Monday, June 6, 2022

Montgomery: On the Maratha Way of War

In his 1968 book, A History of Warfare, Field Marshal Montgomery suggests that the Marathas were the Mongols of India. He says that in the Battle of Palkhed, which resulted in Maratha victory over the army of Nizam-ul-Mulk, Asaf Jah I of Hyderabad, the Marathas fought like the Mongol warriors. Here’s an excerpt from his book:

“The Paikhed campaign of 1727-28 in which Baji Rao I outgeneralled Nizam-ul-Mulk is a masterpiece of strategic mobility. Baji Rao’s army was a purely mounted force, armed only with saber, lance and a bow in some units, and a round shield. There was a spare horse for every two men. The Marathas moved unencumbered by artillery, baggage or even handguns and defensive armor. They supplied themselves by looting. 

“In October 1727 with the end of the rains Baji Rao burst into the territory of the Nizam. The lightly equipped Marathas moved with great rapidity, avoiding the main towns and fortresses, living off the country, burning and plundering. They met one reverse at Jalna at the hands of Iwaz Khan in the beginning of November but within a month they had fully recouped, and were off again, dashing east, north, west, with sudden changes of direction. The Nizam for a time pursued them but was bewildered by the swift and unpredictable movements of the enemy, and his men became exhausted. 

“At the end of January the Nizam changed his strategy; he gave up the pursuit of the elusive Maratha forces and instead made direct for their heartland round Poona, which he ravaged and captured. Baji Rao received urgent calls to come back. But with good strategic sense he resisted the call and instead countered the Nizam’s move by in turn threatening his capital Aurangabad. Baji Rao had not actually captured the capital but he had pillaged the neighboring area. As the Nizam once again endeavored to catch Baji Rao, the Marathas harried and circled round his forces. The Nizam preserved his army intact, but in March 1728 he gave up. By the peace terms some of their territorial claims were conceded.” 

Montgomery asserts that the Marathas supplied their troops “by looting”—he seems to have accepted the false propaganda, which the British and Islamic intellectuals created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to discredit the Marathas and justify their own rule over India. The Islamic regimes and the British East India Company were the biggest looters of that age. The Marathas did not supply themselves by looting. They had developed a system of taxation to fund their government and their military campaigns. Most Maratha rulers were loyal to their country. They wanted to save their countrymen from the foreign plunderers—I pointed this out in my article, “Lord Macaulay’s View of the Marathas.”

The Maratha military consisted of light cavalry which could advance swiftly and take the enemy by surprise—Montgomery is right in comparing the Marathas with the Mongols. In the 1661 Battle of Umberkhind, Shivaji destroyed the large army sent by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb by launching swift attacks from the cover of a dense forest. The Marathas were ill-equipped for siege operations—if they had used the tactics of swiftly moving cavalry and guerrilla warfare in the 1761 Battle of Panipat, they would have won against Ahmad Shah Abdali’s army. They suffered a great defeat because they got bogged down in a siege of more than three months.

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