The Battle of Assaye

The Battle of Assaye was fought on 23rd September 1803 and was a major victory for Arthur Wellesley, then a relatively young and inexperienced general. He was later to claim it as one of his most impressive victories. In the Peninsular War Saga, it is Paul van Daan’s first major battle at the head of the 110th light company and the start of a long association with the man who was to become the Duke of Wellington. This is an excerpt from An Unconventional Officer.

In the dim light of Wellesley’s briefing room, the following morning, Paul was aware that he was the youngest and by far the least experienced of the officers present, but he knew that the previous day’s action had earned him his place there. His chief called on him, and Paul stood up and walked to the front where Wellesley’s aide had pinned a sketch map of the area. Briefly Paul outlined the events of the previous day and pointed out the troop locations he had seen.
“Thank you, Captain van Daan. Gentlemen, we’re going to make a fight of it,” General Wellesley said calmly. “Here, on the edge of Assaye.”
There was a stunned silence around the briefing room. “Sir – what about Colonel Stevenson?” Maxwell said. There was no sign of the raging hangover he deserved. “Shouldn’t we wait for him? Our force is split in two.”
Wellesley fixed Colonel Maxwell with an arctic gaze. “Surprisingly, Colonel, I am aware of that,” he snapped. “Two of our scouts went out last night. They report that it is possible that the Maratha army may be pulling out. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. We have the element of surprise. I’d intended to join up with Stevenson at Borkadan but I’m not waiting for him, he’ll join us when he can, I’ve sent a message.” He motioned to his aide who picked up another sketch map and pinned it to the wall. “Gentlemen, my plan of battle.”
“It’s suicide!” John Wheeler said later, as Paul outlined the general’s orders to his officers in his tent.
“Not necessarily,” Paul said. “Wellesley is ambitious but he’s not stupid. If we wait for Stevenson this campaign could drag on for months. He’s fairly sure that the irregular forces won’t stand for long. Scindia’s infantry probably will, but with good discipline we can take them.”
“Where does he want us?” Carl asked.
“At the rear initially, with the 19th and the Madras cavalry. He’s leaving half a battalion of sepoys here to guard the baggage and the camp. The other half will fight under us while Johnstone takes the rest of the 110th. Wellesley wants fast manoeuvrable troops ready to move in and plug any gaps. He’s going ahead with a cavalry escort to reconnoitre the Maratha position. The rest of us follow. We have about two hours, gentlemen, get them ready.”
The Maratha chiefs had positioned their army in a strong defensive position along a tongue of land stretching east from Borkadan between the Kailna River and its tributary the Juah. Their army was commanded by a Hanoverian mercenary by the name of Anthony Pohlmann, apparently a former East India Company sergeant, who had positioned his infantry to the east of the Maratha camp in the plains around Assaye on the southern bank of the Juah. As Wellesley approached with his cavalry escort in the late morning it was clear that he was facing the entire combined army.
The weather was clear. It had rained during the night, and the day was cooler than average, although out on the river plain with his men, watching the Maratha and Wellesley easing their troops into position, Paul was already hot enough. Mosquitoes, the permanent irritation of India, were particularly prevalent towards the end of the monsoon season and up and down the line Paul could see his men swatting irritably at the creatures.
Pohlmann was deploying his infantry battalions in a line facing southwards behind the steep banks of the Kailna with his cannon arrayed directly in front. The great mass of Maratha cavalry was kept on the right flank leaving the irregular infantry to garrison the village of Assaye to the rear. The only obvious crossing point over the river was a small ford directly ahead of the Maratha position, and it appeared that Pohlmann was hoping to funnel the British and Madras troops across the ford into the mouth of his cannon, and then on to the massed infantry and cavalry behind. The local guides assured the general that no other ford existed nearby, but any frontal assault would have been suicide. While reconnoitring, Wellesley had noticed two unguarded villages on each bank of the Kaitna beyond the Maratha left, and it became obvious that there was a second ford. Wellesley led his army east to the crossing in an attempt to launch an attack on Pohlmann’s left flank.
At around three o’clock the British crossed to the northern bank of the Kaitna unopposed apart from a distant fire from the Maratha cannon. Once across, Wellesley ordered his six infantry battalions including most of the 110th to form into two lines, with his cavalry as a reserve in a third along with Paul’s light company and sepoy infantry. His Mysore cavalry were ordered to remain south of the Kaitna to keep an eye on a group of Maratha cavalry, which hovered around the rear.
“He’s not going to let us get away with that,” Carl commented, studying the distant Maratha troops through a small telescope. “See, he’s already swinging around to create a new line.”
He was right, Paul saw. Pohlmann swung his infantry and guns through 90 degrees to establish a new line spread across the isthmus with his right flank on the Kaitna and the left on Assaye. It was a good defensive move, which would protect his flanks, Paul thought, but it negated some of the advantage of his superior numbers. “They’re moving fast,” he said, watching the enemy’s redeployment with appreciation. “Hookey needs to get a move on or we’ll be outflanked.”
The same thought had obviously occurred to the general who immediately extended his front to avoid the danger. A battalion of pickets and the 74th Highlanders, which formed the right of the first and second lines, were ordered to move to the right. This allowed the 78th Highlanders to cover the left flank and the four Madras infantry battalions plus the rest of the 110th foot to form the centre of the British line.
The Maratha cannonade was intensifying and beginning to do some damage. Initially Wellesley ordered his own artillery forward to counter the attack but it was not powerful enough to be effective. The guns were turned onto the infantry, pounding them with canister, grape and round shot and Paul moved his horse forward restlessly, feeling powerless as the guns punched into the British lines. It was infuriating to be so far back with no part to play in the battle.
It was impossible from the rear to see everything that was going on, although occasionally messages would come through via horsemen. Wellesley was a commander who liked to move freely around the battlefield in person, relaying orders to his various commanders, but he could not be everywhere. A young ensign from the 78th had been sent back out of harms way with a badly wounded arm. He slid from his horse, blood dripping, and Paul and Carl both ran forward to assist him. Carl eased him out of his coat and Paul staunched the flow of blood, and sent O’Reilly running for bandages.
“What’s happening?”
“The infantry has advanced with bayonets,” the ensign said. “We’ve taken heavy fire, but we’re holding our own and moving forward. I got this when we charged the gunners. It’s going well but we’re taking losses. The sepoys are a bit wild; two of the Madras battalions took off in pursuit but we got them back. I want to get back there.”
“Well, you can’t, lad, not when you can’t hold a musket or a sword,” O’Reilly said, winding a bandage carefully around the wound. “Sit down, drink some water and take a breath. You’ve done your share.”
Paul was conscious of rising sounds of battle coming from the English right. He ran back to his horse and swung himself into the saddle, reaching for his telescope. The other officers and some of the men began to cluster around him.
“What in God’s name is happening?” Paul said. He was watching the steady advance of the pickets ahead of the 74th and it was clear that something was going badly wrong on the right. While he had been dealing with the injured ensign, Colonel Orrock had begun his advance in charge of the pickets who were to clear the way for the 74th Highlanders heading towards the right. It was clear now that he had either misunderstood his orders or mistaken his way, because he was marching too far to the right in direct line with the guns in and around Assaye. The King’s 74th had followed their pickets, and under the appalled gaze of the 110th light company they were being slaughtered on the field.
The pickets had already been almost completely annihilated. Even from this distance Paul could see their bloody bodies piled up, with the Highlanders scrambling over them to advance. Despite the horrific casualties, with iron and lead cutting into them they had reached as far as the low cactus hedge about a hundred yards out from the village but they could go no further. It was insanity and Paul felt a cold fury that nobody had realised the mistake and stopped the advance sooner.
“Maxwell!” Paul bellowed. He was too enraged to consider the proprieties of rank. “We need to charge, man, they’re being slaughtered over there.”
Colonel Maxwell rode up to join him. “Waiting for orders from Wellesley,” he said. His voice betrayed his anxiety. “They’ll come.”
“How the hell can you be sure? We need to go in now before they’re all dead!” Paul could not take his eyes from the horror unfolding before him. The 74th could go no further. They were rallying around their colours now, forming a square. He could see them pulling the bodies of their dead comrades to form a rough rampart around them. And then there was a yell, and the Maratha cavalry charged, followed closely by two of Pohlmann’s regular battalions, and the Highlanders were fighting with bayonet, fighting for their lives. Paul felt sick. He looked at the colonel.
“I’m not waiting,” he said, and raised his voice. “Light Company, to me! Form line! Native third battalion, fall in behind!”
The men had been waiting for the order. Paul dismounted, handed the reins of his horse to his orderly and drew his sword. The light company fell into rank with the precision of a clockwork toy with the sepoys lined up behind them as they set out at a steady pace across the battlefield. Paul scanned the battle, picking out the crumbling lines of the highlanders.
Behind him Paul could hear Maxwell bellowing orders and he grinned. Within two minutes the colonel was riding up beside him.
“If Wellesley court martials me for this, I’m taking you down with me, you arrogant young bastard!” he told Paul, and gave the order to charge, his men overtaking the light company on both sides and thundering down towards the enemy.
The cavalry smashed into the rear of the Maratha lines and Paul waved to O’Reilly. “Michael, we’re going to cut across and plug the gap left between the 74th and the 10th. Don’t let them split our line any further. Let the dragoons do the slaughter. It’s our job to stand firm. And watch those bloody gunners, I don’t trust them as far as I can kick them. Get through to the Highlanders and protect their left.”
Covering the ground quickly, they arrived at the battle zone to discover fierce fighting between the dragoons and the Maratha light cavalry. The remains of the Highlanders were barely on their feet, and Paul could see none of their officers. Through the thick of the fighting the light company slashed their way with sword and bayonet, and under orders bellowed by the NCOs they formed a barrier between the cavalry and the beleaguered 74th. Paul was appalled at the number of casualties. The dead lay piled up, impeding their advance. The guns were deafening, and the smoke obscured friend from foe. Paul stabbed a sepoy who was charging him down, then swung around and slashed at two more. There were screams from the Maratha cavalry who were under savage attack from the dragoons.
The smell of blood and sweat and the acrid scent of fear hung heavy in the air. A horse screamed in pain, then the guns crashed again. Cries of agony told Paul that his right flank was hit.
“We need to shut these bastards up and let the cavalry do their job,” he said to Carl. “Sergeant, ten men and with me. Carl, Johnny, line them up and cut down anything that tries to get past you, I don’t want a sabre up my arse. Carl, when we’re through, try to bring the men up to secure the guns. It’ll give the dragoons the chance to do their work.”
Paul led his men through the fray at a cautious run. The gunners on the far right had no need to aim any more. The packed mass of advancing British presented an easy target. They were concentrating their fire on the advancing 110th and the remains of the Highlanders, avoiding the battle raging between the two lots of cavalry so that they did minimum damage to their own men. There were three guns in his sight. Paul crouched low behind a small clump of cacti. He felt O’Reilly’s hand on his arm.
“Easy, sir. Wait until they’re reloading. The timing is as reliable as our own men shooting a volley, I’ll count you in.”
Paul nodded. “On my mark,” he said over his shoulder. “Go for the gunners on the right first, then work across to the left.”
“Make sure every one of the bastards is dead,” the Irishman instructed. “They’re the devil for playing dead, and before you know it they’re shooting you in the arse. If in doubt, cut their throats. Hard to get up from that one. Watch for them hiding under the bodies. Now here we go. One, two three…”
The gunners were quick and efficient at loading, but Paul and his men were on them before they were halfway through the process. Each gun had a small group of sepoys defending it, but they were no match for the enraged light company, and the gun was silenced within five bloody minutes. Paul stood for a moment catching his breath, glancing around him. The ground was saturated with blood and eight gunners and their guards lay dead.
“Well done, sir,” his sergeant said. He was wiping blood from his hands down his tunic.
“All dead. Bryant, Smith, stay to guard it until the lads come up. Kill anything you don’t like the look of.”
“Aye, sir,” Smith said. He was a fearsome sight, covered in blood, his bayonet held in steady hands. “That include Bryant, sir, ‘cause he’s an ugly bastard?”
“After you’ve done with the Maratha,” Paul said with a grin. “Come on, Michael, let’s find ourselves another gun.”
The fight was harder now, as they were cutting through the remains of the Maratha infantry. The sepoys were fierce fighters, but they seemed leaderless and backed off from the savage assault of the light company bayonets more easily than expected. The second set of guns was in sight when Paul felt an agonising pain in his left thigh. He stumbled and fell, rolled over onto his back and slashed up at a sepoy who was lunging down at him with fixed bayonet. The man screamed and fell, blood spurting. Paul sat up and felt cautiously at his leg.
“Sir, you all right?” Private Cooper pulled up in his headlong run and offered his hand to Paul. Paul got up, nodding.
“Musket ball, I think,” he said, probing and wincing. “I’ll live. Let’s get moving.”
The light company reached the second set of guns and swarmed over the gunners in seconds. There was less noise now, although across to the left he could hear that the guns he had thought silenced by the advance of the 78th had started up again. He glanced at Michael, who shrugged.
“Told you,” he said. “Not dead enough.”
“They will be,” Paul said grimly. “Wellesley is over there; I can see him. He’ll shut them up. Are this lot done?”
“Aye, and it’ll get easier now. The heart is out of them. Can’t see any officers about either. Perhaps it was getting too dirty for their pretty French uniforms. Look here’s Smithy. Is the gun secure, lad, or have you run away from Bryant?”
“Bryant’s down. Some bastard cavalryman came through running scared and slashed him on the way.”
“Dead?” O’Reilly asked.
“Didn’t look good, Sarge. Poor bastard.” Smith glanced at Paul. “Mr Swanson and the lads are through, sir, sends his compliments and says you’re to get a bloody move on.”
Paul was trying not to think about Bryant’s laughing face only fifteen minutes earlier. “Come on then.”
“Are you all right, sir?” the sergeant said, indicating Paul’s leg.
“I’ll be fine.” Paul tested it. It hurt badly, but he had not lost strength and it was bleeding sluggishly. He had no idea of what damage had been done, but he did not need to stop now. He began to run. It was bearable. He was conscious of the Irishman keeping pace with him, making sure he did not fall, and shot an appreciative grin his way. O’Reilly’s thin face was grimly amused.
“You’re a hard young bastard,” he said.
“You’ve the navy to thank for that,” Paul replied, dodging a sepoy who was lying on the ground trying to stab upwards into his stomach. He despatched the man quickly and ran on.
They overran the guns more quickly now with no further casualties, and joined up with the 78th. A major Paul knew slightly saluted him, pulling out a canteen and gulping down water. “Captain van Daan. They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems. Would your ruffians have something to do with that?”
“Maybe, sir. We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.”
“Lose many?”
“I don’t know yet. One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right. We’ll not get out of it unscathed.”
“None of us will, laddie. They’re on the run now. Their French officers took off, no discipline left. Eyes right, the general is approaching.”
Wellesley reined in. He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning.
“Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well done, sirs. You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.”
“Not serious, sir.”
“Good, good. I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.”
Paul glanced up at him warily. “I was around, sir,” he said.
“Yes.” Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes. Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly. “You anticipated correctly, Captain. You might not always be right, however. I prefer my officers to await orders.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Did Colonel Maxwell…”
“No, sir,” Paul said definitely. We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.”
Wellesley shook his head. “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well. I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns. Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear. Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them. Captain, are your men able to join them?”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company.
“Good, let’s get those guns back. God knows what the cavalry are doing!”
Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them. “They all right over there, sir?”
“I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here! What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain? Why can they never follow a simple order?”
Despite himself, Paul grinned at the General’s exasperated tone. “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.”
The rest of the light company were approaching with Carl at their head. There were familiar faces missing in their ranks. With a sinking feeling Paul realised that he could not see Sergeant Stewart or Lieutenant Wheeler.
While the 78th and the 110th light company attacked from the West, Wellesley himself rode to the 7th native cavalry, the only mounted troops Maxwell had left on the field, and led them from the East. The attack was short and brutal, and for one sickening moment it looked as though the general himself was lost, as his horse went down under a pike. Shaken but undeterred, Wellesley was up again and mounted on his third horse of the day and the light company leaned against the carriages of the recovered guns and caught their breath…

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