THE TURNING POINT OF THE FIRST ANGLO-SIKH WAR COMES AT ALIWAL AS SIR HARRY SMITH FIGHTS THE PERFECT BATTLE, AND THE 16th LANCERS RIDE TO GLORY.
Following their humiliation in the First Afghan War (1839 to 1842), British prestige on the subcontinent was badly eroded. In the Punjab the independent and well-armed Sikhs were looking to take advantage of perceived British weakness to expand their kingdom into the Bengal. At the close of 1845 the growing instability of the Sikh government, the bellicose arrogance of the Khalsa (the army of the Sikh Kingdom), and tensions between the Sikhs and the British East India Company led to the outbreak of the First Anglo-Sikh War.
This map of India in 1848 shows the political geography at the time of the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The Sikh kingdom is in the upper left, the northwest portion of the subcontinent. Below is a map of the operational area during the 1845-46 First Anglo-Sikh War.
The Khalsa, the semi-independent professional army of the Sikh Kingdom (arguably the most “modern” and disciplined non-western army in the world at the time) began hostilities on December 10, 1845 by crossing the Sutlej River into British territory. The British forces near the frontier, under the command of General Sir Hugh “Paddy” Gough responded by marching the Army of the Sutlej west towards the river. On the evening of the 18 December the British and Sikhs engaged in the first battle of the war; a confused and savage engagement at Mudki. Eleven days later a second bloody battle was fought at Ferozeshah (December 21-22, 1845) in which the combatants, like two punch-drunk prize fighters, stubbornly slugged it out all day. The battle was renewed the following day, with the Sikhs ultimately retreating.
After this nearly disastrous battle, Gough pulled back and rested his forces through the following weeks. The Khalsa, even more battered by the encounter, withdrew across the Sutlej. They left behind a strong garrison on the British side of the river at Sobraon, a bridgehead for their next invasion.
Encouraged by British inaction the Khalsa commanders dispatched a force a few weeks later, in January 1846, of 7,000 men and 20 guns under Ranjodh Singh Majithia. Their mission was to cross the Sutlej further east of Gough’s position and threaten his line of supply by capturing the British depot at Ludhiana. To thwart this move Gough dispatched a division under the experienced and highly capable Sir Harry Smith.
Smith was a long-serving veteran of Britain’s 19th century wars. He first saw action as a very young Lieutenant in Britain’s invasion of the Rio de La Plata region of Argentina, where he won distinction. Smith served throughout the Peninsula War in the famed 95th Rifles (the “Green Jackets”), and on the staff of the Light Division. As a 22-year-old Captain he met the love of his life, a beautiful 14-year-old Spanish girl of aristocratic birth, freshly out of the convent; who, along with her older sister, sought the protection of a British officer during the dreadful sack of Badajoz in 1810. Smith soon married Juana María de los Dolores de León, later known as Lady Smith, for whom the town of Ladysmith in South Africa is named. Wherever Harry Smith was later posted, the vivacious Juana was by his side, a true 19th century “power couple”. Smith went on to serve in America during the War of 1812, where he was horrified at the burning of Washington, DC: such wanton vandalism contrasted badly with the humane way Wellington conducted his campaign in southern France in 1814. In 1815 the 28-year-old Smith fought in the Battle of Waterloo, the seminal event for the British army in the 19th century. He went on to serve with distinction in campaigns in South Africa and India, being knighted following the Gwalior Campaign of 1843. Now, in 1846, Smith was given command of a division in Gough’s army, and had won distinction at Mudki and Ferozeshah the previous month.
Smith’s task was to interpose his division between Ranjodh Singh’s advancing forces and Ludhiana. Moving rapidly, Smith force-marching his troops, collecting additional forces from outlying garrisons and detachments along the way. Smith maneuvered around Sikh blocking forces; and despite having to move across open country bisected with stream-beds and scrub, while his enemy had the use of the roads, managed to arrive at Ludhiana in time to protect the depot.
Resting his exhausted command for a day, Smith was reinforced with an additional brigade under Sir Hugh Wheeler (who would die 11 eleven years later defending Cawnpore during the Great Mutiny). Marshaling his force of 12,000 men and 20 guns, Smith moved against Ranjodh’s army. Smith’s command consisted of a division of cavalry, led by Brigadier-General Charles Robert Cureton and composed of two brigades supported by 3 batteries of horse guns; and an infantry division composed of four brigades, supported by 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers. Only one regiment of cavalry and three of infantry were British (“Queen’s Regiments“). The bulk of the army was comprised of Indian sepoys and sowars (cavalry troopers) along with two battalions of the vaunted Gurkhas.
The Order of Battle for Smith’s army at Aliwal was as follows:
Commander: General Sir Harry Smith.
Cavalry Division: Brigadier General Cureton –
- Brigadier Macdowell’s brigade: HM 16th Queen’s Lancers, 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry and 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry.
- Brigadier Stedman’s brigade: Governor General’s bodyguard, 1st Bengal Light Cavalry, 5th Bengal Light Cavalry and Shekawati Cavalry.
- Horse Artillery: Major Laurenson, 3 batteries.
- Colonel Hicks 1st Brigade: HM 31st Foot, 24th and 47th Bengal Native Infantry.
- Brigadier Wheeler’s 2nd Brigade: HM 50th Foot, 48th Bengal Native Infantry and Sirmoor Battalion of Gurkhas.
- Brigadier Wilson’s 3rd Brigade: HM 53rd Foot and 30th Bengal Native Infantry.
- Godby’s 4th Brigade: 36th Bengal Native Infantry and Nasiri Battalion of Gurkhas.
Artillery: 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers. 
The Sikhs had taken up a strong position just south of the Sutlej, their 4 mile-long line running along a low ridge and anchored on either flank by the villages of Bhundri (Bhoondree) and Aliwal. Ranjodh Singh had also been reinforced, including days earlier by the arrival of the highly-trained Avitabile Regiment , well-drilled in the most modern European military methods by Italian mercenary-adventurer, Paolo Avitabile . The formidable Sikh force awaiting Smith at Aliwal now numbered 20,000 men and 70 guns.
Sir Harry began his advance upon the Sikh position at daybreak on the 28th of January, 1846. His cavalry led the approach, in contiguous columns of regimental squadrons closely supported by their horse artillery in the intervals. The infantry followed at some distance, also in contiguous columns of brigades with the foot artillery in the intervals. The British advanced over the six intervening miles, reaching the battlefield at 10 am; where the Khalsa was prepared and awaiting them. Throughout the march the troops maintained their formations and arrived in surprisingly good order.
Smith deployed his forces, while riding closer to the Sikh position with his staff for a personal reconnoiter. From a rooftop in a tiny hamlet between the opposing lines, he observed the enemy positions. Smith noted that though the river, running behind and parallel to their line, protected the Sikh rear from direct attack; it also cramped their rear area, preventing the Sikh command from posting reserves behind their line or moving forces to reinforce endangered sections. In the event they were forced to give ground or make a general retreat, the river might prove a deadly obstacle.
Smith formed his army with his infantry in line and his cavalry echeloned back on either flank and to the rear of the infantry. His artillery was distributed in batteries across his front. To the so drums beating and bugles calling-out, the well-ordered lines of British and sepoy regiments began their advance.
The battle formally commenced with the Sikh batteries opening fire at 600 yards.
There was no dust, the sun shone brightly. These maneuvers were performed with the celerity and precision of the most correct field day. The glistening of the bayonets and swords of this order of battle was most imposing; and the line advanced. Scarcely had it moved 150 yards, when, at ten o’clock, the enemy opened a fierce cannonade from his whole line.
Though under fire, Smith briefly halted his line to decide the best course of action, now that he could see the enemy dispositions more clearly. He resolved that the key to unraveling the enemy position was to strike the enemy’s left at Aliwal, and then to roll-up their entire line from left-to-right.
As they drew closer to the enemy, Smith ordered his right-most brigades, that of Hicks and Godby (the latter of these echeloned behind the right flank) to sweep to the right and assault Aliwal village. With bayonets glistening in the bright morning sun the second-line regiments deployed and advanced: one British (HMs 31st Foot), three Bengali, and a battalion of the fearsome Gurkhas. This detachment swept forward, conducting a “rapid and noble charge” . Storming into the village, they overpowered and quickly drove out the garrison: in the 19th century, no fighting man in the world was more adept with the bayonet than the British “Tommy”, or more deadly at close-quarters than their Gurkha’s; the latter wielding their terrifying kukris. Along with the village the British captured two heavy (large-caliber) guns.
In answer to this reverse on his left flank, Ranjodh Singh ordered the Sikh cavalry massed on the high ground to the east of the village to attempt to outflank Smith’s right. Smith countered this move by ordering Cureton from the reserve to deploy half of his cavalry to support the right. Cureton led Stedman’s brigade of cavalry, reinforced with a squadron of the 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry, to the east of Aliwal village, where the Sikh sowars (cavalry troopers) were deploying. Cureton’s squadrons charged these with alacrity and skill, breaking-up and scattering the Sikh cavalry before them and earning great praise from Smith in the after-action dispatches.
With his right triumphant and secure, Smith ordered a general advance; with the force in captured Aliwal pressuring the now exposed Sikh left. The Sikh center was deployed on a slight ridge, behind a nullah (dry stream bed) and supported by a myriad of guns. Smith, in his dispatch to Gough after the battle, described this stage of the battle, in which the Sikh left and center were driven back, thus:
“While these operations were going on upon the right, and the enemy’s left flank was thus driven back, I observed the brigade under Brigadier Wheeler (center right), an officer in whom I have the greatest confidence, charging and carrying guns and everything before it; again connecting his line, and moving on, in a manner which ably displayed the coolness of the Brigadier and the gallantry of his irresistible brigade (Her Majesty’s 50th Foot, the 48th Native Infantry, and the Sirmoor battalion); although the loss was, I regret to say, severe in the Queen’s 50th.” 
It should be pointed out that while British (“Her Majesties”) regiments in any Indian battle were in the minority, with most of their armies being composed largely of sepoys led by British (East India Company) officers; the casualties among British regiments tended to be higher. This is best explained in that the British tended to act as the vanguard and spearheaded most assaults; setting the all-important example of valor that inspired the Indian regiments.
In the face of the British general advance and the specific danger to his left, Ranjodh Singh now attempted to wheel back and reform his line, anchoring on the village of Bhundri at the far right of his line. At the same time, a force of Sikh cavalry swept out and deployed into the plain beyond Bhundri to threaten the British left flank.
Smith’s cavalry commander Cureton responded by ordering Bere’s squadron of the 16th “The Queen’s” Lancers and the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry to drive this force back. The 16th, alone of British light cavalry regiments, wore red instead of blue tunics, along with the lancer’s jaunty Polish tschapka; the helmet made famous by Napoleon’s Polish Lancers. For this reason the 16th was known as “The Scarlet’s“. Bere’s lancers charged the Sikh horsemen with great violence, breaking and driving them back to the bank of the Sutlej. By contrast, the 3rd Bengali failed to press home their attack, leaving the 16th to do the lion’s share of the labor.
Returning from their successful charge, Bere’s squadron encountered the European-trained Avatabile Regiment, which formed “square” to receive cavalry. (According to Sikh practice, this was actually either a triangle or trapezoidal formation, rather than a square.) Rather than veer off the squadron charged home, in spite of receiving a devastating volley, and in a notable feat of arms broke through the Sikh square. After a fierce and bloody minute of melee, the lancers rode out the other side.
This was remarkable, in that conventional tactics of the day held that a square formation was nearly impervious to cavalry assault, “rock” to the cavalry’s “scissors”. One explanation for the success of this feat was the 16th had been newly resupplied with fresh horses. The regiment had not had time to properly train their mounts for battle before the campaign. Standard training involved teaching the horse to veer-off when charging a square. But these new mounts had not been so (properly) trained. Spurred-on by their riders, the 16th’s gallant mounts plowed into and through the ordered ranks of the Sikh infantry.
The second squadron of the left flank of the 16th Lancers, standing in reserve, now charged further battalions of the Avatabile Regiment, breaking these up as well. Two horse artillery guns, acting in support of the wing, then unlimbered and opened fire on the remains of the regiment, completing its ruin.
Meanwhile, the right-wing of the 16th, commanded by Major J. Rowland Smyth, charged another battalion of Sikh infantry and a battery of guns. Smyth began this attack with three rousing cheers for the Queen. The charge began, and was led by a big Sergeant named Harry Newsome. As they approached the Sikh triangular “square”, bristling with baynets, swords and shields, Smith spurred his mount on, shouting back to his comrades, “Hullo boys, here goes for death or a commission!” Newsome’s mount leaped over the first, kneeling rank of Sikh infantry, and leaning from the saddle snatched an enemy standard. But rushed from all sides he was killed, suffering 19 bayonet wounds. But his sacrifice did not go for naught: it is reported that the squadron was aided in breaking into the Sikh square behind him because Newsome’s horse was so fiery that it went straight through the Sikh infantry, throwing their ranks into hopeless disarray in the process.
Smith noted in his memoir that “The enemy fought with much resolution; they maintained frequent encounters with our cavalry hand to hand. In one charge, upon infantry, of H.M.’s 16th Lancers, they threw away their muskets and came on with their swords and targets against the lance.” Even though trained well with musket and bayonet, the Khalsa always showed a predilection to throw these aside and resort to their traditional weapon, the “Kirpan” (a razor-sharp tulwar) and targe; not unlike 18th century Scottish highlanders! These Sikh tulwar’s inflicted truly horrific wounds, severing limbs and heads and hamstringing cavalry mounts.
In this charge many of the soldiers and officers became casualties; the 16th sustaining some 144 casualties (out of 300 men deployed). Major Smyth, who had charged through the Sikh’s with his squadrons, received a bayonet thrust in the back below the waist, and the bayonet had broken-off in the wound. Despite this, Smyth had remained in the saddle and even led his troopers charge back through the other side of the enemy formation. Smyth refused medical attention until all of his wounded had first been attended to. The Major recovered and returned to his regiment six weeks later; and lived to a ripe old age.
Harry Smith met the returning squadrons and called out, “Well done 16th”! In all, the lancers had beaten and scattered near ten-times their number. Though later eclipsed in the public perception by the (disastrous) Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, for years after British school boys gloried in the heroic charge of the 16th Lancers at Aliwal.
Meanwhile, Smith ordered the cavalry from his right-wing to join the survivors of the 16th on his left; and the whole cavalry force delivered a last devastating charge, capturing the village of Bhundri and driving the garrison to the river bank.
His Majesty’s 53rd Foot now came up behind the cavalry and cleared Bhundri of the remaining determined pockets of Sikh defenders.
While this cavalry fight was raging on the Smith’s left flank, the British and Bengali infantry regiments all along the center, supported by artillery, pressed the Sikhs back to the Sutlej with musketry and bayonet. As the Khalsa regiments took to the fords to escape across the river, a battery of 9 Sikh guns unlimbered on the river bank and attempted to cover their retreat. It succeeded in firing only one salvos before being overrun with bayonet by the rapidly pursuing British and Bengali troops. Ranjodh Singh attempted to bring some of his guns back across the river, but only two reached the far bank, two more being abandoned in the stream and a further two sunk irretrievably in quicksand.
Bengal Horse Artillery in action
On the far bank Ranjodh Singh formed a new line; but these were quickly dispersed when Smith brought up artillery.
The battle ended with a complete British victory. It turned the tide of the war, giving the initiative back to the British. It also broke the fearful spell the Sikh legend of ferocity had cast upon the minds of the British sepoys and sowars. At Moodkee and Ferozeshah the Bengali troops had shown a marked reluctance to engage with the feared Khalsa. Aliwal changed this, the Bengalis in subsequent battles attacking the Sikhs with great élan.
Smith’s army suffered 589 casualties. The casualties were spread evenly through all the units, provoking the admiration of the Duke of Wellington for Smith’s use of combined arms in his tactics. The 16th Lancers were an exception, suffering a disproportionate 50% casualties; the high price of glory. The Sikhs admitted to 3,000 killed and lost all their 67 guns, camp and baggage. The actual toll may have been somewhat higher.
An elated Smith described it as “one of the most glorious victories ever achieved in India”. For his service and this victory, he was raised by a grateful monarch and Parliament to the Peerage, given the title “Baron of Aliwal”.
Thirteen days later, Gough would bring the Sikhs to battle at bloody Sobraon, the decisive battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War. Smith rejoined his commander-in-chief in time to lead his division in that triumphal engagement, which ended the first war between the British in India and their bellicose Sikh neighbors. Later that year, Smith was promoted to Major General for his services to the Queen and Empire.
A Second Sikh War would break out a few years later, but Sir Harry Smith (his lady by his side) was by then in Africa, appointed in 1847 Governor of the Cape Colony. There he led successful engagements against both the Boers and the Xhosa tribesmen. But the crown jewel in his exemplary military career was Aliwal, the perfect example of a well-conducted battle by an exceptional officer.
- The exact composition of Smith’s army are as follows:
- HM 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons (Lancers). This was one of the only cavalry regiments in the British army to wear scarlet tunics.
- HM 31st Foot (East Surrey Regiment)
- HM 50th Foot (later the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment)
- HM 53rd Foot (later the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry)
Indian Forces (Army of the Bengal):
- Governor General’s Bodyguard
- 1st Native Cavalry
- 3rd Bengal Native Cavalry
- 5th Bengal Native Cavalry
- 4th Irregular Cavalry
- Shekawati Cavalry
- 3 Batteries of Horse Artillery
- 2 Field Batteries of Artillery
- 24th Bengal Native Infantry
- 36th Bengal Native Infantry
- 47th Bengal Native Infantry
- 48th Bengal Native Infantry
- Nasiri Gurkha Battalion
- Sirmoor Gurkha Battalion
2. In his memoir Harry Smith calls this reinforcement Avitabile’s “Corps”, 4,000 strong, with 12 guns and a strong force of cavalry.
3. Avitabile was the Sikh appointed governor of the Peshawar, and as such controlled access to the Khyber Pass for the British the First Afghan War. Following Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul and the destruction of his army in the passes, Avitabile rendered the British both financial and logistical aid; allowing Pollock’s army to return and avenge Elphinstone’s defeat. He departed Sikh service on the eve of the First Anglo-Sikh War, in 1843, returning with a vast fortune to Naples.
4. Smith, Sir Henry (Harry) George Wakelyn: The autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, baronet of Aliwal on the Sutlej, G.C.B.; London: J. Murray, 1903; ch. 45