Wednesday, May 9, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 9

(Chapter IX 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.)

Indian Sepoys of British Native Infantry.
By the end of October the rains had ceased; and the return of the cold season, at all times so ardently hailed with pleasure in warm climates, could not fail to receive a double welcome from men who had for five months experienced so much misery and inconvenience, - exposed to severe and arduous duty before an enemy, at a season of the year when the troops of all other nations than those of Ava would have permitted us to enjoy uninterrupted rest – the soldiers naturally ascribing their sufferings, and much of the sickness that had prevailed among them, to the baneful experience and long continuance of the monsoon.

It however proved, as it generally does, in countries subject to periodical rains, that the most unhealthy period is that which immediately follows their termination; when the unwholesome exhalations from the ground, and noxious vapours from sheets of stagnant water, are pregnant with diseases and death.

This was felt to be particularly as the case in Rangoon; and in October, the sickness and number of deaths were greater than in any previous month.

State of the Force at Conclusion of Rains

In November, however, a sensible change in the health of the troops was apparent; and although their numbers were by that time woefully reduced, it was gratifying to observe the men out of hospitals gradually regaining that state of health and strength so requisite for undergoing the duty of active service, while their spirits, which had remained firm and unsubdued in the midst of trials of no ordinary magnitude, rose with the prospect of an early meeting with the enemy, of a nature more consonant to the feelings and character of a British soldier, than the indecisive and harassing warfare they had lately been engaged in.

General Maha Bandoola.
The promise, too, of an early movement in advance, and the consequent change of scene, so pleasing and exhilarating to men who have suffered from the effects of climate, had its influence, even upon the hospitals, in awakening the unfortunate sufferers from the lethargy of debility, and causing a most anxious desire in all, to be able to join their comrades in the approaching operations.

But the time was still distant when any forward movement could be anticipated.

The whole force of Ava advancing upon Rangoon must previously be disposed of; and even if successful in defeating that force, and overturning the formidable preparations in array against us, there was but too great reason to fear that our numbers would be so much reduced as to forbid the prosecution of offensive operations, while, up to the end of November, we were still unprovided with the means of moving a single company.

Measures, however, were in train for supplying, as far as possible, the wants of the army; and the presidencies of Calcutta and Fort St. George were using every effort to equip the force, as far as the partial means at their immediate disposal would permit.

The reduction of all the enemy’s maritime possessions had now been accomplished; his armies had been defeated at every point without producing any of the results which had been calculated on; and it could no longer be presumed as even probable, that the defeat of Bandoola’s force would be attended with any more permanent or decisive advantages, or incline the court of Ava to sue for peace.

The obstinate, blind and arrogant character of that government became daily more conspicuous; their resources and determination had already already surpassed all previous calculations; and while the British army remained stationary, it was but too obvious they would neither want men, means nor inclination to prolong the contest, already sufficiently ruinous in expense and wast of lives.

A decided forward movement, at least to Prome, or even the reduction of the capital, might still be necessary to bring the infatuated Monarch to his senses; and brief as the season of preparation must necessarily be, every possible exertion was made to enable a small corps to make the effort after the trial of strength had taken place, which the enemy was so kindly preparing to accommodate us with on our own ground.

From the best information we could receive, the country would not be in a state to enable the troops to march, with safety to their health, before the end of January; up to the middle of November it was still covered with water, and even Bandoola’s army had to come to the scene of action chiefly by water.

Reinforcement and Equipment Sent from India

Five hundred Mug (Arracan) boatmen had arrived from Chittagong, and were busily engaged in preparing boats for river service; and a reinforcement of two British regiments, the first and forty-seventh; some battalions of native infantry; a regiment of cavalry; a troop of horse-artillery, and one of rockets, were also destined to join the army before it moved in advance.

Already transports with draught cattle were beginning to arrive: officers and men were engaged in preparing for the march, when our attention was summoned to our front by near approach of Maha Bandoola and his army.

Approach of the Grand Army under Maha Bandoola

The efforts of the last three months spent in collecting and organizing the military resources of the nation, and the arrival of the troops from Arracan, in the beginning of November, had placed that favourite leader at the head of sixty thousand fighting men, with a considerable train of artillery and a body of Cassay horse.

The several corps and detachments, proceeding from many different parts of the empire, were by that time assembled, and in readiness to move from Danoobew, the place of general meeting, where they had been joined by the Bandoola, and several other chiefs of rank and reputation.

This army was esteemed the largest and best armed the court of Ava had ever sent into the field; and unbounded expectations of success were entertained from its vast numerical superiority over the British, and from the vaunting confidence and high character of its general.

The musketeers were estimated at thirty-five thousand men; great numbers were armed with jingals, a small but most annoying piece, carrying a ball of from six to twelve ounces, and mounted on a carriage which two men can manage and move about at pleasure.

The Cassay horse amounted to seven hundred, and a considerable body of men was attached to the guns, which were carried from the river to the scene of action on the elephants’ backs. The rest of the force was armed with swords and spears, and well provided with the necessary implements for stockading and entrenching.

This last class are attached to, and act in concert with the musketeers, by whose fire they are covered when employed in sapping or making their approaches upon a defending enemy, mutually supporting each other in every situation.

In their close engagements of stockaded warfare, these spearmen are far from being the least formidable of the Burmese troops; endowed by nature with great physical strength, their long spears and short swords give them advantage at close quarters even over the musket and bayonet.

But the force would not have been completed without the addition of invulnerables, who, amply provided with charms, spells, and opium, in the ensuing operations afforded much amusement in the dance of defiance, committing all manners of ludicrous extravagances, with the most prodigal exposures of their bodies.

Confused rumours of the arrival of the Arracan army on the Irrawaddy at Sembeughewn (Sin-phyu-kyun) and other points, and of its junction with other levies and corps on its way down the river; of their concentration at Donoobew (Da-nu-byu), and the movement of successive divisions towards our front; and finally of Bandoola’s approach with the main body of his grand army, reached Rangoon in early November: but such vigilance and alert watch was still maintained by the disheartened legions in our neighbourhood, now almost dwindled into a military police, that no correct information could be obtained either of the strength or movements of the advancing army.

It was not until towards the end of the month, that full and authentic information was obtained by means of an intercepted dispatch from Bandoola to the ex-governor of Martaban, in which he notified his having left Prome at the head of an invincible army, with horses and elephants, and all manner of warlike stores for the purpose of capturing or expelling the English from Rangoon.

The intelligence was no sooner received than every necessary arrangement was made for the Bandoola’s reception.

The eighty-ninth regiment had rejoined from Tavoy, but our diminished numbers were still very inadequate to the defence of the extensive position (as has been already mentioned) we had unavoidably to occupy.

To remedy, however, this evil as far as possible, posts, consisting of redoubts and fortified pagodas, well defended by artillery, and held by small garrisons, were speedily constructed, connecting the great pagoda by two distinct lines, one fronting to the east, and the other to the west, with Rangoon and the river – leaving a disposable force for moving to the support of any point, or for attacking the enemy, should he afford an opportunity of doing so to an advantage.

The post at Kemmendine was also strongly occupied, and supported on the river by his Majesty’s sloop, Sophie, Captain Ryves, a Company’s cruizer, and a strong division of gun-boats: this post was of great importance in preventing the enemy from attacking Rangoon by water, or launching from a convenient distance the numerous formidable fire-rafts, he had prepared for the destruction of our shipping.

On the 30th of November the Burmese army was assembled in the extensive forest in front of the Shwedagon pagoda, and his line extending from the river above Kemmendine in a semicircular direction towards Puzendown, might be distinguished by a curved line of smoke rising above the trees from the bivouacs of the different corps.

During the following night the low, continued murmur and hum of voices proceeding from the enemy encampment suddenly ceased, and was speedily succeeded by the distant but gradually approaching sounds of a multitude in slow and silent movement through the woods; and we soon became aware that the enemy masses had approached to the very edge of the jungle, within musket-shot of the pagoda, apparently in readiness to rush from their cover to the assault at the break of day.

Towards morning, however, the woods resounded with the blows of the felling-axe and hammer, and with the crash of falling trees, leaving us for sometime in doubt whether or not the noise was intended as a ruse, to draw our attention from the front, or whether the Burmese commanders had resolved to proceed with their usual slow, safe, and systematic measures of attack.

(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.)