In 1779, a series of battles were fought between the British and the Marathas. Pune fought for its very survival and the Wadgaon battle marked the high point of the Nana – Mahadji combination. Mahadji Shinde’s marshaling of resources, his strategizing and the bravery shown by the average Maratha mavla make the finale battle at Wadgaon memorable and something to be very proud of!
Background: As of 1779, the primary aim of the British was to secure their port of Bombay. This meant being in control of the routes that led to it from Vasai in the north and from Pune in the east. All were in Maratha hands. Secondly, the Marathas had opened negotiations with a Frenchman named St. Lubin, sending alarm bells ringing at both Bombay and Calcutta. Fortunately for the British, Raghunathrao had decided to wholeheartedly support them against Nana Phadnis . The British planned to attack Pune directly, remove Nana Phadnis and govern through Raghunathrao, who would be placed at Shaniwarwada as a puppet ruler. In return, of course the British would get what they wanted.
British in the Bor Ghat: The campaign began in November 1778, when British forces under Capt. James Stewart and Col. Egerton, among others proceeded from Mumbai towards Pune via the Bor Ghat (this ghat was also used by Shivaji on his return from Surat and currently is part of Mumbai – Pune railway). Col. Egerton captured the fort of Belapur and established a base at Panvel, while Capt. Stewart proceeded to Khandala (22nd November 1778). The British forces number nearly 4000, inclusive of artillery and gun lashkars. Small contingents of infantry and cavalry were also with Raghoba. The British were counting on Nana Phadnis to resist at Pune with a force of 7-8 thousand. Moreover, the British resident at Pune, Mr. Mostyn was convinced that Shinde and Holkar would desert Pune and join Raghoba as soon as the British were in sight! Both proved to be fatal errors for the British.
From Panvel, Col. Egerton reached Khopoli and established a second British base in the valley in the winter of 1778 . Capt. James Stewart had by then reached the village of Khandala and established a camp at the top of the ghat. Col Egerton followed suit and by the middle of December, a large British force had assembled there. Col. Egerton then divided his forces between Lt. Col Cay and Lt. Col Cockburn. Throughout the march from the fort at Mumbai, they had faced no resistance from the Marathas and the morale was thus sky high in the British camp.
Governor General Warren Hastings, Calcutta – This campaign had the full backing of Warren Hastings. He deputed a large army under Col. Leslie and Col. Goddard from the barracks in Bengal. 6 battalions of sepoys, artillery & cavalry divisions and a reinforcement of around 500 Pathan horsemen slowly made their way through Central India. They were harassed all along by Maratha forces, but never stopped entirely. Leslie died in October 1778, and Col. Goddard took charge; by December 1778, he too was nearing Pune. At this point, with the ghat under their command, if the British had stayed put at Khandala, it would have become impossible for Nana Phadnis to guard against a pincer attack. But the complete absence of Maratha resistance and canards spread by the Marathas that Shinde and Holkar were willing to join Capt. Stewart lulled them into sense of complacency.
Maratha counterattack – Nana Phadnis deputed Bhimrao Panse to counter and harass the British forces as they proceeded towards Pune. With 7 pieces of artillery and around 5000 men, he waited in the narrow defiles, jungles and ravines on the way from Khandala to Pune. Around 16th December 1778, the British left their high ground at Khandala, and almost immediately came under heavy fire from Bhimrao Panse. The sepoys replied with fire of their own, but the guerilla tactics reminiscent of the past century decimated the British forces. Lt. Col. Kay fell after being hit by artillery fire on the route to Karla. The British made laborious progress to the small village famous for its ruins. On the 4th of January, Capt. James Stewart was killed while fighting at Karla, giving the Marathas the upper hand. He had covered a mere 8 miles in 11 days. On the 6th of Jan 1779, Col. Egerton returned to Bombay on account of illness and the Lt. Col. Cockburn took charge of the British force, by this time joined by Capt. Gordon and Raghoba who had managed to ascend the ghat. Bhimrao Panse also retired towards Pune.
Scorched earth – The hallmark of this entire campaign is the trap the British were led into at Talegaon and Wadgaon near Pune. Thinking the worst to be over, Lt. Col Cockburn and Capt. Gordon advanced by 9th January 1779 on the village of Talegaon. But Nana Phadnis and Mahadji Shinde had foreseen this and had burnt the village granary and stores. A similar fate had been planned for the villages of Pimpri and Chinchwad. Desperate for supplies after exiting the mountains, the British were in for a shock. Shaniwarwada was still 18 miles away, and Col. Cockburn had provisions to last for a maximum of 15 days! Nana Phadnis had placed most of the Maratha forces at the disposal of Mahadji Shinde . He himself, along with Tukoji Holkar and Mahadji occupied the village of Wadgaon, cutting off the British. The British retreat began on the 11th of January 1779, and came under heavy fire from Mahadji Shinde. Capt. Hartley and Lt. Col. Cockburn were attacked on both the front and rear at Wadgaon by the combined forces of Shinde and Holkar. Large numbers deserted the British and the Marathas decimated whatever remained of the large force sent under Capt. James Stewart. In the meanwhile, Babaji Phatak had ascended from the Konkan and captured Khopoli, making any retreat now impossible. On the 16th of January 1779, the British sued for peace with the Marathas. This meant giving up their possessions near Bombay, and of Bharuch and Surat to the Marathas. The forces under Col. Goddard were to halt their march and most importantly Raghoba was to be handed over to Mahadji. Thus, what had started as a campaign to unseat Nana Phadnis, ended up being a battle of survival for the British in the all-important port of Bombay.
Conclusion: This event prevented a quick takeover of Pune by the British. It would be a long and arduous process. Fort by fort, battle by battle which would finally grant them the prize in 1818. Moreover, it was sheer luck which led to the absence of a leadership, which gave the British their victories over the Marathas from 1802 onwards .The victory in the battle of Wadgaon raised Mahadji’s stature and allowed him a glorious decade in the 1780s. A major Maratha victory over the Nizam also followed in 1795. On the flipside, the victory could have been capitalized on. With most of the British forces under their control, an attack on Mumbai was not a farfetched idea. Col. Goddard was still only in Surat. In the end, Hastings refused to recognize the treaty, saying it had been signed by officers not senior enough and things were quickly back to square one.