Sunday, June 24, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 10

(Chapter X 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.)

Actions In Front Of Rangoon, December First, 1824

Burmese General Maha Bandoola.
The day had scarcely dawned, on the 1st of December, when hostilities commenced with a heavy fire of musketry and cannon at Kemmendine, the reduction of that place being a preliminary to any general attack on our line.

The firing continued long and animated; and from our commanding situation at the Great Pagoda, though nearly two miles distance from the scene of action, we could distinctly hear the yells and shouts of the infuriated assailants, occasionally returned by the hearty cheer of the British seamen, as they poured in their heavy broadsides upon the resolute and persevering masses.

The thick forest which separated us from the river, prevented our seeing distinctly what was going forward; and when the firing ceased, we remained for a short time in some anxiety, though in little doubt as to the result of the long and spirited assault.

At length, however, the thick canopy of smoke which lowered over the fierce and sanguinary conflict gradually dissolving, we had the pleasure of seeing the masts of our vessels lying at their old stations off the fort – a convincing proof that all had ended well on our side.

In the course of the forenoon Burmese columns were observed on the west side of the river, marching across the plain of Dalla, towards Rangoon.

They were formed in five or six different divisions, and moved with great regularity, led by numerous chiefs on horseback – their gilt umbrellas glittering in the rays of the sun, with a sufficiently formidable and imposing effect, at a distance that prevented our perceiving anything motley or mobbish, which might have been found in a closer inspection of these warlike legions.

On reaching the bank of the river opposite to Rangoon, the men of the leading division, laying aside their arms, commenced entrenching and throwing up batteries for the destruction of the shipping, while the main body disappeared in a jungle in the rear, where they began stockading and establishing their camp, gradually reinforcing the front line as the increasing extent of the batteries and entrenchments permitted.

Later in the day several heavy columns were observed issuing from the forest, about a mile in front of the east face of the Great Pagoda, with flags and banners flying in profusion.

Their march was directed along a gently-sloping woody ridge towards Rangoon: the different corps successively taking up their ground along the ridge, soon assumed the appearance of a complete line, extending from the forest in front of the Pagoda, to within long gun-shot distant of the town, and resting on the river at Puzendown, which was strongly occupied by cavalry and infantry; these formed the left wing of the Burmese army.

The centre, or the continuation of the line, from the Great Pagoda up to Kemmendine, where it again rested on the river, was posted in so thick a forest, as to defy all conjecture as to its strength or situation; but we were well aware that the principle force occupied the jungle in the immediate vicinity of the Pagoda, which was naturally considered as the key to our position, and upon which the great effort would accordingly be made.

In the course of a few hours we thus found ourselves completely surrounded, with the narrow channel of the Rangoon river alone unoccupied in our rear, and with only the limited space within our lines that we could still call our own.

The line of circumvallation taken up by the enemy, obviously extended a very considerable distance, and divided as it was by the river, injudiciously weakened his means of assailing us on any particular point; but as far as celerity, order, and regularity are concerned, the style in which the different corps took up their stations in the line, reflected much credit on the arrangement of the Burmese commander.

When this singular and presumptuous formation was completed, the soldiers of the left columns also laying aside their spears and muskets, commenced operations with their entrenching tools, with such activity and good will, that in the course of a couple of hours their line had wholly disappeared, and could only be traced by a parapet of new earth gradually increasing in height, and assuming such forms as the skill and science of the engineer suggested.

The moving masses, which had so very lately attracted our anxious attention, had sunk into the ground; and to anyone who had not witnessed the whole scene, the existence of these subterranean legions would not have been credited: the occasional movement of a chief, with his gilt umbrella, from place to place, superintending the progress of their labour, was the only thing that now attracted notice.

By a distant observer, the hills, covered with mounds of earth, would have been taken for anything rather than the approaches of an attacking army; but to us who had watched the whole strange proceeding, it seemed the work of magic or enchantment.

In the afternoon his majesty’s thirteenth regiment and the eighteenth Madras Native Infantry, under Major Sale, were ordered to move rapidly forward upon the busily-employed and too-confident enemy; and as was suspected, they were found wholly unprepared for such a visit, or for our acting in anyway, against such numerous opponents, on the offensive.

They had scarcely perceived the approach of our troops before they were upon them, and the fire which they at last commenced proved wholly inadequate to checking their advance.

Having forced a passage through the entrenchments and taken the enemy in flank, British detachment drove the whole line from their cover with considerable loss; and having destroyed as many of their arms and tools as they could find, retired unmolested before the numerous bodies which were now forming on every side around them.

The trenches were found to be a succession of holes, capable of containing two men each, and excavated, so as to afford shelter, both from the weather and the fire of an enemy; even a shell lighting in the trench could at most but kill two men.

As it is not the Burmese system to relieve their troops in making these approaches, each hole contained a sufficient supply of rice, water, and even fuel for its inmates; and under the excavated bank, a bed of straw or brushwood was prepared, in which one man could sleep while his comrade watched.

When one line of trench is completed, its occupiers, taking advantage of the night, push forward to where the second line is to be opened, their place being immediately taken up by fresh troops from the rear, and so on progressively, - the number of trenches occupied varying according to the force of the besiegers, to the plans of the general, or to the nature of the ground.

The Burmese, in the course of the evening, re-occupied their trenches, and re-commenced their labours, as if nothing had occurred; their commander, however, took the precaution of bringing forward a strong corps of reserve to the verge of the forest, from which his left wing had issued, to protect it from any future interruption in its operations.

During the day, repeated attacks on Kemmendine had been made and repulsed; but it was not until darkness had set in, that the last desperate effort of the day was made to gain possession of that post.

Already the wearied soldiers had lain down to rest, when suddenly the heavens and the whole surrounding country became brilliantly illuminated by the flames of several tremendous fire-rafts, floating down the river towards Rangoon; and scarcely had the blaze appeared, when incessant rolls of musketry and peals of cannon were heard from Kemmendine.

The enemy had launched their fire-rafts into the stream with the first of the ebb tide, in the hope of driving the vessels from their stations off the place; and they were followed up by war-boats ready to take advantage of the confusion which might ensue, should any of them be set on fire.

The skill and intrepidity of British seamen, however, proved more than a match for the numbers and devices of the enemy: entering their boats they grappled the flaming rafts, and conducted them past the shipping, or run them ashore upon the bank.

On the land side of the enemy were equally unsuccessful, being again repulsed with heavy loss, in the most resolute attempt they had yet made to reach the interior of the fort.

The fire-rafts were, upon examinations, found to be ingeniously contrived, and formidably constructed, made wholly of bamboos firmly wrought together, between every two or three rows of which a line of earthen jars of considerable size, filled with petroleum, or earth-oil and cotton, were secured; other inflammable ingredients were also distributed in different parts of the raft, and the almost unextinguishable fierceness of the flames proceeding from them can scarcely be imagined.

Many of them were considerably upwards of the one hundred feet in length, and were divided into many pieces attached to each other by means of long hinges, so arranged, that when they caught upon the cable or bow of any ship, the force of the current would carry the ends of the raft completely round her, and envelope her in flames from the deck to her main-topmast head, with scarcely a possibility of extricating herself from the devouring element.

With possession of Kemmendine, the enemy could have launched these rafts into the stream, from a point where they must have reached our shipping in the crowded harbour; but while we retained that post, they were obliged to despatch them from above it, and the setting of the current carried them, after passing the vessels at the station, upon a projecting point of land, where they almost invariably grounded; and this circumstance, no doubt, much increased Bandoola’s anxiety to drive us from so important a position.   

Actions In Front Of Rangoon, December Second, 1824

At daylight, on the morning of the 2nd, the enemy were observed still busily at work on every part of their line, and to have completely entrenched themselves upon some high and open ground, within musket-shot distance of the north face of the Great Pagoda, from which it was also separated by a considerable tank, named by the Rangoon settlers, (probably on account of the sulphureous qualities of its water,) the Scotch tank.

Upon this ridge, and a woody valley on its right, frequent skirmishing now took place; and on several occasions it became necessary to dislodge them from particular points, from which their guns could enfilade our line, or their musketry be brought to bear upon the very barracks occupied by our soldiers, in which they were now not unfrequently wounded while asleep.

In the spirited encounters which the enemy’s near approach gave rise to, it was gratifying to observe the undaunted bearing of the British soldier, in the midst of countless numbers of the enemy, who were not to be driven from their ground by the united fire of musketry and cannon.

In the imagined safety of their cover they firmly maintained themselves, and returned our fire; and it was only at the decisive and intrepid charge, that they quailed to the courage of the European, and refused to meet him hand to hand.

Actions In Front Of Rangoon, December Third & Fourth, 1824

During the 3rd and 4th, the enemy continued their approaches upon every part of our position with indefatigable labour and assiduity. At the Great Pagoda they had now reached the margin of the tank, and kept up a constant fire upon our barracks, saluting with a dozen muskets everyone who showed his head above the ramparts, and, when nothing better could be done, expending both round and grape shot in vain attempts to strike the British ensign, which proudly waived high upon their scared temple.

On the side of Rangoon, they had approached near enough to fire an occasional gun upon the town, while they maintained incessant warfare with two small posts in its front, to which they were now so near, as to keep their garrisons constantly on the alert, in expectation of being attacked.

From the entrenchments on the opposite side of river, an incessant fire was kept up day and night upon our shipping, which were all anchored as near as possible to the Rangoon side, with the exception of one or two armed vessels, which still kept the middle of the stream, and returned the enemy’s fire.

At Kemmendine, peace was seldom maintained above two hours at any time; but the little garrison (composed of the twenty-sixth Madras Native Infantry and a European detachment), though worn out with fatigue and want of rest, undauntedly received, and successfully repulsed, every successive attack of the enemy’s fresh troops.

Indian Sepoys of British Native Infantry.
The sepoys, with unwearied constancy and noblest feeling, even declined leaving their post, or laying aside their muskets for the purpose of cooking, lest it should give an advantage to the enemy, and contented themselves for several days with little else than dried rice for food.

On the river, the situation of the vessels was often extremely perilous: some of them were occasionally forced to slip their cables, and on one occasion the Teignmouth cruiser actually caught fire, which was with difficulty extinguished; but British seamanship finally triumphed over every device of the crafty and ingenious enemy, who, fertile as they had shown themselves in expedient, and confidently as they had commenced their operations, at last began to slacken in their efforts, and gradually became less vigilant in the obstinate and protracted contest for the possession of the post.

Actions In Front Of Rangoon, December Fifth, 1824

The material and warlike stores of the enemy’s left wing being now brought forward from the jungle to their entrenchments, and completely within our reach, and their threatening vicinity to the town creating some uneasiness for the safety of our military stores, which were all lodged in that ill-protected and highly-combustible assemblage of huts and wooden-houses, the British general determined to make a decisive attack upon that part of the opposing army; and on the morning of the 5th, two columns of attack, consisting of detachments from different regiments, were for that purpose formed, one eight hundred strong, under Major Sale, of the 13th regiment, and the other of five hundred, under Major Walker, of the Madras Army.

Major Sale was directed to attack the centre of the enemy’s line, and Major Walker to advance from the post in front of the town, and to attack vigorously on that side; and a troop of dragoons, which had only been landed on the preceding day, was added to the first column, ready to take advantage of the enemy’s retreat across the open ground to the jungle.

Early on that morning, as previously arranged, the naval commander, Captain Chads, proceeded up the Puzendown Creek, within gun-shot of the rear of the enemy’s line, with the man-of-war boats and part of the flotilla, and commenced a heavy cannonade upon the nearest entrenchments, attracting the enemy’s chief attention to that point, until the preconcerted signal for attack was made, when both columns moved off together; but from some obstacle in the ground, Major Walker’s party first reached its destined point, and made a spirited assault on the lines.

The enemy made a good resistance, and Major Walker, and many of his gallant comrades, fell in the advance to the first entrenchment, which was finally carried at the point of the bayonet, and the enemy successively driven from trench to trench, till this part of the field presented the appearance of a total rout.

The other column now commencing its attack in front, quickly forced the centre, and the whole Burmese left wing, entrenched upon the plain, was broken and dispersed, flying in hundreds, or assembling in confused and detached parties, or else maintaining a useless and disjointed resistance from different parts of the works to which our troops had not yet penetrated.

The two British columns now forming a junction, pursued, and drove the defendants from every part of their works into the jungle, leaving the ground behind them covered with dead and wounded, with all their guns, entrenching tools, and a great number of small arms; while the judgement, celerity, and spirit with which the attack was made had taken the enemy so entirely unawares, that our troops suffered comparatively trifling loss.

Actions In Front Of Rangoon, December Sixth. 1824

The 6th was spent by the Bandoola in rallying his defeated left; but it appeared to be still far from his intention to give up the contest on account of the failures and defeats he had already sustained.

In front of the Great Pagoda, his troops still laboured with unabated zeal in their approaches upon our position; and this part of his line had been strongly reinforced by the troops which had been driven from the plain on the preceding day.

Actions In Front Of Rangoon, December Seventh, 1824

The morning of the 7th was fixed upon for bringing matters to a crisis at this point; and four columns of attack, composed of detachments, were early formed, under the superintendence of the commander of the forces, in readiness to move from the Pagoda, and assail the entrenchments on both flanks, and in the centre.

Before the troops advanced, a severe cannonade was opened from many pieces of heavy ordnance, which had been brought from the river, and placed in battery for the defence of this important post. This the enemy stood with much firmness, and returned it, with a constant, though very unequal, fire of musketry, jingals, and light artillery.

While the firing continued, the columns of attack were already in motion towards their several points; and when it ceased, the left corps, under Colonel Mallet, was seen debouching from the jungle upon the enemy’s right; the right column under Colonel Brodie, Madras army, in like manner advancing on the left; and the two central columns, one under Colonel Parlby, of the Madras army, the other commanded by Captain Wilson, of his Majesty’s thirty-eighth regiment, descending the stairs from the north gate of the Pagoda, and filing up towards the centre of the position by either side of the tank formerly mentioned, as partly covering the entrenchments on this side.

The appearance of our troops at the same moment upon so many different points seemed to paralyze their opponents; but they soon recovered from their momentary panic, and opened a heavy and well-sustained fire upon the assailants; and it was not until a decided charge was made, and our troops actually in the trenches, that the enemy finally gave way: their courage failed them at this extremity, and they were precipitately driven from their numerous works, curiously shaped, and strengthened by many strange contrivances, into the thick forest in their  rear.

Here all pursuit was necessarily given up; our limited numbers, exhausted by seven days of watching and hard service, were unequal to further fatigue; though even when our men were fresh, the enemy could at all times, baffle their pursuit in a country which to them afforded so many facilities for escaping.

Upon the ground, the enemy left a great number of death, who seemed generally, from their stout and athletic forms, to have been their best troops. Their bodies had each a charm of some description, in which the brave deceased had no doubt trusted for protection against all harm and every danger, although on this occasion they seemed to have completely lost their virtue. In the entrenchments scaling ladders were found, and everything in readiness for storming the Pagoda.

No time was now lost in completing the defeat of Burmese army; and on the evening of the 7th, a body of troops, from his Majesty’s eithty-ninth regiment, and the forty-third Madras Native Infantry, under Colonel Parlby, were in readiness to embark from Rangoon as soon as the tide served, for the purpose of crossing the river and driving the enemy from their entrenchments at Dalla.

The night was fortunately dark, and the troops landed unobserved upon the opposite shore. Not a shot was fired, nor alarm given, until the British soldiers had actually entered the entrenchments, and began firing at random upon the noisy groups, which were now heard on every side around them; but the danger of firing upon one another soon rendered it expedient to desist.

Parties were sent to occupy different parts of works, which previous acquaintance with the ground, enabled them to accomplish with trifling loss or opposition; and at day-light next morning they found themselves in full and quiet possession of the whole position, with all the guns and stores of this part of the army; and the enemy were seen during the whole day retracing their steps across the plain of Dalla much more expeditiously and with much less pomp and regularity than they had displayed in traversing it seven days before.

The Burmese loss in killed and wounded during the operations must have been very great; but their invariable practice of removing their dead on all occasions when it can be done, and the immediate vicinity of a thick forest to the scene of all engagements, affording in the present instance every facility for so doing, it was difficult to form any correct estimate of their losses before Rangoon.

They, however, left a sufficient number of dead upon the ground to show that they had suffered most severely; and what was perhaps still more consequence to them than the lives of men they placed so little value on, every gun they had, and the whole material of their army, was captured and remained in our possession.

Numerous desertions, and even the dispersions of entire corps, followed the defeat of the Burmese army; and in the course of a few days the haughty Bandoola, who had been so lavish of his vaunts and threats of punishing the rebel strangers, found himself foiled in his plans, humbled and disappointed in all his expectations, and surrounded by the mere beaten and disheartened remnant of his invincible army, alike afraid of the consequences of a final retreat and of another meeting with his adversaries.

(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.)