Commentary Explorer Results
Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 9 : The Maratha War (1803)
In March 1808 Arthur Wellesley wrote to Robert Dundas, then President at the Board of Control, explaining who Amrit Rao was and the reasons a separate settlement had been made with him (WSD vol 4 p 541-44). In the course of the letter he claimed that
Armit Rao intercepted a letter from Scindiah to the Peshwah, in which Scindiah urged His Highness to break his alliance with the English, and promised that, as soon as we should be defeated, he (Scindiah) would join with the Raja of Berar and the Peshwah to destroy Holkar. Amrit Rao sent this letter to Holkar, and the consequence was that Holkar, after he had made two marches to the southwest with a view to co-operate with the confederates, returned and crossed the Nerbudda, and, in point of fact, never struck a blow.
Both Sardesai (New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 392, 403) and Pitre (Second Anglo-Maratha War p 7, 49-53) accept this story as genuine, although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for it in the letters written at the time. The story may well be true, but it is not necessary to explain Holkar’s suspicions, or to justify AW’s settlement with Amrit Rao. This arrangement was later criticized by Lord Wellesley’s enemies and Charles Grant (Embree Charles Grant and British Rule in India p 227-8) but not convincingly: indeed the criticism suggests a willful – if not dishonest – ignorance of the circumstances of 1803. This in turn may have encouraged AW to exaggerate the role of Amrit Rao actually played in the war.
Pitre’s account quotes letters from Holkar to Raja of Berar which leave no doubt of Holkar’s hostility to the British or his willingness to encourage the Raja to fight.
Ragbhuji Bhonsle, Raja of Berar:
Arthur Wellesley acknowledged his love for his country, but blamed him for the war: AW to Malcolm 6 Sept 1803 WD I p 684–5. See also AW to HW 24 Jan, 5 Feb 1804, WD II p 1024-30 esp 1027: Raja of Berar ‘is supposed to have planned the confederacy’.
His ambition to be the dominant figure at Poona, or even to replace the Peshwa:
– Close to the Governor-General 25 June 1803 Maratha War Papers p 140
– AW to Close 14 July 1803 WD I p 552-4 (both referring to the Raja’s public assertion of his hereditary claim to the Musnud).
– Collins to AW 26 July 1803 Maratha War Papers p 185 which refers to his possible ambition.
The Nizam of Hyderabad died on 6 August 1803 (date from Sardesai New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 407) and was succeeded without trouble.
British military superiority recognized by both sides.
There is much good material on this in Pemble ‘Resources and Techniques in the Second Maratha War’ (although I am not convinced by his conclusions) and in Bryant’s “Indigenous Mercenaries”. The Maratha infantry had only one quarter the number of officers as the Company’s sepoys (Pemble p 382-3); their discipline was not as strict (ibid p 395); their officers abandoned them on the outbreak of war (p 393-5) and Sindia cut their pay (p 396).
On the other hand Bryant makes it clear that there had been a steady rise on the quality of the Company’s army which paid dividends in 1803. I don’t think Pemble allows for the heavy losses Sindia’s army had suffered in the war with Holkar – several brigades had been destroyed, while the chaos resulting from the war probably undermined confidence. Against this is the very good performance of the Maratha army at Assaye – certainly better than the British had expected. Yet this was only one battle, and the Marathas fought poorly at Argaum and did not really distinguish themselves against Lake. Moreover the net result was that Sindia and Berar were completely defeated in less than five months and Holkar was only saved in 1804 by a lack of resolution and great incompetence on the part of the British. Comparing this to the protracted and extremely difficult First Maratha War it is hard to accept that the military gap was narrowing. This does not mean that the Maratha armies had not improved or that their shift to infantry and artillery was wrong; but the British had increased and improved their armies by more.
Contemporary opinion, at least contemporary British opinion, was nearly unanimous in taking British superiority for granted and showed very little apprehension of the result of the campaign: this is true of all the letters of late 1802–1803* (except Kirkpatrick’s letters from Hyderabad) and the 1800 letters of Kirkpatrick, Tom Sydenham and even AW. Indeed the whole cause of events shows the British confidently pushing forward, not wanting, but certainly not dreading war; while if Sindia and Berar had had more faith in their armies they would have taken a much more bellicose line.
*For example, AW to Collins 9 May 1803 WSD vol 4 p73-4 and AW to Close 30 June 1803 WD I p 536-7 which disparages the Maratha armies (erroneously) as ‘much crippled, and at present very ill-equipped for a campaign’. See also Lord Wellesley to AW “Most Secret” 27 June 1803 Wellesley Despatches vol 3 p 153-8 ‘The early reduction of Scindiah (if that chief should compel us to resort to hostilities) is certain’.
AW told the Governor-General on 24 July 1803 WD I p 572-6 that the Maratha leaders did not realize how much the balance had swung against them and had hoped to repeat success of earlier war (p 574). But their actions belie this.
AW’s loss of nerve due to logistical problems including death of bullocks when the rains began:
– On 14 May 1803 he was full of confidence telling HW ‘I have got a fine army in excellent order’ and advising the adoption of a threatening line towards Sindia (WD I p 448-9). Pleased with the Peshwa.
– By 4 June 1803 he was very unhappy with the Peshwa’s lack of co-operation (see letters to Stuart and Close, WD I p 484-5, 483-4).
– On 5 June 1803 he complains to Close about lack of forage and some deaths already among brinjarry cattle (WD I p 485-6). Has had to leave some loads behind.
– On 8 June to Close – he always assumed that the Peshwa was incompetent not treacherous but was beginning to wonder. War would be difficult. Clear evidence of loss of nerve. The alliance in its current form won’t answer. Needs major changes (WD I p 490-2)
– On 8 June to J.H. Piele bitter complaints about brinjarries who have deceived him (WD I p 492-3).
– On 9 June to Close: We got forage yesterday, but rain in the evening led to many cattle dying: they are so weak from lack of forage near Poona that they can’t stand the rain. In a dilemma: cattle too weak to march, but no forage if we stand still. Moved a little way today and had to leave 800 loads of grain behind. Need assistance: 2000 head of cattle at least. Short of money (WD I p 493-4).
– On 18 June to Close ‘We are much distressed by rain, and lose many cattle.’ If you can’t get us help and war doesn’t break out I’ll have to retreat to the Beemah to subsist’ (WD I p 507-8).
– 19 June to Close: things have got much worse (WD I p 510-11).
– 20 June AW to Malcolm WD I p 513-15: need to remodel the alliance; distrust of Peshwa who has not lived up to his agreement.
– 22 June AW to Stevenson WD I p 519-20: brinjarry tricks ‘as usual’.
– 22 June to Malcolm WD I p 520-1: alleged want of bullocks at Poona is ridiculous.
– 24 June to Stuart WD I p 524-7: hint of improvement, plenty of flour.
– 26 June to Close WD I p 530-1: exceedingly anxious about supplies, but things beginning to improve.
– 7 July to Stewart WD I p 543-44 My situation is much improved and I can move again.
AW overcame the problem in the end by purchasing bullocks locally and relying less on his brinjarries (WD I p 541-2); Stevenson had similar, although less severe, problems (ibid p 558-9). See also AW to Duncan 10 June 1803 WSD vol 4 p 109-111 on superiority of Bombay system of managing bullocks.
AW’s irritation with the Peshwa
See AW to Stevenson 22 June 1803 ‘The characteristic of the Peshwa’s government is deceit, and he had not yet made me one promise that he has not broken’ (WD I p 519-520).
And AW to Close 25 June 1803 (WD I p 527-9) too long to quote (for later letters AW to Close 21 Oct 1803 WD I p 797-8, also ibid p 802-3).
AW’s irritation with Collins
It is not quite true that AW was steadily pushing for a decision and irritated with Collin’s delays. During AW’s loss of nerve in June he actually told Collins to procrastinate and try to avoid war: AW to Close 25 June 1803 WD I p 527-9; AW to Collins 29 June 1803 WSD vol 4 p 123-7 (the former is much more explicit but not being to Collins counts for less).
AW regarded Stevenson as fully equal to face Sindia and Raja of Berar combined:
AW to Close 30 June 1802 WD I p 536-7, and AW to Stewart 30 June 1803 WD I p 597-99: ‘The Colonel has actually in his camp 23,000 men all of whom are better troops than those of the enemy, and nearly 8000 of whom are probably the best troops in the Company’s army’. The 23,000 figure must include the Nizam’s army which certainly wasn’t better than Sindia’s. AW was exaggerating, but his underlying confidence is clear. See also AW to Stevenson 18 July 1803 WD I p 563-4: would rather you didn’t engage Sindia’s infantry without me, but no apprehension of the result if you do.
AW seems to have over-rated the value of the Nizam’s irregular cavalry with Stevenson’s army cf the Mysore and Maratha cavalry with his own army – compare his comments above with AW to Stevenson 8 Sept 1803 WD I p 692-3.
Responsibility for war
It is worth noting how great were Lord Wellesley’s ambitions – the sweeping territorial objectives he outlined to AW in his letters of 26 & 27 June 1803 (Wellesley Despatches vol 3 p 149-58). Fuhr would argue that this was what he wanted all along, and as it could be gained only by war, he must have wanted war from the outset. But the evidence does not support this – in late 1802 and early 1803 he clearly wanted to avoid war, and this may still have been true in June 1803. However if there was war, he was determined to make the most of it (and large territorial gains would disarm critics at home although that was a secondary consideration).
See also Colebrooke’s Elphinstone vol 1 p 42-3 on Close’s surprise and disapproval (c May 1802) with Lord Wellesley’s limitless ambition.
Given the situation in June 1803 it seems unlikely that war could have been avoided except by a complete reversal of policy on one side or the other. There is no reason to believe that further delays or more talks would have led to a resolution; indeed, the only policy which might have averted war, was if the British had been much more domineering towards Sindia from the outset, demanding that he immediately withdraw his forces and sign a subsidiary treaty or be attacked. It is just possible that a hard line such as this might have succeeded in intimidating Sindia, although it is more likely that it would have strengthened his opposition to British arrogance; and it would have put the British more emphatically in the wrong and fully justified Lord Wellesley’s critics.
AW receives wide powers from Lord Wellesley
Bennell Making of Arthur Wellesley p 61 explains that the delegation of powers had been delayed by several months due to the opposition of Barlow and Edmonstone.
According to Bennell (Maratha War Papers p 167, 169) AW received those letters on 18 July. And his letter of 18 July to Collins instructs him to quit Sindia’s camp if Sindia refuses to withdraw from the Nizam’s frontier (ibid p 170-1 WD I p 561-2) and he told Stevenson to be ready for action (WD I p 563-4).
Blakiston (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 114-7) describes the discomfort of being under canvas in the monsoon. Ibid p 123 says that in July Lieutenant Rowley of the Engineers fell ill. AW lent him one of his tents (more comfortable than Rowley’s own) but Rowley nonetheless died.
Weller (Wellington in India p 152) says that the 78th joined AW’s army from Bombay. It had taken part in the Seringapatam campaign, returned to Bengal and been sent from there to Bombay on 7 Feb 1803. It had been part of the Peshwa’s escort to Poona.
Malcolm’s praise for the 8th Madras Native Infantry which was in AW’s army when it crossed the Toombuddra, at Assaye, and guarding the baggage at Argaum.
[this unit] became, at the commencement of his career in India, a favourite corps of the Duke of Wellington. They were with him on every service, and the men of this corps used often to call themselves “Wellesley ka Pulten”, or Wellesley’s Battalion, and their conduct on every occasion was calculated to support the proud title they had assumed. (Malcolm’s review of John William’s An Historical Account of the Rise and Progess of the Bengal Native Infantry in Quarterly Review vol 18 no 36 May 1818 p 401.).
Murray and the force in Gujerat
Murray was only appointed in September.
AW thought Nicholls had been badly treated – to Duncan 11 June 1803 WSD vol 4 p 111-3.
Murray served in Portugal in 1809 and on the East Coast of Spain in 1813 where his conduct at Tarragona led to a court-martial in which he was substantially acquitted but which left his professional reputation in tatters.
AW & Stevenson
AW appears to have had doubts of Stevenson’s judgment and discretion in June 1803:
I had a letter from Colonel Stevenson of the 10th…He therefore thinks of having recourse to the measure he proposed before, in order, as he calls it, to pledge the Nizam to the cause. I declare I don’t know what to do with the man. I cannot keep him steady to a reasonable line of conduct, and he is now so far from me that he may do much mischief before I can check him. (AW to Close 16th June 1803 WP/3/3/46 This passage deleted from printed version of the letter).
This may explain AW’s letter, also to Close, of 30th June:
Therefore, it is my opinion…that I ought to leave Colonel Stevenson north of that river, at least to keep all the small plundering parties in check. In my opinion, the great difficulty I shall have to contend with will be to check the Colonel himself. However, I have sent him the most positive orders not to quit the Nizam’s territories. (WD I p 536-7).
Before the campaign began Stevenson was supported by the whole of the Hyderabad army, put at 16,000 men. What part of this accompanied him in the subsequent campaign? Probably not all: at least no account suggests that it did and there is no sign of the Nizam’s infantry in action. But some, for AW says that Stevenson’s Mughal cavalry were failing to keep the Pindaris at bay, and accounts of Argaum put the Mughal cavalry, as well as Stevenson’s two regiments of regular Madras Native Cavalry on the left. (AW to Stewart 8 Sept 1803 WD I p 692-3).
Jasper Nicolls (1778 – 1849)
According to the DNB he came out to India in 1802 (after five or six years in the West Indies) as military secretary and aide to his uncle, Major General Oliver Nicolls, Commander in Chief, Bombay. He joined AW’s army after Assaye. A Bombay General Order of 2 September 1803 appointed him to do duty with the 78th Foot, and this was confirmed by Wellesley’s General Order of 9 October 1803 (WSD vol 13 p 179 – thanks to Ron McGuigan for drawing this to my attention).
Extracts of his diary and recollections are published in Davidson’s History of the 78th Highlanders and Stocqueler’s Life of Wellington. His papers are in the National Army Museum and deserve to be published more extensively.
Weller’s account (Wellington in India p 155-6) of the storming of the Pettah is highly imaginative and dramatic: and most inaccurate. Indeed it is little more than poor fiction having no supporting evidence.
The best accounts are those of Fraser of the 78th quoted in Davidson History of the 78th Highlanders p 146-7; Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 127-9 and Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 156-8, none of whom give any support to Weller’s description of Colin Campbell’s flashing claymore and similar nonsense.
Both Blakiston and Welsh go on to tell the story of Captain Grant, under arrest for killing Captain Browne in a duel, nonetheless taking part in the storm (unarmed according to Welsh) and being killed (Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 158-60, Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 131-2).
This was Blakiston’s first action and he admits that he did not much like the sound of enemy fire and was afraid (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 130-1).
Welsh (Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 164) tells the too often repeated story of Goklah’s astonishment at the rapid capture of the Pettah.
Both Welsh (Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 164) and Blakiston (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 141) say that two sepoys were hanged for plundering.
The pettah and fort of Ahmednuggar are described in detail in a memorandum of June 1803 in WSD vol 4 p 100-101; neither sounds formidable. Blakiston (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 vol 1 p 133-4) says that the fortress was ‘a place of no great strength’ although Welsh (Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 162) was much more impressed.
Colin Campbell at Ahmednuggar:
In 1853 J. R. Hume told Lockhart:
… the men get on & over the wall & into the place, when the Duke (to the best of my recollection) got in himself, he found the soldiers in great disorder, scattered about everywhere, & the enemy or garrison having retired into some strong building & as it was reported to him having charged themselves with Bang were preparing to rush out on our troops, he was under considerable apprehension, till on looking about he perceived that the same young officer, whom he recognized by his head being bound up by a bloody handkerchief had formed his company (the Light) & in the most perfect order and under strict command was ready to fall on the enemy should they come out of their stronghold or offer any further resistance. This I understand was the first time the Duke had ever seen Colin… (J. R. Hume to J. G. Lockhart, 29 March 1853 letter offered for sale by Julian Browning Autographs and Manuscripts, August 2006).
The Adjunta hills
Weller Wellington in India p 162 gives a good description of them.
Operations between Ahmednuggar and Assaye
This is not the place to give a detailed account of all the marches and counter-marches, which are not even given by Weller or Fortescue. They can be traced in Wellington’s Dispatches but are out of place except in a full scale campaign history. Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 145 ‘From the time we quitted Poonah all signs of cultivation ceased. The villages were mostly deserted, and such of the inhabitants that remained were exposed to all the horrors of famine’. This sounds like an exaggeration especially as AW was able to collect supplies locally – Blakiston is probably confusing 1803 with 1804 when there really was famine.
The Berar Army
It is not clear whether the infantry and artillery at the Berar Army were at Assaye or not. My impression is that they mostly were not and fought for the first time at Arguam. But this is too uncertain to state as fact.
The Battle of Assaye:
Assaye I The Preliminaries:
As soon as he heard that the enemy were unexpectedly close, AW wrote to Stevenson: see AW to Munro 1 Nov 1803 WD II 820-3; letter from Colin Campbell in WSD vol 4, p184n-7n – see below for Stevenson’s movements.
11o’clock the time stated by Colin Campbell (WSD vol 4 p 184n) cf Thorn Memoir of the War in India p 273 who says 1 o’clock.
Assaye II AW’s decision to attack:
It is clear from the sources, particularly AW’s later memorandum, that these were two separate decisions: first, in response to the news from the captured brinjarries and before AW had seen the Marathas, came the decision to advance with the whole army, except the baggage guard. And second, the decision to go ahead with the attack after he had seen that the whole Maratha army was present and occupying a strong position.
Some historians have criticized the decision to fight, or at least attributed it to political motives. For example, the normally sensible Bennell (Making of Arthur Wellesley p 83) says that AW chose to fight at once in order to impress doubtful allies in Poona and Hyderabad; while Fuhr more crudely, says that he fought in order to ‘obtain the fame he needed to advance his career in Britain’ (‘Strategy and Diplomacy in British India’ p 123). This is nonsense. Wellesley fought purely and solely because he believed that fighting at once gave the best chance of victory i.e. he made the decision on military grounds. And the result, though much closer than he expected, vindicated the decision. This is not to deny that he was in an awkward position, but it would be a bold critic who would dispute his judgment that it was better to attack at once than to lose the initiative and the benefit of surprise. The experience of the First Maratha War (and of Monson’s disaster in 1804) both suggest that any sign of hesitation or weakness in the face of the Marathas would have been most unwise.
Assaye III AW fears treachery from allied forces:
Grant Duff History of the Marathas vol 2 p 341n:
Just before the battle of Assaye commenced, intelligence was brought to General Wellesley that the Peshwa’s troops intended to join Sindia in attacking him. That they would have done so, in the event of a reverse, is not improbable, but I have not met with any confirmation of the circumstance.
Nor can I find any other source for this story. It is likely that there was secret contact between the Marathas with AW and those facing him; and that AW felt that they were likely to change sides in the event of defeat, but there seems no grounds for believing anything more than this.
Assaye IV The story of AW’s intuition and the ford:
The one story of Assaye that everyone has heard is AW’s discovery of the ford between the two villages using common sense despite the denials of the local guides. Unfortunately no account of the battle written at the time makes any mention of this, and the story first appears as late as 1825 or 1826 in Croker’s journals recording a conversation with Wellington (Croker Papers vol 1 p 353-4 of three vol edition).
AW’s memo (WD I p 728-30 para 8) does say:
The Kaitna is a river with steep banks, impassible for carriages everywhere, excepting at Peepulgaum and Waroor. I determined, from the ground on which the cavalry was first formed, to attack the enemy’s left flank and rear, and to cross the river at Peepulgaum…
…Luckily they did not occupy the ford at Peepulgaum: if they had, I must have gone lower down; and possibly I should have been obliged to make a road across the river, which would have taken as much time, that I should not have had day enough for the attack.
And the manuscript account of the battle by a participant in the India Office Lib says ‘we were lucky enough to find the only place possible for guns’ (BL OIOC Eur B 401).
But cf Weller Wellington in India p 178n
The stream was probably fordable at any point. The Kaitna here has a sandy bottom, which in March 1968 showed little variation in depth. I crossed often and easily on foot. During and soon after a normal monsoon, the river would everywhere be unfordable, but once a crossing is reasonably easy in one place, it would not be dangerous because of the depth of water in others.
And Randolf Cooper writes:
In surveying the battlefield during the third week of September 1990, I took note of the riverbeds, depth of water, historic position of the village foundations and physical evidence of high-water marks. Indeed some of the buildings may have been closer to the water in that era as indicated by abandoned foundations. But as late as 1990 they still seemed perilously close to the water for such ‘rolling to flat’ terrain and that testifies to these streams not often being raging torrents in monsoon season. And we know that 1803 was a drought year. Many secondary sources indicate that the riverbanks were too steep and this was the only place Wellesley could have crossed. That is incorrect. I made it a point to walk the banks of both rivers – above as well as below Assaye – entering both the Kailna and the Juah rivers at more than one place, crossing and recrossing both rivers by wading through water that varied from knee to waist deep in some holes. The banks of the Kailna certainly were generally accessible for men and horses although if crossing with cannon the fords would be fewer.
It would seem Wellesley’s crossing point at the hamlets was quite logical for another reason, which is blatantly obvious once you actually see the site. Wellesley’s angle of approach was critical to concealing his exact intentions, purchasing time to bring his men up and perhaps, most importantly, denying the Maratha artillery a clear sight picture for aiming purposes. He could never have survived a direct northerly drive across the river head-on into Sindia’s infantry… (Cooper The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India p 102-3).
Nonetheless the contemporary evidence from several sources must be given some weight.
Assaye V Elphinstone’s sketch plan of Assaye:
Elphinstone sent his sketch plan of the battle in a letter to Strachey written on 27 September 1803, so it is a contemporary source by an eyewitness. It is reproduced above from Colebrooke’s Elphinstone (vol 1 p 71) and Colebrooke says that this ‘is slightly altered from Mr Elphinstone’s sketch, in order to show the junction of the two nullas. It agrees very closely with the plan which was published in the semi-official Notes Relative to the Late Transactions in the Marhatta Empire which was published in London in 1804. The latter does not give the camp of the enemy, but in its place there is a line representing the enemy’s first position parallel to the Kaitna Nulla.’ (p 69). It seems most likely that Elphinstone to some extent copied a plan prepared by one of the staff (engineer?) officers in the army, but the captions may be original, and this is the earliest version we have of the map. The key, as printed by Colebrooke (p 69-70) reads as follows:
A. Our cavalry on the hill where the enemy was first seen.
B. Their body of horse. Sindia is said (by the General among others) to have been in this party.
C. The march of our infantry in column.
D. The enemy’s camp. I fancy their guns were drawn up parallel to the nulla when first they cannonaded us, and that afterwards they changed their position to what it is at H H H.
E. The Kaitna Nulla.
F. The ford.
G. The infantry of our army in two lines, with the names of the regiments marked.
H. The enemy’s first line.
I. Our cavalry formed in the rear of the infantry.
K. The enemy’s second line, which I never saw, and am not sure about, were there.
L. The Joee Nulla.
M M. Our troops after changing their position. The piquets kept a great deal too much to the right, and left a breach in the line which the 74th were obliged to fill up, and the piquets were passed by the 74th and the two battalions.
N. The place where the 74th suffered so much.
O. The cavalry going to charge the party who were annoying the 74th. The place in the Joee Nulla where there was a slaughter of that party is marked with a large L.
P P. The cavalry charging the broken infantry of the enemy.
Q Q. The cavalry formed to charge the last time. I don’t know precisely where they crossed.
R. Some infantry of the enemy. The General says, not their right, but a new formation.
S S. The General returning with the 78th, and afterwards joined by the 7th N[ative] C[avalry].
T. The last position taken by the 78th and the 7th N.C.
U. The village of Assye.
Elphinstone’s map shows the 1/12th Madras Native Infantry in the second line; however Wilson’s History of the Madras Army vol 3 p 108 and other sources state that this was the 2/12th.
Assaye VI Maratha artillery fire:
Colin Campbell says:
‘They fired at us when at a considerable distance, and did some execution; but by the time we came to the first nullah they had got our range completely, and opened a most tremendous fire on us, which galled us much.’ (WSD vol 4 p 185n)
‘As the infantry approached the river, the enemy’s guns opened on it, but without much effect. No sooner, however, did the head of the column begin to ascend the opposite bank, than it was met by a shower of shot from a battery advanced near the bank of the river for that purpose, which, continuing without intermission, caused us severe loss. At this time the General’s orderly dragoon had the top of his head carried off by a cannon ball…’ (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p160).
‘At this time the enemy began to cannonade. The shot fell pretty thick round, but did scarce any damage, on account of the distance. However, it bounded off the ground and made the people duck, and one shot sometime or other hit Mr Campbell, Brigade-Major to General Wellesley, in the heel and brought him off. We kept moving on, and got among ravines, when they cannoned hotly but ineffectually; except that one shot went close to the General, and took his orderly trooper’s head off. Then we came to the Kaitna Nulla, and found the only ford good for guns.’ The enemy advanced on us and redoubled their fire. (Colebrooke Elphinstone vol 1 p 66)
See also anonymous account of the battle in India Office Lib (BL OIOC Eur B 401) which agrees broadly.
Assaye VII The British approach march:
Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p159
‘I was particularly struck at this time with the beauty of the line formed by our cavalry, and with the steady movement of the column of infantry, so unlike the usual order of march. It seemed as if each individual felt that this was to be the test of discipline against numbers, and that nothing but the utmost steadiness and determination could make up for the appalling disparity of force…’
NB the ‘so unlike the usual order of the march’ is revealing.
Assaye VIII The Maratha’s blunder:
So much credit has been given – rightly – to the unexpected dexterity with which the Maratha battalions changed front, and to the tenacity with which they fought, that critics have overlooked a simple mistake which cost them the battle. AW says that if the Maratha had occupied the ford at Peepulguam he would have been forced to cross lower down, probably making a road, and this would probably not have left time in the day to fight the battle. (AW’s Memo WD I p728-30 para 9 – he says the same thing even more strongly to Munro: ‘a most formidable position, which, by the by, it would have been impossible for me to attack, if, when the infantry changed their front, they had taken care to occupy the only passage there was across the Kaitna’.) Even if there was not a single ford, the Marathas could have occupied more of the line of the river, which would have had the same effect.
The error does reflect well on the capacity of the Maratha commanders, although such mistakes will happen in any campaign.
Assaye IX The British cross the river and deploy; the Marathas redeploy and increase their fire.
The anonymous source in the India Office Lib says:
we were lucky enough to find the only place possible for guns and we crossed, marched on, and began to form in line with little or no loss though we were cannonaded all the Time; but while the Troops were forming The Enemy advanced on us and their shot which were so ineffectual before now fell like hail and knocked down men, horses and bullocks every shot; a gentleman with the General had his shot under him; at this time after we had gone a good way (near enough to hear the enemy shout) with the Infantry who were terribly butchered as they advanced, orders were dispatched to the Cavalry (whom the General had sent for, and who were now about the spot where the line had formed) for them to take care of the right of the Infantry. (BL OIOC Eur B 401)
Blakiston was sent forward to reconnoiter once the army was across the Kaitna:
On gaining the top of the high ground between the two rivers, I observed the enemy’s infantry in the act of changing their front, and taking up a new position, with their right to the river Kailna (sic) and their left to the village of Assaye. This movement they were performing in the most steady manner possible, though not exactly according to Dundas; for each battalion came up into the new alignment in line, the whole body thus executing a kind of echelon movement on a large scale. (Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 161-4).
Blakiston goes on to say that AW had not thought them capable of this; that AW had deployed the army in three lines (with cavalry as the third); and that the enemy guns opened fire as they came up – the deep formation making AW’s army an easy target.
AW ordered the second line to form on the right of the first.
Before this movement could be affected, however, the fire of the enemy’s artillery became so destructive that no troops could long stand exposed to it. Indeed not a moment was to be lost in closing with the enemy; for already had some confusion been occasioned by the guns – bullocks and their drivers, who unaccustomed to such work, had shown a disposition to do anything but remain stationery; while several field-pieces, which had been advanced to oppose those of the enemy, were already put hors de combat. The order, therefore, was given to move forward; the second line was directed to complete its movement during the advance; and the cavalry to support our right wing. (Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 163-4)
We were detained by our guns for a little time at the nullah, and when we crossed we were obliged to bring up our right shoulders to attack their left flank. The enemy, upon this, were obliged to charge their front, which they did with the greatest regularity and precision. We were getting very near them. They advanced with their guns upon us. The line was ordered to form. (WSD vol 4 p 185n).
Campbell goes on to say that only Harness’s brigade & the 74th were across the ford. Heavy fire caused many casualties. Ordered to advance.
AW’s dispatch describing the battle says: ‘We attacked them immediately, and the troops advanced under a very hot fire from cannon, the execution of which was terrible.’
After some delay we got the guns over, and began to form the line, at right angles to the nullah. Our guns opened and fired while the line was forming, and, after it was formed, the enemy, who were advancing on us, and beginning to get near us, renewed and redoubled their cannonade, which had slackened. It was no longer ineffectual, for it knocked down men, horses, and bullocks, every shot. When the line was formed, it was found that many of our guns could not be dragged on for want of hands. The General then told them to limber up, but the bullocks were killed. He then ordered them to be left behind, which was done, but not immediately, and all the time the men were getting knocked down very fast. The General was very impatient; he was forming the line to the left himself; but he sent several messengers to the right to move forward, which was done at last. The army was drawn up into two lines…
The line advanced under a very hot cannonade. When we got near enough to the enemy to hear them shout, the General rode back to the cavalry… (Elphinstone’s letter of 27 September quoted in Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 66).
Assaye X Orrok’s blunder:
Elphinstone says:‘I will tell you three things of the General to fill up. He says of _______, “I do not name the man; he did what he could; but from habits of dissipation and idleness he has become incapable of giving attention to an order to find out its meaning.”’ (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 80 – this is in a letter to Strachey of 14 Oct 1803).
AW says nothing in his official dispatch except that the picquets and the 74th suffered heavily from the guns on the enemy left, near Assaye (WD I p 724). But in his Memorandum on the battle (WD I p 729) and his letter to Munro (1 Nov 1803 WD II p 820-3) he tells the story fully although without naming Orrok.
The Letters of Captain John Orrok p 48, 50, 70 confirm Lt Col William Orrok was the officer and that the name should be spelt Orrok. William Orrok was John Orrok’s father.
Elphinstone also says:
The story of the picquets was this. The General seeing Assaye on the right full of infantry, conceived it to be a post of the enemy; as it was, ordered _____ who commanded the picquets to keep as far from it as he could, instead of which _____ kept close to it, and so separated from the line which was purposely kept to the left to admit his keeping far from Assaye (as well as for another purpose, which I will afterwards try to explain). This mistake brought the 74th into the front line, and they and the picquets got into the heat of the fire of the infantry and guns posted near Assaye. Had they kept their place, the General says, the party at Assaye would have given way of course, when the rest were beat, half our men would have been saved, and the cavalry, not having been obliged to charge to save the 74th, would have been fresh and able to have led Gocla, &c, to pursue the enemy, and complete the victory. (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 80)
Assaye XI The destruction of the 74th and the Picquets
There is some debate whether the 74th were broken or not, but none over their casualties. Colin Campbell (WSD vol 4 p186n) gives some details, and admits the regiment was forced to fall back but nothing more. The anonymous account of the battle in the India Office Library says:
The right suffered particularly; the 74th, the Corps on the right of all, was dreadfully cannonaded and cut in upon by cavalry and I fear almost annihilated; out of 19 officers, 11 were killed and 6 wounded, and out of 569 men and officers 400 have been returned killed and wounded. The Enemy’s cavalry had broke the Regiment, and this was the critical moment of the engagement; If the Enemy’s horse had pushed the seapoys [sic] they could scarcely have stood what overpowered the 74th.’(Anon acc OIOC Eur B 401)
The unknown cavalry officer whose letter of 24 Sept 1803 is printed in Maratha War Papers p 288-90:
After sustaining a most dreadful and destructive cannonade till near three o’clock from a hundred pieces of cannon, we succeeded in bringing the confederate army to a close engagement. The picquets and the 74th regiment were charged by a wonderful fine body of infantry and cavalry. The picquets lost all their officers except Lt Colonel Orrock and another officer and had only 75 men left. The 74th out of 400 men have only about 100 who are likely to survive. Every officer of the corps except Major Swinton and Mr Grant the Quartermaster General were either killed or desperately wounded.
AW’s memorandum says: ‘One company of the picquets, of one officer and 50 rank and file, lost the officer and 44 rank and file. The company belonged to the battalion left at Noulniah’ i.e. the 1/2nd of Lt Col Chalmers (WD I p 729). Weller (Wellington in India p 184n) somehow takes this to prove that the picquets as a whole lost 90% casualties, which is unlikely.
Elphinstone on the other hand says:
About this time the 74th, who were more at the right of our line, suffered prodigiously from the cannon, and were so thinned as to encourage a body of the enemy’s horse to charge them. They did so, and, I am assured by more than one eye witness, broke and dispersed the few of them who had survived the cannonade. This was the critical moment. The 74th (I am assured and convinced) was unable to stop the enemy; and I knew that the sepoys were huddled in masses, and that attempts which I saw made to form them failed; when ‘the genius and fortune of the Republic’ brought the cavalry on the right. They charged the enemy…’ (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 67)
(Now what is implied by the phrase ‘the genius and fortune of the Republic’? Luck? AW? I would guess that it is Elphinstone’s own, idiosyncratic, translation of a Latin tag, but the phrase he uses appears on Google Books almost only in quotes or paraphrases of his account of Assaye).
Blakiston is more circumspect and gives an interesting variation, putting the blame on the picquets:
In the meantime the picquets, on arriving within grapeshot distance of the enemy, had been so roughly handled, that they hesitated to advance, while the 74th regiment, which was in their rear, was prevented from charging, as no doubt the gallant regiment would have done, notwithstanding the disparity of numbers, had its front only been clear. Matters, however, remained not long in this state; for the picquets, retiring in confusion on the 74th (as might be expected), left it exposed to the whole fire of the enemy’s left wing, while a chosen body of horse, suddenly wheeling round the village of Assaye, charged it on flank, and almost completed the destruction of this gallant band, which, though was reduced to the strength of not more than a good company, still clung round its colours undaunted and unbroken. At this critical moment the cavalry under Colonel Maxwell, which had been directed to act according to circumstances, advanced rapidly over the ground where the 74th and picquets had been engaged, and charged through the enemy’s left wing, under a shower of musketry and grape.’ (Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p165-66)
Assaye XII Maxwell’s Charge:
In the text I give the credit for initiating the charge to Maxwell, acting on his own initiative. Elphinstone’s account is inconclusive but tends to support this – he has AW tell Maxwell ‘to take care of the right of the infantry’ (Colebrooke Elphinstone vol 1p 66) at an early stage, but then AW rides to the centre, and, unless the ambiguous phrase ‘the genius and fortune of the Republic’ (p 67) is a reference to AW, he does not return.
Biddulph has no doubt Maxwell acted on his own initiative: ‘It was a critical moment, and, with a soldier’s instinct, Maxwell saw that the time for action had come. Advancing with his brigade, Maxwell charged the enemy’s left…’ (The Nineteenth and their Times p 142)
AW’s memorandum goes a long way to confirm this:
Another bad consequence resulting from the mistake was the necessity of introducing the cavalry into the action at too early a period. I had ordered it to watch the motions of the enemy’s cavalry hanging upon our right; and, luckily, it charged in time to save the remains of the 74th and the picquets. It was thus brought into the cannonade; horses and men were lost; it charged among broken infantry, and separated; the unity of the body was lost, it was no longer possible to use it, as I had intended when I placed it in the third line, to pursue and cut up the defeated and broken enemy, and thus make the victory still more complete than it was. (WD I p 729)
See also AW’s letter to Munro 1st Nov 1803 WD II p 321-22 which also says that it was unfortunate but doesn’t make it quite so clear that it was Maxwell’s decision.
Oatts in Proud Heritage says that AW was on the other side of the battlefield:
Seeing the sudden charge of the Maratha Horse, Maxwell halted the brigade and sat irresolute on his horse. Once he had committed his brigade, the right flank would be wide open. There were thousands more enemy behind the Maratha Horse, and if they followed up and he was not there to stop them then the day would be lost. Like many other British cavalry leaders, he was not at home in a battle, never quite understanding the infantry tactics and never quite sure what to do. Cavalry working by itself he understood; the business of reconnaissance and protection and the time to charge when he came upon the enemy in the open; but now he would have liked to have been given a direct order, to charge or not. He looked longingly round for his commander, but Wellesley was away on the left flank, not yet having achieved that instinct which during a battle always brought him to the one spot at which his presence was most required.
His officers, however, not having the responsibility, did not at all understand his hesitation. A murmuring arose and the Brigade Major, Captain Grant, cantered up to him.
“Now Sir! Now is the time to save the 74th. Do, pray, order us to charge!”
“Very good then; send in the 19th and the 4th Madras. Forward and charge!”
“Nineteenth! The Fourth! At a walk-march! Trot!”
Their trumpets sounding, down upon the Maratha Horse rode the two regiments of the Light Cavalry, their pace quickening until they were at full gallop as they swept past the right of the little group of survivors of the 74th and cut the Marathas from their saddles. With them rode Captain Boswell Campbell of the 74th, who had been attached to the staff as being unfit for combatant duty; he had lost one arm in the Polygar campaign and broken the other pig-sticking. The broken arm was sound enough to wield a sword, however, and as for the reins, why! What were a man’s teeth for? So he rode into action, with the reins in his mouth and his sword in his hand…’ (Oatts Proud Heritage p 93-94)
This all seems to be based on Welsh, plus Oatts’s rather over-active imagination:
I have already mentioned the name of Captain A. Grant, an infantry officer,, as Major of brigade to the cavalry. In the heat of the action, when our line was at a stand, and the 74th brigade nearly annihilated, this officer rode up to his Brigadier, Colonel Maxwell, who, with the cavalry, was following in the rear of the infantry, and pointing to the remains of this noble regiment, called out, “Now’s your time, Sir, to save the 74th regiment; do, pray order us to charge!” The Colonel assented, and “forward and charge!” was shouted and taken up in an instant.’ (Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 178)
This may be true – though Maxwell was not able to contradict it and it does not actually show that the cavalry were slow to attack or that Maxwell hesitated. Welsh goes on to tell the story of Capt A. B. Campbell riding into action with the bridle in his teeth.
In his dispatch on the battle AW says, ‘The enemy’s cavalry also made an attempt to charge the 74th Regt, at the moment when they were most exposed to this fire, but they were cut up by the British cavalry, which moved on at that moment.’ (WD I p 724)
The anonymous account in the India Office Library adds many details:
The Right suffered particularly the 74th, the Corps on the Right of all was dreadfully cannonaded and cut in upon by the Cavalry and I fear almost annihilated. …The Enemy’s cavalry had broke the Regiment, and this was the critical moment of the engagement; If the enemy’s horse had pushed the seapoys [sic] they would scarcely have stood what overpowered the 74th; but at this instant as Cavalry appeared on the Right, charged the Enemy’s horse and drove them with great slaughter into a Nullah in our front; our Cavalry crossed the Nullah and charged among the Enemy’s Infantry who had been driven by our Infantry across the Nullah, and made a great slaughter; they afterwards recrossed the Nullah and made a charge at another body of Infantry with less success…’ (BL OIOC Eur B 401)
The other anonymous account by a participant was written by a cavalry officer who probably took part in the charge:
At this awful moment [the destruction of the 74th], when the enemy had succeeded in their attack on our right, which was so hard pressed as possibly to have been little longer able to sustain so unequal a conflict, the cavalry charged those advancing and made dreadful slaughter. They also attacked an immense body that surrounded the elephant of the principal chiefs who were posted in a nullah. Here however, owing to the difficulty of getting at them, all were killed or wounded, both Europeans and natives on our side, that attempted it.
Captain Mackay of the 4th regiment fell nobly within two yards of the muzzle of one of their guns. Captain MacGregor of the 7th was badly wounded. Lt Bonomi of the 5th regiment was killed. Captain Colebrooke, Lt Mcleod and Dark wounded, that latter his leg shot off and a number of men and horses killed and wounded.’
We then made another charge upon a body on infantry and guns…’
(quoted in Maratha War Papers p 289).
Grant Duff History of the Marathas vol 2 p342n has a long page giving examples of heroism of individuals in the charge.
According to AW’s memorandum (WD I p730) ‘The Jouah river, or nullah, has steep banks, impossible for carriages, scarcely possible for horses.’ Yet the British cavalry crossed it and returned, and the Maratha army retreated across it.
Assaye XIII The success of the left and centre:
Blakiston (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 164-5)
‘The opening in the line [caused by Orrok’s mistake] was rendered still greater in consequence of the sepoy battalions, in the endeavour to avoid the fire of the enemy’s centre, having crowded in on the 78th regiment which formed our extreme left. At this time the fire of the enemy’s artillery became, indeed, most dreadful. In the space of less than a mile, 100 guns, worked with skill and rapidity, vomited forth death into our feeble ranks. It cannot, then, be a matter of surprise if, in many cases, the sepoys should have taken advantage of any irregularities in the ground to shelter themselves from the deadly shower, or that even, in some few instances, not all the endeavours of the officers could persuade them to move forward. Notwithstanding this, the main body of the infantry continued to advance rapidly and in good order, and were not long in coming in contact with the enemy’s right wing, which they forced through without difficulty, their infantry standing no longer than the guns fired, which, however, they did to the last, many of the golumdauze having been bayoneted in act of loading their pieces’.
‘The main body of our infantry, having, as I said before, forced its way through the enemy’s right wing (several of the battalions of which had rather wheeled back on the centre of their line than been actually broken off the field), found itself, though victorious, in rather an awkward situation. Being compelled to bring up its left shoulder, for the purpose of attacking the enemy’s reserve, which was posted near the river Jouah, its left flank became, of necessity, exposed to the enemy’s cavalry, and its right to the fire of their centre, which had faced about for that purposed; while from the non-appearance of the 74th and the piquets…’
Our line continued to advance, and the enemy’s right and right centre (so all say; I doubt whether their right fell back) fell back on their second line, which was on the Joee Nulla. Their left stretched beyond our right flank, and it kept its ground. When the enemy’s right and centre retreated, our line charged front, so as to face the second line, on which we advanced, and this was the hottest part of the action. The party on the right was very troublesome; round and grape fire in all directions…[the 74th etc] the sepoys were huddled in masses, and that attempt which I saw made to form them failed. (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone p67) [situation saved by Maxwell’s charge]
Colin Campbell adds some useful details:
The line was ordered to advance…The line moved forward rapidly (I may say without firing two rounds) and took possession of the first line of guns, where many of the enemy were killed. They then moved on in equally good order and resolution to the second line of guns, from which they very soon drove the enemy; but many of the artillery, who pretended to be dead when we passed on to the second line of guns, turned the guns we had taken upon us, which obliged us to return and again, drive them from them.’ (WSD vol 4 p 185-6)
The story of the line halting and AW urging them forward comes from Davidson History of the 78th Highlanders vol 1 p 55.
Blakiston says that the second Maratha line made less resistance than the first, and this is inherently probable, but it is worth pointing out that Elphinstone (quoted above) says that this was ‘the hottest part of the action’. (Colebrooke Elphinstone vol 1 p 67)
The fullest secondary account is in Davidson’s History and Services of the 78th Highlanders, but it is not clear to what extent this is based on regimental sources as opposed to imaginative reconstruction.
The 78th, on coming within 150 yards of the enemy’s line, withdrew its advanced centre sergeant, and the men were cautioned to be ready to charge. Soon after the battalion opposed to them fired a volley, and about the same time some European officers in the enemy’s service were observed to mount their horses and ride off. The 78th instantly ported arms, cheered, and redoubled its pace, and the enemy’s infantry, deserted by its officers, broke and ran. The 78th pushed on and fired, and coming to the charge, overtook and bayonetted a few individuals. The gunners, however, held firm to their guns, many being killed in the acts of loading, priming, or pointing and none quitted their posts until the bayonets were at their breasts. Almost at the same moment, the 1st battalion 10th Native Infantry closed with the enemy in the most gallant style, but the smoke and dust (which, aided by a high wind, was very great) prevented the troops from seeing further to the right.
The 78th now halted for an instant to complete their files and restore exact order, and then moved forward on the enemy’s second line, making a complete wheel to the right, the pivot being the right of the army, near the village of Assaye. (Davidson History of the 78th Highlanders vol 1 p 55-56).
Assaye XIV Maxwell’s last charge:
Maxwell, who had brought his tired cavalry back to the southern side of the Juah, made a final charge against the Marathas to the west. John Blakiston, wishing to experience a cavalry charge, slipped away from Wellesley’s staff and joined Maxwell: he later described what happened
We were not long in coming up with the enemy, who, having formed with their left to the Jouah, steadily awaited our approach. The charge was sounded: we advanced with rapidity, amidst a shower of musquetry and grape, which latter I could actually hear rattling among our ranks, and had already got almost within reach of the bayonets of the enemy, who still gallantly stood their ground, when, instead of dashing among their ranks, I suddenly found my horse swept round as it were by an eddy torrent. Away we galloped, right shoulders forward, along the whole of the enemy’s line, receiving their fire as we passed, till, having turned our backs upon them, we took to our heels manfully, every one calling out “Halt! halt!” while nobody would set the example; till at last, a trumpet having sounded, we pulled up, but in complete disorder, dragoons and native cavalry pell mell. (Blakiston Twelve Years Military Adventure vol 1 p 170; see also Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 68.)
Maxwell was killed at the head of the charge and some attributed its failure to his having thrown out his arm, as if to halt his men, when he was hit; while others, including Blakiston, blamed the oblique line of the advance, which made it too easy to sheer away and gallop along the enemy line rather than into its ranks. (Blakiston Twelve Years Military Adventure vol 1 p 171). In any case the 19th Light Dragoons had already played their part and a second charge, made with tired men on tired horses, was never as likely to succeed as the first. Nor was Maxwell’s attack a total failure: it protected the flank of the army at a dangerous moment, and the Marathas made no attempt to follow up their success against it.
Assaye XV the Closing stages of the Battle:
As is usually the case the accounts of the closing stages of the battle are less clear than those of earlier parts. Blakiston provides probably the best and most detailed account. Having described how the right and centre advanced and, wheeling to the right to attack the enemy second line – thus exposing its left flank (already quoted above) he goes on:
its left flank became, of necessity, exposed to the enemy’s cavalry, and its right to the fire of their centre, which had faced about for that purpose; while from the non-appearance of the 74th and the piquets, the General, who had advanced with the left wing, began to entertain serious apprehensions for their safety. “What is our cavalry about now?” everyone exclaimed. But the words were scarcely out of our mouths when we saw them, headed by the gallant 19th, come pouring through the enemy’s left wing like a torrent that had burst its banks, bearing along the broken and scattered materials which had opposed it. This was a noble sight, and to persons in our situation, a most gratifying one. The whole of our line hailed it with a shout of triumph, and, advancing at double-quick time, charged the enemy’s reserve, and drove it across the Jouah. Elated with their success, the sepoys now began to disperse in pursuit of the enemy; but happily the 78th stood their ground firmly, and thus prevented the enemy’s horse, which still threatened our left wing, from taking advantage of this imprudence. The recall being sounded, the infantry was formed on the bank of the river, while the cavalry continued the pursuit of the flying foe.
In the meantime the enemy’s centre, which had remained untouched, closed in upon the ground before occupied by their left wing, and, uniting with such of their artillery and infantry which had been passed over unhurt by our cavalry, formed itself into a kind of a crescent, with its right horn resting on the river Jouah, and its left on the village of Assaye; thus presenting themselves in a front position on the flank of our infantry, on which, having collected a considerable number of their guns, they re-commenced a heavy fire. The battle was now to be fought over again, with this difference, that the contending forces had exchanged sides; and, had the enemy’s horse behaved with the least spirit, while our cavalry was absent in pursuit of their broken battalions, there is no guessing what the consequence might have been; but, happily for us, they kept aloof. To oppose the enemy in their new position, the sepoy battalion on the right was immediately formed en potence, and advanced against them, but without effect, being compelled to retire. Another was brought forward, and equally repulsed. Our cavalry, having by this time, returned from the pursuit, and formed on our left, and the enemy’s horse having disappeared before them, the general ordered the 78th regiment and 7th cavalry up to head a fresh attack against the enemy’s infantry and guns, which still defended their position with obstinacy. No sooner, however, had he formed the 78th regiment in line, in directing which his horse’s leg was carried off by a cannon-shot, than the enemy, without awaiting the attack, commenced their retreat across the Jouah, which they passed in tolerable order before our troops could come up with them. Previously to the last attack, Colonel Maxwell had requested, and obtained, permission to attack a considerable body of infantry and guns, which, having formed part of the reserve, were seen retiring in good order along the right bank of the Jouah.’ (Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 166-9)
Elphinstone described Maxwell’s first charge then continues:
After this the cavalry crossed the Joee, and the infantry, continuing to advance, drove the enemy’s infantry across the Joee. They seemed to retreat in good order; but some of them must have been broke, for the cavalry, which had them crossed the nulla, charged up its bank, making a dreadful slaughter, but affecting a most delightful spectacle to us, who were halted on the side nearest the field of battle unable to cross on account of our guns. The cavalry having thus crossed on the right of the line, and charged along in front of it, recrossed to the left and were formed to charge a body of infantry – I fancy part of the enemy’s right that we had passed, for we were much out-flanked both the right and left. When the General, returning from the nulla with the 78th, came close to them, he took the 7th N.C. from them. The General was going to attack a body of the enemy (from their left, I believe) who, when we had passed them, went and spiked our artillery and seized our guns, and recovered some of their own, and turned them all against our rear, which annoyed us a good deal. When the General was returning to the guns there was a heavy fire and he had his horse killed under him. Soon after he came up to the cavalry, the enemy cannonading them hotly as they formed to charge. Just as he was leaving them I heard the dragoons huzza and saw them begin to charge; rode a little way after them; but, thinking that I had stayed all day with the General, and that when I left him he was in hot water, I rode to him, but found that the enemy were moving off. We got possession of the guns and halted, and so ended the engagement. I forgot to mention the result of the cavalry charge (which must have terminated just after I quitted them; for I saw them pull up to a trot before I made up my mind to leave them). They were brought up by the fire; first halted, and then walked, and then trotted back. In this last charge Colonel Maxwell was killed’ (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1p 67-8).
This is an interesting variation on Blakiston’s account of the charge. Blakiston took part but wrote his account years later, while the less dramatic version of an episode generally sounds more plausible.
The anonymous account in the India Office Library confirms this:
Our cavalry crossed the Nullah and charged among the Enemy’s Infantry who had been driven by our Infantry across the Nullah, and made a great slaughter; they afterwards re-crossed the Nullah and made a charge at another body of Infantry with less success; while they were making the charge, the General took the 78th regiment and the 7th Regiment Native Cavalry and led them back to drive off a body of the Enemy’s foot who had retaken some of the captured guns which we unavoidable [sic] left behind us as we advanced and had turned them upon us while moving to this attack the General’s horse was killed under him; as we pushed on, the Enemy retreated and thus concluded the Engagement. (BL OIOC Eur B 401)
And the unknown cavalry officer printed in the Maratha War Papers adds some details of Maxwell’s last charge:
We then made another charge upon a body of infantry and guns. The enemy’s infantry faced and received us with a [severe?] file firing as did their artillery with a terrible discharge of grape which killed numbers. We succeeded however in getting possession of their cannon, 70 field pieces and 4 howitzers and retaining them until our line of infantry came up. In this latter conflict fell the gallant Colonel Maxwell our Brigadier and Captain Boyle of HM 19th Dragoons… (Maratha War Papers p 289-90).
Biddulph (The Nineteenth and their Times p 143) gives a detailed account, based mostly on Blakiston.
AW’s dispatch says:
At length the enemy’s line gave way in all directions, and the British cavalry cut in among their broken infantry; but some of their corps went off in good order, and a fire was kept up on our troops from many of the guns from which the enemy had been first driven, by individuals who had been passed by the line under the supposition that they were dead.
Lieut. Col Maxwell, with the British cavalry, charged one large body of infantry, which had retired, and was formed again, in which operation he was killed; and some time elapsed before we could put an end to the straggling fire, which was kept up by individuals from the guns from which the enemy were driven. The enemy’s cavalry also, which had been hovering around us throughout the action, were still near us. At length, when the last formed body of infantry gave way, the whole went off, and left in our hands 90 pieces of cannon. The victory, which was certainly complete, has however, cost us dear.’ (WD I p 724 – 5).
Blakiston (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p177): ‘Towards the end of the action several of the enemy’s ammunition tumbrils, in which it is supposed they had left slow matches burning, blew up; those dreadful explosives, without doing much mischief, added not a little to the horror of the scene.’
Fortescue History of the British Army vol 5 p 30 (possibly following Biddulph) says that Maxwell and the cavalry re-crossed the Juah by a ford at the village of Borekerry. He also says (p 31) – wrongly, I think – that AW sent the 78th and 7th Native Cavalry in a final attack against Assaye; but I think its clear that they were sent back to regain the guns.
Thorn suggests that the British – or at least the sepoys – rather got out of hand in following up the initial success and were vulnerable to a counter-attack but were saved by AW and Maxwell.
The extreme disproportion between the numbers of combatants on our side alone prevented our small but victorious band from profiting to the fullest extent by the triumph which they had gained; and yet such was their energy, that deeming the enemy’s defeat complete, they followed up the fugitives with all the ardour of conquest. This precipitancy had nearly attended with fatal consequences; and nothing but the cool intrepidity of Colonel Wellesley, aided by the bravery of Colonel Maxwell, could have saved the army from the perilous state into which it was driven by the impetuosity of valour. (Memoir of the War in India conducted by General Lord Lake… and Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley… p 276-77).
Thorn goes on to say that the Marathas had returned to their guns, and the British faced enemies in front and behind at a time when ‘the British were divided into small bodies, in consequence of their eagerness to follow up the pursuit which they had so previously commenced.’
Assaye XVI AW personally
Elphinstone gives several glimpses of AW during the battle:
As the line is deploying after forming: ‘The General was very impatient; he was forming the line to the left of himself; but he had sent several messages to the right to move forward, which was done at last’ (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone p 66)
The line advanced under a very hot cannonade. When we got near enough the enemy to hear them shout, the General rode back to the cavalry, whom he had sent for, and who were now in the rear. He rode full gallop, told Colonel Maxwell to take care of the right of the infantry, and rode back at speed. In coming back as in going there was the Devil’s Own cannonade (an exquisite Irish phrase which I have found out), and three horses of our party were knocked down. The General galloped forward to a line which was before us, and we were getting near it very fast when it fired a gun our way; we were barely out of musket shot. Somebody said. “Sir! That is the enemy’s line.” The General said “It is? Ha damme. So it is!” (you know his manner) and turned.’ (p 66-7)
Captain Cunningham and I are the only two of ten of the General’s party who have neither been touched in ourselves and our horses. (p 69)
Afterwards: ‘He said one morning that “so and so would have happened if we had been beat, and then I should just have made a gallows of my ridge-pole and hanged myself.”’ (p80)
Also p 87: “had I retreated before them, he said at his own table, “I should have been at once surrounded by their numerous cavalry, and must have hung myself to their ridge-poles.”’
Early in the battle: ‘He was severe on the field of battle.’ Then the anecdote of his secretary asking if this was a hot fire.
James Welsh tells the story of Capt Hugh Mackay who had been placed in charge of the public cattle of the army. Welsh says that AW did not fully recognize his value. Mackay asked to be allowed to serve with his regiment, the 4th Native Cavalry, in the expected battle. AW refused through Capt Barclay the Adjutant General Mackay then tried to resign and this was refused. So he announced that even if it meant being court-martialled and losing his commission he wouldn’t see his regiment go into action without him.
On receipt of this hasty and ill-advised letter, the General is said to have exclaimed, “What can we do with such a fellow Barclay? I believe we must e’en let him go;” and go he certainly did, heading the charge of his own regiment, and in a line with the leading squadron of the noble veteran 19th dragoons, he fell, man and horse, close to one of the enemy’s guns, pierced through by several grape shot. When in the very heat of the action, news was brought to the General that Captain Mackay was killed, his countenance changed and the tear which fell upon his cheek was nature’s involuntary homage to the memory of a kindred spirit.’ (Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 179-80)
(Blakiston Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 173 also mentions and praises Mackay, though not in detail and tells a similar story of Lt Serle, 19th Lt Dragoons, who joined in though under arrest.)
Anthony Brett-James Wellington at War p 82-3 quotes Kaye’s Life of Malcolm (vol 2 p 278-9 Malcolm to AW 25 Sept 1818):
Malcolm celebrated the anniversary of the battle in style:
My native aide-de-camp, Subadar Syud Hussein, a gallant soldier, owes his rise to that day. He was the leading havildar of the Fourth Cavalry in the charge; and he afterwards dashed into the centre of the party of the enemy’s horse, and bore off their standard. His commanding officer, Floyer, brought him and the standard to you; and upon the story being told, you patted him upon the back, and with the eloquent and correct knowledge in the native language for which you were celebrated said “Acho havildar; jemadar.” A jemadar he was made…” And he is more proud of your praise and pat on the back than anything in life and is a great man.
Assaye XVII British Artillery at Assaye
‘I cannot tell you certainly about our guns. We had not more than fourteen. The first, forming two brigades, 12-pounders, I believe, were immediately left behind, and all the others stopped sooner or later before the line got very far on. I heard the General say we did not fire more than a hundred rounds. Our guns did nothing; all was done with the bayonet and the sword…’ (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 80).
Assaye XVIII Cowardice and Misconduct
Most evidence about this is quoted in the text, and the problem with the Native Cavalry regiments – which and how many – misbehaved is discussed in the notes. See also Malcolm’s story about the bravery of a Havildar of the 4th Native Cavalry quoted above. But also:
Elphinstone: ‘I know scarcely any anecdotes of the battle, except that two officers are vehemently accused of skulking in a nulla. One of them, who had a sort of staff situation, said he was part of the day with the General, which he and all headquarter folk deny. The General: “No, by God, he is none of my child.” (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 76).
Blakiston: ‘During the hottest fire I observed several sepoys, who were either wounded or pretended to be so, crouching down with their backs to the enemy, in such a manner that their knapsacks completely sheltered them from everything but round shot. The Europeans had not this advantage, their packs being always carried for them in India; but whenever they had them, I never observed that they had ingenuity enough to make use of them in this way.’ (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p174-5).
Assaye XIX AW complains of British officers serving with Sindia
AW to Collins 3rd Oct 1803 WSD vol 4 p 184-90:
I have some reason to complain of Scindiah’s English officers, and I shall bring the subject forward publicly as soon as I can ascertain the matter more completely. My soldiers say that after they were knocked down by cannon or grape shot, they were cut and piked by the horse belonging to the campoos, which indeed is perfectly true, and that the horse was cut to pieces by the British cavalry. But they say that besides that they heard one English officer with a battalion say to another; “You understand the language better than I do; desire the jemidar of that body of horse to go and cut up those wounded European soldiers.” The other did as he was desired and the horse obeyed the order they received.
‘It is bad enough that these gentlemen should serve the enemies of their country, particularly after the British Government had offered them a provision; but it is too bad that they should make themselves the instruments, or rather that they should excite the savage ferocity of the Natives against their brave and wounded countrymen.’ (p189)
Elphinstone (Colebrooke Elphinstone vol 1 p 73) tells the same story. But later AW told Collins (23rd Oct 1803 WSD vol 4 p 206-8) the allegation that certain named British officers (Grant and Stewart) served against the British at Assaye had been disproven. They left Sindia’s army beforehand, although they had not heard of the Governor-General’s proclamation. Elphinstone (p 82) was pleased. This does not disprove the story told by the wounded British soldiers although Elphinstone was always rather sceptical of it. Maratha War Papers p 333-5 has report of Lieutenant Stewart – one of the British officers who left the brigades on 12 September, rather than fight the British.
Assaye XX British Casualties
Killed Wounded Missing Total
Officers 14 29 – 43
Men 150 382 8 540
164 411 8 583
Killed Wounded Missing Total
Officers 8 28 – 36
Men 237 1183 18 1438
245 1211 18 1474
(From the casualty return printed in WD I p 725n)
However Fortescue (History of the British Army vol 5 p 33n) and Springer (‘Military Apprenticeship of Arthur Wellesley’ p 137) both prefer to use a return printed in Wellesley Despatches (vol 3 p 669). The full detailed version of this return is printed in Thorn (Memoir of the War in India conducted by General Lord Lake… and Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley) p 280 and it certainly appears authentic, but it is odd that Gurwood would print a higher casualty total:
European officers 23 killed + 30 wounded + 0 missing = 53
European soldiers 175 killed + 412 wounded + 4 missing = 591
Natives 230 killed + 696 wounded + 14 missing = 940
428 killed 1136 wounded 18 missing = 1584
It seems likely that the discrepancy arose, at least in part, from the presentation of the casualty table in the semi-official Notes Relative to the Late Transactions in the Marhatta Empire (1804) where the grand total of European and Indian casualties is given in a column headed ‘Natives’ making it very easy to add to this the European casualties, and so double count them (see Wilson History of the Madras Army vol 3 p 108n where this is noted as the explanation for the even higher casualty figures given in Welsh’s Reminiscences (vol 1 p 175-6) although this does not appear to be a complete explanation, for it does not explain all the variations between the figures. Neither Fortescue nor Springer discuss the difference between the two returns or their reasons for preferring that in Wellesley Despatches.
Weller (Wellington in India p 190) gives a variation on Fortescue and Springer
European 198 442 = 640
Indian 258 695 = 953
456 1137 = 1593 only he makes it 1594!
This looks as if he has simply transferred all the ‘missing’ to Indian killed and done it carelessly, adding ten, while accidentally deducting one from Indian wounded (hence the wrong total).
Weller (Wellington in India p 190) thinks AW had approx. 5,800 actually engaged – loss of 27%
Weller goes on to give some breakdown of the losses:
The 74th lost 124 killed + 277 wounded = 401 (62.6% of European casualties)
The 78th lost 24 killed + 77 wounded + 4 missing = 105
(he thinks half the 78th’s losses were probably in the company with the picquets – however there are surely too many casualties for this to be a complete explanation, but it is nonetheless a good point).
2/12th Madras Native Infantry lost 212 all ranks – the highest of any EIC unit, though only 20 per cent losses, caused ‘because Pohlmann’s guns to the north – but not the guns from Assaye – took this unit in the flank.’ Which strikes me as characteristically over-confident. Fortescue History of the British Army vol 5 p 34 ‘of the two sepoy battalions on the right of the first line, one had one hundred and seventy-four and the other two hundred and twenty-eight casualties.’
Blakiston, for what it is worth, says the army lost over 2,000 casualties from 4,500 ‘amounting to more than a third of the whole number.’ (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 172)
Hickey Memoirs vol 4 p 274 ‘Altogether nearly two thousand Europeans were slain.’ That would have been remarkable, for there were not 2,000 Europeans present even by Fortescue’s figures.
Assaye XXI Maratha casualties, wounded and prisoners.
AW told Merrick Shawe: ‘It is said they lost 1200 men killed, the wounded and dying are scattered about the country in all directions’. (AW to Shawe 28 Sept 1803 WD I p 736)
Elphinstone: ‘No prisoners were taken. The sound men ran away. Our wounded were so numerous as to require the whole attention of our people.’ (Colebrooke Elphinstone vol 1 p 76)
Blakiston: ‘What was the enemy’s loss in men we could not ascertain; but it could not have been very great; for the number of the assailants was insufficient to have done much execution in their ranks. What was, however, of infinitely more consequence, their battalions were dispersed and disheartened, while a noble park of artillery, consisting of upwards of a hundred guns, and several standards, were the trophies of their victory.’ (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 175).
WD I p 743n Return of captured ordnance:
7 brass howitzers, 69 brass guns, 22 iron guns = 98 captured.
There is a more precisely detailed return of artillery captured printed in Wellesley Despatches vol 5 p 669-70 and in Thorn (Memoir of the War in India p 278) – both giving same totals as return in WD but more detail.
Assaye XXII The story that AW, Stevenson and Sindia all executed their spies after the action:
Biddulph is the source for this, quoting a Ms note in the India Office Library: ‘“Colonel Stevenson, because he suspected or believed his own to have led him intentionally astray from the road: General Wellesley, by reason of his own having given him false intelligence respecting the march of the Mahratta Army to pass the Ajunta Ghaut; and Scindia, from his men not having made him acquainted with the separation of the two divisions of the British army.”’ (The Nineteenth and their Times p 146). It is a good story but too neat to be plausible; besides, Elphinstone does not mention it, and he was in charge of part of AW’s intelligence so he surely would have done so.
Assaye XXIII Judgments on the battle
‘I said to the Duke across the Table, “Pray Duke, what is the best thing you ever did in the fighting line?” The Duke was silent for about ten seconds then answered, “Assaye”. He did not add a word.’ (Chad Conversations p 20 in 1844) But this means little and Wellington may not have even heard the question correctly.
At the time AW told Malcolm: ‘I assure you that their fire was so heavy, that I much doubted at one time whether I should be able to prevail upon our troops to advance; and all agree that the battle was the fiercest that has ever been seen in India. Our troops behaved admirably; the sepoys astonished me.’ (28 Sept 1803 WD I p 739)
Blakiston felt that AW would not have been separated from Stevenson if he had appreciated the quality of Sindia’s infantry and artillery, but having done so ‘I think the General was quite right in moving on to the attack. After he had come to this determination, nothing could be more masterly than his dispositions for the battle, nor could anything surpass the promptitude and decision with which he carried them into effect.’ (Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1 p 156)
Fortescue History of the British Army vol 5 p 32:
had Pohlmann done his duty he might at least have embarrassed Wellesley greatly; and if the Mahratta cavalry had behaved with even a show of spirit, issue would have been certainly doubtful, and most probably disastrous to the British arms. Colonel Orrok’s unfortunate error in misleading the right of the line was responsible for the extreme hazard incurred in the fight; but Wellesley, in consideration of the terrible fire which he had faced at the head of the picquets, forgave him the blunder. For the rest, though every man, British or native, played his part with superlative gallantry, Assaye presents a roll of valiant deeds which is unsurpassed in our military history. First and foremost, Wellesley himself was throughout, in the hottest fray, calm, cool and collected, as if at a field day…
This is a bit over the top given the plain evidence (and common sense) that ‘every man’ did not do their duty at this, or any other battle.
Weller’s account of the battle (Wellington in India p 172 -94) is really very poor, full of spurious detail which has no foundation in the evidence. He is far too confident as stating as fact some of his own suppositions. Many of the details which can be checked are either dubious or simply wrong.
Weller is very critical of Maxwell’s conduct throughout the day and even suggests that as he had come to India on St Leger’s staff it is ‘possible’ that he shared ‘his old chief’s alcoholic habits’ (p 191n). But if this slur is fair it can apply equally to de Lancey, who was also on St Leger’s staff, while AW himself was not so abstemious to be immune from this type of insinuation.
Maurice “Assye and Wellington” (Cornhill Magazine vol 73 series 3 September 1896) p 292 ‘the attack which he made at Assye erred, if it erred at all, on the side of excessive boldness, if not rashness.’
Bidwell Swords for Hire p 232-6 gives a brief, vague and highly speculative account of the battle, chiefly concerned to massage the few facts about the Maratha side of the battle to fit with his notions of character of the relevant units. Some of the result is almost implausible, for example his suggestionthat the brigades were unaware of the British advance until after AW had forded the Kaitna, formed his army and begun to advance (p 233); other parts are reasonable but add little.
There is a clear subtext of impatience with Assaye and hostility to AW in Bidwell’s account. See also p 228 ‘Lake’s victory outside Delhi was one of the decisive battles of India, much more [so] than Assaye. There Arthur Wellesley defeated a limb of the Mahratta power, but on 19th September Lake bit out its heart.’ A contention which can only be sustained if one accepts Lord Wellesley’s argument that the brigades constituted a formidable and effectively independent power in their own right, a ‘French’ state on the Jumna. Munro argues exactly the opposite in a private letter to his brother (2 Feb 1804 Gleig’s Munro vol 1 p 353-5).
Assaye XXIV explanations of the Maratha failure:
Randolf Cooper discusses this question at length in relation to the whole war, not just Assaye, and discounts arguments based on ‘superior British training, discipline and drill’ (The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India p 310), or superior British artillery. In the end he places great weight on the defection of so many of Sindia’s European officers, and some of the men of the regular brigades. This is fair enough, especially in relation to the campaign in Hindustan, but it is only part of the story. It would be equally true to say that Sindia’s army at Assaye lacked a clear chain of command and any great commitment to fight – quite large contingents of infantry seem to have retired from the battlefield without being engaged, and some subsidiary commanders (Marathas, not just European mercenaries) were clearly looking to the future rather than seeking a victory. The contrast with the leadership and determination of AW’s army is striking.
(See Cooper p 275-78 for the defection of European officers in the days before Assaye, and the probability that Pohlman was imprisoned by Sindia before the battle after he attempted to resign. He also states that Pohlman was actually a British subject, and that he went on to serve under Lake in 1804-5 after Monson’s disaster).
Even at their best Sindia’s regular brigades probably felt themselves to be inferior to the sepoy battalions of the Bengal or Madras armies, and this probably owed more to a lower officer:man ratio than their training per se. Cooper’s arguments that the drill and training of the regular brigades was equal to that of the Company’s armies because men from one had served in the other (p 288-9) does not hold water, while his suggestion that the regular brigades had an advantage because each could modify and vary the drill according to its commander’s preferences (p 289) is unconvincing. Armies do not perform better when each component part dances to a different tune.
Assaye XXV Memory of battle:
According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India (vol 1 p 374 on Assaye) a commemorative medal was struck in 1851 and presented to the few surviving officers and men.
‘The inhabitants of the village of Assaye, close to the scene of the conflict, possess numbers of muskets, jinjals, and small cannon balls, which have been picked up from time to time on the battlefield. Other traces of the conflict in the shape of human remains are not unfrequently discovered on the banks of the Juah, especially after freshets caused by the rains.’ (ibid p 374-5)
Burton ‘Field of Assaye’ (United Service Magazine n.s. vol 45 1912 p 297-302) comments that there was then no memorial to the battle on the field (p 302).
The lessons AW learnt from Assaye:
In the immediate aftermath of the battle AW’s confidence was clearly shaken, and he did not feel that he could continue to operate with Stevenson acting as an independent force: ‘These circumstances, and the vast loss which I have sustained, make it clear that we ought not to attack them again, unless we have something nearer an equality of numbers. However, the expedition into the Berar may go on; but I must keep up with it, in order to cover the stage of Gawilghur, and that both our divisions may join, in case they should, bring down another corps of infantry.’ (AW to Malcolm 28 Sept 1803 WD I p 739). So he did not want to fight again except with his combined army, even though he had thoroughly beaten the Marathas and captured all their artillery. He was concerned that Sindia might bring down fresh brigades from Hindustan.
By the middle of October he was still cautious, although he was regaining his confidence. He told Stuart:
I shall be within reach of Colonel Stevenson before the enemy can attempt anything upon him, supposing them to intend it, after what has already happened. But, by all accounts, they are sadly disorganized. However, it is impossible to say whether they may be able to equip another corps of infantry at Burhampoor; and, although I doubt whether our loss would have been much less than it was on 23rd Sept, supposing both divisions to have been engaged, I should not much like, upon any speculations of my own, to run the risk of such another loss, by engaging the enemy’s whole army of cavalry, infantry and artillery, with one of our divisions only, supposing them to be able and inclined to engage with us. Col Stevenson knows my sentiments upon this subject, and has directions to guide his conduct accordingly.’ (AW to Stuart 16 Oct 1803 WD I p 789-91).
The directions referred to are those of 12 October in which AW discusses what Stevenson should do if faced by the Maratha army. No perfect answer, but probably the best thing is to try to attack them on the march:
‘You will find them in the common disorder of march; they will not have time to form, which, being half-disciplined troops, is necessary for them.
‘Do not attack their position, because they always take up such as are comfortably strong and difficult of access; for which the banks of the numerous rivers and nullahs afford them every facility.
‘I acknowledge that I should not like to see again such losses I sustained on the 23rd Sept; even if attended by such a gain.’ (AW to Stevenson 12th October 1803 WD I p 775-77).
After the immediate shock of the battle had worn off (and the innumerable wounded had been moved to safety), AW continued to use the two armies separately but rather more cautiously; and that he clearly did not want to fight a major action without the whole force united. Given the losses the Marathas had sustained at Assaye and the fact that they did not receive any significant reinforcements from Hindustan, this shows how much he had underestimated the quality of their infantry and artillery before Assaye.
AW’s criticism of the Bombay government:
Jonathan Duncan and the government of Bombay are defended by Baker: ‘Wellesley was rather unreasonable with Duncan, for if the Governor had failed to send up supplies it was because the provisions had been used to feed the populace of Bombay and the neighbouring district. The British general was experiencing one of those periods of famine or scarcity which occur in this region about once every five years.’ (Baker ‘Some Geographical Factors in the campaigns of Assaye and Argaon’ Army Quarterly vol 17 1929 p 51).
Aftermath of Assaye:
Colonel Stevenson did not receive Wellesley’s letter, announcing his intention to attack immediately, until 8 o’clock in the evening of the 23rd, when the battle was already over. He immediately set off to join Wellesley but the night march through the rough hills separating the two British armies proved slow and exhausting and he did not reach the battlefield until late on the 24th or early on the 25th. Here he remained until the 26th to rest his troops and to allow his surgeons to assist in tending the wounded; he then followed the Marathas up the Adjunta ghat but, not surprisingly, found that they had made a clean break, and reported that there was no point pressing the pursuit (AW to Munro, 1 Nov 1803, WD II p 820-3; Stevenson to AW, 29 Sept 1803, Maratha War Papers p 300-1). Meanwhile Wellesley and his men remained at Assaye caring for the wounded. An unusually high proportion of the wounds had been inflicted by artillery and were consequently severe, while the few surgeons with the army were overwhelmed with work, so that the last of the wounded were not dressed until almost a week after the battle. (AW to the Governor of Bombay, 27 Sept 1803, WD I p 735-6 re proportion of wounded due to artillery and measures for their care; AW to Munro, 1 Nov 1803, WD II p 820-3). Wellesley was busy making arrangements for their removal, first to secure quarters nearby where a hospital would be established, and ultimately to Bombay, but he was frustrated, and deeply angered, by a lack of co-operation from the Nizam’s government. He paid the wounded great personal attention, visiting them frequently and ensuring that they had every comfort available – even giving each wounded officer a dozen bottles of Madeira from his own travelling cellar according to one accaount. (AW to Kirkpatrick, 27 Sept 1803, WD I p 734-5 re lack of co-operation from Nizam’s officials; see also General Order, 29 Sept 1803, ibid p 740n; unpublished diary of Jasper Nicolls quoted in Davidson History of the 78th Highlanders p 60n for the gift of Madeira. Given that there were about thirty wounded British officers, it seems likely that this story is somewhat exaggerated, or that Wellesley’s travelling cellar was remarkably large.)
The treatment and removal of the wounded took time and the army remained near the battlefield for a fortnight. Ten days after the battle, Elphinstone wrote to a friend at Poona:
There was a Roman Emperor who said he liked the smell of a dead enemy. If he did he was singular in his taste. We are horribly perfumed with such a smell as he liked, but I would rather smell a living enemy. I went yesterday evening to the field of battle. It was a dark, cloudy evening. I rode by myself, and saw plurima mortis imago. Some of the dead are withered, their features still remaining, but their faces blackened to the colour of coal, others still swollen and blistered. … Kites and adjutants, larger than the Calcutta ones, were feeding on the bodies, and dogs were feasting in some places, and in others howling all over the plain. I saw a black dog tearing, in a furious way, great pieces of flesh from a dead man, looking fiercely, and not regarding me. I thought the group horrible and sublime. At last I began to feel a good deal of horror – awful, but not unpleasant. (Elphinstone to Strachey, 3 Oct 1803, Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 74-5).
AW’s problems after Assaye:
Despite the victory Wellesley faced a number of problems after Assaye: he was much concerned by the weakness and inefficiency of both the Peshwa and the Nizam whose governments were vulnerable to a marauding raid mounted by Sindia’s pindaris. (AW to Major Shawe and to Stevenson, both 8 Oct 1803, WD I p 765-7, 768-9.) And the operations in Gujerat, while progressing reasonably well, produced endless quarrels between Colonel Murray and the Bombay government, which were referred to him (See Maratha War Papers for many letters on this subject and also AW to Malcolm, 11 Nov 1803, WD II p 851-2). The perennial issues of money and supplies were causing some problems, and these were made more serious by the failure of the rains, and the consequent threat of a famine in the new year (AW to Close, 11 Oct 1803, WD I p 773-4). Wellesley himself was ill for a few days in the middle of October, and he had scarcely recovered before Stevenson fell ill, much more seriously, although he was able to continue in command of the Hyderabad contingent. (AW to Malcolm, 21 and 22 Oct 1803, WD I p 797, 799; AW to Stuart, 6 Nov 1803, WD II p 835-6 re Stevenson’s health).
Nonetheless, the war was being won. Assaye had broken Sindia’s power in the Deccan and news soon arrived that Lake had achieved and equally decisive, and much less costly victory at Delhi on 10 September. Wellesley was relieved of his fear that Sindia might receive substantial reinforcements, and ceased to fear the result if Stevenson fought an independent battle, although he urged him not to attack the Marathas in a position of their choice, and acknowledged ‘that I should not like to see again such a loss as I sustained on the 23rd Sept., even if attended by such a gain.’ (AW to Stevenson, 12 Oct 1803, WD I p 775-7; see also AW to Shawe, 8 Oct 1803, ibid p 765-7).
Sindia’s envoy and the Suspension of Arms:
On 7 November a vakil or envoy from Sindia arrived in Wellesley’s camp to ask for a suspension of arms to begin peace negotiations. Wellesley was impressed: ‘he is a man of high family, being the nephew of Morari Rao, and as he has more the manner and appearance of a gentleman than any Marhatta than I have yet seen, I suspect there is an intention, on Scindiah’s part, to make some concessions for the sake of peace.’ (AW to Close, 9 Nov 1803, WD II p 845-7). According to James Welsh, who gives a detailed description of the vakil’s reception, ‘In person he was much above the common size; thin, but athletic, and his countenance bespoke the man of sense and dignity.’ ‘He was richly dressed, and well mounted; and had an elephant, two camels, and many led horses, &c escorted by ninety of his master’s best cavalry.’ Wellesley received him ‘in a liberal and delicate manner’ devoid of any hint of triumphalism or anything to give his guest any uneasiness. (Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 185-88).
Despite this favourable first impression the negotiations proved protracted and often difficult. Sindia’s vakil, for all his pomp and state, lacked formal written credentials, and without them Wellesley would not negotiate. In fact it seems that Sindia was, initially, simply trying to use the negotiations to gain time, and had not yet fully accepted his defeat. After some delay Wellesley did conclude a suspension of arms with Sindia on 22 November, which did not include the Raja of Berar. Wellesley feared that the Governor-General would disapprove of this armistice in principle, but argued that he was powerless to inflict any more damage on Sindia, who had no regular troops or territory left in the Deccan, while Sindia’s irregular cavalry could still annoy Wellesley’s army. In the event, Sindia did not abide by the terms of the truce, but this did no harm, and put him at a disadvantage in the subsequent negotiations. (AW to the Governor-General, 11 and 24 Nov 1803, WD II p 853-858, 884-888; AW to Shawe, 23 Nov 1803, ibid p 879-81; the terms of the armistice are printed in ibid p 878n).
Colonel Stevenson and the ‘contribution’ from Burhanpur.
AW to Stevenson 14 Oct 1803 WD I p 783: instructing him to get a contribution from Burhanpur, if needs be by threat of general plunder of the city.
Stevenson to AW 24 Oct 1803 Maratha War Papers p 349-50: The business of the contribution is going well.
Stevenson to AW 2 Dec 1803 Maratha War Papers p 399-400: A detailed account of his actions re the contribution; his decision to reduce it from 10 to 2½ lakhs and to be paid to the Nizam on account. This appeared to please the town. Ten Lakhs would have ruined it.
AW to Malcolm 13 Jan 1804 WD II p 964-5: Outraged by an all too tactful query from Sydenham re the contribution. Its tact implies suspicion and doubt; but it was the Governor-General’s actions which left us so short of money that we had no choice but to levy it.
AW to the Governor-General, 17 Jan 1804 WD II p 892-4: Formal report to the Governor-General which, among the financial details, describes the contribution quietly and plainly.
The whole issue became troublesome in 1804 when Raja Mohiput Ram made accusations against Capt Johnson. See WSD vol 4 p 353-4, 365-8, 377-8 for more.
See also AW to Col Stevenson Seringapatam 11 January 1805 (WD II p 1398): You’ll have heard of Capt ________’s disgrace.
I really had a regard for him, and considered my own credit as well as yours involved in his character, and therefore I did everything in my power to screen him from inquiry. However, the complaints against him were of a nature so serious, and as they had been laid before the Nizam’s durbar, I could do nothing but make the enquiry; and the result has been the discovery of a scene of disgraceful fraud, such as, I believe, has never before been practiced.
And AW to Cradock 22 Feb 1805 (WD II p 1427-8): The Court martial has been botched, but he must be punished severely for his breach of trust.
AW’s initial inclination to leave the Marathas alone.
He wrote in his official account:
from a tower in Paterly, I could perceive a confused mass, about 7 miles beyond Sersooly and Scindiah’s old camp, which I concluded to be their armies in march. The troops had marched a great distance on a very hot day, and I therefore did not think it proper to pursue them; but, shortly after our arrival here, bodies of horse appeared in our front with which the Mysore cavalry skirmished a part of the day; and when I went out to push forward the picquets of the infantry to support the Mysore cavalry and to take up the ground of our encampment, I could perceive distinctly a long line of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, regularly drawn up on the plains of Arguam…about six miles from this place…. (AW to the Governor-General, 30 November 1803 WD II p 892-5).
the intention of both Scindiah and Vincatjee Bhoonslah, in drawing up their army and apparently offering battle, was to impose upon the troops, and induce them to believe that we wanted confidence in our own strength. They would have drawn off at night, and we should have been obliged to fight a more desperate battle, in a position more favourable to the enemy, under the guns of Gawilghur. (AW to Lord Wellesley, 21 January 1804, WD II p 991-2).
The initial panic at Argaum:
Most accounts mention this, including AW’s letters to Shawe (2 Dec 1803 WD II p 897) and Stuart (3 Dec 1803 WD II p 899) where he makes no bones about it, takes much credit for rallying the men, and claims that it cost him an hour’s daylight which was all that allowed any of the Marathas to escape.
Davidson (History of the 78th Highlanders p 64n) has a good anecdote of a piper who was held to have disgraced himself at Assaye by assisting the wounded not playing as the regiment advanced; and who redeemed himself at Augaum, and was so forward he had to be restrained by the commanding officer.
Biddulph (The Nineteenth and their Times p 151) says the British advance began at 4.30 – gives no source but it seems plausible.
Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 189 says they reached their initial campsite at 2 pm
Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 89 prints some disconnected fragments from Elphinstone – all that survive of his account of the battle, but still very vivid and interesting.
The allied Maratha cavalry took no part in the battle of Argaum. AW writes, in the official dispatch,
The Maratha cavalry were not engaged, as the person who went to them with orders missed his road. Amrut Rao was not in the action, as he had encamped some distance in my rear on the 28th, and he could not march the whole distance to Paterly yesterday morning; but he sent for orders as soon as he heard that I intended to attack the enemy. (AW to the Governor-General, 30 Nov 1803, WD II p 892-5)
which smacks of feeble excuses and sitting on the fence.
Roderick Innes of the 78th, says of Argaum:
The infantry took up their position in advance of the cavalry; and in passing them, the latter cried out, “Now my lads, lather them and we’ll shave them.” Colonel Stevenson’s army here joined our left wing at which reinforcement we felt much relieved, as our force had been much diminished by former engagements, while the enemy had mustered their forces in great numbers.’ (The Life of Roderick Innes, lately of HM Seventy-Eight Regiment written by Himself printed and published by Alexander Clark, Stonehaven, 1844 p 129).
The baggage was left at a village [presumably Paterly] with the rear-guard under the command of Lt. Col Orrok. Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 188
Peace overtures after Argaum:
On the day after the battle a vakil arrived from the Raja of Berar seeking an urgent armistice and peace negotiations. Wellesley demanded to know if the vakil was authorised to negotiate for peace on the basis of substantial territorial and other concessions and, discovering that the vakil’s powers did not extend this far, sent him back to the Raja and refused an armistice. At the same time he warned Sindia’s vakil to get similar authority as quickly as possible. From this time on negotiations and military operations continued simultaneously.
Gawilghur: Stevenson’s march:
AW told the Governor-General
‘From that day till the 12th, on which Colonel Stevenson broke ground near Labada, the troops in his division went through a series of laborious services, such as I never before witnessed, with the utmost cheerfulness and perseverance. The heavy ordnance and stores were dragged by hand over mountains and through ravines, for nearly the whole distance, by roads which it had been previously necessary for the troops to make for themselves.’ (AW to the Governor-General, 18 Dec 1803, WD II p 913-16 quote on p 914. See also AW’s GO of 15 Dec 1803 in WD II p 915n where he praises the army in similar terms.)
Elphinstone overtook the troops on their march when he accompanied Wellesley on a reconnaissance of the northern face of the fortress.
There is a good custom of beating drums and playing the “Grenadiers’ March’, while the sepoys are dragging the guns up ghauts. After passing the tree where we were before, we had to cross a very deep and abrupt valley, which seems to me as bad a place for guns as can be. After passing it and some more bad road … we got to Colonel Maclean’s tents, where we stopped awhile. … We then passed on and got into a narrow valley, where the road was infamous, but the place shady and pretty. Here we found an iron 12-pounder sticking. It had got into such a position, that if it moved forward the nave of the wheel came against a tree. The people, however, put stones under the wheel, so that when the sepoys gave a general pull, the bullocks moved forward, and the elephant pushed, the wheel rose over the stones and the carriage leant to the other side, so that the nave was clear of the tree. I could not have thought the getting a gun over a stone was so interesting. … The shouts of the people working in the valley and the whole of the scene was romantic. (Elphinstone’s journal for 10 Dec 1803, Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 94-5).
Weller Wellington in India p 217 says that Wellington greatly exaggerated the distances involved. See also Barclay to Malcolm, 10 Dec 1803, Maratha War Papers p 404-5 who calls it ‘a ride of eighteen miles’
Elphinstone (and a letter from Barclay in Maratha War Papers p 404-5) show that AW did ride back and forth a good deal i.e. most days (and Barclay says it is a ride of 18 miles), but they do not mention that this was because Stevenson was ill, although his illness at Argaum and later make this a reasonable assumption and it is supported by Wellington’s conversation many years later (Stanhope Conversations with the Duke of Wellington p 57 (18 May 1834)).
The garrison attempted a few small sorties, but generally showed little enterprise. Elphinstone thought them ‘inactive, contemptible fellows. If they had defended these walls we should scarce have taken them without great loss. If they had fired or sortied they might have killed or taken both General Wellesley and Colonel Stevenson, and if they had fired or rocketted Colonel Haliburton’s camp they might kill many people.’ (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 97).
AW’s detailed instructions for the storm are printed in WD II p 1460-1. Boyce “From Assaye to the Assaye’ comments that it is ‘a document remarkable not only for its detail and precision, but for its mastery of the English language.’
The slaughter of the garrison and sack of Gawilghur:
Weller Wellington in India p 225-6 refuses to believe that the garrison was slaughtered (arguing that it could easily escape over the walls) or that there was much plundering. It is certainly possible the Blakiston’s account is somewhat exaggerated, but the underlying point – that the troops ran amok and committed great outrages, slaughtering many of the garrison long after resistance had ceased – is supported, more or less fully by Elphinstone (Colebrooke Life of Elphinstone vol 1 p 106), by Welsh (Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 197) and by a letter written by an unknown British officer and printed in Maratha War Papers p 410-12 (with Chalmers’ battalion coming in the side or wicket gate):
We could only get the wicket open when a dreadful sight presented [itself]. Actually I stepped over dead bodies to get in at the wicket and when I was in had to walk many paces to get over them. I am certain that there could not have been less than one hundred dead and dying close to the gate. It appeared that at the commencement of the storm they had flocked there to get away. The people of Colonel Stevenson’s detachment knew we were there and rushed on that way, when they massacred the whole of them.
Roderick Innes wrote: ‘I have seen so many scandalous and brutal transactions at the taking of this fort, that I forbear alluding to them.’ (Life of Roderick Innes p 137). AW himself says, ‘Vast numbers of them [the garrison] were killed, particularly at the different gates.’ (AW to the Governor-General 15 Dec 1803 WD II p 913-6 quote on p 915). And ‘The killadar, all the principal officers, and the greater part of the garrison were killed.’ (AW to HW 24 Jan – 5 Feb 1804 WD II p 1024-30 – quote on p 1029). This does not mean that thousands were massacred (four or eight thousand in the garrison) but the evidence of widespread slaughter is overwhelming.
The Peace Negotiations:
The policy issues – the dispute over Gawlior, Gohud etc – are discussed at length in Ch 10.
There is much good colour in Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 189-202.
Attempt to bribe AW during peace negotiations:
In January 1803 AW had responded to another proffered bribe, the offer from the Raja of Kitoor conveyed by Captain Doolan:
In respect to the bribe offered to you and myself, I am surprised that any man, in the character of a British officer, should not have given the Rajah to understand that the offer would be considered as an insult; and that he should not rather have forbidden its renewal than that he should have encouraged it, and even offered to receive [remit?] a quarter of the sum proposed to be given to him for prompt payment. I can attribute your conduct upon this occasion to nothing excepting the most inconsiderate indiscretion, and to a wish to benefit yourself, which got the better of your prudence. (AW to _____ Seringapatam, 20 Jan 1803, WD I p 328, Doolan’s names supplied from a contemporary copy of the letter offered for sale by Elmer Book Company, in January 2009, seen on AbeBooks.com).
© Rory Muir