The King's Shropshire Light Infantry & Affiliated Regiments


1st Sikh War : an Account of the Battle of Aliwal, 1846.

A contemporary manuscript account of the battle of Aliwal (1st Sikh War) on January 28th 1846.

The Document.

The archives of the 53rd Regiment in Shrewsbury Castle have a manuscript copy of a letter of March 1846, describing the battle of Aliwal. It is understood to have been written by an officer of the 53rd.

It is clearly a contemporary copy - probably made for circulation within a family - but the letter is unsigned (as a copy) and the identity of its author is something of a mystery.

The letter is headed "Tom's account of the battle of Aliwal" and references within the text (e.g. to an Ensign's allocation of "Batter" or batta - field service allowance) would suggest that the writer was an Ensign. But there is no officer of that rank called "Tom" on the books of the 53rd at that time.

It reads very much like a young man's letter, but the only candidate is Thomas Mowbray, already a Lieut. since 1842. There was also Thomas Ffrench, a Captain since 1840 and brother of the Indian Mutiny VC winner.

The writer also refers to his friend "Vincent", but there is no officer with that surname or forename in the 53rd at that time.

The letter is presented with its original punctuation, layout and spelling left intact.

A letter describing the battle of Aliwal.

Camp Jillinder [Jullundur] 50 miles south of Lahore. March 14th 1846.

Here we are in a state of ignorant suspense, not Knowing whether we shall return to the provinces, or remain here this season, the latter is most probable. I wrote to you in January a few days before the battle of Alliwal in which our Regt. was engaged and the horrors of which, thank God, I escaped.

You no doubt will have seen all the accounts of it in the English papers, nevertheless, I being an eye witness can perhaps give you a more correct account which I am sorry to say the Dispatches are far from doing.

It was on the morning of the 28th January at day break that this force consisting of 5 Regts. of Infantry and 4 Cavalry Regts. with 24 guns, 2 Mortars and 2 Howitzers all under the command of Genl. Sir H. Smith moved from our encamping ground at Budduwal, down from the Enemies position at Alliwal, distant about 8 miles. It was a lovely day, rather hot of course, but it was a great advantage having the sun in our rear, the ground too was favourable being hard and smooth, and not like most parts of the country here which is all sand and dust.

Well we marched at day break and at 9.30 we arrived at the foot of a small hill from the top of which the Sikh army was visible, about 2 miles off, drawn up in battle array with their Guns in front and their drums beating to arms - here was a moment of excitement! but no time was to be lost.

In an Instant our troops deployed into line, in the following order. Cavalry by Squadrons on the left - Infantry in the centre - and Artillery on the right, with some Cavalry in the rear - we had also a reserve of one Infantry and half a Cavalry Corps in our rear, with 3 guns.

Here again was another moment of awful suspense - the 2 armies drawn up and each anticipating the others’ fire to open first. However we had not remained in position more than 5 minutes when the Enemies battery boomed forth its murderous fire upon us, I must confess at the flight of the few first fires, I hardly knew whether I stood on my head or my heels, but no time was to be lost our word of command was forward!! and forward we went at double quick time, through the iron rain at first their balls fell short of us, but as we advanced they mowed down our ranks, at this moment a 9lb shot severed a man’s head from his body about 3 yards from me - I felt quite sick at the sight – “Lie down” was the word of command, and all lay down on the ground the balls flying over our beads, "Forward” again was given when their fire was rather slack, and on we went alternately running forward about 200 yards at a time, and then lying down, our Guns on the right blazing away at them beautifully.

By this time we had got within 1,200 yards of them and could distinguish through the smoke their Infantry drawn up in rear of the Guns and their Cavalry on their right protected by a clump of trees.

53rd in Camp, 1846

The 53rd in camp in the Punjab, 1846 : contemporary watercolour. 

This moment may truly be said to have been the hottest of the battle, the enemy as we neared him served his guns beautifully with chain shot and grape, which did fearful execution amongst us. By this time we arrived within 800 yards of their battery, but could only faintly distinguish their movements on account of the thick smoke. Their Guns began to slacken upon perceiving which our Artillery gave a tremendous discharge, the Cavalry drew their Swords and the Infantry prepared to charge, a wild hurrah ran down the line and "Charge" was given,

The instant we began to advance the enemy seeing the determined manner in which we came, deserted their Guns and fled like chaff before the wind, this gave fresh vigour to our Troops, and on we went after them. We galloped up to the captured guns and spiked them (we had been provided with spikes the day before) but we did not stop here, for again we perceived that the enemy had not fled more than 800 yards and formed squares bringing the few guns they had to bear on us again. Our Artillery were now ordered to the front and blazed on to them like wild fire and very soon silenced them - then the 16th Lancers were ordered to charge the Enemies square which they did most splendidly rushing smack through them and wheeling round Charged through them back again cutting them to pieces in hundreds, although they made a bold stand, the remainder fled as fast as their legs could carry them, leaving behind them their few remaining Guns. The day was ours, away we went after them, but of course being so much exhausted could not keep up with them, they were making off for the river as fast as they could and crossing it. We arrived at the top of a steep high precipice, when out rushed 1000 of the enemy from below who had concealed themselves in the Rocks and discharged their musquets at us, and ran off. Our men were so exasperated that without waiting for the word of command they fired into them and then rushed on them with their Bayonets, Killing numbers of them fighting hand to hand, some determined fellows remained in the Cliff, until we had descended the precipice and then rushed out sword in hand upon us; these men evidently singled out the Officers as their mark.

I saw one man rush out upon our Adjutant, sword in hand and make a cut at his head which he cleverly guarded off, and then cut the fellows head open. We were in great danger of being fired upon by our own men, who were scattered all about and firing in all directions. We longed much for a Squadron of Cavalry to come up and make mince meat of these fellows, for we could not follow them up we were so exhausted, however we pushed on a few miles farther until we arrived at the banks of the river and just arrived in time to see the last body of the enemy crossing, they had not quite reached the opposite side when our Artillery drew up on the side and commenced firing right into the midst of them, every shot must have told with fatal effect and not less than 1000 must have been killed in crossing the river, with our balls. All was over now, it was 4 p.m. when we reached the river having been engaged since 10 am

Thus in six hours had our small force, consisting of 10,000 men with 28 guns defeated the Sikh army consisting of 24,000 men and 62 guns, drove them across the Sutlej captured the whole of their guns, excepting 2, which stuck in the River as they were attempting to take them over (one of which we afterwards extricated) their standing camp, the whole of their ammunition, and numbers of Baggage, Cattle, Camels, Bullocks, Horses, etc. etc. We bivouacked that night on the banks of the river, on the bare ground with no covering but our Cloaks having previously partaken of a few dry biscuits and some muddy water. I and my friend Vincent made a tolerable bed having collected some ammunition boxes and piled them up all around us, I imagine we should have been rather astonished had a stray spark got into one of the boxes!

On the following morning our force marched back again to Buddawal across the battle field, where We picked up many wounded men not quite dead. You will have seen by the papers perhaps, that our Regt. was fortunate enough not to lose a single Officer and I think the number of killed and wounded did not exceed 20 - You will also have seen that we are to have a Medal. The device of which I send you and also a years Batter [sc. batta – field service allowance] which will not be a bad thing as an Ensign’s share is £109.4.0. Our force left Budduwal on the 1st February, and marched to Loodianah, and from thence crossing the Sutlej by a bridge of boats on to Pullooo a strong fortified place with 5,000 men inside.

We prepared for the attack on the morning of the 19th and fully expected a severe and hard fight, but were greatly surprized on hearing (as we were within a few miles from the fort) that the Enemy had evacuated it the night before, not perhaps relishing what they got at Alliwal. They left 5 large guns in the Fort, a great quantity of ammunition Stores etc. and Provisions which would have lasted them almost 12 months.