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Charge of the British cavalry through the breaches at Sabraon, February 10, 1846

By the close of first week of February, 1846, the Sikh Army had constructed formidable entrenchments about two and a half miles long on the left bank of Sutlej near Subhraon. Their batteries were placed about six feet high protected by deep trenches. These defensive works were connected with the right bank with a bridge of boats. Some twenty to twenty five thousand men and seventy guns were placed behind these entrenchments. Nevertheless, the traitors were determined once again to see the Khalsa Army beaten. Lal Singh was again re-imposed on the Army. Two days before the battle, Lal Singh again sent Shams-ud-Din to Major Lawrence with details of its defensive plan. The weakest point in the Sikh line was its right flank where the loose sand made it impossible to build high parapets or place heavy guns there; it was to be protected by the ghorcharas and light camel guns which only fired balls one or two pounds in weight; moreover the command of this wing was reserved by Lal Singh for himself. On the basis of this intelligence, Cunningham writes, it was arranged that the whole of the heavy ordinance should be planted in masses opposite particular points of the enemy entrenchments, and that when the Sikhs had been shaken by a continuous storm of shot and shell, the right or weakest point of their position should be assaulted in line by the strongest of the three investing divisions, which together mustered nearly fifteen thousand men. Sir Robert Dick's Division was ordered to commence the attack on the right flank with Sir Walter Gilbert's Division in immediate support on the right. Sir Harry Smith's Division was to be close to Gilbert's right to support him.

Sardar Sham Singh, also knowing that 10th February was going to be the day of battle, rose early in the morning, dressed himself in white, and mounting his white mare proceeded to address the Sikh Army. He reminded the assembled Khalsa about their glorious traditions of bravery and sacrifices in the past and begged them, as true sons of the soil, to die rather than turn their backs on the enemy. Since he had himself dedicated his life to the sacred cause, his words had the desired effect.

Dick's Division advanced according to plan and found the defences weak and easily surmountable, as Lal Singh's emissaries had reported. The 10th Queen's Regiment broke through totally unopposed, but when the entire division had penetrated some way it was suddenly fallen upon by the Sikhs and driven back. Sir Robert Dick was himself mortally wounded. 'Rally those men', the Governor-General shouted. Colonel Wood, his Aide de-Camp, galloped to the centre of the line and seizing the colours from the hands of an ensign carried them to the front. In a moment the wavering British troops had rallied and stormed the breastworks simultaneously with the Brigade of Dick's Division, who had also experienced a similar check but had soon recovered their lost ground. Now both Gilbert's and Dick's Divisions engaged in what may be called the deadliest hand-to-hand encounter with the Sikh infantry.

During the first British attack Sardar Sham Singh had been present almost everywhere. He did not allow his men to lose heart as he moved from column to column urging the men to fight on. His action stirred the Sikhs to greater efforts and the British were eventually repulsed. William Edwards, who was present during the attack, has described the scene most graphically : Gilbert's troops immediately advanced but finding the centre of the works from their height perfectly impregnable were driven back with very heavy loss. Sir Harry Smith's Division instead of being near the right of Gilbert was on the extreme left of the Sikh position. It also advanced on the works in front and was driven back with great loss.

Lal Singh the Traitor

For some time the issue of the Battle of Subhraon was hanging in the balance as the conflict raged fiercely. Cunningham, describing this contest, writes: The round shot exploded umbrils or dashed heaps of sand into the air; the hollow shells cast their fatal contents fully before them and the devious rocket sprang aloft with fury to fall hissing amid a flood of men; but all was in vain, the Sikhs stood unappalled and flash for flash returned and fire for fire. 'The field was resplendent with embattled warriors. Then as Sir Herbert Edwards says, The artillery galloped up and delivered their fire within 300 yards of the enemy's batteries and infantry charged home with the bayonet and carried the works without firing a single shot. As it was the finest attack, so also did it meet with the most determined hand-to-hand resistance with which the Khalsa soldiers had yet opposed the British. The tide of battle now turned against the gallant defenders and to make its turn irrevocable, the treacherous Commanders, Tej Singh and Lal Singh instead of leading fresh men to bolster up the defences, fled across the bridge of boats sinking the central boat after crossing.

Gilbert's Division led the third charge on the Sikh centre. Mounting on one another's shoulders, the attackers gained a footing on the entrenchments and as they increased in number they rushed at the Sikh guns and captured them. Soon the news spread down the line that enemy troops had won their way through to Sikh positions. Sardar Sham Singh, seeing his army facing defeat, took the final fatal plunge. He spurred forward against the 50th Foot, brandishing his sword and calling on his men to follow him. But soon he fell from his horse, his body pierced with seven balls. He had remained true to his vow to the last. Bravely the Sardar had not only gone forward to defend his own positions, but had pushed deep into the enemy lines. As proof of this his dead body, according to the British Commander-in-Chief, 'was sought for in the captured camp by his followers', who were permitted to search for their dead leader. His body was discovered where the dead lay thickest. His servants placed the body on a raft and swam with it across the river. Three days later the party reached Attari. Sham Singh's widow, who knew of her husband's resolution not to survive defeat, had already immolated herself with the clothes which the Sardar had worn on their wedding day. Her Samadh along with that of her husband is still to be seen outside the village of Attari.

The self-sacrifice of Sardar Sham Singh, the hero of Subhraon, had an inspiring effect. According to Cunningham, No Sikh offered to submit and no disciple of Gobind asked for quarter. They everywhere showed a front to the victor and stalked slowly and sullenly away while many rushed singly forth to meet assured death by contending with a multitude.' According to Lord Hardinge who was present in the battle, Few escaped; none, it may be said, surrendered. The Sikhs met their fate with the resignation which distinguishes their race.

Sardar Sham Singh's courage and determination had turned Sobroan into the Waterloo of India, as according to Malleson, 'victory for the Sikhs would have meant to the English the loss of India'. The Sardar's devotion to his country's cause was unique in an era of betrayals and his fidelity and self-sacrifice shone like a beacon amidst the treachery and selfishness of his contemporaries who sold their country to the foreigners. Indeed Sardar Sham Singh proved himself a prince among patriots and martyrs'.

Further treasonable negotiations and secret understandings between the English and the traitors took place during the first week of February 1846. William Edwards says, Emissaries from Lal Singh arrived and gave us valuable information regarding enemy position. According to Griffin, Tej Singh counseled even the valiant warrior Sham Singh Attariwala to run away with him at the first British attack in the battle of Sobroan. Writing about the battle of Subhroan, where he was present, Cunningham says, The speedy dictation of a treaty under the walls of Lahore was essential to the British reputation and the views of either party were in some sort met by an understanding that the Sikh army should be attacked by the English and that when beaten, it should be openly abandoned by its own government; and further, that the passage of the Sutlej should be unopposed and the road to the capital laid open to the victors. Under such circumstances of discreet policy and shameless treason was the battle of Sobroan fought.

Edwardes says, about the same battle, The Sikhs made a gallant and desperate resistance but were driven towards the river and their bridge of boats which, as soon as the action had become general, their leaders Raja Lal Singh and Tej Singh, had, by previous consent broken, taking the precaution first to retire across it themselves, their object being to effect, as soon as possible, annihilation of the feared and detested army.

According to Major Carmichael Smyth, Tej Singh ordered up eight or ten guns and had them pointed at the bridge as if ready to beat it to pieces or to oppose the passage of the defeated army.

Again; The Sikh troops, basely betrayed by their leaders who had come so it was said, and not without some appearance of truthto a secret understanding with us, fought like heroes

Smith, Life of Lord Lawrence, 1188. Hesketh Pearson says, A British defeat, was again turned into a victory by the convenient flight of Tej Singh who damaged the bridge of boats over the Sutlej on his way and so helped to drown a large number of his countrymen.

Captain J.D. Cunningham, who was present as an additional aide-de-camp to the governor-general, describes the last scene of the battle vividly in his A History of the Sikhs:
.although assailed on either side by squadrons of horse and battalions of foot, no Sikh offered to submit, and no disciple of Guru Gobind Singh asked for quarter. They everywhere showed a front to the victors, and stalked slowly and sullenly away, while many rushed singly forth to meet assured death by contending with a multitude. The victors looked with stolid wonderment upon the indomitable courage of the vanquished

Lord Hardinge, who saw the action, wrote:
Few escaped; none, it may be said, surrendered. The Sikhs met their fate with the resignation which distinguishes their race.

Lord Gough described Sabraon as the Waterloo of India. Writing to Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, he paid glowing tribute to the Sikhs Policy precluded me publicly recording my sentiments on the splendid gallantry of our fallen foe, or to record the acts of heroism displayed, not only individually, but almost collectively by the Sikh sardars and the army; and I declare were it not from a deep conviction that my country's good required the sacrifice, I could have wept to have witnessed the fearful slaughter of so devoted a body of men. Lord Gough then told the whole truth when he added, Certain it is that there would have been a different story to tell if the body of men had not been commanded by traitors. The Life and Campaigns of Viscount Gough, p. 108.

According to Secret understanding with the Governor-General, no opposition was offered to the British troops who arrived at Lahore on 20-2-1846. Two days later, a portion of the fort was garrisoned by the British Regiments.

Source:Anglo-Sikh Wars and its Inside Tale - Karnail Singh will strive to be most comprehensive directory of Historical Gurudwaras and Non Historical Gurudwaras around the world.

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