At the Third Battle of Panipat, the Maratha army, led by Sadashivrao Bhau, consisted of 50,000 horses and 15,000 foot. The army of the Durrani Afghan Empire, led by Ahmad Shah Abdali, consisted of 60,000 horses and 40,000 foot. The primary reason that Abdali won the battle was not his larger army—the Marathas had a track record of defeating armies larger than their own—but the fact that the fighting happened in Panipat, a region where Abdali had the means of getting supplies and reinforcements while Sadashivrao didn’t. The fatal mistake that the Marathas made in Panipat was that they did not secure their supply lines.
The Maratha army was facing supply related problems when they reached the outskirts of Panipat. The local suppliers were refusing to cooperate with them. Despite this problem, the Marathas marched into Panipat to confront Abdali’s army. Sadashivrao’s plan was to lure Abdali into a confrontation, defeat his army, and open supply lines to the loyal allies of the Marathas in the outskirts of Delhi and in Central India. Abdali confounded the Marathas by putting his soldiers in a fortified camp—he would not get drawn into a confrontation.
By the end of October 1760, both sides were entrenched in fortified camps. From 1 November, skirmishes and duels between the two camps became a daily feature. The first major battle took place in early December, when a contingent of Abdali’s army, consisting mostly of Rohillas, breached into the Maratha camp. In the conflict that followed, 3000 Rohillas were killed; the Rohilla commander Najib ad-Dawlah barely escaped with his life. The Marathas lost hundreds of soldiers. Balwant Rao Mehendale, an important Maratha leader, was among the dead.
After this failure to breach the Maratha fortification, Abdali realized that the best strategy for defeating the Marathas was to starve them in their camp. With the help of his allies, he cut off the Maratha lines of communication and their systems for supplying their camps with food and ammunition. The siege went on for more than three months—the Marathas were unprepared for a long siege. They ran out of food and ammunition.
The Maratha leader Govind Pant Bundela was killed on December 17, 1760, while he was trying to reach the Maratha camp with supplies. Supplies sent from North and Central India to the Maratha camp were intercepted and destroyed by Abdali’s allies. The situation in the Maratha camp became desperate. Their soldiers and horses were starving, and there was an outbreak of diseases. The Marathas conducted a number of sorties into Abdali's camp, and they killed hundreds of his soldiers, but Abdali kept his soldiers on a tight leash, refusing to allow a direct confrontation to take place.
Since Abdali’s lines of communication were intact, he was not facing any issues in procuring supplies. He could afford to prolong the siege for as long as it took to starve the Marathas. Sadashivrao faced a stark choice—either he could order his army to rush out from their fortified positions and attack Abdali’s camp or he could let his men perish by starvation. On January 13, 1761, a consultation took place in the Maratha camp. The decision was made to attack Abdali’s camp on the next day. By this time, the size of Abdali’s army had grown—he had received reinforcements and ammunition from Afghanistan. The Marathas did not know this.
On January 14, the Maratha army emerged from their positions and attacked Abdali’s camp. The Marathas were in a weak state but they fought like men possessed. For some time, Abdali was nervous about the way the battle was going. He threw his reserve divisions into the battle. There was terrible slaughter on both sides. In the end, the Maratha army was wiped out. Abdali lost about a third of his army—around 20,000 soldiers. Sadashivrao and Vishwasrao, the son of Nana Saheb, the Peshwa of Pune, were killed in the battle. When Nana Saheb got the news of the fall of the Maratha army, he was shocked. He died on 23 June.
The Marathas were good warriors. They had won several wars against the Mughals, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and other Islamic forces in the past. Between 1712 and 1737, under the leadership of Peshwa Baji Rao, they had captured a large part of North and Central India—making the Marathas the biggest and most powerful empire in India. For a brief period, they had control of Delhi and Agra.
They failed in Panipat because they confronted Abdali at the wrong place—in an area where they lacked the means of keeping their army supplied. Sadashivrao failed to anticipate that instead of getting into a direct conflict, Abdali might use the tactics of siege warfare. In any siege warfare, the army that can keep its troops supplied often wins. Another problem was that the Maratha contingent was too big—they had with them about 100,000 civilians (many of them were pilgrims who intended to visit North Indian shrines). These pilgrims were butchered by Abdali’s men in a carnage that went on for two days.
Panipat was a disaster for the Marathas. But by 1770, they had recovered. In 1772, they took control of Delhi and installed Emperor Shah Alam II as their puppet. Three years later, a war broke out between the Marathas and the British—the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775–1782). In this war, the Marathas were victorious. They remained the most powerful empire in India till 1818.