So what's so great about the Battle of Assaye? Although it had some strategic importance, it was the battle that hallmarked the beginning of Arthur Wellesley's career. It was his first major land battle. For those of you who were distracted during history class, Arthur Wellesley was the English bloke who stopped Napoleon from conquering the world. You guys HAVE heard about Napoleon right? Good.
Before I go in depth with the battle itself though, a little bit of background information:
In the era of colonial expansion, trading companies were making a fortune by taking advantage of resource-rich non-western lands (sound familiar?). Don't be fooled by the misguided belief that the British, French and Dutch Empires of the time were the direct result of the nations' monarchs and parliaments. No, the truth is that the British East India Trading Company and its Dutch and French equivalent were all out to make a profit from colonisation. The European powers were simply dragged along for the ride.
|Does THIS look familiar? No it is not the flag of the the US before Independence, it is actually the flag of the British East India Trading Company. Before the US corporations raped everyone in the name of profits, it was up to these guys.|
India was a cash cow for the East India Trading Company, Europe had an addiction to opium and tea and India was the place to get it. But they were not content just buying what was there, in order to maximize production and profit they would have to rule India. At the time, the nation was split into two distinct factions; the Mughal Empire (Muslim) and the Maratha Confederacy (Hindu). The Muslims had conquered India some time before and when the British arrived, the Hindu population was rebelling against their Muslim tyrants.
The East India Trading company knew which way the wind was blowing and offered military aid to the rebelling Rajahs in return for political power, land and trade rights. The Mughals didn't stand a chance, but as the power of the EITC grew in India and the Mughal no longer a threat, the Maratha confederacy banded together to eliminate the new threat to their power; the British.
One of the big problems the Brits faced was the Maratha cavalry raiding their supply lines. Major General Wellesley had a solution to the problem though. Knowing the location of the enemy encampment, he would split his forces and engage them in a pincer movement so they had nowhere to run. The Maratha cavalry would be forced to engage the better trained and equipped British infantry.
Colonel James Stevenson was to lead the flank/rear attack while Wellesly assaulted the front. Unfortunately, upon coming across the Maratha army, Wellesley was all alone. Just like my ex of the same surname, Stevenson never came.
But this was not the result of impotence on either part, just poor intelligence. Neither Wellesley nor Stevenson expected the Maratha army this far south. (insert subtle innuendo here)
Wellesley could have waited for Stevenson but instead decided to ATTTTAAAAAAAAAAACK!
Some Historians and indeed his peers at the time claimed this was because Wellesley wanted all the glory for himself but Wellesley stated that he did so because he feared the enemy would retreat at the sight of his reinforcements and get away with their army intact (and thus continue to raid their supply lines).
Whatever his reasoning, he certainly has balls and a blatant disregard for Sun Tzu's Art of War because he was attacking an army 5 times larger than his.
Ok had a good look at that diagram?
Before the battle began, Pohlman's position was facing south on the northern banks of the Kaitna river, whilst Wellesly was on the other side of the river. Both armies, were informed by local guides that the only ford on the river was at the village Taunklee, so Pohlman's Maratha forces promptly had that area locked down with heavy artillery. Crossing the river to attack was suicide.
Arthur was smarter than that though, he took one look at the map and saw two villages practically next to each other but on opposite sides of the river. Coincidence? Of course not. There was a ford connecting them. The local guides assured him that no ford existed there but when Arthur Wellesley sent his army engineers there to investigate, low and behold there was a ford.
Arthur hurriedly marched his troops across. The best case scenario was that he would get one killer flank on his opponent and utterly decimate him. Alas, Pohlman just wheeled his forces 90degrees and began shelling Wellesley with his artillery. Nevertheless Wellesley had evened the odds significantly with his manoeuvre.
Because of the width of the isthmus (the land between the two rivers), Pohlman could not make use of his numerical advantage. See, when it comes to 18th century infantry battles, 3 ranks deep is the magic number for infantry formations maximising damage. Any more than that results in too much friendly fire. Spreading his forces across the isthmus 3 ranks deep (the maximum) still left Pohlman with a large chunk of troops in reserve not actually engaged in the battle.
The Maratha forces still had superiority in artillery though. Wellesley had no solution but to charge the artillery with his cavalry and infantry
Needless to say the Maratha routed under the pressure and the battle was won for the brits. Just at a very high price. But what else would a general expect when fighting a force that greatly outnumbers his own?
What I find most interesting about the battle is Arthur Wellesley's method of turning the odds in his favor. We saw in the Battle of Gaixia that the winning general set up the battle in his favor by creating advantages (such as encirclement and kidnapping the opposing general's wife). In the Battle of Assaye, Major General Wellesley did not create any advantages for himself, merely set out to systematically destroy his opponent's advantages over him (eg, eliminating the numerical advantage and the artillery advantage respectively). It worked.
That said, I still believe that Wellesley should have waited for Stevenson to come before firing his gun.