The Battle of Assaye

The East India Company's army led by Arthur Wellesley defeated the Mahrattas at the Battle of Assaye on September 23rd, 1803.

The Battle of Assaye, by J.C. Stadler After W. Heath

The Iron Duke said that of all his battles Assaye was ‘the bloodiest for the numbers that I ever saw’. It was fought against the Mahrattas, a formidable Hindu confederacy of warriors and marauders who dominated much of Central India. An opportunity to deal with these ‘wily scoundrels’, as the East India Company thought them, arose in October 1802 when a rebellion forced the Peshwa of Poona to flee his capital. He appealed to the Company, agreeing to accept its authority if he was restored to Poona. The Peshwa was theoretically the overlord of various powerful Mahratta princes, including Daulut Rao Scindia of Gwalior, who had a formidable army of infantry and artillery, with European officers – French, German, Portuguese, American and British – and a horde of horsemen. Allied with him was the Rajah of Berar.

In command of the Company’s army to restore the Peshwa was a major-general in his thirties named Arthur Wellesley, whose jealous rivals attributed his advancement to the fact that his older brother was the Governor-General of India, Marquess Wellesley. He was about to prove them wrong. His force was made up of two British regular infantry regiments, the 74th and 78th of Foot, Company sepoys and infantry from Hyderabad. For cavalry he had the 19th Light Dragoons, Company cavalry and some Mysore and Mahratta horsemen. Wellesley entered Poona in April 1803. The Peshwa was restored to his throne and Scindia, lurking to the north, was sent orders to submit to his authority.

Complicated discussions began with the Mahrattas while Wellesley moved his army north at a rate of two or three miles a day to Scindia’s stronghold of Ahmednuggur. At the end of July the negotiations collapsed and Wellesley’s force took Ahmednuggur in August and moved on north. On September 23rd word came of substantial enemy forces at the village of Assaye. Wellesley rode ahead to see for himself and examined the Mahratta camp through his glass. What he saw was a huge army many times his own strength (estimates range from 40,000 men to 200,000) in the angle of two rivers, the Kaitna and the Juah.

Wellesley saw how to use the ground to his advantage. Identifying a ford across the Kaitna, he personally led his infantry and guns to it. They were harassed by Mahratta cavalry and artillery, but got their cannon across the ford. They were now on the flank of the Mahratta army, which changed front to face them with unexpected European-style efficiency. The Mahratta artillery opened fire at close range with grapeshot and chainshot, doing terrible execution. Wellesley ordered a charge, a head-on attack with the bayonet against what one of his officers called ‘the Divil’s own cannonade’.

Scindia and Berar prudently withdrew, but it was only after fierce fighting that the Mahratta front line on the British left was broken by the 78th Highlanders, majestic giants in kilts and feathered bonnets. The sepoys next to them broke through as well. Over on the right, however, the 74th, also Scots, were badly cut up by fire from Assaye village and in danger of being swamped. They were saved by a ferocious charge by the 19th Light Dragoons, who came on the enemy ‘like a torrent that had burst its banks’, and Wellesley now moved the 78th to the right to reinforce them. Some of the Mahratta gunners played dead and then jumped up and turned their guns on the backs of the advancing British, but Wellesley’s men drove on and the Mahrattas gave up the contest and melted away.

The battle, which lasted three hours, was won by Wellesley’s coolness and inspiring leadership – ‘I never saw a man so cool and collected,’ one of his staff officers wrote, ‘as he was the whole time’ – and the bloody-minded courage and obstinacy of his troops, British and Indian. Of his 6,000 men engaged, close to 1,600 were killed or wounded. Scindia and Berar were broken and by the end of the year had surrendered to the Company. Years later the Duke of Wellington was asked what was ‘the best thing’ he had ever done in the way of fighting. He replied grimly ‘Assaye’ and would say no more.