Thought members might like to read this post from Britannia Magazine Facebook page last week, Monson's Disgraceful Setback. By yours truly. Pretty much a Company army getting its behind royally kicked by a giant army of cavalry.
In India it was often better to either stand and fight or attack and let fate take its course. Wether by dint of your firepower, your steel or your ready cash; defeat or victory, death or glory would attend the issue. Armies however that tried to avoid the hand of fate and retreated, though in practice a perfectly acceptable piece of military strategy, in India very often it was worse than defeat, it courted utter destruction.
The 18th century was a time of rise and decay for the powers of India. British power was on the rise due to Lord Mornington's Forward Policy. After the near collapse of the East India Company in the 1770's and the scandal over Warren Hasting's, Lord Cornwallis had been a conservative Governor General, fighting to maintain rather than annex. Little did anyone know that the company would come close to doing so once more. Indeed it might be said that the future of British India, which at the time was still very much a Georgian commercial concern rather than the Victorian social experiment, was on the line, and for a while it wasn't looking rosy at all. Company armies and been turned back at Seringapatam in 179, and indeed, had even been crushed to obliteration by the former sultan of Mysore, the great Hyder Ali. Indian princes were beginning to raise their own Sepoy armies, trained by European mercenaries and were becoming as adept and professional as their EIC counterparts. Another ten years and the face of India could have changed dramatically.
However that altered with the coming of Lord Mornington. Glamorous, greedy, cunning and determined, Mornington had moved swiftly to build up the struggling EIC. It was a portentous time for an aggressive statesman to take the helm. The Mughal empire had been in decay since the turn of the century, and it was now crumbling at the foundations. Now the empire that had taken pity on a ragged band of European traders when Arangazeb had been on the throne had no choice but to become little more than a vassal of this glorified bunch of shopkeepers. Meanwhile the Maratha confederacy, which for some time had seemed on the verge of a greatness to equal their former Mughal overlords was now splintering into chaos.
Mornington took the Powerful state of Hyderabad and the Mughal's into the EIC fold and with their help, kept the Marathas at a distance while he crushed Mysore in 1799. At a stroke removing a mighty foe and the political influence of France in India. After this a propitious calamity befell the Marathas. A civil war broke out which deposed the Peshwa, who not unlike the Shogun in Japan exercised executive power in the name of the Sultan. Defeated, the Peshwa turned to the British offering to bring the confederacy under their influence if they protected him. Mornington now interposed into Maratha affairs to restore him as a British dependant and set the seal on his term as Governor. Things had started well. His brother Arthur and Lord Lake won a string of victories in late 1803, knocking Daulat Rao Scindia, Maharaja of Gwalior, out of the war. After moving to cover Delhi, Lake then made some limited gains in Jeypoor against the remaining Maratha leader, the Maharajah of Indore, Yashwantrao Holkar, but without a decisive engagement he called off operations until after the summer of 1804.
Lake retreated to Agra, leaving behind a heavy rearguard of 10,000 under Lt. Colonel William Monson at Tonk Rampura to guard the strategic passes at Bhundi and Lakheri. General Wellesley in Deccan sent a 5,300 Anglo-European force North to Ujjain in order to support Lake under Colonel Murray. The feeling was that Holkar was little more than a bandit, whose army was deserting him.
Colonel Monson was an experienced officer but was impetuous, he felt strong enough to continue operations himself. Yet for an experienced Commander he failed to provide for a Monsoon campaign in a country full of mud an rivers. And apparently he did not foresee a long campaign. He marched south depending on present rations and the aid of local princes. As he did, he was drawn further and further away from support by a succession of congenial rajas and a lack of enemy opposition.
Meanwhile Holkar was marshalling his strength. He was the wiliest of the Marathas, and had correctly identified that the field of battle was no place to defeat the British. He had preached his tactical doctrines of avoidance and concentration to his less successful confederates while not lifting a finger to help until they had been so reduced that only he could save them.
Ominously Holkar believed in operating almost exclusively with what on paper seems like stupidly large cavalry forces, while holding his infantry and guns back to hold forts or for the killer stroke. All of which only fostered the idea that he was just a trumped up Pindarri. Hearing of the British advance he had moved swiftly to the Chambral, stopping only long enough to water his horses. His field army consisting of 10,000 irregular cavalry in 4 Goles, or masses.
By late June Monson was almost 250 miles away from help. He had stormed Holkar's Fort at Hingleshgarh, beyond the Mokandra Pass, but Holkar was now operating between the two Company armies, hoping to land a blow on one or the other. Both of were unsure as to where the other was. This was when disaster struck. After taking Ujjain Murray had pulled back in order to escape the advancing monsoon. When Monson heard of this he ordered a retreat to Mokandra.
This left Holkar with the envious advantage of what in Europe was called being in the central position. He decided to cross the Chambral River to attack the British. Daringly or unwittingly Monson elected to countermarch and catch Holkar as he crossed over, however by the time he got within 12 miles of the Marathas he discovered that they had already got over and his courage abandoned him. Monson, with only 2 days rations left and the majority of his force, made the curious decision to fall back to Mokandra where some companies under Major Sinclair were posted, leaving a rearguard of 2,500 cavalry to keep the Maratha's back.
The Commander was an ex-Maratha officer, an Irishman named Lucan, now in charge of the Hindustani and Rajput irregulars and allied cavalry from Khota and Scindia. The duty of a rearguard is to cut and run, but Lucan wanted glory before turning tail and watched for an opportune moment to charge. When it came, half his command either defected or retreated. But Lucan, Prithee Raj and the son of the Rajah of Shekâwat with 3 squadrons numbering 1,500 men, checked Holkar's vanguard and then fell back, and repulsed the charge of Wahud Ali Khan's elite Bunja Cavalry. Their success proved in vain, for later they were surrounded and obliterated. Meanwhile another allied force from Khota maybe 1,500 strong, under Hara Rajput Chief Umr Singh having been ordered to hold to the west of Lucan, "spread his carpet" at Peeply Peeply and contested the passage of the Amjar, he was killed leading his men, 450 of whom died with him.
Holkar then caught up with Monson at the pass, which Colonel Skinner wrote could have been defended against all the armies of Hindustan, Gen Wellesley who studied all the official reports sympathised with Monson and admitted most passes in India could he got around, nevertheless also criticised the retreat. Holkar had raced ahead and left his artillery far behind. Due to this Holkar offered the British terms, which were refused and the Maratha cavalry charged his position but the disciplined company Infantry repelled each charge. Just to offset this encouraging stand, the monsoon began on 10 July. Monson also seems to have been in a retreating mindset, and fearing that the swollen waters of the upper Chandral and the Banas would prevent his escape and having lost all of his cavalry felt he could not prevent the pass being turned, Monson abandoned his position.
Monson's cumbersome army, formed in a square lumbered up to the walls of Kotah and were told by Rajah Zalim Singh that he could not let them in, or offer him troops, unless he promised to attack Holkar with him. This was a blow, but Zalim Singh would suffer when Holkar came if he helped Monson escape. He did give the British boats to cross the Chandral, and let them camp below his walls. With the countryside turning into a vast sea of mud, Monson collected some pathetic food supplies and draught animals, while Holkar struggled to bring up his, near 200 guns through the downpour.
Monson seemed unable to see any action ending in a favourable scenario and so he left Kotah and marched to Rampura. Worse it was here he left his many camp followers, who sadly were reported as being shown little mercy by Holkar's men. The voracious Maratha cavalry caught up with him, Monson had by this time spiked and abandoned most of his guns, and a desperate fight ensued as the Company Infantry attempted to get over a swollen Nullah that blocked their way. The ravaged army reached Rampura on the 27th. At Rampura Monson found supplies forwarded by Lord Lake, as well as much needed reinforcements and guns, which included some cavalry the type of which India never seemed to run out. Lake ordered him to hold his position and fight it out. But Monson's courage had yet to return. Holkar had crossed the troublesome Nullah and was closing the gap by the time Monson pulled out of Rampura on 20 August, having consumed most of his provisions.
The stage was set when the Company troops reached the deep, swollen barrier of the Banas on the 22nd. The next day the Rajah appeared at the head of with his numberless horsemen, and peering through the dense curtains of rain he saw that he had his enemies Where he wanted them. The British were desperately ferrying loot and equipment over the river in leaky local boats, one battalion was already over the river but the rest were still high and dry, figuratively.
The 24th of August saw the British baggage and 3 battalions over the river, and Holkar dismounted his cavalry and threw them forwards, while sending more horsemen and his Pindaris across the Banas on both flanks to cut the British retreat. As the Marathas encroached on Monson's rear he hurriedly fed his troops across the water until only one battalion remained. Holkar had brought up some guns and opened fired. The sepoys of the 2/2nd Bengal Native Infantry formed the rearguard under Major Sinclair. They were probably amongst Monson's best battalions. Sinclair had stormed the Fort at Hingleshgarh at the beginning of the campaign, he now seized the colour's and made a series of heroic but futile charges capturing almost every gun. But a Maratha counterattack recaptured them all and, now out of ammunition the battalion and the composite picqet battalion was all but wiped out, either by Maratha tulwars or by the fast, deep waters of the Banas.
Holkar was scenting victory. He pushed his cavalry and guns across the river and Monson now took the drastic step of abandoning his supplies and wounded. Through the rest of that hellish day the the company troops marched 50 miles through the rain, formed in square so they could repel the Maratha cavalry snapping at their heels. At 11pm on the 25th Monson's bedraggled force hauled itself into Khushalgarh where he was succoured by a train of 1,000 bullocks sent up by Lord Lake.
For the last time Monson considered an stand, but the masses of Maratha cavalry filled him with despair and supposedly "he did not trust his men". Holkar now had galloper guns with him and the sound of their dire reports accompanying the rumble of thunder and the drumming of rain persuaded Monson to continue the retreat the remaining miles to Agra.
The last gun was duly spiked the injured of the day before reluctantly abandoned and the army formed into square. Infamously the British officers of the irregular cavalry deserted their men and shifted for themselves. From the 25th to the 28th the dying army exacted a toll from their enemies. Keeping order even under such trying circumstances, somehow having kept enough powder dry to the Marathas get close before giving them a volley. But whenever they halted to repel Holkar's cavalry the Rajah's galloper guns hit them, on the 28th they were a feast for Tulwhars, and it was every man for himself. A horde of stragglers, hounded by the relentless Maratha cavalry, managed to reach Fatepur, but by now the countryside had turned on the British. With nowhere to run, Monson pretended to ask Holkar for terms and escaped with what men he had left.
On the 31st of August a sorry trickle of a few hundred men staggered into Agra. A ragged ad hoc battalion, mostly composed of NCO's lead by a British sergeant marched into the city 1,500 men strong according to Colonel Skinner, with colour's flying. What was notable was that they arrived after most of the British officers got there.
Five and a half battalions had been destroyed, all guns captured. Holkar descended on Delhi, his forces swollen to between 80-90,000 men and put it under siege. As naked and mutilated sepoys started to be brought in, company morale plummeted and desertion rose, of note is the amount of regular Maratha forces that were comparable in discipline and arms to their Company opponents happy to welcome deserters. However this same cruelty undid Holkar, and eventually it stiffened the resolve of the company sepoys. Lake hastened with all his available forces to save the Mughal Capitol and it's gallant commander General Ochterlorny. Lake lifted the Maratha siege and defeated Holkar in November, pursuing him relentlessly with his own cavalry, and forgave Monson, who played a lead role in the campaign, however his progress ended in bloody failure in 1805 before the walls of Bhurtpore. And a common taunting jibe was coined by the Jhat defenders and spread around India as a result. "Come take Bhurtpore" they chanted mockingly, and a new bastion called the Futteh Boorg built afterwards was said to have been built over or on top of the collected bones of the men who fell in the breach.
The British had been blunted but Holkar had been beaten in the field and in a further campaign he could gather no support to continue the war. The whole affair was treated by the "cheesmongers of Leadenhall street" as a motive to remove Lord Mornington, whose "Forward policy" had obviously failed. They sent out Lord Cornwallis again ordering him to make peace with the Marathas. Mornington was replace in July 1805 but Cornwallis died soon after returning to India. A treaty was signed with Holkar in January 1806
Wellesley wrote a memorandum on the retreat which was widely hailed as a masterpiece of military writing. General Napier credited it as the bedrock on which his victories were made in 1845. Based on letters from Lake, Monson and Murray, it gave objective facts alongside his own opinion, he highlighted the terrible mistake of not attacking from the start or at least digging in at some point. Colonel Skinner was also of the opinion that a lack of sufficient audacity was the downfall of Monson, for in great part it was due to the aggressive tactics of Holkar, who without Infantry and lumbered with just under 200 guns in an area that becomes a thick soup during the monsoon, chased and destroyed a well trained and equipped company army and nearly brought the EIC to its knees.
With thanks to Manimugdha Sharma.
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