As we witness the state of Maharashtra on the boil over the Battle of Koregaon that happened 200 years ago, it would be in order to recall what happened at Koregaon on January 1, 1818.
No one among the battle’s contemporaries or its participants realised that it was of any importance. In fact, all the troops, English and Peshwai, that fought the Battle of Koregaon retreated from the field fully convinced that they had lost and would lose even more were they to stay put.
Throughout the engagement of Koregaon, the Peshwa sat under an aftabgeer, a sun-shade, watching the fight and chiding his commanders for their inability to dislodge a small number of East India Company troops from the village. With the day’s fighting over, some 600 of his troops dead, the Peshwa decided at night to move away from Koregaon towards the Deccan to seek shelter among any friends he might be able to find. At dawn, he marched away to Salpi Ghat.
The English did not even particularly notice that the Indian troops that were fighting for them were “Mahars”. The report of J.C. Grant Duff, written some 10 years later after a visit to Koregaon, was only able to recall the bravery of the 24 European gunners, four English officers and two assistant surgeons who died here. Colonel R.G. Burton, compiling a note for the General Staff of India, noticed that the “native” soldiers would have run away but for the advice given by their English commander, Captain Staunton, that the Arab soldiers of the Peshwa would surely kill all of them, just as they had beheaded one of the English lieutenants who fell into their hands.
Captain Staunton was based at Shirur, 60-odd kilometres from Pune, when a request came for help from the English at Pune. Staunton immediately set off with two field guns, 500 “native” infantry (who we now know were Mahars), two assistant surgeons and five lieutenants. A night’s forced march took them to the small village of Koregaon. They were still about 24 kilometres from Pune. The river was broad, had high banks on both sides, but otherwise was easily fordable, carrying a narrow, shallow, stream of water during this season.
Tired, without any food or water, the Company troops discovered to their dismay that a large body of Peshwai troops were camped on the high ground on the other bank. Their estimate, most probably exaggerated, was that this was a troop strength of at least 5,000 consisting of Arabs, Gosains and regular infantry. The Peshwa’s camp may have had 25,000 people in all, most of them camp followers as was the norm in India of those times.
The Peshwa too noticed the arrival of the weakened Company troops and decided to attack them immediately. The Company troops hid behind mud-walls and blocked the narrow lanes of the village with their guns. Peshwai troops, dividing themselves into groups of 600, attacked from three sides. Grapeshots took a heavy toll on them but they managed to capture one of the Company guns and beheaded its commander.
Staunton showed the headless body to his fearful troops and suggested that fighting it out was the only option. The narrow lanes provided some protection to the Company troops. Yet, by the evening, some 175 men had been killed and wounded. The Peshwai troops lost about 500.
As night fell, the Peshwai troops crossed the river back to their camp. This gave the Company troops a chance to reach the river and fetch some water and collect their wounded. Without any provisions and having lost both his surgeons, Staunton dropped the idea of going towards Pune and withdrew to Shirur.
The next year, the English, as sovereigns of the land, set up a cantonment at Koregaon. Four years later, in 1822, they erected a pillar at the site where the Peshwa camped and inscribed it with words to the effect that this pillar was to remind of the unconquerable spirit of the British soldier. Only in the 1850s did a suggestion come up to also inscribe the name of some of the soldiers who died in this engagement and issue a medal with the word “Mahar” inscribed on it.