|The 31st Regiment at Moodkee.
(Click to enlarge)
The approach route for the Ambala force was by sandy tracks across open country where areas of sand and scrub jungle alternated with ploughed land. It was hot by day and cold by night. There was little water except from village wells, and food was scarce until the stocks at Wadni were reached, but that was after five days hard marching. The daily distance covered was successively sixteen, eighteen, twenty and thirty miles, and thirty miles again. At Wadni the Ambala force was joined by regiments from Ludhiana, and by the Governor-General who allocated to the commissariat three hundred camels and sixty elephants from his baggage train for the carriage of stores.
The army moved on from Wadni on 17th December. The first day’s march was a short one of 14 miles to enable the long columns of troops, camels, elephants and camp followers to close up. The advance was resumed at dawn the next day and shortly afterwards a report was received from the irregular cavalry that the village of Moodkee some 21 miles ahead was occupied by the enemy; Moodkee was reached soon after midday and was found to be unoccupied. There were scarcely 50 men of the 31st with the colours and other regiments were in a similar plight. No one had eaten since the previous evening. Soldiers trudged wearily in but it was not possible to start cooking until the baggage camels arrived with the utensils. As the men settled down to wait and rest an orderly galloped up to report the approach of a large Sikh force to the north of the village. The meal was abandoned and the troops stood to their arms.
Cavalry and the horse artillery moved off to engage the enemy while the infantry formed up in three divisions and followed. On seeing the British force moving to meet them the Sikhs halted and took up a position in an area of jungle. The subsequent action was graphically described by Sergeant Major Bancroft in his memoirs. He wrote; “Five troops of horse artillery, consisting of 30 guns, moved off at a gallop followed by two nine pounder batteries at a more leisurely pace. We had not advanced far when the round shot from the enemy’s artillery began rolling and plunging among the horses’ legs like so many cricket balls, but not quite so harmless as they looked, for they broke several of our horses’ legs.
At about this stage of the proceedings we got the order “Front form line - left about - prepare for action - with round shot load, and blaze away.” The Sikhs lost no time in paying us back in our own coin - and that with interest, for they could fire three shots to our two by having the powder and shot in one bag.
We sustained many casualties in this purely artillery duel, and there were many narrow escapes. This desperate game continued to be played for some time, when the two nine-pounder batteries came up, one on each flank, and we had now 42 guns in full play. These the Sikhs evidently found too many for them, for their fire appreciably slackened and we received orders to cease firing. Just then our cavalry came to the front and executed some brilliant manoeuvres on the flanks. They soon put the enemy’s cavalry to flight, and silenced their guns, but only for a time. Meanwhile our infantry had been drawn up immediately in rear of our guns.
We now made our second advance, and soon found ourselves pretty close to a rather dense jungle of low stunted brush. Here we unlimbered again, and the cannonade was resumed on both sides, with terrible effect. Limbs and heads were carried away in all directions, and in many instances men were literally cut in two. Once more the cease fire sounded. The infantry - some twelve battalions - now passed through the intervals of our guns, and formed line in front. “With ball cartridge load!” was the order they received, and surely such a ringing of ramrods down the barrels of old “Brown Bess” was never heard before at one time. Then they got the order to “Shoulder - quick march” and went to meet their foe”.
After fierce close quarter fighting the Sikhs were forced to retreat. British casualties were severe. They included two major-generals and three brigade commanders, among them Brigadier Bolton. The 31st Regiment also lost its newly appointed commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Byrne, eight other officers and 155 sergeants and rank and file out of a total of 844. Both the officers carrying the colours had fallen, mortally wounded. The colours were immediately raised from the ground by Quartermaster-Sergeant Jones who carried them during the rest of the battle. He was awarded a commission as ensign in the regiment in recognition of his gallant action.