Battle of Sar-i-Pul, c.April-May 1501

The battle of Sar-i-Pul (April-May 1501) was an early defeat suffered by Babur after he had captured the city of Samarkand for a second time. In the aftermath of the defeat Babur was besieged in Samarkand and was eventually forced to surrender, briefly becoming a powerless wanderer.

Samarkand, the capital of Babur's ancestor Tamerlane, was the target of most of Babur's early campaigns. He had briefly occupied the city in 1497, taking it from one of his relatives. The city then fell to the Uzbek leader Muhammad Shaibani Khan in 1500, but later in the same year Babur managed to capture the city after a surprise attack made with only 200 men. Shaibani, who was close by at the time, decided to withdraw to Bokhara to gather his strength, giving Babur the time he needed to call for help from his relatives, the Timurid descendants of Tamerlane.

Very little help was forthcoming, but despite still being badly outnumbered Babur decided to leave Samarkand and take to the field, hoping that this would force his potential allies to send him reinforcements. To a certain extent this worked, and on the day of the battle around 3,000-4,000 fresh troops were within a day's march of Sar-i-Pul.

Babur advanced from Samarkand to Sar-i-Pul (Bridge-head), and took up a position with the Kohik River on his right. Shaibani Khan took up a position five miles further west, and then began to probe Babur's position. Four or five days of skirmishes following, including one night attack on Babur's fortified position, but Shaibani was unable to make any progress.

At this point the young Babur (in his own memoirs he states that he was nineteen) made a terrible mistake that cost him the battle. Astrology suggested that the next day would be favourable, but for the following two weeks the stars would be against Babur. With this in mind he decided to leave his camp and offer battle. He later came to understand that 'these considerations are worth nothing, and our haste was without reason'.

Babar arrayed his army in four parts - left, right and centre in a line, with his own household in the centre, and a vanguard containing some of the best soldiers in the army.

Shaibani decided to use his superior numbers to pin Babur against the river. The Uzbek right advanced around Babur's left wing, forcing Babur to turn his army to the left. This meant that his vanguard was now on the right, and the centre was exposed to direct attack. According to Babur's own account his men threatened to turn the Uzbek left, and briefly threatened Shaibani's own position, but the Uzbek right broke Babur's left wing, and then attacked his centre from the rear. Babur's centre was now under attack from front and rear, and despite some success against the frontal assault Babur's line collapsed. He was not helped by of his Mongol allies, who seeing that the battle was lost decided to plunder Babur's men.

Babur himself managed to escape by swimming his warhorse across to the north bank of the Kohik River, despite being encumbered by mail armour, and returned to Samarkand. Many of his most able early supporters were killed in the battle, and most of the survivors scattered, so once again Babur was left in possession of Samarkand but without the troops to hold it. Despite this he managed to defend the city against Shaibani for several months before he was forced to surrender, escaping to safety with a small party of supporters.   

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 April 2010), Battle of Sar-i-Pul, c.April-May 1501 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sar_i_pul.html

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