Battlefield Carnage, Trench Graves & The Queen’s Colour
Chillianwala is a small village north east of Mandi Bahauddin and west of Dinga on the fringes of Punjab highlands of Pakistan. The location is almost next to the banks of River Jhelum in close vicinity of Head Rasul. This particular region has a rich past. The pages of history get mingled here with the fact and fiction as the tales are told and retold. Here somewhere, the forces of Alexander and Porus, the greats, had met each other in a decisive encounter. The myths have in them buried, the tales of internment of Alexander’s dear horse Bucephalas, at a place, somewhere here. As a perfect icing on the cake, we come across a presumed tomb of Helen of Sparta and then of Troy (no joking) somewhere (where else dear reader but) here. This region also encompasses, within its confines, the surviving monuments from the recent history including the Mughal Period as well as the days of Company Bahadur. But at present, my dear readers, we shall not involve ourselves into the surgical endeavours of segregating history from myths, but aiming a detour, let me take you along to one historic landmark reminding us of a great fight, a blood-red encounter, and of courage and honour. Our mark here is an obelisk, that stands tall at Chillianwala, as a remembrance to the lives lost in a conflict, and these dear readers, were aplenty, during 2nd Anglo Sikh War. A red sandstone obelisk remembers the Battle of Chillianwala and stands at the very place that served as the field hospital for East India Company’s wounded and dead on the day of battle, but now holds in sombre seclusion, three mass graves. The battle brought enormous losses to both sides and whereas, the Sikhs cremated their dead, the bodies of British and Indian Soldiers were mass buried, not only at this monument, but also in situ, at places where they had met their end, scattered across the stretch of Chillianwala battlefield.
I was out on a Sunday Yatra specifically to visit the battleground at Chillianwala and had exited Lahore on M2, eventually parting ways with the motorway at Bhera Interchange. The route map was particularly set to explore the the roads across the fertile lands on the borders of central and northern Punjab, interspersed with the intricate irrigation network of canals. I, for the first time embraced Malakwal, familiarized myself with headworks at Rasul and outskirting Mandi Bahauddin eventually reached Chillianwala. The prominent obelisk with a boundary wall wasn’t hard to find. Outside the parameter, I was greeted with a platformed marble cross, “A Cruce Salus” installed here by the Viceroy in 1871, 22 years after the mounds and jungles of Chillianwala had seen action. A gentleman from the village who guided me to the cross took it upon himself to provide some ‘insightful information’ while on site. Amongst the flattened rectangular patches of mass graves, there were a couple of tombs and then there was a triangular grave onto one side. My tour guide indicated these graves to me as the last resting places of the English Commander In Chief and the Sikh leader Sher Singh, and there I knew that he wasn’t right. Instead of going by the narrative of our guide, dear reader, we shall pause here and put history into some perspective.
Chillianwala wasn’t supposed to be the intended battlefield, neither was it an established concentration of the Sikh forces. It was to become the venue of one of the bloodiest fight, owing to the circumstances that would unfold, partly due to the hesitation on part of the British Commander, and owing, in part to the endeavour of the Sikh force in nearing with the northern borders of Punjab, seeking reinforcements from Sikh rebels of Hazara and North Western Frontier. During the days of the Siege of Mooltan, it was the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, who had sent General Sir Hugh Gough to tackle the forces of Sher Singh Attariwala, a defector from the forces sent to quell the revolt at Mooltan. Gough’s force had established contact with the Army of Sher Singh on the banks of Chenab in the vicinity of Goojerat and had crossed the river but somehow delayed going into battle as they waited for reinforcements from Mooltan to arrive. After a pause for over two months, Gough was ordered to tackle Sher Singh with available resources without waiting for reinforcements any further. Sikh army under Sher Singh by that time had withdrawn to the home banks of Jhelum and had set themselves up around the heights of Rasul (where now lie Rasul Headworks). The reconnaissance parties moving ahead of the advancing British Army had revealed the presence of Sikh detachments just ahead of Chillianwala on an alignment of Rasul – Mong (roughly the alignment of Jhelum River with river on their back). It was Gough who had decided to utilize the high ground at Chillianwala for better observation and aligned his forces to meet the Sikhs in combat.
It was noon of January the 13th in 1849, when Gough’s forces faced the Sikhs under Sher Singh on an extended front, much more extended than their own extents. Just ahead of the dominating height of Chillianwala, the British forces faced the Rakh (a jungle with thick vegetation and shrubs) obscuring the field of view and kill for the attacking troops. And Sir Gough in view of the scanty hours of daylight at hand, had postponed the possibility of an attack until was taken by surprise of the impromptu shelling from Sikh Artillery, deciding in haste to begin with the attack. These were the factors, dear reader, that had put the British Forces of Sir Hugh Gough to a great disadvantage from the start, and were to prove fatal in the combat thenceforth ensued. The two infantry divisions coupled with one cavalry division of British Army was to tackle a 10,000 force of Sikhs who were to prove quite a handful. Sikh Artillery shelling had tempted the British Forces into action prematurely and the attacking brigades aimed at meeting the opposing force in frontal attacks. The Sikh force waited to tackle the advancing British troops who had to comb through the Rakh towards the centre. The flanks of the attacking force were threatened by the enveloping manoeuvres from an extended Sikh front. The attack met a heavy Sikh resistance who were determined not to loose an inch of the territory they stood upon, at ‘whatever the cost’ and this has been described in the words of an observer as “The Sikhs fought like devils, fierce and untamed… they ran right on the bayonets and struck their assailants when they were transfixed”. This was to result in a haphazard retreat of the Gough’s forces on the back bearing to Chillianwala, who was ahead witnessing the chaos befell on his army. But, the real hammering was to be taken by 24th Regiment of the Foot, and dear reader, we shall come to that, in a while.
The monuments at Chillianwala are on a mound overlooking the surrounding country. There is a towering (a little over 70 ft in height) sandstone obelisk that was erected shortly after the battle and inscribed on it, in four languages to include English, Persian, Urdu and Gurumukhi, are the mentions of the bloody battle. Just in the vicinity are a few nameless tombs and three long trench graves where the British buried their dead in haste, the following morning in freezing rain. The casualties for the British forces were recorded to be around 2500 including more than 700 dead. The Sikh casualties on the other hand neared a figure of 3000 including the wounded. Gough’s army had returned to their original positions by nightfall and both the sides held their positions until Sher Singh with its army eventually withdrew to North. Gough would come across Sher Singh once more in a decisive encounter in a couple of months time. So, my dear readers, neither of the Commander in Chiefs was either cremated or buried at Chillianwala. The prominent losses from the British included Brigadier John Pennycuick, the commander of 5th Brigade ex 3rd Division, Brigadier Alexander Pope, commander of 2nd Cavalry Brigade and another 26 Officers. Just beside the monuments, stands erect in sombre remembrance, a white marble cross that was donated by Lord Mayo, the then viceroy of India in 1871, to honour the British and Native soldiers who laid their lives at Chillianwala. One one of the sides of the cross a surviving tablet bears the name of the officers who lost their lives on this battlefield.
Her Majesty’s 24th Foot Regiment having been in the thickest of fighting suffered the brunt of the casualties. The regiment had recently arrived in India and was participating in their first major action here. The soldiers had to advance through thick shrubs of the Rakh, got detached from the remaining advancing force and met almost the centre detachment of the Sikh Army commanded by Sher Singh himself. The retreat of the soldiers was soon to be turned into a rout and on the fields of Chillianwala, the regiment had to bear with the dishonour of losing one of its standards, none other than the “Queen’s Color” itself, that was never recovered. 24th Foot suffered with over 200 dead, almost 300 wounded and little less than 50 missing, and the dead were not buried at the main burial ground. During my inquiries in the vicinity of Chillianwala, there was a mention of scattered tombs other than the Obelisk Compound. Having paid my tributes at the monuments, I headed out to search for the ‘stranded tombs’. On the inter village road from Chillianwala towards Kot Baloch, and which is quite modernly named as Gulshan e Iqbal road, just outside the village among the standing crop, in an area a little over a kilometer, are scattered these walled compounds, and there are three of these. These are the sites of three mass graves where the soldiers of 24th Foot were buried. The story behind these trench graves come to us from General Sir George MacMunn’s account of the battle. The narrative tells us of the Sikh soldiers, who having pushed back the assault of the British forces had the battlefield on their disposal. At the site of the rampage of 24th Foot, they killed many wounded, and stripped and dragged the bodies. The sight of bodies arriving at the burial mound was so demoralizing for the soldiers that it was decided to bury the dead of Her Majesty’s 24th Foot at the places where they fell. These grave-sites now are barely existent having been abandoned or put to entirely different ‘use’. There is one plaque surviving on the central compound on which, if really deliberated upon, the engraved words on the marble reveal that the graves belong to the soldiers of HM 24th Foot who lost their lives in Battle of Chillianwala around the spot on 13th January 1849.
The British and Sikhs did go on fighting each other and there was a decisive battle fought at Goojerat after which Punjab was finally annexed to the Empire. Yet, the calm and sombre landscape of Chillianwala with its towering landmark bear the testimony to the gallant fight that was put on, the great sacrifices that were offered and the enormous losses inflicted by the Sikh defectors and their allied irregulars, on well organized armed forces of East India Company, before finally letting it go. Chillianwala, dear reader, is one chapter, of the glorious ones from the history of Punjab…