The Battle of Assaye

Major General Arthur Wellesley’s (later the Duke of Wellington) important defeat
of the Mahratta army, opening the way for the British conquest of Central India

War: Second Mahratta War

Date: 23rd September 1803

Place: Central India

Combatants: An army of British and Indian sepoy troops from the Madras Presidency against an army of the Mahratta Confederacy.

General Arthur Wellesley
General Arthur Wellesley leads the 1st Battalion of the 12th Madras Native Infantry at the Battle of Assaye on 23rd September 1803: picture by J.C. Stadler

Generals: Colonel, acting Major General, Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) against Madhaji Scindia, one of the chief rulers of the Mahratta Confederacy.

Size of the armies: 6,500 British and Madras Presidency Indian troops and Mysore irregular cavalry with around 20 guns against a Mahratta army estimated to be at least 40,000 strong with more than 100 guns.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The standard firearm for the British and Madras infantry regiments was the Brown Bess musket and bayonet, muzzle loaded, with an effective range of only 100 yards, fired in volleys. The cavalry regiments carried a sword and muzzle loading carbine.

The 74th and 78th Highland Regiments wore the kilt but on campaign in India exchanged it for thin linen trousers. Both regiments wore red jackets and feather bonnets.
The Madras regiments wore red jackets and breeches.
The 19th Light Dragoons wore blue jackets and the Tarleton light dragoon helmet.
The Mahratta army comprised a wide variety of fighting men from disciplined European style infantry commanded by mercenary officers and armed with musket and bayonet to hordes of free-moving light horsemen armed with swords and shields.

Both sides possessed artillery.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart
The Elephant Badge awarded to the regiments
that fought at the Battle of Assaye,
in this case to the 78th Highlanders

Winner:
The Anglo-Indian army of Colonel Wellesley.
British Regiments:
HM 19th Light Dragoons
HM 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot
HM 78th (Highland) Regiment of Foot, the Ross-shire Buffs
4th Madras Native Cavalry
5th Madras Native Cavalry
7th Madras Native Cavalry
2nd Madras Native Infantry
4th Madras Native Infantry
8th Madras Native Infantry
10th Madras Native Infantry
12th Madras Native Infantry (2nd Battalion)
Artillery comprising eight 12 pounders, two 5 ½ inch howitzers and some other pieces.

Account:
In 1800 the East India Company, the British governing agency in India, occupied three areas of the sub-continent; the port of Bombay on the west coast of India; an area around Madras, stretching north and south of the city along the east coast; and the substantial presidency of Bengal, based on the trading port of Calcutta in the Hoogli delta; the three presidencies separated by tracts of country governed by Indian potentates.

In the Deccan, the southern central area of the Indian isthmus, the British controlled the principalities of Hyderabad (not to be confused with Hyderabad, capital of Scind on the border with Persia and now in modern Pakistan) and Mysore in the very south.

Separating the three British presidencies, stretching from coast to coast and up to the borders of Nepal in the North and the Punjab in the West, lay the sprawling Mahratta Confederacy, combining the five principalities of the Peshwa Baji Rao, Daulat Rao Sindhia, Jeswant Rao Holkar, the Bhonslar Raja of Berar and the Gaikwar of Baroda.

Sindhia included the old Moghul capital of Delhi in the North and a garrison of French trained troops.
In 1802 war broke out within the Confederacy with Holkar and Berar defeating the Peshwa and Sindhia and driving the Peshwa from his territory to seek refuge with the East India Company.

The British Governor-General, the aggressive and resourceful Lord Mornington, seized on the pretext of re-instating the Peshwa in his capital, Poona, close to the British city of Bombay, to invade the Confederacy from Mysore in the South and from Oudh in the North.

The incursion from Mysore was commanded by Lord Mornington’s younger brother, Colonel, acting Major General, Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.

Map of the Battle of Assaye
The Battle of Assaye

Wellesley, after a notable part in the Mysore Wars, had for some time planned the inevitable incursion into the Mahratta Confederacy. His extensive intelligence network provided him with full descriptions of the countryside, towns and fortifications he would encounter. Based on this information Wellesley gave his brother a report setting out how the campaign would develop, advising that it be fought during the monsoon so that the flooding rivers would hinder the fast moving Mahratta light horse.

In the event, the Mahratta army of Sindhia and Berar - the force Wellesley had to deal with in this section of the war; General Lake fighting with Holkar’s army in the area of Delhi in the North - encumbered itself with a substantial force of infantry, severely restricting its mobility.
In March 1803 Wellesley crossed into the Confederacy from Mysore and marched on Poona, where he restored the Peshwa to his principality. A second force under Colonel Stevenson crossed the border from Hyderabad and concerned itself with protecting Hyderabad from any incursion.

Wellesley, with his British and Madras native regiments, pursued the Mahratta army to the North East, acting in concert with, but separate from, Stephenson’s force. On 23rd August 1803 Wellesley reached Naulniah, where information came in that the Mahratta army was just six miles distant and about to move off. Numbers of Mahratta horsemen forced Wellesley to conduct his reconnaissance of the Mahratta position with the whole of his cavalry brigade. Wellesley came up with the Mahratta army and found that, far from withdrawing, the Mahrattas were in position behind the Kaitna, a steep-banked river presenting a formidable obstacle. They were clearly ready to do battle; 30,000 horsemen massed on the right with 12,000 infantry in 16 battalions trained and led by French officers, in lines interspersed with 100 guns, to the left. Without hesitation Wellesley resolved to attack.

Wellesley’s force comprised 4 cavalry regiments; HM 19th Light Dragoons and 3 Madras native regiments; 7 infantry regiments; HM 74th and 78th regiments of Highlanders and 5 Madras native regiments; with a force of irregular cavalry from Mysore; 6,500 men and 22 guns in all.

Wellesley moved with the cavalry brigade up the river, until he identified a point beyond the left flank of the Mahratta position where villages on each bank indicated a passable ford.

As the main body came up Wellesley directed his infantry across the ford to attack the Mahratta flank accompanied by four 12 pounder guns. Welleley’s infantry formed up in two lines on the far bank, with the British regiments on the outside flanks, the 74th opposite Assaye, the 10th Madras Native Infantry in the centre of the first line and the 4th and 12th Madras Native Infantry in the second.

The 19th Light Dragoons and the 3 Madras cavalry regiments formed the reserve. The Mysore cavalry remained on the near bank of the Kaitna.Once Wellesley’s intentions were recognised the Mahratta commanders moved their army, establishing a new line across the isthmus formed by the Kaitna and Juah rivers, their left flank now resting on the village of Assaye.

The Mahratta guns subjected the Highlanders and Madrassis to a heavy fire as they marched to the river, crossed the ford and advanced to the attack, the fire being particularly heavy from Assaye against the 74th Highlanders, advancing behind a screen of skirmishers from the 2nd and 8th Madras Native Infantry (Wellesley later described the fire from the Mahratta guns as the heaviest that had been known in India). Wellesley in his dispatch after the battle stated that the 74th veered to the right in support of the skirmishers, opening up a gap between the 74th and 10th Madras Native Infantry.

At some point in the advance the British/Madrassi line came up to an extended ridge, at which the advance paused before continuing the attack.

In its advance on Assaye, the 74th came near to being annihilated, the Mahratta light cavalry swarming forward through the remnants of the regiment and the gap to its left. The 19th Light Dragoons and 4th Madras Native Cavalry charged up from the rear, driving the Mahratta horse back through the British line and continued their attack into the main Mahratta position.

On the British left, where the artillery fire was less heavy, the 78th Highlanders and Madras Native Infantry stormed the Mahratta line and pushed on, the French officers commanding the Mahratta battalions in the front line apparently abandoning their soldiers and riding for the rear, causing the collapse of a number of these battalions.

The practice for Mahratta gunners, on being overrun, was to feign death under their guns, wait for the enemy to pass and resume fire, now into the rear of the attackers. This they did, catching the British and Madras regiments in the rear with a renewed bombardment. The 78th turned back and with the 7th Madras Native Cavalry retook the guns after a determined fight with the gunners. This time care was taken to ensure that those apparently dead were so.

The success of Wellesley’s attack, in spite of the heavy losses to the 74th, caused the Mahratta army to break up and retreat to the North East, pursued for a limited distance by the 19th Light Dragoons and the Madras cavalry regiments, and abandoning 98 guns on the battlefield. Stevenson’s Hyderabad force took up the pursuit.

Casualties: Mahratta casualties are said to have been around 5,000. The Anglo-Indian force suffered 22 officers and 386 men killed and 57 officers and 1,526 men wounded. The 74th suffered around 400 casualties out of a strength of 500. It is said that every one of the 74th’s officers became casualties in the battle, 11 being killed. The commanding officer of the 19th Light Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Maxwell, who also commanded the cavalry brigade was killed. One third of Wellesley’s force became casualties in the battle.

Follow-up:
Colonel Stevenson pursued the defeated Mahratta army, taking the fortress of Asirgarh, until peace was negotiated in mid-November 1803. The final phase of the Second Mahratta War broke out the same month, with the Mahrattas finally defeated in 1818 at the end of the Third Mahratta War, thereby assuring the British position in Central India. Wellesley’s older brother, Lord Mornington, the Governor General of Bengal, was ecstatic at the news of the victory.

Assaye was seen as a decisive battle in the establishment of British influence and power in Central India and established Wellesley’s reputation in India.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:

  • In later life the Duke of Wellington, when asked which was his hardest fought battle, said “Assaye”.
  • Colonel Wellesley had two horses killed under him in the battle and his orderly, riding at this side, was decapitated by a cannon shot. Every officer on his staff lost one or two horses.
  • Wellesley is reported to have said before the Battle of Assaye “If I do not give battle to the enemy there will be nothing left for me but to hang myself from my tent pole.”
  • Following the battle the 74th was known as, “the Assaye Regiment”.
  • With almost all the 74th’s officers casualties, Quartermaster James Grant joined the ranks of the regiment from his post with the ammunition at the rear and assisted the one remaining, but wounded, officer, Major Swinton, in leading the regiment for the remainder of the battle. At the annual parade in commemoration of the battle, the Assaye colour was carried by the quartermaster, in memory of the actions of James Grant.
  • The Governor General awarded special colours to the three British regiments; the 74th and 78th Highlanders and the 19th Light Dragoons, and to the Madras regiments. The 74th, the 2nd Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry from 1882, trooped its colour every year on the anniversary of Assaye. There is no record that the 78th made any such use of their colour. Following the battle, each regiment that fought in the battle was awarded an elephant as its badge.

References:

  • Fortescue’s History of the British Army.