A vivid retelling of an improbable, historically significant yet forgotten, military victory for the British – recounted on its 213th anniversary.
Little distinguishes Assaye from the countless other villages that dot the landscape of Maharashtra’s Jalna district. There are no signboards erected to announce its significance and tourists are extremely rare (and always British). There are, however, souvenirs on offer. Soon after I arrive, a teenaged boy extends his palm showing me a ‘goli’. I pick up the round metal sphere and feel its weight. It’s either a musket ball or a piece of canister shot. On a humid afternoon more than two centuries ago it must have shot out in a cloud of acrid white smoke in the fields nearby.
The battle of Assaye, fought on September 23, 1803 between the Maratha and British armies, is largely forgotten in India. Yet it remains an amazing story of gallantry and skill on both sides. Assaye was a hard-won victory for the British, one that challenges common assumptions about how Europeans conquered the subcontinent.
Assaye is also of significance to the wider world, for it fundamentally shaped the career of Arthur Wellesley, the victorious 34-year-old British general. Over the following 12 years, Wellesley would win battle after battle across India and Europe, eventually defeating Napoleon in the fields near another sleepy village, Waterloo.
The restoration of Baji Rao II
The sprawling Maratha confederacy was the East India Company’s most serious subcontinental rival in the early years of the nineteenth century. The company’s chance to tear it up came in 1802 when Peshwa Baji Rao II, a grandson of his illustrious namesake, was driven out of his capital, Pune, by his rivals. The Peshwa fled into British arms and signed the Treaty of Bassein, which effectively reduced him to a puppet.
The following year, Major-General Arthur Wellesley led an army that restored Baji Rao II in Pune without firing a shot. However, when two Maratha rajas, Daulat Rao Scindia and Raghuji Bhonsle, held out, Wellesley declared war.
The Battle of Assaye
Wellesley’s first target was the city of Ahmednagar, which he secured in early August. He then marched north to find the armies of Scindia and Bhonsle.
On the morning of September 23, Wellesley’s army marched 14 miles before deciding at around 11 o’clock to set up camp near a village. He expected to catch up with the Marathas the next day, but was in for a surprise: intelligence indicated the Maratha camp was a mere five miles away.
Wellesley left a small force behind to guard his camp and set out with the rest of his army. Riding ahead on his horse he came up to a crest and saw an astonishing sight. Spread out for miles below him was the Maratha army. Most of these men were pindaries – lightly armed raiders who would stay away from any major battle. What interested Wellesley was the well-ordered army that was camped in a triangular tongue of land formed by the river Kailna and its tributary, the Juah. These were Scindia’s real fighters: modern infantry led by European officers along with an impressive array of cannons.
Scindia’s army was positioned behind the muddy Kailna waiting for the British to come. It was a formidable position and a lesser general may have withdrawn, but the young Wellesley had a plan. Since a frontal assault across the Kailna would be suicidal, he marched his army to an unguarded river crossing on Scindia’s left that was partly concealed by two villages.
As the snaking column of 7,000 Madras sepoys and British soldiers began wading across the shallow Kailna, some of the Maratha cannons opened fire. John Blakiston, an officer in the Madras army, was splashing across the river on his horse when to his horror, Wellesley’s orderly “had the top of his head carried off by a cannon ball”.
Despite the cannonade, the British force managed to cross the river. They had snuck up on their enemy’s left. But Scindia’s men were already reacting with skill. Thousands of soldiers turned around “in the most steady manner possible” and formed a new line, with a screen of 100 cannons in front of the infantry.
Wellesley ordered his infantry to form a line of their own, mirroring that of the Marathas. The battle was about to begin in earnest. Wellesley’s soldiers started marching towards the row of cannons while the expert Maratha gunners loaded and fired. “In the space of less than a mile,” Blakiston would recall, “100 guns worked with skill and rapidity, vomited forth death into our feeble ranks.”
Death came in many ways. Solid cannon balls would bounce across the ground before plunging into rows of soldiers, while canister and grapeshot would shoot out lethal sprays of smaller
The Maratha gunners also attacked the few British cannons, cutting down crews and draught animals with frightening speed.
Some sepoys tried to take cover in the folds of the ground, others tried to use their knapsacks as shields. A few were simply too shocked to advance.
Wellesley, who had been riding across the battlefield and exhorting his men, had his horse shot under him. But he escaped unscathed and was given another mount.
The sepoys and British soldiers finally closed in on the Maratha cannons. It was time for revenge. With bayonets fixed they charged at their tormentors.
Incredibly, most of the Maratha gunners stood their ground, many “having been bayoneted in the act of loading their pieces.”, Blakiston recalled. Others took cover under their guns and jumped up to attack the sepoys with pikes before they too were cut down. Blakiston concluded: “Nothing could surpass the skill or bravery displayed by their golumdauze (gunners)”.
Wellesley’s men now moved past the cannons and charged into the Maratha infantry, driving them away.
However, things were not going as well for the British in the northern end of the battlefield. There a detachment of troops strayed too close to the mud-walled village of Assaye, which was bristling with Maratha cannons and countless musketeers. The village’s defenders opened a withering fire that tore through the men. The Maratha cavalry then moved in for the kill, hacking away with their talwars (swords). “This was the only time I ever saw heads fairly cut off.” Blakiston would later write.
Just as the men seemed doomed, British cavalry swept in, “like a torrent that had burst its banks”. The Maratha horsemen were no match for their enemies who rode bigger horses and wielded better weapons. They fled across the Juah amid a great slaughter, with the British cavalry in merciless pursuit.
Further south, Wellesley’s victorious infantry were in for a surprise. Some of the Maratha gunners they had overrun had only been playing dead. These men now sprang back to life, turned their guns around and once again poured fire into the sepoys.
Wellesley had to lead a fresh charge to silence the surviving gunners, during which he was unhorsed a second time.
The battle started winding down. Some Maratha infantry had formed a second line, but they melted away, as did Assaye’s defenders.
Exhausted and parched, many of Wellesley’s men went down the banks of Juah river and drank its water, already reddened with the blood of the fallen.
Assaye had been a remarkable but costly victory. Wellesley’s force of 7,000 had suffered 1,584 wounded and killed. Maratha casualties may have been as high as 6,000.
The general slept among the dead that night, awakening several times to a nightmare in which he had lost all his friends in the battle. The battle of Assaye was, he would later admit, “the bloodiest for the numbers that I ever saw”.
Why the Marathas lost
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone in possession of an army must be in want of good officers to lead it. The Marathas had chosen to put European officers in charge of their infantry units not only for their military skills but because they believed foreigners bereft of local roots would prove politically reliable. It was a catastrophic miscalculation: The East India Company engineered mass defections by European officers, leaving many Maratha infantry units leaderless on the eve of battle.
The defection of officers goes some way in explaining why Scindia’s infantry folded so quickly, while its gunners, who were not dependent on Europeans, performed so admirably.
The weaknesses of the Maratha polity had other effects. Chaotic revenue collection meant they struggled to pay their soldiers regularly or feed them adequately. On the morning of the battle many of Scindia’s troops staged a dharna demanding rations and salaries.
In contrast, the East India Company enjoyed a deep institutional stability. Its revenue collection system and its access to global markets gave it strong financial foundations. It offered soldiers regular pay and pensions and attracted many of the best recruits in the subcontinent’s military labour market. The company’s partnership with the British crown also allowed it to draw on the impressive talent pool of the British army, including officers like Wellesley.
Sepoys and the general
Wellesley’s attack plan at Assaye was a risky one: to dash across a river and take on an enemy who outnumbered and outgunned him. If he had lost on that day Wellesley confessed he would have “made a gallows of my ridge-pole and hanged myself.” The general had little doubt he owed much to his soldiers. As he wrote to a colleague a few days later: “the sepoys astonished me.”
Unfortunately, the stories of those astonishing sepoys have disappeared into the ether like so much gun smoke. They find little space in either British imperial celebration or in the nationalist narratives of the Raj’s successor states. Historical records allow us only the briefest glimpses of them as individuals.
One such individual was Havildar Syud Hussein, a cavalryman who, on the day of the battle, charged into a knot of Maratha horsemen and snatched away their standard. When presented to Wellesley afterwards, the general patted Hussein on the back and promoted him on the spot with the words “Acha havildar; jemadar.”
Another sepoy, one ‘Burry Khan’, was a subedhar in one of the Madras units that had marched through the hail of cannon fire. Khan was so badly wounded in his right shoulder that his arm was completely disabled and even seventeen months later, bone fragments continued to be pulled out. Wellesley wrote a letter recommending Khan get pension at full pay. “He was also a man of good character and well connected in his corps; and five of his relations, commissioned and non-commissioned officers in the battalion were killed in the battle of Assye [sic]”.
Wellesley was not always so benevolent. On October 16, less than a month after the battle, he had two men, Sheik Daud and Mohammed Reeza, shot for desertion, probably in front of their comrades.
The British would have liked to forget men like Sheik Daud, but they did commemorate the battle. Units that fought at Assaye were awarded a battle honour. Curious visitors in Bengaluru can also spot the Assaye emblem, which features an elephant, on a First World War cenotaph on the crossroads of Brigade Road and Residency Road. Barely two miles from the cenotaph lies the bustling Assaye Road in Ulsoor, also home to John Blakiston’s old unit, the Madras Engineer Group. Separately, the Madras Regiment uses the Assaye elephant in its official insignia.
Memory has lived on differently for those who plough the grounds of the old battlefield. In 1885, the Imperial Gazetteer of India noted: “The inhabitants of the village of Assaye, close to the scene of the conflict, possess numbers of muskets … and small cannon balls, which have been picked up from time to time on the battlefield. Other traces of the conflict in the shape of human remains are not unfrequently discovered on the banks of the Juah”.
Today the inhabitants of Assaye make no mention of finding the grisly flotsam of battle. Their stocks of munitions also seem to have dwindled. (One local tried to sell me a glass bead, assuring me it was in fact a ‘goli’.)
A few of the foreign visitors have been academics. In September of 2001, the late historian Richard Holmes visited with a documentary crew and cantered around the fields on horseback, much like Wellesley, the subject of his documentary. Many locals recalled this visit to me without any prompting.
The trickle of foreign visitors is all that keeps memory alive at Assaye. There is a dilapidated British officers’ grave on the outskirts of the village. But it is improbable the central or state government will erect a memorial here to honour the Maratha army and its magnificent gunners. The best epitaph for those men might come from their foe, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington and the man who humbled Napoleon. A friend once asked him “what is the best thing you ever did in the fighting line?” He recounted the response: “The Duke was silent for about ten seconds then answered, “Assaye”. He did not add a word.”