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The Battle of Buxar is a famous episode in the history of India, the English win at Plassey was marred by allegations of treachery, but victory at Buxar was a real feather in crown of their military capabilities. We shall not go much into the background of the war and waste time; rather we will straight away take a ride to the battle field.
Part of Buxar fort, showing a shrine and ghat below, with people bathing and drawing water from the river
Buxar was then under Bengal territory a city about 130 kilometres West of Patna, and here in 22nd October two mighty armies The East India Company and the Mughal Army stood in front of each other. From the political point of view it was going to be a hugely important battle, and a number of questions were waiting to be answered. The illustrious days of the Six Mughal Emperors were gone; the Mughal flag of conquest was not one of the deadliest anymore. So evidently what remained was the vanity of the Old Guard put to test time and time again. So here in the plains of Buxar we have Mughal forces which is comprised of three different entities, one of course is the Mughal Emperor himself, Shah Alam II, second is the Nawab of Awadh Shuja-ud-Dowla(the Grand Vizier to Mughal Emperor), and third the Nawab of Bengal Mir Qasim. We may not call this a coalition force, since the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh are governors under the Mughal Emperor. That is only in name, the truth is after accession of Shah Alam II as the Mughal Emperor he wanted to consolidate his Empire mostly importantly Bengal presidency which was not paying revenue for a long time. The share of Bengal became one of the prime cause for the animosity between the English and Shah Alam II.
Location of Buxar
In short the equation was this- after the battle of Plassey the Company installed Mir Jafar to the throne as the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. However by some unscrupulous policy Mir Qasim the son-in-law of Mirjafar got the throne actually bought the throne by buying the company officials. The treaty following the battle of Plassey gave considerable facilities to the English over number of matters, like collection of tax, paying tax duties, and so on. This magnanimous relaxation was slowly the bleeding the Bengal treasury and very soon Mir Qasim took to action and undertook some reformation thus angering the English.
Although he was installed on the throne by the Company he was a fiercely independent man. Eventually when the demands of the Company became increasingly hard to fulfill he started to develop bad relations with them. In fact he had realized that the Company was nobody’s friend not of the natives nor the Nawab, and this made him to reform his army. However in this process it was not late to go into a direct conflict with the Company and that actually happened. Mir Qasim and the Company had fought several skirmishes before arriving to Buxar, and these losses made him like a fugitive until he meet Shuja-ud-Dowla. Shuja on seeing the fleeing Nawab of Bengal asked him of the outstanding revenue unpaid to the Emperor’s exchequer. He actually compelled him to pay all the dues, probably even more than that, and Mir Qasim was quite a rich man so a lot was extorted out of him. It was highly possible that out of this lot Shuja had misappropriated much for him and handed over trifles to Shah Alam II. Coming back to Buxar, I am not sure though whether Mir Qasim was actually present in the battle field, since some literatures say that after getting the money Shuja kicked him out and acquired his army. This can be partly true since Mir Qasim had allegations against him that he did not make himself available in the battlefield.
Major Hector Munro
The English on the hand depended purely on the technological and fundamental changes in warfare that had taken place in Europe. The English leaded by Major Munroe had a real task as it turned out that they were heavily outnumbered in the field. The East India Company had 28 guns manned by 71 men, 958 men in cavalry, and about 6043 infantry totaling a little over 7000 men in all. The army of Shuja-ud Dowla comprised of about 40,000 men plus 8 batallions of Mir Qasim commanded by Major Sombre and Medoc. They had around 133 guns quite superior as according to English records, mostly manned by European deserters and employed into the service of Indian Native rulers. The cavalry chiefly composed of Rohilla and Durrani horsemen who could do anything, win the day for their employers or take long road back home, in other words they were highly unreliable units of war. So in short this was the situation of both sides before the battle the below figure may help you understand.
The Cavalry Charge
The Company’s Battle Formation:
Let us start with the English, and how Major Munroe assembled his army in the face of such a formidable force. What he did was to arrange his entire army in two lines, the front and the rear, the two lines were separated by a distance of about a battalion (a battalion consists of roughly 300 men). In case there was a cavalry charge on the front line, a half battalion from the second line could take a turn and join hands with the front line, such wheeling in both lines then would form a square with the reserve company at the center, perfectly aligned to repulse a cavalry attack. Hard to understand, never mind I have a diagram for you which explain everything.
As in the ancient times the Romans developed the phalanx to stop the cavalry, in the eighteenth century square formation was a very effective way to repulse the cavalry. In square formation we have bayonet pointing soldiers defending themselves against horse charge, the point of bayonet repulsing the cavalry to run over the infantry. With this type of precautionary measures we can that it was clever to arrange men such fashion against all uncertainties Now about the guns, the English had 28 of them, and cleverly deployed. “In the front line-on either of the flank one twelve pounder, two 6 pounders; on either flank of the Europeans one 12 pounder, one 6 pounder, and one 5.5 inch howitzer; in their centre four 5 pounders. In the rear line – two 6 pounders on either of the flank of the line, and two on either flank of the Europeans.” If you have difficulty in visualizing the deployment refer the diagram above.
Effectively what Major Munroe is doing here, he is keeping the best firepower in the front line, it is obvious I agree, and another plus point he has is of the 5.5 howitzers. The howitzers are meant for firing up to long distances, it can be operated at high angles, but it is not something to be carried all around the battle field. The howitzers are to be operated from long distances pouring shells into the enemy ranks and make them do two things, either force them to retire or provoke them to assault. The twelve pounders are twice as heavy as the six pounders it has more fire power so it could be used mostly for covering fires but the 6 pounders are the weapons to be deployed anywhere in the field. They are lighter compared to 12 pounders easily maneuvered into the field and can be positioned wherever desired. But before going to the Mughal battle formation have a look at the English Battle Order.
The Mughal Battle Formation:
The allied forces or coalition forces whatever you call them, arranged themselves in classical format. Three flanks in all, the left under Rajah Beni Bahadur (near the river behind him the fort of Buxar and the town), to his next in the centre, the infantry lines of Sombre and Medoc, behind Sombre’s men were cavalry under Mian Isa Khan, to their left the Durrani and the Rohilla horsemen commanded by the Wazir- Shuja-ud-Dowla.
In fact this was a typical Mughal way of deployment; you have all the infantry at the centre the horses at the flanks. The main artillery on the centre 133 guns in all, most of them quite superior some of them mounted on English carriages, under command of Sombre and Medoc. However at this juncture before we go into the battle we must thoroughly understand the allied army. This is crucial and is most important. One of the most interesting things in the battles of Hindustan is that the nature and variety we get to see. It is not like the French fighting the English, where all the French forces are French and all the men in the English army are English. In the allied forces we have Rohilla and Durrani horsemen, both originating from Afghanistan participating in a battle in India. Both types had participated in the Third Battle of Panipat where they had given considerable trouble to the Marathas. If we consider the nature of horses they were the best kinds in South Asia. The horses had good speed; the riders wore armors equipped with swords and spears quite unlike the traditional Mughal cavalry archers.
A small introduction about Rohillas and Sombre.
The Rohillas are basically Afghans who had settled in the northern parts of what is now Uttar Pradesh and carved out a separate area for them known as Rohilkhand. They were supposed to be a counter acting force against the Rajputs however in the complex political scenario of Hindustan at that time, their position and security was most vulnerable and mostly they were under the mercy of the Nawab of Awadh.
Sombre was a very interesting military adventurer who had come all the way from Europe to India, and tried to catch the best fish in the muddy waters of India. Yes he was like that, to the question where he hailed from no one exactly knows, what is known is that he frequently changed sides trying to find the best employment. Before Buxar Mir Qasim had employed him to train his army as a part of his military reformation project and that is why we find him in Buxar. His original name is Walter Reinhardt however because of his dark complexion his nickname was Sombre (dark in French) a fitting nom de guerre. But remember Mr. Sombre as I said is a very interesting character I may come up any day with extraordinary tales about him and his later generations. Now next come to Medoc (also spelt Madoc) this Frenchman began his career as early as in 1757 later he became an assistant to Sombre and that is why he is here. He fought many battles in his career with all different allies; in Buxar he is fighting beside the Rohillas, in 1778 he would be fighting against them where his twelve European officers’ would be cut to death. So that explains the complex employments of these European mercenaries in India.
Whatever it is there is no clear cut command hierarchy as you might perceive. I mean if an officer falls in the battle there is no indication or instruction of who might replace him and carry on the battle. Although the English have variety in their army too, they have their battle order, well defined hierarchy and that is why you can keep the English ahead in this very important matter. The English have native soldiers in their army but they know only English commanders will lead in the battle. This is under the directive issued by the Directors of the company-
“No foreigner whether in our service or not ( except such as hath been admitted into it by the court of Directors) nor any black or person of mixed breed, nor any Roman Catholic of what nation so ever, shall on any pretence be admitted to set foot in the laboratory or any military magazine either out of curiosity or to be employed in them, or to come near them so as to see what is going on contained therein. Nor shall any such person have a copy or sight of any accounts or papers relating to any military stores whatsoever.”
In other words the native recruits should be kept in dark about all progress and they should only be abide by the instructions of their superior which is always an European.
As the two lines meet, and ready to get go, there was brisk cannonade from both sides. In those times initial cannon fire may appear a luxury, but in real sense it was a measure to check the enemy’s position and the range of the guns. The Allied forces bombarded from their guns, these guns were not of the type in Plassey (monstrous and worthless) however they failed to give any real advantage to the Mughals. Rockets were also fired, but that did not help their cause either. As normal custom of the Mughals immediately after the cannonade, a large body of Durani horsemen attacked the English left flank. The English army responded by forming squares unable to break through the square, the Mughal cavalry went to the rear and attacked the Mir Jafar’s army stationed to watch the English back. Lieutanant Vertue who was commanding the rear guard pulled up to the front and joined the second line. The Mughal cavalry encouraged by their success of wining the English baggage attacked the second line from the rear, where they were received at the point of the bayonet. The charge went on, one after another and each time they were showered with grape shots from the English guns and the ground was littered with the corpses of Durrani and Rohilla horsemen.
While the English left was busy dealing with the Mughal cavalry, Captain Feak on the right flank advanced and subdued a battery of heavy guns which was positioned quite well and pouring round shots on the English first line. It was right act at the right time, since the Mughal canons were placed in an oblique direction to the English first line and the shots from these guns could prove extremelingly devastating. So a good move by the Mughals was check mated by the English. Meantime while all this action was going on Mian Isa moved out from the centre and with his 6000 horse attacked the English left. However the swampy ground in their way slowed down the charge and collapsed under the incessant fire from the English lines. Their leaders in encouraging their men to battle lost their lives which further demoralized their troops and they fled back. The collapse of the army at the centre discouraged the brigades of Sombre and Medoc and caused a general retreat.
Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, with his four sons, General Barker and other military officers
General Munro seeing the retreating enemy asked the army to form column and in French style they advanced to the enemy centre. Rajah Beni Bahadur who was a mere spectator to this entire battle suddenly became active however a few shots from the advancing sepoys cooled his nerves and he did what was best for him and fled from the field. Rajah Balwant Singh who had done absolutely nothing in the entire day also took to the heels he later joined hands with the English. Questions can arise about Rajah Beni Bahadur and Rajah Balwant Singh’s inaction, a possible act of treachery cannot be ruled out however it must be said that victory at Buxar was well deserved by the English. The total number of casualties numbered 101 for the English and 847 for the natives. About 133 guns were captured, later 32 more were found from the fort and the entrenchment.
Politically this was the greatest battle won for the English, even greater than Plassey. The odds were high but General Munroe kept his cool and won the day.
In war or in battle the single most important thing is unity. It does not matter how much infantry or guns you have but if there is no unity then there is nothing. The Mughal army led by Shuja had everything in their command, reputed cavalry force, militia trained in European standards overwhelming number of guns possibly everything but there is no unified command out there. The commanders like Beni Bahadur, Balwant Singh never took to arms; they stood in their ranks like spectators doing nothing. There were no protective measures like Captain Feak who by his own discretion marched onto quell the thunder of the Mughal cannons fixed dangerously. All these inaction suggest that each Mughal commander were trying to save their own back, because they had their own agenda. After the battle Balwant Singh changed color and joined hands with the English so you can guess what sort of political or military unity these people had.
On the other hand the English were unified; no matter what color or creed there soldiers came from they were supposed to be under English commanders and conducting war according to their need. There was a well defined hierarchy in English troops if one commander fell in the battle his subordinate took up the flag and marched on, so these are some of the basics that the Mughals lacked. We can go into in depth analysis regarding this however the truth is that the true shape of an Indian army was like the political state of India itself. India then was not a Nation state there were all kinds of rulers, making allies choosing enemy in the most capricious manner for their personal benefits. In the end neither their ambition nor those dreams materialized.
Also the nature of warfare had changed considerably by the eighteenth century and unfortunately by and large the Indians (except perhaps the Marathas) were unenthusiastic about this new mode of warfare. They still relied on cavalry charge just after few shots from the guns, whereas at that time slowly and steadily the main wing of the army was changing from the cavalry to infantry. They were also unacquainted with the European method of forming squares to defend against cavalry charge which was the singular cause of the failure of Indian cavalry against English infantry, from Buxar to the Battle of Assaye. They could not simply believe that a handful infantry could so well rout the charge of a heavy cavalry. It was something that hurt their prejudice. Furthermore the commanders were posted at so long distance from general in command that instructions could not pass on smoothly and even it were there was no guarantee that it would be ever followed. The commanders also had questionable capabilities and skill, look at Beni Bahadur or Balwant Singh who would ever think of giving them even a single battalion.
Overall it was a very disappointing and humiliating defeat, given the man and material Shuja had. But this was the destiny of the outdated, outsmarted Indian army against a force which was part of the machinery conquering every known parts of the World.
Photo Courtesy: Buxar fort- British Library,
Wikipedia under cc license and self development.
Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.