The 1845-46 Sikh War (The First Sikh War) was a difficult one, as the Sikh army was well-trained and well-armed. As a result, British Casualties were heavy. The campaign was short and concentrated, lasting only three months and was restricted to the Punjab in the North West of India. The Battle of Ferozeshah was the second battle of the campaign and is characterised by General Gough’s rash and disorganised assault on the entrenched Sikh camp at Ferozeshah.
Following the Battle of Moodkee on 18th December 1845, Lal Singh’s force of Sikhs withdrew to Ferozeshah, eight miles to the North-West of the Moodkee battlefield, occupying strong fortified positions around the village.
While his British and Bengali troops dealt with the casualties of Moodkee, General Gough sent instructions to General Littler, commanding the garrison in Ferozepore, to march out of the town, evading the blockading force of Tej Singh, and join him before Ferozeshah on 21st December 1845 for the second battle with Lal Singh’s force.
On the day after Moodkee, reinforcements marched in from Ludhiana: HM 29th Foot, 1st Bengal Europeans and two regiments of Bengal Native Infantry with two howitzers. The 29th were assigned to the Second Division: under Major General Sir Walter Gilbert and placed in the Third Brigade under Brigadier Taylor (their former Commanding Officer along with the HM 80th Foot and 41st Bengal Native Infantry (BNI). The Fourth Brigade commanded by Brigadier McClaren consisting of the 1st Bengal Europeans, 16th BNI and 45th BNI.
Gough’s army was in place in the morning of the 21st waiting for Littler. Gough decided to launch his attack without Littler’s men, but General Sir Henry Hardinge used his authority as Governor General to veto an attack until the Ferozepore garrison arrived.
It was early afternoon when Littler arrived with 2 Bengal Light Cavalry regiments, HM 62nd Foot, 5 Bengal Native Infantry battalions, 2 troops of horse artillery and 2 field batteries at 1.30pm, increasing Gough’s army to 18,000 troops and 65 guns. Littler’s division took up position on the extreme left of the line with his cavalry regiments in support.
At 3 pm, with only two hours of daylight left, Gough opened the battle with an artillery bombardment, which the Sikh answered vigorously. As in most of the early battles of the war the Sikh artillery had the best of the exchange.
The fortifications around Ferozeshah comprised a series of trenches on a line of hillocks surrounding the village in a rectangle. The Sikh gunners manned some 100 good quality guns that they served with skill and devotion. It is not known how many Sikhs were present in Ferozeshah, but they appear to have constituted a powerful force.
At around 3.30pm Littler began an assault well in advance of the rest of the army, moving his guns forward to engage the Sikhs at closer range, his infantry regiments following in support. The infantry emerged into the open plain 300 metres from the Sikh line and were met with a heavy fire of grapeshot from the guns (fragmented shot used on troops at close range to cause maximum casualties). HM 62nd Foot led the assault, losing 160 casualties in ten minutes. The regiment faltered and fell back, taking the native infantry regiments with them. Littler’s attack had failed.
As Littler began his attack Gough ordered the rest of the British and Bengali line to assault the Sikh lines. The regiments pushed through the jungle under heavy artillery fire, emerging into the dense smoke and dust of the open plain, lit by the flashes of the Sikh gunfire.
Part of the left of the line faltered under the heavy fire, but HM 9th Foot and the right hand (Gibert’s)division pressed on with the attack, while a brigade from the reserve commanded by General Smith moved forward to cover the gap left by the retreat of Littler’s brigade.
The 29th advanced in quick time, file firing as it approached the entrenched positions, all the while suffering from well-directed discharges of shell, grape shot and musketry. The attacking troops reached the Sikh entrenchments and pressed through, although suffering heavy casualties, and captured and spiked numbers of guns, before pushing on into the Sikh camp.
Here a large magazine exploded causing considerable confusion and casualties. All over the Sikh camp tents were ablaze; stores of gunpowder exploding in the gathering dusk.
On the right of the British line Gough committed Brigadier White’s cavalry brigade; HM 3rd King’s Own Light Dragoons, 4th Bengal Light Cavalry (Lancers) and the 9th Bengal Irregular Cavalry, to an attack on the corner of the fortifications. Considerably reduced by their casualties at Moodkee, the 3rd charged through a battery and the infantry positioned behind it, before breaking into the Sikh camp and engaging in ferocious hand to hand combat with crowds of swordsmen and matchlock men.
General Smith, after fighting through the Sikh camp, found himself with a party of soldiers from his division on the far side of Ferozeshah, where he was attacked throughout the night by the Sikhs. He finally fought his way around the outside of the village to the south side where he rejoined Gough and Hardinge as dawn broke.
The fall of night forced the British and Bengali regiments to withdraw from Ferozeshah, abandoning the Sikh camp and fortifications, to pass the night as best they could among the casualties of the day’s fighting, under the renewed fire of the Sikh guns.
Gough and Hardinge spent the night in considerable anxiety, Hardinge making hasty arrangements to destroy the state papers to prevent them from falling into Sikh hands in the event of a British defeat.
With dawn the drums and trumpets signaled a renewed attack on the fortifications, but the Sikhs were falling back and Gough’s army quickly re-took Ferozeshah.
Battered and exhausted the British and Bengali regiments ceased fighting, cheering Gough and Hardinge as they rode down the ranks, troopers carrying captured Khalsa flags.
But the battle was not finished. To the stupefaction of Gough’s men, onto the field marched the army of Tej Singh, the force that Littler had evaded in the previous days to escape from Ferozepore. The British and Bengali troops were exhausted, their ammunition almost entirely expended. Gough occupied the Sikh fortifications, while a horse artillery battery engaged the Sikhs to keep them away for as long as possible. Then the line stood waiting for the Sikh attack, hardly expecting to be able to resist a determined assault.
Tej Singh’s artillery conducted a long and galling bombardment of Gough’s line, followed by an advance by his cavalry against Gough’s right. Gough ordered Brigadier White to attack the Sikhs and in one last effort HM 3rd Light Dragoons, 4th Bengal Light Cavalry and 9th Bengal Irregular Cavalry urged their blown horses into the charge, causing Tej Singh to abandon his assault and withdraw from the battle field.
A curious incident had occurred at the beginning of the day’s crisis, when the assistant adjutant-general, Captain Lumley, suffering it is thought from the sun and the stress of battle, approached various regiments in turn and ordered them to march to Ferozepore, with the result that at the worst moment of the hard fought two day battle a significant portion of Gough’s army left the field. It may be that the sight of those forces marching away towards Ferozepore contributed to Tej Singh abandoning his attack and leaving the field.
The battle ended at around 4pm on 22nd December 1845, Gough and his army, now virtually without ammunition, reprieved from an attack that would have been hard to resist.
Casualties: The casualties in the British and Bengali regiments were some 700 dead and 1,700 wounded, of which 1,207 were European, including 115 officers. Among the dead were several staff officers, including Major Broadfoot and Brigadier Taylor (Lt. Col. HM 29th Regiment)
Before the action at Ferozeshah on the 21st December 1845, the effective strength of the 29th Foot (Worcestershire Regiment) was 28 Officers and 765 other ranks. After the first battle at Ferozeshah the battalion suffered 2 officers and 52 other ranks killed in action and 196 wounded, a further 38 men died of their wounds.