Monday, 28 July 2014

The Battle of Assaye 1803

The Second Post of mine to be inspired by Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series - The Battle of Assaye in September of 1803 is the centre of the novel - Sharpe's Triumph 


Major General Arthur Wellesley (later First Duke of Wellington) (mounted) commanding his troops at the Battle of Assaye
The Battle of Assaye - is one of the most decisive battles, and lopsided British victories I have ever read about.  It was a major battle in the fields outside of the small Indian village of Assaye, part of the Second Anglo-Maratha War, fought between the Maratha Confederacy and the British East India Company in September of 1803.

Originally one large army, in August 1803 - General Arthur Wellesley separated his force, and gave half of it to the command of Colonel James Stevenson. By dividing his army, Wellesley thought he would be able to seek out the Maratha faster - and support the other Army once the enemy was located. Stevenson's army throughout the summer continued a hot pursuit of Maratha cavalry that continued to raid into Hyderbad. 

In September, Wellesley received intelligence that the Maratha had created an encampment, and he planned on attacking them while they were unprepared. Wellesley anticipated that it would take three days for his army to travel to meet the Maratha Army, but the Maratha encampment was nearly 10km farther south than Wellesley's intelligence suggested, meaning the two armies converged after two days.

The Maratha Army of nearly 70,000 infantry and cavalry was under the command of Colonel Anthony Pohlmann, a German native, who was previously a Sergeant in the British East India Company - and had sold his services to the highest bidder. Pohlmann had received word that Wellesley and Stevenson were planning to converge on his camp, and established himself on the far side of the River Kaitna and River John, and fortified the only two fords that were thought to exist - believing they would destroy the British red coats when they attempted to cross the river.

When Wellesley first say the fields that would become the battle field, he feared crossing the river at the known fords, until he saw the villages of Peepulgaon and Waroor on opposite sides of the river. Despite local intelligence that no ford existed, Wellesley knew that the two neighbouring villages must be connected. He was right. Wellesley's Army was able to cross the river with little resistance from the Maratha Army.

During the crossing, the Maratha cannons fired on the crossing infantry units - and started to do their damage - the fords did not allow the British to bring their artillery across the river - and the Infantry and Indian units would advance in a tight line within musket range of the gunners.  The Maratha had 98 cannons firing at the advancing the British line, which would cause major casualties on the advancing British line.

Where the battle was won was on the 74th and 78th Highlander Infantry Front - both units sent a battalion of pickets marching towards the firing artillery - and continued to within musket range. The Maratha had never seen a single unit so determined - as the kilted 78th continued their advance - following the volley musket fire - they charged with bayonets which caused the gunners to abandon their positions. When the awaiting Maratha saw their gunners where overrun by a single British unit - many began to run in fear. The 74th had misunderstood Wellesley's orders and on their approach came too close to the village of Assaye. Assaye - which meant they were partly surrounded by the remaining Maratha artillery and the artillery from Assaye. The 74th used the bodies of their dead comrades to protect themselves from the continued oncoming fire, while at the same time attacked by the Maratha cavalry from their rear. Wellesley realized that if the 74th was destroyed the right flank would be open - and sent in British cavalry to support them.

Once the cavalry arrived to support the 74th - the remaining Maratha Army began to flee - and Wellesley - with his Army of approximately 10,000 infantry and cavalry - had defeated the Maratha Army of 70,000 - but this came at a great cost. The British East India Company and the British Army suffered 428 killed, 1138 wounded and 18 MIA, while the Maratha army -  suffered more than 6,000 casualties and lost 98 cannons captured.

The 74th started with a strength of about 500 men - had ten officers killed, 7 more officers wounded. Another 124 men from the ranks were killed and another 270 wounded. the 74th Picket Battalion only had 75 men remaining.

Stevenson and his Army never made it to the Battle - although they were only 10 km West - he was mislead by his guide - who he later executed believing that he was purposely mislead. Wellesley for the rest of his career described Assaye as his Greatest victory, but the "bloodiest for the numbers that he ever saw"

Remembering History - The Battle of Assaye - 1803