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Mare Nostrum

Alexander the Great's Battle at the River Jhelum

By: R. H.

How the East was Won

Alexander the Great’s last major battle was his greatest display of strategic flexibility. This battle is commonly known as the Battle of the Jhelum because it was fought in the area surrounding the river Jhelum. The Battle of the Jhelum was Alexander’s only major battle in India. It was fought against a powerful Indian rajah, an Indian equivalent to a king or warlord, named Porus. While Alexander’s forces did win the battle, his men had to face the Indian monsoon, and worse yet approximately 200 enemy elephants. As a result of this battle, Alexander’s men, tired, restless, and definitely unwilling to face elephants in battle again, mutinied when they reached the next river and forced Alexander to start heading back toward Greece.

Battle Summary

Before the Battle of the Jhelum--either by conquest, destruction, or by allying himself with the areas’ rulers-- Alexander had control of most of the Indian land west of the Jhelum River.
. . . he [Alexander] did not expect that any army would presume to stand in the field against the Macedonians at this stage; certainly he reasoned that no army could do so with success. Not in the face of the allied force under his command. But this one [Porus’ army] stood its ground, in the rain, across the swift flood of the river Jhelum (Lamb 304).
In early June 326 BCE, after giving his men two months to rest, he headed to the western bank of the river Jhelum to prepare his troops and work out a battle plan. Porus’ forces were reasonably large:
  • 50,000 Infantry
  • 3000-4000 Cavalry
  • 300 War-Chariots
  • 200 War-Elephants
    (The Battle of the Jhelum)

The first part of Alexander’s strategy was to play "mind games" with Porus in order to get Porus to "drop his guard." Alexander did this by first having large shipments of food sent to his own camp. He did this to make Porus think that he would be there for a while. Then, almost every night, Alexander would send a number of his troops up and down the river bank. He also sent a number of troops about a third of the way across the river at certain points, and then quickly brought them back every night. Also, during each of these ruses, Alexander made sure that the war-trumpets were blaring, and that the troops themselves made a lot of noise. This was done to make Porus think that Alexander’s forces were attacking. This went on for several nights, until Alexander learned that one of Porus’ allies was coming to back him up. Porus’ ally would arrive in two days, Alexander knew he had to attack before then.

A man who looked like Alex- ander was given Alexander's cape and spear to make the enemy think Alexander was still at the camp.
Alexander’s strategy for attack showed his military genius at its best. Alexander secretly took part of his forces to a place where he thought they could cross more easily, but he left most of his forces--along with someone dressed up to make it look like Alexander was still there--back at the camp.
In fact the King [Alexander], along with the main assault group would already be on its way to Jalalpur [the place where they were going to cross]. This force which numbered 5000 horse and at least 10,000 foot, would cross the river before dawn and advance down the southern bank on Porus’ position. A second group of three battalions of the phalanx [Alexander’s favorite attack grouping] plus the mercenary cavalry and infantry, was to take up a position . . . opposite the main fords, and only cross when the battle had been joined [by the other two divisions]. Craterus’ holding force [the troops still at the main camp] was not to attempt a crossing until Porus had moved his position to attack Alexander, . . . Whichever way Porus moved, he left himself open for attack from the rear ("The Battle of the Jhelum").
Nearly everything went exactly as Alexander had planned. The battle was long and--needless to say--extremely difficult; but, thanks to his sound strategy, Alexander’s forces managed to be victorious. As for Porus himself, Alexander was so impressed with him that Porus was not only allowed to live, but was generously rewarded. "Alexander, accordingly, not only suffered him [Porus] to govern his own kingdom as satrap under himself, but gave him also the additional territory of various independent tribes whom he subdued" (Plutarch).

Monsoons and Elephants and Geography, Oh My

There were problems that made the Battle of the Jhelum different from all the other battles that Alexander fought:
  • the Indian Monsoon
  • 200 Indian war-elephants
  • Alexander knew little about Indian geography
  • the battle had long term effects on Alexander's campeign

Rain. Rain. Go Away...

One problem that Alexander had to face in the Battle of the Jhelum was the monsoon. In India the monsoon (constant rain) starts in early June and lasts for two or three months. Alexander clearly made a bad decision by starting the battle in June. He could have started the battle two months earlier, but he chose instead to give his men some time off. The monsoons caused several problems. The monsoons flooded the river, which made it impossible for the horses to swim across; and as Hamilton points out, "He [Alexander] was well aware that the horses would not remain on the rafts once they scented the elephants" (112). Also, the monsoons created a lot of mud. The mud made it quite difficult for Alexander’s troops to stand their ground while fighting. Also, because Alexander was in the offensive position in the battle, his forces had to cross the river. That meant that his forces would have to climb the muddy river bank, which quickly fatigued both his men and his horses. In addition, the low visibility caused by the constant rain must have plagued archers on both sides of the battle. Had Alexander just started the battle one or two months earlier, the battle would have been much easier.

Too Many Elephants

Alexander’s men did not really fear the man-power at Porus’ disposal. They were, however, very much afraid of Porus’ 200 armored war-elephants. For one thing, the Macedonian horses would not go anywhere near the elephants. As result, they had to attack the giant beasts on foot. This resulted in the death of many of Alexander’s men who were either trampled under the elephants’ giant feet, impaled by elephants’ ivory tusks, or were killed because they forgot about the many Indian archers and swordsmen who were fighting alongside the elephants. Another problem with the elephants was that sometimes they just went berserk and started killing everybody in their path. This made the elephants much more unpredictable, and thus, much more dangerous to both Alexander’s and Porus’ men. Had Porus not been in possession of those elephants, Alexander would have been able to crush Porus’ army without much trouble at all.

Are You Sure We Shouldn't Ask for Directions?

Another major problem with the Battle of the Jhelum was Alexander’s lack of knowledge about Indian geography. As the author of "The Battle of the Jhelum" states:
On the Indian sub-continent, let alone the vast Far Eastern land mass from China to Malaysia, they [the Greeks] knew nothing. In general Alexander’s ignorance of Indian geography remained profound, and his whole Eastern strategy rested on a false assumption. The great Ganges Plain, by its mere existence , shattered his dream more effectively than any army could have done.
Alexander thought that he would find an ocean, and thus the "edge of the earth," in India; instead he found out that there was a vast measure of land between himself and the "edge of the earth."

Another problem caused by Alexander’s ignorance of Indian geography happened during the battle. When he took his division across the river, he thought that he had reached the eastern bank; when, in fact, he had only reached a long narrow island. By the time Alexander realized this, it was too late; enemy scouts had seen him and were on their way to tell Porus. Alexander lost the element of surprise. Porus, thinking that it may be just another ruse, sent a force consisting of 200 cavalry and 120 chariots. Needless to say they were easily defeated by Alexander’s superior, and more numerous, military division. Porus took a large fleet to meet Alexander, and the forces that had remained at the camp with the "fake Alexander" attacked. After that, everything went according to Alexander’s plan.

All graphics on this page created by: R. Homberg

Mutiny on the Beas

There were also problems that resulted from the battle:
  • Alexander’s men, after having such a traumatic experience fighting the war-elephants, absolutely refused to do battle with elephants ever again.
  • Thanks to basic human instinct, Alexander’s men were not too keen on standing out in pouring rain for two and a half months because of the monsoon.
  • The men had simply done too much, they were sick of fighting.
If allowed to continue as he planned, Alexander surely would have led them through many more battles--in the rain, against elephants and who-knows-what-else. The Battle of the Jhelum had been the final straw, and at the river Beas, Alexander’s men revolted and forced him to start heading back.

Works Cited

History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School * Park Forest, IL 60466

This page was created by R.H. Last revised 3/29/00.

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