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casting loose

Battle of Sobraon

The Battle of Sobraon was fought on February 10, 1846 between the forces of the British East India Company and the Khalsa, the army of the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. The Sikhs were completely defeated, making this the decisive battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War.

Background

The First Anglo-Sikh war began in late 1845, after a combination of increasing disorder in the Sikh kingdom following the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839 and provocations by the British East India Company, led to the Khalsa invading British territory.

The British had won the first two major battles of the war, through a combination of luck, the steadfastness of British and Bengal units and equivocal conduct bordering on deliberate treachery by the commanders of the Khalsa.

On the British side, the Governor General, Sir Henry Hardinge, had been dismayed by the head-on tactics of the Bengal Army's commander-in-chief, Sir Hugh Gough and was seeking to have him removed from command, but no commander senior enough to supersede Gough could arrive from England for several months. Then the army's spirits were revived by the victory gained by Sir Harry Smith at the Battle of Aliwal, in which he eliminated a threat to the army's lines of communication, and the arrival of reinforcements including much-needed heavy artillery and two battalions of Gurkhas.

The Sikhs had been temporarily dismayed by their defeat at Ferozeshah, and had withdrawn most of their forces across the Sutlej River. The Regent Jind Kaur who was ruling in the name of her son, the infant Maharaja Duleep Singh, had accused 500 of her officers of cowardice, even flinging one of her garments in their faces.

The Khalsa had been reinforced from districts west of Lahore, and now moved in strength into a bridgehead across the Sutlej at Sobraon, entrenching and fortifying their encampment. Any wavering after their earlier defeats was dispelled by the presence of the respected veteran leader, Sham Singh Attariwala. Unfortunately for the Khalsa, Tej Singh and Lal Singh retained the overall direction of the Sikh armies. The position at Sobraon was linked to the west, Punjabi, bank of the river by a single vulnerable pontoon bridge. Three days' continuous rain before the battle had swollen the river and threatened to carry away this bridge.

The Battle

Gough had intended to attack the Sikh army as soon as Smith's division rejoined from Ludhiana, but Hardinge forced him to wait until a heavy artillery train had arrived. At last, he moved forward early on February 10. The start of the battle was delayed by heavy fog, but as it lifted, 35 British heavy guns and howitzers opened fire. The Sikh cannon replied. The bombardment went on for two hours without much effect on the Sikh defences. Gough was told that his heavy guns were running short of ammunition and is alleged to have replied, "Thank God! Then I'll be at them with the bayonet."

Two British divisions under Harry Smith and Major General Walter Gilbert made feint attacks on the Sikh left, while another division under Major General Robert Henry Dick made the main attack on the Sikh right, where the defences were of soft sand and were lower and weaker than the rest of the line. (It is believed that Lal Singh had supplied this information to Sir Henry Lawrence, the Political Agent at Gough's headquarters.) Nevertheless, Dick's division was driven back by Sikh counter-attacks after initially gaining footholds within the Sikh lines. Dick himself was killed. As the British fell back, some frenzied Sikh soldiers attacked British wounded left in the ditch in front of the entrenchments, enraging the British soldiers.

The British, Gurkhas and Bengal regiments renewed their attacks along the entire front of the entrenchment, and broke through at several points. On the vulnerable Sikh right, engineers blew a breach in the fortifications and British cavalry and horse artillery pushed through it to engage the Sikhs in the centre of their position. Tej Singh had left the battlefield early. It is alleged in many Sikh accounts that he deliberately weakened the pontoon bridge, casting loose the boat at its centre, or that he ordered his own artillery on the west bank to fire on the bridge, on the pretext of preventing British pursuit. British accounts claim that the bridge simply broke under the weight of the numbers of soldiers trying to retreat across it, having been weakened by the swollen river. Whichever account is correct, the bridge broke, trapping nearly 20,000 of the Khalsa on the east bank.

None of the trapped Sikh soldiers attempted to surrender. Even had they done so, the British were taking no prisoners. Many detachments, including one led by Sham Singh, fought to the death. Some Sikhs rushed forward to attack the British regiments sword in hand; others tried to ford or swim the river. British horse artillery now lined the bank and continued to fire into the crowds in the water. By the time the firing ceased, the Sikhs had lost about 10,000 men. The British had also captured 67 guns.

Aftermath

The destruction of the bridge did not delay Gough at all, if this had indeed been Tej Singh's intention. The first British units began to cross the river on the evening of the day of battle, and on February 13, Gough's army was only 30 miles (48 km) from Lahore, the capital. Although detachments of the Khalsa remained intact in outlying frontier districts of the Punjab, they could not be concentrated quickly enough to defend Lahore.

The central durbar of the Punjab nominated Gulab Singh, another self-interested leader, to negotiate terms for surrender. By the Treaty of Lahore, the Sikhs ceded the valuable agricultural lands of the Jullundur Doab (between the Sutlej and Chenab Rivers) to the East India Company, and allowed a British Resident at Lahore with subordinates in other principal cities. These Residents and Agents would indirectly govern the Punjab, through Sikh Sardars. In addition, the Sikhs were to pay an indemnity of 1.2 million pounds. Since they could not readily find this sum, Gulab Singh was allowed to acquire Kashmir from the Punjab by paying 750,000 pounds to the East India Company.

Another clause of the treaty granted the Koh-i-noor diamond to Britain.

Folklore and personal accounts

Several years after the battle, Gough wrote,
"The awful slaughter, confusion and dismay were such as would have excited compassion in the hearts of their generous conquerors, if the Khalsa troops had not, in the early part of the action, sullied their gallantry by slaughtering and barbarously mangling every wounded soldier whom, in the vicissitudes of attack, the fortune of war left at their mercy."

After hearing of the battle, the wife of Sham Singh Attariwala immolated herself on a funeral pyre without waiting for news of her husband, convinced (rightly) that he would never return alive from a defeat.

Some accounts state that Lal Singh was present on the battlefield, and accompanied Tej Singh on his retreat. Other sources maintain that he commanded a large body of gorchurras (irregular cavalry) which was some miles away, and took no action against Gough's army although he might have attacked Gough's communications.

The friendship between the 10th Regiment of Foot and the 29th Regiment of Foot was cemented here at the battle as the two regiments met in the captured trenches that had cost so many lives to take. And to this day Officers and Sergeants of both regiments address each other as “My Dear Cousin”.

Popular Culture

The battle provides the climax for George MacDonald Fraser's novel, Flashman and the Mountain of Light.

See also

Sources

  • Ian Hernon, "Britain's forgotten wars", Sutton Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7509-3162-0

External links

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