Battle of the Hydaspes River

Before the Battle of the Hydaspes river, Alexander the Great and his army ravaged Western Asia and Egypt for over a decade, defeating King Darius III and the Persians at the battles of River Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela. Next, against the protestations of the loyal army that had accompanied him since leaving Macedonia in 334 BCE, he shifted his focus to India in the south.

The Battle of Hydaspes, which he won in 326 BCE, is considered by many to have been his last significant victory (in modern Pakistan). According to one historian, it would have been Alexander’s finest hour – a fitting conclusion to his conquests of Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Persia. At Hydaspes, he would face a difficult adversary in King Porus. Still, his military acumen would be tested as never before by an unforgiving environment and a new, much greater adversary, the elephant.

Many consider the Battle of Hydaspes to be Alexander’s most audacious endeavor. Still, the young king recognized that he needed to destroy King Porus to continue his march into India. Alexander’s initial march across India was mostly unopposed and resulted in the acquisition of several allies. To avoid a confrontation with the Indian monarch, Alexander dispatched an envoy to Porus to seek a peaceful conclusion.

However, the arrogant king refused to pay tribute and informed Alexander that they would meet in combat. He believed his biggest protection was the river, which was almost a mile wide, deep, and swiftly moving (unlike the river Granicus). By Alexander’s arrival, the river would have been further swelled by the monsoon season and Himalayan snowmelt.

Timing of the Conflict of the Battle of the Hydaspes River

Porus hoped that Alexander would either have to wait until the end of the monsoon season to cross or just quit his quest and depart. In anticipation of the Macedonians’ coming, he stationed his troops in a defensive posture beside the river and waited. Estimates range from 20 to 50,000 soldiers, more than 2,000 cavalry, 200 elephants, and more than 300 chariots for Porus. As in past engagements, Alexander would face an outnumbered opponent, but this never bothered him. Porus had, unfortunately, overestimated the intelligence of the young Macedonian monarch.

As Porus had predicted, Alexander camped precisely opposite him on the west bank of the Hydaspes and showed every sign he would wait for the monsoon season to expire, even sending massive food supplies from his Indian ally King Taxila (also known as Memphis). In actuality, though, he had no plans to wait. Alexander had recruited support from several nearby rajahs, notably Taxila, to prepare for the coming fight; he believed this would enrage Porus.

Alexander had likewise come well-prepared in the Hydaspes. Before advancing into India, Alexander recruited extra men from several of the Persian provinces he had conquered and trained them in the Macedonian style of combat, which upset the seasoned Macedonian soldiers. Lastly, he added Scythian horse-archers in anticipation of Porus’ employment of elephants.

Preparations for the Battle of the Hydaspes River

Porus was also ready and waiting across the river with his elephants, cavalry, infantry, and six-man chariots. The six-member squad comprised the six-member squad: two charioteers or mahouts, two shield-bearers, and two archers. Porus felt he had the upper hand; he needed to maintain a defensive position, secure the finest possible crossing points, and butcher Alexander’s army as it emerged from the river. However, if the Macedonians could cross, they would have to fight his elephants.

Although some believe elephants were present at the Battle of Gaugamela, elephants were introduced to the Western world for the first time. While the employment of elephants has certain advantages (horses dislike them), they are challenging to handle and prone to panic. Nonetheless, Alexander and others, such as the great Carthaginian Hannibal, would utilize them in subsequent conflicts.

Alexander and his troops sat across the Hydaspes from Porus, with both kings visible. Alexander stated aloud that he could easily wait until the end of the rainy season before fighting the Indian monarch in combat. To substantiate his claim, he constructed multiple campfires on his side of the river and marched his soldiers back and forth in formation while seeking an appropriate crossing point. Curiosity prompted Porus to follow these movements, but he concluded that they were only a diversion and stopped, though he continued to study potential crossing points.

Porus remained optimistic that Alexander would surrender and flee. Some historians say Porus doubted his ability to beat the Macedonians. He will soon have the opportunity to learn. After a lengthy and arduous search, a highly forested region approximately eighteen miles downstream from the Macedonian camp was discovered ideal for crossing the river and giving cover. Alexander and his army were ready, even though a violent storm raged in the late evening.

Going Across the River

To conceal his crossing from Porus, Alexander left Craterus in camp with a good army and instructed him not to cross till later. According to one account, Alexander left a soldier disguised as the king to mislead Porus further. Alexander brought along a portion of the Companion cavalry, the mounted archers, and several infantry groups commanded by Hephaestion, Perdiccos, and Demitrios.

The crossing was scheduled to occur in three waves. Alexander created rafts from tents and used thirty galleys and boats to cross the Indus River to traverse the river safely. He reached the border with around 15,000 cavalry and 11,000 infantry. Unfortunately, the crossing did not proceed as planned. Alexander was shocked to arrive on a vast island in the middle of the river instead of the opposite coast.

From the island to the other shore, his soldiers would need to wade. There is controversy as to whether or not Alexander was aware of the island; it may have been an oversight, or it could have been intentional. Numerous individuals feel that Alexander could not have missed the existence of a big island.

Alexander reorganized his troops into battle position upon reaching the coast at sunrise and prepared for his rendezvous with Porus. The Companion cavalry was stationed in front of the infantry (not all of the infantry had crossed, as they would join Alexander later), and the mounted archers served as a defensive screen against the elephants in front of the cavalry, as Alexander was unwilling to have his cavalry advance unprotected. Alexander’s presence had already been reported to the Indian monarch by scouts who had observed the Macedonians’ crossing of the Porus River, and Porus was planning to retaliate.

Battle of the Hydaspes River

Porus dispatched his son with 3,000 troops and 120 chariots in a failed attempt to delay Alexander. This effort was a failure for Porus. Alexander slew the son and annihilated the troops and chariots; the few survivors escaped back to Porus.

Alexander proceeded the six miles towards the Indian camp, where he would wait for the remainder of his men to arrive without waiting for the extra infantry to pass. Alexander did not want to give the enemy’s fresh warriors a gift of his tired, out-of-breath soldiers, so he delayed before launching the attack. (Arrian).

Since most contemporary records have been destroyed, there is much debate among subsequent historians over the battle’s details. Porus placed his finest weapon, the elephants, ahead of his troops on his front line to face the Macedonian army. The Indian cavalry was concealed behind the six-man chariots on the right and left flanks. In the center stood Porus mounted on his elephant.

Alexander employed many of the strategies he had successfully employed in previous conflicts in Greece and Persia. According to most accounts, Alexander, stationed on the right, attacked Porus’ flanks with the Companion cavalry while his horse archers battered the elephants with arrows. Coenus, whose original location was unknown, attacked Porus’ right flank as Alexander attacked Porus’ left flank. In a defensive tactic, Porus ordered his right flank cavalry to reevaluate and assist his left flank against Alexander.

Next, Porus, awaiting assistance from his ally, King Abisares of Kashmir, dispatched his elephants against the Macedonian phalanx. As the horse-archers struck with a hail of arrows, the infantry retreated sluggishly but without breaking ranks. Sadly for the Indian army, the elephants panicked and revolted, dealing more damage to Porus’ warriors than Alexander.

Coenus rounded Porus‘ rear and assaulted his left flank from behind. Porus’s army ran directly into Craterus’s army, which had already crossed the river and was lying in ambush; 12,000 Indians and 80 elephants perished compared to barely 1,000 Macedonians.

Porus Captured & Consequences

Despite sustaining grievous wounds, King Porus stayed on his elephant throughout the battle, dismayed to see his troops evacuate but unwilling to concede defeat. Alexander approached the haughty, defeated king and asked him how he desired to be treated; Porus replied that he desired to be treated as a king. Alexander honored this and informed Porus that he would stay king while owing him fealty.

Alexander headed towards the Indian Ocean after leaving Hydaspes. Sadly, his beloved Bucephalus would not join him on this final march. Reportedly either old age (he was beyond thirty) or war wounds took the life of the magnificent steed that had accompanied him from his childhood. Alexander would construct Bucephalia in his honor.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s march to the coast would be fraught with difficulty. His soldiers eventually prevailed against the monarch, persuading him to return home. About this decision, Plutarch wrote, “Alexander was initially so distressed and enraged by his men’s reluctance that he locked himself in his tent and threw himself to the ground; however, the reasonable persuasions of his friends and the cries and lamentations of his soldiers eventually convinced him to consider returning.” In 323 BCE, Alexander returned to Babylon, where he would pass away. After his passing, his massive dominion would be the site of successive Wars for the following three decades.

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