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Chapter VIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2

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Our losses in the battle of Moodkee were very heavy - 215 killed; among whom were Sir Robert Sale, Sir John M'Caskill, and a number of young officers who had greatly distinguished themselves. Our wounded amounted to 657. Meantime, the enemy, having left seventeen guns upon the field, retired in tolerably good order, within their entrenched camp, which they had formed at Ferozeshah, on the banks of the Sutlej, near Ferozepore. For two days both armies remained inactive, but ready to renew the conflict. The losses of the British had been made up by the arrival of the 29th Queen's and the 1st Bengal Light Infantry. A memorable event in the history of British warfare in India, was, that Sir Henry Hardinge, the veteran commander, the hero of so many battles, the Governor-General of India, offered his services to Sir Hugh Gough as second in command. The offer was accepted, and the army marched forth to attack the enemy's camp. They started at daybreak on the 21st, and about midday q junction was effected with General Littler's division which had marched out from Ferozepore, according orders sent the night before. Our army was now raised to 19,000 effective men. The enemy were double that number, and strongly entrenched, well supplied with provisions, and fresh after two days rest; while our troops were ill provided with food, and had marched ten miles that morning. To attack the Sikhs without waiting for some expected reinforcements, was hazardous; to postpone the attack for another day seemed still more so - as there was a second Sikh army of equal force, which would then have reached the scene of action. An immediate attack was therefore determined upon - Gough leading the right wing, and Hardinge the left. The Sikh artillery was heavier than ours. The guns were protected behind embrasures, the gunners were sure in their aim; and so terrible was the effect that the 62nd regiment, which led on the attack, was nearly cut away, and several Sepoy regiments broke and fled before the shot. The whole of our left wing, though led on gallantly by the Governor-General, were driven back, after carrying part of the works. The right wing, under General Gough, succeeded better, and held pos. session of several of the ramparts. But the Sikhs were- still in possession of the fortified village of Ferozeshah, and remained so till night closed upon the scene; when the smoke and dust subsided, and the silence was broken only by an occasional shot from the guns, responded to in the darkness - the gunners seeing no enemy, but aiming at the flash of light. The dead and the wounded lay upon the ground, and beside them rested the weary and hungry combatants, with their hands upon their trusty weapons - Sikhs and English intermingled; their features visible to one another, only when a streak of light came from a bomb traversing the sky, or their stark forms appearing in terrible relief from the blaze of an ammunition wagon exploding. "We may conceive the feelings with which this scene was regarded on that dismal night by the Governor-General, the Commander-in-Chief, and a royal amateur in war, Prince Waldemar of Prussia, who had joined them, as they stood upon the ground surrounded by their troops.

Sleep was chased from their eye-lids by the groans of the wounded, and their cries for water. No wonder if a heavy feeling of despondency crept over the ranks when they recollected that all their forces had been engaged that day, that their ammunition was nearly exhausted, and that the enemy had a second army marching upon them. What was to be done? Some one said that it was better to cut their way to Ferozepore, in order to gain the shelter of their entrenched camp; but Sir Hugh Gough would not hear of it. " The thing is impossible, " he exclaimed. "My mind is made up; if we must perish, it is better that our bones should bleach honourably at Ferozeshah, than rot at Ferozepore; but they shall do neither the one nor the other." And Sir H. Hardinge said - "The Commander-in-Chief knows as well as anybody that it will not do for a British army to be foiled; and foiled this army shall not be. We must fight it out as soon as there is light to see the enemy." Yet he was so doubtful of the issue that he ordered all his private papers to be burned, and sent Mr. Hardinge, his private secretary, out of camp. The two generals then conferred confidentially together. Gough asked, "What think you of our prospects?" "I think," he replied, " that we must live or die where we stand." "That is exactly my opinion," replied the general; "so we understand each other." They shook hands and parted.

The long and weary night was at length passed. The dull sun of a December day rose upon the ghastly scenes of that gory battle-field. The soldiers, many of whom were without food from the morning of the previous day, were again marshalled in order of battle. The artillery commenced the work, but with little effect. "But why waste time and ammunition thus? " said Gough. " We must try the bayonet once more." Then was made a tremendous charge for life. At first, part of the line reeled under the storm from the enemy's guns; but still the whole army pressed on with desperate shouts, the two wings closing in upon the village, driving everything before them, and still pressing onward till they captured the whole of the enemy's guns on the works. The two generals, waving the captured banners, rode in triumph before the victorious army, and were hailed with enthusiastic applause. The whole of the enemy's military stores and camp furniture, with seventy-three guns and seventeen standards, remained in possession of our army. One Sikh army was now defeated; but there was another to come on, 30,000 strong, most of whom were perfectly fresh. The spirit of the Commander-in-Chief seemed now to fail him, and he so despaired of the issue that he confessed in a letter to a friend, that for a moment he felt regret, as each passing shot left him still on horseback. Most of our cavalry were hardly able to move, from the exhaustion of the horses; our ammunition was nearly spent, while the fire from the enemy's guns was rapid. At this critical moment, owing to a misconception of orders, our cavalry and artillery moved off from the flanks, which they protected, taking the road towards Ferozepore. It was a blunder that seemed ordered by Providence to save our army from annihilation; for the Sikhs, not knowing our weakness, and conceiving that the design was to take possession of the fords, and prevent their crossing the river, immediately began to retreat. Our infantry pursued; and such was the consternation and confusion of the enemy, that they never stopped running till they got to the other side of the Sutlej. In these terrible battles we lost, in killed and wounded, 2,415 men being a sixth of the whole number engaged. Among the killed was Major Broadfoot, political agent in the north-west provinces, Colonel Wallace, and Major Somerset.

It was apprehended that the enemy would return next day in greater force, to renew the contest; but as they did not, the Commander-in-Chief seized the opportunity to summon the troops to join him in public thanksgiving to God for the victory they had won. It was a time and a place calculated to give deep solemnity to the service, and the whole army united with fervour in expresing their sense of the mercy with which they had been sustained and preserved through such fearful trials. There was now a season of rest for both armies. Christmas was spent in the camp, and 1846 dawned upon the still undecided contest. The British gained most by the delay. The Governor-General had ordered up fresh troops from Meerut, Cawnpore, Delhi, and Agra. By the end of January Sir Hugh Gough had under his command 30,000 men, of all arms. On every road leading to the scene of action, from our Indian possessions, convoys were seen bearing provisions and stores of all sorts to the army; while reinforcements were pressing onward rapidly to the scene of action, that they might share the glory by confronting the greatest danger. That danger was still great. The Sikhs also were bringing up reinforcements, and strengthening their entrenched camp at the British side of the Sutlej, having constructed a bridge of boats for the conveyance of their troops and stores across the river. They had chosen a most advantageous position for the camp, which was situated on a bend of the river, their heavy guns being so arranged that if the tÍte du jpont were carried, the English would have been exposed to a tremendous fire from batteries which they had no means of reaching, except by a bridge of boats, which might be broken down at any moment.

The enemy had established a considerable magazine at a fortified village some miles from the camp, and Sir Harry Smith proceeded at the head of a detachment to attack it. But Sirdar Runjeet Singh intercepted him, cut off and captured all his baggage; but being reinforced, he met the enemy again at a place on the Sutlej, called Aliwal. The Sikh army, which seemed in the best possible order and discipline, were drawn up in imposing array, 20,000 strong, with 70 guns, while the British were 9,000, with 32. After a series of splendid charges, conducted by Brigadiers Godby, Hick, Cureton, Wilson, and Wheeler, the enemy were driven successively from every position, and fled in confusion across the river. Several of the British horsemen followed the guns into the river, and spiked them there. The loss of the Sikhs in the battle of Aliwal is said to have been 3,000, while that of the British was only 673 killed and wounded. The moral effect of this victory over such unequal forces was great upon the rest of the army, and the Commander-in-Chief felt that the time was come when the enemy might be safely attacked in their entrenched camp, and be thoroughly defeated. The war had now lasted a considerable time, and the Indian public expected that, with such a concentration of the military forces of the empire, with the flower of the Indian army, matters would soon be brought to an issue, for it was very unusual for a European army to spend so much time in dealing with the native force. The Sikhs, however, were the best soldiers in Asia, and they were putting forth all their strength and resources to expel foreign invaders from their rich and beautiful country, rendered doubly sacred to them by old religious associations.

On the 10th of February was fought the great and decisive battle of Sobraon, the name of the tÍte du pont, at the entrenched camp of the Sikhs, where all the forces of the enemy were now concentrated. The camps extended along both sides of the river, and were defended by 130 pieces of artillery, of which nearly half were of heavy calibre, and which were all served by excellent gunners. The country all round this encampment was level, completely open to the sweep of artillery, so that before it could be reached there must inevitably be a terrible sacrifice of human life. The British troops formed a vast semicircle, each end of which touched the river, the village of Sobraon being in the centre, where the enemy were defended by a triple line of works, one within another, flanked by the most formidable redoubts. The battle commenced by the discharge of artillery on both sides, which played with terrific force for three hours. After this our guns went up at a gallop till they came within 300 vards of the works, where it was intended the assault should be made. Halting there, they poured a concentrated fire upon the position for some time. After this the assault was made by the infantry, running. The regiment which led the way was the 10th, supported by the 53rd Queen's and the 43rd and 59th Native infantry. They were repulsed with dreadful slaughter. The post of honour and of danger was now taken by the Ghoorkas, a diminutive race of men, agile, daring, and strong, dressed in dark-green uniforms. A body of these brave little fellows, stepping lightly over the dead bodies, quickly passed the intervening space, and one of them, mounted on the shoulders of a tall grenadier, flung himself into the embrasures. He was quickly followed by others; a desperate struggle with the bayonet ensued; the Sikhs were overpowered by the brigades of Stacey and Wilkinson; but, as the fire of the enemy was now concentrated upon this point, the brave assailants were in danger of being overwhelmed and destroyed. The British Commander-in-Chief seeing this, sent forward the brigades of Ashburnham as well as Smith's division, against the right of the enemy, while our artillery played furiously upon their whole line. The Sikhs fought with no less valour and determination than our own troops. Not one of their gunners flinched till he was struck down at his post. Into every gap opened by our artillery they rushed with desperate resolution, repelling our assaulting columns. At length the cavalry, which has so often decided the fate of the day in great battles, were instrumental in achieving the victory. The Sappers and Miners having succeeded in opening a passage through which the horses could enter in single file, the 3rd Queen's Dragoons, under Sir Joseph Thackwell, got inside the works, quickly formed, and galloping along in the rear of the batteries, cut down the gunners as they passed. General Gough promptly followed up this advantage by ordering forward the whole three 'divisions of the centre and the right. It was then that the fighting may be said to have commenced in earnest. The struggle was long, bloody, and relentless. No quarter was given or asked; the Sikhs fighting like men for whom death had no terrors, and for whom death in battle was the happiest as well as the most glorious exit from life. But they encountered men with hearts as stout and stronger muscle, and they were at length gradually forced back upon the river by the irresistible British bayonet.

So early as the 2nd of February, Sir Hugh Gough wrote a letter to a friend, in which he looked forward to "a good fall of rain or an accidental thaw of snow upon the hills," to enable him to attack the enemy when the river was flooded and unfordable, and the Sikhs would have no means of passing but the bridge. He did not wait for this advantage; but, unfortunately for the Sikhs, it occurred exactly at the time it suited his purpose; for during the night before the Sutlej rose seven inches, which made it too deep for foot soldiers; the consequence of which was that the Sikhs ran in thousands towards the narrow bridge of boats that stretched across the broad waters. It was, of course, quickly choked up, and while the frantic, panic-stricken crowd pressed forward, crushing one another, the British Horse Artillery advanced at a gallop to the edge of the river, and opened upon the mass of fugitives a fire of round shot and canister, which may be truly and literally called "murderous." The bridge at length gave way under the enormous weight, and thousands were precipitated into the water and drowned. But even in the midst of this catastrophe, the drowning fanatics would accept no mercy from the Feringhees. Our losses amounted to 320 killed and 2,063 wounded. Of the European officers, thirteen were killed and 101 wounded. To them, with the exception of the Ghoorka regiments, the glory of the day belonged; for the natives lost only three officers killed and thirty-nine wounded. The whole experience of this campaign, indeed, proved that the Sepoys could not be relied upon to fight against the brave and hardy inhabitants of the northern Highlands. The loss of the Sikhs in the battle of Sobraon was estimated at from 10,000 to 13,000 men, the greater number being shot down or drowned in the attempt to cross the bridge. They left in the hands of the victors sixty-seven guns, 200 camel swivels, nineteen standards, and a great quantity of ammunition. The Governor-General, as well as the Commander-in-Chief, were active and conspicuous wherever the battle raged hottest and the danger was greatest. Sir Hugh Gough was on horseback from morning till night, indefatigable in his exertions, but far too careless of his personal safety, for he was among the first of the horsemen who, in single file, got behind the entrenchment of the enemy.

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Pictures for Chapter VIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2

Viscount Gough
Viscount Gough >>>>
Bridge of boats across the Sutlej
Bridge of boats across the Sutlej >>>>

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