Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Indian Military Defeats

In response to a question by CIP I reproduce this section of "A Matter of Honour - An Account of the Indian Army, its officers & men" by Philip Mason.
 (Added July 13, 2013)
French and English
1. A Rabble of Peons

.... There was another turning-point which must be scored to the French credit. In 1746 an engineer officer in the French service, M. Paradis, with 230 French soldiers and 700 sepoys, and with no artillery, attacked across a river an Indian force of over 10,000 men, strongly posted, and with guns, and drove them headlong from the field.  This, the battle of San Thomé, was the first occasion of many which proved that a resolute attack by properly trained men could usually defeat the forces of an Indian prince ten times as numerous.  From this moment, the French, and a little later the English, ceased to be suppliants; from now on it was they who were courted.....

(Posted January 19, 2010)
Elephants and Cavalry: the Indian Model

1. What was the Secret?

Why were French and British troops so startlingly successful against native armies? At the end of the nineteenth century most Englishmen would unhesitatingly have answered this question with some phrase implying that there was an inherent superiority in the European character. Either it was implanted by God and we were now in some strange way the Chosen People, or our climate and situation — the Gulf Stream, the encircling sea, the abundance of harbours and estuaries, combined with the happy mixture of Teuton and Celt — all manifestly the fittest in the world to conquer and rule.

But, when pressed, any Englishman who knew India would admit that there were Indians whose personal courage could nowhere be surpassed. Nor was it a matter of personal prowess with weapons. All late-Victorian children had heard of Saladin, who had confounded Richard I of England by throwing up a silk cushion and slicing it in two with his scimitar while it was still in the air, a feat quite impossible for the Crusader with his straight ponderous two-handed cleaver of a sword. The tradition continued in India, where horsemen in late Mughal times spent many hours in exact training; swinging their horses in figures-of-eight that grew narrower and narrower till the horse was at such an angle that the rider could pick up a pistol from the ground; burnishing and sharpening swords so far superior to those of the British that English troopers would sometimes dismount and rearm themselves with the weapons of their opponents; exercising their bodies by rhythmic movements, by wrestling, by twanging the steel bow, which developed the muscles of the chest, forearm and finger. Man for man, many eighteenth century writers thought, the Indian trooper, in horsemanship and skill at arms, was the superior, and in personal courage, the equal, of the British.

More recently, it has been fashionable to ascribe the victories of Europeans to technical superiority. But this — true of course of colonial warfare in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century — does not really apply to India in the eighteenth. Indian armies were using artillery and small arms long before the victory of M. Paradis. It is true that the cannon were ponderous and difficult to move and that their crews regarded it as very creditable if they fired them four times an hour; but these are not failings in technical skill, if this means, as it is usually taken to mean, ability to construct weapons.

The truth was that Indians had not really given thought to the problems of war; no one had really cudgelled his brains as to how to concentrate the maximum possible fire on a given section of the enemy's line; no one had given attention to the point that practice for the crew could turn a gun that fired four rounds an hour into one that fired eight. This greater rapidity of fire was sometimes telling; at a skirmish just before San Thomé the enemy are said to have been extremely disconcerted by the speed with which the French discharged their guns. But this was not the decisive factor. At San Thomé Paradis had no artillery, while his enemy had. It cannot truly be said that Europeans had a conclusive superiority in artillery in any of their early battles; Hydar Ali and Tippoo often had far more guns than the British, and, as late as Arthur Wellesley's victory at Assaye in 1803, the enemy had an overwhelming superiority in the number of their cannon — and by this date they were far better served than they had been.

It is true that, at short range, the flintlock musket was a better weapon — because more quickly loaded and fired — than the matchlock, which in the mid eighteenth century was still in general use in India. (The musket threw a heavier ball, but the matchlock had twice the range.) But the advantage did not last long; there was no monopoly of the flintlock and it was soon widely in use. Indeed, as we shall see, by 1763 in Bengal there were Indian-made flintlocks of better quality than the [East India] Company's. And it did not take ten times as long to reload a matchlock as a flintlock. Here, too, the advantage lay more in the use made of the weapon than in the weapon itself. Here, too, there was at first, a slight technical advantage with the Europeans, but it was slight, nothing like enough to account for the results.

If then it was neither in personal nor technical superiority that the decisive advantage was to be found, where did it lie? It lay, I believe, in ideas about war, in the nature and organization of armies, and in the end, in politics and the the kinds of government that had grown up in India, and to which, so far, all invaders had gradually come to conform.

(I will possibly post additional excerpts later.)

(Added July 13, 2013)

2. 'Open' War and 'Treacherous' War

Invaders were usually able to defeat Indian armies.   The early history of India is one of waves of people coming in from the north-west; it is widely agreed now {not anymore} that the earliest of these people of who we have any knowledge, the taller, fairer, Aryan-speaking peoples, defeated a people more developed than themselves in which is generally called civilization-- people with a highly developed city-life not to be approached again for many centuries.   Alexander the Great, more than a thousand years later, marched into the Punjab, where he and his men were impressed by the stature of the inhabitants, whom they thought 'far superior in the art of war to the other nations of Asia'.  None the less they inflicted a shattering defeat on a Punjabi army, under a gigantic king whom the Greeks called Poros.  They turned back, at one point near what is now the border between India and Pakistan, only because of something like a mutiny among the Greek troops.

The army of Poros was an example of the classical pattern to which Indian armies tended to conform.   There was a compact mass of two hundred war elephants in the centre, with chariots, cavalry and infantry.  They held a strong defensive position on the left bank of the Hydaspes and Alexander could not cross in the face of such opposition.

After some days of feinting at different points, he left the bulk of his army demonstrating an intent to cross, while with only 11,000 of his best troops he made a secret night-march to the north, cross the river and marched down the left bank.  Poros had to change front to meet him but his forces were about four times as strong as those Alexander had with him.   The plan of the battle was simple: Alexander engaged the enemy on an extended front and, once they were committed, sent his cavalry on a wide outflanking movement and delivered a crushing charge on Poros' flank and rear.  The elephants became unmanageable; Poros was seriously wounded, by no less than nine arrows, and the Indian losses are said to have been two-thirds of their total forces.

Twenty years later, in 303 B.C., Seleukos Nikator, the Conqueror, one of Alexander's generals who had now become King of Western Asia, entered the Punjab, but this time he was defeated by Chandragupta, the first Emperor of the great Maurya line.  This is one occasion when a foreign army of importance was defeated in a full-scale battle.  Chandragupta's army seems to have been of the classical type, though no doubt better organized than that of Poros, and it may well be that this victory reinforced a tradition of how an army should be organized and how a battle should be fought which influenced such matters for the next two thousand years.  Certainly, after a generation or two, however they had begun, the armies of invaders tended to show curious similarities with the classical Indian army of antiquity.