In January the army moved up to the Sutlej. It deployed with its left at Ferozepore, its centre opposite the village of Sobraon where the Sikhs had constructed a bridge of boats and were strongly entrenched on the south bank, and its right at Dharamcote 20 miles away where Sir Harry Smith’s division was based. He had privately criticised the Commander-in-Chief for resorting to brave but impetuous tactics which had caused unnecessarily heavy casualties. He had maintained that objectives could be more economically achieved by manoeuvre. His ideas were shortly to be put to the test.
On 17th January Sir Harry was ordered to move to support the garrison at Ludhiana 50 miles further east after word was received that the Sikhs had crossed the Sutlej in strength in that area, and to prevent them intercepting the enormous battery gun train, ammunition, stores and treasure, covering ten miles of road, which was slowly approaching from the south. He set off immediately with an infantry brigade, comprising the 31st Regiment and two Indian battalions, a brigade of cavalry and 18 guns. At Jagraon, about halfway, he was joined by HM 53rd Foot. He left all but his baggage wagons there, retaining only what could be carried on camels, and pressed on. Seven miles south west of Ludhiana he found his direct approach blocked by the enemy. He decided to bypass the Sikhs using his cavalry and artillery to prevent them engaging his marching troops and baggage. At one stage he was forced to form line against them which required a complicated counter march on the centre by regiments, the focal point being the 31st Regiment, which was carried out with great steadiness and so impressed the Sikhs that they did not attack. The Times of 25th March 1846 said “The judgement and caution of General Smith in avoiding battle on this occasion must be advantageously contrasted with the headlong and indiscriminating valour which carried our troops into the frightful conflicts of Moodkee and Ferozeshah”.
Moving on, he was reinforced by a second infantry brigade. He next located the Sikhs encamped about the village of Aliwal where they were busy improving a curved line of emplacements of banks of earth to protect their guns. His initial frontal attack drew heavy enemy fire which enabled him to identify their positions more accurately. In his subsequent report he wrote that “I ascertained that by bringing up my right and carrying the village of Aliwal I could with great effect precipitate myself upon his left and centre”. He therefore moved up his right rear brigade.
In his report he said “Her Majesty’s 31st Foot and the native regiments contending for the front the battle became general ...... the brigade made a rapid and noble charge and carried the village and two guns of large calibre.” The Sikh left front was turned. Their infantry, massed in reserve in their camp, were exposed to intense artillery fire, the onslaught of the British cavalry and the remorseless advance of the infantry. Their right was slowly forced back, and eventually the Sikh resistance broke and they retreated back to the Sutlej abandoning their guns and stores. Their casualties were severe, they admitted to 3,000 dead. The British loss was relatively light, 598 killed and wounded in all, and the 31st Regiment’s astonishingly no more than 16. Sir Harry had detected the enemy’s weak point and concentrated his attacks against it.