Arthur Wellesley’s First Battle I

Wellesley in India, wearing his major-general’s uniform. Portrait by Robert Home, 1804.

Arthur Wellesley’s appointment to the Hyderabad army led to immediate controversy. Of the four major-generals whom Harris had brought with him from Madras, three had considerable commands, but the most junior, David Baird, had only a brigade. Though Baird’s brigade did consist of three European battalions, he had essentially the same responsibility as five colonels and two lieutenant-colonels, some of them EIC officers. Baird was strong, brave and a sound professional soldier. He was also a squabbler with limited political and diplomatic abilities. Late in 1795 and in 1796 he had handled badly a position requiring such abilities in Tanjore and had to be removed from his military command. He disliked most Indians and got on with them less well than almost any other contemporary senior British officer in India.

Characteristically, Baird protested to Harris and demanded that in accordance with seniority he should have been assigned to the Nizam’s army. He even wanted Lieutentant-Colonel Browne’s semi-independent command in Coimbatore. It would have been hard to find a worse man than Baird for assisting Meer Allum with the Hyderabad command. Even if the Nizam’s chief minister had not requested Wellesley, Harris would almost surely have chosen him. Among many other things, there was an EIC regulation about full colonel being the top rank in any subsidiary force. Arthur Wellesley had already proven his ability to control efficiently a large mixed command and get on with people; Baird had made a good start at proving the opposite. Wellesley treated Indians as equals because he thought of them as such. There was mutual respect and sometimes friendship between him and the Indians with whom he worked, although he understood their weaknesses. Baird was the type of man who made British rule in India more difficult. Harris made the right decision.

Before following the journey towards Seringapatam from Amboor where Harris’s armies stayed for two days, we should note that the Governor-General appointed a Mysore Commission to assist General Harris with political decisions, in particular to help him decide what to do should Tipoo offer less than complete compliance with British demands. This first commission was composed of Close, Malcolm, Agnew (Harris’s Military Secretary), and Arthur Wellesley; all except Wellesley were EIC officers and had devoted at least a part of their time to political relations.

Harris began to advance west from Amboor on 21 February. The valley was broad and flat; the British army was in column on the right, with the Nizam’s force similarly deployed on the left about three miles away. Between them was a slowly moving stream of more than 100,000 non-combatants of all descriptions, including merchants and the families of sepoys. There were even more animals than human beings, at least 100,000 bullocks and thousands of mules, camels, horses and elephants. On the march through the Baramahal the expeditionary force resembled a migrating people rather than an army. Progress was slow, on the average less than ten miles a marching day. The whole combination stopped in camp about one day in three. This rate of progress was maintained without incident through the British territory of the Baramahal. For the country and the time the road was good; Lieutenant-Colonel Read had it in excellent condition, especially the stretch through the Ryacotta ghaut or pass which was better than that used by Cornwallis through Kistnagherry, a town and fort of considerable importance. Harris and his massive command arrived at the entrance to the pass below Ryacotta on 3 March 1799. The slow-moving rectangle changed into a number of straggling columns. All wheeled vehicles, including the heavy carriages of the siege pieces drawn by as many as sixty bullocks harnessed four abreast used the road, but pack animals found their way up the ghaut both north and south of the road.

On 5 March the major portion of Harris’s army stayed in camp at Ryacotta while some light troops took minor hill-forts guarding Tipoo’s border. The next day the main force began its march through enemy territory. Harris was advancing on Bangalore as Cornwallis had done in 1791. The latter, however, had laid siege to and captured the place in order to use it as a fortified base for his further advance on Seringapatam. Harris already knew that Tipoo had destroyed most of Bangalore and demolished its defences. The Sultan adopted a strategy of defending his capital with maximum force – Harris had abundant information of new walls and new big guns – but destroying everything else of value to his enemies. This included not only Bangalore, but also a wide band of territory through which Tipoo thought Harris’s armies would move.

The scorched-earth concept was sound. The British and Hyderabad armies could carry enough food for men to last for about three months, but they were dependent upon the country for most of their animals. If Tipoo’s cavalry could destroy enough bullock food for a considerable percentage of animals to die of starvation, the entire conglomeration of men, animals and baggage, including the siege train, would come to a resounding halt. The British army was probably unbeatable in battle, but could be turned back easily if it could not feed its animals. The strategy was, of course, two-edged. The inhabitants of the areas where the forage was destroyed and stores of grain taken away would certainly lose their own animals and perhaps starve themselves. But Tipoo appears to have cared little about his people and would willingly sacrifice them by the thousand. It was, however, difficult to destroy all food for bullocks. These beasts ate many things, most of them growing wild. Enormous amounts of human labour would have been required to strip an area of all natural grasses; it was impossible to do it indiscriminately over many square miles. This part of India cannot just be set on fire.

Harris’s route was of extreme importance. If he moved predictably, his army would be in a long narrow corridor of devastated territory and surrounded by an elastic ring of Tipoo’s fine light cavalry. His bullocks could not support themselves for long. Indeed, as soon as the border was crossed and the armies were headed for Bangalore, Mysore cavalry were in sight almost continuously. Forage was in short supply, although even here there were some small parcels of unburnt grass, straw and hay. The country was wild and not fully cultivated, but it was not real jungle. On 9 March the entire force camped near the village of Kelamangalam, no more than about fifteen miles from the border. Some 4,000 of Meer Allum’s Hyderabad troops, though none of the EIC subsidiary force, were detached to stay with Read. Even at this time Harris was worrying about a resupply of food; Read’s most important mission was to collect grain and move it to Cauveryporam.

Soon after dawn on the 10th the great conglomeration began to move out; Arthur Wellesley and Meer Allum now were on the right while Harris’s own army was on the left, closer to the centre of Mysore. The country was ideal for harassing movements by enemy cavalry, open enough to give proper footing, but with topes (groves of trees) spread about for cover. Within two hours Wellesley’s guns were in action three times, once at the head of the column and twice towards the rear. The enemy was trying to break through to the central baggage. Wellesley understood their objectives and deployed both his advance and rear guards to extend inward. They were each composed essentially of a half company of the 33rd, a half company from each of his six EIC battalions, and a similar force from each of Malcolm’s four units. Detachments of Mogul (Hyderabad) cavalry were with each of the two forces.

Suddenly firing broke out in earnest in the rear. Wellesley spurred Diomed towards the threatened point. An enemy column of 2,000 horsemen had used a covered approach route and charged one section of his rear guard. Wellesley quickly took counteraction. The two 6-pounders with the ‘pickets of the day before’, went into action with the surviving infantry which now had time to form. Grape from the cannon and regular volleys from forty muskets of the 33rd and about five hundred of Colonel Wellesley’s Indian units emptied saddles and killed horses. Wellesley personally led the rear-guard cavalry in a bloody counter-attack which completed a costly defeat for the enemy. Harris’s armies were to march all the way to Seringapatam, but opposing cavalry was not again to try anything similar in this strength or actually close with British troops at all. Although Mysore casualties were considerably larger, Wellesley’s force did not escape unscathed. The half company of 1/11 Madras Native Infantry (MNI) under Lieutenant Reynolds was overrun before it was properly formed into line. Reynolds was severely wounded, and all of his men were either killed or wounded. Total British casualties, nearly all of them in this unfortunate unit, were twenty killed and thirty-seven wounded.

Harris continued north in a man-made semi-desert as far as Achel. Enemy horsemen were thick in front and to either flank so that only a strong foraging party could leave the line of march. There were other problems. Both grain and ammunition were disappearing. Gunpowder, lead projectiles for small arms and even cannon balls were stolen. They were valuable objects in India. Even the Brinjarries were having troubles. If Harris had continued to Bangalore, all these problems would have accompanied him and he would have lost thousands of bullocks. On the 19th, however, he turned abruptly south-west towards Cankanelli on the most direct route to Seringapatam. Within two miles he was in untouched territory. Forage stood in abundance along this route and was harvested in various ways, often directly by the animals themselves. Tipoo’s cavalry was not even sighted in strength for two days.

Apart from the rearguard action outside Kelamangalam there had so far been no real fighting. Floyd’s disciplined and organized European and Indian cavalry were in front and too powerful for the Mysore cavalry. The lighter, less disciplined enemy horsemen would not stand and fight, but they could not be caught. A few stragglers from both sides were cut off, but nothing more serious occurred. No enemy infantry or artillery had as yet been seen. On the other hand, Harris was moving in a near vacuum. He was cut off from regular dispatches both from the Governor-General at Madras and from Stuart on the west coast, although some were soon to be brought in secretly.

But in spite of plenty of forage and the relative absence of all enemy action, the progress of Harris’s army north-east of Cankanelli was unsatisfactory. It took five days to cover the distance that Cornwallis in 1791 had marched in two.1 The cause is easy to determine, labour trouble. The contractors who rented bullocks to the EIC and their Indian drivers were dissatisfied with new regulations. Both were exercising ‘all their ingenuity, notwithstanding their large means of transport, in opposing a thousand obstacles to every advance’.

We should now leave Harris and join Stuart. As has been mentioned, the British strategy as it had perhaps first been put into concrete form by Arthur Wellesley months before called for movements against Seringapatam from both coasts. Tipoo could be defeated most easily and quickly by taking his capital at Seringapatam. Separate but coordinated thrusts from Madras and Malabar were best. There were, of course, compensating disadvantages, those referred to by military strategists in the context of ‘interior lines’. Tipoo just might be able to defeat one army or the other by using all his forces against it. Harris’s army was big and powerful, but perhaps Stuart’s to the west was not. Both the Governor-General and Harris had taken this into consideration. Stuart, who had no adequate cavalry, had been ordered to move from Cannanore only as far as the top of the Western Ghauts. He was to wait for a cavalry escort from the main army before moving the last fifty miles through the open plain to Seringapatam.

Stuart moved from Cannanore on 21 February 1799 and reached the Western Ghauts on 2 March. He was in the principality of Koorg; the Rajah of Koorg was a firm friend of British India and had joined Stuart with his irregular troops. The Bombay army was to take up a strong defensive position ‘above the ghauts’ and wait for further orders. Stuart and his second-in-command, General Hartley, found these directions almost impossible to carry out. Aided by the Rajah of Koorg, they established a lookout with a position for two EIC battalions under Colonel Montresor to support it, but not a place for the whole army. If the entire army came up the ten-mile pass, it could be cut off from the Malabar coast fairly easily. Stuart therefore left the rest of his army in a more secure position twelve miles away ‘below the ghauts’.

On 5 March the Rajah of Koorg and others on the lookout station saw unusual activity in the direction of Periapatam and Seringapatam. Contemporary accounts claim that from this point it was possible to see east ‘almost to Seringapatam’. In the flat land below, the Rajah saw the erection of a large green tent and recognized it as Tipoo’s. An attack the next day was obviously possible. Stuart and Montresor immediately realized their danger, but a precipitate retreat back down the ghaut was undesirable. Stuart ordered forward another battalion of Bombay Indian infantry which arrived early in the evening. Montresor had his entire command under arms and ready an hour before dawn.

Tipoo attacked about nine o’clock on the 6th. His troops hit the three British battalions from both front and rear. Montresor, apparently one of the best British officers in India, had cleared his long, narrow camp area as best he could three days before. He had, however, no field fortifications. He formed his men so as to use mobile controlled firepower against both attacks and employed his six 6-pounders advantageously. Grape from these was particularly effective; it had a range of more than 300 yards and could tear through thickets of scrub. British artillery in India – the gunners were all European – was extremely skilful.

The fight went on for hours against heavy odds, but Montresor’s men were never even close to defeat. In spite of a numerical superiority of about five to one, Tipoo accomplished nothing. Montresor kept his forces flexible and was able to reinforce where necessary as well as rest some of his companies from time to time. Each enemy thrust that made headway and progressed through the artillery fire was met by sepoys in line who fired precise volleys and then came forward with their bayonets.

Stuart personally brought the King’s 77th Foot and the flank companies of the King’s 75th up the pass and arrived about three o’clock in the afternoon. The fresh European infantry hit the rear of Tipoo’s troops who were still attacking Montresor’s rear. The soldiers of Mysore broke completely and carried away in their panic their companions who had been attacking Montresor in front. The Bombay army was left in undisputed possession of a bloody battlefield said to contain the bodies of 2,000 of the enemy. During the night, however, Stuart pulled back down the ghaut to consolidate his entire force in one place and avoid the risk of having his communications with Cannanore cut off.

Tipoo stayed briefly in the area and then retired to the east without firing another shot. His strategy was certainly sound; he was trying to take advantage of his ‘interior lines’. He may have been following the advice of French professional soldiers in his employ; but the execution was faulty. Rumours about the battle of Sedaseer (the name of the closest village) reached Harris’s army on 15 March. They were confirmed by prisoners taken by Floyd’s cavalry on the 18th. Harris heard directly from Stuart on 24 March when Tipoo and his main army were known to have moved back east.

After his sudden shift of direction north of Anicul Harris’s army had moved freely. In spite of its labour problems, it was making fair progress along the main Bangalore–Seringapatam road. This route was bordered by ‘thick jungle’, though it was not as thick as the nearly impenetrable vegetation ‘below the ghauts’. Arthur Wellesley and others were later to exclaim: ‘If Tipoo had resisted with his infantry in this thick area we could not have got through before the monsoon!’ Before giving battle, however, the Sultan of Mysore appears to have waited for more open territory where his control of his forces would be better.

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