The Start of the Sikh Wars

When Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of Punjab died in 1839, the empire he had built gradually became disordered and descended into factional and tribal quarrelling. Ranjit Singh had maintained a policy of wary friendship with the British owned East India Company and had even ceded some territory south of the Sutlej River to them, but after his death, his various successors and ministers were deposed or murdered in a struggle for power. By 1845, its neighbour in British India, fearing the unrest could spread, increased her military forces on the border.

The Honourable East India Company had been established in India since the early seventeenth century and consisted of a number of what would now be called venture capitalists who began trading on the sub continent.

In 1613, the Mogul Emperor granted a license for the establishment of a factory at Surat near Bombay. Business prospered and the Company grew ever more powerful, extending its influence throughout the country. By 1700, the Company controlled large parts of India and had established three Presidencies: Bombay, Madras and Bengal. To protect its interests it began recruiting European mercenaries and as time went by this force grew and recruited local sepoys into what was to become a formidable army, supplemented in times of need by regular forces of the British Crown. At its height it had 257,000 sepoys and 34,000 Europeans in its ranks. The reference to British forces in this narrative should be taken to mean Company and Crown forces.

With the death of Ranjit Singh, his son Kharak Singh became ruler for a few months until he was deposed and mysteriously died in prison. He was replaced by Kanwar Singh who also died in strange circumstances when an archway fell on him. Two opposing factions emerged in the Punjab, the Sikh Sindhanwalias and the Hindu Dogras. Both sought control over the country’s army known as the Khalsa.

Eventually, the Sikh army, the once mighty Khalsa, was goaded by some of the contenders for power into crossing the Sutlej River and invading British territory.

A British division was already stationed at the border town of Ferozepur and a large force under the Commander in Chief of the Bengal Army, Sir Hugh Gough, accompanied by the Governor General, Sir Henry Hardinge, was on its way to the border from various barracks around Delhi, Ambala and Meerut to confront the invaders. A detachment of the Sikh army, under its Commander in Chief, Tej Singh advanced on Ferozepur, while the main Punjab force under Vizier Lal Singh advanced to confront Gough’s army.

The British force reached the town of Mudki, 18 miles from Ferozepur,on the 18th December, weary and short of food and water after an arduous march. They commandeered grain from the town and began to prepare their first proper meal for some days, when they were spotted by an advance guard of Lal Singh’s force.

In the late evening, the Sikh guns opened fire and Gough’s guns were quickly deployed to reply. The Sikh cavalry tried to outflank Gough’s army, but, although highly skilled, could not stand up to the disciplined fire of the British and Bengal units. British Light Dragoons then led a counter charge, cutting down many of the Sikh gunners, but were then forced to retreat by Sikh infantry who carried the traditional curved sword, the Kirpan. The Kirpan is one of the five “Ks” a baptised Sikh must wear in battle and so central to their culture that many Sikh riflemen threw down their muskets and charged the British with their sword alone. Horrific cutting wounds, severing limbs and heads, were a frightful feature of the Sikh wars in which neither side gave quarter to the enemy. The British and Bengal infantry advanced in the gathering darkness into hails of grapeshot and cut the gunners down.  After two more hours of fighting in the dark, the Sikhs were driven from the field. The British returned to their camp.

The battle itself had decided very little. It did however, confirm in Hardinge, his belief that Gough was too bull headed and headstrong to command an army. The two would clash over strategy several times during the campaign. The battle had cost the Sikhs 3,000 killed and the loss of 15 guns. The British suffered 215 killed and 657 wounded.

Gough’s army was hard hit and tired after the battle and made no move for the next two days, giving the Sikhs time to concentrate their forces and fortify their base at Ferozeshah.

Early on the 21st of December, Gough’s army advanced and sighted the Sikh camp. Gough wanted to attack at once, but Hardinge thought the odds against the British were too great and wanted to await the arrival of a division from Ferozepur, led by Major General Littler.  Hardinge persisted and “pulled rank” over Gough. Littler’s division arrived in the early afternoon and was deployed on the left of the British line. Gough began his attack at 3.30 by moving his guns forward for a “softening up” bombardment, but with little effect as the Sikhs had protected their artillery with parapets and entrenchments. Their guns were also heavier and outranged the British who, in the interests of speed, had left their heavier guns at Mudki. The British and Bengal infantry advanced under fire which was particularly heavy on Littler’s front. He decided that only a charge with the bayonet could save his division, but three of his Bengal regiments held back reportedly due to a shortage of water and ammunition. Littler pressed on with the British 62nd Foot, but were forced to retreat after losing over half of his men.

On the other flank, British troops managed to break into the Sikh camp, but their own flank was then threatened by Sikh cavalry and was only saved by a brave counter charge by 3rd Light Dragoons.

As darkness fell, Gough launched another attack, destroying some Sikh batteries and penetrating the camp itself. The Sikhs counter attacked and in the confusion of heavy fighting, a Sikh ammunition magazine exploded causing many casualties on both sides.

The next morning found British and Sikh troops mixed up and in disorder. Hardinge feared that he would now be overwhelmed by the more numerous Sikhs and expected defeat. He sent word back to his base at Mudki to destroy his secret papers and baggage. When the British organised themselves however, they found that they held more than half of the enemy camp and had captured seventy one guns. Gough ordered the advance and despite heavy fighting, drove the Sikhs from the field.

The battle had cost Gough 694 killed and 1,721 wounded. Sikh losses were estimated at 3,000.

The Sikhs, though temporarily disheartened, were not ready to capitulate. Retreating across the Sutlej, they reformed and gathered fresh troops before again crossing the river and establishing a bridgehead at Sabraon. A further force of 7,000 men with twenty cannon crossed the river higher up and laid siege to the British fortress of Ludhiana, menacing British supply lines.

A British division under the command of Sir Harry Smith, was sent to clear the threat to their rear.

By January 16th 1846, Smith had recovered two outposts which the Sikhs had seized at Fategarth and Dharmkot. He also discovered that although Sikh cavalry had raided and set fire to part of the British cantonment at Ludhiana, their main force had not yet reached the British base. Smith force marched his men to Jagraon where he gathered reinforcements and set off for Ludhiana. His force was continually attacked by Sikh cavalry on the march who captured most of his baggage animals, (mules, bullocks and elephants) and killed any stragglers. Nevertheless, Smith managed to bring his exausted troops to Ludhiana where he was reinforced by a brigade from Delhi which included two battalions of Gurkhas.

After resting his men, Smith again set out to find the Sikh army which, learning of his location had retreated to the village of Aliwal on the Sutlej River to await their own reinforcements. They occupied a 4 mile long ridge between Aliwal and the village of Bhundri with their backs to the river making it difficult to manoeuvre and potentially disastrous if forced to retreat.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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