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Battle of Assaye
Part of the Second Anglo-Maratha War
Battle of Assaye2
Major General Wellesley (mounted) commanding his troops at the Battle of Assaye, Wellesley would later go on to defeat Napoleon and become Duke of Wellington.
Date 23 September 1803
Location near Assaye, India
Result British East India Company victory
Combatants
Flag of the British East India Company (1801) British East India Company Flag of the Maratha EmpireMaratha Confederacy:
  • Daulat Scindia
  • Raghoji II Bhonsle
Commanders
Arthur Wellesley Anthony Pohlmann
Strength
9,500
17 cannon
50,000
100+ cannon
Casualties
428 killed
1,156 wounded
18 missing
Approx. 6,000 killed and wounded
98 cannon lost

The Battle of Assaye was a major battle of the Second Anglo-Maratha War fought between the Maratha Confederacy and the British East India Company. It occurred on 23 September 1803 near Assaye in western India where an outnumbered Indian and British force under the command of Major General Arthur Wellesley (who later became the Duke of Wellington) defeated a combined Confederacy army of Daulat Scindia and the Raja of Berar. The battle was the Duke of Wellington's first major victory and one he later described as his finest accomplishment on the battlefield.

From August 1803, Wellesley's army and a separate force under the command of his subordinate Colonel James Stevenson had been pursuing the Maratha cavalry-based army which threatened to raid south into Hyderabad. After several weeks of pursuit and countermarching, Scindia reinforced the combined Maratha army with his Europeanised infantry and artillery as the British forces closed in on his position.

Wellesley's victory at Assaye, preceded by the capture of Ahmednagar and followed by victories at Argaon and Gawilghur, resulted in the defeat of Scindia and Berar's armies in the Deccan. Wellesley's progress in the Deccan was matched by Lieutenant General Gerard Lake's successful campaigns in Northern India and led to the British becoming the dominant power in the heartlands of India

BackgroundEdit

Feuding between the two dominant powers within the, and, led to civil war at the turn of the 19th century. The hostilities culminated in the in October 1802 where Holkar defeated a combined army of Scindia and – the and nominal overlord of the Confederacy. Scindia retreated into his dominions to the north, but Baji Rao was driven from his territory and sought refuge with the at . He appealed to the Company for assistance, offering to accept its authority if he were restored to his principality at ., the ambitious of, seized on the opportunity to extend Company influence into the Confederacy which he perceived as the final obstacle to British paramountcy over the . The was signed in December 1802 whereby the Company agreed to restore Baji Rao in return for control over his foreign affairs and a garrison of 6,000 Company troops permanently stationed in Poona. The restoration was commanded by Lord Mornington’s younger brother, Major General, who in March 1803 marched on Poona from with 15,000 Company troops and 9,000 allies. Wellesley entered Poona without opposition on 20 April, and Baji Rao was formally restored to his throne on 13 May.

The treaty gave offence to the other Maratha leaders, who deemed that the system of with the British was an unwarranted interference into their affairs and fatal to the independent Maratha states. The Maratha leaders refused to submit to the Peshwa's authority and tensions were raised further when Holkar raided into Hyderabad in May, claiming that the (a British ally) owed him money. Mornington consequently engaged the various Maratha chieftains in negotiations. Lieutenant Colonel John Collins was sent to Scindia's camp to discuss his objections and propose a defensive alliance. However, Scindia had formed a military alliance with the in view to bringing the Maratha leaders into a coalition against the British, and had begun to mass his forces on the Nizam's border. Wellesley, who had been given control over the Company's military and political affairs in central India in June, demanded Scindia declare his intentions and withdraw his forces or face the prospect of war. After a protracted period of negotiations, Collins reported to Wellesley on 3 August that Scindia refused to give an answer and would not withdraw his troops. Wellesley's response was to declare war on Scindia and Berar "in order to secure the interests of the British government and its allies".

The Battle Edit

Pohlmann struck camp and deployed his infantry battalions in a line facing southwards behind the steep banks of the Kailna with his cannon arrayed directly in front. The great mass of Maratha cavalry was kept on the right flank and Berar's irregular infantry garrisoned Assaye to the rear. The only observable crossing point over the river was a small ford directly ahead of the Maratha position. Pohlmann's strategy was to funnel the British and Madras troops across the ford into the mouth of his cannon, and then on to the massed infantry and cavalry behind. Wellesley's local guides assured him that no other ford existed nearby, but he quickly discarded the option of a frontal assault as suicide. While reconnoitring he had noticed two unguarded villages, Peepulgaon and Waroor, one on each bank of the Kailna beyond the Maratha left. On the assumption that a ford must exist between the two villages, Wellesley ordered the area to be further reconnoitred by his Chief Engineer, Captain John Johnson, who reported that there was indeed a ford at that spot. Thus Wellesley led his army east to the crossing in an attempt to launch an attack on Pohlmann's left flank.

At around 15:00, the British crossed to the northern bank of the Kaitna unopposed apart from a distant harassing fire from the Maratha cannon which was largely inaccurate but succeeded in decapitating Wellesley's dragoon orderly. Once across, Wellesley ordered his six infantry battalions to form into two lines, with his cavalry as a reserve in a third. His allied Maratha and Mysore cavalry were ordered to remain south of the Kaitna to keep in check a large body of Maratha cavalry which hovered around the British rear. Pohlmann soon recognised Wellesley’s intentions and swung his infantry and guns through 90 degrees to establish a new line spread approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) across the isthmus with their right flank on the Kaitna and the left on Assaye. Although the new position secured the Maratha flanks, it restricted Pohlmann from bringing his superior numbers into action.

The Maratha redeployment was swifter and more efficient than Wellesley had anticipated and he immediately reacted by extending his front to deny Pohlmann the opportunity to out-flank him. A battalion of pickets and the 74th Highlanders, which formed the right of the first and second lines, were ordered to move obliquely to the right. This allowed the 78th to anchor the left flank and Madras infantry battalions (the 1/10th, 1/8th, 1/4th and 2/12th) to form the centre of the British line. Wellesley's intention was to force back the Marathas from their guns and then – operating by his left to avoid the heavily defended Assaye – throw them back on the Juah and complete their destruction with his cavalry.

The British Infantry Attack Edit

The Maratha cannonade intensified as the British redeployed. Although British artillery was brought forward to counter, it was ineffective against the mass firepower of the Maratha guns and quickly disabled through the weight of shot directed against it. British casualties mounted as the Maratha guns turned their attention to the infantry and subjected them to a barrage of, and . Wellesley decided that his only option to neutralise the artillery and get his men out of the was to advance directly into the mouth of the Maratha artillery. He ordered his cannon to be abandoned and gave the command for his infantry to march forward with fixed.

350px-Battle of Assaye

The Maratha cannonade punched holes in the British line, but the infantry maintained a steady pace, closing up the gaps in their ranks as they advanced. The 78th Highlanders were the first to reach the enemy in the southern sector next to the River Kailna. They paused 50 yards (46 m) from the Maratha gunners and unleashed a volley of fire before launching into a bayonet charge. The four battalions of Madras infantry to the right of the 78th, accompanied by the, reached Pohlmann's line shortly afterwards and attacked in the same fashion. The gunners stood by their cannon but were no match for the bayonets of the British and Madras troops who swiftly pressed on towards the Maratha infantry. However, instead of meeting the charge, the Maratha right broke and fled northwards towards the Juah, causing the rest of the southern half of the line to follow. The officers of the Madras battalions temporarily lost control as the, encouraged by their success, pushed too far pursuit. Maratha cavalry momentarily threatened to charge but were checked by the 78th who remained in order and re-formed to face the danger.

In the northern sector of the battle field however, Wellesley's right flank was in turmoil. The commander of the pickets, Lieutenant Colonel William Orrock, had mistaken his orders and continued his oblique path directly towards Assaye. Major Samuel Swinton of the 74th regiment was ordered to support the pickets and followed close behind. This created a large gap in the centre of the British line, and brought the two battalions under a barrage of cannonade from the artillery around the village and the Maratha right. The two battalions began to fall back in disarray and Pohlmann ordered his remaining infantry and cavalry forward to attack. The Marathas gave no quarter; the pickets were virtually annihilated but the remnants of the 74th were able to form a rough behind hastily piled bodies of dead. Realising that the destruction of his right would leave his army exposed and out-flanked, Wellesley ordered a detachment of British cavalry under Colonel Patrick Maxwell consisting of the and elements of the 4th and 5th Madras Native Cavalry into action. From their position at the rear, the cavalry dashed directly towards the 74th's square, crashed into the swarming attackers and routed them. Maxwell pressed his advantage and continued his charge into the Maratha infantry and guns on the left, driving them backwards and across the Juah "with great slaughter".

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