Chillianwala – the forgotten British defeat

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By Lt. Col ® Muhammad Arslan Qadeer

Just 35 Kms south west of Kharian located on the eastern bank of the river Jehlum is the village of Chillianwala. Insignificant as it looks and unknown to most, this small village apparently is no different to the vast countryside surrounding the Kharian Garrison on either side of the GT road.

Nevertheless, it is this singular and unique honor attached to the village of Chillianwala or Chillianwallah as it was spelled then, to have served as one of the biggest and bloodiest battlefields in the history of warfare.

The Anglo-Sikh war of 1849 is perhaps one of the few battles which go down in history symbolizing the greatest military debacles the British had suffered. Right on the entrance to Chillianwala, on the western side of the road situated on a high ground is the gleaming gigantic grandeur of the obelisk made of red sand stone reverberating the great battle fought under the British Commander in Chief Lord Hugh Gough and Sardar Sher Singh Attariwala.

On four sides of the structure are the inscriptions in English, Hindi, Urdu and Persian. Enclosed in the same premises are the five graves in perfect condition. Out of these, two in the foreground are thought to be of Brigadier John Pennycuick and Brigadier Alexander Pope.

The gravestones however are regrettably missing. Just adjacent to it is another premises housing a giant metallic cross resting on a huge foundation. The main inscription reads:

To record the names of the brave officers who fell in the great battle fought on the adjoining plain, 13 th January 1849.

The Cross was placed beside their tombs by Richard 6 th Earl of Mayo Viceroy and Governor General 1871.

On the western side of the base holding the cross is inscribed the long list of names of European officers killed in the battle. The first two in the list are Brig John Pennycuick Commander 5 th Brigade and Brig Alexander Pope Commander 2 nd Brigade of Cavalry, the two being the senior most officers in the British side among a total of 2357 casualties on 13 January 1849.

On the eastern side are the infantry, Cavalry and artillery unitsthat took part in the battle. The battle of Chillianwala is unique as it marked the foundation of the Indian rebellion and led to the great uprising of the native armies then under the control of the East India Company.

Chillianwala marks the biggest debacle wherein the British was defeated most decisively despite beingmilitarily and logistically overwhelmingly superior. In addition to military preponderance, the British also enjoyed towards their side the advantages of favourable terrain and weather as opposed to that in Afghanistan in the three Anglo afghan wars – the situational factors so fondly highlighted by British historians.

As the story goes, it all started after the death of Ranjit Singh (1839) when his incompetent sons proved to be too weak to hold the throne. Karak Singh his first successor could not stick around for long and was deposed within four months. Another son Naunehal Singh though a very capable and competent person met a premature death after being crushed under a falling arch. He was succeeded by one of Ranjit Singh’s many illegitimate sons who was despised by the elders and nobles of the court and was soon removed from power.

It was then Rani Jindan, one of the many wives of Ranjit Singh and a former dancing girl usurped power ruling in the name of Duleep Singh, her five year old son. Rani Jindan along with her hindu confidants was wary of the strength of the sikh army. She knowing well that her fragile marriage with power could fizzle out any time struck a deal with the British which envisaged destruction of the sikh military might and continuation of her rule.

To materialize the plan the sikh army was incited and launched across the Sutlej river (The Anglo-Sikh boundary) to invade East India Company’s territory. As a result of treachery and poor leadership the sikh army was thus decisively defeated on the 10 th of February 1845 and the Sikh state came under the domination of the English East India Company. Henry Lawrence, who was the British Resident, became the de facto ruler overlooking the affairs of the state on behalf of the infant Duleep Singh. The Sikh army had been humiliated and felt that it had not been defeated militarily but merely betrayed by its leaders who wanted destruction of the Sikh army and acted treacherously.

Later in April 1848, Diwan Mulraj, the Governor of Multan, which was the southern Punjab province of the Sikh State rebelled against the British regent and all the sikh troops at Multan joined him. To suppress this uprising the British organized three columns to march towards Multan; one under General Sher Singh, one under Lieutenant Edwards and one under Lieutenant Lake to recapture Multan. Consequently, in August 1848 a siege was laid against the city of Multan.

On the 14th of September Sher Singh with all his troops crossed over to the rebel side. Sardar Sher Singh Attariwala as he was known, after consultation with Mulraj decided to move north of the Chenab River. His father Chattar Sigh the Governor of Hazara province who had already rebelled, joined him by occupying the strategic Attock Fort. Thus the British lost almost the whole area north of the Chenab River in addition to the Multan Fort.

The Governor of East India Company had meanwhile issued orders for the invasion of Punjab and crush the sikh rising under the leadership of the overall Commander-in-Chief of India and also the East India Company’s private Bengal Army, General Sir Hugh Gough.

On the 11th of January 1849, Gough resolved to attack Sher Singh’s position the centre of which rested a few miles west of Chillianwala. On the 12th of January while carrying out a reconnaissance, he discovered that the Sikh had swung forward. On discovery of the Sikh position so close to Chillianwala, Gough decided to attack the Sikh position on the next day that is 13 Jan 1849.

The British Army was divided into two infantry Divisions (3 rd and 2 nd ) with a Cavalry Brigade each on outer flanks. The 3rd Division commanded by Brigadier General Colin Campbell formed the left or southern Division launched an enthusiastic but reckless attack based on a conventional bayonet charge. Though they did manage to reach the Sikh positions, however in the process the punishment inflicted was too severe.

The Sikh counter attacked and the assailants withdrew in disorder towards Chillianwala. The leading Brigade Commander Brigadier Pennycuick and his son Lieutenant Alexander Pennycuick killed in the bloody engagement.

The 2nd Infantry division commanded by Major General Sir Walter Gilbert formed the right (northern) division. Gilbert’s leading Brigades aptly supported by artillery successfully cleared all Sikh positions in front and drove the Sikhs close to the River Jehlum. While Gilbert was reorganizing for the final assault, he was suddenly counter attacked by the Sikhs in force from his rear. This happened due to the fact that his integral cavalry brigade which was commanded by Brigadier Pope and was responsible to guard the right (northern) flank and rear of Gilbert’s Division, completely overrun by the ferocious cavalry charge of the Sikhs leaving the right and rear flank vulnerable to counter attack.

Sher Singh Attariwala immediately ordered a counter attack and Sikh infantry and cavalry located on the north-west hills immediately advanced down from the heights through the open gap created by the absence of Brigadier Pope’s cavalry and encircled Gilbert’s division from the rear followed by a ruthless massacre. The damage done at Chillianwala to the prestige of British might was enormous and played a major role in changing the attitude of native states towards British leading directly to the ‘Great Sepoy Rebellion’ (The war of independence 1857) in which the British almost lost their Indian Empire and the English East India Company whose private Bengal Army had fought Chillianwala lost India to the British Crown.

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(The author is a retired Cavalry officer. He has spent 27 years in uniform and has a published collection of short stories ‘By the Autumn Trees’ to his name. He is an avid traveler and also has ample of well-researched travelogues published in the leading newspapers of the country. Article courtesy Nation, Lahore)