Delhi: the Battle of Delhi, 1803

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Extracted from:

Delhi: Past And Present

By H. C. Fanshawe, C.S.I.

Bengal Civil Service, Retired;

Late Chief Secretary To The Punjab Government,

And Commissioner Of The Delhi Division

John Murray, London. I9o2.

NOTE: While reading please keep in mind that all articles in this series have been scanned from a book. Therefore, footnotes have got inserted into the main text of the article, interrupting the flow. Readers who spot these footnotes gone astray might like to shift them to the correct place.

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Delhi: the Battle of Delhi, 1803

The site of the field of the Battle of Delhi, fought by General Lake on 11th September 1803, lies some five miles south-west of the city, on the left bank of the river, and almost exactly opposite the tomb of the Emperor Humayun. It is nearly as far from the railway station of Shahdara2 as from the east end of the iron Jumna Bridge, and it is therefore better to drive there direct from Delhi—a light trap can go down the road along the embankment from the bridge to Patparganj.

On the way to the Jumna Bridge the road passes the traditional sites of the Das-Aswa- Medh (or Ten-Horse-Sacrifice), and Nigambodh (or Veda-Knowledge) Ghats, connected with the earliest dawn of Hindu history. The former commemorates the great sacrifice of Yudisthara, the Pandu Prince of Indrapastha, now Indrapat, which was famous before Delhi was known, and the latter the recovery of the knowledge of the Hindu scriptures by the god Shiva.

The road also passes the Nili Chattri, an old temple restored by the Mahrattas, at or near which once stood inscriptions by the Emperors Humayun and Jehangir. An extremely picturesque view of the north end of the Moghal Fort is obtained from the masonry bridge across the right arm of the Jumna here, and further on a full survey can be made of the walls of Salimgarh. rising at the side of the road.

[1 Another of these, it will be recollected, is represented by Thomas Moore as Lalla Rookh (Lala Rukh).

2 Ahmad Shah, the Durani, was encamped at Shahdara before he moved to Panipat, and placed himself between the capital and the Mahratta army, which had gone north to attack the Kunjpura chief, and Suraj Mal, the first great Jat leader, was killed here in a cavalry skirmish in 1764.]

From the end of the bridge an unmetalled road leads along the left bank of the river to Patparganj, once a flourishing rural town, but now nearly deserted.

This place, from which the battle-field is named locally, is slightly in advance of the right of the position occupied by the Mahrattas, which extended along a stretch of elevated ground from the village of Kotla to that of Ghazipur, thus described, and accurately described, with reference to the configuration of the ground at the present day by Major Thorn; the best general view of it is obtained from the summit of a brick-kiln lying north-east of Patparganj. “The enemy,” he writes, “were discovered by Lord Lake, drawn up on rising ground, in full force and complete order of battle, posted very strongly, having each flank covered by a swamp beyond which were stationed the cavalry, while numerous artillery defended the front, the whole being concealed by a high grass jungle.

This front was the only point which could be attacked.” The rising ground is situated between two depressions connected at the west end—the right of the enemy’s line—where the water is the deepest, the northern depression being, however, much more shallow than the southern one. Water stands in the latter from three to four and a half feet deep from August till October or November.

The following account of the engagement is abstracted mainly from Major Thorn’s “Memoir of the Late Great War in India,” after careful study of the battle-field, and the necessary additions for its elucidation with reference to the ground and its surroundings have been made to the map published in the Memoirs.

Lord Lake’s force had left Allygurh (Aligarh) on 7th September, and arrived at an encampment two miles south of the battle-field and six miles from Delhi, about 11 A.M., on 11th of that month, having been under arms since 3 A.M. Learning that the enemy had marched out of Delhi, under Mons. Bourquin, and was strongly posted on the left bank of the Jumna, Lord Lake went forward with the cavalry to find them. Their strength was about 19,000 men, including 6000 cavalry, and seventy guns of every sort and calibre. The British force comprised 4500 fighting men in all, with but a small body of cavalry, and some galloper guns.

The troops engaged were the following:—H.M. 76th Regiment, posted on the right of the advance; 1st Battalion 4th Native Infantry; 2nd Battalion 12th Native Infantry; 1st and 2nd Battalion 15th Native Infantry; 1st and 2nd Battalion 2nd Native Infantry; 1st Battalion 14th Native Infantry; 27th Dragoons; 2nd and 3rd Native Cavalry Artillery.

They were under the command of Major-General St John and Major-General Ware. To turn either flank of the enemy with so small a force was impossible, and to attack either would have been almost impossible; while a front attack on the position, defended as it was with artillery, would have entailed tremendous losses.

Lord Lake, therefore, decided to make a feigned retreat, while the infantry were being hurried up to the front, and this move was crowned with complete success, though the cavalry were sharply pressed for a time, both the Commander-in-Chief and his son (who fell at the head of his regiment in one of the earliest Peninsular battles) having a horse killed under them; for while the enemy immediately deserted their post of advantage and moved forward m pursuit, our infantry was concealed from them by the high river grass, and on our cavalry passing between the regiments to the rear of the line, the Mahrattas suddenly found themselves face to face with it, and subjected to an immediate attack.

The troops, with the General himself leading the 76th Regiment, advanced to within one hundred yards of the enemy with, their muskets to their shoulders, then fired a single volley and charged, and the Mahratta force at once gave way and broke everywhere in wild flight towards Delhi.

The cavalry and galloper guns immediately advanced again in pursuit in their turn, and did great execution among the fugitives, and drove in the troops which had been left to guard the passage of the river; while the infantry also swept up to the north along the river bank, then much further to the west than now, and the whole force ultimately encamped opposite Delhi, after a most exhausting day, which lasted nearly up to 7 P.M. Our casualties were 117 killed and 292 wounded; the enemy is believed to have lost 3000 men, and the whole of their guns and tumbrils were captured.

The fight was watched from Delhi and the buildings opposite the battlefield on the right bank of the river. A full view of the mausoleum of the Emperor Humayun and of the Purana Kila is still obtained from the site of the monument of the battle; but the trees planted along the River Protective Works shut off the general view of the Delhi Palace; through the tops of the gates the Jama Masjid and the minarets of the Zinat-ul-Masajid Mosque. can be seen from it, as also may the needle-like Kutab Minar far down to the south-west.

On 14th Sept. the British army crossed the Jumna and entered Delhi; and that date is therefore doubly marked in British military annals in connection with the once Imperial Moghat City. On the 16th Lord Lake was escorted to the palace by the heirapparent Mirza Akbar, and met the blind king, Shah Alam, in the Diwan-i-Khas. Major Thorn describes him “as an object of pity, blind and aged, stripped of authority, and reduced to poverty, seated under a tattered canopy.”[ [1 Their meaning is Sword of the State, the Hero of the Realm, the Chief of the Age.

Twenty-five years later Lord Combermere received the same insignia and the titles of Rustam-i-jang, Seif-ud-dowlah, the Hero of Battle and the Sword of State.];] Lord Lake received from this lowly representative of the great Moghal the titles of “Samsam-i-Daulah, Ashjah-ul-Mulk, Khan Dauran

”1 and in the following August he was invested with the insignia of the Mahi (Fish) and Muratib (a ball of copper gilt, surrounded by a deep fringe) at Cawnpur. Our force left Delhi on 24th September to meet the other Mahratta armies near Agra.

The site of the battle on the south side of the depression, in front of the original position of the enemy, is marked by a small obelisk, recently restored. The plain is peaceful enough now, and will probably be found frequented by deer and large wading birds. On the cross are engraved the words of the Governor-General of India, the Marquess of Wellesley, in memory of the officers killed in the engagement :—

The Governor - General in Council sincerely laments the loss of Major Middleton, 3rd Regiment Native Cavalry; Captain MacGregor, Persian Interpreter; Lieutenant Hill, 2nd Battalion 12th Native Infantry; Lieutenant Preston, 2nd Battalion 13th Native Infantry; Cornet Sanquire, 27th Dragoons; Quarter-Master Richardson, 27th Dragoons, and of the brave soldiers who fell in the exemplary execution of deliberate valour and disciplined spirit at the battle of Delhi.

The names of these brave men will be commemorated with the glorious events of the day on which they fell, and will be honoured and revered while the fame of that signal victory shall endure.

And now, a hundred years later, how many have ever heard of the names of these brave men, or recall the 11th September, even though its glory, as the Governor-General further wrote, and as may be fairly said, “is not surpassed by any recorded triumph of the British arms in India, and is attended by every circumstance calculated to elevate the fame of British valour, to illustrate the character of British humanity, and to secure the stability of the British Empire in the East”?

See also

Delhi: History (730- 1911)

Delhi: the Battle of Delhi, 1803

Delhi/ New Delhi: A history, Dec. 1911- Aug. 1947

The Delhi Durbar

Delhi: Political history

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