Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

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Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington : biography

1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852

After battle and the resulting end of the war, the main force under General Harris left Seringapatam and Wellesley, aged 30, stayed behind to command the area as the new Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore. He was promoted to brigadier-general on 17 July 1801. He took residence within the Sultan’s summer palace and reformed the tax and justice systems in his province to maintain order and prevent bribery.Holmes (2002). p. 63. He also hunted down the mercenary ‘King’ Dhoondiah Waugh, who had escaped from prison in Seringapatam during the battle.Holmes (2002). p. 64. Wellesley, with command of four regiments, defeated Dhoondiah’s larger rebel force, along with Dhoondiah himself who was killed in the battle. He paid for the future upkeep of Dhoondiah’s orphaned son.Holmes (2002). p. 65.

Whilst in India, Wellesley was ill for a considerable time, first with severe diarrhoea from the water and then with fever, followed by a serious skin infection caused by trichophyton.Holmes (2002). p. 67. He received good news when in September 1802 he learnt that he had been promoted to the rank of major-general. Wellesley had been gazetted on 29 April 1802, but the news took several months to reach him by sea. He remained at Mysore until November when he was sent to command an army in the Second Anglo-Maratha War.

Second Anglo-Maratha War

When he determined that a long defensive war would ruin his army, Wellesley decided to act boldly to defeat the numerically larger force of the Maratha Empire. With the logistic assembly of his army complete (24,000 men in total) he gave the order to break camp and attack the nearest Maratha fort on 8 August 1803.Holmes (2002). p. 69.Holmes (2002). p. 73. The fort surrendered on 12 August after an infantry attack had exploited an artillery-made breach in the wall. With the fort now in British control Wellesley was able to extend control southwards to the river Godavari.Holmes (2002). p. 74.

Assaye

Splitting his army into two forces, to pursue and locate the main Marathas army, (the second force, commanded by Colonel Stevenson was far smaller) Wellesley was preparing to rejoin his forces on 24 September. His intelligence, however, reported the location of the Marathas’ main army, between two rivers near Assaye.Holmes (2002). p. 75. If he waited for the arrival of his second force, the Marathas would be able to mount a retreat, so Wellesley decided to launch an attack immediately.

On 23 September, Wellesley led his forces over a ford in the river Kaitna and the Battle of Assaye commenced.Holmes (2002). p. 77. After crossing the ford the infantry was reorganised into several lines and advanced against the Maratha infantry. Wellesley ordered his cavalry to exploit the flank of the Maratha army just near the village. During the battle Wellesley himself came under fire; two of his horses were shot from under him and he had to mount a third.Holmes (2002). p. 80. At a crucial moment, Wellesley regrouped his forces and ordered Colonel Maxwell (later killed in the attack) to attack the eastern end of the Maratha position while Wellesley himself directed a renewed infantry attack against the centre.

An officer in the attack wrote of the importance of Wellesley’s personal leadership: "The General was in the thick of the action the whole time … I never saw a man so cool and collected as he was … though I can assure you, ’til our troops got the order to advance the fate of the day seemed doubtful …"Longford (1971). p. 93. With some 6,000 Marathas killed or wounded, the enemy was routed, though Wellesley’s force was in no condition to pursue. British casualties were heavy: the British losses were counted as 409 soldiers being killed out of which 164 were Europeans and the remaining 245 were Indian; a further 1,622 British soldiers were wounded and 26 soldiers were reported missing (the British casualty figures were taken from Wellington’s own despatch).Millar (2006). p. 27. Wellesley was troubled by the loss of men and remarked that he hoped "I should not like to see again such loss as I sustained on 23 September, even if attended by such gain". Years later, however, he remarked that Assaye was the best battle he ever fought.