How did Indian Kings Armies compare to the British and Yeshwantrao Holkar I vision

  • Author analyses Indians King’s Armies as compared to the British. Yeshwantrao Holkar I was the only king to ask others to join him in his fight against the British.

Holkar I was born in 1776 at village Waf in Maharashtra. His mother was the second wife of Tukoji Holkar, a trusted General of Ahilyabai Holkar. 

Find below an extract from chapter 2 of book ‘The Forgotten General - Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar’ titled in book as The Only Bright Star.  


“History of India has largely been written by our victors and as a result we look at ourselves through their eyes and learn about our past as they had perceived us. Ostensibly, when Victors write History, they exaggerate their achievements by distorting the facts to prove their superiority over the vanquished. But as a student of history, we must enquire that


Did those victories come as easily as boasted by the British?  

Two. Did they not ever run away from battle field leaving their equipment?

The moment we get beneath the surface and probe deeper, we notice that the facts are bewildering. Yes they defeated us, but their victories did not come easily, the British faced stiff opposition at every level and we did not capitulate meekly at any stage despite our inherent divisive tendencies, poor state of military equipment and military organisation.

Right from the advent of Britishers in India, although we produced many gallant soldiers who gave a tough fight to Britishers but the impact of Yeshwantrao Holkar - I, in my view, was the most remarkable, because, of his audacity, determination and ability to fight an enemy, who was immensely superior and yet exploit enemy’s weaknesses to his advantage. He made the British run around more than thousand kms, tired them, and inflicted such heavy casualties that the British had to recall Wellesley, the then Governor General and instead, appoint Cornwallis, who immediately directed his staff to call truce with Yeshwantrao. He was the only king with whom the British signed a truce at equal terms.


In order to comprehend the impact Yeshwantrao I made it is very essential that we understand the military-politico environment that existed then and the handicaps with which this Great Soldier fought and gave a tough fight to the Britishers.


By 18th century, when the Mughal empire had almost collapsed and Maratha’s inadequacies and rivalries amongst their chieftains had started surfacing, a new force ; the East India Company taking advantage of the situation established its foothold. It slowly but surely started making inroads into rest of the subcontinent that led to collision with the other Indian Kings who found themselves ill equipped to check this ingression.


The East India Company (EIC) had raised its own armed forces. The three administrative areas of East India Company; the Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal, each maintained their own army with its own commander-in-chief.  All the officers were British and trained at the Company's military academy in England. There were a number of regiments of European infantry but the vast majority of the Company's soldiers were native troops. They were organized in numbered regiments and drilled in the British style. The Sepoy regiments were officered by Europeans, with a stiffening of European NCO's (Non Commissioned Officers equivalent to Havildar Rank). Attached to this force were regiments of the Crown, units of the British Army lent by the Crown to the EIC in times of need. By this time they had almost 200000 troops stationed in India who could be mobilized to deal with errant Indian Kings.


The English Army was first established as a standing military force in 1660. In 1707 many regiments of the English and Scottish armies were already combined under one operational command. Very early in 18th century they realized the importance of military training for their officers and so started a Military Academy.


Thus, when the Brits were well organized and possessed huge resources that they could mobilize at the point of decision, The Indian Kings were grappling with their own problems and challenges and as a result lacked the capability to face the invader head on.


The first challenge that they faced, was the proverbial “Dog Eat Dog” situation, wherein the local kings competed with each other to safeguard their own interests and also enjoyed when the Brits defeated their rival. They even did not mind signing a treaty with Brits not only for their own protection but also for assigning troops to help Brits defeat their rival.  This helped Brits to deal with Indian kings piecemeal.


Second, the borders of each kingdom were not like the International borders of today, and also not guarded in the same manner, thus it was quite easy for the forces of one king to enter the villages of other kingdom and forcibly collect taxes from them and this led to internecine warfare that only helped the enemy.


Three. The armies of Indian Rulers, were ill equipped, having obsolete equipment poorly trained, lacked the organizational structure .The soldiering was restricted to some castes and religion. And as a result were no match to these European army soldiers trained in the art of modern warfare. The idea of a unified command and Military academies for training their officers was alien to the Indian Kings then. As regards artillery, the Indians once again stood no chance. The iron smiths in India could not manufacture guns of the quality that Europeans who already were going through an industrial revolution could make.  Although Mahidji Scindia had realized the importance of artillery and had set up an artillery manufacturing industry near Agra but that also could not match the European artillery.


Consequently, the Indian Kings involved in internecine, self destructive warfare amongst themselves and possessing ill equipped army started using the Brits to defeat their rivals. The Brits, on the other hand, besides being better trained and organized and equipped, They also had the advantage of huge financial resources at their disposal.          


Besides the technology, the British were able to integrate their artillery with the infantry as well as cavalry. In case of Indians the heavy guns were mainly deployed on the ramparts of the fort. As these Guns required a huge logistic train and had to be left behind in case of retreat, so their cavalry was often devoid of any artillery support.


It was this deficiency that forced the Indian cavalry to avoid closing in with the enemy and charge through the enemy troops. Hence the cavalry was employed by Indian armies (Indian Kings’ armies) to only - either harass the advancing column by carrying out sudden attacks on its flanks or attacking the logistic train of the enemy. The Indians, hence could not make use of the full potential of the cavalry against the British.


In addition to the afore said, within the army itself there were a lot of anomalies as regards pay and perks, which resulted in disgruntlement and differences. The EIC (East India Company) all the time worried about its balance sheet would often reduce troop strength, especially after a military threat no longer remained. Hence after the Fourth Anglo Mysore War and the end of Tipu Sultan—the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies demobilised troops, at times entire battalions. These troops were immediately grabbed by Yeshwantrao and Daulatrao Scindia. The East India Company actually encouraged such mercenaries from Europe and those it couldn’t employ they sought employment with Scindia who offered them Good pay packages. Thus many French, Dutch, British and Scots were serving in Scindia’s service as well as Yeshwantrao Holkar.


These were called as Campoos. However, these foreign soldiers knew that in a war they will be fending for themselves as they will not find any support from other native soldiers, for a simple reason that the Indian rulers had limited revenue earning capabilities and it was difficult for them to maintain a big standing army and thus their native soldiers were often not paid for months.


The Indian Kings who acquired trained foreign soldiers and officers, to improve the quality of their armies had to face the ire of native soldiers as the foreign troops were paid better than the local soldiers causing heart burn that ostensibly must have created differences within the army. As a result there was hardly any coordination/ cooperation between the Campoo and the other soldiers of the same army.


The Indian Kings’ armies, as a whole had very little coordination and communication between its various components. They had no such system of Staff Officers which could do this for them. The armies of Indian Kings comprised of different contingents which were the personal armies of the various commanders and as there was no hierarchy or formal organizational structure and no discipline the whole army used to run away if the commander withdrew or got killed.


French soldier – politician Comte de Modave while describing the Indian armies said;


“The army of an Indian prince does not form a regular whole as like ours. The different bodies that compose them have no connection with one another. No Staff Officer, no General is seen among them. Nor is there any subordination of chiefs to supreme chief of the army…or any connection or dependence of one to the other. Every individual body of soldiers provides itself as it can and as it pleases with provisions and munitions.


Although, the light cavalry that Marathas had, was very effective in their own land where they could move light and be provided food and intelligence by locals but in distant lands this was difficult as any force applied on villagers could displease the people. Moreover, the muskets that they carried were mostly second hand and they were often not supported by artillery fire. Thus any force with better all round fire support could keep the Light cavalry of Marathas a distance away.                        

Moreover, the armies of the subcontinent were not quick enough to adapt changes. Nadir Shah also after defeating the Mughals had rightly commented on this strange behavior of Indian rulers; 

What strange practice is this that the rulers of Hind have adopted? In the day of battle they ride on an elephant, and make themselves into a target for everybody!

Although there must have taken place some development in the quality of guns after they were introduced by Babur in India but the Europeans were ahead of us in terms of quality, its tactical employment and its integration with infantry and cavalry.

Lastly, The forts could be won by buying out the garrison or buying the commanders of the garrison, sieges could be ended by paying off the invading army. There was no permanent loyalty amongst warlords and Generals and there were no permanent friends or foes. War was businesslike—there were profits to be made by all. Unlike the Brits who fought to the last for their Country’s flag.  

Notwithstanding the numerous grey areas that existed in the Indian military system in that era, there were some strong points as well and one of them was the Marathas cavalry,                                  Munro a military observer wrote to Wellesly describing the Maratha cavalry;


“They were quick, travel light weight and long distances as they are not burdened by artillery and food supplies, as they live off the land. However they have no muskets unlike the Spanish Guerillas who harassed the Napoleon army so they cannot launch ambushes and against artillery they are powerless.”   


So, it was no wonder that Yeshwantrao Holkar carried that tradition of brilliant horsemanship and used it to immense advantage against his enemies. His cavalry would suddenly appear and swell in numbers and swarm down the enemy column killing hundreds and then disappear as fast as they came.


In such a scenario it was difficult for any Indian king to retain his sovereignty all by himself.

In view of all these peculiar state of affairs and circumstances, it often so happened that a garrison holding a fort or an army campaigning with a King/ General/ Warlord would have months of arrears in pay. In such circumstances, it was obvious that if the ‘enemy’ offered to pay out the arrears, a garrison commander or contingent leader, would readily accept and switch sides and avoid losing his men.

By this time, however, the British Army had built for itself globally the fearsome reputation of being an infantry that never retreated or surrendered. The Redcoats, as they were popularly called were known to hold their ground to the last man and last round. 

Although they were alien to this peculiar Indian culture, but they adapted to the Indian ways of war. And learnt to buy out armies and pay off garrisons. In fact, they had greater success with it because of the unrestricted cash flows the East India Company could boast off. It also helped that no Indian power could financially hurt the Company as its trade was international.

Hence, it posed a very difficult situation for those Indian Kings who did not want to succumb to Brits pressure and wanted to stand against them firmly. They with their meager means, obsolete armies were pitched against a much superior modern Brit army which worked like a well oiled fighting machine. It was led by better quality officers, had better rifles, better guns and was a disciplined force having great experience of fighting all over the world.  

For instance, Gen Lakes, The Commander in Chief of Brits forces, who fought against Yeshwantrao, had received the best first hand training in war by serving close to Frederick the Great, and had gathered experience in a succession of Continental and American wars, since his 17th year.


During the entire winters of 1802 -1803, Gen Lakes personally under his supervision trained his army in various maneuvers and achieved integration of various components of his forces particularly employment of guns with cavalry and his infantry. Later on these guns were integrated with the cavalry regiments that came to be useful subsequently in the war against Holkar.


These guns were horse drawn and their munition was carried in camel carts, thus allowing the cavalry, the availability of fire support when ever needed. This was called; Flying artillery or Horse drawn galloper guns.


Similarly, they brought in the concept of Light infantry, realising the importance of infantry support for cavalry which could have better mobility and also hold ground when needed. These Light infantry units were better trained in sharp shooting than the normal infantry.


“In the South Maj Gen Arthur Wellesley trained his army equally well. He, a seasoned soldier knew ; How important logistics were for a fighting army to maintain its effectiveness and so he set himself organizing the famous Mysore Bullock cart trains in order to ensure incessant supply of ration, ammunition for artillery and this was successfully employed later in building up his mule transport in the Peninsular War . He also experimented and perfected the plan of using coracles (oval low-boats made of sewn hides stitched over frames) for ferrying troops over the rocky rivers of the south.  In this way he discovered the exact number of men or weight of material that each coracle could safely carry.” 


The same principle of Load tables is still being followed by Indian army.


The Brits had an organization that worked right from top to bottom with marvelous speed and efficiency. This happened because they had an organizational structure, commanders whose job was to foresee, plan and train the men and staff officers were there to assist their respective commanders and coordinate various activities of different units and departments as per the plan of the commander.


So, When we view the whole scenario that existed in 18th /early 19th  century dispassionately, we would notice that even the Maratha Chieftains who were the most dominant power during that part of the history in India, although had a huge army they stood no chance of defeating the disciplined, well trained, well equipped and better organized British army.


It is very aptly described in book Fall of Mughals a military observer Alfred Lyall commented;


“The armament and tactics of civilized nations imply high proficiency in the art of war, abundant supply of costly material, and a strong reserve of well trained military officers, all this cannot be hurriedly procured and supplied by Indian Princes whose people are still not accustomed to such inventions. Moreover, in proportion as the Marathas adopted, the armament and tactics of European warfare they lost the advantage that comes out of unanimity of national, religious or tribal sentiment. The new system required professional soldiers, to be enlisted wherever they are found.” 


In such a scenario it was difficult for any Indian king to retain his sovereignty all by himself. Some Indian Kings were thus caught in a Catch 22 situation. They wanted to challenge the British occupational forces, but their own military weaknesses and the need to safeguard their own Kingdoms compelled them to take a pragmatic approach and so they signed the Friendship agreement with British, surrendering their sovereignty.


There were also a few who kept all the doors opened and kept switching sides depending on the outcome of war for e.g. Scindia and Raja of Bharatpur. They signed the friendship agreement with British but later on seeing Yeshwantrao punishing the British they ditched the Brits but once again when the scale tilted in favour of Brits they signed the Friendship agreement and ditched Yeshwantrao.


When most of the Indian kings, during this period in an effort to retain their kingdoms and interests, were signing friendship treaties with the Brits, there was, there was only one Tiger left in the jungle, to challenge the British and gave them a bloody good fight and with whom the Brits finally decided to have a truce. He was the only one to whom the British themselves approached for a treaty on equal terms.


There was then only one king, who could think big and write to his contemporaries asking them to join him in fight against the Britishhe wrote;


First Country, and then Religion. We will have to rise above caste, religion, and our states in the interest of our country. You too must wage a war against the British, like me." 


Someone thinking like this in early 1800s and urging the Kings to rise above caste and religion was extraordinary and hence commendable.


Thus, That one General; Yeshwantrao Holkar -I, who (despite all the handicaps) gave a tough fight to British, needs not only to be applauded for his courage and audacity but also be studied from military perspective; leadership attributes; decisiveness, determination, strength of character… tactical acumenship, employment of resources in different situations, his abilities to understand the big picture and so on.”


To read how Yeshwantrao Holkar I forced the British Colonel Monson to surrender CLICK


Author is a professional with nearly 34 years of versatile experience in the areas of HR operations, training and development in the Indian Army and industry.


EditorThe book Forgotten General is fast paced, looks at Holkar I objectively, exposes the British fault lines and is written from a military history angle. The book outlines Yashwant Rao’s decisions ‘as a military leaders. He was one person who shook the British in the early 19th century.’ 


Book also gives ‘shortcomings of Indian Armies that fought the British and appreciates Holkar I’s indomitable spirit’. If he fought the Battle of Assaye against the British, along with Scindia and  Bhonsle, the outcome might have been different. He ‘had a strong desire to throw the British out of India, was an inspiration to many Indian soldiers who left Scindia and joined him, made the British coffers empty besides inflicting heavy casualties.’ 


Like Bajirao Peshwa he died early, 40 vs 30. A tragedy for India!


Do read about The Battle of Deeg. Holkar I and Ranjeet Singh, the Raja of Bharatpur, ‘managed to create history by defeating a much superior British force’. Book has details of the battle.  


To buy the book - THE FORGOTTEN GENERAL click Here


Also read

1. Battle of Assaye

2. Lalitaditya, the great Kashmiri King

3. Veer Surendra Sai of Odisha

4. Rani Abbaka, Queen of Ulal near Mangalore 

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