Thursday, March 29, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 3

(Chapter III of Narrative of The Burmese War by Major John Snodgrass, British Army, the Military Secretary to the Commander of the British expeditionary force and the Assistant Political Agent in Ava.)

That the court of Ava had been for many months preparing for a rupture with the government of India, the tone and conduct of the governors of Arracan and  the provinces lying contiguous to our frontier, and the assemblage of troops in that quarter, afford the strongest evidence; offensive warfare was obviously intended.

But the invasion of their own frontiers, more especially of the distant coasts of Pegu and Tenasserim, seems to have been wholly overlooked in their warlike preparations.

State and Position of the Burmese Forces at the Period of Our Landing

During the preceding cold season, while the British troops occupied the southern parts of the Chittagong district, considerable bodies of Burmese had crossed the Arracan mountains; and although they at that time did not venture to show themselves in force upon our frontier, reports were industriously circulated by them, that, unless our claim upon the island of Shaporee (St. Martin or Shin-ma-phyu Island) was speedily relinquished, an army of thirty thousand men would invade Bengal.

Shin-ma-phyu or St. Martin Island.
On the return of the sickly season in march and April, our troops were compelled to withdraw from the lower parts of the district, leaving at Ramoo, a post about sixty miles to the southward of Chittagong, only a small force, consisting of eight weak companies of Sepoys of the line; a provincial battalion, and a levy of five or six hundred armed Mugs (Natives of Arracan whose families had fled from their country at the period of its conquest by the Burmese.), to watch the motions of the enemy, who from this period appear to have been secretly employed in making roads through the jungle, and in other preparations for moving forward as soon as their numbers were completed to such a strength as would enable them to act upon the offensive.

Reinforcements were sent into Assam and Cassay (Manipur), both which kingdoms the Burmese kingdom held by right of conquest, but in the insalubrious jungles and marshes on the frontiers of Arracan and Chittagong, the hostile chiefs evidently meant to commence their aggressive operations.

To that point their views appear to have exclusively directed, leaving the southern and maritime provinces of the kingdom wholly unguarded, as naturally secured from any attack of their enemy; and it was not until expedition had actually landed in Pegu (Rangoon), that the possibility of such an event obtained belief at the enemy’s capital.

When it was presented to the king of Ava, by one of the detenues, as a thing likely to occur, his majesty laughingly replied, “As to Rangoon, I will take such measures as will prevent the English from even disturbing the women of the town in cooking their rice.” As soon, however, as our actual disembarkation was reported to the government, no time was lost in making the most vigorous preparations for our expulsion.

Exertions of the Court of Ava in Calling out the Military Resources

Former Burmese territories Assam and Manipur.
The war tocsin was sounded in every part of the kingdom; and every town and village, within three hundred miles of the seat of war, speedily sent its complement of armed men, under their respective chiefs, in the fullest confidence of driving the audacious and rebel strangers (as we were designated in all official documents), who had invaded their country, back into ocean from whence they came.

Neither the sense of the year, nor the want of an adequate supply of muskets from Ava, were deemed sufficient cause for a moment’s delay in the execution of such a service.

The royal mandate was no sooner received, than the Irrawaddy was covered with fleets of warriors from the towns upon its banks, proceeding with all possible dispatch to the general rendezvous of the grand army of Henzawaddy; the court and nation vying with each other in arrogant threats, and professions of contempt for the strangers who had descended on their coast, shut up and surrounded, as we were supposed to be, in a distant corner of the empire.

Towards the latter end of May, the enemy became more daring as their troops rapidly increased in numbers; and approaching gradually upon the British position, commenced stockading themselves in the jungle, within hearing of our advanced posts.

Their approaches met with every possible encouragement from the British commander, who, unable to undertake any distant operation, was only careful to give full scope to the natural arrogance of his enemy, which he was well aware would lead them to afford him abundant opportunities of making such an impression upon their troops, as he hoped might still induce the court of Ava to sue for peace.

Nor were we long kept in expectation of such an opportunity.

First Encounter with the Burmese Troops (28 May 1824)

On the morning of 28th of May, the enemy, having stockaded an advance corps within little more than musket-shot distance from our piquets, Sir Archibald Campbell, with four companies of Europeans from His majesty thirteenth and thirtyeighth regiments, two field-pieces, and four hundred native infantry, moved out to reconnoitre; it having been reported, that the stockade immediately in our front was supported by the governor of Shudaung (Shwe -daung), with a considerable force, stationed for the purpose of carrying on a desultory warfare with pour posts, and preventing the inhabitants of Rangoon, who were said to be kept in the jungle in his rear, from returning to their homes.

A few minutes’ march brought our advance-guard in contact with the first stockade, erected upon the pathway by which the troops advanced, with its shoulders thrown back into the jungle on either flank.

The work still being incomplete, little opposition was made, the Burmese retiring through the wood after discharging a few shots. The column continuing to advance along a winding pathway, scarcely admitting two men to march abreast, at every opening of the jungle parties of enemy were seen retiring slowly in our front; and at every turn of the road, breastworks and half-finished stockades, hastily abandoned, proved that so early a visit was neither anticipated nor provided for.

After a advance of five miles, the road suddenly entering some rice-fields, intersected by a morass and rivulet, rendered passable by a long and narrow wooden bridge, the enemy was seen here in some force, attempting a formation, for the purpose of defending the passage; but the fire of the two field-pieces compelling them to abandon that intention, they continued their retreat into the woods.

Burmese swords had no fighting chance against modern English muskets in 1824.

The weather, which had hitherto been fine, now threatened one of those storms which generally ushered in the south-west monsoon: the rain began to fall in torrents, the guns could be dragged no farther, and the native infantry were in consequence left to guard them; the general having determined to push on rapidly with the four European companies, as far as the plain of Joazoang (Kyaung-zone), in the hope of liberating some of the peaceably-disposed inhabitants from their military despots; well assured that, if successful, their release would be followed by the subsequent desertions of their male relations, for whose fidelity they were held in pledge.

The road again entering the jungle, continued winding through it for upwards of a mile, until at length the extensive plain of the Joazoang (Kyaung-zone) opened in our front. It appeared about four miles in length, and nearly one in breadth; bounded on one flank by a thick, continued jungle, and on the other by a creek, the banks of which are also covered with a belt of brushwood.

British 6-pounder field-gun (1824).
About a mile distant from where the column emerged from the forest, and situated in a narrow gorge of the plain, flanked by jungle on either hand, and at no great distance apart, stood the villages of Yanghoo and Joazoang: behind these villages appeared a cloud of smoke, as if proceeding from a concourse of people cooking; and we now confidently anticipated the pleasure of breaking through the cordon of annoyance that had so long surrounded us, and of liberating the people of Rangoon from their state of bondage.

The storm still continued with great violence; but with the prospect of employment before them, the soldiers cheerfully marched on, knee deep in water, through the rice-grounds.

The enemy was now seen in such considerable bodies, moving out from the rear of the villages,  as to leave no doubt that the smoke we have perceived proceeded from their encampment, and not, as we had supposed, from an assemblage of friends.

Their generals on horseback appeared busily employed forming their men for the defence of the gorge, or narrow passage in our front; while the four British companies continued to advance, by echelon of companies, upon a force that appeared to consist of not less than from four to five thousand men.

First British Assault on a Burmese Stockade

Our left flank, which led close in with the jungle, on approaching the villages, observed that they were defended in front by two stockades, from which shouts and cries of “Laghee! Laghee! (Come! Come!) soon satisfied us they were filled with men confident in themselves, and in the strength of their position.

They at once commenced a heavy fire upon the leading companies, to which, from the wet state of their muskets, our troops could at first make but little return: not a moment was therefore lost in closing with their opponents; the right company being directed to hold its line on the plain in check, while the other three rushed forward with irresistible impetuosity to the works in front, and as they were of a low description, not exceeding eight feet in height, soon forced their way into the interior, where the very numbers of the enemy creating disorder and confusion, proved their final ruin.

The conflict that ensued was fierce and sanguinary.

The work having only one or two narrow ways of egress, the defendants, driven from the ramparts, soon became an unmanageable mess; and rendered desperate by the discharges of musquetry that were now poured in among them, they, with spear or musket couched, and their heads lowered to a butting position, blindly charged upon the soldiers’ bayonets; for until they had long subsequently been taught by severe retaliation to treat with mercy those from the fortune of war might place in their power, the Burmese neither gave nor expected quarter, but continued fighting with the utmost fury long after all hope of success or escape had ceased to encourage them in continuing the conflict, nor did it remain optional with the soldiers to spare the lives of an enemy from those barbarous and treacherous mode of warfare death alone afforded safety.

The experiment, indeed, was often tried, but tried in vain.

Humanity might prompt a British soldier to pass a fallen or vanquished foe, but when he found his forbearance repaid on all occasions by a shot, the instant that his back was turned, self-preservation soon taught him the necessity of other measures; and it consequently happened, that our first encounters with the troops of Ava were sanguinary and revolting, especially to soldiers whom feeling and customs of war alike taught to treat with kindness and forbearance those whom their valour has subdued.

During the attack upon the two stockades, the enemy’s General on the plain made no movement to assist in their defence, either trusting with confidence to the garrisons he had left in them, or believing we had a much greater force kept purposely out of sight, and masked by the jungle in our rear; but the instant our troops were seen in possession of the works, the whole line, with a horrid yell, began to move towards us, until checked by the company now extended in their front and the appearance of the troops which had carried the stockades also moving rapidly forward, and forming in readiness to receive their opponents.

Our killed and wounded were then carried from the field, when the enemy, not thinking proper to attack, and the day drawing near its close, we commenced our march slowly, and unmolested, back to quarters, leaving four hundred of the enemy dead on the field. 

(The First Anglo-Burmese War (5 March 1824-24 February 1826) was the first of three wars fought between the British and Burmese Empires in the 19th century. The war, which began primarily over the control of north-eastern India, ended in a decisive British victory, giving the British total control of Assam, Manipur, Cachar and Jaintia as well as Arakan and Tenasserim. The Burmese were also forced to pay an indemnity of one million pounds sterling, and sign a commercial treaty. The war was the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history. Fifteen thousand European and Indian soldiers died, together with an unknown number of Burmese army and civilian casualties.

The campaign, the most poorly managed one in British military history, cost the British five million pounds sterling (roughly 18.5 billion in 2006 US dollars) to 13 million pounds sterling (roughly 48.1 billion in 2006 US dollars) that led to a severe economic crisis in British India in 1833. For the Burmese, it was the beginning of the end of their independence. The Third Burmese Empire, for a brief moment the terror of British India, was crippled and no longer a threat to the eastern frontier of British India. The Burmese would be crushed for years to come by repaying the large indemnity of one million pounds (then US$5 million), a large sum even in Europe of that time. The British would make two more wars against a much more weakened Burma, and swallow up the entire country by 1885.)

(Above is a scene from the movie Revolution where British Redcoats fought off Americans in 18th century. Some of the same British regiments like the Forty-first Regiment of Foot later fought in the 19th century Anglo-Burmese wars. Following video is the trailer of Thai movie Naresuan where Thais fought off invading Burmese armies of King Henzzawaddy (Hanthawaddy) in late 16th century. The reenactment of Imperial Burmese army is quite impressive.)

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 1