The Battle of the Hydaspes is undisputedly the most overwhelming and the most decisive battle Alexander ever fought but it was also the most ferocious one. The Macedonians, after three years of unforgiving guerilla war in Bactria and Sogdiana, had by now turned into killing machines. This sounds very harsh but warfare in those days was to kill or to be killed, and five years after their last “organized” battle at Gaugamela, most men had reached the point of simple survival in combat.
The Battle of the Hydaspes ended in victory for Alexander but at what cost! Historical records go by facts and figures, yet it is not surprising that our sources do not agree on any of them. Rough estimates give Porus between 20,000 and 50,000 infantry, between 85 and 200 war elephants, 2,000 to 4,000 cavalry, and 300 to 1,000 chariots. His losses vary between 12,000 to 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, while 9,000 men were captured. Porus lost his two sons, all the commanders of his elephants and his cavalry, and all his generals – a very unusual number of leaders.
Alexander troops counted approximately 40,000 infantry, and between 5,000 and 7,000 cavalry, plus an unknown number of Asiatic forces. His losses (generally kept down by ancient authors) amount to 80 to 700 infantry, 200 to 280 cavalry, including 20 Companions (although modern estimates reach 1,000 casualties).
Even by using the lowest figures, the battlefield after several hours of conflict was covered with the bodies of some 13,000 infantry + 4,000 cavalry = 17,000 men but these numbers may have grown to 25,000 men from both sides combined. To these staggering figures we have to add an unknown number of horses (Alexander had three horses shot from under him!) and elephants. Imagine the pure stench of blood, sweat, and excrements that emanated from the muddy river bank that had been defended by Porus for a while previous to the attack. A grueling place to catch your breath, if you had any left! Troops on both sides must have been pretty much exhausted after those long hours (some speak of eight hours) of merciless combat. In this extremely hot and humid climate, flies, vultures and other animals of prey must have swarmed in and the heavily wounded must have died soon afterward. No wonder that burial procedures were set in motion as soon as possible – a reverence to Macedonian gods and beliefs, if not a mere matter of hygiene.
The wounded raise another question in my mind, for when was a soldier counted as being wounded? Was it when he had lost an arm or a leg, or when he was so amputated that he was no longer fit for further service and was left in one of the many cities Alexander built during his campaign? In such an intense battle as the one on the Hydaspes, I believe everybody was wounded. It is impossible to come out of such a fierce and intensive battle with only a mere scratch.
How does a soldier recover his senses after such an onslaught? How does he come back to his normal self? Even today that poses a serious problem to our soldier in combat zones. Alexander was very well aware of what his men went through and generally organized games and competitions to celebrate his victories as a counterbalance. In the case of the Hydaspes he even issued a special commemorative medallion to all his men – at least, that is the very plausible theory developed by Frank Holt in his book Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions. An exceptional reward to his faithful troops.
From the Hydaspes (modern Jhelum), Alexander moved further east, crossing the Acesines River (modern Chenab) and the Hydraotes River (modern Ravi) swollen by the melting snows from the Himalaya, till he was stopped at the Hyphasis River (modern Beas) by his own Macedonians who refused to continue. It did not matter whether they were reaching the end of the earth or what promises and incentives Alexander produced, they had had enough. In fact, I think that the Macedonian spirit died on the killing ground along the Hydaspes. It had been such an outrageous carnage for so little profit as there were no wealthy cities here to be plundered like the ones they found in Persia with Ecbatana, Pasargadae, and Persepolis. In their eyes, the next challenge and the next battle became meaningless and they simply mutinied. The continuous downpour of the monsoon rains and the fanatical resistance of the local Indian population cannot have improved the mood of Alexander’s men. They refused to march on and demanded to return home. Alexander had to concede, much to his dismay.