to recover, in alliance with the French Republic, the position which his great father had gained prior to the battle of Porto Novo. The occasion was critical; for the French, led by the most brilliant general of the age, occupied Egypt, and that general was already in communication with Tipu. The great Marquess – it may be convenient to style him by the title which he soon afterwards assumed – displayed on this occasion the acumen, the force of character, the resolution which mark every act of his career. He gave Tipu every opportunity to prove the honesty of his intentions, and it was only when the last of these had been treated with contempt that he sent an army into his dominions.
That army conquered Maisur and slew Tipu defending his last fortress. With it served Colonel Wellesley. On the morrow of the successful assault of that fortress, Wellesley was appointed to command it, and he was shortly afterwards joined with other distinguished officers in a commission to regulate the affairs of
the whole country; and, when this work had been concluded by the re-formation of a Hindu kingdom under a sovereign of the ancient royal race, Wellesley was appointed to organise and command the army necessary to defend it.
Wellesley fulfilled the duties of this post – amongst which may be enumerated the successful extirpation of a very formidable band of freebooters – for upwards of a year. He was recalled from them towards the close of 1800 to command an expedition ordered to assemble at Tinomalli, and to proceed to the conquest of Java. The destination of the force assembled for this expedition was shortly afterwards changed to Egypt, and the command was given to a senior officer, Sir David Baird, under whom Wellesley was to serve as second. This change, which he bitterly regretted at the time, was one of the most fortunate occurrences of a very fortunate life. In two ways did Fortune display her favours. Fever prevented Wellesley at the last moment from accompanying the expedition. Firstly, the vessel in which he was to have sailed, and on board of which he had sent his baggage, the Susannah, was lost with all hands in the Red Sea; secondly, his enforced stay in India rendered him available for command in the war against Sindia and the Bhonsle.
Recovered from his fever, Wellesley was (April 1801) reappointed to the command of the forces in Maisur. He held this command nearly two years, was promoted to the rank of Major-General, and in March 1808 was appointed to the command of the advanced corps of General Stuart’s army, and directed to move through the southern Maratha country, to confirm the dispositions of the well disposed, and to march leisurely to Punah, to establish there an order of things favourable to the return of the Peshwa. This mission Wellesley successfully accomplished, re-established the Peshwa (13th May 1808) and set out from that place on the 4th June to occupy the position facing the armies of Sindia and the Bhonsle, in which I left him when I turned aside to digress upon his earlier career.
On the 7th August 1803, the Governor-General issued a proclamation declaring that he had, on the day previous, directed the levying of war against the two Maratha chieftains. On that day General Wellesley was at Walki, eight miles south of Ahmadnagar. Heavy rains prevented him from at once moving against that fortress, but on the 8th he set out to attempt it. Ahmadnagar is distant from Punah but seventy-three miles. The fortress, formidable in appearance, bore the reputation of being impregnable. Wellesley has left upon record that it seemed to him, next to Whir, the strongest place in India. It was surrounded by a mud wall, and this again was defended by a ditch twenty feet in depth and forty in breadth. Arab soldiers, considered the best soldiers in western India, formed its garrison. Against it Wellesley at once raised his batteries, opened fire on the 10th, and forced its surrender on the 12th. His loss had amounted to twenty-eight killed and twenty-two wounded – of these, six were officers.
The capture of Ahmadnagar was a most important event, inasmuch as it secured the British communications with Punah, afforded a secure depot for stores, and severed the connection of the allied chieftains with the Dakhan. Leaving there a garrison, Wellesley (18th August) marched northwards, through a country wasted, in accordance with the suggestions of the Bhonsle, by the Marathas, crossed the Godavari on the 24th, and reached Aurangabad on the 29th. On the same day on which Wellesley crossed the Godavari, the Maratha cavalry, covered by crowds of predatory skirmishers, ascended the Ajunta pass, and making a detour to avoid the camp of General Stevenson, reached Jalnah the day after Wellesley had arrived at Aurangabad. The distance between the two places is only forty miles, and by a proportion of that distance the Marathas were nearer to Haidarabad. Hoping, then, to steal a march on their enemy, they stayed only a day at Jalnah, and Ulm set off in a south-easterly direction.
The first care of Wellesley, on learning the course taken by the enemy, was to move so as to protect the country on which he greatly depended for supplies, and to ensure the safe arrival of the convoys of grain which had been despatched to him by General Stuart from the Krishna. Directing Stevenson, then, to secure Jalnah without delay, he moved down the Godavari. The action of the enemy on discovering this move proved that they had no guiding mind to direct them. It was still in their power, regard being had to their vast majority in cavalry, to push on to the heart of the Nizam’s country. But the movement of Wellesley down the Godavari, whilst Stevenson, pressing after them, was endeavouring to bring them to action, greatly disturbed them. They at once renounced the projected movement on Haidarabad, abandoned their chance of predatory warfare, and manoeuvred to avoid an action until the whole of their infantry should come up. In this they succeeded. Though surprised by Stevenson, who in the meanwhile had taken Jalnah, on the 9th September they managed to avoid a general action, and finally, on the 20th September, effected a junction with their infantry and artillery. The united army took up a position the day following at Bokardan, not far from the town of Jafarabad.
The very same day, the 21st, Wellesley and Stevenson, who had been following the enemy on different lines, met at Badnapur, a little more than eleven miles from Jalnah, and on the road between that place and Aurungabad. At a conference which ensued between the two generals, it was agreed that their two corps should continue to move on separate lines, and should simultaneously attack the enemy from opposite points, on the morning of the 24th. The separation was necessary, not only because both divisions could not traverse the same defiles in one day, but because the roads through the hills required to be occupied to prevent any attempt on the part of the enemy to avoid the action by retiring. With this understanding they
separated, and on the following morning each set out to perform the task allotted to him. It is necessary that I should first record the movements of Wellesley.
That general, leaving Badnapur on the 22nd, reached the village of Kalni on the morning of the 23rd, and was about to pitch his camp when the scouts brought him the information that the combined army of the enemy was encamped on the banks of the river Khelna, within six miles of him; that they had notice of his approach and were preparing to move off. Apprehensive lest an adherence to the agreement made with Stevenson would allow them to escape, Wellesley resolved to attack them at once. Sending word of his intention to Stevenson, who was within eight miles of him, and leaving a strong guard in his camp to protect the baggage, he set forth at the head of his army, numbering now only four thousand five hundred British and native troops – of whom one regiment of cavalry and two of infantry were Europeans – and five thousand Maisur and Maratha (the Peshwa’s) horsemen. After marching about five miles, Wellesley, who was with the advance in front of the army, beheld from the summit of a rising ground the enemy’s army drawn up in a vast line extending along the northern bank of the river Khelna, near its junction with the Jewah. Their infantry and artillery, formed in dense masses on their left, rested on the village of Assaye, whilst their numerous cavalry, thirty thousand strong – the famous horsemen who had dealt the death-blow to the empire of the Mughul, and had bidden defiance to Aurangzib in all his glory – completely filled the spaces on the right. Of the infantry, 10,000 had been trained on the European system, and the artillery was for the most part magnificent.
It was a sight to arouse all the warrior instincts in the breast of the young general – then in his thirty-fourth year – about to fight his first battle. He gazed long and eagerly, slowly advancing as he did so, on the array before him, examining
with piercing glance every disposition. At last information reached him that the enemy had neglected to guard the only ford which existed across the Khelna. Exclaiming “They cannot now escape us,” he gave the order to change the direction of his force. Moving to the right he reached the Khelna at a point considerably beyond the enemy’s left, but close to the junction of that river with the Jewah, left his native allies on the south bank, crossed it by the ford, and then drew up his army for the attack. He formed his infantry in two lines, his cavalry in a third line, in their rear. His right rested on the Jewah, his left on the Khelna. Just as he was forming up his troops, information reached him that his native allies, especially the cavalry of the Peshwa, intended to betray him and join Sindia. Unmoved, Wellesley, tolerably certain that they would join the victor, whoever he might be, made no change in his dispositions respecting them.
Meanwhile the enemy, noting the action of the British, had changed their front to meet it. They had moved up their three arms from the position they had occupied along the Khelna, and had extended them in a line facing the English between the two rivers; but as the space was not sufficient to accommodate their entire masses, they had formed of those who were superfluous a shorter line running at a right angle to the first. The left of both these lines rested on Assaye, in which their artillery had been posted.
The preparations of the two Maratha leaders had been completed whilst Wellesley was crossing the ford, and his order of battle had therefore to be made under a continuous fire from the artillery posted in the village of Assaye. No sooner, however, had it been arranged than he gave the order to advance. His plan was of the simplest. The enemy’s right wing, resting on the Khelna, was their weakest point: he would attack that, force it back upon the Jewah, and then use the advantage which a small body of disciplined troops employed against masses
huddled together in a space too small for their operations always bestows.
The 74th Regiment occupied the right of the line. The order given was that whilst the skirmishers in front of this regiment should cover a very slow advance, sufficient only to draw the entire attention of the troops massed in Assaye, the 78th and the native regiments on the left should press forward rapidly and perform the work assigned to them. But whether it was that the order was imperfectly comprehended, or that the fighting instincts of the British soldier would not be restrained, the right, notwithstanding the very severe cannonade to which they were subjected, dashed forward at the same pace as the rest of the line. But so great was the execution of the enemy’s guns that, before the line had made one half of the distance, the bullocks attached to the English light batteries had been killed. The forward movement of the guns was therefore rendered impossible; and the men, staggered for the moment by this accident, and by the terrible fire to which they were exposed, halted, whilst the officer commanding despatched an orderly to report the mishap to his guns. “Tell him to get on without them,” was the brief and emphatic reply. It was, indeed, too late to think of anything else; there was absolutely no alternative; anything but advance meant destruction.
The leaders of the Maratha army had, however, noticed the hesitation, the halt, the apparent confusion in the ranks of the English. It was just the sort of hesitation to which, in their wars against each other, they had been accustomed, and to take advantage of which they were prepared to use their cavalry. Instantly, then, Daolat Rao ordered his famed horsemen to the front, and directed them to change the check into a defeat. But Wellesley saw the impending movement, and, a born leader of soldiers, took on the spot the only possible means to anticipate a charge which, made under the actual circumstances, could scarcely fail of being successful. As quick as thought,
and quicker, fortunately, than the enemy, he brought up from the rear the 19th Light Dragoons, and ordered them to meet at full gallop the advance of the Maratha horsemen. The Dragoons, who drew only three hundred and sixty sabres, came up, followed by the 4th, 5th, and 7th Madras Native Cavalry, passed with a loud huzza through the broken ranks of the 74th, and dashed at full speed at their enemy. Under the terrible shock which followed the swarthy troopers of Western India reeled. They had been taken before the speed of their horses had roused their excitement to fever heat, and now their very numbers impeded them. They offered, then, but a slight resistance to the impetuosity of the British, and were glad to take refuge, baffled, behind their infantry. The charge of the dragoons had given the infantry the cover and the breathing-time they wanted. During its continuance the artillery-fire had ceased, and the British left and centre, under the personal direction of Wellesley, had rapidly pushed forward. When the space cleared again Wellesley charged the enemy’s right on the Khelna, and pushed them before him back on to their second shorter line, which was formed up almost resting on the Jewah. Simultaneously the victorious cavalry charged the village of Assaye. The 74th came up to support them. The village, after a long resistance, was carried, and the rest of the line pressing simultaneously forward, drove the enemy before them step by step until they forced them, at the point of the bayonet, into the Jewah!
So far success had crowned the efforts of the British commander; he had driven the enemy from the battle-field. But success not followed up is, in war, but the shadow of success. And there, now, were the enemy, their numbers but little diminished, on the ground beyond the Jewah, infinitely more suited for their peculiar mode of warfare than that from which they had been driven. It was clear that they recognised this fact, for they began, as soon as they had reached the opposite bank
to rally and to make new formations. Wellesley, with the keen instinct of a great commander, anticipated here, as in the earlier part of the battle, their intentions. At a word from him the British cavalry, dashing across the rivulet, charged the infantry and pursued them with so much vigour that all thought of rallying was dispelled. The only troops who made good their retreat were the trained battalions.
The enemy’s cavalry, however, still looked dangerous. They had been but little engaged, their self-love had been sorely wounded, and they numbered thirty thousand. Just at this moment, too, masses of the enemy who had thrown themselves on the ground as if dead, jumped suddenly to life and turned their guns on the British rear, now advanced beyond them. So effective was their action, that to stop it Wellesley was forced to move against them with the 78th and some native cavalry. The British cavalry then dealt with the Maratha squadrons and with some of the fugitive infantry which had taken shelter under its wing. Led by Colonel Maxwell they again charged the masses before them – so effectually, that though Maxwell fell, the enemy, their pride completely abated, quitted the field, and did not halt till they had covered a distance of twelve miles.
Such was the battle of Assaye – in very deed a general’s battle! For its result was due even more to the brain of the commander than to the valour of the men. It may be taken as certain that under an inferior commander the issue would have been different. Whether it was wise to engage in the battle with so small a force, when another was within eight miles of him, is a point which may be fairly argued. It was simply a question whether the political circumstances of the time rendered it advisable to risk much in order to gain much, or to witness, quiescent, an action which would have entailed disastrous consequences. Doubtless the “prudent” school would not have fought. To avoid risking a British army they would consequently have witnessed the uprising of the Dakhan, the union
of the Nizam with the Marathas, possibly also the rising of the Peshwa, and of Holkar, and the great injury of British interests in southern and western India.
From such issues Wellesley saved India. The battle, I repeat, was a General’s battle. He “gave every part of the army its full share: left no part of it unemployed; but supported, sometimes with cavalry, sometimes with infantry, every point that was pressed, at the very time it was necessary.”62 The advance of the British cavalry to repel the Maratha horsemen in the very crisis of the battle, was, of itself, sufficient to establish his title to be a great commander. Throughout the action he displayed readiness, coolness, a quick and sure glance, a firm and decided action; and those are the qualities which make a general!
The casualties were heavy. The English lost, in killed, twenty-three European officers, a hundred and seventy-five European and two hundred and thirty native soldiers; in wounded, thirty European officers, four hundred and twelve European and six hundred and ninety-six native soldiers. Of the enemy twelve hundred were left dead on the field of battle; their wounded were scattered all over the field. Ninety-eight pieces of cannon fell into the hands of the victors.
Of the leaders on both sides it deserves to be recorded that whilst Wellesley was foremost in the fight, himself led two charges and had two horses shot under him, Raghuji Bhonsle gave an example to his men of unsurpassed cowardice; after having by that example paralysed their action, he quitted the field. He was followed by Daolat Rio as soon as the defeat of his cavalry had been pronounced. Thenceforward the soldiers of the latter fought without a leader, and many of them by their gallantry proved that they deserved a better.
The evening of the day after the battle Stevenson came up and at once proceeded in pursuit of the enemy. He soon found that the beaten army, after reaching the village of Anwah, had
turned suddenly westward, apparently in the hope of gaining the southern Maratha country by Tal Ghat and Kasara. Wellesley, on receiving this information, directed him to continue his march northward to reduce the important city of Burhanpur and the fortress of Asirgarh, whilst he himself, south of Ajunta, should watch the movements of the enemy. These measures were successfully accomplished. Stevenson captured Burhanpur without opposition (19th October), reduced Asirgarh – considered the key of the Dakhan – after battering it for an hour (21st October) and received, as a consequence, the submission of the independent districts of Khandesh. Wellesley, who up to that time, had acted strictly on the defensive, no sooner heard that Asirgarh had fallen than he dashed after the Bhonsle, who had quitted Sindia to proceed on a predatory expedition to the south. So greatly did the presence of the conqueror of Assaye terrify Raghuji, that to avoid him he changed his camp five times in less than forty-eight hours, and finally beat a hurried retreat to his own territories. He had been sickened of fighting.
Wellesley then turned northwards to cover Stevenson on the march to besiege the strong fortress of Gualgarh. Gualgarh, a hundred and seventy miles to the north-east of Aurangabad, was a place of considerable importance, inasmuch as it commanded the main road across the mountain range which divides northern from southern India. It consisted of two forts built on the southern declivity of that range, and these owed their strength as much to the formidable nature of their works as to the fact that it was only with extreme difficulty that guns could be transported into a position to open upon them with effect. The capture of this stronghold would place the dominions of the Bhonsle at the mercy of the conqueror. On his way thither Wellesley received information that the Bhonsle’s army, led by his brother, Manu Bapu, was encamped at Pahtarli, six miles from the village of Argaum, and that Sindia’s army
lay within four miles of it. Wellesley, despite of the entreaties of Sindia’s envoys who were pressing upon him terms of accommodation, sent instant word to Stevenson to join him at Pahtarli, and there attack the enemy. The junction was effected on the 29th September. The enemy had but that day decamped, and Wellesley, with troops tired from a long and fatiguing march, did not think proper to pursue them. The enemy, emboldened by this unwonted quiescence, sent forward parties of horse to beat up the surroundings of the English camp, and as these met with but a slight opposition from the Maisur horse they supported them with many squadrons. Uneasy at this demonstration Wellesley directed the pickets to advance to the support of the Maisur horsemen, and following them himself he discovered the combined armies of Sindia and the Bhonsle – horse, foot, and artillery – drawn up in order of battle in the extensive plain which covers the village of Argaum. Their position was well chosen. Their line, which was five miles in length, rested on the village of Argaum and the extensive walled enclosures adjacent to it, whilst to attack them the English would have to traverse a plain intersected by watercourses. Sindia, whose troops consisted wholly of cavalry, commanded on the right; Manu Bapu, who had under him men belonging to the three arms, including a powerful artillery, on the left. It was past 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The British troops had had their food and some rest. It was impossible to decline the combat. Wellesley then ordered his men to turn out, moved them forward in column till they arrived within range, then deploying the infantry into line, and having the cavalry behind as a support, advanced to the attack. The guns of the enemy were however, well served, and their fire, directed by accident or design at the three native regiments, produced upon these so great an effect that the men composing them, men who had behaved well at Assaye, turned and ran. Fortunately Wellesley was on the spot, and succeeded by his influence and example in rallying the
fugitives and inducing them to resume their place in the line. He then urged on his right, somewhat thrown forward, in order to press upon the enemy’s infantry and guns. It was soon clear that the enemy meant fighting. As the English line advanced, a body of infantry, five hundred strong, called Persian, but really Arabs, the chosen corps of the army, dashed forward to meet them. The 74th and 78th received them with steadiness, and marching calmly forward, swept them, almost to a man, into eternity. This movement had evidently been designed to engage the European troops, whilst the cavalry should deal with the sipahis, whose conduct had not been unobserved. Accordingly, whilst the Europeans and Arabs were struggling for dear life, the enemy’s cavalry, in dense masses, directed a charge towards the left of the British line. Before, however, they could reach it, the three regiments of Madras native cavalry, led by Wellesley in person, galloped from the rear and met them in full shock. The contest was neither long nor doubtful. The famed Maratha horsemen recoiled disheartened and in disorder before the British-led troopers of Madras! This charge, and the simultaneous destruction of the Arab cohort, decided the battle. The enemy’s long line broke and fled
The sun was setting as the Maratha host fled in disorder from the field of Argaum. The pursuit was continued by moonlight. “If we had had daylight an hour more,” wrote Wellesley, “not a man would have escaped.” As it was, they lost everything – thirty-eight pieces of cannon, their camp equipage, their confidence, their hope. The army dispersed never again to re-unite. Argaum, won with the loss of fifteen Europeans and thirty-one sipahis killed, and less than two hundred wounded, was the complement of Assaye. It finished the war in southern and western India. The strong fortress of Gualgarh was stormed on the 15th December. Two days later Raghuji Bhonsle signed a treaty with the British, by which he yielded the provinces of Katak (Cuttack) and Barar; renounced all his claims on the
Nizam, and agreed to refer all disputes between that potentate and himself to British arbitration.
The treaty with Sindia, the treaty known as Surji Anjangaon, was signed thirteen days later. I shall consider its terms after I shall have described the great battle which not less than Assaye and Argaum forced it upon Daolat Rao – the battle of Laswari. What Wellesley effected for southern and western, Lake achieved for central and north-western, India. Complete as were the operations of each in themselves, each required the other to produce a perfect result. Assaye decided the war in south-western India; Laswari and the actions which preceded Laswari decided it in the more northern parts. But taking a comprehensive view, it may be affirmed that neither without the other would have produced the result actually obtained. It is necessary, then, before summarising the results of the war, that the reader should accompany me to the camp of General Lake at Kanhpur.
61. Life of Lord Teignmouth.
62. Letter of Major Munro to his brother.
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage