Col Ajay Singh (retd)
Pune, 1st January 2022: On the Pune – Ahmadnagar highway, just 19 kilometres North East of Pune, stands an imposing monument on the banks of the Bhima River. This well-maintained granite obelisk commemorates the battle of Bhima Koregaon where some 800 British led troops of the East India Company put up a doughty defence against the Marathas.
The day-long skirmish saw the large Maratha force withdraw after being unable to overrun its much smaller adversary and marked the ascendency of the British power in the Deccan.
The Battle had its roots in the Anglo-Maratha battles from 1770 – 1817 for the control of the Deccan. The Marathas were defeated in a series of battles and the Peshwa, Baji Rao II, was forced to concede large tracts of his territory to the East India Company. The resentful Marathas were confined around Pune and rose again in revolt in mid-1817, however, they were defeated in the Battle of Khadki in November 1817. The defeat forced the Peshwa to flee towards Satara with his army and the Company troops took control of Pune.
The Peshwa was pursued by a large British force under General Smith while Pune was defended by a small garrison under Colonel Burr. As the Peshwa fled from his pursuers, he retraced his steps towards Nashik and then moved back towards Pune, hoping to recapture his capital. Colonel Burr hearing of the arrival of the Marathas asked for help from the Company’s troops stationed at Shirur. Around 500 troopers of the 2nd Battalion of the Bombay Native Infantry, 300 horsemen of Poona Auxiliary Horse (later Poona Horse – one of India’s most illustrious Armoured Regiments) along with a contingent of artillery with two six-pounder guns, left Shirur at 8 pm on 31 Dec 1817 under the command of Lieutenant Francis Staunton, to reinforce the Poona Garrison. Marching all night, they reached the village of Koregaon where they saw the advance guard of the Peshwa Army across the Bhima River.
Koregaon, on the banks of the almost dried up Bhima River, was a small hamlet of huts surrounded by a low mud wall with almost no defence potential. Rather than withdraw back to Shirur, Stanton chose to stand and fight there. He deployed his infantry and cavalry in a concentric pattern around the village and placed one of his guns to cover the crossing place across the Bhima River and the other to guard the road from Shirur.
Although the Maratha army camped in the vicinity, had around 20,000 cavalry and 8000 infantry, only its advance guard, of around 2-3000 infantry were tasked to clear the village. The Peshwa and the bulk of his army remained at Phoolsheher, (near modern-day Pulgaon) while the attack on Koregaon was led by the chiefs, Bapu Gokhale, Appa Desai and Tribakji Dengle. At around 8 am on 01 January, three parties of 500-600 Maratha troopers (comprising of Arabs, Gosavis and Marathas) crossed the Bhima River at three different places, supported by cannons and rocket fire. Another force launched a feint attack along the Shirur – Pune road. Although outnumbered, the defenders of Koregaon held on grimly. The first two attacks were repulsed, but the third gained a foothold on the outskirts of the village.
From there they launched an attack towards a small temple (which still stands today) where the British six-pounder gun was deployed. They killed all eleven gunners, including the British officer Lieutenant Chisholm and captured the gun. The same gun was now turned around to fire at the British positions inside the village.
It was now around noon, and the force inside Koregaon was hungry, thirsty and exhausted. Morale cracked and some of the troops suggested a surrender. However, the British officers refused and instead launched a counter-attack on the Maratha foothold led by the 6 feet 7 Inches Lieutenant Pattison.
His spirited attack pushed the Arab and Maratha troops out of the village and they recaptured their gun. The decapitated bodies of Lieutenant Chisholm and the gunners were also recovered and displayed to the wavering troops saying that they would be accorded the same treatment if they surrendered.
The troops, though denied food or water all day, held on. Some contingents of the Maratha forces managed to enter the village and fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place in the congested lanes. The British led infantry, supported by its small cavalry contingent held strong, counterattacking fiercely against any breach. As night fell, the fighting reduced and by around 9 pm even the Marathas who had entered the village withdrew and moved back. Nightfall also permitted the defenders to creep up to the river and get some much-needed water.
The British Counter Attack
The Marathas did not attack at night, even though the defenders were exhausted, and one more spirited attack could have well overrun the village. Rather, the Peshwa was apprehensive that the bulk of the British forces would return to attack his forces and went on the defensive himself. Seeing a lull in the activity, Captain Staunton decided to vacate Koregaon and at nightfall on 02 January, the remnants slipped away from the village, carrying their dead and wounded.
They reached Shirur after marching all night. The move was undetected and the Marathas did not attack the column, even though that was the time they were most vulnerable. Of the 834 troopers that had set out three days ago, 275 were dead, wounded or missing. The Marathas too, suffered grievously, losing 500- 600 men in just a day of battle. Worse, the British gained the psychological ascendency they would never relinquish.
The Peshwas withdrew from Koregaon that same night and the next day, a large British column under General Smith reached the village. The village was deserted, its streets littered with dead men and horses, most of them from the attackers who had succeeded in penetrating the village. The Peshwa’s forces were relentlessly pursued away from Poona and suffered a series of reverses at Nashik, Satara and Astha. Finally in June, with most of his trusted lieutenants killed and his army dispirited, the Peshwa surrendered to the British. The Deccan now came under British sovereignty giving them unfettered access to continue their loot and plunder of the sub-continent.
To commemorate “One of the proudest triumphs of the British Army in the East” a large victory pillar was erected at the site, with the names of the dead inscribed. Indian units that participated in the battle were given awards and titles. The victory pillar featured on the badge of the Mahar Regiment, (created by the British, composed of lower castes) till it was replaced by a crossed Machine guns insignia after Independence. Most of the men who fought under British arms at Koregaon were local Dalits. They initially wanted to be recruited in the largely upper-caste Maratha army but had been brusquely refused. The British willingly accepted them into their army where they served with discipline and courage.
The staunch defence of Koregaon is projected as Dalit valour, though the defending force was a homogenous mix of all castes. The roll call of the dead shows 22 Mahar, 16 Marathas, 8 Rajputs, 2 Muslims and 2 Jews, along with 11 European soldiers and two British officers – a toll which was described with typical British callousness as, “fortunately, largely natives”.
Perpetuating the divide between castes and religions in India to further their aims was standard British practice. And as this battle shows they succeeded very well in this. This victory pillar, which commemorated the victory of a foreign power against a local ruler, unfortunately, began to represent the victory of oppressed Dalits against the upper castes of the Maratha army and became a symbol of the class struggle. And yet, this battle was not a victory of any caste or race. Rather it was a collective defeat of all Indians.
(Col Ajay Singh (Retd) is a poet, photographer and writer-at-large who has donned the uniform for 28 years, before falling to the lure of words. He is the author of five books and over 200 articles. He is the recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore International prize for Art and Literature 2021’. A renowned public speaker, he lectures extensively in schools, colleges and other institutes. He has co-hosted TV shows and writes screenplay for film and television. He stays in Pune and can be contacted at email@example.com)