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European Ex-military Officers Who Transformed the Khalsa Army

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A succession of bloody wars with the Mughals culminated in a strong and heavily armored infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments. The Sikhs persistence in protecting Indian territories from Mughal occupation created an impressive military force that was capable of protecting and defending itself.

To some extent, with the insistence of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, some of the military adopted the British model of warfare, which would eventually be replaced by the French model. During Ranjit Singh’s reign, the Sikh army and kingdom expanded into a formidable force that was very capable of defending the Punjab against conquerors. The military expansion would culminate in all three sectors of the army excelling in both armament and manpower.

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However, it still lacked organization and a form of rivalry and marginalization crept in within the feuding units of the army, where morale and disobedience were a common occurrence.

The French Military Connection

It was not until the arrival of four European ex-military officers, that the changes to the Maharajah’s army would transform it into a modern, tactical force. These men were solely commissioned by the Maharajah to effectively transform the units into disciplined and well trained cohesive units that complimented each other on an equal footing.

There had been a form of snobbery and elitism within the various units and this prompted the Maharajah to create an army that was not divided and where all units within the military were of equal importance. He was very much inspired by the British and French art of warfare.

General Jean-Francoise Allard

In order to modernize the army, he needed the assistance of experts and enlisted the services of four key members – Jean Fracoise Allard (1785 – 1885), was born and raised in St. Tropez, France and had just finished serving in the Napoleonic Wars. He was therefore accustomed to military life and proved to be an ideal choice, having been a veteran of the Napoleonic wars where he fought under the command of Guillaume Marie Anne Brune (1763 – 1815) and under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796, against the Italians. The Italian defeat culminated in Allard being promoted to General (Général de Division).

After Brune’s death, Allard was hoping to go to America, but was persuaded by another traveller to head to Egypt, but soon left and went to Persia instead ; where Field Marshal Abbas Mirza (1789 -1833), who was the Prince of Persia, gave Allard the title of colonel. But the regiment that he was promised by the Persian Prince never came into fruition.

Eventually, he would leave the services of the Persians and arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan and then after hearing about the exploits of Maharajah Ranjit Singh – he diverted from Afghanistan and headed to Lahore where he was commissioned into the Sikh military service in 1820. His responsibilities included the training and disciplining of the Sikh soldiers in his command – later his success in this endeavor would result in him commanding and training entire regiments and divisions.

The Maharajah completely confided in Allard and his influence and opinion was valued particularly when it concerned military matters. This admiration was also shared by the men under his command, who saw his innovations and determination to better the army and the Sikh kingdom as a positive development. In 1836 he visited France and his home town of St Tropez, where he was exalted as a hero.

Upon his eventual return to continue his command of the army, his life was unexpectedly cut short, after contracting a mystery illness which resulted in his death in 1839. He left behind a Punjabi wife and several children, in Anarkali, Lahore. His commitment to the military both in France, where he was awarded the Legion of Honor by Napoleon Bonaparte for his captaincy during The Battle of Waterloo and medals from Maharajah Ranjit Singh, attest to a successful and long distinguished military career.

Allard would eventually be joined by other European ex-soldiers who were recruited to strengthen the other units within the army; Paolo Bartolomeo Avitabile (1791 -1850), was an Italian soldier and mercenary who had also served during the Napoleonic wars, Claude Auguste Court (1793 -1880) was a French soldier hired to train the Sikh artillery and Jean-Baptise Ventura (1794 – 1858).

Colonel Jean-Baptise Ventura

Ventura came from Italian Jewish origins and was a resident of Modena in Italy. He also served under Napoleon’s army where he reached the rank of colonel and fought in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 for Napoleon’s army. After, Napoleon’s defeat he enlisted his services with the Persians to help assist the forces of the Shah of Persia – Fath Ali Shah Qajar (1797-1834). And then headed to Lahore where he joined Allard – together they became commanders in the Sikh army fighting in the Battle of Nowshera in 1823, against Mughal backed forces and Ahmed Shah Durani’s Empire, which had been firmly established since 1747 in Afghanistan.

The battle resulted in a decisive defeat for the Mughal backed forces, which culminated in the Sikhs occupation of Peshawar. Ventura along with Allard successfully completed several campaigns that increased the Lahore kingdom of the Sikhs.

Ventura was quite influential with the Maharajah and later was bestowed numerous titles. In 1843 he left India and moved back to Paris, having made his fortune.

General Claude Auguste Court

Another officer to join the Maharajah’s army included, General Claude Auguste Court (1793 -1880), who was born in Saint Cézaire-sur-Siagne, France. Court’s background also included fighting for Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, where he was awarded the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) by Napoleon, for his services to France in a number of successful campaigns.

By 1842 the only two Europeans serving for the Sikh Kingdom included, Paolo Bartolomeo Avitabile and General Claude Auguste Court. They were in the services of another successor to the throne, Maharajah Sher Singh, the eldest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who had succeeded to the throne with the support of the army in 1839.

General Avitabile was born in Agerola, in Naples, Italy and served with the Neapolitan militia, during the Napoleonic Wars (a series of conflicts against Napoleon Bonaparte, arising during the French Revolution of 1789 – 1799). He would later be appointed governor of Peshawar after the conquest of the Afghans by the Sikh army.

During 1842, Court and Avitabile were sent by the Maharajah to help the British Field Marshal, Sir George Pollock (1786-1872), to safely cross the Khyber Pass (a bridge that links Pakistan with Afghanistan).

However, due to the power struggles and sibling rivalry after Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s death, Sher Singh was assassinated in 1843. The bitter internal conflicts prompted Court to leave the services of the Sikh Army, he would never return to Punjab thereafter. He left with his Punjabi wife and children to Paris, France in 1844 where he remained until his death in 1880.

The Formation of Elite Units

These four Europeans had been instrumental in the transformation of the Khalsa army and their expertise and long service within the French military would be adopted by the Maharajah, who had been influenced by the French model. They successfully developed the army into elite fighting units that comprised of: The Fauj-i-ain (an elite unit comprising of cavalry, artillery, and infantry), the Gurkas, Ghorchurra Fauj (Cavalry army), Fauj-i-khas (the royal army which later became the French Legion) and the enlistment of the Akalis (religious immortals).

The trust and expectation that the Maharajah had in these men to modernize the army was to prove worthwhile. This trust and adoption of western, particularly French military methods – resulted, within a fairly short period of time, with the transformation of the military into effective and cohesive battalions that were on an equal footing to that of the European armies of the time

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