Events Leading up to the war
Resulted in the abrogation of the
Sikh kingdom of the Punjab, was virtually a campaign by the victors
of the first Anglo-Sikh war (1945-46) and since then the de facto
rulers of the State finally to overcome the resistance of some of
the sardars who chafed at the defeat in the earlier war which, they
believed, had been lost owing to the treachery on the part of the
commanders at the top and not to any lack of fighting strength of
the Sikh army. It marked also the fulfillment of the imperialist ambition
of the new governor-general, Lord Dalhousie (1848-56), to carry forward
the British flag up to the natural boundary of India on the northwest
According to the peace settlement of March 1846, at the end of Anglo-Sikh
war I, the British force in Lahore was to be withdrawn at the end
of the year, but a severer treaty was imposed on the Sikhs before
the expiry of that date. Sir Henry Hardinge, the then governor-general,
had his Agent, Frederick Currie, persuade the Lahore Darbar to request
the British for the continuance of the troops in Lahore. According
to the treaty which was consequently signed at Bharoval on 16 December
1846, Henry Lawrence was appointed Resident with "full authority
to direct and control all matters in every department of the State."
A Council of Regency, consisting of the nominees of the Resident and
headed by Tej Singh, was appointed. The power to make changes in its
personnel vested in the Resident.
Under another clause the British could maintain as many troops in
the Punjab as they thought necessary for the preservation of peace
and order. This treaty was to remain in operation until the minor
Maharaja Duleep Singh attained the age of 16. By a proclamation issued
in July 1847, the governor-general further enhanced the powers of
On 23 October 1847, Sir Henry Hardinge wrote to Henry Lawrence:
In all our measures taken during the minority
we must bear in mind that by the treaty of Lahore, March 1846, the
Punjab never was intended to be an independent State. By the clause
I added the chief of the State can neither make war or peace, or exchange
or sell an acre of territory or admit a European officer, or refuse
us a thoroughfare through his territories, or, in fact, perform any
act without our permission. In fact the native Prince is in fetters,
and under our protection and must do our bidding.
In the words of British historian John Clark Marshman, "an
officer of the Company's artillery became, in fact, the successor
to Ranjit Singh." The Sikhs resented this gradual liquidation
of their authority in the Punjab. The new government at Lahore became
totally unpopular. The abolition of jagirs in the Jalandhar Doab and
changes introduced in the system of land revenue and its collection
angered the landed classes. Maharani Jind Kaur, who was described
by Lord Dalhousie as the only woman in the Punjab with manly understanding
and in whom the British Resident foresaw a rallying point for the
well-wishers of the Sikh dynasty, was kept under close surveillance.
Henry Lawrence laid down that she could not receive in audience more
than five or six sardars in a month and that she remain in purdah
like the ladies of the royal families of Nepal, Jodhpur and Jaipur.
In January 1848, Henry Lawrence took leave of absence and travelled
back home with Lord Hardinge, who had completed his term in India.
The former was replaced by Frederick Currie and the latter by the
Earl of Dalhousie. The new regime confronted a rebellion in the Sikh
province of Multan which it utilized as an excuse for the annexation
of the Punjab. The British Resident at Lahore increased the levy payable
by the Multan governor, Diwan Mul Raj, who, finding himself unable
to comply, resigned his office. Frederick Currie appointed General
Kahn Singh Man in his place and sent him to Multan along with two
British officers, P.A. Vans Agnew and William Anderson, to take charge
from Mul Raj.
The party arrived at Multan on 18 April 1848, and the Diwan vacated
the Fort and made over the keys to the representatives of the Lahore
Darbar. But his soldiers rebelled and the British officers were set
upon in their camp and killed. This was the beginning of the Multan
outbreak. Some soldiers of the Lahore escort deserted their officers
and joined Mul Raj's army. Currie received the news at Lahore on 21
April, but delayed action. Lord Dalhousie allowed the Multan rebellion
to spread for five months. The interval was utilized by the British
further to provoke Sikh opinion. The Resident did his best to fan
the flames of rebellion.
Maharani Jind Kaur, then under detention in the Fort of Sheikhupura,
was exiled from the Punjab. She was taken to Ferozepur and thence
to Banaras, in the British dominions. Her annual allowance, which
according to the treaty of Bharoval had been fixed at one and a half
lakh of rupees, was reduced to twelve thousand. Her jewellery worth
fifty thousand of rupees was forfeited; so was her cash amounting
to a lakh and a half. The humiliating treatment of the Maharani caused
deep resentment among the people of the Punjab. Even the Muslim ruler
of Afghanistan, Amir Dost Muhammad, protested to the British, saying
that "such treatment is objectionable
to all creeds".
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, the Resident's Assistant at
Bannu, having heard of the Multan revolt, began raising levies from
among the Pathan mercenaries, and after summoning Van Cortlandt, the
local Lahore commander, marched on Multan and called upon the rebels
to submit. Although the British Resident approved of Edwardes' conduct,
Lord Dalhousie was furious at the audacity of a "subaltern officer"
to invest Multan without any authority and offer terms to Mul Raj.
He was severely reprimanded and ordered not to extend his operations
any further. However, Edwardes was not discouraged and ignoring these
orders, he crossed the Indus on 14 June; four days later, he inflicted
a crushing defeat on Mul Raj's forces at Kineri. Edwardes' action
turned Sikh national sentiment in favour of Mul Raj and there was
restiveness among the troops. British forces began to be moved towards
the frontier. The Lahore garrison was reinforced; likewise more regiments
reached Ambala and Ferozepur. By June 1848, an army had been assembled
at the frontier-11,740 men in the Bari Doab, 9,430 in the Jalandhar
Doab; in all 21,170 men ready to go into action against Multan to
quell what was no more than a local rising.
Meanwhile, Captain James Abbott, the Resident's assistant at Hazara,
suspecting that Sardar Chatar Singh Atarivala, the governor of the
province, had been hatching a conspiracy to lead a general Sikh uprising
against the British, charged him with treason and cut off all communication
with him and marched against him the Muslim peasantry and tribal mercenaries.
Captain Nicholson who conducted an enquiry into Abbott's allegations,
exonerated Chatar Singh of the charge of treason, but offered him
terms which amounted to his virtual dismissal and the confiscation
of his jagirs. Chatar Singh rejected these. Abbott's treatment of
Chatar Singh, a chief of eminence and position since Ranjit Singh's
time and whose daughter was betrothed to the young Maharaja Duleep
Singh, was humiliating. Chatar Singh's son Raja Sher Singh, who had
steadfastly fought on the side of Herbert Edwardes against Diwan Mul
Raj, was greatly exercised, and he joined hands with the Diwan's force
on 14 September 1848.
Proclamation of War
Meanwhile, Captain James Abbott, the
Resident's assistant at Hazara, suspecting that Sardar Chatar
Singh Atarivala, the governor of the province, had been hatching
a conspiracy to lead a general Sikh uprising against the British,
charged him with treason and cut off all communication with him
and marched against him the Muslim peasantry and tribal mercenaries.
Captain Nicholson who conducted an enquiry into Abbott's allegations,
exonerated Chatar Singh of the charge of treason, but offered
him terms which amounted to his virtual dismissal and the confiscation
of his jagirs. Chatar Singh rejected these. Abbott's treatment
of Chatar Singh, a chief of eminence and position since Ranjit
Singh's time and whose daughter was betrothed to the young Maharaja
Duleep Singh, was humiliating. Chatar Singh's son Raja Sher Singh,
who had steadfastly fought on the side of Herbert Edwardes against
Diwan Mul Raj, was greatly exercised, and he joined hands with
the Diwan's force on 14 September 1848.
Raja Sher Singh made a passionate appeal to his countrymen warning
them of the fate that awaited the Punjab and inviting them to
join his standard in a final bid to preserve their freedom. Many
old soldiers of the Khalsa army responded to the call and left
their homes to rally round Diwan Mul Raj, Raja Sher Singh and
Chatar Singh. Lord Dalhousie received the news of Sher Singh's
action with unconcealed pleasure because it had brought matters
to the crisis that he had for months been awaiting. At a public
banquet on 5 October 1848 at Barrackpore (Calcutta), he announced:
Unwarned by precedents,
uninfluenced by example, the Sikh nation has called for war, and,
on my word, Sirs, they shall have it with a vengeance .... We
are now not on the eve but in the midst of war with the Sikh nation
and the kingdom of the Punjab .... I have drawn the sword, and
have thrown away the scabbard, both in relation to the war immediately
before us, and to the stern policy which that war must precede
The Resident at Lahore found
this position legally indefensible and practically untenable.
He and his staff were there to superintend and aid the administration
of the Sikh State and to look after the interests of the ruler,
Maharaja Duleep Singh, during the period of his minority. The
Lahore Darbar and the Maharaja had supported the Resident in all
his efforts to deal with the situation in Multan and Hazara. Still
British armies were marched without an open declaration of war
towards the Punjab. Lord Hugh Gough, the commander-in-chief, left
his headquarters at Shimla towards the end of October and a huge
army was assembled at Ferozepur in the beginning of November.
The army consisted of four columns. Lord Gough personally commanded
22 infantry divisions (14,419 men), a cavalry division (3,369
horse) and an artillery division with 66 guns, including ten 18-pounder
batteries and six 8-inch howitzers drawn by elephants. In addition,
there were 6 troops of horse artillery and 3 light and 2 heavy
field batteries. Its total strength amounted to 24,404 men (6,396
Europeans). At Lahore, General Wheeler's Occupation Force of 10,000
men held firmly the capital of the Sikhs. In front of the citadel
of Multan was the 1st Infantry Division under Major General Whish.
The arrival of the Bombay column under Brigadier-General Henry
Dundas had augmented its strength to over 21,000 men of all arms.
In addition 5,300 men of the Lahore infantry were under British
control at Multan. This brought the total regular force at the
disposal of Major General Whish at Multan to 26,300 men. Besides,
there were irregular Muslim levies and mercenaries raised by the
British to fight the Sikhs. Taken in all these and other troops
at Hazara, Peshawar, Bannu, Gobindgarh, Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur
added up to the total of 1,04,666 men-61,366 of regular British
army, 5,300 of the Lahore army and 38,000 irregular troops; 13,524
cavalry, 123 field and 22 heavy guns, all deployed at various
points in the Punjab.
The numerical strength of the Sikhs was comparatively much smaller.
Lord Gough's dispatches enumerate the Sikh force at Ramnagar and
Chelianvala between 30,000 and 40,000 men and at Gujrat 60,000
men and 60 guns, which figures are highly exaggerated. The powerful
Khalsa army of Ranjit Singh was broken up after its capitulation
at Sabhraon in 1846. Its soldiers had been disbanded by the British,
its generals discharged or won over, and its jagirdari force reduced
to starvation. A skeleton army of 25 battalions (20,000 men) and
12,000 horse permitted to the State under the treaty of March
1846 was a shadow force under British control and dispersed to
far-flung districts for garrison duty. Lahore had a garrison strength
of 6,500 men, Peshawar of 3,000 men, Gobindgarh Fort 2,000 men,
Hazara 3,000 men, Bannu and Tonk 1,300 men, Attock 700 men, and
Kohat 500 men. The remaining 3,000 men of the entire force were
at numerous small posts throughout the Punjab.
The contingents of the Lahore army which joined the rebels were
those of Hazara, Peshawar, Tonk and Bannu, Kohat, and Attock-9,400
men, inclusive of the force of Sher Singh at Multan (900 infantry
and 3,400 horse). Allowing that 3,000 men stationed at various
isolated places throughout the Punjab could get through and join
the rebels in the north, the regular Sikh force could scarcely
have exceeded 13,000 men and 9,000 horse. Disbanded Sikh soldiers
and the freelance who flocked round the banner did not exceed
10,000 men. The disbanded soldiery merely augmented the numerical
strength of the Khalsa; it had few generals and fewer arms and
no means of procurement of arms and supplies. The total strength
thus could not have been more than 23,000 men and 12,000 horse.
Lord Gough crossed the Sutlej on 9 November
and reached Lahore on 13 November. Moving rapidly into the Rachna
Doab, he arrived at Ramnagar on 22 November. Sher Singh's entire
force was on the right bank of the River Chenab. Brigadier-General
Campbell with the 3rd Infantry Division (8,171 men) was ordered
to move out to disperse the Sikh force in the vicinity of Ramnagar;
Brigadier-General Cureton in command of the cavalry accompanied
On arrival at Ramnagar, Campbell found the Sikh force on the opposite
side of the river. Cureton had numerous cavalry but no guns; he
ordered the horse artillery under Colonel Lane to overtake the withdrawing
Sikh troops through the sandy riverbed, but met with disaster. The
Sikh artillery on the opposite bank opened up with disastrous effect,
and Lane hastily withdrew the horse artillery leaving behind a heavy
gun and two ammunition wagons, which the Sikhs captured. Suddenly,
a column of the Sikh cavalry crossed the river under cover of artillery.
The commander of the 14th Light Dragoons who led a squadron in support
of Lane's horse artillery was shot dead. The charge failed and the
British lost 90 officers and men including Brigadier-General Cureton
and Lieutenant-Colonel Havelock, and 140 horse.
The action at Ramnagar was a victory for the Sikhs. Lord Dalhousie
blamed both Campbell and Gough for the "sad
affair" from which "there
was no objective to be gained."
Gough, on the other hand, claimed it as a victory. "The enemy,"
he announced in a General Order, "was
signally overthrown on every occasion, and only saved from utter
annihilation by their flight to the cover of their guns on the opposite
For about a week after the British reverse, the two armies faced
each other across the river. Lord Gough waited impatiently for the
heavy guns to arrive. On 30 November, he detached a force under
Major-General Thackwell across the river to take the Sikh army in
the flank; another brigade of infantry under Brigadier Godby was
ordered to ford the river 10 km from Ramnagar to support Thackwell's
force. Across the river, at the principal ford 3 km from Ramnagar,
Sher Singh's entire force, now risen to 12,000 men and 28 guns,
lay strongly entrenched. Thackwell's force moved about 30 km up
the river to Wazirabad and made the crossing, while Godby's brigade
had crossed the river 25 km below. At midday on 3 December Thackwell
arrived at Sadullapur barely 6 km from the Sikh encampment. The
Sikhs realized the imminent danger to their flanks and rear. The
heavy Sikh artillery opened fire at Thackwell's position, while
the Sikh cavalry barred the passage of Godby's force which failed
to join up with his troops.
At dusk, the entire Sikh army crossed over to the left bank of the
river. Sher Singh's action nullified the British manoeuvre; it also
made it possible for Chatar Singh's force to join him. The British
General claimed a victory without a battle. He reported a meagre
loss of 40-men at Sadullapur, and claimed that the army under his
command had upheld the tradition of valour. The Sikhs, he reported,
were in full retreat, leaving behind some 60 boats which had been
In British military and political circles in England, Lord Gough
was severely castigated for lack of drive and initiative. Lord Dalhousie
openly charged him with incompetency and blamed him for incomplete
actions and enormous losses. Under the shadow of these adverse strictures,
Lord Gough fought the battle of Chelianvala on 13 January 1849.
The Sikh army 12,000 strong was drawn in battle array in the dense
jungle in front, their heavy guns bearing upon Chelianvala, on the
River Jehlum. British preparations for encampment were rudely interrupted
by sharp Sikh artillery fire. Lord Gough hesitated, but instantly
drew up the order of the battle. In the centre were placed heavy
18-pounders and 8-inch howitzers; Major-General Gilbert's 2nd Infantry
Division (5,248 men) was placed on the right, flanked by Brigadier
Pope's 2nd Cavalry Brigade and 14th Light Dragoons and horse artillery.
To the left was Brigadier-General Campbell's 3rd Infantry Division
(8,171 men) flanked by White's 1st Cavalry Brigade and 3 troops
of horse artillery.
The British guns started firing upon the Sikh centre. The density
of the jungle made it impossible to preserve order and formation
and the British brigades and regiments got separated from one another.
The ground proved unsuitable for cavalry action, and the artillery
failed to provide cover. Sikhs fought with determination and their
artillery took a heavy toll. The British infantrymen were mowed
down by fire from Sikh musketry, and the successive onslaughts of
the Sikh ghorcharas broke the British cavalry line.
While Campbell's charge failed to dislodge the Sikhs, the Khalsa
horsemen swept the field like lightning raising vociferous Khalsa
war-cries. In another direction, Brigadier Pennycuick's brigade
moving in double time into the jungle, was routed by Sikh artillery.
The brigade turned back to flee from the destructive fire of shot
and shell leaving behind nearly half a regiment which faced total
destruction. The most serious disaster befell Gilbert's division
which halted in utter bewilderment when a large body of Sikhs surrounded
the 2nd Infantry brigade. Gilbert's brigade had neither the cover
of guns nor the support of cavalry. In the hand-to-hand fight, the
brigade was repulsed and driven back with heavy loss. The battle
lasted over three hours when Lord Gough ordered the whole army to
retreat. British casualties in the action amounted to 2,446 men
and 132 officers killed with four guns lost.
The British commander-in-chief claimed a victory,
which claim the governor-general scornfully dubbed as "perhaps
poetical." "We have gained a victory," he
observed ruefully, "like that of
the ancients; it is such a one that ,another such would ruin us.'
" There was an outburst of popular indignation in England
and Gough was squarely blamed for the defeat of the British. Military
experts at home described him as a "superannuated
general who could not mount his horse without assistance."
It was decided to retire Lord Gough and replace him by Sir Charles
In the meantime, however, Multan fell and Diwan
Mul Raj surrendered to Major-General Whish on 22 January 1849. Lord
Gough repaired his reputation in the battle of Gujrat fought on
21 February 1849. The Sikh army had regrouped on the banks of the
Jehlum. On 15 February, it arrived at Gujrat where Chatar Singh's
force and an Afghan contingent of 3,000 horse under Akram Khan encircled
Battle of Gujarat
On 13 February, Major-General Whish's 1st Division (13,400 men
and 30 pieces of heavy artillery) joined the British force. The
Bombay column (12,100 men and 3,000 cavalry) joined a few days
later. Thus assured of an overwhelming superiority of men and
heavy artillery, Lord Gough ordered the entire force forward and
reaching a few days later Shadival, a village 8 km from Gujrat,
he found himself face to face with the Sikhs.
The battle of Gujrat must be reckoned as one of the most notable
in the annals of British warfare in India. Never, perhaps, the
British had amassed so many guns and men in any single battle.
The British army now consisted of 56,636 men-four infantry divisions,
11,569 horse, 96 field-guns, and 67 siege-guns including ten 18-pounders
and six 8-inch howitzers drawn by elephants. For this obvious
reason the battle of Gujrat has often been described as "the
battle of guns."
On the morning of 21 February, the whole British army advanced
with the precision of a parade movement. The Sikh guns opened
fire, thus disclosing their positions and range. The British General
brought the three divisions to a sudden halt and ordered the whole
line of artillery to fire. The sustained cannonade of 100 guns,
the fire of 18-pounders and 8-inch howitzers, which continued
for two hours blunted Sikh artillery. When the British guns had
spent up their fury, their infantry line advanced rapidly. The
Sikh infantry positions were captured, and the Sikhs driven out
of cover. The battle was over within a few hours. The
advance of the whole British line completely overwhelmed the Sikhs
and they fled the field in confusion. Their loss was estimated
between 3,000 and 5,000 men and 53 guns; the British casualties
were 96 killed and 700 wounded. "The Sikhs," commented
Lord Dalhousie, "displayed the
skill, courage and activity which belong to their race."
With the decisive British victory at Gujrat the hostilities ended
on 11 March 1849.
Sher Singh and Chatar Singh formally surrendered their swords to
Major-General Gilbert near Rawalpindi. They were followed on the
14th by the whole Sikh army. "Today
is Ranjit Singh dead," sighed
the soldiers as they kissed their swords and laid them down on the
ever-enlarging heap of steel.
Lord Dalhousie proclaimed annexation of the Punjab on 29 March 1849.
His foreign secretary, Henry Meirs Elliot, arrived at Lahore to
obtain the signatures of the members of the Council of Regency and
of the minor king, Maharaja Duleep Singh. A darbar was held in the
Lahore Fort and, with the British troops lined up on his right and
his helpless sardars on his left, the young Duleep Singh affixed
his signatures to the document which deprived him of his crown and