delightful drive through the beautiful countryside of Pakistan’s Punjab province brings you to the site of one of the most appalling battles in Britain’s history in India, Chillianwala. It was fought on 13th January 1849 between the Sikhs and an invading British army under the irascible General Sir Hugh Gough. Both armies were highly professional and had fought a number of brutal encounters over the previous few years. But nothing would quite match Chillianwala which was contested in gathering darkness in jungle so thick in places that the enemy was only rarely seen. Volleys of musket fire and artillery barrages through patches of heavy vegetation shredded hundreds of men on both sides. Although the British declared it a victory, in truth neither side won.
Left to right: (a) Lord Mayo's cross at Chillianwala. (b) One of the enclosures of the 24th Foot. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
The monuments to the battle remain in surprisingly good condition on a mound overlooking the surrounding country. My photographs, taken in 1993 and 1996, show the main 75 foot sandstone obelisk which was erected shortly after the battle with its inscription to the “sanguinary battle” in four languages. Next to it are some tombs and three long trench graves where the dead were hastily buried the following morning in freezing rain by the shocked and demoralised survivors. In 1871 the Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, donated a white marble cross dedicated to the British and “native” officers who died.
MacMunn's map of the battlefield. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
However the regiment which suffered the most debilitating casualties, Her Majesty’s 24th Foot, buried most of their dead elsewhere. The 24th had only just arrived in India and had been in the thickest of the fighting. They were further disadvantaged because they advanced too fast and got ahead of their supporting units but also due to an extraordinary order delivered by Brigadier Campbell that “There must be no firing, the bayonet must do the work”. Out of a thousand men the 24th lost 204 killed, 278 wounded and 38 missing; a casualty toll of 50 percent. The regiment also suffered the indignity of losing the Queen’s Colour (the other standard, the Regimental Colour, was saved and is now in Brecon Cathedral in South Wales).
Left to right: (a) The mass grave on the mound at Chillianwala. (b) The sandstone obelisk at Chillianwala. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
The location of the three mass graves containing about 200 dead of the 24th was unknown for many years until rediscovered in 1993 by Brigadier Ian McLeod, the British Defence Advisor in Pakistan. He had been asked by the Royal Regiment of Wales Museum to provide some advice on the possible commissioning of a painting of the battle. He spotted the three enclosures standing amidst farmland. On a subsequent visit in June 1993 he and I decyphered the remains of an inscription on one of them “In memory of the men of HM 24th Foot who fell around this spot in the battle of Chillianwala on 13th January 1849”.
It was some time later that I discovered a copy of General Sir George MacMunn’s Vignettes from Indian Wars which contains eight pages (pp. 134-43) on the battle and crucially a map which shows the location of the “three enclosed trench graves”. MacMunn tells the grisly story of their origin. “All night long the Sikhs roamed the deserted battlefield ... massacring any British wounded they could find. Most of the dead were slashed across the mouth and the ghastly grin their faces presented was a horrible sight. Most of the bodies had been stripped and ... many of the stripped bodies seemed to have been dragged through the thorn bushes so much were they torn. An attempt was made to collect the dead at the Chillianwala mound and a great many are buried in the long trenches there. A contemporary account however tells that camels were sent out to collect them and that before long the indecent sight of the corpses lashed on the camels coming into camp was too horrible and demoralising and the remainder were buried out where they fell. This explains these three large nameless graves on the south of the Moong road.”
My photograph shows one of these enclosures in May 1996. Recently I looked at Google Earth to see if they were still there. The monuments on the mound near Chillianwala village can be clearly seen at 32.662409, 73.605966. On the road towards Mong (Moong on MacMunn’s map) there has been considerable development and building work but, much to my surprise and relief, I found that all three enclosures still survive at 32.656015, 73.588454; 32.655663, 73.582183; and 32.655057, 73.581031.
One tragic story of Chillianwala was the death of Brigadier John Pennycuick and his young son Alexander. The 57 year-old Brigadier was hit in the chest during the 24th’s advance and his 17 year-old son, although sick, went out in search of his father’s body. In the morning father and son were found lying dead together. Sarah Pennycuick (wife and mother of the two men) commissioned the plaque which can be found in Holy Trinity Cathedral Sialkot (built in 1852) some hundred miles to the east of the battlefield. The tragic scene spawned a painting of imperial pathos The body of Pennycuick guarded by his son by Walter Stanley Paget. Sarah had four more sons and no fewer than six daughters to share her grief.
Gough was relieved of his command because of his incompetence at Chillianwala but, by the time he could be replaced, he had won a convincing victory over the Sikhs at Gujerat. The veteran soldier Subedar Sita Ram was critical of the decision to fight the Sikhs in the only area of thick jungle in the region. He also described the action as rushed and poorly planned (Lunt p. 151). The fact that it was a disastrous battle was confirmed by General Airey when, commenting in 1854 on the absurdity of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, he remarked "These sort [sic] of things will happen in war. It is nothing [in comparison] to Chillianwala” (Woodham-Smith p. 266).
MacMunn, Lt Gen Sir George. Vignettes from Indian Wars. London: Sampson, Low and Marston: 1900.
Wilsey, Tim. Historical Asides. Britain and Pakistan. Islamabad: Privately printed. 1996.
Lawrence-Archer, J.H. Commentaries on the Punjab Campaign 1848-49. London: W.H. Allen 1878.
Lunt, James ed. From Sepoy to Subedar. London: Macmillan 1970.
Lloyd, E.M. “Pennycuick, John (1789–1849).” Rev. James Lunt. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, 2004; online edition, 2008.
Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Reason Why. London: Constable. 1953
Last modified 31 August 2014