When Marquess Wellesley issued instructions to his brother to commence hostilities against the two Maratha powers in south-western and western India, he had not been unmindful of the fact that the great bulk of the trained soldiers of Sindia, armed and officered by Europeans, held the North-Western Provinces; that they occupied Aligarh, the imperial cities of Dihli and Agra, and that a considerable portion of them were scattered over central India. Simultaneously, then, with the instructions given to his brother, he had directed the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Lake, to mass his troops at Kanhpur, and to cross the frontier as soon as war should be declared.
The objects which the great Marquess had in view, and to accomplish which he had put forth all the resources of the British power in India, were worthy of his comprehensive and enlightened mind. Face to face with the Maratha confederacy, whose avowed object was the expulsion of the British from India, he had realised that but one course was open to him. He must strike, and strike at the heart with a force which should be irresistible; break for ever the power for aggressive purposes of the great Maratha chieftains; prevent Sindia, on the one side, from extending his possessions southwards, and rescue from his grasp, on the other, the two imperial cities. It had devolved, in
fact, on Marquess Wellesley to do that, for the security of the British tenure in India, which five and thirty years previously the great Lord Clive had denounced as a policy certain to entail ruin on British interests. Clive would have retained the frontiers of Allahabad and cultivated amicable relations with the Marathas. As a permanent policy, such a course was impracticable. What the Nuwab-Vazir of Awadh had been to Clive and his contemporaries, the Marathas had become to his successors. Again was it a duel upon the issue of which depended the maintenance of the British power in India.
Lake, in pursuance of his instructions, issued from Kanhpur, at the head of an army numbering five thousand infantry, two thousand five hundred cavalry, and the usual proportion of artillery, on the 5th August, and crossed the British frontier about four miles to the south of Boil, the town protected by the fort of Aligarh, and separated from it by a plain, on the 28th.
The Maratha troops in Boil were not much more numerous than the British army. They counted but two thousand infantry, eight thousand cavalry, and the usual proportion of guns. They were commanded by a Frenchman named Perron. Perron, who had risen to this position from that of a common sailor, was not a very strong man. He had arrived at that phase in the life of the adventurer who serves a foreign master when the interests of the master are subordinated to the interests of the servant. Daolat Rao Bindle, the master, had detected the arrival of this phase in the career of Perron, and had already made arrangements to replace him by one of his own countrymen, Ambaji Inglia. Perron, aware that his disgrace was probably but a question of weeks, that Dudrenec, who was marching from Ujjen to Aligarh, was devoted to Ambaji, that Bourquin, who commanded two brigades under his orders, was not to be depended upon, thought far more of making terms with the British than of opposing to them a stout resistance. When, then, on the 29th August, General Lab marched upon Boil,
and in that operation exposed his flank to the enemy, Perron, who might have taken him at disadvantage, gave no orders. His men, waiting for those orders, were paralysed by the reserve of their leader, and when, a few seconds later the British galloper guns opened upon them, they lost heart and fled in all directions. Perron himself escaped to Mathura, and from that place made terms with the English.
There remained the fort of Aligarh, which, garrisoned by two thousand trained infantry, commanded by a good officer, a Frenchman named Pedrons, seemed capable of offering a long resistance. Summoned to surrender, Pedrons flatly refused. To undertake the siege of the place would have interfered very much with the English General’s plans regarding Dihli, as it would have given time to the enemy’s forces, then rapidly hurrying up from Central India, to concentrate for the defence of the place. Lake then carefully examined Aligarh. He found it very strong, but with one weak point. This weak point was a narrow passage leading across the ditch into the fort. But, weak as it was, it was guarded by a strong gateway, covering three other gateways behind it. It presented a forlorn chance. Such as it was, however, Lake, who made it a rule of life never to do things by halves, and who ever declared that boldness was prudence, resolved to attempt it and to try a coup de main. It was a bold resolve, for failure would give the Maratha troops the morale which they wanted.
Early on the morning of the 4th September the British troops stormed Aligarh. It was a deed of splendid daring – for the defences were strong, the enemy watchful and brave. It cost in killed and wounded two hundred and sixty men, but it -electrified India. To use the words of an officer then in the service of Sindia: “it was a mortal blow to the Maratha war; it struck a panic into the minds of the natives and astonished all the princes of Hindustan; it gave them dreadful ideas of European soldiers and European courage.”
From Aligarh Lake marched towards Dihli (7th September). On the 11th, after a very fatiguing march, he had, at 11 o’clock, just reached the banks of the Jehna Nala, six miles from the imperial city, when the Maratha force, consisting of twelve battalions of trained infantry, five thousand cavalry, and seventy guns, the whole commanded by a Frenchman, named Louis Bourquin, was upon him. Rourquin was an inferior specimen of a class generally inferior. He was little fitted to lead an army, and, if we may draw conclusions from his career, Nature had not even endowed him with the animal virtue of courage. A great opportunity was here offered him. At the head of a superior force he had surprised – for he had done nothing less – the enemy’s troops, tired after a long march. His position, too, was a strong one, for his front was covered by a line of intrenchments previously prepared; each flank was covered by a swamp, and the position of his guns was concealed by the long grass which covered the ground between him and the British camp. Lake, reconnoitring, noticed all this, the strength of the position, the impossibility of turning it. His own men were tired; many had undressed; many more were scattered. But Lake was essentially a man of action. He resolved to draw the enemy from their position, with his cavalry, and then to sever them from their intrenchments and pounce upon them.
He carried out this plan to the letter. Sending the cavalry in front at a trot, he moved his infantry slowly forward under cover of the long grass. The cavalry made a feigned attack on the intrenchments and then fell back as if beaten. This brought out the enemy with loud shouts from the intrenchments, and, as the British cavalry continued to fall back further and further, the enemy’s infantry hastened to follow them. At last they reached a point within reach of the British infantry. Then the order was given; the cavalry opened out from the centre, and the infantry marching through, led by the Commander-in-Chief in person, made a dash at the intrenchments. They halted
but once, within eighty yards, to fire one volley; then, despite of the showers of grape and round shot from the enemy’s guns, they dashed forward with so much impetuosity, that the enemy gave way and fled. No sooner had this end been achieved, than the infantry formed into column of companies to allow the cavalry and galloper guns to pass through and finish the work. This was successfully accomplished. . Never was a victory more complete. The enemy, who fought well, suffered heavily, for many of those who did not perish on the field were drowned in the Jamna. The English lost four hundred and eighty-six killed and wounded. Bourquin was the first man to leave the field. He surrendered with five other foreign officers, three days later, to the conqueror.
One important consequence of this victory was the capture of the city of Dihli. On the 14th September General Lake entered the city and released from confinement the blinded King, Shah A’lam – the same whom we have seen, as Shahzadah and as Emperor, the opponent of Clive and the ally of the Nuwab-Vazir of Awadh, and who had subsequently been deprived of his sight by the infamous Ghulam Kadir (1788).63 It was a pleasure to the English general to restore the venerable monarch to his throne, and to make arrangements for the peaceful enjoyment of his freedom and his dignities.
On the 24th September Lake set out with his army for. Agra. He arrived there on the 4th October, and encamped within long cannon-shot of the fortress. Agra was then garrisoned by foul thousand five hundred men, under the nominal command of George Hessing, an adventurer of Dutch extraction. The garrison, however, had noted the facility with which Perron, Bourquin, and other foreign officers had surrendered to the English, had conceived, consequently, a distrust of Hessing, and had placed him and the six European officers with him under restraint.
Besides this garrison, there lay, encamped under the walls of the fortress, three battalions of the army which had been defeated near Dihli, and four battalions of Perron’s 5th Brigade, just arrived from the Dakhan with twenty-six pieces of cannon, the whole under the command of Major Brownrigg. The garrison had refused to admit these troops within the walls, because they feared that their admission would give them a claim to a participation in the twenty-five lakhs of rupees which formed the contents of the treasure-chest. In addition to these, again, twelve battalions of trained sipahis, led by Dudrenec, from Ujjen, the flower of Sindia’s army, occupied a position on the right rear of the British force, with the view, it was supposed, should the siege last long enough, of recovering Dihli.
General Lake, having taken complete cognisance of the state of affairs, resolved, with his usual dash and energy, to dispose of his three enemies separately. The first he went against was the enemy outside the fortress, the remnants of Perron’s and Bourquin’s armies. These he attacked on the 10th October with so much energy that, with a loss of two hundred and thirteen in killed and wounded on his part, he inflicted upon them a severe defeat, placed six hundred of them hors de combat, captured all their guns, and so dispirited the remainder that, two days later, two thousand five hundred of them passed into the British service. Proceeding with the same vigour, he opened his batteries against the fortress, and compelled its surrender on the 18th. By this capture he not only became possessor of the cherished twenty-five lakhs, but he secured a line of defence along the left bank of the Jamna.
There now remained for him to deal with only the twelve battalions, about nine thousand strong, the flower of Sindia’s army, led, for the most part, from Ujjen by the Chevalier Dudrenec. Unfortunately for Sindia, the conditions offered by the British Government to foreign officers to quit the service of
their Indian master had been so much appreciated that Dudrenec himself and all the officers of the force had entered British territory. The flower of the army, the men victorious on many a field, were, then, led by their own countrymen. Supreme in command was Abaji, a Maratha of great pertinacity and not without military talent. On realising the fall of Agra, Abaji had moved leisurely into the Jaipur country, with the intention of taking post in the hilly country of Mewat, the only pass into which could easily be made impregnable.
Thither, on the 27th October, Lake, at the head of three regiments of dragoons, five of native cavalry, one regiment of European infantry (the 76th), and four battalions of sipahis, followed him. So eager was he to catch him, that when he found that the heavy state of the soil, saturated with rain, retarded his progress, he came to a decision to leave the greater part of his artillery behind him, and to press on with his cavalry and infantry. Making forced marches with these, he reached, the night of the 31st, the ground which Abaji had quitted that very morning. As this ground was but thirty-three miles distant from the pass into the Mewat country of which I have spoken, Lake, viewing the enormous importance of anticipating the enemy, resolved to push on with his cavalry alone, and encounter, if necessary, the Marathas with that arm.
At midnight, then, he set off with his three cavalry brigades, leaving the infantry to follow. Pushing on without a halt, he came up at sunrise with the enemy, strongly posted about the village of Laswari. On that village itself their left rested, whilst their right was covered by a rivulet the banks of which were steep and difficult; between these two points lay their centre, concealed from view by long grass, and defended by a most formidable line of artillery. Partly in consequence of this long grass, partly to the clouds of dust blown towards the British, General Lake did not at once realise the extreme strength of the enemy’s
position, and full of the idea that they intended to seize the pass in the Mewati hills, from which they were now but eight miles distant, he resolved not to wait for his infantry, but attack them at once. Accordingly, he formed up his cavalry, and placing himself, as was his custom, at their head, directed successive charges from the advanced guard and first and second brigades on the left of the enemy’s position, whilst the third brigade should turn their right. The charges on the left, where, it will be remembered, the Marathas were massed about Laswari, were executed with great precision and success; the enemy were driven into the village, several guns were taken, and, in some instances, their line was penetrated. The want of infantry to complete that which the cavalry had begun was, however, severely felt, for it enabled the enemy to re-form and recover their guns. The charge on the right was as brilliant and as resultless. The 3rd Brigade, which made it, was formed of the 29th Dragoons and the 4th Native Light Cavalry. They had been directed to turn the enemy’s right. To enable them to take up a position to carry out this manoeuvre, they had to ride along the front of the enemy’s line, exposed to the fire of seventy-four guns, hidden from them by the long grass. Heedless of this fire, they galloped to the position marked out for them, then formed up as steadily as if on parade, and charged the hostile batteries. Here, again, the want of infantry was felt. The cavalry rode over the guns only to find the enemy’s infantry securely protected by an intrenchment, from which they poured a galling fire. After they had vainly made heroic efforts to surmount the difficulty, the General, perceiving the inutility of persevering further, recalled his cavalry. If the attack had served to show the great strength of the enemy’s position, it had at least also had the effect of preventing them from reaching Mewat.
At noon the infantry came up, eager, notwithstanding their forced march of twenty-five miles, for the attack. The General,
however, ordered them, in the first instance, to take their morning meal. An hour later he ranged them for the battle.
Meanwhile, the enemy had been busy in strengthening their right, already the objective point of the British attack. Aware of the additional strength obtained by the occupation of houses they now caused it to fall back slightly on and about the village of Mohalpur, in which, also, they concentrated many of their guns. Their preparations had just been completed when they became sensible of a movement on the part of the British.
This time the English General had resolved to attack the enemy’s right seriously with his infantry, and, whilst one brigade of cavalry should threaten his left, the other two brigades were to be handy to support the infantry attack. That attack was made in two lines, in column. No sooner, however, was the movement of the first line, composed of the 76th and two native regiments, and led by the General in person, noticed by the enemy, than their infantry fell back, and from their guns in Mohalpur, on its right, and on its left, there opened a concentrated fire on the advancing troops. Terrible as were its effects, great as was the slaughter, Lake was only impelled to press on the more quickly, careless, under the circumstances, of the fact, that, from some cause or other, the advance of the second line had been delayed. The decisive point in his eyes was the guns, and those, at any rate, must be captured. The gallant warrior, conspicuous on his horse, then led his men forward in face of a fire which, for intensity, has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. But the enemy were worthy even of him and his soldiers. Led only by their own countrymen, they did credit to the careful training they had received at the hands of Dudrenec and de Boigne. So firm was their defence, so steadfast their bearing, that the British troops could make no impression upon them. Just at the critical moment, too, when the English column was struggling forward under all the difficulties I have recorded, Abaji, with the true eye of a general, dashed his cavalry
against them. The charge was repulsed, and Lake, whose mental energies, like those of Massena, always redoubled under the roar of cannon, then directed the British cavalry to make a counter-charge. As the men were forming up for this purpose, the horse of the General, who had ridden up to them to superintend it, was shot under him: the next moment his son,64 who had dismounted to offer him his own, was shot by his side and severely wounded. This affecting incident, witnessed by all the troops preparing to charge, inspired them with enthusiasm. When, a few seconds later, the order was given, they dashed forward with an élan which was irresistible. In vain did seventy guns pour shot and shell into their ranks; in vain did the dense masses of the enemy spring forward to repel them. Nothing stopped them; they carried the guns. Then Lake, with his infantry handy, dashed forward and secured the greater number of them. Still, however, the enemy fought on, disputing with a valour and a pertinacity not to be exceeded every inch of the ground. Nor did they quit the field till they had been driven from every position and had lost every gun!
In the desperate valour with which it was contested on both sides, in the equality of the numbers engaged, and in the proportion of the numbers lost, the battle of Laswari ranks above all others in which the British troops had been engaged in India. To rival it we must cast our eyes forward more than forty years till they rest on Firuzshahar and the Satlaj. A contemporary writer, who took part in the action, and to whose spirited narrative I am indebted for many of its details,65 records that from the commencement of the conflict early in the morning to the close of the general action in the evening the enemy discovered a firmness of resolution and a
contempt of death which could not fail to command the admiration of their opponents. It was well that it was so! They were fighting for empire. To their master defeat meant more even than the failure to obtain empire; it meant the loss of the independent position which the House of Sindia had gained by the sword!
Yes – the war provoked by Sindia and the Bhonsle was a war in which they had staked that independent position to fight for empire. They lost the stake. First, the blow delivered by Wellesley on the 23rd September at Assaye ruined their aspirations with respect to south-western and western India – the early cradle of their power. But the blow dealt at Assaye did not affect the vast countries north of the Vindhayan range. In those – from Ujjen to Gwaliar, from Gwaliar to Agra, to Dihli, to Aligarh, and, it may be said, generally in Rajputana – Sindia was still master. In those were concentrated his best troops, his best guns, his best generals, his strongest places. By a succession of rapid manoeuvres, and a rare display of fighting power, Lake wrested these strong places from him one after another, and then finally dealt a most decisive blow – the most decisive blow of the whole war – at Laswari. It was the fairest, the most equally matched, and the most hotly contested battle ever fought between the British and the natives of India. It had the most important consequences. The battle of Laswari brought to the ground, crumbled and trampled in the dust all the dreams of Madhaji Sindia. From its effects the great Maratha family never recovered!
To gain it cost the victors eight hundred and thirty-eight in killed and wounded, or one man out of every five engaged. The enemy’s loss in the actual battle was probably not so great, but in the pursuit which followed it they suffered terribly.
Though Laswari was fought twenty days before Argaum, it was not Argaum but Laswari which decided Sindia to accept the terms offered by Marquess Wellesley. Argaum was a rout,
the Maratha, troops engaged in which had been beaten before they had fought. Laswari had taken the fighting stuff out of every man in the Maratha dominions.
Its result, coming immediately after Argaum, was the treaty of Surji Arjengaon. By this treaty Daolat Rao ceded to the British and their allies his territories between the Jamna and the Ganges, as well as those situate to the northward of Jaipur, of Jodhpur, and of Gohad; the forts of Ahmadnagar and of Bharuch (Broach), and the districts adjoining; his possessions between Ajunta Ghat and the Godavari. He renounced, likewise, all claims on the Mughul emperor, on the Peshwa, on the Nizam, on the Gaikwar, and on all the Rajahs who had assisted the British. There were other minor concessions, but these were the principal.
Though the final blow dealt at the Maratha, empire was not dealt till fourteen years later, when the Peshwa was extinguished and Sindia and Holkar were still further reduced, the conditions of their existence never resumed the importance that had attached to them prior to the campaign of 1803. It may be said, indeed, that that campaign virtually decided beforehand the war which immediately followed with Jeswant Rao Holkar, and which forced that potentate, a fugitive hopeless of aught but of his life, to throw himself on the mercy of the conqueror with the touching admission that “his whole kingdom lay upon his saddle’s bow.” The two Maratha chieftains allowed themselves to be dealt with in detail, and there can be no doubt that, in spite of some accidents of the second war, such as Monson’s retreat and the failure at Bharatpur, Holkar’s soldiers suffered throughout the campaign from the effects of Laswari!
One word regarding the general who fought it. General Lake was a man whose influence with his soldiers was unbounded, whose calmness in danger, whose self-reliance, and whose power of commanding confidence have never been surpassed.
He had but one way of dealing with the native armies of India, that of moving straight forward; of attacking them wherever he found them. He never was so great as on the battle field. He could think more clearly under the roar of bullets than in the calmness and quiet of his tent. In this respect he resembled Clive. It was this quality which enabled him to dare the almost impossible. That which in others would have been rash, in Lake was prudent daring.
If success justifies a general, then was Lake fully absolved from the criticisms of men who took not into consideration his peculiar qualities. With a force at no time exceeding eight thousand men, he, between the 29th August and the 1st November, destroyed the thirty-one battalions which French adventurers had trained and disciplined for the service of Sindia; stormed a strong fortress, captured Agra, and entered as a conqueror the imperial city of Dihli; captured four hundred and twenty-six pieces of cannon, and defeated the enemy in four pitched battles – the last of them, for the results it produced, one of the most decisive battles ever fought. There must be some credit due to the man who accomplished such great results in a period exceeding two months by only three days. What he might have accomplished had he lived to be employed against the soldiers of Napoleon no man can say. He died a victim to the climate of India. He left that country in February 1807, reached England in the September following, and died in February 1808. He had been created a viscount for his brilliant services.
63. The reader is referred to Mr. H. G. Keene’s graphic history of the fall of the Moghul Empire.
64. Afterwards, when Lieutenant-Colonel of the 20th Foot, killed at the battle of Rolica (17th August 1808), just when, at the head of his regiment, he had forced the pass, the possession of which decided the day.
65. Thorn’s War in India.
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage