PANIPATâ€”â€”A WARRIOR'S DEATH
On 13th January 1761, the Maratha soldiers and officers came to the Bhauâ€™s tent and cried out in one voice, "It is now two days that no man among us has got a grain to eatâ€¦..Do not let us perish in this misery. Let us make one valiant struggle against the enemy; and then what fate has ordained will happen
The discussion went on till midnight, but there really was no other option. The Bhau could have attempted a withdrawal but he was tied down by the large number of camp followers and families of the soldiers
. In any case an army on the move, dragging its artillery and with little infantry to provide protection to the long column, would've been mauled by the vigilant enemy from all sides. So a decision was made to attack the enemy one hour before sunriseâ€”â€”none of the Maratha chiefs slept that night.
The next morning they rose very early, washed themselves, and performed puja. Then they took their weapons and went to their appointed placesâ€”â€”the whole 45,000 strong army, each contingent preceded by its banners fluttering in the cold breeze, moving as one crossed over the trench and advanced to the plain for battle. The Afghan night patrol heard the clatter of their approaching artillery and sounded the alarm. The Marathas fired one volley from all their guns after the whole army was in place, by which time it was approximately 9:00 am.
Ahmad Shah Abdali had also advanced his army for battle as soon as the alarm was sounded, taking some more time to get his contingents in place. He made some changes for this army, keeping the center filled with his own men, and giving the wings to his Indian Muslim allies. But he had absolutely no faith in themâ€”â€”after the fall of Delhi and Kunjpura the Ruhelas had opened secret negotiations with the Marathas behind his back. At that time he had been unable to punish this treachery but there was no way he was going to allow it to happen on the battlefield. Accordingly he placed units of 5000 horse on the extremes of these wings, jamming the Indian Ruhelas between strong bodies of his own troops, while 3,000 reserves under his own command would guard against any Ruhela or Awadh soldier attempting to flee
On the Maratha side there were tensions between the Telugu infantry and the Maratha cavalryâ€”â€”the latter resenting the preferential treatment to the former. Their commanders, Ibrahim Khan Gardi and Malhar Holkar had almost come to blows on the question of military tactics a few days earlier in the presence of the Bhau. So the Gardi infantry was placed in the Maratha left wing and Malhar Holkar's cavalry stood far away in the right wing
The Abdali army's lines extended the Maratha lines by almost a kilometer on either wing. The field artillery on the two sides was fired after the armies had formed up and had little impact on the battle. The Abdali guns were of light caliber and their shots did not carry the distance, while the Maratha guns, due to faulty elevation and erratic aiming fired their shots over the enemy heads. Rockets were used by both sides, and were a particular favorite of the Marathasâ€”â€”useful in stampeding horses or when fired into a dense mass of soldiers, but ineffective at long range. The Abdali swivel guns came into play after the Maratha cavalry charge.
There was no hope for victory but the Marathas could at least save their families and other civilians through a supreme effortâ€”â€”but for this each wing, and each contingent, of the enemy army would have to be attacked, the bulk of its soldiers killed, and the rest put to flight. Even on the outside chance that sword and spear could overcome flintlocks and swivel guns, where would these starving men and horses find the strength to fight such a long sustained battle?
Commencement of the Battle (10:00 am)
Ibrahim Khan Gardi, mounted on a horse, with a flag in one hand and a musket in the other, led his Telugu battalions from the left wing. These were drawn up in long columns, as was the French practice. He made two of these march further to the left at an angle, to prevent the Abdali cavalry (Barkhurdar Khan) from attacking him in the left flank. With his remaining 7 battalions (6300 men) he marched within range and attacked the Ruhelas (14,000 men) directly in front with a hail of bullets.
Simultaneously from the center the gunfire ceased and the huge mass of over 10,000 horsemen, their swords and spear glittering under the hazy winter sun, charged the Abdali center under Shah Wali Khan. Breaking through the artillery and the fire of swivel guns, the momentum of their charge created a gaping hole in the front portion of the enemy center. The Marathas galloped over their fallen comrades and kept attacking the Afghans till only fifty camels and a few hundred horsemen were left around Shah Wali Khan, who was shouting and cursing at his fleeing men.
Meanwhile the disciplined firing of the Gardis in 3 hours had badly mauled the Ruhelas, killing or wounding more than 8000. The Ruhela cavalry had already fled away and their infantry was engaged at close quarters with the Telegus. The latter had also taken losses, but in their case the remaining men grouped up into smaller formations and kept on firing. A small cavalry contingent under Damaji Gaikwad (3000 men) provided valuable support to the Gardis. The two battlaions on the far left had by this time also charged Barkhurdar's cavalry and dispersed them by its firing.
The crisis of the Battle (12:00 pm)
When the decision to fight a do-or-die battle was made the depression, despair, and panic in the Maratha army was lifted. Uncertainty over their fate was replaced by the knowledge that they would at least die a warrior's death.
With this conviction the soldiers' empty stomachs were steadied by sttrong hearts, their weak bodies pumped with adrenaline. This accounts for their impressive showing against the almost impossible odds (the Afghan army lines were at least 3 km deep!).
Ahmad Shah Abdali, a kilometer behind the Afghan center in his red tent, was told of the crisis to his right wing and centerâ€”â€”he could see the fleeing soldiers in the distance. First he ordered his reserve soldiers to attack the broken troops and force them back into the battle
. Next he sent 500 cavalry to find and beat out any soldier found hiding in the camp. In this manner 1500 horsemen were brought to the front and over 11,000 rallied from the fleeing.
Out of these 3000 cavalry were sent to support the Ruhelas. By this time the Gardis had almost exhausted their ammunition. The Ruhela infantry was steadily pushing back what was left of their battalions. Then the reinforcements galloped in from all sides and wiped out the remaining Maratha infantry. On the far left Barkhurdar Khan was also able to overcome the two Gardi battlaions. Only 1500 infantry survived and retreated during the confused fighting
The Maratha ranks in the centre had also been thinned but were pushing back Wali Khan's men. At half-past-one Abdali's 10,000 reserve came galloping in. The outnumbered and exhausted Marathas fell back but were rallied by the Bhau, who delivered a counter-charge. Abdlai sent up his last reserves armed with flintlocksâ€”â€”the camel-swivels dispersed by the first Maratha charge were also rallied. These units fired from all sides into the remains of the Maratha centre, which now formed a knot in the middle of the field. Yet for another hour the fighting continued by the Marathas who sought a warrior's death
The Right Wing
All through the 5 hours of fighting there was little or no activity on the Maratha right wing. Perhaps they had been ordered to stay on the defensive and escort the non-combatants to safety if things didn't go well. Or some believe that there was no officer experienced enough to to lead the separate contingents in a coordinated attack.
Strangely enough the Abdali units facing them also remained standing still through most of the battle. Only when the Maratha centre was finally surrounded, Najib Khan advanced with his Ruhelas (15,000 men) who launched 2000 rockets on the enemy (Sindhia contingent) and opened fire with their flintlocks. On his left the Abdali cavalry (5000 men) also moved forward.
At this Malhar Holkar turned away with his unit (3000 men) and was joined in flight by the bulk of Jankoji Sindhia's 7000 men. Jankoji was left with a few of his men and these were pushed towards the centre to share the fate of the Bhau's men.
By 3:30 pm the battle was over.
Details of what took place after the battle