Thursday, April 5, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 4

(Chapter IV 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.)

General Archibald Campbell.
Every effort to communicate either to the court of Ava, or to the commanders in our front, the terms upon which the government of India was still ready to conclude a peace, had hitherto failed; and it was not till after the affair of 28th of May, that a disposition was evinced of listening to a statement of the wrongs which were complained of, and the redress that would be required, before the British forces could leave their shores.

Convinced, however, by the specimen they had already received of the military qualities of their enemy, and the consequent expediency of trying to gain time for preparation, the Burmese chiefs at length had recourse to their favourite system of intrigue and cunning, in an attempt to lull their adversaries into inactivity by professions of friendship, while they were busily employed in fortifying their position, and in completing and equipping their army.

Arrival at Rangoon of Two Deputies from the Burmese Camp

The value of such professions, from men proverbially false and deceitful, was duly appreciated by the British commander, who was well aware that the main body of the enemy had taken post at Kemmendine (Kyi-myin-dine), where they were labouring incessantly, day and night, to render their position proof against the utmost efforts of the British force.

The village of Kemmendine, situated on the river, only three miles above Rangoon, was a war-boat station, and chiefly inhabited by the king’s war-boat men. The ground behind the village, elevated and commanding, is surrounded by a thick forest in its rear. The heights had already been strongly stockaded and abatised in front; the approach on the land-faces was also rendered difficult by a thick and extensive jungle.

Arrangements were already made for attacking this post, when, on the morning of 9th of June, a request was sent in from the enemy’s camp, that two men of rank, desirous of conferring with the English general, might be furnished with passports, and allowed to come in to Rangoon by water.

Leave was immediately granted, and in the course of the forenoon two war-boats made their appearance, from which the deputies landed, and were conducted to the house where the British commissioners were waiting to receive them.

The principal personage of two, who had formerly been governor of Bassein, was a stout, elderly man, dressed in a long scarlet robe, with a red handkerchief tied round his head, in the usual Burmhan style.

His companion, although dressed more plainly, had much more intelligence in his countenance; and humble demeanour, it soon became evident, that to him the management of the interview was intrusted, though his colleague outwardly treated him in every aspect as an inferior.

The two chiefs having entered the house, sat down with all the ease and familiarity of old friends; neither constraint nor any symptom of fear appeared about either: they paid their compliments to the British officers, and made their remarks on what they saw with utmost freedom and good-humour.

The elder chief opened the subject of their mission, with the question, “Why are you come here with ships and soldiers?” accompanied with many professions of the good faith, sincerity, and friendly disposition of the Burmese government.

The causes of the war, and redress that was demanded, were again fully explained to them.

The consequences of the line of conduct pursued by their generals, in preventing all communications with the court, was also pointed out, and they were brought to acknowledge, that a free and unreserved discussions of the points at issue could alone avert the evils and calamities with which their country was threatened.

Still they would neither confess that the former remonstrances of the Indian government had reached their king, nor enter into any arrangement for removing the barrier they had placed in the way of negotiation, but urged, with every argument they could think of, that a few days’ delay might be granted, to enable them to confer with an officer of high rank, then at some distance up the river.

They were, however, given to understand that delay and procrastination formed no part of our system, and that the war would be vigorously prosecuted, until the king of Ava thought proper to send officers, with full authority to enter upon a treaty with the British commissioners.

The elder chief, who had loudly proclaimed his love of peace, continued chewing his betel-nut with much composure, receiving the intimation of a continuance of hostilities with more of the air and coolness of a soldier who considered war as his trade, then became the pacific character he assumed; while his more shrewd companion vainly endeavoured to conceal his vexation at the unpleasant termination of their mission, and unexpected failure of their arts and protestations.

Imperial Burmese War Boats.
But although the visit had evidently been planned for no other purpose than that of gaining time, the chiefs did not object to carry with them to their camp a declaration of the terms upon which peace would still be restored; and that they might take their departure with a better grace, expressed their intention of repeating their visit in the course of a few days, for the purpose of opening a direct communication between the British general and the Burmese ministers.

The elder chief, again alluding to his being no warrior, hoped that the ships had strict orders not to fire upon him; but while he said so, in stepping into his boat, there was a contemptuous smile upon his own face and the countenances of his men, that had more of defiance than entreaty in it.

The boatmen wore broad Chinese hats, which sheltered their bodies from the weather, and in some measure softened their harsh, bold, and strongly-marked features. They went off with great speed, rising to their short oars, and singing in chorus, “Oh, what a happy king have we!”
Continuation of Military Operations (Assault on Kemmendine)

Long before day-light next morning, 10th June, the heavy rolling noise of guns in motion, the clattering of arms, and the confused hum of troops in march, announced a movement in the British lines, and warned the enemy at Kemmendine, and in their numerous stockades around us, to prepare for their defence.

The road to Kemmendine by which the troops advanced, runs parallel to, and at no great distance from the river; having a narrow plain of rice-grounds on that side, and on the other a thick and impassable forest.

Assault on a Burmese stockade (1824).
About a mile and half from Rangoon, the road ascends a gently-slopping hill, at which point the head of the column was received with a smart fire from a stockade, the size and strength of which was hid in the jungle, which on three sides covered its approach.

The only visible part of the work appearing from twelve to fourteen feet high, protected in front by abatis, railing, and palisadoes driven into the ground diagonally, and defended by a numerous garrison, who hailed, our approach with loud and incessant cheering.

To attack the place by escalade would evidently have cost the lives of many, and an attempt to breach it was accordingly directed.

Two eighteen pounders being brought within a short distance of the stockade, opened with great effect, and in a few minutes a considerable gap was apparent in its outward defences.

The troops destined for the assault, consisting of His Majesty’s forty-first regiment, and the company’s Madras European corps, now moved forward, while at the same moment a party of the thirteenth and thirty-eighth regiments in the rear, attacking by escalade, in a few minutes the work was wholly in our possession: the enemy leaving two hundred dead upon the ground, afforded the best proof that could be given of the courage with which their post had been defended.

At the rear gate of the fort, the gilt chattah (umbrella), sword, and spear of the Burmese commander were found, the chattah much shattered by a shower of grape, and the body of the chief was found a few yards farther in the jungle.

He had apparently received his death wound where the emblems of command were dropped, and had probably been carried off by his attendants, until their safety rendered it expedient to leave their burden behind them.

The chief was said to have been recognized as the elder deputy of the day before, whose pacific tone has so much amused us.

The road being now open, the column again moved forward to the termination of the rice-grounds, where behind a belt of jungle appeared a shoulder of the great Kemmendine stockade, stretching down towards the river on one side, and on the other running off in an oblique direction along the heights formerly mentioned, and so generally covered by heavy jungle, as to prevent any correct idea from being formed of its strength and construction.

13" Heavy Seige Mortars (1760).
It was intended, by again reaching the river above the stockade, to have completely invested it, for the purpose of trying the effects of mortars upon an enemy unaccustomed to those destructive engines of modern warfare; and in pursuance of this plan the rear was halted on the plain in communication with the river below the place, while the head of the column moved up to the right, advancing with great difficulty through the wood.

It was only after penetrating for a mile and a half that we became sensible of the great extent of the position, and the impossibility of preventing escape from more than a single face of the principal stronghold; but it was still expected that the natural obstinacy of the enemy would lead them to await the bombardment that was intended to commence on the following morning, the day being too near its close to admit of an immediate attack.

British Cannon's Grape Shots.
It was five in the afternoon before the troops were in position, at the distance of only 100 yards from the stockade, still, however, hid from our view by the trees, which, extending to within a few yards of the place, rendered a regular advance impracticable, and any attack that might be made subject to all the disadvantages of a desultory movement; and the troops would be compelled, after debouching from the cover, slowly and individually to force their way through abatis and palisadoes, exposed to all the fire of the garrison.

One or two slight openings of the jungle enabled us to get a glimpse of the defences, upon which the batteries were erected; and during the night the wood in front was cut down, and every preparation made to render our fire effectual.

The enemy on their part were not idle, but kept us on alert by repeated attacks in the rear of our line, while their sharp-shooters in trees on every side prevented us from feeling, as we otherwise might have done, all the misery of the wet and uncomfortable situation we were placed in: deluged with rain, and unprovided with shelter of any kind, the night was passed in listening to the frequent cheering of the garrison, and in the hope that a few short hours would afford an opportunity of putting their noisy valour to the test.

British Assault on Burmese Kemmendine Fort (June 1824).
The day had scarcely dawned when hostilities commenced, and after a short bombardment, columns of attack being formed, moved forward to the assault; but they only arrived in time to witness the last of the rapidly-retreating Burmese, who panic-struck with the dreadful effect of our shells in a crowded stockade, and wholly unprepared for such assault, had prudently commenced to evacuate the place soon after the batteries first opened.

Situation of the Army up to the First of July

Some days of quiet followed the operations at Kemmendine, the enemy, strongly impressed with their losses and disappointment, kept at a safer distance from our lines, and the troops, for a short time, suffered less annoyance from nightly visits to their posts; but beyond these temporary advantages, no favourable change took place, either in the situation of the force, or in our future prospects.

Not an inhabitant returned to his home; nor was a desire of peace evinced in any measures of the court of Ava. On the contrary, hostility, to the last extremity, had evidently been fully solved upon; the advances, proposals, and remonstrances of the Indian government were alike treated with silent contempt.

Much has been said of the ignorance in which the king of Ava was kept, regarding the causes and progresses of the war; that the communications that had passed between the two countries, both previous to and after its commencement, had been carefully kept from his knowledge; and that his ministers and chiefs, in the full confidence of terminating the contest favourably, continued to keep him in ignorance of the disasters and defeats his troops sustained, in the neighbourhood of Rangoon, deceiving him with constant assurances of victories, and the speedy expulsion of the invaders from his kingdom.

Royal Court at Ava the capital of Burma (1820).
Nothing, however, proved more incorrect than these conjectures; as abundant opportunities afterwards occurred of ascertaining from many sources, that hostilities were not only sanctioned by his majesty, but that his resolution of attacking our south-east frontier had been publicly announced long previous to the invasion of his own territories; and there is every reason to believe that the country at large applauded the resolution, and looked forward with confidence to the honour and riches that awaited them, in a war with their wealthy neighbours.

It is perhaps to be regretted, that our imperfect knowledge of the nation prevented a more correct opinion from being formed of the probable effects of a landing in their country; and still more unfortunate, that the information of those who had visited Ava should have led us to calculate upon aid, assistance, or supplies from the natives of Pegu.

Experience, however, soon satisfied even the most sanguine, of the value to be placed upon the friendly dispositions of the Peguers (Mons): instead of improving, our situation gradually became worse; and our very successes, in proving to the enemy with what facility their strongest posts were carried, only tended to convince them of the necessity of removing the means of transport we were so much in want of farther from our reach.

The plains, for many miles around us, were swept of their herds; the rivers were unprovided with one friendly canoe; the towns and villages were deserted, and every man beyond our posts in arms against us.

Promises of reward and offers of protection, supported with frequent examples of our power to afford it, proved equally unavailing in drawing from their allegiance men brought up in terror of their chiefs, and still impressed with extravagant notions of the talents and resources of their rulers.

The chiefs, on their part, fully confident of the ultimate success of their plans, continued to pursue their desolating system with unrelenting rigour, and with a success that effectually put a stop to further expectations of local aid, and pointed to India as a place from which the means of prosecuting the war must necessarily be derived.

Before the end of june, the enemy appeared to have recovered in a great measure from the panic and dismay occasioned by the reverses they had experienced in the early part of the month.

Having received large reinforcements, and supplies of warlike stores, Sykia Wongee  (third minister of state), who commanded in chief, again advanced, with positive orders from the king to attack and drive the British at once into the sea.

On the 30th and 31st unusual bustle and commotion, in the woods in our front, announced the approaching contest.

Eight thousand men were computed to have crossed to the Rangoon side of the river, above Kemmendine, in one day; and the jungles around us seemed animated by unseen multitude of people: clouds of smoke marked the encampments of the different corps of the Burmhan army in the forest; and their noisy preparations for attack formed a striking contrast to the still and quiet aspect of the British line.

The arrival of the eighty-ninth British regiment from Madras, and the junction of the detachments which had captured Cheduba and Negrais, added considerably to the force, which had already been much diminished by the sickness and death, brought on by hard service during an inclement season, and the usual casualties of war.

(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.)