Battle of Laswari: An untold chronicle of the Marathas

marathas, british, delhi, Laswari
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“ In the desperate valour with which it was contested by both sides , in the equality of the numbers engaged , and in the proportion of numbers lost , the Battle of Laswari ranks above all others in which the British have been engaged in India.”
     -George Malleson , 1888.

 “ I was never in so serious a business in my life, or anything like it. The gunners stood to their guns till killed by the bayonet. These fellows fought like devils, or rather heroes.”
     -General Gerard Lake , reporting about the Battle of Laswari, 1803.

“ This victory acquires a degree of glory not exceeded by the achievements of a more imposing splendour.”
     -Major Thorn , contemporary of General Lake

Such were the views of the British Army’s officers about this battle. Of the above three names, Col Malleson had written his comment in 1888,  eighty five years after the event. But apart from being a British Army Colonel, he was also a historian and author, and thus best placed to offer a bird’s eye view of the past. Hence his words assume significance. The other two – Lake and Thorn, were contemporaries who actually fought in the battle. Of these, General Gerard Lake was the Commander in Chief , and had already fought and won in Aligarh , Delhi and Agra. Moreover, his military career stretched over twenty five years including the American War of Independence. Lake was singularly responsible for bringing north India under the British rule. And it is this distinguished soldier who called Laswari his toughest test!

Surprisingly, this battle does not even merit a passing mention in our textbooks. Or maybe it is not so surprising, given all the other glaring omissions! But the section of academics which regularly fetes Tipu Sultan, conveniently manages to miss out on the battles at Delhi and Laswari or Assaye and Agra!

Whatever one might have read in the school history textbook, the fact remains that supremacy for north India was decided between the Marathas and the British at Laswari, a village near Alwar. The Mughals played no part in it. Let us see now, how events unfolded on the 1st of November 1803 – arguably one of the most important date in Indian history.

 General Gerard Lake:

As we have seen in the previous article, General Lake had been instrumental for the East India Company’s success in Aligarh and Delhi. The Maratha influence at the capital had been destroyed and the Mughal emperor had come under British protection and a pension. But Lake knew that the power centre of north India was not the Mughal, but the Scindia of Gwalior. Under Mahadji Scindia, they had grown into a formidable power. So General Lake first attacked the fort at Agra. The Red Fort in  Agra, is the very place where Aurangzeb had imprisoned Chhatrapati Shivaji. But the treacherous manner in which the French and other European officers had deserted the Marathas at various engagements with the British, had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the garrison at Agra. Their own killedar (title for the governor of a fort ) – a Dutchman named Col Hessing and his deputy, a Scot named Col Sutherland, also did not inspire anything different. Hence, on seeing the approach of the British force under Lake, the garrison confined the two within the fortress. This left the fort at Agra leaderless, and like at so many other places it came down to personal bravery versus the calm and collected discipline of an experienced army. The fort was defended resolutely, but eventually lost to Gerard Lake.

Marathas move north:

It had been Daulat Rao Sindhia’s aim to catch Lake in a pincer between his armies to the south and the north, and completely destroy whatever influence the British had in north India and Awadh. But the Battle at Assaye, fought against General Arthur Wellesley (the person who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo), delayed this march north, by the time it could reassemble, Delhi had already fallen. Even so, the Marathas considered it possible to retake Delhi and continued on their northward push. They had seventeen battalions of soldiers and many guns. During the long march towards north, a familiar escape story happened. The commander of the Maratha forces – a Frenchman named Mon Du Drennec deserted to the British. Two more British officers – Smith and Larpent also sought refuge under General Lake. In the wink of an eye, without a bullet being fired, the Marathas had lost the entire top rung of their leadership! The onus now fell on Ambaji Ingale, the second rung leader, brave but not having the same capabilities as the French officers who had deserted. Even then, the Maratha army stuck to its original plan and kept moving north.

General Lake moves to stall the Maratha advance:

General Lake knew that the soldiers he had defeated in Delhi and elsewhere was not the cream of Scindia’s army. Those battalions were ones which had fought at Assaye and were now making their way to Delhi. He knew that his hard won successes could be undone by this new force. So, Gerard Lake swiftly proceeded away from Agra on the 27th of October 1803 and reached Fatehpur Sikri. Here, realising that the Marathas were on the verge of reaching Delhi, he dumped his artillery, infantry and heavy baggage and proceeded to counter the Marathas with just his cavalry units. Now followed a severe downpour, which further impeded their progress, but Lake still forced a march of twenty five miles from his soldiers.

The Marathas reach Laswari :

The Maratha army under Ambaji Inglia had managed to reach the precincts of Alwar by then. The composition of the army is a good example of how the term “Maratha empire” had come to mean a lot more than just those who spoke the Marathi language. This army consisted largely of Purbias of Awadh, Jats and Rajputs along with a handful of Muslims. The only Marathas were perhaps around a thousand odd soldiers sent by one Gulab Rai Kadam. This army totalled around eleven to twelve thousand and stretched from the village of Moholpur to Laswari.  Ambaji Inglia ranged this army between the two villages and kept his artillery in the front. Behind them lay the Mewat pass and the road to Delhi. In front was the oncoming army of the East India Company.

1st November 1803 – and India finds a new ruler.

The power structure of the Indian subcontinent, for all its diversity, has followed a familiar pattern. A large power provides the fulcrum about which the smaller powers orient themselves, in various ways. In the eighteenth century, this power centre rested with the Marathas. But the battle of Delhi had shown that their power was nose-diving and hence, Laswari was to be the decider.

The morning began with British troops attacking the Maratha army. General Lake led his troops on the left flank of the Maratha army. It was a cavalry charge that pushed the army of Scindia into the village of Laswari causing a loss of men and guns. But the Marathas recouped and drove Lake back out of Laswari. General Lake soon realised that it was not so easy to score a victory just on the strength of his cavalry.  On the right flank, the 3rd Brigade of the British army attacked. This battalion though, came under severe fire from the Maratha guns ranged in between the two villages. In short, the cavalry charge of the morning did not change the situation much for both the army troops. If at all, it prevented the Marathas from approaching further.

But by noon, the infantry which was left behind at Fatehpur Sikri, had arrived at the battlefield. General Lake now divided his army into four parts – one each to attack the flanks and two battalions of infantry to attack the guns in the centre. The Marathas on their part, realizing this new manoeuvre, recalled their advancing infantry to protect the guns. After this, followed a severe shelling of Lake’s army which caused innumerable casualties. General Lake then pressed more soldiers forward, since he knew that the battle rested on the capture or disabling of the guns.

Once more the Maratha army charged, this time under a cavalry force led by Ambaji Inglia himself. Another fierce battle followed, but unfortunately this cavalry regiment had to retreat under attack from General Gerard Lake. The stalemate of the past few hours had finally nudged slightly towards the British. They charge with all their might towards the guns. Bullets whizzed past the men manning the cannons but they stood firm till a bullet or bayonet had found them. There is no record of a Maratha soldier having deserted his post at this battle, where death was certain. The battle had now moved into hand to hand fights, fought with swords, knives and bayonets. The Maratha army was fighting to save a plant sown many years ago in the Sahyadris and it cost them thousands of lives.

Finally General Lake pushed his reserves into action, the tired soldiers of Ambaji Inglia could not take the new onslaught. The lines of soldiers between Moholpur and Laswari were broken and dispersed. Then this cavalry unit swerved around and attacked the Maratha infantry, followed by a great slaughter followed. Half a dozen British officers fell, fighting for General Gerard Lake. The loss on the Maratha side was three to four times more.

By the end of the day, India’s power centre had shifted from Maratha to British. It had come at a great cost, over five thousand dead littered the field. The British had lost Major General Charles Wade, Col Vandeleur , Major Griffith – three senior officers among the twelve or so lost by the British.

Reasons for loss and effects :

The seeds for the loss at Laswari had been sown much earlier.  In the steady disintegration of empire that had happened through the 1790s. The death of Mahadji Scindia had created a vacuum that Daulatrao Scindia found difficult to fill. The other reason being the treacherous behaviour of the European officers under Scindia’s pay. At the first sight of trouble they had deserted their master. The fighting was then left to second rung leaders like Inglia, who did not have the same expertise. In fact, Gerard Lake himself said that if the French officers in charge of Scindia’s battalions would have fought at Laswari, then the British might well have lost! That was followed by what would then have been an easy victory at Delhi, which could have turned matters around. Alas that was not to be. This unwavering trust in foreign mercenaries had cost the Marathas the city of Delhi and to some extent Agra, and now it had bitten them hard at Laswari.

Yashwantrao Holkar tried to stem this rot by getting rid of the Europeans in his pay and in fact executing a few he suspected of helping the British, but by then it was too late. In fact, Daulatrao Scindia had promoted foreign mercenaries at the expense of Maratha sardars, an action he would later rue.

There are conflicting versions on the role played by Ambaji Inglia. One account says he conducted matters as best as possible, while another says he retreated from the battlefield. The truth obviously lies somewhere in between. Narawane also mentions that Inglia spent crucial time raising capital out of Rajput and Jat zamindars.

The Marathas did not put up a united front at Laswari. It was just Scindia facing the British, Yashwantrao Holkar stayed aloof. The Peshwa – Bajirao II – was at this time allied with the British via the Bassein Treaty. Scindia’s own army had been forced to face the British on two fronts – at Assaye and Delhi. He could not take the Rajput and Jat rulers into confidence. Eventually, a combination of these factors caused the loss at Laswari – a battle where the soldiers fought bravely and were martyred.

Effects :

This was the battle that decisively signalled a power shift in north India, not Plassey, neither Buxar. Many Rajput rajas sensed the changed direction of the wind and threw their lot in with the British. It was the last battle fought between the British and the Scindias. Under Mahadaji, they had become the paramount power in north India and hence their loss to the British signalled the loss of the Maratha Empire.  This battle was soon followed by the Treaty of Surji – Anjangaon (Dec 1803) under which the Scindias agreed to :

a) Cede territory between the Ganga and the Yamuna to the British.

b) Give up claims on Delhi, Agra and various Rajput states.

c) Cede territory in Bundelkhand, Bharuch and near Aurangabad.

d) Cede all claims on Peshwa, Mughal, Nizam etc.

This treaty as we can see, decided the fate of important parts of north India and made the British the supreme power.

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Aneesh Gokhale

Historian. Author of Brahmaputra - The story of Lachit Barphukan
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