War Games – The Third Battle of Panipat
by: Socrates - Consulting & Strategy Club at IIFT
One battlefield in India where victory has unfortunately always belonged to the invader has been Panipat.
The Battles of Panipat
|I||21st April 1526||Babur||Ibrahim Khan Lodi||Babur won|
|II||5th Nov 1556||Jalaluddin Akbar||Hemraj Vikramaditya (Hemu)||Akbar won|
|III||14th Jan 1761||Ahmed Shah Abdali||Peshwas – Sadashiv Rao Bhau||Abdali won|
This article analyzes the third battle of Panipat. Often termed as one of the most fiercely fought and decisive battles of the 18th century in India, it dealt a huge blow to the strength of the Maratha empire under the Peshwas. The Peshwas never really recovered from this blow. In a long term perspective it paved the way for the British to gain control over the rest of India as till 1765 the British area of influence was largely restricted to the states Bengal and Awadh.
Events leading to the Battle
The Maratha empire was at its peak around 1760. The reign of Peshwas extended from Punjab in the North to Hyderabad in the south.
The part of the map shaded orange shows Maratha empire around 1760. Raghunath Rao expanded the Maratha empire till Attock in Afghanisthan in 1755. Historical records show that Raghunath Rao defeated Ahmed Shah Abdali’s son Timur Shah during this period. The Nawab Najib-ud-Daulah of Rohilla Khand, found these a convenient set of circumstances to plan for two things:
- Diminish the influence of Marathas in India, especially control over the Mughal ruler in Delhi and
- Give himself a controlling role in Delhi
He invited Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1759 on the pretext of religious commonality and so that Abdali could avenge the defeat of his son. He also promised Abdali huge gains both territorial as well as financial.
As Abdali entered the country in late 1759 Najib Ud Daulah also threatened and convinced Shuja-Ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Avadh to support the Afghan forces. Going against the advice of his mother, he joined the forces of Abdali and was one of the biggest contributors to the expense account during the whole time.
In 1760, Abdali drew first blood by attacking a small Maratha army led by Dattaji Shinde at Murari Ghat. Dattaji fought with characteristic Maratha valour but was soon defeated and killed by Abdali’s troops.[i]
Alarmed by Dattaji’s death the Maratha supremacy in Pune vowed to take revenge. Owing to differences between Raghunath Rao and the Peshwa ruler Balaji Baji Rao the Peshwa decided to send Sadashiv Rao Bhau and his son Vishwas Rao to lead the Marathas against the Afghans.[ii]
The Marathas army had 80,000 forces including 35,000 cavalry and 130 pieces of French artillery.[iii] Since army ensured protection, a large number of civilians exceeding 300,000 accompanied the army on a pilgrimage to the holy places in the north. This was a huge liability for the Marathas as they were permanently bound to provide safety, food and other arrangements for these people. Abdali had no such constraints.
The Afghans army had over 100,000 warriors including 40,000 cavalry. It also had 80 pieces of artillery which was light, could be mounted upon camels and transported easily.
Raja Surajmal Jat, the ruler of Bharatpur refused to involve himself in the battle owing to differences with the Marathas over control over Delhi. The Marathas also never got support from the other rulers in the North like the Sikhs of Punjab. They were thus isolated.
Sometime in September 1760, the Maratha forces attacked Kunjpura fort routing the Afghan garrison and looting the wealth that Abdali had kept in reserve at the fort. Stuck on the other bank of the Yamuna, Abdali was extremely frustrated and at a considerable cost and risk crossed the Yamuna on 17th October 1760 at Baghpat. A weakened Abdali even considered truce with the Marathas. But Najib Ud Daulah successfully steered him away from the path of peace in pursuit of his own ambition.
Abdali’s Yamuna crossing was a decisive turn of events as it left the Marathas stranded in the north isolated from their supply lines and Abdali to the south isolated from his own supply lines. However Abdali could generate alternate means of supplies because of his proximity to Rohilla Khand and availability of Shuja Ud Daulah’s finances. An additional army led by Atai Khan also joined Abdali in late December 1760 to compensate for the losses incurred while crossing the Yamuna.
On the way they cut off Maratha supplies by capturing and killing Govind Pant Bundela, responsible for Maratha supplies in a skirmish. Because the Maratha army had a large civilian population accompanying them they delayed their attack on the Afghans hoping for the restoration of supplies and fearing their exposure to the Afghans in a situation of battle. The supplies were never restored. The ensuing period of starvation frustrated the army and weakened the cavalry
On 14th January 1761, the Maratha forces attacked. They positioned themselves near the village of Kala Amb, with a clear battle plan to decimate Abdali’s right flank by the afternoon so that the women and support staff could be transported across the Yamuna to safety.
Hence Bhau placed Ibrahim Khan on the left flank so that the artillery could build pressure on Abdali’s right flank. This strategy proved effective to a limited extent. The Maratha forces under Bhau led a frontal attack which nearly split the Afghan army in two.
However the enthused Maratha army soon grew exhausted due to starvation in the days preceding battle. This helped Afghan forces to regroup. Meanwhile Najib successfully built pressure on Jankoji Shinde’s flank. Vishwas Rao entered the battle seeing the weakened position of the frontal forces. At this crucial juncture Abdali introduced his camel mounted artillery who could fire over the Afghan forces directly aiming at the Maratha cavalry at a short range. The Maratha cavalry found it impossible to face up to this. Also since the Shaturnals were very mobile in nature, the Maratha artillery could do little to counter them. This proved to be another decisive turning point of the battle and the tide turned irreparably in favour of the Afghans.
Towards the evening, Bhau himself finally entered battle. Not seeing him on his elephant created confusion amongst Maratha soldiers and rumours of defeat began to spread. Although majority of the forces were still fighting this proved to be a big blow to the Maratha morale. Eventually Vishwas Rao fell to a bullet in the head while Bhau faught on with his bodyguards till the end despite having three horses shot out from under him. Malharrao Holkar retreated from the field to escort the women and support staff to safety and proceeded to Gwalior.
Major Maratha generals like Jankoji Shinde and Ibrahim Gardi were captured and executed by the Afghans. Tukoji Shinde, Damaji Gaekwad and Vittal Vinchurkar apart from Vishwas Rao and Bhau too lost their lives. In all around 70,000 Maratha soldiers lost their lives while Abdali himself lost around 35,000 of his soldiers and two generals. Najib lost 15,000 Rohillas.
The aftermath of battle
- The Maratha empire suffered an irreparable blow. Though they still controlled a major part of North India in subsequent years, they were never as spirited or as united as before Panipat.
- The British started interfering in Maratha politics towards the 1770s. This finally led to the Anglo-Maratha wars, the last of which was decisively won by the British in 1818 bringing an end to the Maratha empire. Panipat was that decisive result which gave the British a foot-in-the-door entry into the politics of central India. It was thence that they became a major force.
- Nawab Shuja Ud Daulah, repentant of his Afghan support at Panipat eventually lost to the British in the Battle of Buxar in 1764.
- Najib gained from the battle, but still never got as much control as he wanted. Abdali refused to give him controlling powers at Delhi fearing a Maratha revenge attack. After Najib’s death in 1770, the Rohillas were routed by the British.
Lessons to be learnt
- Sadashiv Rao Bhau was much less aware of the political and military situations in North India than Malhar Rao Holkar or Raghunath Rao. Choice of leadership had to be extremely judicious. As a leader, taking Malhar Rao Holkar’s advice keenly should have been Bhau’s priority knowing his experience in North India.
- The shift of battle preference from guerrilla warfare to open battle went directly against the Maratha core strength. The Afghan cavalry could never have handled small skirmishes over a long duration of time because Abdali never had the patience to stay on infinitely in India. His forces too were very eager to return to Afghanistan.
- The Marathas, owing to politics of superiority, never focused on any alliances with critical people like Surajmal Jat and Nawab of Avadh. On the contrary, because of their continuous demand for payment of tributes from these territories they incurred their combined hostility which became too much to handle.
- The Maratha artillery was heavy and static. The Afghan artillery was light and mobile. They had no plan to counter this advantage enjoyed by the Afghans.
- The Maratha chiefs themselves were constantly at odds with each other with many of them opposing the idea of an open battle against guerrilla warfare. This diminished their confidence in battle.
- The burden of pilgrims almost always drove the Maratha battle plan. This was fatal. Normally pilgrims should have had zero stake in driving battle decisions. The decision to delay the attack on Afghans resulted in severe starvation of the Maratha forces eventually leading to the loss.
- The Marathas fought with empty stomachs, terribly weak. Their mobility was greatly restricted due to accompanying pilgrims.
- The timing of introduction of Shaturnals by Abdali was very crucial. He introduced them when a large chunk of the Maratha horses were exhausted thus becoming easy targets for the Shaturnals.
- Better intelligence of enemy forces helped Abdali mobilize his forces better.
- Bhau, unlike Abdali maintained no reserve force with him. Once he found that Vishwas Rao had disappeared into battle, he had only himself to rely upon. For an army’s morale, this proced imprudent.
[i] Just before his death, when asked whether he would still fight, Dattaji said “Bachenge to Aur Bhi Ladenge” (Should we survive, we will fight even more).
[ii] The Maratha empire at that point of time was said to comprise of three and half wise men (Shahane). The three wise men being Sadashiv Rao Bhau, Vishwas Rao and Sakharam Pant Bokil. The half wise man was Nana Phadnavis who played a major role in the Maratha politics following the battle of Panipat. These three wise men were known to be very brave warriors as well as able statesmen. Nana Phadnavis however was only an able statesman and hence the title of half a wise man to him. Two of these died in the battle of Panipat which is why the encrypted message read “”Two pearls have been dissolved, 27 gold coins have been lost and of the silver and copper the total cannot be cast up”.
[iii] The Maratha artillery was commanded by Ibrahim Khan Gardi who was trained under the French. He was captured by Abdali, tortured and eventually executed after the battle.
Written By: Aniket Khare, IIFT Delhi 2010-12