Battle of the Hydaspes River: Alexander the Great Defeats Indian King Porus
Battle of the Hydaspes River "The Phalanx Attacking the Centre…" (1898)
Painting by André Castaigne (1861-1929)
[Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia]
Today in Military History: May 3, 326 BC
It has been some time since I have written about an ancient battle in these posts. Today's history lesson highlights the last major victory of Alexander the Great. It was also probably the bloodiest fight in which his Greco-Macedonian-Persian army participated.
After beginning his war of revenge against the Persian Empire in 334, Alexander had run roughshod over Persian armies, winning every battle in his campaign. He eventually conquered a total 5.2 million square miles of Europe and Asia.
By the fall of 327, Alexander had tracked down and executed Bessus, a rebellious Persian satrap (governor) who had ordered the death of Darius III, the Persian king. Even after 8 years of constant war – and achieving his goal of conquering the Persian Empire – Alexander wanted to expand his kingdom even further.
To that end, Alexander led his army through the Khyber Pass into India, a land little known by the Greeks. By this point, Alexander's army had expanded to about 41,000 to 46,000 footmen and about 6000 cavalry. He still had a core of the Macedonian and other allied Greek contingents with which he started his campaign. In addition, he had added some Persian units, probably light cavalry and infantry, to his army, which may have pushed the forces at his command to upwards of 60,000 men (other historians say it could have been as high as 135,000 but that is pure speculation).
Alexander the Great at battle of Issus, in a detail of mosaic found in ruins of Pompeii, Italy
Shortly after entering India, Alexander led his army to the city of Taxila (near the modern town of Attock, Pakistan). On his approach, he was confronted by the entire army of Taxila lined up on a plain outside the city, an army apparently larger than his own. As the Macedonian king began shaking out his army preparing for battle, a messenger from the Taxilan ruler Ambhik stated that the army was there to greet and pay homage to the great conqueror. After giving Ambhik a number of gifts – including 1000 talents of gold – Ambhik agreed to become Alexander's vassal. In addition, Ambhik gave the army a place to rest, some supplies, and provided 5000 soldiers (what type is not specified) which the Indian prince led himself. He also provided Alexander some valuable intelligence about Alexander's next target…
Alexander's army marched southward along the west bank of the Hydaspes River (today known as the Jhelum River), until it reached a point near the Indian kingdom of Paurava. This nation, though smaller than Taxila, presented a greater threat to Alexander's proposed line of march eastward further into India. Therefore, Alexander decided he must conquer this state. He first sent a message asking for the submission of King Purushattama (which Greek historians rendered as King Porus). The ruler refused, and instigated the next stage in Alexander's campaign.
Prelude to Battle
Porus was aware of the large army coming to take his kingdom. He was convinced that the coming monsoon season (which occurred from early June through September) would swell the Hydaspes River, stopping any attempted crossing by the Macedonians. He also thought it would give him time to gather his forces and contact nearby allies. However, Porus did not reckon on the lightning-fast movement of the opposing army, nor with the razor-sharp tactical mind of Alexander.
Alexander's army appeared across the river from King Porus's domain in late April. Despite the speed of his army's march, Alexander still was facing the prospect of crossing the Hydaspes after the regular spring rains. Further, Porus and his army had received word of the approach of the Greco-Macedonian army. The Indian monarch had gathered his army, and placed them at several of the most likely crossing points on the Hydaspes.
Alexander then waged one of the most brilliant campaigns of deception in the history of ancient warfare. He established his camp near the riverbank. Then, he set up most of his forces directly opposite the main camp of Porus. For several days, Alexander used his cavalry forces to range along the Hydaspes, feinting a crossing at one point, making a demonstration at another. Alexander also spoke to some local peasants, letting it slip that he thought the river was too wide for a safe crossing. This information found its way back to Porus, who relaxed his guard and his men became complacent.
Preliminary moves, battle of the Hydaspes River
(From Wikipedia, courtesy of Department of History, U.S. Military Academy)
Finally, Alexander decided the time was right. On the evening of May 2, he left his camp by a hidden canyon, leaving his trusted general Craterus in command. The Macedonian king ordered Craterus to build a large number of campfires, to make it appear that the army was staying put. In the meantime, Alexander took a strong contingent of his army and moved them upstream. The historian Arrian stated that this force consisted of 6000 foot – including archers and javelinmen – and 5000 cavalry, but it is likely that it was much larger. Then, using the cover of a rainstorm, the Macedonians crossed the river at two places. Another historian stated that the soldiers made small floats and used some small galleys loaned to Alexander (probably by the ruler of Taxila). Craterus also made some infantry feints to convince Porus that a river crossing was in the works. Once Alexander's force was across, it seems likely that more of his army crossed by the same river passages his contingent had used, but still maintained a sufficient force to keep King Porus on his guard. [I would guess-timate that Alexander had perhaps 20,000 infantry – including peltasts – and 4000-5000 cavalry.]
Early in the morning of May 3, King Porus received word that a Macedonian force was across the river and threatening his flank. The Indian ruler at first did not believe the report, but he did send a contingent of 100 chariots and some of his horsemen to investigate, led by his son. Expecting this move, Alexander had organized his force quickly and met the Indian patrol decisively, near the riverbank. One historian said the Indian chariots became bogged down in the muddy terrain, and the Indian force was nearly wiped out. Perhaps the most serious casualty for the Indians was Porus's son, killed in the skirmishing.
Survivors of the fight informed King Porus of the enemy now threatening his army. Moving quickly, Porus left a small portion of his army to guard against movement by Craterus and his forces. The Indians marched eastward to confront Alexander's men, hoping to take them by surprise. Unfortunately, Porus found the Greco-Macedonian-Persian force lined up for battle, awaiting the arrival of the Indians.
I will not go into a long dissertation on the make-up and organization of the Macedonian army, which I have featured in a previous post. Anyone interested in reading that story should see the Burn Pit post from May 2, 2011, entitled, "Battle of the Granicus: Alexander's Macedonians Win First Battle Against the Persians". The only major changes to Alexander's army were within his cavalry. Since conquering the Persian army, a number of horse archer units, described by one chronicler as being from a tribe called the Dahae. These men performed the same job as the Cretan archers and Thracian peltasts – disrupt the enemy line.
Indian elephant with crew (courtesy of www.dbaol.com)
The Indian army opposing Alexander was similar to the Macedonian force, but not exactly. It was based around large numbers of bowmen with some lightly-armored spearmen mixed in, all armed with long two-handed swords as secondary weapons. Most of these soldiers wore little armor, except the spearmen who had shields. These men comprised perhaps 30,000 of Porus's army. Next, guarding each flank of the Indian line were cavalry, between 2000 to 4000 strong. Deployed with the horsemen were large numbers of chariots, with one historian saying Porus possessed 1000 of these vehicles. Finally, ranged in the very front of Porus's army were the main striking arm of his army, the war elephants. Depending on which historical source is used, the Indians had 85, 130, or 200 elephants (one modern historian say 130 is the "likeliest"). Each of these beasts carried a bowman and a javelinman, as well as the mahout, or driver (see illustration above).
Battle of the Hydaspes River
Battle of the Hydaspes River, (From Wikipedia, courtesy of Dept. of History, U.S. Military Academy)
Alexander had selected his ground well for the upcoming battle. It was a fairly flat plain, but portions of it were soggy and wet from the previous evening's rain. He anchored his right flank on the bank of the Hydaspes River. Once the army would begin its advance, the left flank would be protected by a short range of hilly, rough terrain (the yellowish-tan area near the bottom of the above map). The Macedonian king also made one change in his army's usual dispositions: he placed all of his cavalry – the Companions, the Greek clients, and the Persian cavalry and horse archers – on his right flank. This was to give King Porus the impression that the Macedonians were going to lead with their cavalry, and make an attempt to drive off the Indian horsemen and chariots.
Once Alexander's army was arrayed to his liking, the entire line began moving forward, albeit slowly. The Dahae horse archers moved forward first, showering the Indian horse and chariots on the left flank with arrows. The Indian cavalry and chariotry moved forward to brush this pesky menace aside. At that point, Alexander personally led the remainder of his horsemen forward – with the exception of two units of Greek cavalry commanded by Coenus. These men were screened by the Macedonian phalanx as it moved forward, then proceeded behind the hills on the Macedonian left flank. As if playing right into Alexander's hands, King Porus ordered his right-flank horsemen and chariots to reinforce his left flank, to counter the Macedonian Companion heavies. This left the right flank of the Indian infantry line unprotected.
This first contact on the Indian left flank was an inherently uneven battle, as the Macedonian Companions were heavily armored and armed with 18-foot long spears. The Indian cavalrymen were armor-less with the exception of a shield, and wielded only javelins and swords. Also, the Dahae horse archers took a great toll of the light two-man chariots.
Suddenly, Coenus and his cavalry appeared on the right flank of the Indian army. Caught completely flat-footed, the Indian infantry tried to rearrange their ranks to allow the spearmen and archers to cover both the front and rear of the Indian array. This confusion was a great benefit to the Macedonians, as Alexander chose this moment to order his phalanx to advance to contact. Meanwhile, Coenus's cavalry rode completely around the Indian formations, and joined in the attack on the Indian horse and chariots on the Indian left flank. With the added weight of these men, the Macedonian cavalry almost completely annihilated the Indian cavalry and chariotry in the first couple hours of the battle. Survivors fled the battlefield completely.
In reply, King Porus ordered his entire battle line, including the elephants, to advance. These creatures were the attack arm of the Indian army: large, ferocious, great tusks for stabbing, huge feet for trampling, not to mention the javelinmen and bowmen riding on board. The Indian infantry were arrayed in between the elephants, mainly to provide missile cover for the beasts. Alexander's men had not faced anything like them in the eight years of the Macedonian conquest, and were frankly frightened on the beasts.
Alexander's Thracian javelinmen (courtesty of www.dbaol.com)
However, as usual, Alexander had a plan. Quickly, the Macedonian peltasts – Cretan archers, Thracian javelinmen, as well as Persian and allied Indian bowmen – advanced ahead of the phalanx. These specialists then began pelting the pachyderms with arrows and javelins, aiming for the animals' eyes, as well as the drivers. In addition, Alexander had formed some "special ops" squads with the sole purpose of getting under the elephants and hamstringing them.
Despite all the Macedonians' efforts, when the Indian elephants impacted the Macedonian phalanx, it was massive carnage. The scene is described by the historian Diodorus Siculus:
"Some of the Macedonians were trodden under foot, armour and all, by the beasts and died, their bones crushed. Others were caught up by the elephants' trunks and, lifted on high, were dashed back down to the ground again, dying a fearful death. Many soldiers were pierced through by the tusks and died instantly, run through the whole body. Nevertheless the Macedonians faced the frightening experience manfully. They used their long spears to good effect against the Indians stationed beside the elephants, and kept the battle even. Then, as javelins began to find their marks in the sides of the great beasts and they felt the pains of the wounds, the Indian riders were no longer able to control their movements. The elephants veered and, no longer manageable, turned upon their own ranks and trampled friendly troops."
It was at this point that the Macedonian army nearly broke. But Alexander and his Companion cavalry (see below) began pressing the Indian left flank, avoiding the Indian elephants whose smell repelled the horses. Then, the remainder of the Greek and Persian cavalry began attacking the rear of Porus's army, essentially surrounding the Indians. [One historian claims at this point Craterus and the remainder of the Macedonian army crossed the Hydaspes River to join in the attack.]
Alexander's Companion heavy cavalry (courtesy of www.dbaol.com)
According to one of the chroniclers, King Porus rode forward on the largest of the army's elephants and challenged Alexander to single combat. The result, however, was not what the Macedonian monarch expected. Apparently, after a few blows were exchanged, Alexander fell from his horse. Fortunately, his Companions surrounded him, picked him up off the ground, and fell back from the fray. Porus also withdrew, but seeing that his army was on the verge of complete annihilation, he gathered his remaining forces and communicated to the Macedonians that he wished to surrender. After several hours of hard fighting – one historian said it lasted eight hours – the battle of the Hydaspes River had ended.
King Porus (on the left) surrenders to Alexander
(Engraving by Alonzo Chappel, 1865)
Casualties from the battle, like most ancient battles, are speculative. According to the Roman historian Arrian writing in the 2nd century AD, the Macedonians lost 310 killed. Diodorus Siculus, however, stated Alexander's losses to be closer to 1000 men killed, which is at least more likely. One modern historian, Peter Green, claims (without any historical support) that the Macedonian casualties were closer to 4000, probably mostly among his phalangists.
The Indian losses, according to Arrian, were 23,000 total, with about 12,000 dead and 9000 captured.
Footnote #1: Near the end of the day, King Porus approached the Macedonian lines and met Alexander (who had been slightly wounded during the battle). In accepting his opponent's submission, the Macedonian king asked Porus how he would like to be treated. The prompt and laconic reply was, "Treat me, O Alexander, like a king." Admiring Porus's attitude – and likely the near-victory the Indians could have achieved – Alexander did just that. He appointed Porus as one of his satraps, or provincial governors.
Footnote #2: Alexander founded two cities nearby. On the battle site he founded the city of Nicaea (which means "victory"). On the other side of the river he founded Alexandria Bucephala, which he named after his faithful warhorse, who died shortly after the battle.
Cities founded by Alexander in Asia (Nicaea and Al. Bucephala are to the right)
Footnote #3: Four months later, Alexander's army approached the Beas River, the boundary of the Nanda Empire, one the major kingdoms of northern India. At this point, the Macedonian army, nearly worn out by 8 solid years of campaigning, rebelled. They had heard rumors of a huge Indian army gathering to oppose them. Alexander acquiesced, and marched his army southward on the banks of the Indus River to secure the eastern boundary of his empire. Within three years, he had returned to Babylon, and died in June of 323.
Empire of Alexander the Great at its Greatest Extent (326 BC)