The death of Shrimant Peshwa Madhavrao Bhat I, considered to be the architect behind the resurrection of the Marathas post the Third Battle of Panipat sent the Marathas into a huddle. The British wanted to take advantage of this turmoil by favouring Raghunathrao rather than allowing the astute Nana Phadnavis and the council of ministers to get the upper hand.
While Nana Phadnavis and the council decided to acknowledge the late Narayanrao’s infant son, Sawai Madhavrao as Peshwa, the British tried to bribe and corrupt the Pune darbar to favour Raghunathrao. There were several skirmishes between the British and the Marathas between 1772 – 1778.
The British were getting desperate to overthrow the Marathas and take control of the port of Mumbai so that access from the mainland which was from Vasai in the north and Pune in the east would finally be in their hands. The small, yet significant influence and contribution of the French at the port of Chaul to the cause of Nana Phadnavis only seemed to further agitate the British.
Governor General Warren Hastings of the East India Company despatched an army in November 1778 under Captain James Stewart and Colonel Egerton to Pune from Mumbai via the Bor Ghat. The British had a 4,000 strong force of artillery and gunmen and were accompanied by Raghunathrao and his small contingents of infantry and cavalry.
The British were aware of the long-standing rivalry between Tukoji Holkar and Mahadji Shinde, who despite their internal differences continued to support Sawai Madhavrao and the Pune darbar. However, they were ably informed by a British resident that both would desert Nana Phadnavis and instead join Raghunathrao.
The British became complacent on receiving this news and counted on an army of not more than 8,000 to resist them at Pune. By the middle of December, Captain James Stewart had reached the village of Khandala and set up camp at the top of the ghat. Colonel Egerton arrived soon and divided his forces between Lt. Col Cay and Lt. Col Cockburn.
The British had not faced any resistance from the Marathas since their departure from Mumbai and began to think that they would soon have Pune in their hands. Nana Phadnavis sent Bhimrao Panse and Haripant Phadke to harass the British forces as they proceeded towards Pune. The Marathas lay in wait under the thick cover of the forest with their artillery and men on the path that led to Pune from Khandala.
The moment the British left their camp at Khandala, they came under heavy fire from Bhimrao Panse. The firepower of the British was no match for the legendary guerrilla tactics of the Marathas and they soon ran for cover while making their way slowly to the village of Karla.
On January, 4, 1779, Captain James Stewart sat on a tree scouting the surroundings but much to his dismay, was spotted by the Marathas and killed instantly. He is called as ‘Ishtur Fakda‘ (Brave Stewart) by the British who tried to make him a ‘hero’ of the Battle of Wadgaon though the actual battle took place a fortnight after his death.
On January 6, 1779, Lt. Col Cockburn took charge of the British force and was joined by Captain Gordon and Raghunathrao while Bhimrao Panse made his way to Pune. The British army advanced from Kamshet to Wadgaon and by January 9, 1779 were heading to the village of Talegaon. The British were running out of supplies and had calculated purchasing the much-needed replenishments at the villages of Talegaon, Wadgaon, Pimpri and Chinchwad.
Nana Phadnavis and Mahadji Shinde had in the meanwhile also arrived at the same conclusion and devised a brilliant strategy to thwart the British plans. They burnt down the village granary and stores at Talegaon and planned to do the same at both Pimpri and Chinchwad. This unique military tactic called ‘scorched earth’ denies supplies to the invaders by destroying and burning fodder, food grains and poisoning the water bodies.
The shrewd tactic of the Marathas sent Col. Cockburn into a spin and as he was trying to make alternative arrangements for supplies, Mahadji Shinde who was given charge of the larger Maratha forces by Nana Phadnavis began to hound the British at Talegaon forcing them to head back towards Mumbai. Unknown to the British, Khopoli was also captured by Babaji Pathak thereby making any retreat impossible.
The British began to retreat on January 11, 1779 but Nana Phadnavis along with Tukoji Holkar and Mahadji Shinde spread their forces across Wadgaon cutting off the exit route. Mahadji Shinde then descended upon them with fierce firepower attacking them from all sides. Hopelessly surrounded, many hungry and tired soldiers deserted the British force and in a short while, the remaining contingents were decisively decimated by Tukoji Holkar and Mahadji Shinde.
The British finally surrendered to Mahadji Shinde on January 13/14, 1779 making this resounding victory of the Marathas the most comprehensive one over the British. Though a treaty was drawn up between the East India Company and the Marathas, the Marathas made the cardinal mistake of permitting them to retreat to Mumbai without confiscating all their possessions, treasury and artillery and the East India Company immediately reneged on their promises.
A majestic statue of General Mahadji Shinde who is credited with this magnificent victory is placed at Vadgaon in honour of his bravery and service to India. Many few are aware that Mahadji Shinde also hoisted the Zari Patka at the Red Fort in the 18th century making it one of only three flags to ever flutter on the Red Fort. A memorial to commemorate the victory of the Marathas over the British was installed in 2003 in the same lines of the Deep Maala which was erected by Ranoji Rao Scindia near Kolhapur in 1730.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about the Battle of Wadgaon is taken from archives