British troops refuse quarter to thousands of surrounded Sikh soldiers
[ 10 February 1846 ]
On 10 February 1846, British troops slaughtered thousands of Sikhs attempting to flee the Battle of Sobraon in the Punjab. After a fierce two hour engagement, Redcoat infantry and cavalry, under the command of Major-General Sir Hugh Gough, concentrated their attack on the surviving soldiers, who were hemmed into a small area on the east bank of the river Sutlej. The Sikhs attempted to retreat across a bridge which, in the words of Viscount Hardinge, India’s Governor General, ‘had partially sunk and was totally inadequate for the conveyance of the multitude pressing towards it.’ With no options left to save themselves, thousands leapt into the swollen river, but were shot dead or cut down by British troops advancing along both banks.1
One British soldier recounted how the water soon became a ‘bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’2 Even Hardinge’s official report of the battle was unashamed in detailing the butchery, recounting how ‘the river was full of sinking men,’ and adding that ‘for two hours volley after volley was poured in upon the human mass – the stream being literally red with blood, and covered with the bodies of the slain… No compassion was felt, or mercy shown.’3 Historian Saul David concludes that ‘no quarter was given and Sikh losses were put as high as 10,000 men.’4
The ruthless mass slaughter failed to temper the exuberance of reporting in The Times, which hailed it as ‘a great and most meritorious victory… (which) reflects the highest credit on all who were engaged.’5 Even today, some British historians and institutions, while refraining from such hyperbolic jingoism, still prefer a perfunctory and reassuring interpretation of the evidence, typically blaming the bloodbath on the enemy’s heroism, with the National Army Museum explaining on its website that ‘the Sikhs fought with their backs to the river Sutlej, refusing to surrender. In consequence, casualties on both sides were again severe.’6
- Dispatch from the Governor-General, 19 February 1846, cited in The London Gazette Extraordinary and ‘Victory at Sobraon: Close of the War,’ The Worcestershire Chronicle, 8 April 1846, p. 3.
- Gunner Bancroft cited in Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007 p. 109.
- Dispatch from the Governor-General, 19 February 1846, Op. cit..
- Saul David, Op. cit., p. 109.
- The Times cited in ‘The Battle of Sobraon,’ The North Devon Journal, 9 April 1846, p. 2.
- The National Army Museum website accessed on 17 January 2020 at url https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1971-02-33-392-1
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