Wednesday, April 11, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 5

(Chapter V 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.)

The Great Dagon Pagoda, in itself a fortress, was occupied by a battalion of Europeans, and may be considered as the key of the British position, the rest of the force occupying the two roads running from it to the town; the numerous religious edifices, convents, and pilgrims’ houses upon them, affording good shelter to the troops against the inclemency of the season.

Two detached posts completed the position: one at the village of Puzendown (Pa-zun-daung), where the Pegu and Rangoon rivers meet, about a mile below the town; the other at Kemmendine, for the protection of the shipping against the enemy’s fire-rafts.

(11,000 strong British forces had formed a strong-triangular defensive position. The apex of that triangle was the fortified Shwe Dagon Pagoda occupied by 5,000 strong European and Indian troops and the base of the triangle was Rangoon River where the British fleet was. The main connecting line between the apex and base was the now Shwe Dagon Pagoda Road.)
Old Rangoon Map (1760).
Feeble Attack of the Enemy on the British Lines

About mid-day on the 1st of July, the enemy appeared in large bodies issuing from the jungle to the right and front of the Great Pagoda, moving towards Rangoon, in a direction nearly parallel to our position, and detaching a column to the left, which took possession of the upper part of the village of Puzendown, and set it on fire.

The main body having arrived within half a mile of Rangoon, their columns rapidly changed front, and commenced a spirited attack upon that part of our line which approached nearest to the town.

Their masses, covered by a cloud of skirmishers, having penetrated between two of our piquets, formed upon a hill within musket-shot of the position, and commenced firing from jingals, and other heavy arms.

But on the salute being returned by two field-pieces served with grape and shrapnel, their advance was quickly checked; and at the same moment the forty-third Madras native infantry, opposed to them, moving forward in the handsomest style, drove their columns from the hill, and compelled them to seek for safety in a rapid retreat.

During the attack upon our right, parties of the enemy felt our piquets along the line to our left, in front of which his columns were concealed by the jungle, apparently only waiting for the signal to attack.

That signal, however, was never given: it depended upon the success that might attend the operations of the left wing, which was to attack vigorously, and having carried any part of our position, the whole Burmese line was to have rushed boldly forward to complete the victory.

Such was Sykia Wungee’s plan of attack, and having failed in the first part of it, he did not think it expedient to persevere further, but directed a general retreat.

The news of his defeat had no sooner reached Ava, than the unfortunate Wungee was recalled in disgrace, although in the interim a senior officer, Soomba Wungee (Thone-bar Wungee or second minister), had arrived with considerable reinforcements, and assumed the command of the army of Henzawaddy (The province of Rangoon named by the Burmese Henzawaddy).

Convinced, from the ill successes of his predecessors, that his troops were not in a state to cope with the British in the field, or in regular warfare, the new commander wisely stockaded his army in the most difficult parts of the forest, at a place called Kummeroot (Ka-mar-yut), about five miles from the Great Pagoda, intending, under cover of the night, to carry on such a system of desultory warfare, as would harass, and ultimately destroy our worn-out soldiers.

He had also fortified a commanding point upon the river above Kemmendine, in communication with his stockaded camp, and not only obstructing the navigation of the river, but affording the excellent situation for the construction of the fire-rafts, by the judicious employment of which he contemplated the destruction of our shipping.

These arrangements completed, the confidence they inspired was soon conspicuous, in the daring inroads of numerous parties, which now paid nightly visits to our lines, and determined the British commander, notwithstanding the incessant rains which fell, to endeavour to bring the Wungee to a general action.

Attack and Capture of Burmese Fortified Camp at Kummeroot

The necessary orders to that effect were accordingly given out, and on the morning of the 8th, two columns of attack were formed, Sir Archibald Campbell embarking with one column for the attack of the enemy’s position upon the river, while Brigadier-General McBean, with the land column, was directed to move upon Kummeroot, and attack the enemy vigorously on that side.

The position above Rangoon was found sufficiently formidable, and the ground remarkably well chosen.

About a mile above Kemmendine the river separates into two branches; the point of land where they divide is bold and projecting, and commands a long reach under it. Upon this point the enemy’s principal stockade was erected, provided with artillery, and defended by a numerous garrison.

On the opposite bank of either branch stockades and other defences were erected, enfilading the approach to the principal work, and all mutually defending each other.

It was judged necessary to employ breaching vessels, for the purpose of destroying the outward defences of the works, and at nine o’clock a brig and three Company’s cruizers, manned by seamen of his Majesty’s and honourable Company’s navy, under the superintendence of Captain Marryat, the senior naval officer, dropped with the tide, took their respective stations, and opened a heavy cannonade on the stockade.

The enemy’s guns were for some time well served, but they were ultimately silenced by the superior fire from the shipping; and the preconcerted signal of “breach practicable” being displayed from the mainmast-head of the senior officer’s ship (Lieutenant Frazer of the navy), the troops destined for the assault, consisting of details from his Majesty’s forty-first and seventeenth Madras native infantry, under Lieutenant-colonel Goodwin and Major Wahab, pushed across the river in boats, and notwithstanding the stakes and other obstacles they had to encounter on landing, in a very short time surmounted every difficulty, and carried the great stockade with comparatively small loss, the enemy suffering severely in killed, and many being drowned in trying to effect their escape.

The operations of the land column this day were equally successful.

Brigadier-general McBean on approaching Kummeroot found surrounded by stockades, the extent or strength of which could be only partially observed, and in presence of a force whose numbers, when compared with the little column that advanced upon them, warranted in some measure the Burmese chiefs in treating any attempt upon their works, by such a handful, with ridicule and contempt.

Unprovided with guns (artillery), the Brigadier-general at once formed his troops for the assault, and storming parties from his Majesty’s thirteenth, thirty-eighth, and eighty-ninth regiments, rapidly advanced to escalade.

The principal work in the centre of the enemy’s line was composed of three distinct stockades, one within another, in the interior one of which, Soomba Wungee, the Burmese commander-in-chief, had established his headquarters, secure in the imagined strength of his position, and in the valour of his men.

He was sitting down to dinner when the approach of the British troops was first announced to him; and merely directing his chiefs to their posts, and “drive the audacious strangers away,” the haughty Wungee, without seeming to pay more attention to the report, was proceeding with his forenoon repast, when the rapid musketry of the assailants at length convinced him that the utmost courage and exertion would be required to save him from defeat, disgrace, and probably from the vengeance of his sovereign: urged by these considerations, Soomba Wungee, contrary to the ordinary custom of Burmese commanders, placed himself at the head of his retreating troops, and encouraged them by his voice and his example, to offer a steady resistance to their advancing foes.

His two first lines, already routed with dreadful slaughter, were crowding into the centre stockade, followed by the British soldiers, whose unremitting and destructive fire upon the confused and penned-up mass rendered all the exertions of their chiefs to restore any degree of order fruitless and unavailing.

Wongees and Woondocks, officers and men indiscriminately mixed together, unable to fly, charged the British soldiers with the fury of despair, but their efforts and resistance only tended to augment their losses and complete their final route.

Soonma Wongee, a Woondock, and several other chiefs of rank, with eight hundred men were killed upon the spot, and the jungle and villages in the neighbourhood were filled with the unhappy wretches who were wounded, and left to die, from want of food and care.

(For hundreds and hundreds of years the well-built stockades had been the instruments of victory for the Burmese, but now facing the well-disciplined, professional British troops equipped with modern firearms and field-cannons and deadly siege-mortars the very same stockades are quickly becoming the death-traps for the Burmese.)

The disastrous consequences of the action of 8th July failed not to make a deep impression on the enemy, and redouble the caution and prudence of their chiefs.

The ease and celerity with which the British troops had in one day captured ten stockades provided with thirty pieces of artillery, and garrisoned by vastly superior numbers, convinced the leaders of the Burmese army, that their strongest fortifications insured no certain protection against such assailants, whose skill and resources afforded on all occasions the means of overcoming obstacles which, in all their former wars, had been deemed insurmountable; and the Burmese troops were no less satisfied that no numerical superiority could place them on a footing with soldiers whose rapid and combined movements, covered by a destructive and sustained fire, rendered their owned hurried and irregulars efforts only production of confusion and consequent defeat.

On the 11th instant a party of reconnaissance visited the captured stockades, but saw nothing of the enemy. Several wounded Burmese were found lying about the place, and were brought into our hospitals, but unfortunately none of them recovered.

They said the stockade had been visited on the 9th by parties of their countrymen, sent for the purpose of collecting balls, and such muskets or other weapons as might have been left undestroyed.

These men gave their wounded comrades a most deplorable account of an army; their loss they represented as immense, stating that the villages, for many leagues behind, were crowded with their wounded; and that desertions to a great extent were daily taking place.

They left food and water with the wounded men, but as their wounds were considered mortal, no offer of further aid was made, or desire expressed of being moved: in such cases the unhappy sufferer is generally left to his fate, which he meets with fortitude and resignation; and if at any time pain compels him to solicit aid, it is only that a speedy period may be put to his sufferings.

A considerable time now elapsed without any occurrence beyond a few partial affairs of posts. The rains were at their height, and the adjacent country almost wholly under water. Sickness, to an alarming extent, had made its appearance among the troops, and the prospect of a successful termination to the contest became daily more gloomy and uncertain.

The enemy, on their part, rendered more cautious and circumspect by experience, kept at a safer distance from our front, but continued to act to the sufferings of our troops, by frequent nocturnal visits and successful exertions in preventing our foraging parties from obtaining the supplies which we stood in so much want of.

No part, however, of the conduct of their rulers evinced the slightest disposition to come to any explanation on the subject of a peace, the recent misfortunes of their armies only tending to stimulate the court of Ava to more vigorous measures, levying and equipping men for that purpose in every part of the country.

Expedition Sent against Mergui and Tavoy

The British commander, disappointed in his expectations of bringing the enemy to terms, by any local operations or successes; and unprovided with the means of carrying a war a day’s march into the interior, now resolved, in obedience to his instructions, to attempt the subjugation of his Burmhan majesty’s maritime possessions to the eastward, in the hope that their conquest might induce him to listen to reason and accept of terms.

For that purpose a small expedition, consisting of his Majesty’s eighty-ninth regiment, and the seventh Madras native infantry, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Miles, was immediately got in readiness, and, with a considerable naval force, sailed to the eastward.

This expedition was attended with complete success; Tavoy surrendered, Mergui was taken by storm, and the whole coast of Tenassarem gladly accepted of British protection; but owing to the unfavourable season of the year, news of these events did not reach Rangoon before the beginning of October, when the war had assumed an aspect that precluded every hope of peace from any event short of the reduction of the capital, or the complete prostration of the power and resources of the nation.

Rescuing the People of Rangoon from Their Burmese Captors

During the latter part of July, finding ourselves in a great measure relieved from the presence of any force in our immediate neighbourhood, the time was considered favourable for attempting the release of such of the inhabitants of Rangoon, as were desirous of returning to their houses, it having been represented that many families of that description were detained by small guards in the villages upon the Puzendown Creek: for that purpose a detachment was embarked on board the steam-vessel and boats of the flotilla, and proceeded up the river; but the vigilance and activity of the Burmese police, even amidst the defeat and disasters of their army, was everywhere conspicuous, in the precautions they had taken to prevent our reaping any advantage from late occurrences.

At the different villages up the creek, a great number of large cargo-boats, deeply laden with rice and salt-fish, were found in readiness to start for Ava, the moment an opportunity of passing Rangoon occurred; but to us they were rendered useless by their unmanageable construction, the boatmen, who alone can conduct them in safety through the currents and eddies of the river, having fled at the approach of the troops.

The whole of this district is very fertile in rice, and a large quantity is annually sent up the Irrawaddy, for the consumption of the capital, and the less fertile provinces of Upper Ava.

The large boats above mentioned, in which it is conveyed, make only one trip yearly, being sent down with the first rise of the river, in the beginning of the rainy season; they receive their cargoes, and proceed on their voyage home, when the river is full, and during the strength of the south-west monsoon, which enables them to stem the current.

In every village there appeared a small party of military police, who, upon the appearance of the steam-vessel and other boats, rigidly enforced the orders of their post, by driving the inhabitants, men, women, and children, from their houses to the jungle, there to remain exposed to the incessant rains, until their guards thought proper to permit them to return.

At most of the villages we found a few old priests, left as a protection to the property of the villagers, and through their means we endeavoured to persuade the people to escape from their oppressors; but either from fear, or an idea that we must ultimately yield to the numerous legions of their king, and be forced to re-embark, our invitations at this time produced a very partial effect, even among those whose condition was most wretched.

A few families, however, were released from their guards by the sudden and unexpected arrival of the troops.

These gladly chose to proceed to Rangoon; and to the influence of their report, of the kind treatment they experienced, we were subsequently indebted for the return of the great body of the people, to whose services and exertions the army was so much indebted in the ensuing campaign.

(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.)