Monday, August 27, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 11

(Chapter XI 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.)

On the morning of the 9th, the vast multitude which had so long surrounded us had wholly disappeared; the Bandoola, with the veteran band which still adhered to him, retiring from the field of his disasters towards Donoobew (Da-nuu-byu), now strongly fortified, and ready for his reception.

He had not, however, proceeded far in his retreat, when he was met by considerable reinforcements, and shame and dread of the consequences of a tyrant’s disappointment, acting at once upon a mind naturally bold and daring, he resolved to make a last and desperate effort to retrieve his blighted fame, and to afford the British force the opportunity of making their victory, and his disgrace, complete.

Bandoola’s Remaining Forces Regather at Kokeen Stockades

During the seven days’ operations at Rangoon, a corps of reserve posted at the village of Kokeen (Koke-kaing), distant four miles from the Great Pagoda, and where the Burmese head-quarters were established, were busily employed upon an extensive field-work which had been marked out along an elevated ridge, that commanded the road leading from Rangoon towards the enemy’s line of river defences, up to Donoobew,

To this position the Bandoola now returned, and his force, reduced to less than twenty-five thousand men, recommenced its labours in fortifying the ground, with an activity and assiduity that Burmese troops alone are capable of. 

The height was, in an incredibly short space of time, completely stockaded round about with the solid trunks of trees, abundant materials for which were found at hand; a broad and deep ditch surrounded the stockade, and the ground in front presented usual impediment of a thick line of felled trees, the numerous branches of which were sharpened at the point, rendering it both difficult and dangerous to reach the ditch, the garrison within keeping up a destructive and certain fire upon the assailants while they forced their passage through the abatis.

Finding himself again thus strongly posted, the Burmese commander next endeavoured to combine treachery within our lines, to force from without; trusting to the strength of his position for safety against any aggressive operations on our part, and prepared, at a moment’s warning, to rush in upon us even in the dead of night, as soon as his mediated plans of treachery should take effect.
Battle of Kokaing-Heights, the last battle at Rangoon.

Bandoola’s Attempt to Burn the Rangoon Town

The population of Rangoon was already considerable, when it received an immense addition by the defeats and subsequent retreat of the Burmese army. Upon the latter occasion, numerous deserters, some of them accompanied by their families, came into the town; all who returned unarmed, whether they had served or not, were freely admitted, and many who had but a few days before been in arms against us, were now living in peace and harmony with our troops.

Among this last numerous class, although the generality were good and well-disposed, it was not to be expected that there should not be some miscreants, but too ready to enter into the schemes for our destruction, formed by their late crafty leader, who not only contrived to open a communication with them, but reinforced their numbers with many bold and desperate characters from his own followers.

Our situation became critical in the extreme: spies, assassins, and incendiaries, lurked in every corner of Rangoon; every native within our lines became an object of suspicion, and the utmost vigilance of the troops, combined with the energy and decision of their commander, could alone have prevented our losing every advantage of our late successes, by the destruction of our stores and magazines, and the consequent impossibility of our following up the blow that had been given; even if greater disasters did not befall us, from the deep-laid treachery and murderous designs of the Burmese general, and his assassin gang.

General Maha Bandoola.
The inflammable materials of which the town was composed, required but a single fire-brand to envelope our cantonments, and everything they contained, in a general conflagration; while the unseen enemy, lurking in the outskirt of the jungle, were held in constant readiness to rush in upon our lines, during the confusion which so dreaded an occurrence could not fail to produce.

To prevent, as much as possible, the discovery of his meditated plans, the Bandoola caused a report to be industriously circulated, of the arrival at his head-quarters of a negotiator from Ava, charged with authority to conclude a peace.

And so skilfully did his emissaries managed the propagation of this story, that it was very generally believed, that a chief named Mounshoezar (Maung Shwe Zar), well known as friendly to the British, and from the beginning much against the war, had actually arrived in the neighbourhood of Rangoon, with negotiating powers.

But it proved to be, in the sequel, beyond the reach even of this finished dissembler to dupe or lull his watchful antagonist into a moment’s inactivity.

Sir Archibald Campbell had no sooner received accurate information of the return, strength, and position of the Burmese army, than he determined to attack them; in the first place to guard against the risks and dangers of delay, with such a force, and so many traitors around us, as well as to prevent the deputy Mounshoezar, should he have arrived, from assuming a lofty tone upon the strength of being supported in his overtures by five-and-twenty thousand men, and to force him to sue for peace in the language of a beaten-foe; without which it was but too evident no treaty could be made with so arrogant and false a nation.

Before, however, our arrangements were completed, part of the enemy’s plan was carried into effect: at midnight on the 12th of December the long-dreaded cry of fire resounded through the town, and ere an effort could be made to extinguish it, the place was in a blaze.

The incendiaries had put the match in several places in those parts of the town most to windward, and, aided by a high wind, the flames flew from house to house, and from street to street, with amazing violence and rapidity, and it seemed beyond the reach of human means to arrest their progress; fortunately our depot of stores and ammunition was in another quarter of the town to that which had been fired, and to save them alone, was now the only thing thought of, or attempted.

Rangoon Burning (1826).
The drum beat to arms, and the troops on every part of our position were formed in readiness to receive enemy’s expected movement from the jungle; but the promptitude and regularity with which the different corps were drawn up upon their posts most probably arrested the meditated attack – at least none was made, and every disposable man was immediately employed in assisting to extinguish the flames, which now burned with awful splendour, and illumined the whole adjacent country; but by the united exertions of the troops, in the course of two hours they were completely got under, without any serious damage being sustained in the military property, though not until more than half of the town had been destroyed.

After such a specimen of the Bandoola’s plans and power of carrying into effect, and the prospect of his attempting any decided measures being extremely doubtful, every arrangement was speedily completed for dislodging him from his threatening position, and for driving him to such a distance from our neighbourhood as might enable us to organize, in peace, our means from breaking up for quarters, and for moving forward upon Prome.

In determining to become the assailant, the British commander had again to encounter many serious difficulties, which required all his experience, knowledge of his enemy, and unbounded confidence in the intrepidity and steadiness of his troops to overcome.

He had to guard against the secret movements of an insidious enemy, whose greatly superior numerical strength, correct sources of information, and perfect acquaintance with the jungles, might induce them to make a sudden rush upon Rangoon, during the absence of the corps destined to attack Kokeen.

He had to assault, unaided by artillery, or at most by one or two light field-pieces, a formidable field-work, defended by at least twenty thousand men; and he had to march out to that position through the narrow and winding footpath of a thick forest, where a well-posted body of native sharp-shooters might thin his ranks long before he reached the enemy’s stronghold: there was, however, no alternative, and the 15th was fixed upon for the reduction of Kokeen.

Attack on the Enemy’s Fortified Camp at Kokeen

General Archibald Campbell.
Early in the morning of that day the corps of attack, in all fifteen hundred men (the rest of the force being left to guard the lines), moved out from their cantonments, and were allowed to march without molestation through the forest to the enemy’s position; on reaching which, the little column first became aware of the desperate nature of the service they had to perform.

On debouching from the forest, a field-work presented itself, of such a character as made the veteran soldiers sensible it could be defended, by resolute men, against any disparity of numbers, and the first glance assured them it was held by fearful odds, in the full confidence which its strength inspired.

Their minds, however, were firmly wound up to the trial; they viewed the enemy’s imposing force with that calm indifference and cool determination which had raised the name of the British soldier so pre-eminently high among the nations of Europe, and had already impressed our present enemy with a due respect and value for their character.

They had been too long accustomed to success to doubt its attainment, even on the present occasion; and formidable as the place appeared, they well knew, there was no retreating, and that no choice was left between victory and an honourable grave.

The troops had scarcely cleared the forest, when the enemy’s sharp-shooters commenced annoying them in flank and rear, and accelerated the necessary disposition for immediate attack; one column, consisting of the thirteenth light infantry, and the eighteenth Madras infantry, under Brigadier-general Cotton, was directed to move round the stockade by its left, and assault it in flank, firing a gun, to mark his having reached his point, and being in readiness to move forward.

The remainder of the corps, under the commander of the forces, consisting of the thirty-eighth, forty-first, and eighty-ninth British regiments, with detachments from the other regiments of Native Infantry, were formed in two columns ready to assault in front.

The signal gun was no sooner fired, than the troops with their scaling ladders, moved steadily forward; the enemy, apparently regarding the attempt as madness, continued for some time stamping and beating time together, with their hands upon their breasts, and their muskets at the shoulder, instead of attempting to check the assailants while yet at a sufficient distance from their works; and when at length they did open a fire, it proved all too late to save them from defeat: the troops had already reached the ditch, and were in a great measure protected from its effects.

Brigadier-general Cotton’s column experienced the greatest difficulty in reaching the interior of the stockade: they had several strong entrenchments to carry before they gained the main work; in doing which, four officers and a considerable number of men of the thirteenth regiment were killed, and many officers and men wounded.

The attack in front, uninterrupted by any outworks, instantly succeeded: the leading troops entering by escalade, drove the Burmese from their ramparts at the point of the bayonet, and were speedily followed by their comrades from every corner of the work: the enemy no longer thought of resistance for any other object than the preservation of their lives, and the confused multitude, galled by continue volleys, retired in great disorder, through the few outlets in the rear, where, in crossing the narrow plain that led into the jungle, they were met by the Governor-general’s body-guard of cavalry, by whose well-used sabres many perished.

The interior of the stockade, as well as the ditch, were strewed with dead and dying, and many of the enemy, who found escape impossible, with the never-failing cunning and ingenuity of their nation, besmeared themselves with blood, and lay down under the dead bodies of their comrades, in the hope of escaping when darkness set in, but where they were mostly discovered, and made prisoners.

Here ended the operations in front of Rangoon: the British troops returned, the same evening, to their cantonments, and the remnant of Burmese army retreated finally upon Donoobew (Da-nuu-byu), leaving posts on the Lang (Hlaing) and Panlang (Pan-hlaing) rivers to harass and detain the British force in moving forward.


(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.)