Saturday, January 27, 2024

Everybody's got something to hide 'cept for me and my War Elephant - The Battle of Nowshera 1823

Sikh Akalis (Wikipedia) 

Behold their fancy hats! What kind of battle has Sikh holy warriors (Akali) and a personal War Elephant? Only the best kind of battle. 

Ever since I read Ian Hernon's "Britain's Forgotten Wars" as a young man, I've been fascinated by the Sikh Wars and by the Sikhs. They're such a contradictory, decent, turbulent and interesting people that they repay study. I've wanted to play out some of their battles on the wargames table for ages and I had the chance to yesterday.

I picked up Tim Tilson's Colonial Campaigns - Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire book years ago and I've had mixed success in getting it to the table. But a hefty Newline Miniatures order and a willing confederate in the person of the Welsh Wizard has presented a golden opportunity to make 2024 the year of the Sikhs.

Tilson's Book is a supplement for Larry Brom's classic The Sword and the Flame colonial rules, but rejigged for big battles. It's one of those curious things that shouldn't work, but really does. We're still getting to grips with the rules as neither of us had played them in years, but Tilson's amendments are actually quite small and work well.

Ranjit Singh - a pretty tough customer 

But what of the battle of Nowshera? 

This was a battle between the nascent Sikh Empire and the Afghans.  The Sikh's were led by a chap called Ranjit Sikh, a tough, one eyed general who built an army that married European style infantry to Sikh cavalry and an impressive artillery arm. Eager to expand his territory, he pushed into that part of Afghanistan held by the Durrani Empire and took Peshawar. 

After conquering the territory, he withdrew after leaving a small garrison.  The governor of Peshwar, an Afghan fella named Azim Khan (half brother of Dost Muhammed Khan of whom you may have heard), got understandably shirty about this. Khan gathered an army, proclaimed a jihad and made his way to Nowshera where the Singh had built a fort.  

Ranjit Singh countered by deploying his own forces to Nowshera and fell upon that part of the Afghan army that had arrived there. Khan had not yet reached Nowshera and his allies had taken up a defensive position there. 

Singh attacked this isolated part of the Afghan army and crushed it, storming the Afghan entrenchments after a powerful artillery bombardment. 

Khan fell back and Singh retook Peshwar, razed it and broke the Durrani power in the region.  Khan withdrew, possibly to see off a leadership challenger, but would soon die of cholera.

The Welsh Wizard contemplates his deployment, I'd sent him pics the day before so that we could get started quickly. 

The Durrani Afghan's put everything in the shop window, lining the walls with their infantry and keeping only their cavalry in reserve.  Both sides were awaiting reinforcements, but how long would it take them to arrive? 

I began the game with only my regular European trained infantry present, but I decided to drive on.  My plan was to refuse the right flank and press hard on the left, concentrating my best and most disciplined infantry there to crush that part of the line and roll up the position. 

The Sikh figures are almost all Newline, while the Durrani Afghans are a mix of Hagen Mahrattas, converted Cossacks and later period Afghans.  

The Durrani position was strong, but I had the qualitive edge in infantry, which I hoped would would prove decisive. One thing about Tilon's rules is that musketry was well modelled.  We thought the hit rate was quite low, but it seemed to work well and gave the right feel as units could move, but would be ground down over time. 

The musketry duel between my lads and the Afghans started to take effect. 

I used my Hagen Mahrattas (painted by Krizstian Takacs) as Durrani.  The Welsh Wizard used his fire cleverly, inflicting casualties that while they didn't wipe out units, slowed them down and made them linger longer under their guns. 

The Teddy Bear stuffing marks units that have fired their muskets and therefore need to reload. 

I concentrated my attack on the angle of the position on the grounds that it would put me in dead ground from the Afghan guns. Attacking a position held by greater numbers even of inferior troops is no joke and my reinforcements were nowhere to be seen...

I spread my fire evenly across the defending troops and managed to bait some of them into charging out of their position (this is reflected in a special rule in the scenario and did actually happen in reality) to attack my troops toiling up the slope. 

This ended predictably as the leading paltan of Sikh troops let the charging Durrani get within pistol shot and then gave them a volley at point blank range.  

With predictable results. The Durrani were broken and started running. Unfortunately for me, the Welsh Wizard brought his reinforcements in just in the nick of time and before my troops could get themselves organised and push on to solidify their hold on the position, he had managed to bring up several units of Ghazi, ferocious Sons of the Prophet, fired with religious zeal. 

This was a turning point in the game as we could hold this part of the entrenchments, Ranjit Singh would be well on the way to a victory.

Fresco in Jammu depicting Akali Phula Singh and his Akali-Nihang warriors making a last stand against Afghan Ghazi warriors in the Battle of Nowshera (Wikipedia)

This led to a turn where there were good decisions and mistakes on both sides and which was so exciting that I completely forgot to take pictures.  In brief; 

- the Ghazis faced with two disorganised Sikh paltans coming over the wall decided to stand and fire rather than charge in. 

- my reinforcements finally arrived, two units of Gorachurra (traditional Sikh armoured cavalry) and two mobs of Akali (the Sikh equivalent of Ghazi, religious warriors with giant hats and killer Frisbees) led by Poona Singh on his personal War Elephant.  I ran these lads forward as fast as I could, trying to take the weakly held left flank of the Durrani position. 

- Afghan cavalry made an attempt to flank the advancing Sikh infantry by jumping the entrenchments and swooping into their flank only to get enfiladed by the Sikh artillery who punished them severely and sent them scurrying to the rear. 

The Afghan fire hurt the Sikh regulars, but not enough. 

Meanwhile, my Gorachurras decided to chase the fleeing Durrani cavalry, supported by the Akali, who were spoiling for a fight. 

(Angry Punjabi Elephant noises)

The Durrani defenders managed to shoot up the Gorachurras on the way in and broke one unit of them and sent them fleeing to the rear, but the remainder got stuck into the rallying Afghan cavalry who attempted a counter charge, only to be simultaneously hit by Poona Singh and the Akalis. 

(Sounds of Punjabi chanting "Na na na na, Na na na na Wahey Goodbye!")

Meanwhile on the other flank, the Sikh regulars took a risk and dropped their muskets.  Drawing their tulwars they went straight in at the Ghazis.  One lot of Ghazis took one look at the line of ferocious looking beards and blades coming towards them at speed and decided that they had urgent business elsewhere.  They were chased down and butchered to a man. 

And here is where the battle took a fatal turn. My regulars took on the second unit of Ghazis and a fierce battle ensued. Tulwars clashed and bayonets flashed and the screams of the dying rent the air.  

The Ghazs either fled to the rear or fell wounded, all except their leader.  History does not record this doughty warriors name but he ended up fighting on alone.  He struck down three Sikh warriors and ended up facing General Hari Singh*.  General Singh here being played by an Ottoman mounted leader from Zvesda's Turkish Cavalry set because I haven't painted my Sikh generals yet. 

Now, I had thrown General Singh into the fray because if I'd managed to destroy this unit of Ghazis it would have meant that I would have secured one third of the trenches (worth victory points), I would have destroyed another Ghazi unit (also worth victory points) and I would have been poised to completely dislocate the entire Afghan position. 

We rolled and the result was a draw. 

We rolled again and not only did I lose the combat, but I also rolled a one, which meant that General Singh was not only defeated, but he was dead. 

Down he goes.   This provoked a round of morale tests throughout the army and badly shaken by the loss of their leader, the Sikhs began to withdraw.  With the Sikh position unravelling and the Welsh Wizard needing to return to his Tin Mine, we called the game there. 

This was a hard fought game that went all the way to the second last turn and which could have gone either way until the end game.  I've always enjoyed The Sword and the Flame because it creates these moments of drama. The heroic last stand of the unnamed Afghan leader shall live on in story and song. 

It's been a real pleasure to get back to gaming with the Wizard, a reminder of times when we were both teenagers and playing Warhammer Panzer Battles with Airfix figures.  It was also good to get my Sikhs on the table, I'm looking forward to maybe getting a few more Sikh games in this year. 

Fingers crossed. 

*This leader is listed in Tilson as General Blabharda...which I'm assuming is a joke.  I mean really.  Blab Harder?