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First Anglo-Sikh War: Battle of Aliwal

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Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Aliwal was fought on January 28, 1846, during the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-1846).

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • General Sir Harry Smith

  • 12,000 men

Sikhs

  • Ranjodh Singh Majithia

  • 20,000 men

Battle of Aliwal Background:

After the outbreak of the First Anglo-Sikh War in late 1845, British forces under the guidance of General Sir Hugh Gough and Governor-General of Bengal Sir Henry Hardinge advanced to meet the Sikh army. Winning bloody victories at Mudki and Ferozeshah, they forced the Sikhs, under Vizier Lal Singh and Tej Singh to retreat. Reinforced, the Sikhs moved to renew the action by re-crossing the Sutlej River and establishing a bridgehead at Sobraon. To support this operation, Tej Singh dispatched a force led by Ranjodh Singh Majithia to attack the British base at Ludhiana and threaten their supply lines.

Alerted to this threat, Gough detached a combined-arms force under General Sir Harry Smith to counter Ranjodh Singh. As both sides moved towards Ludhiana, they collected reinforcements. Force-marching, Smith arrived at the town first. Further reinforced, he advanced on Buddowal where he expected to find Ranjodh Singh's army. Not finding the enemy, Smith learned that Ranjodh Singh had pulled back to Aliwal on the Sutlej to await the arrival of additional troops. Pushing forward, Smith reached Ranjodh Singh's position on January 28, 1846.

Battle of Aliwal:

Encamped near the river, Ranjodh Singh had assumed a position with his left anchored on Aliwal and his right fixed on the village of Bhundri. Forming his men for battle, Smith advanced and began taking artillery fire from the Sikhs at 600 yards. Assessing the Sikh line, he determined that the position at Aliwal was the weakest and ordered two infantry brigades forward to storm the village. With this attack, Smith hoped to turn the Sikh flank and enfilade their center. Surging forward, the infantry succeeded in taking the village and compelling Ranjodh Singh to dispatch cavalry to rescue the situation.

Arriving on the scene, the Sikh horsemen were met with several charges by Stedman's cavalry brigade which forced them to retreat. With the cavalry threat eliminated, Smith's British and Bengal infantry were free to press their attack and roll up the Sikh line. As the enemy advanced, Ranjodh Singh frantically worked to swing back his line with Bhundri as the pivot to prevent the British from cutting off his line of retreat across the river. In an effort to regain the initiative, he ordered cavalry to advance from Bhundri to threaten Smith's left flank.

To counter this, Brigadier General Charles Cureton ordered the 16th Queen's Lancers and the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry to attack and break up the Sikh horse. Charging forward, they succeeded in driving back the Sikh cavalry, breaking up its formations and forcing it back to the banks of the Sutlej. Returning from the charge, elements of the 16th encountered the elite Avitabile Infantry Regiment which had been trained by Neapolitan mercenary Paolo Di Avitabile. Forming into triangles to received the cavalry, they were unable to hold and were overrun.

Rallying, the 16th returned to action and drove the Sikhs from Bhundri with the 53rd Foot providing support. As the fight raged around the village, Smith's infantry broke the new Sikh line, forcing Ranjodh Singh to fall back to the river. While some attempted to form a new line along a nullah (dry stream bed) they were quickly out-flanked by the 30th Bengal Infantry and driven into the fire of Smith's Horse Artillery. The battle lost, the remaining Sikhs began a disorganized retreat back across the river, abandoning most of their baggage and guns.

Aftermath of the Battle of Aliwal:

In the fighting at Aliwal, Smith suffered 589 killed and wounded, with the 16th Lancers sustaining 144. Sikh losses numbered around 3,000 as well as 67 guns. With the victory at Aliwal, the threat to the British rear was removed. Smith soon moved to rejoin Gough and the reinforced British army successful attacked the main Sikh force at Sobraon on February 10. The victory led to the Treaty of Lahore which ended the war and conceded large tracts of land to the British.

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