Forgotten page of history: Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Special Force led by a French General


We know about the famous ruler of Panjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But have you heard about his Special Force named Fauj-i-Khas? Do you know that this Force was commanded by a French, General Allard? Know about this truly international Force consisting of French, British, Italians, Americans and Indians.

All of us know about Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This great ruler of Panjab drove out the Pathan rulers of the Panjab and north-western provinces of undivided India. The kingdom of this great ruler spread from Sindh to Kashmir from south to north and from the bank of Sutlej river to Khyber Pass from east to west. The capital of this powerful kingdom was at Lahore. He was an efficient administrator and a great military general and strategist. Under his rule, the Sikh Army was known for fast-moving and ruthless cavalry and gallant infantry. But when this great Maharaja could not spread his empire beyond the Sutlej river in the east and forced to sign the Treaty of Amritsar (1809) with the British East India Company, he realized the need to modernize his Army according to the western concept of warfare. He started to develop his Special Force (Fauj-i-Khas). He appointed many foreigners including British and French deserters, Italians and Americans. This Special Force was led by a French Officer named Jean-Francois Allard (1785-1839). Let us turn the forgotten page of history and learn more about the Special Force of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.



The international connection

Initially the force was constituted mainly by the British deserters of the East India Company Army. However, after the defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in 185, main French soldiers and mercenaries started to come to Asia. These soldiers and mercenaries were absorbed by the armies of various Asian empires. These soldiers joined the Persian Army, Maratha Army and the Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They constituted the core group of the Fauj-i-Khas of Maharaja. In 1822, the Maharaja appointed General Allard as the General of the Special Force. Not only the French, the infantry of this Special Force was commanded by General Paolo Di Avitable and General Jean-Baptiste Ventura, both of whom belonged to Italy. The artillery of this Special Force was commanded by Colonel Alexander Gardiner, an American.

Some more interesting facts about the Special Force

General Allard's official residence was at the tomb of Anarkali (of Selim-Anarkali fame) at Lahore. This was also the headquarter of the Special Force. The training of the Special Force was held at 'Champ de Mars', just opposite to the residence of General Allard. The Force reported directly to the Maharaja. He took special interest in their training and occasionally supervised it personally. The best among the best of Sikh young men got the chance to join this Special Force. The soldiers of the Fauj-i-Khas wore the uniform of Napoleon's old Army. The soldiers answered the command in French, the gallantry medals (Order of Guru Gobind Singh) were similar in design of French Legion d'Honneur.

The soldiers of this Special Force used to stay in modern-style cantonments with barracks for soldiers and quarters for officers. Over the time, the Fauj-i-Khas came to be known as 'Campu Fransez' or the French Legion. The Special Force became so famous that when General Allard visited Paris in 1837, many French officers and soldiers wanted to join this Force resigning from French Army. British East India Company issued secret instructions to check the movement of the deserters so that they can't join this Force crossing the Sutlej river.



Final days of Fauj-i-Khas

General Allard died in January, 1839. Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself left the world in June, 1839. The Sikh Durbar became weak. Slowly but steadily, the foreign soldiers started leaving the Force. The successors of Maharaja Ranjit Singh didn't understand the importance of this Force. The depleted Special Force took part in the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1845-46 and 1848-49 and inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy. Finally, when the British annexed Panjab in 1849, the great Force was completely disbanded. But many soldiers of this Force later joined other armies.

Epilogue

In 2016, a bust of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was unveiled at St. Tropez in France. In this way, the hometown of General Allard paid its tribute to the Great Maharaja and his Fauj-i-Khas.


Article by Partha K.
“Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.” - George Gordon Byron

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