The Marathas Part 14 Peshwa Balaji Rao Section IV: The Battle of Panipat


Canberra, 10th May 2022

The Maratha high command had not fully thought through the expedition to North India, before despatching Sadashiv Rao Bhau with an army and instructions that were ambiguous to achieve some vague and ill-defined objectives. The aim of the expedition can, at best, be described as being amorphous—from controlling the Punjab, to improving the financial situation of the Maratha kingdom, to supporting the Mughal dynasty at their request. Thus, the age-old and cardinal principle in planning any military campaign, the selection and maintenance of aim, was fully ignored. It was only after he reached North India that Bhau grasped the potential of the expedition, something that the Peshwa, in Pune, failed to appreciate. Bhau saw for himself the real might of Maratha power and how over the decades it had spread to every nook and corner of the sub-continent. This was an eye-opening revelation for a young and ambitious general who was inherently a Hindu nationalist.

Sadashiv Rao Bhau was a visionary in his own way. It did not take him long to alter and set the objective of the North Indian expedition as being to create a Hindu Empire based out of Delhi with Viswas Rao as the ruling king on the throne. Considering the geo-political circumstances at that time, in its own manner, this was not an impossible dream—it was within the reach of Maratha power. Unfortunately, the concept remained a dream in Sadashiv Rao’s mind, which did not have the opportunity to find real-life expression.

The reasons for the abject failure of the expedition are many, some of which should never have occurred at all, if planning had been more thorough and command and control arrangements more streamlined. Seven major reasons that contributed to the Maratha defeat become obvious in an analysis of the lead up to and conduct of the battle. They can be clubbed as being either administrative/organisational or strategic/operational in their origins and manifestations—enumerated and explained in the following paragraphs.

Administrative/Organisational Reasons

1. The Peshwa’s Court

The court of Balaji Rao was ridden with internal feuds of the nobility and the animosity between middle-rung commanders. Factionalism was rife and common place. The warlords within the broader Maratha power equation had become individually very powerful and some of them had even started to question the authority of the Peshwa, at least covertly. The situation destabilised the supreme authority of the central command and diminished the combined strength that the Marathas could project to the outside world. The domestic discord within the Peshwa’s court continued to be a bane on Maratha ability to put up a seamless united front when confronted by external forces.

By this time there was also the beginnings of mistrust between the middle-level commanders who were prone to pursue their own personal agenda, which were at times at odds with the overall focus of what would have been good for the Empire. Gradually the Maratha entity was losing its unity of purpose, which was being sacrificed at the altar of individual ambitions, and in some cases, personal dynastic motivations and desires. If the Peshwa and the senior generals were aware of these intrusive and somewhat perceptible alterations within the command structure, they chose to ignore it; and if they were unaware of this trend, it indicates a disconnect between the senior leadership and the junior commanders that would invariably lead to failure at the operational level, when the army was deployed. Unity of command becomes the first casualty in such situations.  

The Peshwa made a cardinal mistake in underestimating the serious nature and power of Abdali’s thrust into eastern Punjab and further south, while at the same time being overconfident about Maratha power. As a result of this somewhat careless and sanguine appreciation of the emerging situation, even as Abdali was making dangerous inroads into North India, he sent Bhau on an expedition into the Deccan to contain a rebellion by the Nizam. Subsequently, the army that was deployed for the North Indian expedition was only a part of the Maratha army, not even the majority. From these actions it becomes clear that Balaji Rao never considered Abdali a serious threat, dismissing him as yet another minor Afghan warlord on a punitive incursion into India in search of plunder and loot.

On hindsight, it seems incongruous that while the Maratha expeditionary force in North India was facing off against the combined armies of the Afghans and local Muslim rulers, a 10,000-strong Maratha army, under the command of Visaji Krishna Biniwali, was campaigning in Karnataka; Raghunath Rao, a senior Maratha commander and leader of the previous expeditions to the north, was retained at Pune in command of a 25,000-strong army as a safeguard against a possible repeat rebellion by the Nizam; and the powerful Bhonsles from Nagpur did not even consider joining the North Indian expedition. With this kind of military power available, it is difficult to believe that Sadashiv Rao was given a 30,000-strong army to beat back the external invasion in the Punjab by the Afghans and defeat the alliances that Abdali had already created. Further, no contingency plans had been made to reinforce the expedition if it became necessary to do so.

It is a definitive sign of the Peshwa’s political and strategic naivety that while a life and death struggle was being crafted at Panipat, a 40,000-strong Maratha army was conducting a leisurely campaign in South India, oblivious of the impending calamity in the north. There is no doubt that overconfidence in the capability of the Maratha army under Bhau led to an avoidable debacle of unforeseen proportions.

Another aspect of the functioning of the Peshwa’s court is troubling. Balaji had not received any message from Bhau—letters, messengers, couriers, nobles transiting—for more than a month. Yet he waited at the River Godavari and even celebrated his second marriage in a leisurely manner. In fact, at this juncture he should have been rushing north to establish contact with his northern expedition. There is one report that states that Bhau had been told by the Peshwa, prior to his departure from Pune, that he would arrive in the north to combine forces with the expeditionary army and jointly crush Abdali. This report states that the assurance was the reason for Bhau’s move to the north of Delhi and the Afghan forces, the initial steps to surrounding the Afghans once the Peshwa reached the south of Delhi. The strategy would have worked and resulted in a resounding victory for the Marathas, had the Peshwa made haste to fulfill the plan.

The reason for the tardy progress of Balaji’s contingent could have been his continued ill-health, both physically and mentally, although the failure of mental faculties is mentioned in official records only after confirmed news of the debacle at Panipat had reached the Peshwa’s ears. Irrespective of the reasons for it, the Peshwa not arriving as promised to join forces with Bhau’s expeditionary forces relegated the unfortunate northern expeditionary army to an untenable position and made it numerically vulnerable.

2. Lack of Alliances

Although Maratha military supremacy cannot be denied, a major part of the Indian sub-continent in the mid-1700s, both in the south and north, were controlled by a number of medium and small-sized ruling houses, all zealously guarding their perceived territorial and political integrity and independence. In these circumstances, it was but natural for these minor ruling entities to form and break alliances at will with no care for the long-term implications of these dealings. The scramble to create alliances was greatest when a small kingdom was threatened by external aggression—such alliances were equally rapidly divested off when the immediate danger passed, and individual interests once again gained paramountcy.

The Marathas were by far the most potent power, one that spread across the length and breadth of the sub-continent, even if they did not physically control some regions. This position of supremacy had been achieved with very limited support or assistance from few minor non-Maratha kings or chiefs, which obviously was a matter of pride for the Marathas. However, the same sense of pride in their achievements also made the Maratha generals arrogant in their dealings with the subordinate kings and chiefs, antagonising them. Further, the gradual loss of central control within the Maratha political and military elite percolated to the operational level, where rival Maratha chieftains at times wound up supporting rival chieftains in the outlying provinces. The financial greed of the junior military commanders also did not serve the Maratha cause well. Over the previous few decades, the Marathas had lost the sympathy and support of the other Hindu chiefs and leaders, even if they were far too cunning to display their animosity overtly.

The expeditionary force was initially supported by the veteran Jat King of Bharatpur, Suraj Mal, but Sadashiv Rao’s overbearing behaviour and arrogance antagonised him. When his sincere advice regarding the arrangement of the Maratha camp was ignored, Suraj Mal thought it prudent to withdraw into his own kingdom, rather than continue to stay in the Maratha court—the Jat support was withdrawn. The Rajputs as a bloc refused to provide military assistance or financial aid based on their earlier dealings with Maratha leaders, who were found to be greedy for money and did not care to investigate the legitimacy of the claims of rival princes before supporting the highest bidder. These unscrupulous dealings and interferences in the succession struggles drove a wedge between Rajput princes and more importantly, created a rift between the Marathas and Rajputs. The Sikhs had been put off by the Maratha reluctance to hand over control of the Punjab to them after Raghunath Rao had overrun the entire region in an earlier expedition. Instead, he had opted to make Adina Beg the governor of the Punjab. The Sikhs did not consider the Marathas their friends.

Even though a large part of North India was ruled by Hindu (in which is included the Sikh kingdom also) rulers, Sadashiv Rao Bhau leading the Maratha expedition to the north stood bereft of allies in the middle of a large number of hostile adversaries. It is notable that the Maratha leadership never wanted to use religion and associated sentiments to further their position or as a lure to bring in allies—perhaps an altruistic stand in an age where religious alliances were the norm. In fact, Bhau till the very end, tried to get Shujha-ud-Daulah the nawab of Oudh to defect to the Marathas, which was obviously never going to happen. Some of his overtures to woo Shuja, which may have been contrary to Jat interests, is supposed to have been the cause for the withdrawal of Suraj Mal, the Jat king, and his forces from the Maratha camp.  It is clear that religion did not come into serious consideration in the Maratha calculations. In sharp contrast, Abdali never lost an opportunity to mention that he had invaded the sub-continent to ‘save’ Islam and therefore Muslims of all ilk should gather under his banner in a holy jihad.

The complete lack of allies at this juncture when Maratha supremacy was unquestioned demonstrated without doubt a loss of reputation of the Marathas as dependable allies with the smaller rulers. The unscrupulous activities of the self-serving Maratha generals for the past few decades had created a general atmosphere wherein the Marathas were considered untrustworthy. Not having any allies does not seem to have inhibited Maratha activities, and more importantly, it does not seem to have sunk into their collective psyche of the leadership as a lesson to be carried forward, analysed or even remedied. Even in the twilight of the Maratha Empire, in their fight against the British, the Marathas stood alone. Throughout the years of warfighting, they had not made any efforts to create allies, having chosen not to learn any lessons from earlier and bitter experiences. During the Battle of Panipat, even a minor Hindu king from North India could have threatened Abdali’s rear and thereby created havoc in the Afghan army. However, this did not eventuate.

The reason, or fault of not being able to create allies does not rest with the distrust of the Hindu kings or their lack of cohesion alone. It must be equally shared by Sadashiv Rao, who was inherently haughty and lacked diplomatic skills. He was unable to build any strong relationship with other junior Hindu kings and chiefs without making them feel inferior—he could not create a single non-Marathi ally, either Hindu or Muslim. The lack of allies was one of the major contributory factors to the resounding Maratha defeat at Panipat.

3. The Composition of the Maratha Camp

Even before Balaji became the Peshwa, the officers of the Maratha army used to take their families with them on any expedition that was likely to last longer than a few months. Balaji made it official and gave permission for even the soldiers to be accompanied by their families. The expeditionary army of the Marathas that marched to North India moved with an entourage of civilians that outnumbered soldiers by at least three to one, even by conservative estimates. In addition, a large number of pilgrims also attached themselves to the army for protection in their journey to visit the holy cities of North India. Finally, a veritable township followed the army consisting of sundry civilians from shopkeepers to prostitutes. In all, it is possible that the civilian non-combatants in the camp thus outnumbered the soldiers by at least five to one, far beyond the conservative estimate.

As a result of the additional persons hoisted on the army, it was forced to halt its journey constantly to cater for the requirements of the pilgrims to worship and for the straggling civilians to catch up with the main body. The added responsibility of ensuring the safety of the stragglers impinged on the cohesiveness of the army. The frequent interruptions to the steady march of the army finally resulted in the expeditionary force reaching North India much later than planned and provided ample time for Abdali to prepare his own forces. There were other extraneous factors also that interfered in the march of the Maratha army and delayed its progress. For example, Nana Phadnis (Phadnavis) himself admits that the entire army halted for a few days when he fell sick with dysentery.

From all the letters and other communications by generals, junior officers, and other civilians that accompanied the expeditionary force that are available for analysis, it emerges that collectively the army never considered itself one that had set out to conquer North India and bring the region under Maratha control. The expedition seemed to be more on an outing to show the flag and gain some financial benefits in the bargain. The actual march of the expeditionary force itself mirrored this attitude. The march was like the progress of a leisurely excursion than the purposeful march of a well-disciplined force moving rapidly to counter an external invasion that was emerging as a threat to national security. Nothing is more debilitating to the morale and fighting ethos of an army than being lethargic in its march to meet the adversary. From the very outset, the morale of the Maratha army was being gradually sapped, without the commanders meaning to do so, and perhaps being unaware of it.

Even after the army camp was established at Panipat, on a semi-permanent basis, the Maratha camp was overcrowded. Sadashiv Rao was unable to alter its location to suit changing operational situations and thereby lost his ability to manoeuvre and tactical flexibility. He was not able to arrange his forces optimally to cater for changing and emerging circumstances. The large number of hangers-on not only slowed the march of the army but also impeded prompt and rapid manoeuvre, contributing directly to the army becoming lethargic and moribund.

The most important impact of the non-combatants staying with the army was the strain that it placed on the Maratha supply chain. The extra burden that it placed on resources was never fully met from the beginning of the expedition to its calamitous end. Bhau was forced to feed more than five times the number of soldiers that he had, with a commensurate increase in the demand for fodder for livestock. Even before reaching Delhi, the precarious condition of the food stock had started to become apparent. However, it turned into a challenge of humongous proportions from the time the army left the safety of Delhi for Panipat. Understanding this predicament much better than Bahu, more experienced campaigners like Malhar Rao Holkar and Suraj Mal recommended that the women and other non-combatants be camped somewhere in the Chambal or near Mathura with an escort. This would leave the main army to focus on their primary business of fighting and winning a war. For reasons known only to himself, and perhaps out of arrogance and hubris, Bhau elected to ignore the sage advice of the elders. This one decision turned out to be disastrous for the entire expedition, which was thereafter encumbered and tied down with the avoidable baggage of non-combatants and women. The Maratha expeditionary army had become anything but agile, lithe and lethal, which were legendary characteristics of the great Shivaji’s army.

Strategic/Operational Reasons

4. Relative Command Abilities of the Opposing Generals

From a purely military perspective, Sadashiv Rao was relatively inexperienced in comparison to his opposing general, Ahmed Shah Abdali. For certain, he had won the conflict against the Nizam, but that campaign had not involved a great deal of astute strategic leadership, since the superiority of the Maratha army was well established and would have won the day, even if mistakes were made in the actual conduct of the battles. The Deccan campaign had been conceived in such a way that it would have been a success, irrespective of command blunders. Therefore, leading the northern expedition was a novel and new experience for Bhau. A number of decisions that he took during the lead up to the battle at Panipat testify to his inexperience as the strategic commander of a large force.

As a general in the field, in the midst of battle Bhau succumbed to personal emotions, which led him to make the biggest mistake in the entire day of battle. While personal emotions may play an influential role in a person’s decision-making process, such influences have no place in the conduct of battle and a general must be cognisant of the detrimental effect that emotions can have on the orders being passed. A general has to be completely dispassionate regarding casualties and other personal factors while directing battle. Unfortunately, Bhau was not made in this mould, after all he was more administrator and only an occasional general. On Viswas Rao’s death, he lost his ‘mental balance’, even if momentarily. Thoughtlessly he plunged headlong into battle with the cavalry, after having dismounted from his elephant, and was cutdown like a common soldier in the melee by the enemy forces.

The result was that the Maratha army, already reeling under the spreading knowledge regarding Viswas Rao’s death, was now left without effective leadership—a tailormade recipe for disaster. On hindsight it seems that Sadashiv Rao had already decided in his mind that the battle was lost, which can be corroborated by the instructions that he gave to Malhar Rao Holkar to take his forces and the women away from the battlefield and escape. A preconceived defeatist attitude in the commanding general invariably leads to the anticipated defeat of the army. The Maratha army did not fare any better. At the time that he dismounted from his elephant and charged the enemy, a better decision and more skilful move would have been to craft an escape towards Delhi. Such a fighting withdrawal would have permitted the beaten forces to gain time to recoup and also join with the Maratha forces still in Delhi. This would have been the best option under the circumstances. However, by splitting the force and asking Holkar to lead the retreat while he personally continued the fight, Bhau condemned the army to ignominious defeat and doomed himself to death. In the heat of battle and at the most critical point, Sadashiv Rao Bhau was found wanting in his capacity as the commanding general of the Maratha forces.

Abdali, the opposing general, was a study in contrast to Bhau. He is often acclaimed as the greatest medieval Afghan general to have invaded India, as well as in the history of that country. He was a charismatic leader and a seasoned, brave warrior who single-handedly brought together the warring tribes of Afghanistan, liberating them from Persian domination, and welding them into a viable nation. He had only known life as a soldier, having been a boy-slave-soldier under Nadir Shah. Abdali’s highly developed military acumen and strategic expertise was born of extensive personal experience. No Maratha leader could boast of any training or experience that came even close to the Afghan’s proficiency in military matters.

Over the years of warring, Abdali had developed his own style of leadership in battle. He never personally led his forces into battle unless it became critically necessary, thereby keeping himself out of harm’s way as far as possible. By not being involved in ‘leading’ his forces and placing himself at a vantage point from where he could view the entire battlefield, Abdali the general was able to monitor the progress of the battle minutely. He was astute enough to read the battle and thereby apply corrections to even minor shortcomings at the appropriate time, minimising the risk of failure.

The position of the commander is determined by the role and functions he expects to play in the on-coming battle. Obviously, a commander who ‘led from the front’ wielding his favourite weapon cannot hope to exercise anything more than his moral function, admittedly extremely important, once the fighting commenced. Armies that were commanded by such generals, such as the Marathas in Panipat, could not be subjected to close control. Success in such cases depended on each subordinate commander following the pre-planned battle order without deviating from them in any way.   

Napoleon Bonaparte, the epitome of effective command at the zenith of his power, had stated, ‘It was not the legions that crossed the Rubicon, but Caesar’. There is no truer statement when considering the influence and power of a commander in battle. The Third Battle of Panipat was fought between a hardened general, who had known only battle since childhood and a ‘general’ who was appointed to that role but was, in reality, an administrative head with no great experience of war. Even the best general in the Maratha camp was not a match for the military genius of Ahmed Shah Abdali. There was no doubt regarding the possible outcome of this somewhat unequal fight—the better general was able to sweep the field with consummate skill.

5. Relative Quality of the Opposing Forces

Although it cannot be stated with any accuracy that the two opposing forces were evenly matched, at least numerically there was not a substantial difference between the two. The Maratha northern expeditionary force was one of the finest ever assembled in the Deccan when they departed to the north. Even though when the Battle of Panipat took place, the Maratha army was in the process of changing their fighting tactics through the induction of artillery and well-trained massed infantry, the great strength of the army lay in the fighting capabilities of its light horsemen—essentially the Maratha army continued to be a cavalry force. At Panipat, the starvation diet for both trooper and horse gradually drained them both of their indomitable fighting spirit that had brought them great victories and glory in the past. Further, death or incapacitation of their horses force veteran and deadly cavalrymen to become useless infantry. Even the horses that survived, were far too weak to display their normal ferocity and stamina in battle. In short, the mighty Maratha cavalry had been reduced to a less than average and diminished fighting force.

The Maratha artillery guns were too heavy and difficult to manoeuvre, thereby restricting their effectiveness once battle was joined. They had been cast as heavy guns to increase their range, while sacrificing flexibility and agility in deployment. Further, the artillery guns and the muskets of the small infantry group were antiquated and unsuitable for effective use in a pitched battle in the open plain. There is no doubt that the artillery guns let down the Maratha army in Panipat—their inaccuracy and inability to concentrate fire made them ineffective. They did not cause the damage that was pre-calculated by the commanders. The heavy guns could not be recalibrated once the battle began, since the procedure to do so was cumbersome and time consuming. Further, they could not be re-positioned since they were chained together and dug in. In combination with the preparation of the ‘great ditch’ around the Maratha camp, it indicates that the Marathas expected to fight a defensive battle—an inexplicable mind set in an army famed for its audacious offensive manoeuvres. It is also possible that the Marathas expended a great deal of ammunition during the preparatory phase, leaving an insufficient stock for the actual battle. Throughout the campaign a lack of planning and inadequate tactical thought to the employment of the artillery and the small, rifled infantry group is obvious. Inexperience in their employment within the changing application of the military contributed to the ineffectiveness of the artillery and infantry, both of which were European innovations being adapted by Indian military forces.

In comparison, the Afghan artillery consisted of lighter field guns that were able to manoeuvre and concentrate fire relatively faster. Abdali’s artillery was highly trained, able to fire with impressive accuracy and being camel-mounted, highly mobile. This flexibility afforded the Afghans much better effectiveness against the Maratha cavalry; accordingly they were able to wreak havoc in the battlefield. The Afghan muskets were much more modern, and they had a larger number of trained musketeers who were able to concentrate fire from far away compared to the Maratha troops. The smaller number of musketeer infantry in the Maratha army and the inferior quality of their guns was a stark contrast to the Afghan army.

The clothing also was different in the two armies and contributed to the Maratha discomfiture. The Afghans had come from the extreme cold of the Hindu Kush mountains and were protected by thick woollen and leather coats. A majority of them also wore plaited iron armour, which could withstand sword cuts and even spear thrusts. The Afghan army was much better acclimatised to the harsh winter weather of the Punjab plains where the battle was being fought. The Marathas on the other hand wore clothing that was ill-suited to the harsh weather and provided almost no protection against weapons used in war. Even the Maratha officers were not adequately clothed for the battle they were going to fight. Their fine muslin and cotton clothes were more ceremonial than of practical use in a hard-fought battle.

Finally in a base-level comparison, the Maratha soldiers, while being extremely brave were, in the final calculation, peasants made into temporary soldiers for the duration of the expedition. They faced an Afghan army of hardened professional soldiers, most of them mounted on heavier horses that formed perhaps the best cavalry in Asia at that time. In a pitched battle, the outcome would not have been difficult to predict.  

6. Changing Style of Fighting – Modus Operandi

In the mid-18th century, the Maratha army was in the midst of adopting European warfighting styles and tactics. This change had been necessitated by the advent of muskets and other firearms into the infantry that had started to manoeuvre as a massed fighting force. Firearms had also started to be introduced into the cavalry—the old fighting style, the modus operandi of light cavalry was becoming antiquated and untenable, especially in pitched battles. Guerrilla warfare, while effective as a harassment tool, was insufficient to ‘win’ wars and capture land. Massed formation of troops in the Napoleonic mould was the need of the hour. Armies around the world were rapidly changing from purely cavalry-based offensive tactics to harmonising massed infantry supported by artillery to be employed as an effective offensive bloc—a bloc that could even stop a determined heavy cavalry charge, so far considered unstoppable in the battlefield.

Ibrahim Khan Gardi, the commander of the Maratha artillery and massed infantry, had trained his infantry to function alongside the cavalry, while also supporting the heavy artillery. However, the Maratha cavalry leadership had failed to understand the advantages of optimally combining the three arms—artillery, infantry and cavalry—and continued to use the cavalry alone as the thrusting point of the Maratha spear. Effectiveness of the combined arms approach in battle was directly dependent on the ability of the commanders to carefully choreograph the disparate manoeuvres of the three arms into a cohesive whole. Unfortunately, the Maratha army lacked commanders with the requisite expertise. The Maratha commanders—from the top to the lowest level—neither fully understood nor followed the instructions that were being laid out by Ibrahim Khan, who was the only one well-versed in this battle arrangement. As a result, many of the commanders strayed from the battle plan, advancing on their own initiative and ultimately getting isolated and having to withdraw—the overall plan thus failing to achieve the desired objectives. Even Bhau, while fully embracing the European ‘method’, did not fully understand the advantages or appreciate the limitations of the new modus operandi. Therefore, he could not optimise the advantages at the opportune moment in the flow of the battle.

Holkar had advised following the old Maratha tactics based on guerrilla warfare and relying on light cavalry. It is indeed true that this style had enabled the Marathas to win a large number of battles in the previous century. However, it was also true that Dattaji Scindia and Malhar Rao Holkar had been beaten while following these tactics in the past decade. Therefore, Bhau was rightly sceptical regarding the continued efficacy of the old tactics especially with the introduction of firearms and massed armies. He decided to follow the new modus operandi in the Battle of Panipat.

On the day of the battle, the artillery and infantry trained by Ibrahim Khan, almost won the day for Bhau, till the supporting cavalry made a calamitous faux pas and ruined the day. Just about 8000 of these troops, almost without the support of the artillery that had got bogged down, fought and routed the Rohillas who numbered at least three times more. The discipline and cohesion of the Gardi infantry were like an unstoppable wave. If Bhau had taken an overall view and created one more brigade of such infantry, his victory would have been assured. As a corollary, how Bhau thought that he would win a pitched battle with only the small contingent of musketeers, especially when ranged against a superior force, cannot be fathomed. As an analyst and with the benefit of hindsight it can only be stated that the senior leadership of the Marathas suffered from a sense of hubris and overconfidence, if not overtly visible, at least sub-consciously.

A critical failure on the part of the Maratha strategic command was that they failed to establish a clear command and control structure that delineated the roles and responsibilities of each layer of commanders. The haphazard structure that existed was not conducive to effective control being exercised by a single strategic commander. When the battle enters a stage of flux, a general needs to be in direct touch with the ebb and flow of the battle in order to be able to manoeuvre his forces effectively. The Marathas lacked such a sophisticated mechanism, whereas Abdali had almost perfected the choreography of command and control in the battlefield. This was a disadvantage from which the Marathas would not be able to recover. Further, switching to the European modus operandi had become the only way to win a pitched battle—unfortunately for the ill-fated Maratha expeditionary force, Sadashiv Bhau had not yet mastered the technique. In combination, flawed command and control arrangements and less than optimum understanding of the warfighting style, sealed the fate of the magnificent Maratha army.

7. Morale

When the expeditionary army set out from the Deccan its morale and spirits were high and remained so during the early months of the campaign—after all they were marching off a great victory over the Nizam, with the same general, considered invincible, in command. Bhau was well-liked and a favourite of the soldiers. Even though the movement north was slow and hampered by extraneous factors, the army remained unfazed and in high in spirits. This state of affairs continued till early December. Having reached North India by then, in the first half of December, the roving Maratha cavalry harassed the Afghan forces on a continual basis, took spoils and regularly interdicted their communications and supply lines. The Afghan army was facing great difficulties. The Maratha morale continued to be high.

The first dent in Maratha morale was the death of Govind Pant, the intrepid light cavalry commander who had been very successful in containing the Afghan scouts and was gradually starving them of resources. However, the reversal of the morale of the Maratha forces was not the result of one recognisable blow but something that crept gradually on them because of the indecisiveness of their wonted commander, Sadashiv Rao Bhau. After reaching Panipat, Bhau entrenched himself there for two months without assuming the initiative in any action, especially after the death of Govind Pant and the almost abrupt cessation of Maratha forays into the open fields to interdict Afghan foraging parties. The Afghans realised the opportunity being offered and rapidly altered the balance of power in the contested territories to their advantage. Now it was the turn of the Marathas to feel the scarcity of resources. Gradually the vast and unruly camp of the Marathas degenerated into a defensive outpost on the verge of starvation. Morale, already sliding dangerously low, now plummeted along with the dwindling food supply.

An expeditionary army, by virtue of its remit, is forced to operate far away from the support of a home base. Under these conditions, morale can decline to being brittle and can be broken by the most basic of irritants. Inexperienced in conducting lengthy expeditionary operations and not being a ‘professional’ military commander, Bhau was late to realise the opportunities that were available to him to remedy the gradually deteriorating situation in his camp at Panipat. Therefore, no action was initiated.

Once established in Panipat, Bhau seems to have lapsed into lethargy. By not enthusiastically assuming the initiative to take the fight to the enemy, thereby establishing control of the ensuing skirmishs/battles and refusing to adopt the traditional Maratha tactics in favour of the untested European modus operandi, Bhau let the slender advantage that he held slip from his fingers. By waiting for two months without taking any action, Bhau was forced to fight a battle that became a last-ditch, desperate effort to escape a starving and besieged camp of his own creation. With food supplies reducing to dangerously low levels and the livestock dying of starvation, morale also dropped to unsustainably low levels—the Maratha army’s mind set and mental makeup now was reduced to that of an army stranded in enemy territory in a defensive mode.

The reason as to why Sadashiv Rao waited inactively for nearly two months without taking on the enemy and carrying the fight to the invaders is unclear and has remained a point of debate. The indisputable fact remains that by the time he decided to give battle, hunger had claimed both soldiers and horses in sufficient numbers to have made a tangible detrimental impact on the overall capability of the Maratha army. It has been speculated that the unexplained wait in Panipat could have been the result of Bhau believing that the Peshwa would arrive with reinforcements, especially since he had specifically asked for assistance. However, he was unaware that his messages and letters had been intercepted and never reached the Peshwa in the Deccan. Another reason that is often mentioned is that Bhau continued to be hopeful that his agents would devastate the Doab and Bundlekhand, thereby forcing Abdali’s allies to desert him. The reduction in the Afghan forces would, it was felt, make the coalition incapable of facing the mighty Maratha army. Unfortunately for Bhau and the Marathas, neither of these situations eventuated.

Once again, donning the hat of an analyst with ample hindsight, the best course of action for Sadashiv Rao would have been to attack the Afghans and offer battle immediately after Govind Pant was killed. The Maratha army’s efficiency and morale was at its highest at that point in time. Once that opportunity was squandered, terminal decline set in, in all aspects that make an army great. Victory became a pipedream, although Bhau and his senior commanders seem to have been unaware of the dire situation.


The major reasons for the failure of the magnificent Maratha expeditionary force to achieve any of the myriad and changing goals that it was supposed to realise have been numerated above. Similarly, as mentioned in the previous chapter, the Battle of Panipat while being a debacle for Maratha power, did not have any lasting impact on the power and status of the Maratha Empire, which continued to march from strength to strength for another half a century and more.

The interesting part of this analysis is that the seven reasons that have been identified can be superimposed on a large number of battles that came to be fought in the sub-continent in subsequent decades, and they would hold as true as they are to the Battle of Panipat. There were universal lessons to be learned for the Indian potentates, which were unfortunately not imbibed and therefore the mistakes continued to be committed repeatedly. The broader history of the sub-continent is made up of such follies.

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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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