"I never saw a man so cool and collected, as he was the whole time"
(One of Wellesley's Staff Officers, writing about him after the battle)
The Battle of Assaye was a defining moment for the British in India. Sir Arthur Wellesley was later, when asked his opinion on what he felt was his best victory, to reply "Assaye", and not Waterloo. Wellesley, by then the Duke of Wellington, also regarded Assaye as the "bloodiest for the numbers that I ever saw". Assaye signalled the start of Wellesley's distinguished career, and proved to his jealous rivals in India that he was more than capable of handling the task of pushing British control ever further north.
Wellesley had been promoted to the rank of Major General in 1802, although as was the custom retained the Colonelcy of the 33rd Regiment of Foot. His opponents put this down to the influence of his older brother, Marquess Wellesley, who happened to hold the position of Governor-General of India. It was Arthur who had urged his brother to come to India in the first place and unofficially acted as an advisor to him. In fact his promotion was due to seniority; it was simply his turn. Despite this, he was unusually young, only in his thirties, and therefore had a lot to prove. He certainly didn't disappoint.
Wellesley had arrived in India in 1797, and been given command of an expedition that was called off before long due to hostile intent from the Tippoo of Mysore, the kingdom immediately to the north of the British territory. He was to play a much more prominent role in the 1799 campaign against Mysore, taking control of one half of the force that attempted a night attack under the walls of Seringapatam on the night of the 5th of April. The failure of this attack gave Wellesley a lifelong prejudice against night fighting, and was not an auspicious start for him. Although he was not directly involved in the Siege of Seringapatam on the 6th (being in command of the reserve), he entered the city the day after to restore order. Somewhat suprisingly, in May Wellesley was appointed Governor of the city, and by July was in command of all remaining forces in Mysore.
That year Wellesley commanded an expedition against a freebooter who had attracted a sizable army, and thus had to be subdued. The pursuit took him into Mahratta lands; permission had been given for Wellesley to cross over into this territory. The warband was defeated in early September, and its leader killed. Although soon after this the opportunity came for Wellesley to leave Mysore, he felt that he should stay; but early the next year, 1801, Wellesley heard of an expedition to Egypt. Wellesley greatly desired the leadership of the 3' 000 strong force, and left Mysore in anticipation of his appointment, but was to be disappointed. General Sir David Baird, who had led the assault on Seringapatam two years earlier, was to have command. In fact, history would have been very different if Wellesley had commanded - the ship on which he was to have sailed for Egypt sank in the Red Sea, with the loss of all hands. Wellesley therefore returned to govern Mysore.
The next 18 months were spent organising Mysore: restoring order, streamlining the bureaucracy and building roads and fortifications. However, at the same time he had been keeping a close eye on the Mahrattas, and even wrote a paper concerning operations in their territory. When the chance came to join a force of troops going north in the winter of 1802, Wellesley offered his services. He had, after all, prior experience of the terrain and people during his pursuit of the freebooter in 1800. The situation was that there had been a rebellion, and the Peshwa of Poonah had been forced to flee. The Peshwa had appealed to the East India Company to restore him, agreeing to accept its authority if it helped him. Wellesley was appointed as a Major-General on the staff of the army (from Madras), and left Seringapatam in February 1803. He had 9' 000 men under his command at that time. Managing to save the town from destruction by enemy troops, enabling the Peshwa to reclaim his throne, Wellesley was given responsibility as the main political and military agent in the southern states of the Mahratta confederacy. Despite his efforts to maintain peace, war was declared against two powerful Mahratta chiefs who refused to submit to the Peshwah's authority, Holkar and Scindia, in August 1803.
The British East India Company forces attacked from north and south; General Lake in the north, and Wellesley in the south. The supposedly strong fortress at Ahmednuggur was quickly taken by a bold and risky escalade in mid-August, and Wellesley continued to move north. Hearing that the enemy were to converge on the town of Bokerdun, Wellesley arranged with his second-in-command, Colonel Stevenson, for an attack there on the 24th. Wellesley had split his force, to speed its advance, each having approximately 10' 000 men in it - mostly Indian sepoys and native allied horsemen, not British regular infantry. They were marching along parallel roads, but some miles apart, meaning that a merger of the two armies would take an entire day. However, on the 23rd Wellesley received word that the enemy were extremely close and on the move. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, he immediately set off, sending a message to Stevenson to tell him the situation. Around 1pm on the 23rd, Wellesley and his small force found itself perilously close to the huge combined Mahratta army. Wellesley was not a cautious commander, as he had shown at Ahmednuggur, and he did not hesitate. There would be a battle.
The joint (Scindia and Berar) Mahratta army was at least three times as large as Wellesley's. Estimates have ranged from 40'000 to an unbelievable 200' 000, but whatever the number (probably around 40-45' 000), the Mahrattas had several advantages. They had around 100 artillery pieces, many more than Wellesley, as well as several specially-trained war elephants. They were not undisciplined barbarians, as some Company officers believed, but European-standard soldiers. This was due to the fact that most regiments were commanded and trained by Europeans, who were drawn to the Mahratta army by the belief that the leaders would make them rich, and these beliefs were not unfounded. The army was also commanded by a European, the German Anthony Pohlmann, an ex-Company NCO. Pohlmann had picked an excellent position, too: his force was drawn up behind the river Kaitna, facing south, with the river Juah behind. The two rivers converged to the east, with the tiny (but fortified) village of Assaye nestled in a meander of the Juah. The aim was to draw the British (well, Wellesley's army) across the Kaitna into the mouth of the well-manned guns, and then onto the massed infantry and cavalry behind. After all, every ford across the Kaina was covered, so Wellesley would have to cross where Pohlmann wanted if he desired to fight that day. It was a quintessentially Indian tactic to place artillery in front of infantry, and Assaye would be no different. It would then be left to the Mahratta cavalry to mop up; a crushing victory was the expected outcome.
Wellesley is thought to have had 13' 500 men under his command at Assaye, infantry and cavalry, British and Indian allies. To be specific, Wellesley had two Scottish battalions, the 74th and the 78th Highlanders, and four Company sepoy battalions as infantry (whom he was to command personally), and the 19th Light Dragoons in addition to three native regiments for cavalry (under Colonel Maxwell). There were also some friendly Mahratta and irregular Mysore horsemen, but Wellesley did not trust their loyalty or their ability. Stevenson was too far away to lend assistance; Wellesley would have to go it alone, but his confidence and coolness never wavered. In contrast to his enemy, he only had approximately 20 cannon, all of relatively small calibres. Retreat was not possible, as the Mahratta cavalry would tear his army apart, and a frontal assault was clearly suicide. There did not seem to be much option, however. What Wellesley desired was a way to turn the left flank of the enemy army, i.e. cross the Kaitna further to the east. His army would then be loose in the rear of the Mahrattas, able to wreak havoc and seize Assaye before they had time to react. All that remained was to actually find a way across the river in the desired area...
All of the local guides that Wellesley had seeked out for their advice on the position of fords had denied the existence of any other ford than those guarded by the Mahrattas. Wellesley refused to believe them, however, and personally inspected the river via telescope. Something caught his eye - two villages, opposite each other and on different sides of the Kaitna. Although no guide had said a ford existed there, Wellesley was convinced, and ordered his forces to converge on the spot. There was indeed a fordable point between the villages, and although harrassed by cavalry and under fire form artillery, the British army (minus the irregular cavalry, designated to protect against Mahratta cavalry attack from the rear) successfully crossed the river and formed up.
However, the Mahratta's European training now showed itself. They reacted quickly, wheeling to face the threat to their flank, again with the artillery positioned in front of the infantry. The British could therefore not fall upon the enemy rear as planned; the well-disciplined maneouvres of the Mahrattan army came as something of a suprise. Although they had escaped destruction as they crossed the Kaitna, the British still faced a huge army that was ready and waiting for them behind the protection of numerous cannon.
Now, those familiar with Sun Tzu's Art of War will recognise the situation Wellesley's army now faced. With the rivers at their back and a horde to their front, the one ford available to escape by, they were effectively in Death Ground, where the only option is to fight or be destroyed. Sun Tzu is clear on this: "when in death ground, fight". Wellesley needed no such prompting - he knew what he had to do, and as soon as he could sent his battalions, in line, forward against the guns, sepoys and the 78th on the left with the 74th on the right. The British artillery was ineffective against the mass firepower of the enemy, and was disabled through sheer weight of shot directed against them. Initially the infantry was shielded by the terrain, but were subjected to an horrendous barrage of roundshot and canister when they crested a slight rise in the ground. Marching with bayonets fixed, the Highlanders and sepoys continued resolutely through the storm of lead and iron. On the left, the line succeeded in reaching the Mahratta guns, to the astonishment of the enemy infantry, who believed that no living thing cvould have made it through such firepower. After venting their fury by bayoneting most of the gunners, the 78th and sepoys reformed and continued the advance against the columns of infantry behind. The Mahrattas, confronted by the apparently indestructible Scots with their kilts and pipes, simply turned and fled. It didn't matter how well trained soldiers were; throughout the colonial expansion of the British Empire and the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries (including the Peninsular War against the French), very few could stand against a bayonet charge made by screaming Redcoats.
On the right, meanwhile, the kilted soldiers of the 74th were being massacred. Wellesley had ordered them to move towards Assaye, to make room for another battalion to move into the line, and then straighten up to avoid the guns behind the village's walls. They had not straightened up, and came into the range of the artillery in the village. Taking casualties from the canister, the 74th then stumbled across a cactus hedge directly in their path, which disordered their ranks and severely hampered progress. Disaster struck as Mahratta horsemen crashed into them from behind, unnoticed til now as they had been concealed by the cannon's smoke. Unable to form square, the 74th were cut to pieces by cavalry and continuing artillery fire. They were saved from annihilation by the 19th Light Dragoons and the 4th Native Cavalry, who charged the weaker Mahratta horse and broke them. The 74th were able to regroup, but with barely 100 out of the 650 men originally in the battalion still standing, there was little they could do. The British cavalry then attacked and routed the infantry around Assaye, who fled across the river Juah.
Despite the success of the 78th and sepoys against the first line, the Mahratta infantry had regrouped and now waited, formed up, with their backs to the Juah. In addition a large body of Mahratta cavalry was hovering in the distance, seemingly unsure of exactly what it was supposed to be doing. The two battalions of sepoys that had followed the 78th through the first Mahratta line were formed up in preparation for an attack against the second. The 78th, who had been watching the enemy cavalry, joined them once the British cavalry came to relieve them of that task. Although Wellesley's horse was killed by a cannonball at this point, he had several remounts ready for this eventuality, and thus was able to continue marshalling his troops. The 78th was again called upon to advance on the enemy infantry along with the Company sepoys. After a devastating volley from close range, the Mahrattas broke and fled once more, across the river Juah, pursued by the sepoys.
The 78th held their ground, and with the 7th Native Cavalry was tasked with retaking the enemy guns. The Mahratta gunners had managed to work their way back to their cannon and had begun firing on the British rear, but were once again put out of action, this time by Scottish bayonet and Indian tulwars combined. During this action Wellesley again lost his horse, killed by an enemy gunner, so was once more forced to remount. Meanwhile Wellesley had tasked some cavalry, led by Colonel Maxwell, with charging and destroying the last Mahratta infantry on the battlefield. This Indian infantry was not true to form, however, and bravely stood its ground, a well-timed volley stopping the charge in its tracks, simultaneously killing Maxwell. It did not stop to fight any more, however, and quickly made its escape in good order.
Three hours after the fighting had begun the giant Mahratta army was dead, dying, captured or fleeing. By 6pm all the remaining Mahrattas were gone, and the captured guns been taken away. The fighting had been extremely bloody and casualties high, but the British emerged indisputably victorious. Although the campaign against the Mahrattas would continue, its outcome had been assured by the young Arthur Wellesley's brilliant victory at Assaye.
The Mahratta army had suffered 6' 000 casualties at Assaye, and had lost all of its guns in the panicked retreat. Wellesley's army was in no state to pursue, however: it had lost 1' 600 killed and wounded (600-odd of which were actually British), and its cavalry was exhausted. It is said that Wellesley sank to the ground after the battle, his head in his hands. He had dared and he had won, but at a high price. For its part in the battle, the 78th battalion were henceforth known as the "Saviours of India".
Assaye did not signal the end of the war with the Mahrattas. They still outnumbered the British forces that opposed them, and were by no means beaten. Although the greater war ground on for two years, Scindia and Berar (opponents of Wellesley at Assaye) were captured by the end of the year, following more defeats inflicted on them by British regulars and East India Company sepoys. Arthur Wellesley would return home to England, before going on to Portugal to take command there. Some believed that he would not be up to taking on the French, so superior to mere Indians: but they would be laughing on the other side of their faces by the time he had carved his way through the Peninsular and over the Pyrenees with a series of victories. Not to mention after he had defeated the greatest of them all, The Ogre himself, in a small valley in Belgium near the town of Waterloo.
"Redcoat", by Richard Holmes (2001)
Map of the course of the Battle of Assaye:
A map of British territories in India in 1805:
The book "Sharpe's Triumph", by Bernard Cornwell, also contains an account of the battle, as well as the preceding days (including the escalade at Ahmednuggur).
Lastly, in case you hadn't already noticed, this was deliberately posted on the 200th anniversary of the battle.