During the early 19th century the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab was built and expanded under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. During the same period British India was also growing, so that by the 1830s its territory was adjacent to the Punjab.
Ranjit Singh was a skilled politician who maintained an uneasy alliance with the British, while increasing the strength of his army to deter any aggression. When he died in 1839, the Punjab fell into disorder. There was a succession of weak and short-lived rulers and increasing tension between the army and court.
The British started to build up their forces on the borders of the Punjab. Some British officials hoped for war, believing the Sikhs were the only remaining power that could threaten their hold over India. The tension eventually led the Khalsa to cross the River Sutlej on 11 December 1845 and invade British territory. Members of the Sikh court who wanted to curtail the Khalsa’s power possibly encouraged this.
General Sir Hugh Gough and Governor-General of India Sir Henry Hardinge advanced to meet the Sikh army. After winning hard-fought victories at Mudki (18 December) and Ferozeshah (21 December), they forced the Sikhs to retreat.
Reinforced, the latter moved to renew the war by re-crossing the Sutlej and establishing a bridgehead at Sobraon. To support this operation, another Sikh force under Ranjodh Singh Majithia was dispatched to attack the British fort at Ludhiana and threaten their supply lines. Alerted to this threat, Gough detached troops under General Sir Harry Smith to counter Ranjodh Singh. Their armies met at Aliwal on 28 January 1846.
The British deployed a force of 12,000 British and Indian troops and 32 guns under the command of General Sir Harry Smith (1787-1860), a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and deputy adjutant general to the army in India. Having skillfully commanded a division at Mudki and Ferozeshah, Smith was a natural choice to command the army at Aliwal.
Smith faced a 20,000-strong Sikh army led by General Ranjodh (or Ranjur) Singh Majithia. The Sikh army was probably the most formidable opponent the British faced on the sub-continent. It was composed of traditional Indian irregular cavalry and infantry alongside European-trained regulars. The latter even wore redcoats like the British. The Sikh artillery was of a particularly high standard. At Aliwal Ranjodh Singh’s force was equipped with 67 guns.
The Sikhs occupied an entrenched position along a ridge between the villages of Aliwal on the right and Bhundri on the left. To their rear was the River Sutlej, running for the entire length of their line. This made it difficult for them to manoeuvre and was potentially dangerous should they be forced to retreat.
The battle began with an indecisive artillery duel, but eventually Smith decided to drive the Sikhs out of Aliwal, identifying it as the weakest part of their defence. Four infantry brigades attacked and captured the village, from where they could then enfilade (sweep with gunfire) the exposed Sikh centre and threaten their crossings over the river. Sikh attempts to recover the position with cavalry failed after a series of British counter-charges. The British infantry then began to roll up the Sikh line.
The Khalsa tried to swing back along the river, pivoting on Bhundri to prevent the British from cutting off their line of retreat across the Sutlej. The Sikh cavalry then threatened the British left flank. Smith now deployed the rest of his cavalry, led by the 16th Lancers, who charged several times to disperse the Sikh horsemen. Next, the 16th, ably assisted by horse artillery, broke a number of Sikh infantry battalions that had formed square to receive them. The Lancers then overran a battery of Sikh artillery before capturing Bhundri and driving its garrison back to the river.
In the centre, the remaining Sikh infantry tried to resist, but with their flanks collapsing they were eventually forced to retreat after suffering heavy casualties from the advancing British infantry and horse artillery. The retreat quickly turned into a disorderly rout across the fords. On the far bank Ranjodh Singh tried to form a new line but this was dispersed by artillery fire.
The Sikhs lost all their ordnance - 52 guns were captured, two put out of use and 13 lost in the river. Much of their baggage and supplies were also captured. Smith lost 141 men killed, 413 wounded and 25 missing. During their charges the 16th Lancers suffered 140 casualties from a force of 300 men. Sikh losses were estimated at around 3,000 killed.
With the victory at Aliwal the threat to the British rear was removed. Smith, awarded a baronetcy for his generalship, soon moved to rejoin Gough and the reinforced British army successfully attacked the main Sikh force at Sobraon on 10 February. This victory led to the Treaty of Lahore that ended the war. The Duke of Wellington publicly praised Smith, saying ‘I never read an account of any affair in which an officer has shown himself more capable than this officer did of commanding troops in the field’.
The Sikhs conceded large tracts of land to the British, who also appointed a resident to oversee the royal court. Peace did not last long though and a revolt led to the Second Sikh War (1848-49). This also ended in a British victory and resulted in the annexation of the Punjab and North-West Frontier.
The annexation of the Punjab, alongside the fighting qualities displayed by the Khalsa, led the British to recruit Sikhs into their military. The Sikhs were designated a ‘martial race’ and went on to provide a disproportionate number of recruits to the Indian Army.
They played a major role in safeguarding British rule during the suppression of the Indian Mutiny (1857-59), fighting, somewhat ironically, against many of the Hindu sepoys of the Bengal Army who had fought for the British in the Sikh Wars.
In the years that followed, the Sikhs proved to be among the most loyal soldiers, fighting in many campaigns with great distinction. During World War One, over 100,000 Sikhs served in the Indian Army.
Sir Harry Smith later became governor of the Cape Colony and in 1850 founded the town of Aliwal North in memory of his victory. The British also erected a monument at Aliwal in memory of the dead of both sides. Known as the ‘Flame of Memory’, it fell into disrepair following Indian Independence in 1947 and was then damaged by flood waters from the Sutlej. Recently, however, the Punjab Heritage and Tourism Promotion Board have started to renovate it, alongside others that mark the various battlefields of the Sikh Wars.
These efforts have been replicated in the UK. Organisations such as the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail endeavour to promote greater awareness of the shared military heritage between the Sikhs and British.
The Sikhs continue to be disproportionately represented in the Indian military. Although only two per cent of the Indian population, they provide ten per cent of its soldiers and many senior officers.
Sikhs also serve in the modern British military. As of April 2012, 230 Sikhs are in the British Armed Forces. Private Ranvir Singh of 151 London Transport Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, explained:
‘I am very proud to be a Sikh in the British Army. Generally, Sikhs are very peaceful and honest people and enjoy integrating within British Society. As a people we have a strong relationship with the British Army and I am pleased and proud to be continuing the tradition.’