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A Look At Elements Of The War Fare Of The Sikhs


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Sikhs are a small religious group founded by Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century. In all after Guru Nanak there were 9 Sikh Gurus. The last being Guru Gobind who created the ‘Khalsa’ on baisakhi the New Year of Punjab.

The Sikhs appeared during the Mughal rule and generally kept to themselves .However with the Advent of Aurangzeb and his policy of persecution, made the Sikhs take up arms against the Mughals. But it was best a hit and run affair as the Sikhs could not match the Imperial Mughal Army. But with the weakening of the Mughall rule after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Sikhs began to assert themselves and increasingly became the Masters of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh soon took over the Punjab and with the blessings of Shah Shuja proclaimed himself Maharaja at Lahore.

The Sikh military history really starts with Ranjit Singh.Bound by treaty with the British wherein he recognized the River Sutlej as this southern boundary the Sikhs turned their attention to the west and north for their conquest. In 1820 he started to modernize his army and took the help of European officers.

The Sikh army was a volunteer force. But it appears they were not paid regularly and sometimes behaved like mercenaries.

However credit must be given to Ranjit Singh who modernized the Army and set up his Artillery regiments under the guidance of European mercenary officers. In addition he had corps of Infantry and cavalry. But Artillery had pride of place in his army. This Army started a campaign against the Afghans and Pathans of the North West Frontier. The Sikh army from all accounts under the Generalship of Hair Singh Nalwa acquitted itself well against the Afghans and Peshawar was occupied. Furious battles were fought and the Sikh Army reached to the Khyber Pass.

In the north, Kashmir and Ladakh were occupied under General Zorawar Singh. Ranjit Singh had allied himself with the British and he aided the British in their Afghan war in 1838 and the Sikh troops took part in the Victory parade at Kabul.

The Demise of Ranjit Singh brought to the fore the Ills of the Sikh army. Unlike the western powers Ranjit created no training academy for his troops and the battles at the most were adhoc affairs with no planning. Staff work to frame a war plan was not known. This proved decisive in battles with the British.

The first Anglo Sikh war (1845-45) was more of a compulsion for the rulers of Lahore. Intrigue and murder ruled the roost in the durbar and the Khalsa fauj untrained and restive and underpaid created quite a fear in the hearts of the elite at Lahore. This was a serious drawback of the Sikh army. It appears though the European officers gave training yet they could not control the unruly elements of the Sikh army. To forestall and keep the Sikh army occupied the first Anglo Sikh war was launched. The Sikhs crossed the river at Mudki near Ferozpur and met the British in a head long battle. From all accounts the battle was fierce and the British suffered heavy causalities. The Sikh gunners also acquitted themselves creditably. But the genarlship was poor and lacked motivation. The Sigh general Labh Singh reportedly fled from the battle and a golden opportunity to defeat the British was lost.
An analysis shows that the Sikhs fought with tremendous bravery but without following the principles of war the Sikh army could not press home their advantage. They were defeated. Subsequent battles at Aliwal, Sabraon and Chillianwala (second Anglo Sikh war) met with the same fate. The generalship was poor and there appeared to be a surprising lack of will among the top echelons of the Sikh army to defeat the British. Planning so essential in a campaign was conspicuously absent. Thus one of the fundamental principles of war was conspicuously ignored.

The Sikh gunners were good as per all accounts but again a number of times their aim went hay wire. In contrast the British came to battle with a proper plan and clear aim. The Anglo Sikh wars spelt the death knell of the Sikh empire and the end of the Sikh army.

The period of Sikh historical rule in India is small (50 years) but there is no doubt that the Sikhs gave a much better account of themselves than other Indian rulers against the British during the same period. The Sikh army created a favorable impression on the British who incorporated them as a martial race in the British Indian Army. These soldiers acquitted themselves with credit in campaigns during the two wars and the battles against the Afghans in the frontier. An example of the bravery of the Sikhs is the battle of Saragarhi on 12 Sept 1897 when a contingent of 21 Sikh soldiers held off an afghan Muslim horde of 10000.This battle can be compared the battle of Thermopylae.

There are reports that the entire British Parliament stood up to honor the bravery of the Sikhs. Sikhs have been individually very brave but in collective battle conditions have been led down by poor generalship and lack of tactical planning. This was a major flaw in their art of war.



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