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Anglo-Sikh Wars

First Anglo-Sikh War


During this time, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh empire in northern India, was dead. Under his intrepid leadership, starting in 1799, Afghan control over Punjab was thrown off and the Sikh empire flourished over the next 40 years.

Having seen the might of Great Britain and the British East India Company, Ranjit signed a non-aggression treaty with the British in 1809 establishing the River Sutlej as the southeastern border of Punjab. He then expanded the Sikh territory through warfare and annexation. By 1839, his kingdom reached from Tibet to Sind and from the Himalayas to the Khyber Pass.

With Ranjit’s death in 1839, leadership of the Sikh empire passed to Karak Singh, his oldest son. Karak did not remain in power long. Next came another of Ranjit’s sons, Sher Singh, who managed to rule for two years before he too was killed. It was becoming clear that real power lay with the Sikh army.

The soldiers of the Sikh army were republican in sentiment and elected military committees called Punchayats that allowed them to flex their power over Punjab’s rulers, who tried to buy their support with healthy bribes. Not surprisingly, the rulers at Lahore feared the army. Vizier Jowahir Singh, brother to Queen Regent Maharani Jindan Kaur, was brutally murdered by army leaders while desperately trying to bribe them.

After the murder of her brother, Maharani Jindan managed to obtain the support of the military and acted as regent for the young and only surviving son of Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Dalip Singh.

Sikh soldiers were angry over the British increasing their troops along the border, believing, not without justification, that the British had their eyes on the Punjab. The Sikh army wanted more than just to defend its empire, however. Its leaders believed the British were vulnerable after the Redcoats’ Afghan disaster in 1842, which saw an entire army wiped out. Confident of their strength and fighting prowess, the Sikhs believed they could drive the British out of India as well.

The Sikh soldiers were not the only ones who wanted war. By late 1845, the treasury was running out of rupees to bribe the army. To end the power of the Khalsa and regain control, Maharani Jindan, Tej Singh, Lal Singh, and Gulab Singh hoped to see the British defeat the Sikh army. With the Khalsa out of the way, the leaders hoped they would receive recognition and assistance from the British

On December 11, a Sikh army of roughly 40,000 men commanded by Lal Singh and Tej Singh crossed the Sutlej River in two different spots. Punjab was now at war with the British. The Sikh force under Tej Singh moved on Ferozepore, where a British garrison of roughly 7,000 men, mostly Sepoys, or native Indian troops, were stationed under the command of Maj. Gen. Sir John Littler. Meanwhile, the main Sikh force under Lal Singh marched toward Ferozeshah, east of Ferozepore, where they set up camp and awaited the main British force.

News of the Sikh army crossing the Sutlej reached the strong British garrison at Ambala on December 12. Gough wasted no time in marching his army of about 10,000 troops over the sandy roads north toward Ferozepore. After receiving word of Gough’s advance on the evening of December 17, Lal Singh ordered a force of around 3,500 infantry, and possibly as many as 10,000 cavalry and 22 guns to march for Mudki the next day to face the British advance. Gough’s worn-out and dust-covered soldiers arrived at Mudki around 1 pm.    The troops who marched out of Ambala with him had come a staggering 150 miles in six days. The British and Indian battalions advanced forward in echelon formation with the right wing leading the frontal assault. Sikh musket fire greeted the red-coated troops as they pushed forward into the jungle. The Sikh fire was deadly as their muskets flashed and crashed in the darkness. For six hours the battle raged with the Sikh infantry finally being driven back and forced to retreat. By midnight the battle was over and the British were in possession of the battlefield.

The British licked their wounds. Hardinge, who as Governor- General was Gough’s superior, offered to serve under the 66-year-old commander in chief. Both men were veteran officers.

Gough ordered his newly reinforced army to move out on December 21. After reconnoitering the Sikh entrenchment, Gough opted to attack from the south, even though the northern part of the camp had been left undefended by Lal Singh. The ensuing Battle of Ferozeshah was a bloody one, with the British and Indians suffering 694 men killed, of whom 54 were officers, including Brig. Gen. William Wallace and Major George Broadfoot. Gough’s force also had 1,721 men wounded. The Sikhs suffered 2,000 to 3,000 causalities. After the battle, Gough had no intention of renewing the advance until his army had rested, received reinforcements, and been resupplied. The stench of the battlefield caused Gough to move his army seven miles west of Ferozeshah.

In London, the costly battle at Ferozeshah brought on torrents of criticism in Parliament. One member described it, all too accurately, as “a high cost for a victory that was not very far removed from failure.” Hardinge himself shuddered, “Another such victory and we are lost.” At the front, much needed help was already on the way. A large siege train with 4,000 wagons and carts full of supplies was coming from Delhi and expected to reach the army sometime in early February. On January 6, almost 10,000 troops under the command of Sir John Grey reinforced Gough.

While the main Sikh army struggled to get supplies, another force consisting of 12,000 men under the command of Ranjur Singh crossed the Sutlej 44 miles to the east to threaten the small British garrison at Ludhiana. More than Ludhiana was at stake for the British. Ranjur Singh’s army could also march on the key supply base at Bassian, which was vital to Gough’s supply line from Delhi. This Sikh force could also pose a serious threat to the slow-moving siege train heading north to join Gough.

After capturing the town of Dharamkot on January 18, Maj. Gen. Sir Harry Smith received orders to deal with Ranjur Singh. Gaining reinforcements along the way, Smith attempted to skirt Ranjur Singh’s force at Budowal. The two sides exchanged fire as Smith’s force marched by the village, screened by his cavalry. Unfortunately for Smith, he lost much of his baggage train to Sikh cavalry. Smith’s reduced force then made its way to Ludhiana. Ranjur Singh moved his army near the village of Aliwal, where he entrenched himself along the Sutlej to cover the ford. After receiving more reinforcements, Smith, with a force of 10,000 troops, successfully attacked Ranjur Singh’s 18,000-man army on January 28.

The Sikhs suffered roughly 3,000 casualties in the battle, many while attempting to escape across the Sutlej. Smith suffered 598 casualties. The victory had important ramifications for the British. If things had gone badly, said Smith, especially after the blood lettings at Mudki and Ferozeshah, India “would have been one blaze of revolt.”

Having lost 67 cannons, 40 swivel guns, and its baggage, Ranjur Singh’s army retreated to Phillour, 12 miles east of Aliwal. Leaving a small force at Ludhiana to watch Ranjur Singh, Smith set out on February 3 to return to the main British force. The main Sikh army, meanwhile, had been busy. Once it had constructed a bridge built on boats across the Sutlej, it then built a strong entrenchment in the bend of the river on the south side. The entrenchment’s southern side stretched for a mile and three quarters with a dry riverbed in front of it. The left or east side of the entrenchment, which also partly skirted a dry river bed, ran for about half a mile back to the river. On the right or west side, the entrenchment was weaker and did not reach back all the way to Sutlej. Inside the entrenchment were three more lines made up of mostly trenches and pits that faced south. The line closest to the river helped protect the bridgehead.

The Sikhs suffered about 10,000 killed or wounded. They also lost 67 guns and 19 of their standards. The Maharani and her henchmen had succeeded with their Machiavellian plan of using the British Army to destroy the power of the Khalsa for them. The British, by contrast, had suffered 2,283 casualties, including 320 killed—about one-seventh of the total forces engaged.

Gough crossed the Sutlej and marched toward Lahore. Although the Sikhs still had a sizable number of troops, the leaders denied them ammunition and supplies. With permission from Maharani Jindan, Gulab Singh met with the British at Kasur on February 16 and signed a truce agreeing to all the British demands. On March 9 the terms were formalized at Lahore, with the Sikhs handing over a large tract of land between the Sutlej and Beas Rivers.

As part of the treaty, the Sikh army was reduced to 20,000 soldiers and 12,000 cavalry, while all the guns used against the British were turned over to them. A British garrison would occupy Lahore for a year. The Sikh government also agreed to pay the British the equivalent of £1.5 million.  When the Sikhs were unable to pay the war reparations, the British seized Kashmir Province and sold it back to Gulab Singh for a reasonable price of £750,000. He now had his independence from Lahore, while the Sikhs were losing theirs.

Second Anglo-Sikh War

It was the second Anglo-Sikh War which was considered to be a major one in the history of India as it was this Sikh war, which for the first time annexed the whole of Punjab to British India and the fall of the Sikh empire. This Sikh war was a major war fought between the British East India Company and the Sikh empire.

The first Anglo Sikh war took place which ended in defeat for the Khalsa. At the end of the war, the Sikh empire surrendered some territories of Punjab to the British. Also the Sikhs were compelled to hand over Kashmir as a fine to the British.

In January 1848, Lord Dalhousie took office of the British East India Company as the Governor General and was faced with a fresh crisis just within three months of joining his office in Punjab. Diwan Mulraj of Multan revolted against the British. This was in the month of April in 1848. He was in financial trouble as a result of which he was forced to resign in March 1848 and Sardar Khan Singh was appointed as the new Diwan by the new British Resident Fredrick Currie.

Sardar Singh was sent to Lahore to take charge and he was accompanied by two British officers, Vans Agnew and Lieutenant Anderson, who were murdered on 20 April 1848. The people of Multan rose in protest. The Second Sikh war, thus began with the revolt of Mulraj, Governor of Multan.

The British army under General Sir Hugh Gough had 12,000 British and Bengali soldiers with 66 guns as against the 35,000 Sikhs with 65 guns under the Sikh general Sher Singh.

Mulraj was joined by the Khalsa, which also included a large army force under Sirdar Sher Singh Attariwalla. Various battles were fought between the two forces. One at Ramnagar on 22 November, another at Chilianwala on 13 January 1849 and the last one at Gujrat on 21 February 1849. Mulraj surrendered in the battle of Chillianwala. In all these battles, there was great ferocity from the British army and the Sikh’s force was characterised by bad leadership. Overall it was a decisive victory of the British East India Company. The Sikhs surrendered on 12 March 1849 after their defeat in the battle of Gujarat.

The battle of Gujarat was the last attempt by the Khalsa to save Punjab. But, the Sikhs could not withstand the army of the British. Guns were used relentlessly and destroyed the Sikhs’ positions which compelled them to move out. Sher Singh and other leaders of the Khalsa army laid down their arms. The Afghans who had helped the Sikhs also retreated from Peshawar and Attock. This led to the complete victory of the British. After a few weeks, Dalhousie annexed the whole of Punjab to British India formally and the Sikh empire became a history.

The most significant impact of the Second Sikh War in the history of India was of course the annexation of Punjab. Lord Dalhousie on 30 March 1849, after winning the battle, proclaimed that the kingdom of Punjab no longer belonged to the Sikhs, all the territories of the kingdom would be a portion of the British Empire in India. The British got a chance to annex more territories up to the natural frontiers of India towards the northwest. The war marked the total supremacy of the East India Company on the Indian subcontinent. Though, the British had to face a severe revolt eight years later in 1857, even then the British power, domination and imperialism had reached a high point. The entire Sikh kingdom fell. Besides, after the end of Sikh power, no active power or force remained in the country which could pose a threat to the British domination in India.

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