Guru Gobind Singh Ji – A Military Genius – His Battle Strategy
Lt Gen Kartar Singh
Guru ji’s versatility and achievements baffle laymen such as we are. Even great authors and Sikh historians of repute have not been able to completely depict his charismatic genius. The more we read about him, the more we are impressed with his great personality, his character qualities astounding leadership and the magnitude of his greatness.
Authentic materials giving details of Guruji’s military genius, his battle strategy, description of actual battles depicting the strategy and tactics is very scanty. However, some assumptions and unwritten indicators from history do enable us to piece together the battle strategy and tactics of this great leader of the Sikhs. I will not claim to have studied all his battles, nor have I visited all the battle sites. Sad to say these have really not been selected and maintained by our state. Even now, at this late stage, it is never too late to do this.
Today we have before us our Guru’s most precious and history making gift – the brave and valiant Sikh community. He created us as a militany sect to liberate the oppressed society of that period without bias of caste, creed and religion. We, Sikhs, derive spiritual strategy in day to day life by remembering the Guru’s unparalleled achievements in all spheres. In this paper I shall confine my self to the Guru’s military genius.
The Guru’s Army
The best soldiers to him had to be physically, mentally and morally sound and willing to lay down his life with a smile and no second thoughts. Martyrdom in battle was to be considered as the ultimate honour. We all know how he staged a surprise on Baisakhi day of 1699 when he created the KHALSA and named us all as Singhs (Lions). The Khalsa was to be a pure soldier fighting for the cause of righteousness against tyranny and injustice in the name of Dharma. The salutation, “ Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh” and the battle cry, “Bole So Nihal-Satsri-Akal” would, from now on, resound in all parts of the world and strike terror in the hearts of the oppressors.
Concepts then were primitive as compared to the ones of today. But importance of mobility in the battle field and terrain study was so emphasized and practised, until Sikh soldiers were masters in these two critical spheres. The ratio of cavalry to foot infantry was increased 100 percent. The cavalry was trained to launch lightning attacks in close conjunction with the infantry. The gunners were trained to use Artillery for the protection and concentration of troops. Mounted cavalry followed by foot soldiers was trained to launch attacks from different directions with the artillery pounding the vunerable enemy ranks. This is analogous to the fire and move tactics of modern warfare.
Sound morals and a strong character were instilled by Guruji in all his soldiers. This was the strongest defence for his war of righteousness. His Khalsa was to bow to the will of an assembly of five Sikhs (THE PANJ PIARAS). This was democracy at its best. Women, children and the aged shall not be hurt. Sikhs shall always save the honour of women. Unarmed and surrendered soldiers shall not be attacked. The Khalsa shall attend to the wounded in the battle field and perform the last rites of their own and enemy dead soldiers. These were exemplary in that period. Not surprisingly these do’s and don’ts are now enshrined in the articles of the GENEVA CONVENTION.
The Guru was a genius in selection and training of his administrative commanders. Jit Mal, Gopal Chand, Sangho Shah and Harichand (all trusted sons of devoted fathers) were in charge of the civil defence of Anandpur, weapons and Medical requirements. Funds required for this were raised by Sikhs of the entire region and the Guru’s treasury was never wanting. The genius of the Guru had already established an ordnance factory at Anandpur which manufactured guns, swords, ammunition and other implements of war. Sikh soldiers were self contained and selfreliant.
Battle of Bhangani
Bhangani lies 10kms from Paonta and 51km west of DehraDun. The terrain is sub-mountanious with nullahs and rivers.
The enemy were the Hill Rajas with the allied army numbering 10,000 to the Guru’s 2000. Before the battle 500 Pathans with their commander Bhikan Khan and about 500 Odasi soldiers deserted the Guru. So the ratio was 1:10 of the enemy. The Sikhs were defending ‘Fort PAONTA’ which the opposing force planned to attack by a lightning strike and capture it by day. The Khalsa forces had a good intelligence set up and gauged enemy intentions early. Having given adequate defence to the Fort, Guru Ji decided to meet the enemy on ground of his own choosing where he and his troops had rehearsed with exercises frequently. Counter intelligence moves by his forces gave a false impression to the enemy that they were not moving out of Paonta Fort. This resulted in the enemy forces advancing without caution.
The Guru’s forces then deployed secretly at night in dominating positions on the hills lying on the enemy’s approach routes. Wind direction aided the defenders, in that the killing range of the arrows increased (See Sketch). Guru ji had also left an adequate force to defend the Fort. The Sikh forces were deployed in three groups and each commander was to cover one possible direction of enemy approach. Thus the three most likely approaches were well covered on high selected ground with Sikh forces dominating these routes from higher ground. The ‘killing Area’ was the bowl (see sketch) on the enemy side of a deep ravine. This was indeed an ingenious tactical plan. The available artillery (Two batteries which pelted stones) was located on a flank to destroy the enemy from the exposed flanks. This was indeed devastating when the actual battle commenced.
The Rajas’ Army was totally surprised and devastated even before they could cross the deep ravine. They came in daylight and suffered very heavy casualties due to a shower of arrows and accurate gun fire, the enemy forces were totally demoralized and retreated leaving behind dead and wounded. They dispersed and did not have the will to re-organise and continue the battle. Thus the Sikhs won the battle with minimum casualties.
4th Battle of Anandpur (March 1704 AD) Opposing forces:
(a) Mughal Army – Commander Sayed Khan and Ramzan Khan. Strength about 20,000.
(b) Khalsa Army – Strength 1000 only. Because many had returned home for harvesting.Ratio 1:20
The Mughals used the conservative methods of trying to overwhelm the Sikhs by storming with sheer numbers. This time however, they were cautious in their advance. The Guru’s plan was to weaken the Mughal attacking force far away from Anandpur by bold attacks both by day and night. This slowed down their advance and gave the Guru time to carry out a tactical withdrawal from Anandpur. This was a wise decision as he had only a very small force left to defend the fort. Guruji expected the enemy to loot and plunder the fort. He therefore, very cleverly, left all bulky and heavy material behind. He ensured that no animals were available to the enemy to carry away this heavy material except by using their own horses, elephants and camels. This forced the Mughals to do exactly what the Sikhs wanted. Once the Sikhs carried out a tactical withdrawal after weakening the enemy forces, they were fresh now to attack the Mughals after the loot of Anandpur. The enemy used all his animals of war including horses to load and carry away looted heavy goods. Mounted Sikhs with their mobility, attacked them repeatedly making use of unused jungle and mountainous tracks. In fact the Mughals were making merry at Bhalon, 14kms from Anandpur when the Sikh forces pounced on their merry making troops and caused heavy casualties.
Guru Gobind Singh with a force of just 1000 hammered a huge force of 20,000 causing heavy casualties while suffering minimum depletion of his own Khalsa. Anandpur Fort remained intact to fight the invaders again.
5th Battle of Anandpur : 20 May 1704 AD Opposing Forces
Enemy Allied Armies of Lahore, Kashmir, Sirhind, Delhi and the Hill Rajas numbered approx 200,000. The Sikhs Army was only 10,000 Strong and was only thus outnumbered 20:1.
This time enemy forces were very cautious in advance and managed to encircle Anandpur Fort by a rapid advance even earlier than the Guruji’s estimation. His forces in the Anandpur defences were totally cut off. The enemy managed to alter the course of a rivulet of water to force the Khalsa to surrender out of starvation and thirst. The enemy waited patiently for seven long months to drive out the defenders in order to decimate them.
The Khalsa carried out some attrition when the enemy was advancing and finally occupied main defences for a defensive fight. They attacked enemy supply areas at night and even collected food stocks to supplement their dwindling supplies. Nahar Singh and Sher Singh, with a handful of dare devil Khalsas, carried out lightning attacks into the main camps of enemy forces at night causing heavy casualties and chaos. This was the key to put the enemy on the defensive. Hence the long drawn out siege.
Progress of the Battle
Under heavy pressure, shortage of food and supplies, Guruji finally decided to abandon Anandpur through a safe passage promised by the enemy forces. This he was forced to do in spite of the knowledge that the enemy was most untrust worthy and their religious oaths were really hollow. With a force of about 1000 (500 mounted) he organized a van guard, flank guard and rear guard for the main body which had chariots and camel carts carrying women and children. The enemy, breaking his promise, encircled and attacked the Guru. There was a fierce fight. As soon as he got a chance, the Guru, with his main force, got away and crossed the Sarsa Nadi which was flooded due to overnight heavy rains. A strong Sikh force allowed this by occupying vantage points to thwart the enemy. Bulk of Guru’s forces waded across but the chasing enemy too was speedy and soon crossed the Sarsa to resume the chase. Guruji could not fully reorganize his forces after the crossing and only 150 horsemen, including Sahibjadas Ajit and Jhujhar Singh entered Ropar State. They were attacked by the Ropar enemy forces, After a quick engagement Guruji with his contingent reached Chamkaur Sahib. By this time, due to attacks enroute, Guruji was left with only 40 soldiers including his two elder sons. I will describe the Chamkaur battle later. Let us now deduce the lessons of the 5th Battle of Anandpur.
The Sikh forces were totally outnumbered 20:1. They were forced to fight for the protection of Anandpur and their families. Once the decision was taken, Sikh forces organized aggressive attacks by patrols to delay the enemy and also caused havoc at night, By looting enemy supplies the Khalsa replenished their own supplies and later also forced the enemy to keep his supplies far behind. Hence the siege lasted seven months, Guruji’s forces were staunch fighters and might have outlasted the enemy siege, if the Guruji’s mother had not ordered evacuation, which he did not contradict as he revered her the most.
The evacuation was marred by the Sarsa Nadi turning turbulent. Even with a small force it is totally unimaginable as to how he, with just 500 men left encircled by 200,000, could escape to fight again. This highlighted his high standard of training, discipline, loyalty of the soldiers to their leader and of course the iron will of the leader and those he led – his Khalsa Lions.
Battle of Chamkaur – Dec 1704 AD
The Guru had reached Chamkaur with just 40 Sikh soldiers. The Enemy Forces arrived at Chamkaur with in a few hours and encircled him on 21st Dec night. The relative strength now was 1 Sikh to 5000 enemy Soldiers. Since guns could not be ferried across the raging Sarsa River, the enemy had to attack the Guru by foot infantry.
The Guru’s Defence
With just forty Sikh soldiers, he took up defence in a Garhi (Mudhouse) located on higher ground. He organized all round defence and he himself occupied the top story to observe the massive enemy force. As long as there was ammunition, his troops would hold off the enemy forces. When only about 3 hours of daylight was left, his ammunition was exhausted. The Guru now divided his men into groups. Each group was to go out and fight with his personal weapons i.e. sabre, spear, sword and lance. These groups went out in different directions, one after the other. This was to deter and confuse the enemy so that he could not storm the garhi before the last light. Sahibzadas Ajit Singh and Jhujar Singh personally led these dare devil attacks and achieved martyrdom after causing heavy casualties on the enemy. This was indeed chivalry at its best and the inspired Sikhs put to death many enemy soldiers in hand to hand bitter fights. By nightfall, the Garhi was held by only Guru Sahib and just eleven Sikhs. His dear Sahibzadas were martyred fighting and holding off a massive enemy force.
The Divine Escape
Plan: With only the Guru and eleven valiant Sikhs, a plan was worked out by the soldiers to ensure that their Guru must now escape to fight again later. A large group could easily be detected. So they planned that their Guru with 3 brave Sikhs must somehow escape. The chosen direction of escape for the Guru was North towards Machiwara.
An Escape Blessed by The Gods: Three Sikhs dressed in enemy attire planned to move at night, each in different direction towards East, West and South to depict escape by the Sikhs and confuse the enemy. Before their move the Guru and his soldiers fired a shower of arrows to extinguish the burning mashals of the enemy sentries. The three escaping Sikhs now raised war cries in different directions while moving in the enemy camp. There was complete confusion. Unknowingly, the enemy soldiers, hearing the war cries, fell upon each other killing hundreds. They moved in all directions to capture the Guru. In the darkness they again fell on each other. In this confusion the Guru and his three Sikhs escaped to the North towards the forests of Machiwara. By morning the enemy sighted the Garhi manned by the remaining 8 Soldiers. One of them dressed and stood like the Guru in the upper Observation Post. Having killed each other at night in hundreds, the enemy forces angrily assaulted the GARHI, over powered the eight Sikhs and thought they had killed Guru Gobind Singh! It was much later they realized, to their utter disappointment, that the Guru had escaped. Sangat Singh (in Guru’s attire) and his men were martyred to ensure that their Guru lived to continue the fight against the oppressors.
A valiant group of 40 Sikhs led by the Guru and the two Sahibzadas could hold at bay a massive enemy force for a whole day and night. This was by divine motivation, and the personal leadership of the Guru and the spirit of martyrdom imbued in the Sikhs by their Guru. The other major lesson is the lack of guts and poor tactics of the enemy forces. Why did they break the momentum of attack that night and wait for the next day to demolish the Garhi manned by a tiny force? A vital mistake was committed by their timid leaders. On the other hand, the calm, cool and serene composure of the Sikhs and their leader saved their Guru so that he could continue the fight against the oppressors.
After World War Two Winston Churchill wrote that “Battles are won by maneuver. The greater a leader the more he maneuvers his forces to cater for the lesser strength of his forces”. The Guru repeatedly took quick decisions showing a rare flexibility of mind. He repeatedly defeated enemy plans by applying the basic principles of war as we know them today i.e. offensive action, surprise, unity of command, flexibility and economy of forces. His tactics resulted in complete success against massive enemy forces because of the excellent training of the Sikh soldier and the spirit imbued into him after the Guru gave birth to the Khalsa in that momentous and historical gathering in 1699. Thereafter he created a force of ‘Singhs’ that actually fought like Lions on the battlefield strictly obeying all tenets laid down by their noble leader, The Guru forbade his soldiers from looting. He made them take solemn vows that they will never molest women of the enemy. Sikhs would now, wear their hair and beards unshorn, to distinguish them as not just a common race. He made them into Sant Sipahis. The ‘40 MUKTE’ who fought a legendary battle with the Guru instituted an exemplary mode of martyrdom which the Sikhs of even today seek to emulate. It is now in the blood of the Sikh to sacrifice his life when the cause beckons. This is a sublime quality which will ever ensure the “Chardi Kala” of our community. This ideal HE stated in lines which have become the most quoted of his compositions.
O Lord of thee these boons I ask,
Let me never shun a righteous task.
Let me be fearless when I go to battle,
Give me faith that victory will be mine.
Give me power to sing thy praise,
And when comes the time to end my life,
Let me fall in mighty strife.