Sikh Artillery

Tsar Cannon, The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

The Sikh Army was the strongest 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 ability of the Sikh gunners during the conflicts at Mudki and Chillianwala during the two Anglo Sikh wars. The maharaja who dominated the Punjab for 40 years until his demise in 1839 built the artillery of the Khalsa Fauj (Army) to an unprecedented efficacy level. No Indian ruler could match the genius of Ranjit who built up his artillery with the support of foreign advisors -largely French. The period from 1801 to 1839 marked the development of the Sikh army from a semi feudal and cluttered force to an efficient fighting machine which could hold its own against the best European armies.

One of the advisors hired by Ranjit Singh that the Frenchman General Jean Francois Allard, General Paola Evitable who was an Italian and Claude August Court held sway. Out of these Court set about organizing the artillery. He joined the Maharajas service in 1827 and married a local Sikh girl. He began 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 generate high quality guns and howitzers. In this he was helped by local gun smith Sardar Lahina Singh Majithia.

It is worthwhile to remember that if the first shell was created at the Lahore foundry that the Maharaja bestowed a prize of Rs 30,000 on Court. Subsequently fuses for the guns were manufactured there. His impact on the Artillery efficacy bore fruit later as during the wars with the British, Sikh guns made the British pay a hefty price by their deadly salvos.

The Sikh artillery really came into its own only after the entrance of the European advisors of Ranjit Singh. This artillery was to differentiate itself in the battles of the North West frontier and later the British.The most deadly part of the Sikh army were the guns manufactured at the maharajas foundries in Lahore. These guns added teeth to the khalsa (Sikh) army which makes 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 warfare in 1845 the Sikhs could marshal nearly 250 firearms.

Ranjit Singh must take credit for the evolution of the artillery in his military. Right from 1807 he had been seized with the thought of manufacturing his own cannons. In another 2 years mortars were produced and Ranjit instructed his chief scientist Mian Qadir Bakhsh a Muslim, to study the British guns and create similar copies. Ranjit also on the advice of his French generals set up the horse drawn artillery. By 1830 Ranjit could have a look at his gunnery division and appreciate the fact he had over 100 horse drawn artillery pieces.

The Sikh soon mounted an invasion of the North West. In conflicts with the Pathans and the Afghans from 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 powerful military force equipped with professional artillery. But the Sikh leadership dedicated hara-kiri by attacking the British with whom Ranjit had a treaty of peace. The Sikh army aided by the artillery could 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 seized by the British and were paraded at Calcutta after the second Sikh war. Many were melted down at their foundry in Cossipore. But with the passage of time only a couple of artillery pieces can be found mostly in the UK and the Lahore Museum.

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