The Last Effort and Fall of Tipu Sultan by Henry Singleton
Plan of the attack on the north-west angle of Seringapatam.
Arthur Wellesley became brigade commander of the day at noon on the 26th. He had already received orders to attack Tipoo’s line of outer fortifications at or soon after sunset. This was not to be another Sultan-petah Tope. Wellesley knew exactly what the position of the enemy was and how it was defended. There were to be no surprises, at least not for the British. Wellesley used a simple assault plan with two columns and fully discussed with his subordinate commanders what they were to do.
On the left, next to the Cauvery, Major Skelly was to lead four companies of his Scotch Brigade and four of the 2nd Bengal Native Infantry forward from the British trenches into the northern anchor of Tipoo’s line of defences and work south. Lieutenant-Colonel Monypenny was to move forward as close as possible to the Little Cauvery with four companies of his 73rd and four more of the 2nd Bengal, to enter the line of defences near its middle and move south. The two columns easily carried this line of low fortifications. Most of the defenders just left their positions and walked back across the river which in late April was fordable at almost any place. Tipoo’s troops were giving up not just the sections of their position actually attacked, but the rest too even before Skelly and Monypenny reached them.
Wellesley also had under his command a reserve consisting of ‘the relief from the trenches’ – the troops who had garrisoned the trenches for the previous twenty-four hours – under his friend Colonel Sher-brooke, also of the 33rd. This reserve consisted of the King’s 74th and the Regiment De Meuron plus some EIC units. Wellesley’s initial attacks had succeeded so well that he sent Sherbrooke’s men forward against the Stone Bridge across the Little Cauvery and against two works behind it usually referred to as the Ravelin and the Circular or three-gun Battery. All three were taken almost as easily as the line of works closer to the South Cauvery. Support for these enemy positions had come from the recently abandoned trenches.
All the objectives were achieved so easily that without orders to do so Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell of the 74th led some of his own regiment and most of the Regiment De Meuron across the Periapatam Bridge to the island of Seringapatam. Fortunately they did not try to go through the Mysore Gate into the main defences. They captured a couple of field guns south of the main walls inside Tipoo’s strong fortified camp, used them briefly against the enemy, spiked them and returned across the Periapatam Bridge. Somewhere in this attack Campbell lost his shoes, probably in crossing the Little Cauvery, and had his feet cut so badly subsequently that he had to report himself a casualty. His place was taken by Lieutenant-Colonel William Wallace, an officer of whom we shall see a lot more.
The rest of this attack on the night of the 26th was not quite so favourable to the British. Both the Ravelin and the Circular Battery were open to fire from guns mounted in the main defences of Seringapatam, a design of obviously French origin. Most of the enemy guns mounted around the Mysore Gate and in the southern cavaliers were still undamaged because they were out of the line of fire of the British batteries then in existence. These pieces may even have been loaded and aimed in daylight, after the French fashion, but left for use at night. Wallace and his men were subjected to accurate and heavy artillery fire and a few minutes later to showers of small arms bullets and rockets from the units of Tipoo’s army holding the area between the Little Cauvery and the South Cauvery not yet attacked. Wallace and/or Wellesley wisely decided to pull back into the eastern strip of the Little Cauvery where their men would be protected by the embankment, temporarily giving up the Stone Bridge, the Ravelin and the Circular Battery.
The fire from the walls was renewed at dawn, but Wellesley attacked again. His units quickly tumbled every Mysore soldier out of the entire area between the Cauverys. Every man appears to have had a musket and bayonet in one hand and a pickaxe or shovel in the other. As soon as the enemy was driven out, they dug in. Wellesley’s entire force was fully protected by trenches or other defences by 10 a.m. The long assault had finally succeeded beyond its original objectives, but it had been costly. Seventy-two men were killed in the action, 226 wounded and nineteen reported missing. The fire from the walls of Seringapatam was the main cause of the casualties.
Harris now had all the territory he could use in his future operations on his side of the river. Breaching batteries were constructed at a distance less than 400 yards from the main ramparts of Seringapatam. But this was done carefully and in a manner to conceal from the enemy the exact point of attack. On the night of 28 April the first actual breaching battery was begun and filled with six 18-pounders. It opened fire on the 29th, but at the north-west corner bastions, not at the walls to be breached. Battery No. 6, also called the Nizam’s Battery, was added along with Nos 7, 8 and 9 for various purposes, including the silencing of the guns in the southern cavaliers during the next two nights. Thirty-nine of the forty siege guns originally assembled by Wellesley at Vellore (one 18-pounder had been destroyed), plus some big howitzers and field pieces were all in place somewhere in the siege works. There were also fieldpieces south of the river and in a secondary battery of Stuart’s, north of it.
Early in the morning of 2 May 1799 the Powder Mill, the Nizam’s and No. 5 Batteries suddenly concentrated all their fire on the walls where an actual breach was to be made. Two of the three batteries were 380 and 340 yards from their targets. The point chosen was in the west wall just south of the already destroyed north-west bastions. At this point the glacis which protected the entire northern wall and the north-west corner after a fashion – it was too low to protect completely – was replaced by a forward curtain or vertical wall which kept water in the outer ditch.
Solid cast-iron 18-pound balls, varied occasionally with 24-pound balls from the two larger pieces, tore up both curtains for more than sixty yards. Save for a few inches, the water in the elevated outer ditch ran into the South Cauvery. Here the main or outer wall of the city was smashed back into the terreplein, or paved area, behind the rampart. The breach was tentatively pronounced practical on the evening of the 3rd; in the technical language of the day this meant that a man, encumbered only by a musket, bayonet and cartridge box would be able to climb it. Such a conclusion is not always easy to establish from a distance even with a telescope. There were the additional difficulties of crossing the South Cauvery and the outer ditch. Everyone thought that enough water had drained out of the latter to render it useless, but no one was sure.
That night Arthur Wellesley was again in command in the trenches and batteries. He and his command took on a heavy work load and accomplished it all save for filling some sandbags. Some of his active young officers carefully reconnoitred the South Cauvery over the entire front below the breach and marked unobtrusively safe areas for fording. Enough space was also provided and covered to allow a large assaulting force to be assembled within the trenches and breastworks without revealing its presence to the enemy.
Harris was determined that, if humanly possible, his first assault should be successful. If necessary he was ready to throw his entire army into the effort. His soldiers, both European and Indian, had been on somewhat short rations for two weeks. The C-in-C was probably over-conscious of the food situation; Floyd was to bring back Read and Brown with supplies from the Baramahal and Coimbatoor right on schedule. The coming of the monsoon was much more dangerous and beyond human control. The rains would quickly fill all branches of the Cauvery and Seringapatam would be safe seventy-two hours after they began. It was high time the British armies completed their work.
Tipoo had 30,000 fighting men in and around Seringapatam; there was but a single breach through which to get at them after fording a rocky stream 200 yards wide. The assault should be delivered at maximum power, but too many men would get in each other’s way and would lead to more severe casualties, and perhaps to failure. Throughout the campaign, Harris utilized the abilities of his fine staff, but the master design was his own. He gave Barry Close the essential details for a simple but flawless attack using all available British manpower. Baird had volunteered to lead the assault; Harris accepted his offer. The major-general’s height, strength and gallant personality made him a favourite with all European troops who, when available, always led assaults in British operations in India. They knew that he had spent forty-four months in Tipoo’s dungeon without losing his spirit. No one in the assembled allied armies was as suited to the task as Baird.
He would have two columns, each with its own commander and objectives. The left column, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Dunlop from Stuart’s army, would consist of all six flank companies from Stuart’s King’s regiments, the whole of the King’s 12th and the King’s 33rd, and finally ten companies of Bengal Sepoy flankers. There were fifty European artillerymen with a proportion of gun Lascars attached to this column. There were also pioneers, fascines (in this case, bundles of bamboo) and scaling ladders. The right column under Colonel Sher-brooke consisted of the flank companies of the Scotch Brigade, followed by those of the Regiment de Meuron, the entire King’s 73rd and 74th, eight companies of Madras Sepoy flankers from the Hyderabad contingent and six companies of Bombay Sepoy flankers. The column also included 200 men from Meer Allum’s Hyderabad army. It had the same number of artillerymen and gun Lascars assigned as on the left; pioneers, scaling ladders and fascines were distributed in the same way.
Harris’s plan called for the two columns to remain concealed in the trenches until Baird ordered the attack, probably at 1 p.m. They would then come out, form, cross the river side by side and go up the breach together. In the event that both columns could not cross the South Cauvery or ascend the breach at the same time – unlikely after Wellesley’s careful investigation on the night following 2 May – the left was to be in front. Once up the breach and into the defences, the columns were not to enter the city but to turn left and right respectively and circle the defences to the north and to the south until they met somewhere on the opposite or east side. The idea was to get possession of the entire defences before entering the city. Each cavalier or bastion was to be taken and then garrisoned by a battalion company from a European regiment before the column proceeded. Each column would advance in formation of half companies at quarter distance, but would be preceded by ‘forlorn hopes’. In those days these small all-volunteer groups led the way. Each was to consist of a sergeant with the colours and twelve lightly armed volunteer privates followed by a lieutenant and twenty-five men noted for their personal fighting prowess.
There was a third force in the trenches with the other two, but to the rear. It was commanded by Arthur Wellesley and consisted of the eight battalion companies of the EIC Swiss Regiment de Meuron and four EIC battalions. As soon as the two main columns had crossed, Wellesley would advance his force to the river. He was then to do everything possible to reinforce any part of the attack that did not succeed, but was not needlessly to crowd into the assaults. It may be significant that Wellesley was the only subordinate commander authorized to use his own judgment. The total strengths of these three commands were about 3,000 for Dunlop, about 2,800 for Sherbrooke and at least 4,400 for Wellesley. Harris and Stuart were reduced to nearly the minimum for holding their camps should Tipoo’s external forces attack.
Throughout the morning of the 4th the British guns continued to play on the breach as if to improve it further – actually to prevent the defenders from making it more difficult. There was little to indicate to an observer inside Seringapatam that an attack was to be launched that day, although a senior officer in Tipoo’s service who had begun his military career with the British, Seyed Goffhar, did correctly interpret what he saw and warned his chief of the impending assault.
Baird and his entire force had been in the trenches since before dawn. The attackers were crowded together under a pitiless sun as the morning wore on, and the heat must have become nearly unbearable. Not a man stirred, however, until it was 1 p.m. by Baird’s watch. Only then did the huge Scot rouse himself. Although his sweat-soddened uniform stuck to him, he climbed out of the foremost trench and drew his regimental claymore. ‘Now, my brave fellows!’ Baird said in his strong, deep voice. ‘Follow me and prove yourselves worthy of the name British soldiers!’
The two columns quickly formed abreast in line of platoons and began to move forward with Baird in front. Only the two forlorn hopes, a total of seventy-six young men, were ahead of him. Baird was in his forty-second year, worn by hardship and climate, and perhaps rather heavy for scrambling about on wet rocks, but he kept in front and was ready to fight. His face which never suntanned properly was as red as his uniform. As he reached the top of the breach, he glanced towards the dungeon where he had spent forty-four months. To his surprise he saw a new ditch filled with water and a second wall.
As long as they dared the British batteries had continued to fire to keep the enemy off the main Seringapatam walls and away from the breach. They fell silent, however, as the assailants masked their line of fire. The two forlorn hopes mounted the slippery debris that choked the breach and began to split apart to the north and south respectively, but they were met by a fair number of defenders who appeared and fought in the breach itself. In the brief combat which ensued before all the enemy were killed, there were two British casualties of more than usual interest. Sergeant Graham of Dunlop’s forlorn hope, presumably the first man to climb the breach, was shot dead as he unfurled his colours and announced himself ‘Lieutenant Graham!’ According to the custom of the times he had won himself a commission. Dunlop himself was badly wounded in the hand in a brief duel with a Mysore swordsman.
The European flankers who followed Graham, Baird and Dunlop were too numerous and too impassioned to be stopped. With a viciousness some officers had never seen before, they swept the enemy right out of the breach itself and off the battlement at the top. It took only six or seven minutes. Both columns continued to cross the Cauvery in water up to four feet deep, but without difficulty save for receiving some long-range artillery fire. The climb up the breach was relatively easy compared to what some had expected, but there was considerable confusion at the top. There was not enough space to deploy properly for all who crowded up.
Baird, not realizing that Dunlop was badly wounded, went with Sherbrooke’s column which at that time appeared to have the more difficult job. They moved towards the west wall towers and the heavy defences around the Mysore Gate. Dunlop’s force minus its commander went around the north-west corner of the outer wall – no one in the assaulting army had crossed the inner ditch yet – and was immediately involved in a serious fight. They were opposed in front by a frenzied group under a short fat officer that defended every traverse. The officer himself kept firing loaded weapons that were handed to him by his hunting servants. One of those who fell by this accurate fire was Lieutenant Lalor of the King’s 73rd, the guide who on the night of 3 May did most for Wellesley in exploring the ford and breach.
Dunlop’s men were not only meeting severe opposition in front, but were also subjected to intense small arms fire from the inner wall which was inaccessible to them because of the inner ditch. Even though the European flankers of the Bombay army surged east along the outer wall through and over a mass of broken guns, carriages and masonry, and over the new brick traverses in the outer bastion, they were finally stopped by this fire from the inner wall. It was particularly effective because the English on the inner side of the outer wall were exposed and the enemy protected by the parapet on the outer side of theirs. Captain Goodall of the King’s 12th, the first unit behind the Bombay army flankers in the northern column, saw the difficulty and discovered a narrow way across the inner ditch. He led his company across, obviously one by one. For a time it was probably touch and go in bloody hand-to-hand combat, but every few seconds another Englishman came into the fight. Goodall’s men began to make headway faster and finally opposition collapsed.
On the outer wall, the situation suddenly changed drastically. The Bombay European flankers were no longer being fired on from the flank, but their enemies were and after a few minutes gave way. They tried to make a stand at the Sultan Battery, which surrounded Tipoo’s dungeons, but were swept out of that also and forced into an area between the walls and the North Cauvery. Here the fortifications are irregular; there was and is an entrance into Seringapatam known as the Water Gate, actually a long tunnel through an earth and masonry wall. This was soon being attacked from both ends by British infantry firing platoon volleys. Some hand-to-hand fighting also occurred.
Meanwhile Sherbrooke’s column had taken the Mysore Gate and continued eastward against irregular opposition. Some strong points were defended with considerable resolution, others were easily taken. Sherbrooke secured both the inner and outer walls of Seringapatam on the south side and reached the Bangalore Gate to the east within an hour. The left column originally under Dunlop did equally well in the north. At the beginning they were held up near the Water Gate, but they made faster progress thereafter. The outer defences of Seringapatam were taken; however, about half of Tipoo’s fighting men in and around the island had not yet been engaged. There was the possibility that the enemy troops within the town might retreat into the palace, which was a kind of incomplete citadel.
The idea of continued resistance at the palace seems to have occurred to several British officers independently at about the same time, among others to Majors Allan, the deputy Quartermaster-General, and Beatson, the engineer and later historian. Resistance there would have been deplorable for several reasons. In India prisoners were rarely taken in assaults, Tipoo’s women would inevitably be maltreated and treasure would probably be lost. Allan and Beatson briefly conferred with Baird and were ordered to go to the palace and see if they could persuade the enemy to surrender. The two officers who left immediately were just in time to prevent Major Shee with some companies of the King’s 33rd from attacking the palace. The two young British officers went in and managed to persuade the killadar, commandant of Seringapatam, and two of Tipoo’s sons to surrender. The Sultan, however, was not there. After a delay a search was made, but no Tipoo.
Back to Colonel Wellesley and his supporting force in the trenches. He had his battalions ready in column at quarter distance to cross the river, if either Dunlop or Sherbrooke needed assistance. Since neither was held up for any appreciable time, no physical support was necessary. When this became obvious Wellesley ordered his five battalions to break ranks and rest easy. He sent some men to assist wounded who lay in the ford and posted a cordon of Swiss infantrymen to seal off the breach. His sepoys were all from Madras which had suffered a great deal from Mysore troops under Tipoo and his father, Hyder Ali. Wellesley, however, wanted no vengeance or plundering of the city.
This subject is important enough to be considered in more detail. In Europe a town which refused to surrender after a breach into it was practical belonged to the assaulting troops who took it. The soldiers who incurred the risk of mounting a defended breach under fire and defeating the garrison had a right to all the city contained, including its female inhabitants. The Wellesleys were completely against this concept, especially in India where the civilian population had nothing to do with political and military decisions. Arthur Wellesley could do nothing about the troops already in Seringapatam; he was not in command of them. But he was certainly not going to allow his Madras sepoys the opportunity of participating in a brutal orgy. The Regiment De Meuron was unusually well disciplined and could be trusted to obey his orders.
Wellesley and half a dozen of his officers climbed the breach and entered the city. The firing had died down to occasional bursts from small arms. Some artillery fire from the eastern towers and cavaliers was not directed towards British targets; the artillerymen who accompanied both Dunlop’s and Sherbrooke’s columns had turned undamaged guns in these works against Mysore infantry in Tipoo’s fortified camp outside the walls proper and were forcing the enemy to leave the island by the Corighaut ford.
Not 300 yards away, Wellesley caught sight of a familiar formation. Major Shee had the 33rd, or most of it, drawn up in front of Tipoo’s inner palace. Baird and several other officers were impatiently awaiting the reappearance of Allan and Beatson. Wellesley and his small group joined them and heard the most recent news. The city was taken; organized resistance by large units of the enemy appeared to be at an end.
Just then Allan and Beatson came out of the palace by the main door; they had climbed in above ground level. The palace and several hundred armed men would surrender, but Tipoo was not there. An informal conference spontaneously came into being. Allan and Beatson communicated what they had learnt inside, and Baird had just heard that Tipoo had murdered thirteen English prisoners, including Wellesley’s eight grenadiers from the thirty-third. In spite of this, the palace and those in it were not to be harmed if there was no resistance. Tipoo, however, must be found before he was able to escape and begin operations again in one of his outlying territories.
Finally one of Tipoo’s officers revealed that he knew where the Sultan was. Shee and the 33rd less the Grenadier company were left to guard the palace both to prevent those inside from getting out and the victorious British soldiers from getting at Tipoo’s women and treasure. In the quickly gathering shadows of an approaching Indian night Baird and his officers and the Grenadier company followed their guide the short distance to the Water Gate. Tipoo had fallen in the fighting there after taking a personal part in the defence of the northern wall. He had been the short fat officer who fired a succession of hunting weapons at the commanders of British units.
The tunnel-like passage was choked with dead and wounded, and dozens of bodies were removed. Finally, a man dressed better than most was brought out. He seemed relatively unhurt and could still be alive. Wellesley put his hand over the man’s heart; there was no beat. The body was short and corpulent with small hands and feet and dark skin, darker than usual for an upper-class Indian. By torchlight the body was tentatively identified as Tipoo and taken back to the palace in the Sultan’s palanquin. There a dozen people who knew him well confirmed that it was truly the Sultan.
The assault was over; Tipoo was dead. No organized unit of his army appeared to remain on Seringapatam Island. Two of Tipoo’s sons were on their way to Harris’s camp escorted by the Light company of the 33rd. The city was filled with extreme disorder, but this was not Wellesley’s responsibility. He returned through the breach to his battalions still waiting outside and took them back to their quarters. Having reported personally to Harris, he then returned to his own tent. He had been in the same clothes for nearly sixty hours during which he had had less than ten hours of sleep. Cold food, soap and water, and a narrow camp bed were sheer luxury. He had done his jobs as well as he was able; sleep came quickly. It was not even disturbed by the sporadic firing, screams and snatches of drunken song which came through the glorious Indian night from the newly-captured city.