Causes of the War
3rd Light Dragoons at Mudki
3rd Light Dragoons
The Sikhs are a monotheistic Hindu sect, founded in the 15th Century, who lived in that part of Northern India called the Punjab. Their greatest leader was the one-eyed Maharajah Ranjit Singh who led the warlike Sikhs to victory over other peoples of that area, although he decided against conflict with the British. But he died in 1839 and internal strife followed. The nucleus of the Sikh army was known as the Khalsa and it was this group that stirred up a warlike fervour, encouraged by the defeat of the British Army in Afghanistan in 1842.

The River Sutlej formed the boundary of the Sikh territory and it was always understood that if they crossed the river it was a declaration of war. On 12th December 1845 they did just that and 12,000 Sikh soldiers marched towards Ferozepore. They brought with them a large number of artillery guns which they were able to use very skillfully. They relied less on cavalry than the Mahrathas, having instead an army of infantrymen, trained by Europeans, mostly French but also some renegade British soldiers.

The Governor General of India, Sir Henry Hardinge inherited a dangerous situation from the previous incumbent, Lord Ellenborough. The British and Indian army had already moved up to Ambala as the unstable situation developed. Hardinge decided to accompany Sir Hugh Gough, Commander-in-Chief in India on this difficult campaign, offering to serve as Gough's second-in-command.

Mudki 18th Dec 1845
Mudki Map
Mudki Map
On the 14th December the Sikhs camped near Attaree and the following day threatened to attack Ferozepore which was garrisoned by the 27th Native Infantry. The leader of the Sikh cavalry, Lal Singh, approached the British political agent, Peter Nicholson, and offered to talk peace terms but he was rebuffed and told to move off towards Mudki.

Mudki was a village 20 miles south of Ferozepore, situated on flat ground dotted with areas of jungle and sandy hills. The British numbered around 12,000 but were more determined and disciplined than the Sikhs. The 3rd Light Dragoons made a famous charge which earned them the nickname 'The Mudki Wallahs', and the infantry dashed forward driving the enemy back and capturing 17 pieces of heavy artillery. The British casualties were 215 killed, including two generals, and 657 wounded.

Ferozeshah 21st December 1845
Ferozeshah Map
Ferozeshah Map
The Sikhs fell back on Ferozeshah and on the 19th Gough rested his men in their camp at Mudki but on the 20th he ordered General Littler to slip away from their position near the Sikh army at Ferozepore and join them in a massed assault on the Sikhs at Ferozeshah. This would give him a force of 18,000 with 54 guns organised into 4 divisions. Each division consisted of 2 infantry brigades, each made up of one British and two native infantry battalions.

On the 21st Dec, Gough's army marched to Ferozeshah and, just out of range of the enemy guns, ate a meal in preparation for the battle. Littler had not arrived so Gough decided to proceed without him. The Governor-General, Sir Henry Hardinge had offered to serve under Gough as second in command but he was furious that Gough had decided not to wait for Littler's force, so he reverted to his position of superiority to over-rule his decision. There was a heated argument in which Gough pointed out that this was the shortest day of the year and daylight was precious, but he had to defer to Hardinge and wait until the afternoon to begin.

Ferozeshah Sikhs
Sikh Fortified Position
With Littler's hungry men now in place after an 18 hour forced march, the army was lined up to face the Sikhs, three divisions stretched over a thousand yards frontage with Harry Smith's division in reserve. Smith bitterly remarked that Gough's unsubtle tactics ensured that every Sikh gun had a target.

The battle began with an artillery duel which suited the Sikhs well because they had 100 heavy guns against the British 65 lighter weapons. Twenty of these were destroyed in the cannonade and many casualties were suffered. Littler's division on the left of the line advanced prematurely and the 62nd Regiment lost half it's strength in a shower of grapeshot. The native infantry broke and retreated in disorder.

Hardinge led the centre division forward, the 9th Foot setting an example with a fine show of discipline. But they were being shot to pieces and Hardinge called on Smith's division to support them. Meanwhile the right of the line , led by Gough advanced steadily into the Sikh guns and infantry, with the 29th, 80th Foot and three native infantry regiments at last making some headway. The 3rd Light Dragoons charged through the guns, repeating their heroic action at Mudki but losing a huge number of men.

Harry Smith had acted with great daring at Mudki and again took his men, which included the 50th Foot, into the heart of the Sikh camp but by now it was dark and Gough had no idea where Smith's men were. He pulled the army back to reorganise them as the regiments had become mixed up in the darkness. Buglers blew incessantly to call their men to the assembly points 300 yards from the Sikh trenches. Fighting was still going on in isolated areas of the battlefield and a lone Sikh gun suddenly opened fire on Sir Henry Hardinge's men, so this had to be silenced with a bayonet charge by the 80th Foot and 1st European Light Infantry. Lieutenant Bellers of the 50th wrote in his diary:

'No one can imagine the dreadful uncertainty. A burning camp on one side of the village, mines and ammunition wagons exploding in every direction, the loud orders to extinguish the fires as the sepoys lighted them, the volleys given should the Sikhs venture too near, the booming of the monster guns, the incessant firing of the smaller ones, the continued whistling noise of the shell grape, and round shot, the bugles sounding, the drums beating, and the yelling of the enemy, together with the intense thirst, fatigue and cold, not knowing whether the rest of the army were the conquerors or conquered - all contributed to make this night awful in the extreme.'

Meanwhile Harry Smith in Ferozeshah looked vainly for support. Realising he was isolated he grouped his men round the ordered 50th Foot. The Sikhs attacked from all sides, yelling that the British were surrounded and must all die. At around 2am the moon broke out and created an eerie light. Smith was able to see a gap in the circle of Sikhs and forced his way through, reporting back to the British lines at dawn.

Ferozeshah 22nd December 1845
Battle of Ferozeshah
As the light came up a heavy mist obscured the Sikh camp. As it cleared they could see the guns being manned and the second day of the battle of Ferozeshah began. Private John Howton of the 50th Regiment recalled events of that morning, writing his account 50 years after the War:

'We had been in the thick of it on the first day, and Sir Harry said on the second morning, when we were going to renew the battle; "You will be in the third line today, because you were in the hottest of it last night."

Well I daresay we should have kept to that instruction all right, but even a general's orders cannot always be obeyed. It was a harassing night - one Sikh gun in particular worried us, a 32-pounder, which kept dropping pills in amongst us and doing heavy mishchief. For instance, all the horses of one of our batteries were destroyed, so at daylight, in spite of what Sir Harry had said, we were desperately keen to get level with the guns again. We made towards them, growing more and more excited as we advanced. We pushed ahead until we were within a few, a very few, yards of the enemy. We were going blindly on, helter-skelter, with, as it seemed, no guiding hand, no mastermind amongst us. How was it, I wondered that although we were so near to the batteries there was no one to give us the magic word to rush them? Almost as soon as the thought flashed through my mind there was a wild mad shout of 'Charge!' followed by a 'Hurrah!' as madly. Then it was a dash and a rush again, and at a bound we were amongst the guns and they were ours.'

The order to charge must have come from one of the rank and file. Howton claims that there were only 50 of them charging but does not make it clear if that was 50 to start with or 50 left standing. All together the British captured 70 Sikh guns but the battle wasn't entirely over. As the tired men were taking up new positions a great cloud of dust could be seen approaching. Tej Singh, the commander of the Sikh army at Ferozepore, had discovered that General Littler's division had slipped away and had followed him up. Gough was in some danger now as his army was bone weary and their ammunition almost spent.
Hardinge at Ferozeshah
After the Battle

Tej Singh's cannons started a long range bombardment and his cavalry moved around to attack the British flank. Gough's cavalry consisted of the remains of the 3rd Light Dragoons and the 4th Bengal Light Cavalry. They spurred their tired horses on to meet the enemy squadrons and managed to unnerve them. They pulled back and Tej Singh, misjudging the ragged state of the British/Indian force, ordered the guns to cease fire and decided to retreat.

Now the men could rest and the wounded be tended. The army had suffered some 2,400 casualties and these were particularly heavy amongst the European regiments. The 9th Foot had lost some 330 men and the others had lost almost as many. The Sikhs withdrew across the Sutlej leaving a fortified bridgehead on the British side of the river close by the village of Sobraon.

Second crossing of the Sutlej
Defeated but not demoralised, the Sikhs recrossed the Sutlej at Sobraon. There they awaited reinforcements. So did the British; some 10,000 men who had been on the march from Meerut since mid-December began to arrive on 6th January 1846. Among them were the 9th and 16th Lancers, the 3rd Bengal native Cavalry and the 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry, 3 native infantry regiments and some artillery.

The Sikhs now once again crossed the Sutlej. Their main army took up a strong position opposite Sobraon with it's back to the river. At the same time, 60 miles to the east, a smaller force crossed near Ludhiana. It's object was either to intercept Gough's siege-train which was lumbering towards Bassian, or more likely merely to plunder Ludhiana. To deal with this threat Gough detached Sir Harry Smith with half of his infantry division, some cavalry and artillery.

Budowal 21st January 1846
On 21st Jan, Smith's baggage train was attacked on the march near Budowal. He lost some 200 men including many sick and wounded. All the personal baggage of the officers of the 16th Lancers was taken along with the regimental silver which was customarily taken on campaign. That evening Sir Harry entered Ludhiana. After wading through deep dust for many hours the infantry were exhausted and some had to be carried on the horses of the cavalry. One of these infantrymen, Trooper Pearman, was part of a draft of 54 men of the 3rd Light Dragoons who were changed to the infantry role with the 53rd Regiment. He wrote this harrowing account of the difficulties of soldiering that was not uncommon at that time:

'I will never forget that day: marching from 1am until 5 in the evening over 30 miles and under an Indian sun, with brown Bess, 120 rounds of ball cartridge, and coat at our backs. We had nothing to drink on the road. Some of the men's tongues were protruding from their mouths. At last the men could go no further, the enemy cavalry following close on our rear to cut up the stragglers. Sergt-Major Baker became beat and lay down. I said: For God's sake, George, think of your wife and children." He had two children. He looked at me and said, "I can't..." When the cavalry was about to charge us we were ordered to form square but were unable to do so. We made one corner but got confused...I had not suffered so much from thirst as some men. Roberts made water in his cap and drank it. Just as we became so confused, the 16th Lancers came down at a trot in open column of Troops and wheeled into line between us and the enemy, and saved us. If they hadn't, none of our detachment would be here to tell the tale. They trotted towards the enemy cavalry but they would not stand for the lancers. They retired...

At last we got in sight of Ludhiana, 3 or 4 miles off, when Sir Harry Smith came to us and looked at us with tears in his eyes. He said:"Poor boys, lay down now and rest for a time." Where we lay down there was a large shallow pond and into this we all went to drink. There were horses, camels, elephants, men, bullocks, all at once. The water was nearly like treacle, but down it went.'

Aliwal 28th January 1846
Aliwal Map
Aliwal Map
Smith's army was now concentrated at Budowal where reinforcements arrived from Ludhiana. He now had 10,000 men which included 3,000 cavalry and 30 guns. The infantry consisted of 3 European regiments and 8 native infantry regiments, 2 of which were Gurkhas, virtually the first time they had seen action under British command.

The Sikhs, numbering 18,000 and 70 guns, were threatening Ludhiana so Sir Harry marched six miles to meet them at Aliwal where they had set up a camp with their backs to the River Sutlej. The British faced their guns with the cavalry on each flank. The infantry was sent in against the Sikhs' left flank. Their cavalry moved to that side so the Indian Cavalry brigade under Brigadier Stedman made a charge against them.

Smith decided to force his men through the Sikh left flank to get between them and the river, and sent more infantry to back up the cavalry. To discourage the Sikhs from reinforcing their left flank, the remainder of the British cavalry went in. This was the first of several charges made by the 16th Lancers, backed up by the 3rd Bengal Native Cavalry. They crashed into the enemy cavalry. Trooper Pearman observed 'such cutting and stabbing I never saw before or since'.

The finest of the Sikh infantry was the Avitabile Corps, trained by an Italian General. They now intervened and formed squares (in fact triangles) and were charged by the 16th. One of the lancers, Corporal Cowtan wrote that he struck down two cavalrymen and three infantry:

My comrade on my left, just as we cheered before charging, had his heart torn from his side by a cannon-ball, but my heart sickens at the recollection of what I witnessed that day. The killed and wounded in my squadron alone was 42. There was no quarter given or taken. We did spare a good many at first, but the rascals afterwards took their preservers' lives, so we received the order to finish everyone with arms.

Aliwal Lancers
Another charge by C Troop went against enemy guns and then attacked another square of Avitabile infantry. This action caused the deaths of all the officers and senior NCOs except for one sergeant who then had to command the Troop. Yet another square was attacked and this time broken. Finally the whole of the remaining cavalry charged forward followed by the infantry, forcing the Sikhs back to the river where they tried to escape across by fords or boats in a state of panic.

The Sikhs admitted to losing 3,000 men in that battle, 67 of their guns were taken and enormous quantities of stores. The British figure was 589 killed of wounded. The 16th Lancers lost 88 killed and 53 wounded. Usually the number of killed is less than the number of wounded, so it seems that the figures bear out Cowtan's statement that there was no quarter given or taken. The Sikhs were a formidable foe, well disciplined and skilled shots so the achievement of the men who fought at Aliwal was all the more praiseworthy.

Sobraon 10th February 1846
Sobraon Map
Sobraon Map
As a result of Smith's victory at Aliwal, Gough's communications were secure and the safe arrival of his siege-train was assured. The Sikhs had evacuated all their bridgeheads south of the Sutlej except for the main one at Sobraon. This was a well fortified camp defended by 20,000 men and 67 guns. This time they had a pontoon bridge over the river and guns and reserves the other side.

The battle started with an artillery bombardment that lasted at least for two hours. When a staff officer brought Gough the news that the guns were running out of ammunition he said, 'Thank God! Then I'll be at them with the bayonet.' It was Gough's apparent gung-ho attitude that drew so much criticism. It also worried Sir Henry Hardinge, the Governor-General, who sent his ADC to Gough 3 times to ask if he was confident of success, and if not then he must withdraw. Each time Gough replied that he was confident.
Sobraon Colour
Sobraon Colour

Meanwhile, in the ranks of the 50th Regiment, on the right of the line, John Howton was seeing things from a different point of view:

'..a fierce 'Hurrah!' was shouted and we tore along, sweating and panting in our stiff and sweltering uniforms. The intrenchments were only 40 yards away; we were nearly in them, I was rushing ahead, strong on my legs, sound in my lungs, seeing nothing but gunners and guns, wanting nothing but to be in amongst them. Suddenly, owing to a shock which I did not know then and which I have never understood since, I fell to the ground and lost my senses. How long I remained unconscious I cannot say, but when I came round the regiment was forging on, still towards the intrenchments.

Yet even as I rushed forward to my comrades they were destroyed by a shower of grape-shot from one of the guns. All were killed or wounded except the sergeant - Godwin - who was left standing. 'Come on!' he shouted, and the pair of us, sole survivors of our section, dashed onward.'

Sobraon Cavalry
Sikh Cavalry
Together they managed to capture 3 or 4 guns, one of which fired just as his head was close to the muzzle. It blew his cap off and left him deaf for 3 weeks.

This was more of an infantry battle than cavalry, but the 3rd light Dragoons, who had fought so bravely throughout the war were sent round from the left flank to make inroads into the Sikh right. Their numbers had been severely depleted but they made several charges which enabled the infantry to gain access.

The battle was hard fought but it was over by noon. The number of British killed was 320, including 13 officers. A further 1,900 were wounded. The Sikhs lost 3,125 dead and 10,000 wounded.

The Aftermath
After the victory at Sobraon, Gough crossed the Sutlej with most of his army. He had penetrated 35 miles into Sikh territory when the Lahore government sued for peace. Many in the British administration favoured complete annexation of the Punjab, but the Court of Directors of the HEIC ordered Hardinge to treat with the Sikhs. Charles Napier was appalled and correctly predicted, 'The result will be another war!' Nevertheless, Hardinge did as he was told and terms were arranged: the Sikhs ceded to the EIC the Jullunder Doab (the land between the Rivers Beas and Sutlej); gave up 25 guns; agreed to resrtict the size of their army to 25 battalions of infantry and 12,000 cavalry; and promised to pay an indemnity of 1,500,000 pounds.
map of campaign
Map of Punjab
Map of Ferozeshah
Map of Mudki
Map of Aliwal
Map of Sobraon
British Units
9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot
10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot
29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot
31st (Huntingdonshire) Regiment of Foot
50th (West Kent) Regiment of Foot
53rd (Shropshire) Regiment of Foot
62nd (Wiltshire) Regiment of Foot
80th (Staffordshire Volunteers) Regiment of Foot

3rd Light Dragoons
9th Lancers
16th Lancers

Indian Units
(East India Company)
2nd Bengal Native Infantry
7th Bengal Native Infantry
12th Bengal Native Infantry
14th Bengal Native Infantry
16th Bengal Native Infantry
24th Bengal Native Infantry
26th Bengal Native Infantry
30th Bengal Native Infantry
33rd Bengal Native Infantry
36th Bengal Native Infantry
41st Bengal Native Infantry
42nd Bengal Native Infantry
44th Bengal Native Infantry
45th Bengal Native Infantry
47th Bengal Native Infantry
48th Bengal Native Infantry
59th Bengal Native Infantry
68th Bengal Native Infantry
73rd Bengal Native Infantry

1st Bengal European Regiment (LI)

1st Nasiri Battalion
Sirmoor Battalion
Shekhawati Battalion
Fatagarh battalion

Governor General's Bodyguard
1st Bengal Light Cavalry
3rd Bengal Light Cavalry
4th Bengal Light Cavalry
5th Bengal Light Cavalry
8th Bengal Light Cavalry

4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry
8th Bengal Irregular Cavalry
9th Bengal Irregular Cavalry

British Commander
Sir Hugh Gough
Significant Figures
Suggested Reading
All For a Shilling a Day
by Donald F Featherstone
(London 1966)
History of the British Army
Edited by Peter Young and J P Lawford
(Arthur Barker Ltd 1970)
The Sikhs and the Sikh Wars
by General Sir Charles Gough and A D Innes
Marching to the Drums
by Ian Knight
A History of the British Cavalry 1816-1919 vol 1
by The Marquess of Anglesey FSA
Remember you are an Englishman: A Biography of Sir Harry Smith 1787-1860
by Joseph H Lehmann
(Cape 1977)
Military Service and Adventures in the Far East: Including sketches of the campaigns against the Afghans in 1839 and the Sikhs in 1845-6 by a cavalry officer
by Capt D H MacKinnon
(London 1847)
The History of the Sikhs: containing an account of the war between the Sikhs and the British in 1845-46
by W L McGregor MD
(London 1846) Vol I & II
The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith
(John Murray 1903)
Warrior Saints: Three Centuries of the Sikh Military Tradition
by Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh
(I B Tauris 1999)
The First and Second Sikh Wars: An Official British Army History
by Reginald George Burton
Westholme Publishing

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