The Duke of Wellesley’s Military Campaigns in India

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History of the world is the history of warfare and India is no exception. Right from the times of the ancient epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, war as a culture has dominated Indian history. To start with there was what is known as the Hindu period, when Hindu kings ruled almost the entire sub-continent and beyond, like Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia.This was followed by the Muslim period, when progressively over a period of 9 centuries the Hindus became the ruled and the Muslims the rulers.

The Muslim period ended when the British came to India to trade, by forming the East India Company. It is one of the wonders of history that a company that came to trade, within a matter of 100 years became rulers of the sub-continent. This was by a superior application of military technology as well as a single mind devotion to the King of England and country. This was another period in Indian history when the war was the epitome of domination.War was the centerpiece and the clue to domination by the East India Company. It was only in 1858, after the mutiny in 1857 by a few sepoys of the Company’s army that Company rule was abolished and the crown itself took up the administration of the sub-continent. Queen Victoria was then designated Empress of Hindustan.

The English became the rulers of this vast area that at that time had a population of about 250 million. The English produced soldiers of caliber, who adapted to Indian conditions better than the Indians themselves. By means of superior tactics and devotion, they were able to defeat the Indians ( Both Muslims and Hindus) decisively. There were some men who played more than a greater part in this establishment of English rule and two of the foremost are Sir Robert Clive and two brothers Richard and Arthur Wellesley.

The Wellesley’s

The role of the Wellesley’s is something of which legends are made. They had no Indian blood, yet both deserve the epithet ” great”. Richard Wellesley was the Governor General of India while his brother Arthur Wellesley was a military genius. Arthur Wellesley became later the first Duke of Wellington and led the English and Prussian force as a Field Marshal against Napoleon at Waterloo ( 1815) and defeated him. The Napoleonic years ended and later Arthur Wellesley also later became Prime Minister of England.

Richard Wellesley was always a bit jealous of his brother, yet his contribution to British rule in India was immense. He presided over the English domain in India from Calcutta and proved that he was a genius himself. In his plan to wrest India from Indians, he was assisted by his brother Arthur, who put into practice the dream of Richard and in a series of military campaigns defeated the foremost Indian kings at that time. This was in the 18th/early 19th century.

Arthur Wellesley is bracketed along with the greats of world history in the pantheon of great warriors and conquerors like Alexander the Great and Chengiz Khan. He was however a chivalrous soldier who fought a war as a noble profession and treated the vanquished with compassion.The only act for which he can be held guilty was his order to shoot the tigers kept by Tippu as pets. All the tigers were shot dead.

Arthur Wellesley landed in India towards the end of the 18th century. He had a head start as his brother was the Governor General. This was the time when Tippu Sultan had spread terror among Hindus and Christians in the Malabar region. His father Hyder Ali had deposed the Hindu ruler of Mysore and crowned himself as Sultan. He had also attacked Madras. The English had no love for Tippu Sultan and a decision was taken to remove him. Part of this decision was the culmination of representations by Hindus to the Governor General complaining of atrocities on them by Tippu.

Campaigns of the Ist Duke of Wellesley in India

Arthur Wellesley started his military career in 1787 as a commissioned officer in the infantry. In 1796 he set sail for India and landed in Madras. His decision was influenced to a great extent by the fact that his brother was Governor General of India. He was part of the 33rd Infantry regiment which was moved to India to combat Tippu Sultan who had let loose a reign of terror.

Arthur Wellesley on arrival took stock of the situation and made an assessment of the military capability of Tippu Sultan. In a service paper which was presented at the Staff College, it was informed that his opinion of Tippu was of a bigoted ruler and on the advice of his brother he was tasked to defeat Tippu and restore the Hindu dynasty. He was also of the opinion that Tippu had little or no concept of tactics of offense and initiative in a campaign. He was proved right.

Arthur Wellesley got his act together and got ready for what is known as the 4th Anglo-Mysore War(1799). In this campaign Wellesley marched with his force from Madras towards Mysore. The army covered 10-15 miles a day and was accompanied by servants, comfort women, shopkeepers and cooks. Tippu heard of the advancing army, but decided to shut himself in his fortress. This is an action difficult to comprehend as offence is the best form of defence. He could have moved against the Company force, but his playing a waiting game by holing up in his fortress gave the initiative to the Company army.

Wellesley surrounded the fortress of Seringapatnam and he ordered an assault. the fort was breached and Tippu died fighting. Wellesley had removed the greatest obstacle to English rule in the South. He was appointed as governor of Seringapatam and also promoted to Major- General. It was a great victory. The Hindu ruler was reinstated and Arthur was congratulated by his brother Richard.

A look at the map of South India will show that Wellesley marched nearly 300 km from Madras to battle Tippu and there is no doubt that despite coming from a cold area like England, he adjusted to the rigors of the sub -continent and heat of South India in particular with aplomb.

Arthur was now tasked by his brother to destroy the Maratha Confederacy. The mantle of rulers of India had fallen on the Maratha’s after Mughal rule had collapsed and they had to be checked. The Duke took part in the Second Maratha war ( 1803-5) and once again showed his military genius.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Maratha’s were a divided lot. The ruler of Indore, Holkar had fled to the British for help. Arthur Wellesley was tasked with curbing the power of Peshwa Baji Rao II. Arthur commenced his campaign in 1803. He was a Major -General at that time. This is known as the Deccan campaign and he started with an assault on Ahmednagar, which he reduced on 12 August 1803. this was a significant move as Ahmednagar was a pivot for supply chain of the Maratha army.

Wellesley now marched towards Assaye with a force of 4500 soldiers. He was opposed by Scindia and the Peshwa with a force of 10500. In a bloody battle, the English carried the day and over 6000 Maratha soldiers were killed. The British also suffered 1600 dead, but this victory effectively sealed Maratha dominance. Subsequently on orders of Wellesley, the British force under Colonel Stevenson occupied Burhanpur( now in Madhya Pradesh).

The Marathas were getting ready for a last fling and Bhosle with a force of 40000 opposed the English at what is known as the Battle of Argaon. This battle on 29th November resulted in over 5000 Maratha being killed to only about 350 English dead. It was decisive victory and once again Wellington showed his genius as a soldier.

Arthur continued his march and surrounded the fortress of Bhosle and captured it. The Maratha’s again suffered heavy casualities and over 4000 were killed to a handful of English soldiers.

Wellesley decimated the Maratha’s who then sued for peace. By end of the year Scindia signed the Treaty of Arjungaon and ceded vast rights to the English.

Assessment of Arthur Wellesley’s Campaigns in India

When we study the military campaigns of Arthur Wellesley in India, we realize that he led a campaign spread over two thousand miles. Though Wellesley went back after the Second Maratha war, the effect of his military campaigns was stupendous. He beat the Indian Generals and Kings at their own game and put the East India Company Raj on a firm footing. The Company became the paramount power in India and all credit must got to the First Duke of Wellington. Later when the Duke met Napoleon in Battle, he was a Field Marshal and there also he won. So in case Tippu and the Marathas were defeated by him, it was no shame as they were confronted by a man with a razor sharp brain and military strategist. The Indian generals failed to size Arthur Wellesley who along with his brother Richard laid the foundation of the Raj.

One can debate endlessly as to whether the Raj was good or bad for India, but what can’t be debated is that men like Arthur Wellesley beat the Indians fair and square. There is no doubt that just on the strength of his military campaigns in India, the First Duke of Wellington deserves the title “great”.

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