The Regiment, 1719 to Now.

EPISODE 8: Of Sikhs and Such [in corrected chronological order, Episode 8 came before episode 7]


The 24th Foot are notable in the annals of the British Army for their participation in several "glorious" disasters. Most know of the Isandlwana/Rorke's Drift fighting on January 22, 1879 in the Zulu War, but the 24th also participated in a similar episode - again in January - in 1849: the Battle of Chilianwala in the Second Sikh War. The 24th had been posted to India in May of 1846. In October of 1848 the 2nd Sikh War broke out. The Sikhs were a warrior people and had built up a very large army of men well equipped and trained in the latest "western" techniques of war - they formed in many respects the most redoubtable opponents the British would meet in India. Joining an army of 13,000 men under General Gough, the 24th participated in an advance into Sikh territory (the Punjab) which commenced on 10 January 1849. Gough was 70 years old & had a reputation of being an almost berserk "fighting general". On 13 January, the British and Indian troops of Gough's army reached the village of Chilianwala and set up camp. Unbeknownst to anyone in the army, five hundred yards across an open plain to their north, a Sikh army of 30,000 infantry and cavalry, with 62 artillery pieces, was waiting for them, under cover in thick scrub jungle. Gough sent out no patrols, the battle actually started as Sikh artillery interrupted the British Army's lunch preparations! An inconclusive artillery duel followed, then Gough ordered an advance across the plain and in to the scrub jungle. This produced a confused series of individual engagements as not just the regiments of his force lost touch with each other, but individual companies within regiments lost touch with those on their flanks.

The 24th had been ordered to advance with the bayonet only, which they did. They outstripped their supports and ran straight in to close-range grape and canister fire.

When the dust settled, the 24th had single-handedly broken the Sikh line, but at terrible cost. Out of 31 officers and 1065 other ranks present at the battle, 13 officers were dead and 9 wounded, and 255 other ranks were killed and 278 wounded - a casualty rate of nearly 50%.

The "victory" proved to not be very decisive (although a number of excellent battle paintings resulted, most focussing on the suicidal heroics of the 24th). There was a storm of outrage against Gough's ineptitude. However, before he could be recalled in disgrace, he managed to win the decisive battle of the war on 21 February 1849 at Gujrat. On 14 March, the Sikhs surrendered and the Punjab became British territory. The 24th brought the battle honours "Chillianwallah", "Goojerat", and "Punjaub" to the Colours of the Royal Regiment of Wales, as a result. The Sikhs proved loyal subjects of the Crown until India gained its independence in 1947 - even fighting on the British side during the Indian Mutiny less than 10 years after Chilianwala.



main | Ch. 9