Two campaigns in India with the British light cavalry
As its commanding officer and as a noted Oxford University academic Colonel Henry Hamilton was well placed to write the history of the 14th (King’s) Hussars. His full regimental history covers from the origins of the regiment in 1715 to its service during the Boer War at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. While some military history students require a work of this depth, there are those who are primarily concerned with the periods when regiments were on active service. For the 14th (King’s) Hussars in the 19th century, this was during the Napoleonic Wars, principally during the Peninsular War in Spain and in the South of France, and later in India where as H. M 14th (King’s) Light Dragoons they served with distinction in the Second Sikh War and during the Indian Mutiny. By carefully editing Hamilton’s book, and adding illustrations and maps and supplementary material not originally present, the Leonaur editors have created two linked volumes that focus on these periods of the regiment’s history.
The Puggrie Wallahs 1841-59 follows the 14th (King’s ) Light Dragoons as they take part in the second campaign fought to subjugate the martial Sikhs of the Punjab. Hamilton’s accounts of the battles of the Second Sikh War are riveting, but of particular interest to students of the subject will be the authors research into the infamous ‘volt-face’ incident at the Battle of Chillianwallah where cavalry regiments ‘about-turned’ and retired whilst closing upon the enemy. Hamilton has included several, rarely seen first hand accounts of the Chillianwallah engagement that make fascinating and illuminating reading. The regiment’s campaign during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is no less engrossing and the book is unreservedly recommended.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Ramnuggur was essentially a cavalry affair, and was brought about by a reconnaissance in force under the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Lord Gough, G.C.B., who intended merely to reconnoitre the enemy and explore the fords of the river in that locality. It was probably between the hours of 1 and 2 p.m. in the afternoon, or perhaps earlier, when Lieutenant-Colonel Havelock received his orders from a staff officer sent by General Lord Gough, who was not far off, to charge the Sikh cavalry that had crossed the river in large masses and were clearly visible to our front. Havelock was thirsting for glory, and to use his own expression, he felt the opportunity had come to ‘win his golden spurs.’ He led off with 2 squadrons of the Fourteenth in column of troops across the plain, and for half a mile at least these squadrons were exposed during their advance to an incessant fire from the Sikh guns posted on the banks of the river.
They then approached a steep bank leading down to the nullah, a partially dry channel of the river, beyond which lay the Sikh forces who had crossed the river from the right bank and were posted on a sort of island formed by the main channel of the river and a small stream. Here they undoubtedly had guns in position and infantry entrenched, hitherto unseen and quite unknown to us. As the Fourteenth came up to this steep bank, each squadron in turn paused, thus causing some temporary confusion in the ranks, but they soon plunged down, following their gallant colonel, forming squadrons and line on the move as best they could, and galloped rapidly across the nullah, charging the Sikhs, horse and foot.
They were now exposed to the close matchlock fire of the enemy, and as the ground near the island was of a boggy nature, ill suited to cavalry, water having recently subsided, many horses floundered about and frequently got into difficulties, but the men rode gallantly forward against the opposing Sikhs, sabring hundreds of them and driving the ‘Gorchurras’ (Sikh irregular cavalry) back helter-skelter into the river and numerous channels which ran up the creeks and banks on all sides.
It was now that Havelock perceived for the first time the large bodies of infantry concealed in these dry channels running along the bed of the river, and although his first attack had been eminently successful in driving back the Gorchurras as desired by Lord Gough, his characteristic dash and headlong pluck seem to have overswayed his prudence and better judgment, for without hesitation, brave leader that he was, he determined, notwithstanding the overwhelming odds against him and the adverse circumstances in which he was placed, to make another charge, and assail the heart of the Sikh position. Accordingly, he retired his men a little and re-formed the squadrons, which by this time had been reinforced by another squadron of the Fourteenth, as well as by a considerable body of the 5th Light Cavalry under Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander, and placing himself in front of the line, Havelock once more boldly advanced to meet the foe.
The squadrons were exposed to a murderous fire from the batteries on the right bank of the river, as well as from the guns posted on the island, yet nothing daunted they charged right into the centre of the Sikhs, driving them back towards the river, and sabring right and left in a desperate mêlée which ensued. They were also confronted with the fire of the matchlock men, both horse and foot, who slowly retired disputing every inch of the ground. Both regiments behaved splendidly, and it was not to be wondered at that both lost heavily, the total number of casualties in each regiment being about equal in proportion to the numbers of each engaged. The gallant but too daring chief of the Fourteenth fell in this attack, and not less than 74 men, including officers, with 96 horses, were placed hors de combat. Of these numbers the 14th Light Dragoons had 44 men (including 6 officers) and 56 horses either killed, wounded, or missing, whilst no less than 30 men (including 3 officers) and 40 horses belonging to the 5th Light Cavalry bit the dust.
The numbers of the Fourteenth engaged were about 350 sabres. It was a short but very sanguinary business. Colonel Havelock’s body was found and fully identified, though headless, about twelve days after the engagement. It was lying with the bodies of 9 troopers of the Fourteenth heaped on it, showing that his men had rallied round and fought for their chief. His left arm and leg were nearly severed, as well as the thumb of his right hand.
Captain Fitzgerald of the Fourteenth was mortally wounded in the mêlée and died subsequently: one of his sword-cuts penetrated the brain and another the spine. Major Doherty brought the charging squadrons out of action, and Lieutenant-Colonel King, who had been ordered to command the support when the Fourteenth advanced, came up just at the right moment with a squadron which formed a welcome nucleus for the other squadrons to form on. Alas! the brave Havelock was not amongst them. He was last heard of wounded and hacked at by several Sikhs in the mêlée.
As Ramnuggur was considered merely an affair of outposts and a purely cavalry fight, no honorary distinction was conferred for it, but none the less most will concede that these charges of the 14th Light Dragoons and 5th Light Cavalry deserve a high place amongst cavalry charges delivered under unfavourable circumstances. The Sikhs were immensely superior in cavalry, besides being assembled in great force with infantry and artillery posted and partially entrenched beyond a nullah, having the further advantage of a sandy river-bed and boggy ground between them and the attacking squadrons. Hence it is that the memory of Ramnuggur has always been held very dear by all in the Fourteenth, and both Havelock and his brave companions-in-arms have ever been reckoned heroes by succeeding generations of those serving in the regiment.