A Look at the Artillery of the Sikhs

The Sikh Army was the most potent force faced by the British in India. The Khalsa Fauj acquitted itself creditably in the two Anglo Sikh wars. British historians have alluded to the skill of the Sikh gunners during the battles at Mudki and Chillianwala during the two Anglo Sikh wars. The gunners and their pieces of artillery were the legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The maharaja who ruled the Punjab for 40 years till his demise in 1839 built the artillery of the Khalsa Fauj (Army) to an unprecedented efficiency level. No Indian ruler could match the genius of Ranjit who built up his artillery with the help of foreign advisors -mostly French. The period from 1801 to 1839 marked the development of the Sikh army from a semi feudal and disorganized force to an efficient fighting machine that could hold its own against the best European armies.

Among the advisors hired by Ranjit Singh the Frenchman General Jean Francois Allard, General Paola Evitable who was an Italian and Claude August Court held sway. Out of these Court alone set about organizing the artillery. He joined the Maharajas service in 1827 and also married a local Sikh girl. He started the training of the gunners and made the organization of the batteries and guns.In fact he raised the level of efficacy of the Khalsa army at par with the western powers.The foundries of Maharaja Ranjit Singh were adapted by Court to produce high quality guns and howitzers. In this he was helped by local gun smith Sardar Lahina Singh Majithia.

It is worthwhile to remember that when the first shell was made at the Lahore foundry the Maharaja bestowed a prize of Rs 30,000 on Court. Subsequently fuses for the guns were also manufactured there. The contribution of Court to the development of Sikh artillery is monumental. His effect on the Artillery efficacy bore fruit later as during the wars with the British, Sikh guns made the British pay a heavy price by their lethal salvos.

The Sikh artillery really came into its own only after the entry of the European advisors of Ranjit Singh. This artillery was to distinguish itself in the battles of the North West frontier and later the British.The most lethal part of the Sikh army were the guns manufactured at the maharajas foundries at Lahore. These guns added teeth to the khalsa (Sikh) army making it into a formidable force. Ranjit Singh had about 35 artillery pieces when he started his reign in 1801.However by the time of the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1845 the Sikhs could marshal nearly 250 guns. Some historians estimate that Ranjit Singh’s army may well have had more than 500 artillery pieces.

Ranjit Singh must take credit for the development of the artillery in his army. Right from 1807 he was seized with the idea of manufacturing his own cannons. This was the year he established his first workshop for casting of the barrels of cannons. In another 2 years mortars were produced and Ranjit instructed his chief engineer Mian Qadir Bakhsh a Muslim, to study the British guns and make similar copies. Ranjit also on the advice of his French generals set up the horse drawn artillery. By 1830 Ranjit could look at his gunnery division and appreciate the fact that he had over 100 horse drawn artillery pieces.

The Sikh soon mounted an invasion of the North West. In battles with the Pathans and the Afghans in the Frontier region the Sikh Army made significant use of Artillery. The Battle of Jamrud and capture of the fort was in no way possible without the unerring aim of the Sikh gunners. Their lethal fire caused heavy casualties among the Afghans.

When Maharaja died in 1839 he left behind a potent military force equipped with professional artillery. But the Sikh leadership committed hara-kiri by attacking the British with whom Ranjit had a treaty of peace. The Sikh army aided by the artillery would have carried the day but poor generalship and a desire to let the British win by the traitorous Sikh Prime Minister Gulab Singh and his coterie led to the defeat of the Sikhs.

The battles at Mudki and Chillianwale will forever be etched in memory of the glorious effect of the Sikh artillery while the sun was setting on the Sikh Kingdom. A lot of guns were captured by the British and were paraded at Calcutta after the second Sikh war. Many were melted down at their foundry at Cossipore. However with the passage of time only a handful of artillery pieces are available mostly in the UK and the Lahore Museum.

Source by Madan G Singh