The Sutlej Campaign - the 31st Regiment
in the First Sikh War

When the army dispersed from Ferozepore in January 1843 the 31st Regiment was sent to Ambala, about 170 miles to the south east, where it had been decided to create a cantonment to replace Kurnal which had become very unhealthy. The regiment was therefore spared the much longer march back to its previous station at Agra. 1843 was a year of widespread unrest throughout northern India. The Company committed forces to establish control in Sind and Gwalior where the Maharatta chiefs were advocating insurrection against the British. The 31st Regiment was part of a force despatched to restore order in the Nepalese state of Khytul. In the Punjab Maharajah Shere Singh was assassinated. An infant son of Ranjit Singh succeeded him and his mother became Regent. But the generals gained political control. In 1845 anti-British feeling gained strength. There was talk of war and the establishment of the Regent and her son on the imperial throne at Delhi.

On 11th December of that year reports reached Ferozepore that Sikh troops were crossing the River Sutlej in large numbers into the British protected states to the south of it. The crossing point was at the village of Sobraon between the British frontier garrison at Ferozepore, some twenty miles downstream to the south west, and Ludhiana eighty miles to the east. It appeared that the Sikhs’ intention was to isolate the garrison at Ferozepore and capture the fort and magazine there before reinforcements could arrive from Ambala.

Preparations were based on Ambala and the nearby hill stations at Kassauli and Subathu. Regiments were allotted to brigades, and division and brigade staffs were appointed in the course of which the 31st lost its commanding officer, Colonel Bolton, who was promoted to command the brigade in which the regiment was placed, and two of its company commanders were taken for staff appointments. Orders were issued for the Ambala force to move to contain the invasion as quickly as possible and for the Ludhiana garrison to join it on the way. The commissariat was busy, for although supply depots had already been established at twenty mile intervals between the main base at Meerut and Ferozepore, transport animals still had to be requisitioned. The Governor-General, who was at Ludhiana visiting the protected states, issued a proclamation announcing their annexation.

The cavalry and the horse artillery left Ambala on the 11th, the infantry a day later. The British regiments were in high spirits.

The long period of uncertainty was at an end. They were not worried by the far larger Sikh army. They had faced superior numbers before and always won. The sepoy regiments from Bengal had not recovered from Afghanistan and their morale was low. Thus began the Sutlej Campaign, or the First Sikh War as it came to be called. There were four major encounters before the invading army was forced to retreat back into the Punjab. They were the battles at Moodkee, Ferozeshah, Aliwal and Sobraon. The 31st Regiment took part in all of them.

The Sikh army had grown in strength since the 31st Regiment witnessed its prowess during the meeting with Ranjit Singh at Rupar fifteen years previously. Its cavalry were well mounted; skirmishing and outpost duties came naturally to them although with its peaked up saddle and short stirrups the trooper was limited in his ability to rise and strike a downward blow, and proved unable to withstand the onslaught of British cavalry. The Sikh infantry had been re-equipped with high quality flint lock muskets copied from the British and made in the workshops at Lahore and other places. But the major development since those days had been in the artillery. The dedicated Sikh artillerymen had been well trained in the French method of Napoleon’s time. Their guns were made of much better metal than their British counterparts and were capable of greater range and a more rapid rate of fire. Their maximum range was 1300 yards using solid round shot, but less when firing shrapnel shell or canister case shot.

The Company’s heavy artillery was far away at Meerut and, bullock-drawn, would take a long time to arrive. But some 100 field guns, 6 and 9 pounders, were available.They were manned by the predominantly European Bengal Horse Artillery. That type of artillery needed to be used boldly in order to get close enough to the enemy to be effective. 400 yards was regarded as a good range; 200 yards was even better. Engaging the enemy at such close range called for considerable bravery and discipline. Firing procedure was complicated and dangerous. Sergeant-Major Bancroft of the Bengal Horse Artillery described it in his autobiography.

Each detachment of six men attended to a gun, its ammunition limber and the accompanying horses. At action stations the sponge man first cleared away any smouldering fragments from the bore of the gun before it could be re-loaded. He used water from a bucket slung under the axle tree. Failure to complete this process properly could result in a premature explosion and the next man, the loader, losing an arm as he inserted a new charge and projectile into the barrel and rammed them home. Meanwhile the ventman placed his thumb over the touch hole in the breech to prevent

might also ignite smouldering fragments and cause an explosion. He then used a slender spike to pierce the bag which contained the charge in order to make ignition more certain and inserted into the vent a quill tube containing an explosive composition which he carried in a leather pouch. He then stood clear.

Meanwhile No 1 was aiming the gun. He used an open sight, a traversing handle and an elevating screw which required considerable skill and experience. When he gave the order to fire, the firer applied the port fire to the charge. The port fire consisted of a cylindrical holder containing an incendiary mixture which he ignited from a slow burning match held on a staff called a linstock placed centrally behind the guns. The rate of fire was two or three rounds a minute.

The overall tactical concept envisaged initial deployment of the artillery escorted by cavalry to lead the attack. The main body of the cavalry and the infantry came next. On approaching the objective the infantry deployed into line and the cavalry moved to the flanks. The artillery would limber up and move closer to the enemy keeping outside effective musketry range until the infantry passed through the gun line into the assault. The artillery then moved to the flanks to support the cavalry. Infantry field officers and adjutants were required to know the frontage which their battalions would require after deploying from column into line. They were to assume that each man in line occupied twenty one inches, and that in column each file was one pace of thirty inches apart. Six paces were to be left between battalions and additional spaces for the artillery. It was the duty of adjutants to ensure that battalions maintained adequate distance from each other when advancing in column, and to mark the pivot point for entry into line.

© The Queen's Royal Surrey Regimental Association.