The Sikh army under Maharaja Ranjit Singh was one the most powerful military forces in early 19th century India. But what is fascinating, is that at its height and at the top, his army was led by a crack international military team, trained in the best military techniques of the world. Dominated by the French, this battalion of the Maharaja also had soldiers from Italy and Wisconsin, America!
The story of the ‘Fauj-i-Khas’ or the French legion of Maharaja Ranjit Singh can be found in French historian Jean Marie-Lafont’s book ‘Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Lord of the Five Rivers.’ Ranjit Singh blazed a trail of victory through the plains of Punjab in the late 18th century. He united the different Sikh Misls and founded a mighty Sikh empire that stretched from Ladakh in the East to Sindh in the West, covering the crown of the subcontinent.
Fauj-i-Khas battalion of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was dominated by the French and also had soldiers from Italy and America
Traditionally, the Sikh fighting forces had been dominated by a fast and nimble cavalry. Known for their speed, strength and ability to ambush and strike, this had worked perfectly in carving an empire. But once built, this cavalry seemed inadequate to manage the sheer expanse of the Sikh Empire.
In 1809, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh tried to expand his kingdom south of the Sutlej river, he was confronted by the armies of the British East India Company and forced to sign The Treaty of Amritsar (1809). It is then that Maharaja Ranjit Singh realised the need to modernise his force along more ‘Western’ lines. Initially, this was done by employing deserters from the British army. They quickly proved to be extremely unreliable.
However, after Napoleon's defeat in the Battle of Waterloo (1815), there were a large number of officers from his army, who were travelling across Asia as mercenaries and adventurers. The found employment in Afghanistan, Persia, the Maratha empire and many even ended up at Maharaja Ranjit Singh's court in Lahore. In 1822, Maharaja Ranjit Singh employed General Jean-François Allard, a veteran of Napoleon’s army, who had left Europe for India, after the Battle of Waterloo. General Allard was instructed to create a special ‘Fauj-i-Khas’ which would be an elite unit of the Sikh army reporting directly to the Maharaja.
Interestingly, Allard’s official residence in Lahore was the tomb and garden of Anarkali, the courtesan who as per folklore, was believed to be the love of Mughal Prince Salim (Jahangir). This also served as the headquarters of the ‘Fauj-i-Khas’. Right opposite was the ‘Champ de Mars’, a parade ground where the strongest young recruits from Punjab were trained. It is said that Maharaja Ranjit Singh took personal interest in this force and could often be seen watching the training programs. Soon the Fauj-i-Khas , a 5000 strong force was raised.
General Allard’s official residence in Lahore was the tomb and garden of Anarkali
Not only was the ‘Fauj-i-Khas’ trained along French lines, the soldiers here also wore a French uniform (of Napoleon’s old army) and answered to commands in the French language. The regimental standard had the French tri-colour, with the motto ‘Wahe Guru ji ki Fateh, bringing together the east and the west!
Allard and Maharaja Ranjit Singh also created a special medal called the ‘Order of Guru Gobind Singh’, whose design was based on the highest French award - ‘Legion d’Honneur’.
To house the force, a modern style cantonment was laid out with houses for officers and barracks for soldiers. By 1835, an army mess and medical corps were also created. Over time the ‘Fauj-i-Khas’ became popularly known as ‘Campu Fransez’ or the French Legion.
While the overall command of this force was under General Allard, the force was quite global. The infantry was commanded by two Italians, General Paolo Di Avitabile from Naples and then General Jean-Baptiste Ventura from Modena and the artillery was under Colonel Alexander Gardner, an American from Wisconsin.
With success and fame, Jean Marie-Lafont says that Ranjit Singh’s French Legion became so popular that during a visit to Paris in 1837, General Allard received a large number of applications from junior and senior French military officers, offering to resign from the French army and join Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s force. When British spies in Paris, reported this matter to the East India Company directors in London, it raised such an alarm that orders were sent out across British India
‘to be vigilant and try to arrest any French officer travelling in disguise to join Ranjit Singh’s army.’
Sadly, this superbly trained French force was defeated not by any enemy, but internal dissensions within the Sikh Court. General Allard died in January 1839, just five months before Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s own demise in June 1839. As murders, intrigues and coups took over the Lahore Durbar, a number of senior officers resigned from service. Only a few French colonels remained. However, even they were dismissed in 1844, by Prime Minister Hira Singh Dogra, as a part of the anti-foreigner clean up drive within the Sikh Empire.
The Fauj-i-Khas took part in the first and second Anglo-Sikh wars (1845-46 & 1848-49) and despite pressures, managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British. Following the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the Sikh army was disbanded but many of these superbly trained soldiers were recruited into the British Indian army. This marked the end of the ‘Fauj-i-Khas’.
In 2016 Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s French Fauj- i- Khas received renewed recognition in the fashionable resort of St Tropez on the French Riviera. A bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was unveiled here. And why not. After all, this was the hometown of General Allard!
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