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The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

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The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby Mark » September 23rd, 2013, 5:33 pm

Another anniversary this time the Battle of Assaye fought on 23rd September 1803. The battle was fought in India and proved to be a great success for Arthur Wellesley (the later Duke of Wellington). I would imagine most members are familiar with this action but if not please take a look at this Wikipedia article for a basic introduction:

Please feel free to discuss the battle below.


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Re: The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby Josh&Historyland » September 23rd, 2013, 8:53 pm

The Duke was once asked what was the best thing he ever did in the way of fighting.
He replied with one word "Assaye" and when you understand the battle you can see why.
Wellington's time in India is an unparalleled time in his career as being separated from home government by thousands of miles and answering only to his brother he showed a true offensive spirit and flare of dash and daring. Often outnumbered heavily, Wellesley was rarely on the Defensive, showing superb timing and his patent eye for ground and position he won some of his most spectacular victories on the scale of Slamanca when he was in India.
Dare I say it you almost see a Napoleonic streak in him. He governed his own state of Seringapatam and made alliances and wars as he saw fit, he lead cavalry charges, and revolutionising the supply system of his army, he took the fight to the enemy. This was possible because of his "Creative freedom" and you can just tell how big a change he had to adapt to when he took command in Portugal. Commenting bitterly at Vimeiro when Burrard told him not to pursue the French, that they had all better look forwards to shooting fowl. Wereas in India he could take risks in the Peninsula he was the commander of Britain's only large scale army and thus bided his time for six years, never moving unless he was sure of victory, a relentless unremitting machine like quality pervaded his command style that slowly pushed the French out of Spain and Portugal, rather like a Chessplayer who denies every move to the enemy except those which he wants him to make, a flash of the old India spirit can be seen in the brilliant attack at Salamanca and more controversially in the Burgos debacle were it was misplaced.

Assaye shows him at his offencive best, facing some 40,000 men with less than 10,000 (pretty sure the number was between 9 and 6,000) he fixed the Maratha's in place by an outflanking move, (he read the ground well as usual, finding an unguarded ford of the River Kaitna) then under terrible deployed his men in line with cavalry on the left on a narrow field jammed between the river Kaitna and Juah, then advanced en echelon and drove the enemy from the field. On his right things got hairy when Maratha cavalry descended on an exposed flank near the village of Assaye, his cavalry under Maxwell drove them off, more trouble appeared when Indian gunners feigning death retook their guns and Wellesley lead a regiment of Native cavalry to retake them. He lost three horses under him I think, one his Arab Diomed took a pike thrust from close range,meh doubtless had to draw his sword in the Melee. One last push sent the enemy running though his Cavalry commander Maxwell was killed at the end of the battle. He wrote afterwards that he hoped never to incur the same loss even at twice the result, and was visited by a recurring nightmare that they had all been killed.

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Re: The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby jasonubych » September 24th, 2013, 12:20 pm

Rare Old Medals and Story
I have had a little look at the men from the 74th and 78th highlanders, the regiments being raised around my local area.
The Battle being fought in 1803 and the Army of India medal handed out in 1851 not many survived to claim it.
Only 37 being handed out the the 78th and the 74th who suffered terrible casaulties claimed only 19 making it one of the rarest of british medals.
Two men who fought with wellington at Assaye and the Peninsula

Sergeant william Graham from Collesy Fife. enlisted aged 19
Was awarded, Army of India Medal for Assaye, Argaum and Gawilghur.
Military general service Medal for Busaco, Fuentes D'Onor, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthes and Toulouse.

Sergeant Alexander Sutherland, born in Dornoch Sutherland. Enlisted aged 23 in 1799.
Was wounded at Assaye and served in ten engagements in India and the Peninsula.
Was awarded, Army of India medal for Assaye, Argaum and Gawilghur
Military General service Medal for Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Orthes and Toulouse.

Im sure only Lord wellington can match Sergeant Grahams hall of Clasps.

Mount-Stewart Elphinstone's letters

The sketch of the battle-field given by that General indicates the
first position taken up by the enemy. One-half of his infantry was
extended a little in rear of the rocky bank of the river, and comprised
about ten thousand men, and between them and the river from seventy
to eighty pieces of cannon were placed in position, sending occasionally
a shot the way of our troops. One of their camps was laid out
immediately in rear of this line, and further to the rear, and at a distance
of about 600 paces from the first, their second line of infantry, about
equal in number, was drawn up in reserve, their, left resting on the
defences of the village of Assaye, while in its rear, and at a distance
varying from one hundred to two hundred yards, lay the Joee nulla, a
dry water-course that served to give its peninsular form to this famous
battle-field. Their cavalry, 30,000 at least, were drawn up in masses on
the right on the camp referred to, their particular camp being at some
distance away in the same direction. These turned out to be more
formidable in appearance than in reality, their very numbers and the
confined space wherein they could manoeuvre being against them. The
cavalry achievements may be summed up in a sentence or two : a portion
delivered a pretty successful charge at an early stage of the battle, but
for the rest of the day they idled about, and were the first to fly. The
numerous artillery of the enemy was, however, well served, and did much
execution early in the battle, disposing effectually of our seventeen
pieces, from which we have the word of the General that not more than
100 rounds were fired.
While he himself was away hurrying up the infantry, the General had
instructed the inspection of the ground in front, and the finding of a
ford where at to cross, to Captain Johnstone of the Engineers, "a very
zealous, active, cool, useful man," who on the return of his commander
'ore following our countrymen to the assault of this formidable
position, let us see what their number amounted tc. They appeared to
he few enough in all conscience! The General, in first coming in sight
of the enemy, saw that in depending upon his spies he had made a
mistake, hut as he afterwards explained, in the hearing of Elphinstone,
to retreat in the presence of such a force of cavalry was a vastly greater
danger than to encounter infantry and cavalry combined, and the event
proved the sure-footedness of his judgment. " He said one morning
that 'so and so would have happened if we had been beat, and then I
would have made a gallows of my ridge pole and have hanged myself.' *

Wellesley's ablest subordinate was the gallant Colonel Maxwell,
commander of the four regiments of horse, which numbered at most
1200 men ; two of these, the 19th and 4th, were excellent, and on these
the burden of the fighting fell; the other two functed it badly, so that
at the crisis of the action. Major Huddleston, the commander of one
of them, was heard crying out, "Where is my regiment?" The excuse
given for these was that both were newly raised, and had never been
in action before.
The British infantry engaged consisted of the 74th, 560 effectives;
the 78th, Ross-shire Buffs, 600 effectives; four battalions of native
infantry, consisting of 500 effectives each, and one battalion, numbers
not stated, formed of picquets ; artillery, 150 men; pioneers, numbers
not given ; the whole force numbering slightly over 5000 men.

Our troops had up to now marched on a line perpendicular to the
centre of that of the enemy ; the new direction was to the right, and
at an obtuse angle to the former, so as to strike the ford and form for
the attack towards the enemy's left. The obvious intention of this
manoeuvre was at once detected by these, and the excellence of their
discipline was at once made apparent by the celerity with which a new
alignment was taken at right angles to their former position, their left
now leaning upon Assaye and their right on the Kaitna; their artillery
accompanying the evolution with corresponding celerity, and at once
proceeded to open fire on the British lines forming for the attack, to
which we shall now return.
The chief trouble experienced by our people at the ford was the
getting the guns across, but that was at last done, and shortly after, and
while the lines of attack were in course of formation, they proceeded
to reply, but were speedily reduced to silence by the numerous pieces
of the enemy. The first line of the British, counting from the left, or
river bank, was formed of the 78th, two native battalions, and the
battalion of picquets, unhappily commanded by an incapable fool, whose
name has been in mercy suppressed. This latter was named the
battalion of direction, and in order to give as wide a berth as possible
to the enemy clustered around Assaye, who were to be attended to after-
wards, he was ordered to march perpendicular to his front, but instead
of doing so, he, during the half-mile to be traversed, so inclined to the
right, as to come in front of that village where, it is presumed, he halted.
The second line was formed still counting from the left of two native
battalions and the 74th, the latter overlapping by a few companies the
battalion of picquets in front ; the third line was formed of the cavalry,
the immediate duty before it being to protect the flank of the 74th.
The general principle impressed on both armies being to avoid distant
fighting, and to come to close quarters with the bayonet and sabre.

All seems to have gone well with the 78th and the two native
battalions, for on coming into contact with the enemy a few volleys
and close view of steel set these aflying, some away altogether,
while others were made to rally upon the reserve line, who
up to this did not fire a shot. But matters went otherwise with the
gallant 74th. By the misbehaviour of the battalion of direction a wide
gap of a dangerous character was formed into which the 74th had to
pass, which brought upon it a tremendous fire of artillery and small arms,
and next, the one charge of cavalry which the enemy made. The 74th
would have literally been wiped off the army list but for the splendid
charge of the cavalry under Maxwell by means of which the survivors
were extricated, the enemy's cavalry scattered, and the battle restored.
At this stage of the fight there seems to have been a good deal of
confusion elsewhere also. The General and his staff were advancing
on what they took to be our first line, when a gun was fired at them.
somebody said, " Sir! that is the enemy's line I " The General said,
it? Ha. damme so it is." They, however, soon found their own. At
this point, with the remnant of the 74th as the new flank, the native
battalions were formed in prolongation so as to form a line parallel with
that of the still unbroken reserve line of the enemy, the 78th working
round to its original position at the left Bank. Manifestly there was a
good deal of serious fighting here, both of shooting and charging, and
not always successful. The hulk of the enemy stood firm, those only
which were charged by the 78th giving way. and while seeking the shelter
of the Joee nulla close by, Maxwell, who had been waiting an opportunity
to charge, did so now with great effect. Here the General in person
reformed the 78th, and supporting them with one of the native
battalions, hurled the Ross-shire lads against the flank and rear of the
still unbroken reserve of the enemy. The 78th could not be denied,
but the foemen were worthy of their steel ; they moved off in soldierlike
array, a fact sufficiently established by this other; Maxwell having got
his people out of the Nulla charged this force, but was driven off, himself
at that moment been slain. The next move of the 78th was towards
the centre of the peninsula, where they captured 57 pieces of the
enemy's cannon at a stroke. This finished the battle ; there was, of
course, no pursuit, everybody was too exhausted for that, but the enemy
seems to have scattered in all directions of themselves, 200 alone
remaining together as an organised force.
All agree that this was the bloodiest battle, up to the period of the
conquest of Scinde, ever fought in India. Cuddalore is the only one,
Elphinstone says, he ever heard compared to it, but there our forces
consisted of 12,000, and their loss but 600 killed and wounded. The
loss of the enemy at Assaye was most severe. The bodies of 1200 were
buried on the field, while their wounded was estimated at 3000. The
78th, though doing the heaviest part of the fighting, were fortunate in
having to bear but a small proportion of the loss. They had Lieut.
Douglas and 27 men killed, and four officers, four sergeants, and
seventy-three men wounded. The 74th, however, had eleven officers,
nine sergeants, and 127 rank and file killed; seven officers, eleven
sergeants, seven drummers, and 270 rank and file wounded. Our loss
altogether being 1548, of which 600 were Europeans.
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Re: The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby jasonubych » September 24th, 2013, 12:24 pm

A little story i found in "The HISTORY OF ROSS-SHIRE"

Sergeant Alexander Bain, of the 78th, was to the last a big, powerful
man, and for his conspicuous gallantry at the taking of Java, where he
was the first who entered the works of the enemy, he was, though
illiterate, promoted to the rank of sergeant, and retired on the corres-
ponding pension. To his dying day he was known all over the district
by his alias of " Java," to which he answered as readily as his own name.
On falling out of the ranks at Assaye he, like many others, was consumed
with thirst, but, happily, the Kaitna River, though decidedly sanguinary
in hue, was not far off. Taking hold of the only vessel at hand, a tin
pail which had once contained tar, the lubricant then used for gun
axles, he descended the rocky bank, and having filled the unsavoury-
utensil, regained the level ground and proceeded to quench his thirst.
While thus engaged a mounted officer rode up and cried: "Spare a
little, my lad." " Java " at once handed the pail to the officer, whom
he now recognised as his General. Wellesley showed no symptoms of
squeamishness — the then vaunted virtues of tar water, no doubt,
assisting — placed the pail to his lips and all but emptied it. Handing
back the utensil with thanks to his entertainer, he rode off in the direction
of the village of Assaye, where we know, from Elphinstone, that he
passed the night. Bain was always remarkably reticent regarding his
achievements both in India and Java, but nothing was easier than to
draw him out with respect to the occasion when he had the honour of
entertaining the future pacificator of Europe with Tar Water!
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Re: The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby Josh&Historyland » September 24th, 2013, 3:34 pm

The 74th were with the composite pIquet battalion under Major Orrock I think (that incapable fool whose name mercy suppressed) positioned on the right flank of Wellesley's line, strayed off despite precise orders not to go near Assaye and were charged and cut up by Maratha cavalry. Managing to form square they piled up the bodies of the dead as makeshift walls until help in the form of Maxwell's 19th LD and native cavalry charged.
On the left were the 78th against the bank of the Kaitna then the 10th Madras Native infantry. As the piquet's and 74th went astray a gap developed between the 10th MNI and the 74th, here I think Wellesley brought up his second line to the front so the 4th MNI took post to the right of the 10th and the 12th MNI made up the right flank of the infantry line that attacked the Maratha front.
During the loss of the captured guns Wellesley not only threw in the 7th Native Cavalry but sent the 78th back to retake them, causing a delay in the final attack in which Maxwell was killed.

A good day for the Highlanders, but a costly one. Great in depth stories there Jason.

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Re: The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby jf42 » October 17th, 2014, 7:12 pm

"Wellesley, who had had one horse killed, and another
wounded with a spear, passed the night on the ground,
close to an officer whose leg was shot off, and within five
yards of a dead officer.

'' The General was so overcome by his great and
gallant exertions throughout the day, so overpowered both
in mind and body, that during the greater part or whole of
the following night he sat on the ground with his head
bent down between his knees, and said not a word to
any one!
*M.S. note in India Office Library.

("The 19th and their times", Colonel John Biddulph, 1899)
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Re: The Battle of Assaye, 23rd September 1803

Postby Josh&Historyland » October 17th, 2014, 8:20 pm

Probably the first time he broke down on the field, mental/psychological/physical exhaustion, yet not often quoted. It would be well for people to remember what a sensitive boy he had been.

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