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Nothing Could Be More Beautiful - The Charge of HM 39th Regiment at Maharajpore - December 29th 1843

Broodseinde, Scapre, Nive. The Battle Honours adorning the fronts of the evhicles of my platoon in The Devonshire & Dorset Regiment were evocative of adventure long ago. The Honour which excited my imagination the most was taht on my own vehicle - MAHARAJPORE.

In 1843 Gwalior was an independent State under protection of the East India Company. There was British concern at the potential for an alliance between the Mahrattas of Gwalior and of the Sikhs of the Punjab; the Mahrattas justly enjoyed a formidable reputation as fighters and Gwalior had a well equipped army, although the British Resident was somewhat sceptical about their abilities. In February 1843 the Maharajah died with no direct heir so his uncle, Mama Sahib, was appointed Regent while the young widow, Tara Baj, adopted a small boy as heir. Soon, however, Mama Sahib was deposed and Dada Kasji, a former Minister, took control with the connivance of Tara Baj and here army officers. In August 1843 the British Resident felt obliged to withdraw due to the unsatisfactory circumstances.

Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General requested the newly appointed Commander in Chief in India, Sir Hugh Gough, to undertake a concentration of troops close to the Gwalior borders - 'The Army of Observation'. By October Gough had formed two columns, at Agra in the north under his own command, and at Jhansi in the south under Geneal Grey. On December 12th both columns began moving against Gwalior, and on the 18th an alarmed Tara Baj handed over Dada Kasji to the British. Not convinced by this manifestation of good faith Lord Ellenborough presented demands for a major reduction in the size of the Gwalior army, together with the introduction of British officers and a rooting out of anti-British elements in the Gwalior administration. It was expected by both Ellenborough and Gough that Tara Baj would come to terms without too much prodding.

The Gwalior army in the north was thought to be concentrating at Chonda on the River Ahsin, and Gough crossed the River Kohari on December 28th with 6500 men and 30 guns.(1) The Mahratta force at Chonda comprised some 10,000 men and 60 guns, although Gough's estimate of the opposition is unclear. In the early morning of December 29th Gough was advancing in fairly eccentric style, with Lady Gough and other officers wives actually riding elephants ahead of the column to avoid the dust, when Mahratta batteries concealed near Maharajpore opened fire, causing the ladies to beat a hasty, but uninjured retreat. It swiftly became apparent that the Mahrattas had fortified the raised ground around this vilage, some 1½ miles ahead of Chonda, during the night (nearby Shirkapore was also fortified). At this point Gough's troops were formed for the march with 3rd Cavalry Brigade leading, followed by 3rd Brigade, 5th Brigade and 4th Brigade, while 4th Cavalry Brigade brought up the rear. As the troops attempted to deploy to meet the unexpected threat they were hampered by the broken ground, a deep watercrouse and thick vegetation, and some confusion resulted. Sir Harry Smith was on the Staff (Lady Smith was on one of the elephants making off to the rear), and had scouted the village the previous day so the ground was, presumably, fairly well known. Gourh's own rather leisurely recconnaisance (carried out with typical bravery under a heavy Mahratta cannonade) was hampered by haze and the lack of a vantage point for observation. Notwithstanding this the Commander in Chief resolved, in best Gough fashion, not to maneouvre but to carry the enemy position with the bayonet.

Despite the difficult going, Gough's brigades got into position reasonably quickly. Engaged first was the 4th Cavalry Brigade, coming under fire to which the Bengal Horse Artillery replied, bu tthese cavalry was effectively undable to do much to threaten the Mahratta right flank.

The Charge of HM 39th Regiment at MaharajporeThe 3rd Brigade was now closest to the enemy and HM 39th Regiment (Major Bray) and 56th Bengal Native Infantry (Major Dick) began taking casualties. 1/1 (2) and 1/4 Bengal Foot Artillery came smartly into action and deployed in front of the infantry, but were outgunned and roughtly handled by the efficient Mahratta gunners. An artillery duel resulted, during which the foot soldiers snatched what breakfast they could. Gough called for his howitzer battery to come forward but they were delayed, and 3rd Brigade were ordered into the attack. With a casual valour so typical of British infantrymen of the era, HM 39th marched forward, neighter stopping or firing as the Mahratta guns flayed their ranks with roundshot, canister and langrage. At first the 56th BNI, laden with kit, seemed not able to keep up and there was some faltering, but Major Henry Havelock (HM 13th L.I. and present as Gough's Persian interpreter) galloped forward and urged them on, referring to the steadiness of HM 39th. They responded with great vigour and the two regiments, benefitting somewhat from the thick vegetation, closed upon the Mahratta position. At close range HM 39th stopped to deliver a volley (3) and then stormed the batteries whose brave gunners, scorning the beckoning safety of flight, fought hand to hand for thier pieces and were bayonneted almost to a man.

As 3rd Brigade over-ran the guns, 5th Brigade came swinging in from the right and the outflanked Mahratta Infantry fell back toward Shirkapore to the north, into which HM 40th Regiment and 16th Bengal Native Infantry pursued them, clearing the village at point of bayonet. The 4th Brigade, bringing up the rear, was little engaged other than to support the 3rd Brigade. The folly of the Mahrattas in occupying defended positions to far apart to support each other was now every evident.

Despite the difficult ground, Cureton's 3rd Cavalry Brigade off to the right were able to prevent a sufficiently orderly withdrawal for the Mahrattas to regroup and hold Chonda. Mahratta sharpshooters were still able to do great damage from standing crops, and Ensign Bray of HM 39th fell mortally wounded while holding aloft the Queens Colour.(4) His father, Major EdwardBray, was critically injured by an exploding caisson shortly afterwards ,Charles Van Strubenzee taking over command. Despite their losses 3rd Brigade pressed on and cleared the Mahrattas from Chonda, the final act being a desperate struggle for a four gun redoubt with the Grenadier Company of HM 39th under Captain Campbell, supported by a company of 56th BNI under Major PHillips, seizing the works in the face of a valiant and determined resistance.

The beaten Mahrattas withdrew over the River Ahsin and the field was left entirely in the hands of British and Company soldiers, at a cost over 800 killed and wounded (nearly 700 casualties were borne by HM 39th & 40th Regiments and 16th & 56th Bengal Native Infantry alone)(5) The Gwalior loss was never computed, but was estimated at 3000 killed and wounded, plus 56 heavy guns, and all ammunition and baggage.

On this same day, the southern column gained a victory at Punniar, over a second Mahratta army, and the war was at an end. Both British comanders converged on Gwalior itself and Rani Tara Baj sued for peace, which was promptly granted on favourable terms. The Resident returned, a Council of Regency was instituted by the Governor General, and her Army was severely reduced. Most importantly for the British, this potential threat from the Mahrattas was at an end.

Lord Ellenborough, writing privately to The Duke of Wellington, was warm in his praise of HM 39th Regiment:

The 56th Native Regiment was outmarched by the 39th Queens. They were encumbered by their knapsacks and the officer commanding halted the regiment that the knapsacks might be taken off. when the charge was made on the batteries at Maharajpore, the left of the 56ht was behind the right of the 39th. The ground was generally covered with bajree, full five or six feet high, the artillerymen could not see to point their guns. The guns of the enemy were concealed until discovered by their fire.

I only saw the 39th a part of their way. Nothing could be more beautiful than their advance. I was very anxious about them, as I had been with them at Agra, and had given them their Colours. Their conduct in marching up to the enemy's guns at Maharajpore has rendered them deserving of the honour of having that name inscribed by the side of Plassey.

At Maharajpore the commanders on both sides committed errors, lending an added interest to the struggle. Gough was toosanguine that the Mahrattas would submit, hence the rather odd order of march on the morning of December 29th. The howitzer battery never got into action, and 4th Brigade was masked by other formations throughout almost th eentire battle. However, the assaults by 3rd and 5th Brigade, taking the Mahrattas in front and flank almost simultaneously was well conceived, and the lighter gun batteries performed with great gallantry throughout (while complaining that they were not permitted by Gough to go far enough forward). On the Mahratta side, to fortify three positions devoid of mutual support was an appalling error (shades of Blenheim), Gough's brigades being free to attack and over-run each in turn.

The Gwalior Star, made from the bronze of the captured guns, was awarded to all participants at Maharajpore and Punniar. Six months 'batta' was awarded as well and may have been just as welcome. The sad subsequent history of the Bengal Native Infantry does not mar the memory of the comradeship in arms that enabled HM 39th Regiment and 56th Bengal Native Infantry, in particular, to overcome the brave Mahratta gunners taht hazy December day in 1843.

Sources & Notes

History of the British Army - Fortescue. The Dorsetshire Regiment - Atkinson. OUP 1947. Letters from Lord Ellenborough to The Duke of Wellington - Dorsetshire Regimental Quarterly 1927. East India Calendar 1842-4.

(1) Gough Orbat

3rd Cavalry Brigade (Cureton)
4th Cavalry Brigade (Scott)
3rd Brigade (Littler) HM 39th Regiment, 56th Bengal Native Infantry
4th Brigade (Wright)
5th Brigade (Valient)

(2) Now 43 (Maharajpore) Battery R.A.

(3) It is possible that HM 39th were armed with the new percussion musket, although an inspection regiment of November 1843 refers to the regiments old arms being in good order. The new weapons were in use in the regiment in May 1844 however.

(4) Ensign Bray's shell jacket, worn in the battle, is now in the Regimental Museum of Devon & Dorset in Dorchester.

(5) HM 39th Regiment lost 1 officer (Bray) and 27 men killed, with 11 officers and 176 men wounded.

Reproduced from Soldiers of the Queen, issue 82

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