Before they met at Waterloo, Napoleon contemptuously scorned the Duke of Wellington as a “sepoy general,” who had made his name fighting with and against illiterate savages in India. The truth was somewhat different, and throughout his long career the battle of Assaye – where the 34 year-old Wellesley commanded an army against the Maratha Empire – was the one that he considered to be his finest achievement, and one of the most closely fought.
Aside from shaping his burgeoning reputation, Assaye also paved the way for British domination of central India, and eventually the entire subcontinent.
It had greatly helped Wellesley’s career prospects that Lord Mornington, the ambitious Governor-General of British India, was his elder brother. By the turn of the 19th century the British had a firm foothold in the region, and had finally defeated the Tipoo Sultan of Mysore in 1799, leaving the Maratha Empire of central India as their main rivals.
The Marathas were a coalition of fierce kingdoms of horse-riding warriors, who had emerged from the Deccan plain in central India to conquer huge swathes of the subcontinent throughout the 18th century. Their main weakness by 1800 was the size of the empire, which meant that many of the Maratha states had reached a level of independence that allowed them to quarrel with one another.
A civil war at the turn of the century between Holkar – a powerful ruler who would become known as “the Napoleon of India” and Daulat Scindia proved particularly destructive, and when Scindia was defeated his ally Baji Rao – the nominal overlord of the Marathas – fled to ask the British East India company for support in restoring him to his ancestral throne in Poona.
Mornington sensed an ideal influence to extend British influence into Maratha territory, and agreed to assist Baji Rao in exchange for a permanent garrison of British troops in Poona, and control over his foreign policy.
In March 1803 Mornington commanded his younger brother Sir Arthur Wellesley to enforce the treaty with Baji. Wellesley then marched from Mysore, where he had seen action in the fight against the Tipoo, and restored Baji to the throne in May, backed by 15000 troops of the East India Company and 9000 Indian allies.
The other Maratha leaders, including Scindia and Holkar, were outraged by this British interference in their affairs, and refused to acknowledge Baji as their leader. Scindia in particular, was furious, and though he failed to convince his old enemy to join him, he did form an anti-British alliance with the Rajah of Berar, the ruler of Nagpur.
Between them and their feudal dependents, they had enough men to more than trouble the British, and began to mass their troops – which were organised and commanded by mercenary European officers – on the border of Britain’s ally the Nizam of Hyderabad. When Scindia refused to back down war was declared on the 3rd August, and the British armies began to march into Maratha territory.
While Lieutenant General Lake attacked from the north, Wellesley’s army of 13,000 headed north to bring Scindia and Berar to battle. As the Maratha army was mostly cavalry and therefore much faster than his own, he worked in conjunction with a second force of 10,000, commanded by Colonel Stevenson, to outmanoeuvre the enemy – who were commanded by Anthony Polhmann, a German who had once been a sergeant in the East India Company’s forces.
The first action of the war was the taking of the Maratha city of Ahmednuggur, which was a quick decisive action using nothing more sophisticated than a pair of ladders. Young and impetuous, Wellesley was aware that due to the small size of its armies, much of the British success in India was based on an aura of invincibility, and therefore quick victory – rather than a long drawn-out war, was crucial.
After this, Scindia’s army, which was around 70,000 strong, slipped past Stevenson and began to march on Hyberabad, and Wellesley’s men rushed south to intercept them. After days of chasing them he reached them at the Juah river on the 22nd September. Pohlmann’s army had a strong defensive position on the river, but he did not believe that Wellesley would attack with his small force before Stevenson arrived, and temporarily abandoned it.
The British commander, however was confident. Most of his troops were Indian sepoys, but he also had two superb highland regiments – the 74th and the 78th – and knew that out of the Maratha ranks only around 11,000 troops were trained and equipped to European standard, though the enemy cannon were also a worry. He wanted to press the attack straight away, always maintaining momentum.
The Marathas, however, had trained all their guns on the only known crossing place of the Juah, and even Wellesley admitted that attempting to cross there would be suicide. As a result, despite being assured that no other ford existed, he searched for one near the small town of Assaye, and found it.
The crossing was spotted quickly and the Maratha guns were trained on his men, with one shot decapitating the man next to Wellesley. He had achieved his wildest hopes, however, and completely outflanked his foe.
The Martha response was impressive, as Pohlmann wheeled his whole army around to face the threat, so that his formidable line of cannon had a clear shot. Knowing that they had to be taken out as a matter of priority, the British infantry marched steadily towards the gunners, despite the heavy pounding that they were taking, until they were close enough to fire a volley and then fix bayonets and charge.
The impressive courage which the big highlanders of the 78th in particular had shown disheartened the Maratha infantry, which began to run as soon as the heavy cannon in front of them had been taken. The battle was far from over however, as the British right began to advance too far towards the heavily fortified town of Assaye and suffered shocking losses.
The survivors of the other highland regiment – the 74th – formed a hurried square which dwindled quickly but refused to break, until a charge of the British and Native cavalry saved them, and put the rest of the huge but unwieldy Maratha army to flight. Still however the fighting was not done, as several of the gunners who had been feigning death turned their guns back on the British infantry, and Pohlmann reformed his lines.
In the second charge Wellesley – who lead a charmed life during the battle and had already had one horse killed under him – lost another to spear and had to fight his way out of trouble with his sword. This second fight was brief however, as the Marathas lost heart and abandoned Assaye, leaving the exhausted and bloodied British masters of the field.
Wellesley said after the battle – which had cost him over a third of the troops who had been involved – that “I should not like to see again such a loss as I sustained on the 23rd September, even if attended by such a gain.” It cemented his reputation as a bold and talented commander, and further commands in Denmark and Portugal lead to him being given leadership of the British armies on the Iberian Peninsula, which would do more than anyone else (except perhaps the Russian winter) to finally defeat Napoleon.
Even after Waterloo, Wellesley, who became the Duke of Wellington and later Prime Minister, described Assaye as his finest achievement. His war against the Marathas was not done after the battle, and he went on to besiege the survivors at Gawilghur, before returning to England. After Holkar died in 1811 British domination of India was all but complete, greatly aided by the result and decisiveness of Assaye, which had scared many local states into submission.