The Charge at Aliwal 29th January 1846
The lance was first adopted by the cavalry of the British Army in 1816, after its effect in the skilled hands of Napoleon’s lancers had been seen on the field of Waterloo (1815). The 16th Lancers who were one of the first regiments of Light Dragoons to be equipped with the new weapon had already earnt the distinction on 10 December 1825 at Bhurtpore of being the first British Regiment to have ‘bloodied’ their lances in battle.
Two decades later on 28 January 1846, 40,000 Sikh infantry massed against the British Army of 10,000 men at Aliwal. During the initial stages of the battle the village of Aliwal was successfully captured denying the Sikhs the best ford across the River Sutlej. In an attempt to recapture the ford, the Sikhs sent a force of 1000 cavalry to Aliwal, seeing this, a squadron of 16th Lancers and a squadron of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry were immediately sent to Aliwal.
On their arrival, the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry failed to charge while the squadron of the 16th Lancers under Captain Bere did so, and routed 1000 Sikh cavalry (over ten times their number). The ford at Aliwal was secured but at a loss of 42 of the 100 16th Lancers who had charged. After the charge, the main body continued to be harried by the Sikh artillery so the main body of the 16th Lancers under their Commanding Officer, Major Rowland Smyth, were ordered to take the guns. Smyth led his two squadrons in a headlong charge against the guns that continued to fire until the moment they were overrun. The momentum of the Regiment was so great that they charged past the guns and were faced by the massed squares of the Sikh infantry. Smyth realised that to pull up and retire would enable the Sikh infantry to lay a withering fire in his rear, he therefore spurred his horse, jumping into the centre of the first square and charging on through. Naturally, the 16th Lancers followed their Commanding Officer and charged head on into the square. Sergeant Gould recounted that “we had to charge a square of infantry – at them we went, the bullets flying round like a hailstorm.”
As a result of the charge, many Lancers were injured including Smyth who received a bayonet wound to his abdomen. Despite his injuries, Smyth managed to reform his Regiment and charge back through the broken Sikh squares. This proved to be the decisive action with the Sikhs breaking contact and attempting to withdraw back across the Sutlej under heavy British artillery fire. As a result of this action the Sikhs left 3,000 dead and all their guns on the British side of the river.
Of all the Battle Honours gained by the 16th Lancers it was the battle of Aliwal that they chose to commemorate each year. A Regimental tradition deriving from this is that lance pennons are starched and crimped 16 times; this commemorates the fact that after the battle they were so encrusted in blood that they stood upright and stiff. Today Aliwal is still celebrated by The Royal Lancers who when on parade have 50% of their lance pennons crimped 16 times.