Lake's Fatal Decision
By Tom Holmberg
"You will have heard of Monson's reverses: I tremble for the political consequences of these events." So wrote Major General Arthur Wellesley on hearing of Colonel Monson's arrival at Agra with only a small remnant of his original force. While Napoleon's retreat from Russia is well known, less well known is the disastrous retreat of Lieutenant Colonel Monson's force of British-officered sepoys and native cavalry during the Second Anglo-Maratha War. This retreat has been called "one of the greatest and most disgraceful setbacks to the British military reputation in India." Lieutenant Colonel William Monson (1760-1807) had had a long military career in the subcontinent. First commissioned in the 52nd regiment in 1780 he proceeded to India. By 1785 he had risen to the rank of captain. He commanded a light company of the 52nd at the attack on Seringapatam in the 1792 campaign against Tipu Sultan, and by 1795 he'd attained the rank of major. In 1797, transferring to the newly arrived 76th regiment, Monson reached the rank of lt. colonel. In 1804 Monson was to play an important role in the war against the Marathas.
Sivaji the Great had forged the Maratha Confederacy in the 17th Century out of the crumbling edifice of the once mighty Mughal Empire. Power within the Confederacy had devolved upon the Peshwa, the chief minister of the Maratha king. As time passed the Peshwas gradually lost control of the subordinate chieftains as the most powerful among them jockeyed for power. The death of the great Maratha statesman Nana Fadnavis in 1800 intensified this struggle for power, especially between the two most powerful chieftains, Daulat Rao Sindhia, rajah of Gwalior, and Jeshwant Rao Holkar, ruler of Indore. These internal Maratha conflicts created a window of opportunity for the British to intervene decisively in Maratha affairs. Having diminished the princes of Bengal and the Carnatic to impotence, eliminated Tipu Sultan of Mysore and enfeebled the Oudh and Hyderabad, the Marathas were the only rivals remaining to the burgeoning British empire in India.
|Lieutenant Colonel William Monson|
|Lieutenant General Lord Gerald Lake|
The Bundi and Lakheri passes, south of Tonk Rampura, were Holkar's entry into the north from Malwa into Hindustan. Monson had a force of almost six battalions, Captain Lucan's native cavalry (about 2,000 men), an assorted force of allied warriors and 1000 men of the Jaipur Horse, in total about ten thousand men. Monson's force also contained the usual complement of soldier's wives and children, camp followers, drovers, etc. Reinforced by Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Don, Monson was emboldened to advance on Kotah (putting him more than 200 miles from support), on the south end of the pass. At Kotah Monson was greeted by the local rajah, Zalim Singh, who offered not only supplies to the British army but a detachment of his own troops. Encouraged by this support Monson decided to advance to Khatowli on the other side of the Mokandara pass (or ghaut), 30 miles south of Kotah. The rajah of Kotah offered to provide Monson with logistical support.
Meanwhile, to the south, the rest of the British plan was being put into action. A pincer movement --not dissimilar to that employed against Sindhia and Bhonsle earlier, but on a smaller scale-- of two British forces had been envisioned. Lake's army was to move down from the north and Arthur Wellesley's up from the south. Concerned with the dearth of supplies in the region through which he had to pass, Wellesley thought the campaign should have been postponed until the start of the rainy season. Having been so successful in the lightning campaign against Sindhia and Bhonsle, General Wellesley seemed to have little interest in a campaign planned by Lake. In fact, as C.H. Philips observed, feeling "slighted by Lake, his acting rank of Major-General still unconfirmed by London suffering from one of his strange spells of idleness and lethargy", Wellesley was on the verge of quitting India altogether. (In early 1805 the future Duke of Wellington sailed for Europe).
Wellesley was of the opinion that the British should fight an aggressive war against Holkar and push him as hard as they were able. He felt Lake should " continue his pursuit of Holkar even though he should have no hopes of bringing him to action." Elsewhere he said, "Holkar's army is so badly composed, and his power and even his existence appear to depend upon his avoiding a contest with the British armies " He had said that war against Holkar would be simply a poligar (petty warrior chiefs, but in British usage, "bandits") war and should not last two weeks. Lake, who referred to Holkar as a "robber chief" was equally confident in the superiority of British arms. Even when apprised of Monson's retreat Lake wrote, "I think Holkar will not easily get his cavalry to attack our infantry unless he brings his guns, which will retard him and prevent his horse from doing much mischief. His guns will, in the end, be the cause of his ruin. His insolence is admirable I trust he may yet get a very severe check from Colonel Monson." British overconfidence was soon to have devastating consequences.
On 7 May 1804 General Wellesley ordered Colonel Murray, with four sepoy and two British battalions, to advance from the southwest into Malwa to cooperate with Lake. Wellesley's instructions to Murray, reflecting perhaps the General's disinterest, read: "It is impossible for me to say, what the operations of the commander in chief will be, but Holkar's power appears to consist principally in a considerable army in the field." Murray was ordered to " stop Holkar [and] embarrass and impede his flight as much as possible." He also wrote that if Holkar moved towards Ujjain Murray should join his army with Sindhia's if possible, but "at all events, to move with celerity upon Holkar, and attack him whenever you shall have an opportunity." Murray was warned " you should not think of attacking any strong place (excepting such as they necessarily fall in your way), till Holkar's army will have been defeated." Wellington stated that he could not even suggest a place "...to which he [Murray] should direct his march in the first instance", but thought Ujjain should be Murray's ultimate goal. Wellesley made little effort to press Lake for more specific details of his plans.
With these somewhat vague orders Murray marched north to theoretically cooperate with Monson. As Murray advanced he sent back to General Wellesley a constant stream of complaints. Murray complained that he was short of troops and short of supplies, indications that Murray was not fully committed to his role in the campaign. Wellington never bothered to inform Lake of Murray's complaints. Instead Wellesley wrote Murray, annoyed by his subordinate's complaints, "You have a larger body of European soldiers than the Commander in Chief, or than I have ever had; and Colonel Monson has driven Holkar before him out of the territories of the Rajah of Jeypoor, of Boondy, and of Kota, without a single European soldier or horseman "
Monson, now well advanced from his assigned position, still confident and encouraged by news of Murray's advance, collected supplies around the Mokandara pass. To what extent Monson's advance was due to overconfidence or to Holkar luring him forward probably can't be determined. He received a communication from Lake warning him of the dangers of advancing into enemy territory. But Lake decided " to allow considerable latitude to the judgment of this officer." On 28 June Monson advanced another 50 miles capturing Holkar's hill fort at Hingleshgarh. With Holkar apparently fleeing before him (in fact he was falling back on his main force, which reportedly included 19 battalions of infantry and some 175 guns), Monson decided to advance again, encamping in early July near Gurrote, only 70 miles from Ujjain. Again Lake warned his subordinate of the dangers of advancing too far from his base and urged him to keep in touch with Murray's forces. Murray was approaching Ujjain from the southwest, but unfortunately neither commander was precisely aware of the location of the other. Holkar was now operating between the two converging British forces.
Inexplicably Murray decided to retreat and informed Monson of his resolution. Monson receiving this news also decided to fall back to a less vulnerable position. (Unknown to Monson, Murray had changed his mind and marched on Ujjain, reaching the city on 8 July.) Only the Chambral River separated Monson's force from Holkar's and Murray's retreat gave the Maratha commander a golden opportunity to defeat the British in detail. Holkar crossed the river on 6 July, moving west. Monson, hearing of Holkar's approach, resolved to turn and fall on the enemy as they were crossing the river. Setting out at two in the morning, Monson had marched seven miles towards the Chambral when reconnaissance informed him that Holkar had already crossed the river in force and that the Marathas were eager for battle. Only 12 miles separated the antagonists. Suddenly discretion seemed the better part of valor. Monson remembered that he had only two days rations left and that Murray could not come to his assistance. Monson decided to return to a defensive position at the Mokandara pass.
Sending his baggage on ahead, Monson left Captain Lucan, an English officer who had previously been in Maratha service, with 1500 of his irregular cavalry and two guns as well as 500 native horse and 500 Rajputs to cover his retreat. Holkar, informed of the size of this force, attacked immediately with 20,000 to 40,000 horse. Lucan fought desperately but his entire force was annihilated. (Lucan's fate is unknown, in one report he was captured and died in captivity, and in others it was reported he was slain in battle, perhaps decapitated by Holkar himself.) Without cavalry to fend off the Maratha horse, Monson had marched, in a three-sided square with his artillery in the center, for the pass, arriving on 9 July. A battalion of native infantry commanded by Major Sinclair was waiting to reinforce him. Holkar was following hard on Monson's heels. Although of limited value against well-trained, disciplined infantry in battle the Maratha horse was in its element when pursuing a fleeing enemy.
On the 10th Holkar, his guns not having arrived, demanded that if Monson surrendered his arms he'd be allowed to march to Agra unmolested. Monson refused and proceeded to beat back repeated charges by Holkar's cavalry. On this same day the annual monsoon rains began, creating further difficulties for Monson in a region bisected by rivers and nullahs. Hearing that Holkar's infantry and artillery were near and fearing that Holkar would be able to infiltrate his cavalry through the pass and cut off his line of communications, Monson fell back on Kotah.
Zalim Singh, the rajah of Kotah, gave Monson permission to draw up his men under the wall of the town and even offered to lend his troops if Monson would attack Holkar. Monson was not prepared to make such a promise. Instead Monson decided to cross the Chambral river seven miles from Kotah and retreat to Rampura. Monson was later to unfairly blame the rajah for his retreat from Kotah. The rajah of Kotah provided Monson with his boats for the crossing. With the now swollen river between him and Holkar, Monson halted his army and tried to collect supplies. Little in the way of grain was forthcoming however and the men were starving. The rains and the "black cotton soil" of the region, which impeded the movements of both sides, slowed Holkar's infantry and guns. When on 15 July Monson resumed his retreat the weather and the rain-soaked roads forced him to spike and abandon his guns. How effective the spiking was is demonstrated by the fact that later, at the battle of Deeg, Holkar used these same guns against the British. Monson was also losing elephants and camels bogged down in the deep mud.
Monson's retreat continued and the next obstacle in his path was the Chumblee nullah which was swollen and unfordable for the infantry. With his guns lost, Monson sent his European gunners across on some of his remaining elephants. As Monson waited for the river to recede enough to cross Holkar's horsemen repeatedly harassed his army. On 23 July Monson pushed one battalion across the rivulet on small rafts they had constructed and on elephants. The next day, while transferring a second battalion across the Maratha cavalry attacked. "My troops [were] in the greatest confusion in crossing their families and property, and the camp followers [were] making great lamentation," Monson explained later. The battle raged all day. Next morning Monson detached Colonel Don with two battalions to find another ford with orders to proceed to Rampura and then crossed the spate himself with the two remaining battalions, losing a number of men in the process. Monson's battalions arrived at Rampura on the 27th and Colonel Don's two days later.
At Rampura Monson was reinforced by two battalions of sepoys and a body of Hindustani horse, as well as 4 six pounders and 2 howizters. In addition Lake had forwarded from Agra a quantity of grain, ammunition and treasure. Fear of the impression a further retreat would have on Lake and an expectation of additional men and supplies, which weren't forthcoming, induced Monson to remain at Rampura until 20 Aug. Monson, revealing his true feelings, wrote to Lake at this time, I "could not bear the idea of attempting to fall back all the way to Agra Alas my sun is set forever while writing to you I give way to the fullest and bitterest pangs of my heart but rely on it, it is not apparent to a soul besides and in no instance can my appearance give cause for either fear or despondency." Lake sent instructions that Monson was to remain at Rampura "if such a measure appeared to him practicable, and in case he felt a retreat necessary he was only to leave a garrison at Rampura fort." The delay probably sealed Monson's fate. Holkar's army crossed the flooded nullah and was moving toward Rampura with the intention of giving his enemy no rest.
The supplies Lake had sent from Agra consumed, Monson saw no alternative but to continue retreating to the northeast toward Agra. Leaving Captain Hutchinson to garrison the fort, Monson, with five battalions and six companies of sepoys and two howitzers, left Rampura on 20 Aug. and reached the Banas river on the 22nd. This river was also in flood and could not be crossed. Monson gathered some leaky boats and ferried his treasure and one battalion across. Holkar reached the river the next day and on 24 Aug. he ordered his cavalry to dismount and attack the British. At the same time he sent additional cavalry and his Pindaris (irregular horsemen who followed the Maratha armies and were paid by plundering enemy territory) across the Banas on both flanks to cut off retreat. Monson had managed to move his baggage and a couple of his battalions across. As Holkar's men worked their way across the swollen river, Monson sent more troops across until only one remained. Holkar opened artillery fire on the rear guard and the sepoys charged the guns capturing them. The Maratha chieftain had a second line of guns advanced and sent the sepoys reeling, recovering his guns. Major Sinclair commanding the rear guard and 13 officers were killed and most of the sepoys were killed, wounded or drowned when driven into the flood. Monson apparently preferred to sacrifice his sepoys to save his baggage.
Holkar pressed the retreating Monson hard having pushed not only troops across the river but some of his guns. Forced to abandon his baggage and apparently his wounded, Monson made a fighting retreat towards Khushalgarh 50 miles distant. Forming a square with his treasure and ammunition in the center, Monson retreated through the night only reaching Khushalgarh at 11 pm on the 25th. At Khushalgarh Monson found 1000 bullock loads of supplies from Lake, which was a relief to his starving and exhausted sepoys. At this time Monson discovered that two companies of sepoys had deserted to the enemy along with a few hundred of the native horse. One last time Monson considered turning to attack Holkar in order to gain breathing space, but the clouds of Maratha cavalry and the Maratha artillery dissuaded him and he decided that his only course was to continue the retreat all the way back to Agra.
Spiking his last gun Monson began the final stage of his retreat. Marching in square, the sepoys found themselves under fire from Holkar's galloper guns. On the 25th a number of the British officers had abandoned their troops in order to hurry on ahead to safety, reporting the whole detachment annihilated. The sepoys, fighting for their lives, kept a semblance of discipline. They let the Maratha horse close in before firing their muskets, then charged them with bayonets. Whenever the British halted Holkar's artillery would open up heavy fire. In the evening of the 28th discipline broke and the rout started. Camp followers and sepoys intermixed and it was devil take the hindmost as the Company's forces fled, Monson included. This fleeing rabble, harried by Holkar's cavalry, reached Fatepur, where even the locals joined with Holkar's troops to attack the broken army. To gain time Monson sent a messenger to Holkar offering to surrender. While the chieftain was considering this offer Monson made a forced march with what troops he could collect and reached Agra on 30 Aug. after a retreat lasting almost two months. Only a few hundred of Monson's original force of more than 10,000 (not even counting his reinforcements) had straggled into Agra by the 31st.
"I will not at present say anything more upon this disgraceful and disastrous event a finer detachment never marched, and sorry as I am to say I have lost five battalions and six companies, the flower of the army, and how they are to be replaced at this day God only knows. I have to lament the loss of some of the finest young men and the most promising in the army," Lake lamented. The loss of Monson's army was a stunning blow to British prestige, it proved the British weren't invincible. The Company's garrison of Mathura fled to Agra, leaving their tents and baggage, when Holkar approached within no more than 200 miles of that place. Morale of Company troops fell and the rate of desertion rose. Sindhia and Bhonsle, just recently pacified, conspired to throw off their British forged bonds. Native ballads were to long remember the British defeat.
Major James Skinner wrote, "Nothing can be more striking or instructive than this account showing the naked truth against the official dispatches. It showed how a small reverse was demoralizing. Retreat is more disastrous than defeat " Monson and Murray blamed the disaster on each other, although as D.D. Khanna points out "the entire episode proves that it was not only due to the tactical blunders of these commanders alone, but also of those chiefs who were responsible for both the strategical and the logistical planning of the operations." Lake's responsibility hardly needs further analysis. Arthur Wellesley blamed the debacle on the size of Monson's detachment, claiming it would have been destroyed in any circumstances. But Khanna goes on to observe, "Arthur Wellesley seems to have completely disassociated himself from the causes of this disaster and pointed out that it was a curious circumstance that Monson and Lake should but attribute their misfortunes to Murray's retreat. It must be admitted that Murray's decision to retreat at the last moment was partly due to Arthur Wellesley's contradictory orders the latter received."
The consequences however were more political than military. For Lord Wellesley the disaster was be the final straw in his struggle with "the cheesemongers of Leadenhall Street", as he liked to refer to the directors in London. The governors of the East India Company hastened Wellesley's recall. When his "forward" policy was successful they could overcome their misgivings about the expense of his ambitions. Lord Wellesley had annexed a greater territory in the subcontinent than all of Napoleon's European conquests. He had tried to present the destruction of Monson's army in the best possible light as merely the "distressing loss [of] a detachment of our native infantry." Now that his policy had met a reverse and this failure "terrified" them. Lord Wellesley's successor Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) arrived in Calcutta in July 1805 with the "specific charge [of] negotiating an end to the expensive Maratha wars."
Lake, in order to rescue British ascendancy in India, renewed his campaign against Holkar. The defense of Ochterlony and the timely arrival of Lake defeated Holkar's siege of Delhi. Lake then pursued the Maratha horse with his own for 17 days, covering 350 miles. In Nov. 1804 Holkar's forces were defeated at Deeg (13 Nov.) and Farrukhabad (17 Nov.). Lake besieged Bharatpur, but his four assaults were failures, costing 103 officers and 3100 men (the siege was lifted in April 1805). Unable forge a general Maratha rising against the British Holkar could not to continue the struggle. Holkar signed a relatively favorable treaty with the British in Jan. 1806.
Of Holkar, John Pemble observes, "Here was a Maratha leader who, though encumbered with something like 200 guns, managed to pursue and harass, at the height of the monsoon, through the black cotton soil of Malwa and across two rivers, a lightly equipped British force for a distance of 250 miles. It was a remarkable achievement, which, as Lake admitted, 'afforded proofs of a greater degree of efficiency and enterprise than could have been expected, and rendered it difficult to estimate what they might venture to undertake or be able to accomplish.'" Grant Duff said of the so-called "robber chief", "[Holkar] was better educated than Marathas in general and could write both the Persian language and his own; his manner was frank, and he could be courteous his stature was low, but he was of a very active, strong make "
In spite of the disastrous retreat Monson continued to serve under Lake. As General Fraser's second in command at the battle of Deeg, 13 Nov. 1805, Monson took over command when Fraser was wounded. Lake said of this battle, "I have reason to believe that the affair of the 13th was a very near business. The personal courage of Monson alone saved it." In Feb. 1806 Monson was chosen by Lake to lead the four unsuccessful assaults on Bharatpur. At the end of the war Monson returned to England and took a seat in parliament. He died the following year.
Jeshwant Rao Holkar was driven from his siege of Delhi and defeated at the battle of Deeg by Lake, losing 87 guns including 14 previously taken during Monson's retreat. The British failure to take Bharatpur by storm and the change in policy signaled by the recall of Lord Wellesley saved Holkar. He made peace with the British on relatively favorable terms. Holkar died insane in 1811. Holkar's daughter, the twenty-one-year-old Beema Baee, carrying tulwar and lance led a troop of 2,500 men during the final Anglo-Maratha war in 1817-18. When in 1817 the British tried to force a new treaty on the "hapless Peshwa", effectively removing all his remaining power, the Marathas rose up one last time. Less likely now to underestimate their foe, the British quickly defeated in "a large, multi-front campaign reminiscent of 1803-04", the British formally removed the Peshwa, disbanded his armies, and forced the remaining Maratha chieftains to sign treaties of subordination. The Maratha Confederacy of Sivaji the Great was at an end.
Arthur Wellesley recommended John Murray be relieved from his command in Sept. 1804. Murray was promoted to Major General in June 1805 and returned to England. In 1809 Murray commanded a brigade in the Oporto campaign, but differences with William Carr Beresford led Murray to return to England. In 1811 Wellington refused to accept him as an officer in the Peninsula stating, "He is a very able officer, but when he was here before he was disposed not to avoid questions of precedence, but to bring them unnecessarily to discussion and decision." Murray made Lieutenant General in 1812 and served in the army in Sicily and then with the Anglo-Sicilians on the east coast of Spain. When his motley force of soldiers were employed in the siege of Tarragona, Murray hastily embarked his troops at the approach of the French Marshal Suchet, abandoning his stores and guns. Murray then disobeyed orders to proceed to Valencia and was relieved of command. Wellington recommended a court-martial for actions "to the prejudice of the service and the detriment of the British military character." Murray was acquitted of all charges but with an admonition --the Prince Regent later dispensed with the admonition.
For biographical details on Monson and Lake, see The Dictionary of National Biography.
For Monson's retreat, see Khanna, D.D. Monson's Retreat in the Anglo-Maratha war (1803-1805) Allahabad: Dept. For Defence Studies, Univ. of Allahabad, 1981
Pitre, K.G. Second Anglo/Maratha War, 1802-1805 Poona: Dastane Ramchandra, 1990.
Bhattacharya, Sachchidananda. A Dictionary of Indian History New York: George Braziller, 1967.
Bennell, Anthony S. The Making of Arthur Wellesley Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1997.
Butler, Iris. The Eldest Brother: The Marquess Wellesley London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.
Fortescue, J.W. A History of the British Army Vol. V. London: Macmillan, 1910.
Gordon, Stewart. The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas, 1600-1818 New York: Cambridge Univ., 1993.
Gurwood, John. The Dispatches of Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington Vol. 3. London: John Murray, 1837.
Hutton, W.H. The Marquess Wellesley, K.G. Delhi: S. Chand, 1961.
Pemble, John. "Resources and Techniques in the Second Maratha War." Historical Journal Vol. 19, No. 2. June 1976.
Philips, C.H. The Young Wellington in India London: Athlone Pr., 1973.