The Battle of Moodkee: A Victory Slipped Through Fingers

  Co-authored By Isha Jaiswal and Zorawar Singh Jaiswal
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   On 18 Dec 1845, an unprecedented battle of wits, grit, perseverance and intrigue was fought south of river Sutlej at a place named Moodkee (now Mudki) in Ferozepur District of Indian Punjab. This was the first of a series of battles between the Sikhs and the British as the latter wanted to annex Punjab. In this article, the title “Sikh Army” refers to the warfighting machine created by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Ruler of Punjab. Though the Maharaja’s army consisted of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs collectively, this army was referred to as the Sikh Army and the Kingdom of Punjab was referred to as the Lahore Durbar.

   The gullibility of the Sikh Army, the overtly nefarious military and politically provocative actions of the British and the treachery by the dubious petty Sikh chiefs, General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh for their self-preservation cum personal gains were the main factors that precipitated the tensions of the Sikh Army against the British, into a series of battles that are collectively known as the First Anglo Sikh War.1. This was the first time when the Sikh sword clashed with the British bayonet in the southern plains of Punjab and is known as the Battle of Moodkee fought on 18 Dec 1845.

   Though this battle was fought 175 years ago its lessons continue to be relevant even today. The causes and the sequences of combat actions at the Battle of Moodkee are narrated here. They have been reconstructed from the Bombay Government Gazette-Extraordinary dated Thursday, 22nd January 1846, and other similar documents that were published on the orders of the Hon’ble Governor in Council. The book, A History of the Sikhs, written by Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham, and other books have also been referred to for this writing.

   The lessons of this battle are enunciated too, so that, the current leadership benefits by avoiding such pitfalls.

The Causes

   Various overt and covert actions as enumerated in the subsequent paragraphs were resorted to by the British without offering any credible explanations which ultimately resulted in a conflict. These machinations were construed as hostile intentions by the Lahore Durbar and its Sikh Army. With the signing of the Treaty of Amritsar on 25 April 1809, the Sutlej river became the southern boundary between the British and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom. 2. This treaty, therefore, implied that; the Maharaja was not to interfere in the rule of the kingdoms that were located south of river Sutlej which included Patiala, Faridkot, Nabha, Jind, Hansi etc. Similarly, the British were not to interfere in the Maharaja’s territories. 3. Khushwant Singh in his book titled, Ranjit Singh;- Maharaja of Punjab, states, that, the Sikhs ‘did’ have enclaves of lands south of river Sutlej. Ferozepur town was claimed by the Sikhs. Since Rani Lakshman Kaur who ruled Ferozepur had died without any heir, the British declared it as their own territory by citing the doctrine of escheat. This was resented by the Lahore Durbar. 4.

The undulating, broken, and semi jungle terrain where the Battle of Moodkee was fought. Most land is cultivated now. Photograph by Zorawar Singh Jaiswal.

About six years after the demise of the Maharaja, the British built boats in Bombay for crossing the Sutlej. They sailed up in steamers till Phillour. 6. The Sikh Army suspected that, sooner or later, the British would have used them to cross the Sutlej to attack Lahore.   Khushwant Singh writes that a meeting was held at Rupar in Indian Punjab between the Maharaja and Lord William Bentinck along with Wade on 26 October 1831 to resolve the respective boundary claims. The Maharaja had doubted the British bonafides over Sindh and enquired, ‘whether the English planned to extend their dominion over Sindh?’ ‘No,’ assured Mr Wade, who further said that their interest in Sindh was purely commercial. Mr Bentinck during this meeting made it clear that the Lahore Durbar was to consider river Sutlej as its final southern boundary. The apprehensions of the Maharaja about the British intensions on Sindh were proved correct after his death. 5.

A 140 mm, smooth more, muzzle-loaded British Cannon used in the First Anglo Sikh War. It was cast in Yorkshire Foundries and fired cannonballs up to 2000m. Photographed by Zorawar Singh Jaiswal in Ferozepur in 2020.

   The British increased the strength of their forces at  Sirhind, Ambala, Sabathu, Shimla and Karnal. This sent clear signals to the Lahore Durbar about an impending British plan to capture Punjab 7.

 

   Over time, the British openly declared themselves as the protectors of Kingdoms that lay south of river Sutlej, though; some enclaves south of Sutlej were claimed by the Sikhs. The British also imposed restrictions on the Maharaja against extending his Kingdom to Tibet and beyond. 8. This dictate would have been considered as a breach of the Treaty of Amritsar by the Sikhs.

   The British were also competing with the Sikhs for the conquest of territories in Afghanistan. This is evident from the fact that, both Sikhs and the British, captured portions of Afghanistan at different timelines. Hence, it showed a clash of interest. 9,10.

   A crucial tactical aspect was the positioning of 12000 British troops at Firozepur (later reduced to 7000 men on 18 Dec 1845) for a campaign in the Khorasan region. 11. This force was merely 60 kilometers from the Lahore Durbar and posed a direct threat to the Sikhs. Once, the problem at Khorasan was resolved, the British should have moved these troops out of the buffer zone but, they did not do so.

   All these actions were noticed by the seasoned, battle hardy and blooded Sikh Army. Reading these indicators, they concluded; that sooner or later, a clash with the British was inevitable.

   Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the able leader of Punjab had died on 27 Jun 1839. 12. His capable progeny had been murdered. The consequent instability of the rule can be gauged from the fact that in the six years period between the Maharaja’s death and the Battle of Moodkee, the Regency of Punjab passed between Kharak Singh, Nau Nihal Singh, Rani Chand Kaur, Sher Singh and the Crown Prince Duleep Singh who was merely about seven years old but had his mother Rani Jind Kaur as the Regent. Hence, in the absence of a strong, able King, the Lahore Durbar Army started dominating.

   The political space was usurped by self-preserving petty chiefs in Punjab. They had been kept under control by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s able administration. Now, with the Maharaja having died and with no capable ruler to check them; the petty chiefs wanted  to destroy the Sikh Army. This was so because, they felt that, between them and their unbridled aspirations of amassing greater wealth and power, lay the Sikh Army. They were even willing to let the British rule Lahore provided they could retain their wealth, power and property. 13.

The Opening Gambit

   On 13 Nov 1845, these petty chiefs, General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh gathered the Sikh Army soldiers at the mausoleum of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and exhorted the Sikh Army to declare a war on the British before the latter could attack Lahore. 14.

   The Author’s ancestors too were present at this gathering. They recounted how, these petty chiefs whipped up frenzy and exhorted the soldiers to recall their past successes against the Afghans and in the same breath they said that, the British had been routed by the Afghans. Thus, these petty chiefs implied that the Sikhs could defeat the British too. They reminded the soldiers of their allegiance to the Lahore Durbar and induced them to swear on the Mausoleum of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to fight the British. That day, a unanimous resolution was passed at Lahore to attack the British. 15.

The Battle of Moodkee (now Mudki)

   Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham in his book, A History of the Sikhs, says that bands of Sikh soldiers started crossing the Sutlej between Kasur and Harike. 16, 17. The Author’s ancestors, Sardar Lal Singh and Sardar Saudagar Singh were irregular cavalrymen also known as Ghorcharas in the Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They too crossed over the Sutlej river with their steeds, swords, muskets and ammunition in the first wave, on that cold winter day of 11 Dec 1845. (Refer sketch).

 

Cartography by Zorawar Singh Jaiswal

   The Sikh forces as per our ancestors and Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham had been split up on the orders of General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh.  One group lay siege around Ferozepur fort that had been taken by the British after the death of Rani Lakshman Kaur by the British but this place was claimed by the Maharaja and the second but larger group encamped at Pherushuhur (Ferozeshah now). As per the Extraordinary Gazette published from Bombay on 22 Jan 1846 and subsequent war dispatches, referred earlier Ferozepur fort was defended by about 7000 British troops. This fort was however, not attacked. 18, 19.

   Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham says that General Lal Singh had received instructions from the British in Ferozepur through his clandestine agents that the Sikhs were not to attack the Ferozepur fort. Accordingly, General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh had maliciously propagated a view amongst the soldiers that, since the Lahore Durbar forces were mighty strong, it would befit them to kill the Governor-General of India in war, rather than, just finish of a small force located in Ferozepur. 18, 19.

   This propaganda and the subsequent orders were accepted by the Sikh forces in good faith and they did not destroy the British force at Ferozepur. This was in spite of having a preponderance of men, firepower, and time at their disposal. This deceitful propaganda was to cause a great loss to the Sikh Army in terms of loss of soldiers, armament, and a series of battles; ultimately the war.

  The major chunk of the Sikh forces which had got deployed in Pherushuhur (now called Ferozeshah) was at a mere distance of about 30 kilometers from Ferozepur. This force was commanded by General Lal Singh.

   Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham felt that the Sikh Army at Pherushuhur may have adopted the European tactics that were introduced by the Caucasian race Generals who were employed by the Maharaja to modernize his Army. 20.

   The British were not ignorant of these crossings. The Gazette under reference states, that on 11 December 1845 General Hugh Gough, the Commander in Chief in consultation with the Governor-General had ordered the movement of all available troops from the buffer zone.  Reinforcements were moved from Loodhiana (now Ludhiana) and from Umballa (Ambala now) through forced marches to save Ferozepur.

   The Sikhs too were aware of the arrival of the British expeditionary force. On 18 December 1845, General Lal Singh ordered a portion of his infantry and cavalry troops along with twenty-two artillery guns to move and encamp nine kilometers south of Pherushuhur at a village named Moodkee . The mission of this small force was not very well documented. When this body of troops reached Moodkee, it saw columns of dust in the air on that cold winter afternoon. They were clear that this was the British Army on the march. The Sikh Army contingents at Moodkee immediately started occupying the broken ground outside Moodkee village in the available folds and acacia jungles.

   Since the Sikh Army too was on a march; the column of dust kicked up by their troops too got spotted by the British. General Hugh Gough accordingly ordered his troops to march in battle order with the cavalry in the lead. Their horse-drawn artillery was next in line and infantry bringing up in the rear in brigade based columns.

   Both the armies were aware of each other’s general locations, courtesy the dust columns, but; lacked exact knowledge of deployments. The Sikhs did get a partial opportunity to dig their defences. The British preferred to move, rather than to dig down. Instead, they geared up for a skirmish using cavalry and horse-drawn artillery as they readied themselves to attack through manoeuvre and firepower. The crucial point to note is that Ferozepur, Pherushuhur and Moodkee were claimed as an enclave by the Sikhs. So technically the latter were on their own land!

   On 18 Dec 1845, around the local noon time, the Sikhs and the reinforcing British troops clashed outside Moodkee village.  As per Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham, the British troops had undertaken forced marches and had covered a distance of 150 miles in six days. This implies that, they would have left their heavy baggage and artillery behind for the slower echelons to bring up. Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham says that the troops were bereft of wholesome meals and rest.

   The Gazette notifications under references state that troops under General Lal Singh had a strength of 20000 infantry soldiers, 22 Heavy Artillery pieces, 8-10000 cavalry troops at Moodkee. These figures could have been exaggerated. The British had 7000 troops at Ferozepur under Major General John Littler. The combined force from Umbala and Loodhiana garrisons amassed to 10000 troops and 69 Field guns that were moved to Moodkee. This force was commanded by General Hugh Gough. 21.

   The Sikhs had entrenched their infantry and artillery in the available jungle thickets and folds in the ground outside Moodkee. 22. General Hugh Gough launched the attack with a cannonade of artillery fire which was reciprocated by the Sikh Artillery. This was followed up with attacks by British infantry fighting in company columns. Their cavalry pinned down the flanks of the Sikh Army and occupied their unguarded rear. The battle continued well into the night in that jungle. In fact, the last ninety minutes of hand to hand combat was fought in starlight with General Hugh Gough personally leading his men in the onslaught.  This combat was bloody, fierce and a determined fight to the end. As per Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham; General Lal Singh was initially there in the battlefield, but left when the combat started. The Author’s ancestors used to say that General Lal Singh’s absence was felt by the Sikh troops. In fact, they never saw him in the Battle of Moodkee. In all probability, General Lal Singh may have realized that his ambition was to amass wealth and power. In case he led the Sikh Army to victory at the cost of his life then; he would not be there to enjoy his wealth.  Accordingly, he may have abandoned the battlefield.

   This battle was fought primarily by the sheer grit, determination, and a sense of camaraderie prevailing amongst the Sikh Army soldiers. Since, no Generals were present to direct the manoeuvres of the arms or to ensure the relocation of artillery, infantry and the cavalry elements of the Sikh Army; the soldiers kept fighting as per their own strength and experience.  This form of warfare is against the principles of fighting a well-coordinated battle involving different arms. The British however, were responding to the dynamics of the battle field. General Hugh Gough and other officers were present in the thick of the Battle to take decisions to readjust their troops. 22.

   As per the Gazette, the Battle of Moodkee was won by the British. They captured 17 cannons of the Sikhs and both sides had suffered tremendous casualties. The Gazette under reference records that numerous senior British officers lost their lives while leading their men. Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham also states that when the British inspected the captured cannons of the Sikhs, they found almost all Sikh Army cannons intact. Whilst at least, a third of the British cannons were found disabled. This aspect was also recorded by the Brigade Major of the British Artillery Brigade in the gazette notifications that are being referred here. This indicates that the Muslim gunners of the Maharaja’s Army had skillfully brought down accurate fire to destroy the British cannons. At the same time, they were able to ensure the safety of their own cannons by concealing them within the acacia trees and the folds of the ground.  23.

Lessons Learnt.

   The Sikh generals had were bought over by the Britishers even before crossing the Sutlej on 11 Dec 1845. They deliberately did not capture Ferozepur.  This enabled the British to have a fighting base for furthering their Sutlej Campaign. Major General John Littler’s force should have been destroyed before General Hugh Gough’s reinforcements were intercepted at Moodkee.

   The Sikhs had full six days from 12th to 17th Dec 1845 to finish off 7000 British troops at Ferozepur. Had this been done, the British would not have got a reprieve by the arrival of fresh troops from Ferozepur fort in the Battle of Pherushuhur that was subsequently fought on 21 and 22 December 1845.

   Off course, this was not to happen because General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh as per Captain Joseph Davey Cunningham had been told by the British to avoid attacking Major General Littler’s force at Ferozepur fort.

   The Battle of Moodkee was the first test of strength between the Sikh Army and the British. The British forces had excellent leadership at the forefront, while General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh were absent.  Hence, the Sikhs lost this battle due to the lack of senior experienced commanders who could have ensured the timely readjustment of the infantry, artillery, cavalry and lead the Sikh Army to victory.

   The Lahore Durbar’s Army had lost 17 cannons. This either indicates that the British strategy was to capture this powerful asset even at formidable costs to reduce their own casualties or, they had managed to separate the Sikh infantry and artillery through skillful manoeuvre and warfare.   This probably happened because, the crew strength of artillery weapons were less than the enemy’s attacking infantry. Artillery has to get inherent protection with its proximity to own infantry. The British were able to separate the artillery and infantry of the Sikh Army. As a result, the Sikh Army cannons may have got captured when bereft of the inherent protection of the infantry.   After winning at Moodkee, the British attacked the Sikhs at Pherushuhur on 21 Dec 1845. The Author’s ancestors used to say that this gap between 19 to 21 Dec 1845 would have enabled the heavy cannons of the British to be fetched up. The British may also have got time to ascertain the Sikh deployments. In addition General Hugh Gough’s and Major General Littler’s forces married up during the attack at Pherushuhur. This combined strength of the British may have been more than the strength of the Sikh Army at Pherushuhur.

   The Author’s ancestors also felt that the Moodkee attack should not have been allowed to peter out. General Tej Singh’s reserves should have been pressed into the Battle of Moodkee. It would have had a cascading effect in the subsequent battles and may be the Second Anglo Sikh War may never have been needed to be fought.

   The British did a lot of overt activities that provoked the Sikhs to cross the Sutlej but; a question arises that, should the Sikhs have crossed this river?  The import of this aspect  becomes evident if one reads an account of the Battle of Sobraon.

   But, if the Sikhs had not crossed the Sutlej, then; the British would have crossed it on their own initiative. Afterall, is that not the reason why, the British got boats built at Bombay and sailed them up the Sutlej river.

   This is something which, now, no one can tell. Based upon the books and the war dispatches referred in this article, it can be concluded that the Battle of Moodkee was a hard fought battle by both sides. However, the advantage gained by the Sikhs by taking the initiative of crossing the Sutlej was not allowed to be exploited by General Lal Singh and General Tej Singh. This led to the defeat of the Sikhs at the Battle of Moodkee, where, the almost certain victory, slipped out of the fingers of the Sikh Army.

END NOTES

  1. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 284-285. In addition, the verbal narrations of the author’s ancestors Sardar Lal Singh (not to be confused with the traitor General Lal Singh) and Sardar Saudagar Singh, who had fought at Moodkee and other places have also been referred in this research.
  2. https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Amritsar
  3. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 281-282.
  4. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. XXV.
  5. Khushwant Singh, Ranjit Singh, Maharaja of the Punjab, Penguin Books, Gurgaon, 2008, ISBN 9780143440420, pp. ,206, 218,219, 225.
  6. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 278, 281.
  7. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 279, 301.
  8. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 287.
  9. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 282, 287.
  10. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 282, 284, 285.
  11. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 291.
  12. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ranjit-Singh-Sikh-maharaja
  13. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 275, 275, 285, 291.
  14. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 286.
  15. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 286.
  16. The Bombay Government Gazette Extraordinary Publications, Published from Bombay Fort in 1845,46 about the First Anglo Sikh War. Sourced from the Qatar Digital Library archives. Digital document number ‘Book 150 1846’ [5v] (10/82)
  17. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 286.
  18. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 291.
  19. The Bombay Government Gazette Extraordinary Publications, Published from Bombay Fort in 1845,46 about the First Anglo Sikh War. Sourced from the Qatar Digital Library archives. Digital document number ‘Book 150 1846’ [5r], p. All.
  20. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 293.
  21. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 290
  22. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, pp. 294 – 298.
  23. Captain Jospeh Davey Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs, Edited by H.L.O Garrett, MA, I.E.S, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1918. Digitised version sourced from University of Toronto, Number 31761011153970, p. 297.