Battle of Assaye

Battle of Assaye

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Assaye
partof=Second Maratha War


caption=The 74th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot at Assaye
date=September 23, 1803
place=Assaye, India
result=Decisive British victory
combatant1=British East India Company
combatant2=Maratha Confederacy
commander1=Arthur Wellesley
commander2=Sindhia, Ragojee Bhonsla
strength1=4,500 Infantry
2,000 Cavalry
20 cannons
strength2=20,000 Infantry
30,000 Cavalry
100 cannons
casualties1=428 killed
1,156 wounded
casualties2=1,200 killed
4,800 wounded
98 cannons lost

The Battle of Assaye occurred September 23,1803 near the village of Assaye in south-central India. It was one of the decisive battles of the Second Anglo-Maratha War.

Assaye is located near Jafrabad in Jalna district of Maharashtra and is 261 km north-west of Hyderabad.

The Background

The Second Maratha War arose initially from internal conflict within the Maratha Confederacy. The Peshwa, Baji Rao II, was the official head of the Marathas, but the most powerful princes were Daulatrao Sindhia of Gwalior State, and Yashwantrao Holkar of Indore. Baji Rao was defeated by Holkar at the Battle of Poona (25 October 1802). After his defeat Baji Rao fled to British protection and, by the Treaty of Bassein, formed an alliance with the British Governor-General of India Lord Wellesley and the British East India Company.

The Governor General determined to support the Peshwa. He re-installed Baji Rao in Poona on 13 May 1803 and attempted to negotiate with Sindhia but by early August negotiations had failed. The Governor General moved against the two principal Maratha forces: a combined army of Sindhia and the Raja of Berar.

Lord Wellesley formed two armies, the northern under General Gerard Lake, and the southern under Major-General Arthur Wellesley, his younger brother (who would later become better known as the Duke of Wellington). Collaborating with General Wellesley was the East India Company's Hyderabad Contingent, some 9,400 strong, under the command of Colonel Stevenson. In addition to General Wellesley's own army were some 5,000-allied Mysore and Maratha light horse.

The Battle

On the 20th September, in pursuit of the Marathas, General Wellesley and Colonel Stevenson separated at Bednapur, to make use of two narrow roads. Stevenson advanced through a valley some convert|14|mi|km|0 west of Wellesley's line of march. He and Wellesley planned to rejoin forces at a village twelve miles (19 km) from Bokerdunon on the 24 September. But Wellesley encountered the army of Sindhia and Ragojee Bhonsla on 23 September. The latter numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 strong, including three brigades of regular infantry, the largest under the command of Anton Pohlmann, a Hanoverian, [George III was also the Electoral Prince of Hanover making the Hanoverians subjects of the British monarch.] who had previously been a sergeant in the East India Company before defecting to the Marathas. The Maratha forces had taken position on a tongue of land between the Kaitna and the Juah rivers, a position that the princes thought could be only attacked from across the Kaitna. Despite the numbers facing him, Wellesley determined to attack.

Wellesley could have been prudent, digging in to a defensive position, and awaiting the arrival the following day of Stevenson's troops. However, he judged that an immediate attack, even against the astounding odds of one to seven, had a chance of success, considering the brittle morale and looser discipline of the Maratha soldiers.

In the event, Wellesley marched his little army along the river looking for a place to cross. Despite the vigorous assertions of his native guides that no crossing existed thereabouts, he found a ford near the village of Assaye. He then attempted to attack a flank of the princes' army. This manœuver failed because his party was spotted as they crossed the river; the Indian army, in an example of excellent discipline, turned their front so that they were again facing the British. But a valorous charge led by two Scottish battalions, HM 74th Highlanders (which lost all its officers) and 78th Highlanders, shattered the combined forces, and the armies of the princes fled. The Maratha casualties numbered about 6,000 men, while the British lost approximately 1,500. Despite sustaining such heavy casualties in their frontal attack, the British/Indian combined force had won a considerable victory; but having fought the battle after a convert|24|mi|km|0|sing=on march, Wellesley's exhausted army was unable to pursue the defeated enemy.

This was 34 year old Wellesley's first major success, and one that he always held in the highest estimation, even when compared to his later triumphant career. According to anecdotal evidence, in his retirement years Wellington considered this his finest battle, surpassing even his victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

Conclusion

The fact that the British lost 428 men killed, while the Marathas lost about 1,200 can be explained by the disunity of the Indian factions. Another explanation suggests that the British had superior military techniques, while the Marathas were using outdated tactics (such as the use of bow and arrow despite importing cannon and other firearms), despite the fact that the neighbouring Kingdom of Mysore (which lost the Anglo-Mysore Wars) has superior rocket technology than that of the British (their later Congreve rockets were modelled after Tipu Sultan's iron-cased rockets).

Maratha military structure and tactics also blocked their victory. Maratha tactics were hit and run ("Ganimi Kava"), and could not cope with the European style frontal assault. The Maratha force also lacked a single commander, so chaos and confusion easily broke apart the Maratha lines. The Maratha also lacked logistics and a supply chain, unlike the British, who had contracts with Indian merchants to supply food, carried by ten thousand bullocks. ["War Made New", Max Boot, Gotham Books 2006]

The Marathas had a shortage of officers and NCOs, and the ones they did have were not well trained and proved unable to cope with the British style of battle. Maratha troops acted more as warriors (fighting alone and for glory) rather than like the British troops, who acted as soldiers (fighting together as a single unit).

On 30 December 1803, the Scindia signed the Treaty of Surji-Anjangaon with the British after the Battle of Assaye and ceded to the British Ganges-Jumna Doab, the Delhi-Agra region, parts of Bundelkhand, Broach, some districts of Gujarat, fort of Ahmmadnagar.

Novelisation

This battle provides the backdrop for the book "Sharpe's Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye", September 1803. This is chronologically the second book in the popular Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. A scene in which Sergeant Sharpe saves the life of General Wellesley is pivotal to the series, as through his actions, Sharpe obtains his commission as an officer.

References

Footnotes


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