Italian 15th Century Warfare I

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The battle of Caravaggio and the other battles were the set pieces of Italian warfare. Such battles were relatively rare, although it was naturally on these that the chroniclers concentrated. The administrative documents of military life rarely mention the battles except as an aside to explain casualties and losses of equipment. In this they are more realistic and more informative than the chronicles, but neither succeed in telling us what military life was really like. Fifteenth-century military diaries have yet to be discovered, but still an attempt must be made to get below the surface and look at the realities of military practice, the day-to-day activities of Italian soldiers.

One man who was a conscientious writer of diaries, at least during his official missions, was the Florentine Luca di Maso degli Albizzi. He was the brother of Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the leading Florentine statesman who was overthrown and exiled by the Medici in 1434. Luca, like many Florentines of his class, spent much of his life on missions as representative of the Florentine Republic, and in May 1432 he was dispatched as special envoy to the camp of the Florentine captain general, Niccolò da Tolentino, near Arezzo. For about three weeks he was with the army and his account of those days is an interesting insight which is worth looking at in some detail.

Luca degli Albizzi left Florence on 18 May with a junior assistant, Bernardetto de’ Medici, and fifteen followers. He spent the first night at Castel S. Giovanni in the upper Arno valley where he was met by the civilian commissary with the army and a group of condottieri who were also on their way to join the captain general. The 200 men of these condottieri were billeted some miles further on in Montevarchi, and it was agreed that Luca would pick them up there the next morning and they would all go on together to the camp. Luca was an early riser and the next morning he arrived at Montevarchi to find the soldiers still in bed. They were clearly billeted in houses all over the town, and it took until mid-day to get the squadrons assembled and on the road. They arrived at the camp in mid-afternoon to find that Niccolò da Tolentino had gone out the previous evening with a force of 700 men to try and catch the Sienese under Francesco Piccinino in a night ambush. As he was not yet back, Luca waited for a couple of hours and then rode to Arezzo to spend the night in comfort. Niccolò had in fact failed to catch the Sienese who had received warning of his intentions, but he had ridden all the way to Montepulciano which was being besieged by the Sienese and had sent supplies and more troops into the town before returning. This itself meant that Niccolò da Tolentino had ridden over 50 miles in the 24 hours, but this was not considered in any way extraordinary.

On the 20th Luca returned to the camp and spent six hours with the captain general and his senior officers. They drew up written plans for the campaign, and Niccolò outlined his immediate needs. The troops needed pay, but even more important he wanted 60 mules to carry provisions behind the army as he planned to move fast and did not want to waste time collecting food. He also wanted two or three bombards and some stonemasons to make balls for them. He thought that a few hundred militia auxiliaries would be useful, including 50 pioneers with spades and axes. Luca got off a messenger immediately to Florence with these requirements, and he himself began to ride round collecting the militia.

The strategic position which Luca and Niccolò da Tolentino faced was that a number of contingents of allied Sienese and Milanese troops were operating in southern Tuscany occupying castles and towns and damaging crops. Another Florentine army was camped near Pisa under Micheletto Attendolo, but the needs of the campaign were speed rather than great strength, so it was decided not to try and link up with Attendolo. Niccolò da Tolentino was very anxious to get on with it and declined an offer from Luca that he should postpone operations until the normal ceremony for handing him the baton as captain general had been arranged. News had come that the Sienese were besieging Linari and Gambassi in the Valdelsa, and speed was vital if these towns were to be saved. However, it was bound to take three or four days to collect what was needed and break camp.

After three days of intense activity, the militia, provisions, and munitions had been assembled, and at dawn on 24 May Niccolò da Tolentino moved off with his army of about 4,000 men. He had about 50 miles of difficult country to cover to reach the besieged towns, and as half of the force was made up of infantry and militia it could not move very fast. A messenger met them on the first day with the news that Linari had surrendered, but that the enemy forces were still divided into two camps, one commanded by Francesco Piccinino and the other by Bernardino della Carda. On the evening of the 26th the army reached Poggibonsi and there heard that the Sienese had united, taken Gambassi, and were now moving to meet Niccolò’s army. The night was one full of alarms and false alarms, in one of which Niccolò’s eldest son, Baldovino, was shot in the leg by a jumpy Florentine archer. Luca marvelled at the Captain’s self control when he heard of this incident.

The next day, Tuesday, Niccolò da Tolentino detached some of his infantry and militia north-westwards to begin the siege of Linari, and he himself went southwest to try and cut off an enemy march towards Siena. But again either he had received false information or the Sienese got word of his movements, and they doubled back and headed towards the Arno valley taking Pontedera on the way. This left Niccolò with the task of retaking Linari before he could move on in pursuit. He tried negotiations with the defenders, threatening to hang them all if he had to take the town by storm, but this proved useless. There were only 100 Milanese and Sienese infantry defending it, but it had good walls and they believed that Niccolò would not waste time over them. Indeed he did not plan to waste time; he wanted to get on and bring the enemy to battle, but he was determined to deal with Linari first. He only had small bombards and the weather was blazing hot, but nevertheless he ordered an assault at dawn on the morning of the 30th. Four breaches were made in the walls and Niccolò’s dismounted men-at-arms surged into the assault. After three hours of bitter fighting the town was taken and sacked. There were a number of casualties; all the professional infantry in the defence were held as prisoners, but the local defenders were allowed to go free; a number of women were also taken by the Florentines. Finally the walls of Linari were pulled down and half the town burnt. Linari was a Florentine town; the treatment of it was harsh but effective; this was partly a reflection of basic Florentine attitudes towards the subject towns, partly a matter of military necessity. The place had to be made useless to the Sienese otherwise this sort of warfare could go on indefinitely.

The next day Niccolò da Tolentino turned northwards to join up with Micheletto Attendolo and seek out the enemy in the Arno valley. By now the militia had melted away; they were getting far from their homes near Arezzo and the few days’ campaigning had been tough. On 1 June the army came out into the Arno plain. It was a Sunday and normally in Italian warfare this was regarded as a day of rest when little activity was expected. It was perhaps for this reason that Niccolò da Tolentino succeeded at last in catching the enemy. The Sienese had begun to besiege Montopoli, and Niccolò, moving rapidly now that his troops were out in the open country, came up on them fast. He and Luca went ahead with 30 cavalry and Luca who knew the area well pointed out the lie of the land. Niccolò felt however that he still did not have a clear enough idea of the enemy’s dispositions and so, while Luca stayed with the main body and gave an oration to the troops, he went on further ahead with a few men and thoroughly explored the enemy position. Then without further delay he launched his attack. The battle was short but hard fought, and Luca commented on the useful role of the infantry. The arrival of Micheletto Attendolo from the other direction completed what appears to have been a thoroughly well-planned and organised operation. The Sienese were completely routed, a number of captains and 150 men captured and 600 horses taken. Some of the prisoners escaped the next day as they were being escorted to Empoli, but were quickly rounded up. This battle, described by Luca degli Albizzi, was in fact the Rout of S. Romano later made famous by the series of paintings executed by Paolo Uccello for the Medici palace. Luca’s eye-witness account is somewhat different to traditional descriptions of the battle, which suggest that Niccolò da Tolentino was surprised with a handful of men and held out against enormous odds for eight hours until Attendolo arrived. No doubt a desire to glorify Niccolò’s achievement played some part in the distortions which have crept into the story, but Luca’s account of Niccolò leading a carefully planned attack does the condottiere no less credit in a different way.

The Florentine army got its rest day on Monday and then began to besiege Pontedera. This was, however, a more formidable task than the siege of Linari and without good artillery was likely to take some time. After a fortnight’s intense activity, during which the army had covered many miles of difficult country, taken a town by assault, and won an important victory, there was inevitably a lull. Luca degli Albizzi returned to Florence on the 6th to urge on the provision of supplies and artillery. He confessed that he felt completely exhausted.

This is an instructive glimpse into the life of an army and one which is all too rare in the fifteenth century. The mobility of Niccolò da Tolentino’s force, although half its strength consisted of infantry, is indicative of one of the major features of the warfare of the period. Luca degli Albizzi remarked at one point that only 300 of the 2,000 infantry in the army were concentrated together in one column and the rest were divided up amongst the cavalry squadrons. Does this perhaps mean that many of these infantry rode behind the men-at-arms on their horses when on the march? This could well be the explanation of the speed with which small armies could move. Niccolò da Tolentino’s army of course had very limited artillery and apparently no carts in the baggage train, but it did have 60 mules with provisions and was not living off the country. A larger army, and particularly later in the century, would inevitably have been much more encumbered with munitions and baggage. But it was usually the case that the heavy baggage was detached from the fighting elements of an army and moved on different routes in the rear.

We can get an impression of the activities of the other Florentine army in 1432 under Micheletto Attendolo from the letters written by Micheletto and his attendant commissaries to Florence. It had moved out of its winter quarters outside Pisa in late March and did not return to these quarters finally until mid-December. During the nine months, the army marched all over the Arno valley and deep into the hills on either side; it conducted at least four sieges and numerous skirmishes, but fought no major battle other than its tardy intervention at S. Romano. In 1440 Baldaccio d’Anghiari marched with a small force from Lucca to Piombino in two days—a distance of over 100 miles.

However, some of the most striking evidence for the mobility of mid-fifteenth-century armies comes from the campaigns of 1438–9 in Lombardy. The march of Gattamelata around Lake Garda in the autumn of 1438, when he escaped with his Venetian army from Brescia, became almost legendary in the annals of Italian warfare. Brescia was being closely besieged by the Milanese under Niccolò Piccinino and the direct route eastwards was well blocked. But it was essential to extricate Gattamelata’s main army, both because its size was creating serious provisioning problems in the beleaguered city and because without it the defence of the rest of the Venetian state, and particularly Verona, was dangerously weak. The only feasible escape route was over the mountains around the north of Lake Garda. It was a route which had never been used by large bodies of troops and was therefore thinly guarded by the Milanese. It was over this route that Gattamelata marched his army of 3,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry, brushing aside the Milanese opposition and reaching Verona in five days. Piccinino was astonished by the feat, but he himself in the next year almost equalled it. Brescia was still being besieged and Gattamelata and Francesco Sforza marched to relieve it by the same route through the mountains. Piccinino moved north from Brescia to meet them and was badly beaten at Tenno. It was said that he escaped from the town, as the Venetian troops swarmed into it, carried in a sack on the back of a German soldier. However, he quickly rallied his forces and marched them around the south shore of the lake to attack Verona, while the Venetian army was still in the mountains. His forced march took Verona completely by surprise, and he occupied the city, although failing to take its two fortresses. Anxious messengers rode through the night to carry the news to Gattamelata and Sforza, and they, again acting with remarkable speed, marched back over the by then familiar road. It was once again the turn of Piccinino to be surprised; thinking that the Venetian army was still on the other side of the lake, his troops were contentedly looting Verona when Sforza and Gattamelata arrived outside the walls. Once more they had done the long march through the mountains in unbelievable time and the Milanese were in no position to defend their new possession. Piccinino and his men were bundled unceremoniously out of Verona having been its masters for less than three days.

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Italian 15th Century Warfare II

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The mobility of these armies around Lake Garda was the result of military necessity, but often the errant characteristics of Italian armies were dictated by the search for provisions. Particularly in the first half of the century, it was rare for camp to be pitched in the same place for more than two or three nights, even when the army was on the defensive. After 1450 the growing use of field fortifications and the improvement in provisioning organisation made camps much more permanent affairs. In 1479 the camp established by the Florentines and their allies at Poggio Imperiale was the base for the combined army throughout the summer.

It was Gattamelata and Sforza in 1439 who issued one of the best known sets of army regulations for this period. It was probably normal practice from early in the fifteenth century for a captain general to lay down regulations for the conduct of his army, particularly when in camp, but very few have survived. Such regulations were fairly stereotyped and clearly there were conventions about such things which soldiers accepted without question. In fact Italian army regulations differ little from those which have survived from English military administration of the same period. Gattamelata and Sforza were in a slightly unusual position in that they commanded a joint army; Gattamelata as Venetian captain general commanded the Venetian forces, Sforza was captain general of the League and commanded his own very large company and a certain number of Florentine-employed troops. Their regulations therefore had some peculiar features when they laid down the order of march; the two armies took turns day by day to lead and to be responsible for the defence of the marching column. Otherwise the regulations were conventional in their emphasis on not breaking ranks, on all provisioning companies being properly protected by cavalry, on the formation of a special billeting squadron consisting of representatives of each company, on the role of camp marshals, and on the procedure in the event of a sudden attack on the camp.

The one major omission from these regulations as compared with contemporary English ones was any reference to women in the camps. This was a distinction often noted by observers: Italian armies were encumbered (or perhaps inspired?) by the presence of large numbers of female camp followers. Niccolò da Tolentino’s army in 1432 took women from Linari after the assault and presumably added them to its following. But English regulations were quite specific that no women should be kept in the camp. Anyone finding a harlot about the camp could take all her money, break her arm, and drive her from the army. Niccolò de’ Favri, a member of the Venetian embassy in London, reported on Henry VIII’s 1513 expedition: ‘They did not take wenches with them and they were not profane swearers like our soldiers. Indeed there were few who failed daily to recite the office and Our Lady’s rosary.’ The second distinction observed by the Venetian seems to place the English army in a somewhat unreal light, although it is true that Italian army regulations were less concerned about blasphemy than contemporary maritime regulations. However, the distinction on the role of women in the camps was a true one, but one which reflected totally different social attitudes. Prostitution was an accepted feature of Italian society and so was the military brothel; the Florentines licensed brothels outside the walls of Pisa and used the proceeds from the taxes on them to repair the walls. The 211 prostitutes captured by the Paduans in the defeat of the Veronese army at the Brentelle in 1386 were escorted with great honour to Padua and entertained at the Lord of Padua’s table.

Given the seasonal nature of Italian warfare, camp life was only a part of the soldier’s life. The side about which we know even less is the conditions of troops in winter quarters. The Borgo S. Marco outside the walls of Pisa was often the winter quarters of Florentine armies and there Micheletto Attendolo spent the winter of 1431–2. It served the same purpose as the serragli of the Venetian cities, but one suspects that in the Borgo S. Marco troops were billeted in private houses, whereas in the serragli there were probably some form of permanent encampments. The bulk of the troops of a condottiere prince like Federigo da Montefeltro probably returned to their homes in and around Urbino in the winter, parading perhaps at infrequent intervals to receive pay. Even in the Venetian cities, where the companies had the same winter quarters for years on end, it seems likely that many of the soldiers had their families to which they returned when the campaigning season was over. But certainly, as the century advanced, there is increasing evidence that armies were held together and paid, at least in a rudimentary fashion, in the winter. Nor indeed was it always the case that campaigning stopped in the winter, and the winter break could certainly be very short; December and March were months in which there was often plenty of military activity. The summer break, still common in the first half of the century, was becoming less standard after 1450, although the Venetian army in the sixteenth century still held its manoeuvres in peacetime in spring and autumn.

The emphasis on active campaigning in spring and early summer, and again in the autumn, was not only the result of these being the more clement seasons for military operations. They were also the seasons when armies could do the most damage to crops, and this was always one of the prime aims of Italian warfare. Devastation and organised looting was economic warfare of a most effective kind; if carried out systematically it could have a much greater impact on a small Italian state than the defeat of its army in the field. The conscript pioneers attached to Italian armies were known as guastatori (devastators); their first function was breaking down and burning crops, and only subsequently did they become increasingly important as diggers of field fortifications and other constructive work.

Devastation and looting were therefore by no means necessarily to be linked with ill-discipline, although they were operations which could easily lead to loss of control and bad discipline. There were in fact two totally different sides to this problem. When an army was operating on friendly soil there was of course no question of systematic devastation. All provisions were in theory bought and, as far as possible, troops were kept under control. There were inevitably clashes between troops and civilians, but the condottieri were responsible for the discipline of their men and could be fined if these men inflicted damage on civilian property. The behaviour of troops in this situation was often the subject of complaints from the local populations, but the volume of individual complaints which have survived is not such as to suggest that the increasingly permanent armies were a positive scourge to their own civilians. After a defeat, when an army was in retreat, was the most dangerous time, and it was not uncommon for serious damage to be inflicted on the friendly local population. The other situation was that of an army operating in hostile territory when the whole outlook was totally different. Such armies lived as far as possible off the land and were committed to a policy of devastation. Both the collection of supplies and the ravaging were organised, and there were usually instructions that the property of the Church was to be spared. The condottieri were still concerned to see that their men did not get out of hand and that booty was divided up fairly.

Francesco Guicciardini, who was certainly no friend of the Italian mercenary system, remarked: ‘Ever since the times of antiquity in which military discipline was severely exercised, the soldiery had always been licentious and burdensome to the people, yet they never gave themselves loose to all manners of disorders, but lived for the most part on their pay, and their licentiousness was restrained within tolerable bounds. But the Spaniards in Italy were the first that presumed to maintain themselves wholly on the substance of the people.’ After 1494 the large French and Spanish armies in Italy were living permanently on hostile soil and behaved accordingly. The average Italian army of the fifteenth century spent most of its time billeted or camped on friendly soil, and this was when its ‘licentiousness was restrained within tolerable bounds’. Discipline depends to a large extent on long service under respected and responsible leaders; the peculiar and increasingly permanent condotta system of the fifteenth century provided these conditions to a greater extent than we sometimes imagine. It is significant that Luca degli Albizzi in the three weeks he was with the army in 1432 said not a word about bad discipline except to report that all the militia had deserted. Linari was sacked, but the impression given is that this was a calculated affair, a reprisal for resistance.

The possibilities of booty and at the same time a breakdown of discipline were always at their greatest when a town surrendered or was stormed after a siege. As in northern Europe, it was accepted practice in Italy that a town was formally summoned to surrender before a siege started. It was at this moment that a town could expect to secure the best terms before time, patience and lives had been lost in a siege. However, the terms of a surrender were by no means necessarily related to the length of the siege or the effort involved in it, nor indeed were the terms agreed necessarily honoured once the gates had been opened to a besieging army.

Underestimating the Boers

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The British deceived themselves as to the military competence of the ‘armed farmers’ whom they were facing.

Transvaal, now free from the Zulu threat, rose in rebellion, and between December, 1880, and February, 1881, inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the British garrison. General George Colley, the British Governor of Natal at the time, was a brilliant soldier. He was, however, new to the area and had to rely upon his subordinates to advise him of the worth of his enemy. In this he was tragically ill-served.

Colonel Lanyon, Administrator of the Transvaal since 1879, gave Colley a wholly inaccurate assessment of the Boer military strength. He advised the Governor that the Boers were incapable of any united military action, that they were mortal cowards and that the mere sight of British regulars would be enough to make them sue for peace. In this Lanyon made the cardinal error of underestimating his enemy. The Boers had no standing army. However, they had a strong tradition of frontiermanship and had fought at times fanatically against a series of native enemies, including the much-vaunted Zulus. More fundamentally, with only 1,760 troops in the area, the British were badly outnumbered.

The first British encounter with the Boers proved catastrophic. On 20 December, 1880, a detachment of 264 soldiers from the 94th Regiment was stopped by a 1,000-strong commando dug in on the surrounding hills. The British were given the opportunity to retire, but declined and instead decided to fight it out. Their column was decimated with 77 soldiers killed and over 100 wounded. The Boer sharpshooting was astonishing and should have sent a warning to Colley. It did not. Instead, against all the rules of war, the British general decided to ‘invade’ the Transvaal, even though his enemy outnumbered him two-to-one, was well entrenched and knew the terrain well.

Soon thereafter the British suffered a further reverse at Laing’s Nek, close to the Boer main encampment, suffering 160 casualties out of a force of 480 officers and men. Colley must have known by now that he had underestimated the Boers, but refused to change his tactics and decided upon revenge. Majuba Hill, 2000 metres high, overlooked the Boer position and commanded their defences on Laing’s Nek. He reasoned that if the British were to take the Hill the Boers would be forced to evacuate Laing’s Nek and ultimately their entire position.

In the course of a night march he occupied the hilltop with 490 soldiers and 64 sailors. From the peak the enemy camp was less than 2km away and the effect of overlooking the Boers made the commander and his men over-confident. Rather than maintain the element of surprise groups of Highlanders heralded the daybreak by waving and jeering at the enemy below. Incensed by the behaviour of the soldiers and by the fact that the British had taken the hilltop on a Sunday, a day kept holy by the ultra-religious farmers, the Boers opened effective fire at once, causing casualties among the British who had not bothered to dig in.

Colley, who had fallen asleep as soon as he had reached the peak of the hill, could not believe that the Boers would not evacuate their camp. Instead they sent a picked force of 180 marksmen, most of them teenage farm workers, to climb the hill while covering fire from another 1,000 troops kept the British pinned down. Majuba was a convex hill, and without the protection of slit trenches the British could only engage the climbing enemy by exposing themselves to the fire from below.

Even when Lieutenant Hamilton, later to command the disastrous 1915 campaign in Gallipoli, woke Colley to advise him that at least 100 Boers had reached the summit of Majuba the General refused to accept the gravity of the situation. Instead he continued to doze, presumably to refresh himself for his ultimate occupation of the Boer position! When eventually Colley did appreciate his predicament and ordered the formation of a skirmishing line his men were shot to pieces by the Boer marksmen.

Within an hour of reaching the summit of Majuba Hill the Boers had completely routed the British, killing 93 soldiers, wounding 133 and taking 58 prisoners for the loss of one dead and five wounded. Colley himself was killed, reputedly by a twelve-year-old farm lad. The British had suffered a humiliating and unnecessary defeat, caused totally by their failure to appreciate the true military qualities of the boys and irregulars whom earlier Lanyon had referred to as ‘mortal cowards’. Less than twenty years later the British were destined to suffer a further series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the same enemy.

The Second Boer War of 1899–1902 symbolized Britain’s towering imperial status, but at the same time exposed potentially crippling weaknesses in her military machine. The British public were told by their government that the war was being fought to protect the Uitlanders, a pro-British minority in the Transvaal, from Afrikaner tyranny. The Afrikaners of the Transvaal and Orange Free State believed that Whitehall, in support of the expansionist policies of Cecil Rhodes, had hatched a plot to strip them of their independence and subordinate them to the British Empire.

The opposing sides were, on the face of it, ludicrously unequal. Britain, arguably the greatest power in the world, her navy invincible and ubiquitous, her overseas trade colossal and her global influence all-pervasive, completely surrounded the Boer colonies. The war should have been over by Christmas, and might well have been had the British military not deceived itself as to its own strength and its enemy’s inabilities.

Britain put 448,000 troops into the field; the Boers could at no time call upon more than 70,000 men, and probably never had more than 40,000 on active service. Moreover, the Afrikaner forces were almost exclusively composed of civilians under arms. Only a small standing infantry force and their artillery was uniformed and the latter, according to the British, was unskilled in close-battery warfare. (Another self-deceipt, it was in fact Prussian trained and highly effective.)

The British forces, despite their numerical advantage in South Africa, had scarcely profited from their humiliation during the earlier Boer War. They possessed no general staff to plan and coordinate tactics and strategy, and a paltry £11,000 a year was spent on the maintenance of the Intelligence Division. The generals, most of whom still regarded brains as a dangerous commodity, saw the ‘ideal British battle’ as one invoving the frontal engagement of lightly armed natives, such as the Dervishes who had smashed themselves against the British lines at Omdurman in 1898. Kitchener, the victor of Omdurman, was later to complain in South Africa that the Boers would not ‘stand up to a fair fight’.

The British Army closed its eyes to the potential of mounted infantry. Ten per cent of the imperial troops in South Africa were admittedly mounted, but these were mainly cavalry who, although they carried carbines as well as sabres and lances, had little idea how to use them. Only later did the War Office listen to its self-governing colonies and accept their invitation to send units of experienced horsemen.

Deficiencies in British training and tactics were made apparent to all in the space of one week when three independent columns suffered bloody maulings at the hands of the Boers. Better leadership coupled with a greater respect for the enemy would have saved precious lives, but at that time the British still harboured the deceipt that the Boers, as soldiers, offered no greater potential threat than the Dervishes.

Attempts to relieve the sieges of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley met with disaster. The advancing columns were stopped at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso and slaughtered. During the course of what became known as ‘Black Week’ the British Army sustained 7,000 casualties for the gain of no appreciable ground. Their maps were inaccurate, their compasses faulty, and in most instances their reconnaissance was non-existent.

So low was their regard for their Boer opponents that the officers in command ignored every basic rule of combat. During the Battle of Colenso Colonel Charles Long, an artillery officer with a great deal of military experience in India, supported by Brigadier Barton’s infantry, decided to charge the enemy with his twelve 15-pdr field guns and six naval guns. While nearly 5km from the enemy position he ordered his guns to gallop forward, leaving Barton’s covering infantry fire behind. When only 1,000m from the Boer position, and having left the naval guns 600m behind and the infantry a further 750m behind them, he ordered his guns to take post. They did so with all the precision and discipline of a regiment deploying on the parade ground at Woolwich and were slaughtered by the combined might of 1,000 Boer rifles.

At the same time Major General Hart, as brave a man and as great a fool as Long, ordered his Irish Brigade to advance in broad daylight shoulder-to-shoulder towards the Boer positions. Even when the Boer marksmen opened fire and the Irish began to take heavy casualties Hart refused to allow them to deploy into skirmishing order. By the time that Hart withdrew his brigade had suffered 532 dead and wounded, one of the most futile operations of the entire war in South Africa.

Only later did the British concede the worth of their enemy. They then introduced a series of new and wholly uncompromising tactics which, although they were to lead to victory, were to cause immense suffering among the civilian population which might have been averted had the British, at the beginning, not deceived themselves as to the military competence of the ‘armed farmers’ whom they were facing.

The North Korean Steamroller

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NKPA T34-85 tanks on parade.

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For the invasion of South Korea seven NKPA divisions were gathered under General Kim Chaek and grouped into the 1st Army, consisting of the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 6th Divisions as well as the 105th Armoured Brigade, and the weaker 2nd Army with the 2nd, 5th and 7th Divisions. The 1st Army was given the job of overrunning the Ongjin Peninsula and the South Korean capital Seoul.

It was the NKPA’s tanks that provided the key striking force. ‘The enemy, after penetrating the defences with his armour,’ General Matthew B. Ridgway, who commanded the US 8th Army in Korea, noted, ‘would envelop both flanks with infantry, surround artillery units, and roll on rearward.’

Crucially, the NKPA opened the war with about 150 T-34/85 tanks armed with the 85mm gun, which was superior to anything else in theatre at the time.The UN forces were to dub them ‘Caviar Cans’. While 120 tanks were deployed with the 105th Armoured Brigade, the NKPA infantry divisions’ self-propelled gun battalions fielded a total of 120 Soviet-supplied SU-76 assault guns. In addition to the tanks of the armoured brigade, the personnel from the tank training unit at Sadong with a further thirty tanks were assigned to the 7th Division. They deployed on the east-central front for the attack on Inje.

In the early stages of the fighting the North Koreans also used their tanks in built-up areas with some considerable effect neutralising UN defenders. During the assault on Taejon they moved in pairs or singularly carrying supporting infantry. Afterwards, though, they used their armour much more circumspectly because of improving US counter-measures.

After the capture of the South Korean capital the 105th Armoured Brigade became the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armoured Division and was strengthened with the 308th Self-propelled Battalion. The 3rd and 4th Divisions which were also involved were likewise given the honorary title ‘Seoul Division’. By 1953 the NKPA had seven tank regiments (104 – 107th, 109th, 206th and 208th).

During the battles for the Pusan pocket the NKPA received reinforcements including another eighty T-34/85, which equipped two new tank units, the 16th and 17th Armoured Brigades. Some were also sent to the 105th Armoured Brigade, but the UN’s air supremacy meant that many were destroyed before they could reach the front. UN estimates at the end of September 1950 were that the entire NKPA T-34 force (then believed to stand at 239) had been destroyed whereas UN forces had only lost 60 tanks.

While the Chinese Nationalist forces had created a mechanised division, equipped initially with Soviet and then US-supplied tanks, the Communists had never taken to armour and simply relied on manpower alone. Soviet assistance to the Nationalists stopped once Moscow had signed a non-aggression pact with Tokyo. The PLA produced a copy of the Soviet T-34/85 in the 1950s known as the Type 58, but few if any saw combat in Korea. It is likely that most of the Soviet T-34s supplied to the PLA were passed on to the NKPA.

Reports of Chinese tanks in Korea are non-existent. Although on 26 October 1950 when the Republic of Korea’s (RoK) Army’s 26th Division came up against the Chinese 124th Division, General Matthew B. Ridgway reported, ‘When the Marines came up to relieve the RoKs a few days later they met and destroyed Chinese tanks (the only ones the X Corps was to encounter) and picked up prisoners from a fresh Chinese division, the 126th.’ One can only assume that Ridgway was mistaken and these were supporting NKPA tanks, though it is always possible the Chinese brought a few with them.

China committed six armies each of three divisions in support of the NKPA in November 1950. Significantly, they had no tanks, vehicles or artillery, allowing these units to slip into North Korea largely undetected. The Chinese armies also lacked air support. To compensate for the lack of anti-tank weapons each platoon was issued with 2.25kg TNT satchel charges sufficient to take the track off a tank. It was not until the summer of 1951 that the Chinese began to deploy artillery and mortars.

In north-western Korea the PLA assembled the Chinese 9th Army Group under General Song Shilun. This was a new command consisting of 120,000 men who were tasked with taking on the US Marines around the Changjin Reservoir. Two of Shilun’s three field armies, the 20th and 26th, had been detached from the forces once earmarked to attack the Nationalist-held island of Taiwan; the 27th Field Army came from Shandong and each of the three were supplemented by one division from the 30th Field Army.

Facing the US 8th Army was the PLA’s 13th Army Group totalling 180,000 men and commanded by Lieutenant Li Tianyu. His forces initially saw action at Unsan, along the Chongchon River and in the area of the Changjin Reservoir. Tianyu’s original three field armies, the 38th, 40th and 42nd, were rapidly reinforced with the 39th, 50th and 66th Field armies.

Notably, the 50th Field Army consisted of former Nationalist troops who had surrendered in Manchuria in 1948. Their commander, Lieutenant General Zeng Zesheng, had spent most of his career fighting the Communists. Three years earlier he had worked with David Barr, the US advisor to the Nationalist forces, who now commanded the US 7th Infantry Division fighting on the other side. Zesheng’s former Nationalist Corps were almost wiped out in the final battle for Seoul.

As well as armour, artillery and fighter aircraft the PLA lacked even the most rudimentary logistical support. Soldiers were expected to carry what food and ammunition they needed to fight. Only 800 trucks belonging to the 5th and 42nd Truck Regiments were assigned to support the troops in Korea. Only 50 per cent were expected to remain operational. In addition, over ½ million coolies were recruited to carry supplies across the Yalu River, but they created their own logistical headache, as they had to be fed and housed over considerable distances. Many Chinese commanders considered them an unwanted distraction and a drain on resources.

Uncle Sam Holds the Line

In the wake of the Second World War much of the US Army was demobilised and sent home. At the outbreak of the Korean War it only had ten combat divisions including a single armoured division.The US presence in South Korea consisted of a mere 500 advisors who were busy training the RoK Army and advising on counterinsurgency operations. Although never deployed in large numbers, US armour was to be instrumental in providing fire support and static defence.

General Douglas MacArthur’s US forces stationed in nearby Japan were only equipped with M24 Chaffee light tanks as it was feared anything heavier would damage Japanese roads and bridges. In the face of invasion Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s 8th Army, which was on occupation duties in Japan, was put on alert. Four light tank battalions supported his infantry divisions; the 71st, 77th, 78th and 79th but each of these were only of company strength.

In response to the T-34 tank’s success in Korea the 8072nd Medium Tank Battalion (later re-designated the 89th) was quickly activated in Japan with fifty-four rebuilt M4A3 Sherman HVSS armed with a 76mm anti-tank gun. The USA quickly rushed this armour over to support their forces in South Korea in late July 1950.

In the meantime, Task Force Smith from the US 24th Infantry Division was hurried to the front on 1 July 1950 and held up the NKPA’s advance on Osan. This numbered just 500 men, consisting of 2 rifle companies, 2 platoons of 4.2in mortars, a single 75mm recoilless rifle crew and 6 2.36in bazooka teams. None of these weapons were capable of knocking out the NKPA’s T-34s. For several days they were the only US fighting force on the ground and had to contend with massed enemy troops, tanks and artillery.

On 5 July 1950 the NKPA’s armour first came up against the USA. Some thirty-three T-34/85s of the 107th Armoured Regiment took part in the attack. Advancing in groups of four T-34/85s with all guns blazing, the Americans were only able to stop two tanks using high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds. Only four were immobilised and after seven hours of fighting the USA was forced to withdraw with its tail between its legs.

‘At 8am on 5 July, the enemy attacked near Osan with 30 tanks and a strong force of infantry,’ General Ridgway later wrote. ‘Task Force Smith soon had to choose between retreat and annihilation. Having held their positions until their ammunition was gone, they withdrew in some disorder, receiving heavy casualties.’ At Taejon the 24th Infantry Division gained valuable time for the arrival of the 25th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions from Japan as well as the 29th Regimental Combat Team from Okinawa.

Five days later three of the completely inadequate US M24 light tanks came up against the T-34/85 at Chonui for the first time.They fared little better and lost two tanks, though they did manage to destroy a single T-34. The US government put three tank battalions on alert in the USA on 10 July 1950, the 6th with the M46 Patton belonging to the 2nd Armoured Division, 70th with the M26 Pershing and M4A3 Sherman and 73rd also with the M26 Pershing; the latter two were school troop battalions from the Armour School at Fort Knox and Infantry School at Fort Benning. They were the only armoured units in the USA combat ready and they arrived at Pusan on 7 August 1950.

It was not until late July 1950 that an effective infantry anti-tank weapon was supplied in the shape of the 3.5in rocket launcher known as the bazooka. The NKPA’s attack on the city of Taejon on 20 July saw ten tanks lost to this weapon the very first time it was deployed. However, in one case it took three rockets before the crew was killed and the tank immobilised.The victor was none other than Major General William F. Dean, commander of the 24th Infantry Division who was to later boast ‘I got me a tank!’

Three refurbished M26 Pershings (the only medium tanks in the whole of Korea) crewed by men from the 77th Tank Battalion engaged the enemy at Chinju on 31 July. A blown-up bridge cut off their retreat and they had to be abandoned – another humiliation for the USA. On 2 August the newly arrived M4A3 HVSS went into action for the first time with better results.

With the loss of Taejon the UN forces fell back to the Pusan perimeter.There US Marine M26s were used in a defensive role and in the battle of the Naktong Bulge, in which the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade under the 24th Infantry Division tried to destroy the NKPA 4th Division bridgehead over the river. The tide was about to turn against the T-34.

On 12 July Company ‘A’, 1st Marine Tank Battalion, which was used to the M4A3 but reissued with the Pershing, as well as units of the 1st Marine Amphibian Tractor Battalion sailed from the USA. The were committed first to the Sachon counteroffensive, then during the fighting between Observation Hill and Hill 125 a Pershing came face to face with a T-34 from the 107th Armoured Regiment.This and a second T-34 were knocked out by a combination of the Pershing’s 90mm gun and bazooka and recoilless rifle fire.

By the end of August the USA had over 500 medium tanks in Korea, including the M4A3 Sherman, M26 Pershing and M46 Patton. Over 400 of these were in the Pusan pocket, outnumbering the enemy by a least 4 : 1 . Although the NKPA received about 100 T-34 replacements, many of them were knocked out by air strikes before they could even reach the battlefield.

The North Koreans were in a race against time in trying to unify the two Koreas and anticipated completing this in about two weeks. Once the Pusan perimeter was formed they soon found themselves heavily outnumbered. By the time of the Inchon landings there were about 83,000 US troops and another 57,000 Korean and British soldiers facing the NKPA. Although North Korea raised the number of its forces along the front to 98,000, over a third of them were raw recruits.This meant that they were unable to withstand the two-pronged attack on Inchon and from Pusan when it came.

MADRAS AND DUPLEIX I

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The siege of Madras in 1746 for Joseph Francois Dupleix troops and ships of La Bourdonnais. The city surrendered in September 1746. Madras was returned to England in 1748 to restore peace.

That nameless Spanish coastguard who, in defence of his country’s trading rights in Cuba, sliced off the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins had much to answer for. In an age when even sea dogs wore ample wigs the Captain’s loss was of no cosmetic consequence; but the fact that Jenkins ever after cherished the severed organ, regarded it as a talisman, and chose to exhibit it in the House of Commons had far-reaching repercussions. Such was the clamour for retaliation against Spanish highhandedness in the Caribbean that the war, when at last declared by a reluctant ministry, is said to have been the most popular of the century. It was also one of the shortest, for within a few months the Hapsburg emperor had died, opening the issue of the imperial succession and plunging central Europe into conflagration. The War of Jenkins’s Ear became subsumed in that of the Austrian Succession and, with Britain already committed against Bourbon Spain, it was unthinkable that Bourbon France would be other than hostile.

The success of the European powers in engrossing the world’s trade had had the unfortunate side effect of multiplying and internationalizing their interminable squabbles. If an incident off the coast of Cuba could determine postures in a European war it followed that wherever else the European rivals found themselves in close proximity the same hostile postures would be likely to prevail. Nationalism, let alone religion or ideology, played no great part in these quarrels. Ostensibly they were dynastic or commercial but the issues, often confused in the first place, became hopelessly obscured in the process of export. Local grievances took their place and local conditions determined the scale and duration of any hostilities. The stakes could by mutual consent be kept to a minimum or they could escalate to such heights that in retrospect they dwarfed the often inconclusive results in Europe.

So it was in India. News that Britain and France were officially at war reached the Coromandel Coast in September 1744. By that time the question of the Austrian succession was as dead and buried as Jenkins and his ear. But that scarcely troubled the participants. Two years later Madras would be stormed and captured by the French; and for the next fifteen years the two nations, in the guise of their respective trading companies, would fight a life-and-death struggle for supremacy on The Coast and in the adjacent province of the Carnatic. To strengthen its position, each Company entered into alliances with the native powers, thereby extending both its influence and its territory. Honours would be more or less equally divided but in the end victory and dominion fell to the British; and thanks to the military arrangements necessitated by the war, the British would go on to realize an even greater dominion in Bengal. It is therefore with this war, the War of the (wholly irrelevant) Austrian Succession, that most histories of British India begin; there are even histories of the East India Company which have the same starting point.

The metamorphosis of the Company’s Madras establishment from city state to territorial capital, closely followed by the still more dramatic transformation of its Bengal establishment, undoubtedly represents the most important watershed in the Company’s history. Bengal at the time accounted for more than fifty per cent of the Company’s total trade and Madras for around fifteen per cent. When the call to arms drowned out the commodity wrangling in two such important markets, it was bound to affect the whole posture of the Company.

On the other hand, these stirring events had little bearing on the Arabian Sea trade, based on Bombay, and even less on the important China trade, based on Canton and now entering a period of rapid expansion. In outposts like Benkulen and St Helena the usual grim and inglorious struggle for survival continued regardless. And more significantly, even in Bengal and on The Coast the volume of trade remained high in spite of the political turmoil. The Coast’s trading returns would be back to normal within two years of the French occupation of Madras while those of Calcutta would recover from their own ‘black hole’ in 1756 even more rapidly. In chronicling the political and military adventures of the period it is rather easy to forget that the Company remained a commercial enterprise. ‘The combatants aimed at injuring one another’s trade, not making conquests’, writes Professor Dodwell, editor of the Cambridge History of India. Commercial priorities still governed the Company’s decision making and it was its financial viability which made expansion possible – though not necessarily desirable.

That said, any student of the Company’s fortunes who at last arrives at this watershed period will find little further use for a pocket calculator. With the Company in India fighting for its very existence, the monthly returns of ‘The Sea Customer’ and ‘The Export Warehousekeeper’ lose their charm while London’s always wordy complaints about the previous year’s taffetas seem as irrelevant as Mrs Gyfford’s last will and testament. More territory meant more revenue but not necessarily more trade; and for Company diehards that was one good reason for a certain ambivalence about the whole question of territorial expansion.

This shift away from the market place is amply endorsed by all that has been written about the period. Whereas for the first 150 years of the Company’s existence the published sources are few and specific, to be eagerly sought and gratefully scrutinized, now the student is suddenly confronted by such a mass of research, analysis, narrative, and polemic as to make his task seem superfluous if not impossible. Sandwiched between the ample volumes of political, military and administrative history stand the classic pontifications of Macaulay and Burke, important French and Indian chronicles, much London-based pamphleteering, and copious biographical writings from which the main protagonists emerge with rich and ready-made personalities. After so long diligently pursuing faceless factors engaged in obscure transactions up forgotten backwaters, it is all rather overwhelming – like emerging from a long night drive through country lanes on to a floodlit freeway. Only a nagging doubt that the freeway may not be heading in quite the desired direction dispels euphoria.

For the fact is that nearly all of this material celebrates the rise of British power in India, a process of consuming interest to several generations of English writers but one in which the Company’s prominence becomes increasingly deceptive. For this same process heralded and then hastened the eclipse of the Honourable Company as a private commercial enterprise. Its stock would be quoted for another 130 years but its trading rights would disappear in half that time; its governance would last for over a century but its independence would be gone in just four decades,

How ambivalent the Company was about military adventurism is well illustrated by its reponse to those first tidings of war with France in 1744. During the War of the Spanish Succession, the French and English companies in India had agreed to refrain from hostilities, and it was with the idea of a similar pact that Marquis Dupleix, now the Governor of Pondicherry, wrote to Nicholas Morse, his opposite number at Madras. Morse knew that Dupleix’s position was weak, that Pondicherry’s defences were little better than those of Madras and that there was no French fleet in the offing to boost them. He also knew that a squadron of the Royal Navy was already on its way to bolster his own position. Yet the idea of a pre-emptive strike against Pondicherry seems never to have entered his head. He could not accept Dupleix’s offer of a pact because, as he explained, he was not authorized to do so. He was thinking, of course, of the Royal squadron which was sure to take French prizes and over which he had no authority. But neither did he reject the pact. In Bengal the English at Calcutta and the French at their neighbouring base of Chandernagar would observe it; Morse merely prevaricated.

Irritated by this caution Dupleix appealed to the Nawab of the Carnatic who duly reminded both Companies that they held their settlements of the Moghul Emperor on condition that ‘they behave themselves peacable and quietly’. In effect the Nawab forbade hostilities and in the correspondence that followed Morse was obliged to define his position. What happened at sea, claimed the Madras President, was of no legitimate concern to the Nawab but on land he could vouch for the English never being the first to take up arms; their trade was too important, their militia too ineffectual.

By now it was 1745 and the Royal squadron under Commodore Curtis Barnett had arrived in Eastern waters. Instead of making straight for the Coromandel coast, Barnett first cruised off Aceh where he pounced on French shipping richly laden with China goods as it emerged from the Malacca Straits. Four or five vessels belonging to the Compagnie des Indes were taken along with a like number of privately owned ships in which the French factors, and especially Dupleix, had a very considerable interest. As with the English of the period so with the French; it is impossible to tell which affront was the more provocative, a tear in the flag or a hole in the pocket. But when, as now, both national honour and personal wealth were at stake, a vigorous response could be expected. Dupleix wrote urgently to Mauritius, the Compagnie’s main base in the Indian Ocean, for naval support; he again complained to the Nawab of the Carnatic; he protested loudly to Madras; and he began assembling a small expeditionary force in Pondicherry.

News of the last caused consternation in the English settlements. Morse convened his Council in emergency session. It was agreed to hire ‘200 good peons’, or militiamen, from Madras’s immediate neighbours and to arm all the city’s resident Englishmen with matchlocks; they could take the guns home with them but if they heard a cannon shot during the night they were to ‘repair to The Parade before the Main Guard where they would receive the necessary orders from Mr Monson, their Commanding Officer’. Such was Madras’s idea of mobilization; never were sabres rattled so diffidently. Fort St David, only ten miles from Pondicherry, was the more obvious target but Morse refrained from sending it reinforcements on the doubtful grounds that that might be just what Dupleix wanted; with Madras deprived of part of its garrison the French might take advantage of a southerly wind and ‘surprise us’.

In the event it was all a false alarm. With the English squadron daily expected, Dupleix knew better than to do anything that might invite an attack on Pondicherry; his expedition was intended simply to reinforce a recently acquired factory at Karikal some fifty miles down The Coast. When at last Barnett did arrive at Fort St David, the Madras Council discharged the ‘200 good peons’ and turned its attention to the more agreeable task of provisioning the squadron; meanwhile the squadron concentrated on the even more lucrative task of prize-taking. Trade was not neglected. ‘Having at present the prospect of making a very considerable investment this year’, the Council’s only anxiety was that the usual supply of shipping and treasure from home should reach them safely. This it did in December and not only were there four Company ships but also two further men-of-war and some more recruits for the garrison.

Two months later, in February 1746, news came from Anjengo, that source of so much shipping intelligence, that a French fleet of six warships was now ready to sail from Mauritius. Madras again cast about for mercenaries; in this case ‘300 Extraordinary Peons’ were signed up. But with Barnett still cruising off The Coast there was no panic. At the end of April Barnett died and was succeeded by Edward Peyton, his second in command. Still there was no sign of the French fleet. Peyton then cruised south towards Sri Lanka; there were ‘no ships in Pondicherry road’ according to a report that was before the Madras Council on 11 June.

The Council was now meeting twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Monday the 16th there was further shipping news from Anjengo, this time about a homeward bound Indiaman; then there were some cash advances to Indian buyers to be approved, and an explanation to be sought from a ship’s captain lately arrived from Bengal and seven bags short on his manifest of saltpetre. Finally a letter was drafted to Fort St David approving of their design for ‘a new arched godown’ and promising to send some more field guns ‘as opportunity offers’. And so to dinner. No hint of panic, nothing frantic nor even faintly ominous. But at this point, a hundred years after Francis Day had first built his four-square fort on the Madras sands, the Fort St George records fall silent. It would be three years before the ‘Diary and Consultations’ book was resumed.

Doubtless there were other Council meetings during the few weeks that remained to the English in Madras but either they were too fraught to be minuted or, more likely, the records were destroyed by the French. From other sources, especially the deliberations of the junior Council at Fort St David, we know that within ten days Peyton’s squadron had fought an inconclusive action with the French fleet as it passed the Dutch settlement of Negapatnam. Peyton continued south to Sri Lanka for refitting and La Bourdonnais, the French commander, to Pondicherry. The latter’s fleet consisted of nine ships, according to the much alarmed factors at Fort St David; many of them were far bigger than the English ships; they off-loaded a vast quantity of treasure and, unreported by Fort St David, they carried some 1200 mainly European troops.

At the end of July the French fleet again put to sea. Again they encountered Peyton off Negapatnam, but this time the English turned tail before a shot was fired. Peyton then continued north, past Fort St David, past Madras, to Pulicat, a Dutch station. Unaware of this development, the English factors at Fort St David watched the French fleet return to Pondicherry.

By now, late August, it was common knowledge ‘that their design was against Madras’ and ‘that not only the Company’s expected Shipping but likewise their Settlement were in Eminent [sic] danger.’ It was Madras’s turn desperately to appeal to the Nawab and still more desperately to scan the horizon for a sign of Peyton’s fleet. From Fort St David letters were sent ‘by three several conveyances’ to Negapatnam (Dutch) and Tranquebar (Danish) to summon Peyton ‘wherever they heard he was [and] at any expense’. Native catamarans scoured the coastline even down to Sri Lanka; in response to a promised reward of 100 pagodas for the first sighting of the English fleet, some ventured out of sight of land and into over thirty fathoms. But it was all in vain. Peyton had decided that the fate of the Company’s settlements was no concern of his; where was the prize money in it? At the beginning of September he resumed his voyage north to Bengal, safety, and eventual obloquy. Madras stood alone and unprotected.

MADRAS AND DUPLEIX II

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Soldiers of the East India Company.

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Writing to Calcutta a year later, the directors in London would place the blame for what followed squarely on the shoulders of Morse and his Council. ‘We hope,’ they warned, ‘that all our Governors who have not the resolution to defend our settlements, as we think was the case at Madras, will resign to such who have.’ Ever since a threatened attack by Marathas in 1740 the defence of Madras – and of Calcutta – had figured prominently in the official correspondence. Right liberally had the directors contributed, sanctioning additional fortifications for Madras in 1741, ‘an encrease to 600 Europeans’ in the garrison in 1742, and the highly rated services of Major Charles Knipe (at the princely salary of £250 per annum) to command the troops and advise on further defences. In 1743 Knipe, an able officer of thirty years’ service in the regular army, surveyed the vital west front of Madras. ‘Tis no fortification at all’, he reported, ‘but rather an offensive than defensive wall to your garrison’; but for the support of the numerous Indian homes that had been built against it, ‘it could not stand’; ‘nor was it more than sufficient for a garden wall when first erected.’ The Major proposed a new wall and, in spite of the cost, again the directors assented. So how could the place possibly be described as unprotected?

The answer was simple. Most of these measures had never been realized. Knipe had died less than four months after his arrival and it was over a year before a replacement engineer, one Bombardier Smith, could be borrowed from Bombay. Smith’s new design for the west front was still on the drawing board when La Bourdonnais sallied forth from Pondicherry. Meanwhile command of the Madras garrison had devolved by seniority to Lieutenant Peter Eckman, described as ‘an ignorant superannuated Swede’ whose boast of ‘having carried arms above 56 years’ must have made him one of the oldest lieutenants ever. Perhaps if he had had those 600 European troops at his command, things would have been different. But in fact there seem never to have been more than 400 on the muster roll and they were not disposed to take much notice of their septuagenarian commander. Of the 400 a quarter were either in hospital, in prison, fictitious, ‘deserted’, or simply ‘men who ought to have been there’ (but, presumably were not). The rest are said to have been mainly topazes, ‘a black, degenerate, wretched race of the ancient Portuguese’, according to a contemporary, ‘as proud and bigoted as their ancestors, lazy, idle, and vicious withal, and for the most part as weak and feeble in body as base in mind.’

Others would disagree with this verdict on the topazes, among them young Robert Clive who had arrived in Madras two years previously as a writer (salary £5 per annum), the most junior and menial rank in the Company’s commercial hierarchy. He was now, in 1746, twenty-one years old, still homesick for his family and his beloved Manchester (‘the centre of all my wishes’), still a writer and not a little impatient of his prospects of wealth and promotion. The popular portrait suggests a broody and hot-tempered youth anxiously awaiting the call to arms and glory; but during the assault on Madras there is no record of posterity’s ‘heaven-born general’ so much as hefting a matchlock.

Not that there was much time for heroics. La Bourdonnais’s fleet complete with transports arrived off Madras on 4 September 1746. Some 2000 troops were landed to the south of the city and by the 6th they had worked their way round to the west where they set up batteries and began pounding that suspect western wall. The English replied with a sally by the ‘Extraordinary Peons’ who were repulsed (and then fled back to their villages) plus a rather ill-directed fire from the fort’s bastions. No further sallies were attempted. The garrison had been liberally primed with arrack and rum, alcohol being supposed to put fire in the men’s bellies. But in this case, it just put ideas in their heads. They insulted their officers, rampaged through the town, and made it quite dear that against such superior forces nothing would persuade them to venture outside the walls. No doubt the alcohol was also partly responsible for the erratic cannonade. But there was an additional problem. All the gun carriages collapsed under their cannon ‘upon the second or third firing’. The efforts of Mrs Morse and the Fort’s other ladies, who were valiantly sewing up cloth cartridges, were wasted.

Meanwhile the Black Town, though less affected by the French bombardment, was rapidly emptying. On the first day most of the civilian population decamped; next night 500 ‘Black soldiers’ slipped over the walls, closely followed by the White Town’s large contingent of domestics ‘insomuch that the gentlemen and ladies could not get servants to kill and dress their victuals or bring them water to drink’. Nor did the continual bombardment enable the gentlemen and ladies to get any sleep, for which after two days ‘they were ready to die’ according to one of them. Not surprisingly, the ancient Eckman was among the first to withdraw from circulation ‘unable to bear the fatigue’; Morse seems to have gone down with chronic melancholia; and Smith, the Bombay bombardier, actually died from exhaustion – or possibly, according to the records, from the discovery that he was ‘ill-used by his wife’.

Whether he is to be included in the casualty figure is not clear. By the third day of the bombardment, the English losses stood at six, two of them European. It was not exactly mass carnage but evidently quite unacceptable, for the English now attempted to buy off their opponents. This was standard procedure in Indian warfare; additionally an exchange of pagodas was seen as the only reasonable way for two commercial organizations to compose their differences; with the French Compagnie, unlike the English, invariably strapped for cash, it was thought likely to have particular appeal.

La Bourdonnais welcomed the approach. He too had no idea of the whereabouts of Peyton’s squadron and was worried lest his own fleet, with its guns now trained on Fort St George, should be surprised in Madras’s open roads. But he rejected the English offer. National honour, not to mention the fiery Dupleix, demanded that there must be a victory; Madras must actually surrender and the French must be seen as other than The Coast’s underdogs. A reasonable and honourable man, La Bourdonnais had no desire to destroy the place nor indeed to hold on to it. He just wanted the best possible deal for France – and for La Bourdonnais. Under the terms of the final surrender, agreed on 10 September, Madras was to be handed over and then speedily ransomed back by the English Company for 1.1 million pagodas plus another 100,000 for La Bourdonnais himself.

And there, but for the machinations of Dupleix and a change in the weather, matters might have ended. Ten days later the victors made their ceremonial entry. The Company’s flag was lowered; a Te Deum was sung in the Catholic church. There was no looting, the ransom terms were agreed, the city was to be evacuated by the French at the beginning of October. But as word of these arrangements reached Dupleix in Pondicherry he evinced a growing mistrust of La Bourdonnais and of the perfidious English – fed, no doubt, by anxiety over his own share in the proceeds of victory – plus an ominous disregard for the conventional status of European trading companies within the Moghul empire.

Insisting that only he and his Council had the authority to negotiate a ransom, he reprimanded La Bourdonnais and advised that anyway Madras could not be returned to the English since he had promised it to the Nawab in return for the latter’s neutrality. But either this was a fabrication or else the ploy had miscarried; for in fact the Nawab, after earnest entreaties from the English, was already assembling his troops for an attack on Pondicherry and another on the French in Madras. Far from neutralizing his Moghul overlord, Dupleix’s behaviour had provoked the first major trial of strength between European and Indian arms in the peninsula.

Meanwhile La Bourdonnais was proposing a compromise whereby the French should extend their occupation of Madras till January. Dupleix seems to have agreed and, less surprisingly, so did the English who had no choice in the matter and who rightly saw La Bourdonnais’s presence as their only guarantee of the ransom being effected. These hopes, though, were dashed by the south-east monsoon which broke with dramatic effect one Sunday night in early October. A cyclone swept on to the harbourless Coast scattering all before it including La Bourdonnais’s fleet which was still lying off Madras. Four ships disappeared completely, four more were dismasted. To the English factors at Fort St David, anxiously awaiting their turn as the French squadron’s next prey, it was a wondrous example of divine retribution; ‘it pleased God to disappoint their views by a gale of wind’. But for their less fortunate colleagues in Madras the gale of wind meant the end of French forbearance. Within a matter of days La Bourdonnais, the guarantor of the ransom arrangement, had gathered up the remnants of his fleet and departed the country.

He left Dupleix’s nominee in charge of Madras where the Compagnie’s men now addressed themelves to the serious business of mulcting the English metropolis for all it was worth. The ransom arrangements were disavowed; but realizing that an eventual peace in Europe would probably mean the restitution of Madras, the French factors took such measures as would combine instant pickings with an undermining of the city’s long-term prosperity. Thus the White Town was ransacked while the Black Town was partially demolished. Wholesale confiscations took place and the Indian merchants and middlemen on whom trade depended were ordered to remove to Pondicherry. Some obeyed; others paid handsomely for the privilege of exemption. Meanwhile the English were given the choice of taking an oath to the French king or being made prisoner. Many, like Robert Clive, simply contrived to escape; either way they were all dispossessed and dispersed.

La Bourdonnais’s other legacy to the Compagnie was the 1200 troops he had brought to India and who now, marooned there by the destruction of his fleet, were at Dupleix’s disposal. Disciplined, well-officered, and equipped with the latest in musketry and field artillery, these troops were soon put to the test. Four days after La Bourdonnais’s departure, the Nawab’s army approached Madras and, imitating the French a month before, took up positions to the west of the city. Like the English, the French made an early sally; 400 men with a couple of guns issued forth to confront an army said to have been 10,000 strong. It looked like a suicide gesture and contemptuously did the Nawab’s cavalry sweep down towards their prey. The French troopers drew aside to clear a field for the guns; the cavalry kept on coming. At unmissable range the first salvo halted the charge without dispersing the horsemen. Confident in the knowledge that no gun could be fired more than once every three minutes, the Nawab’s cavalry wheeled aside and reformed to move in for the kill. But long before this manoeuvre could be completed, more men and horses were piling up in front of them. The French boasted a fire rate of twenty rounds a minute and were certainly capable of half that; their infantry were no less adroit with their muskets. In effect every French gun had the firepower of thirty Indian guns and every French trooper could comfortably account for ten ill-armed Moghul mercenaries.

This victory was not enough to end the siege; but when a relieving force sent from Pondicherry arrived on the scene two days later, it was precisely the same story. Again the Nawab’s troops were routed by an infinitely smaller French contingent. Quite suddenly the French had set a new pattern for European participation in Indian affairs.

The superiority of European arms came as a revelation comparable with the first discovery of a sea route to the East. While in India ideas of drill, arms, and tactics had scarcely progressed since Akbar, in Europe they had undergone steady refinement and development in a host of campaigns. There was now no comparison. Warfare in India was still a sport; in Europe it had become a science. Officers read Vauban’s Mémoires and studied the Regulations of the Prussian Infantry. Discipline made esprit a corporate responsibility; drill imparted to tactics the irresistible precision of a well-oiled machine. What Robert Orme, the English Company’s military historian, and his eighteenth-century contemporaries now recognized as the myth of Moghul superiority in battle had been ruthlessly exposed. Outside the walls of Fort St George ‘the French at once broke through the charm of this timorous opinion by defeating a whole army with a single battalion’.

MADRAS AND DUPLEIX III

ruines_de_pondichery_en_1762

With Madras secure in French possession Dupleix now turned his attention to Fort St David. This was no surprise to its English garrison who, with barely eight miles of scrub and dune between their walls and those of Pondicherry, were wont to consider themselves in a more or less permanent state of siege. Just as the presence of French shipping in Pondicherry roads meant that Fort St David was blockaded, so even innocent foraging could look like an offensive move. Amidst such continual alarms, however, there appear to have been three serious attempts to take the place – in December 1746, March 1747, and June 1748. On all but the last occasion the French found Cuddalore – in effect the Black Town of Fort St David – undefended. Poorly fortified and of considerable extent, it was beyond the means of the English to hold it. But the fort itself, a mile to the north, was a very different proposition. Unlike Madras, it stood on rising ground, was of a regular shape, and had a clear field of fire. For all the disadvantages of proximity to the French capital, it was here that the English had resolved to make their last stand on The Coast.

Already Fort St David had been designated their senior settlement in the peninsula and the hub of what remained of their commercial operations there. Those, like the young Robert Clive, who had made good their escape from Madras and headed for Fort St David, found it on an altogether more warlike footing. Ever since La Bourdonnais’s first arrival on the Coast, the Fort’s factors had been readying themselves for action by calling in all merchandise, stockpiling provisions and military stores, and recruiting a force of peons which now numbered some 2000. Meanwhile desperate appeals for help, treasure and reinforcements had been sent to London, Bengal, Bombay and even places like Tellicherry and Benkulen. It could only be a matter of time before relief was at hand.

Even so Fort St David’s survival seems to have owed as much to Providence, whom its factors invoked with great frequency, as to valour. The failure of the first French assault looks like the result of over-confidence following those resounding routs of the Nawab’s forces outside Madras. After a short but hungry night march from Pondicherry, the French troops bivouacked outside the fort and fell to ‘dressing their victuals’ with true Gallic devotion. The Nawab’s hordes had been shadowing their advance and chose this moment to launch a surprise attack. Caught off their guard the French panicked, at which point the English peons issued forth to join in the fray. Clive, who took part, claims that the French ‘lost a great many men by the random shot of the Moorish infantry and our peons’. But there was no rout and the French reached Pondicherry in good order.

Having bought off the Nawab with a large cash indemnity, Dupleix should have succeeded at his second attempt. This time the French force was twice as strong and was commanded by the able Monsieur Paradis, the victor of one of those engagements with the Nawab outside Madras. Additionally, the English within the fort were now at their lowest ebb. Twice Company vessels had come within sight of the fort only to put hastily back to sea, without so much as landing their letters, when they heard of the proximity of French shipping. Worse still, it was more than four months since the fall of Madras and there was still no word from Bengal of the men, munitions, treasure and stores which had been repeatedly requested. Nor was there any word of the wretched Peyton and his squadron. ‘We endeavour to bear up under the melancholy circumstances’, wrote the Fort St David factors but added, not without feeling, that they thought it ‘somewhat unkind in our countrymen and fellow servants to have abandoned us.’

Luckily such black sentiments were soon dispelled. On 2 March 1747, after a day-long exchange of artillery fire, the English were forced back behind the walls of the fort. The siege, it seemed, had at last begun in earnest. But the very next day the garrison awoke to a welcome sight for which, of course, only Divine Providence could be responsible. There, riding beyond the Coromandel surf, was the long awaited squadron. Relief must have turned to euphoria when it was learnt that its command had passed from Peyton to Thomas Griffin, a man of considerable resolve if little initiative.

With the tables turned the French quickly returned to Pondicherry lest Griffin should elect to besiege it. In fact Griffin was in no position to take the offensive. His squadron was undermanned and Bengal had been able to spare only 100 European troops. The most he could do was stay put and deter a further attack on Fort St David.

Thus for a year (1747-8) Griffin presided over an uneasy stalemate during which reinforcements trickled in to both Fort St David and Pondicherry. Besides the Bengal troops, the English received nearly 400 topazes, peons and Europeans from Bombay and Tellicherry; there were also a few more recruits from England. There the news of the loss of Madras had prompted the directors to make an impassioned appeal to the Government, as a result of which a new squadron crammed with troops had reportedly sailed from home at the beginning of 1748. But pending its appearance on The Coast the most significant addition to the Fort St David garrison was the arrival there, at about the same time, of Major Stringer Lawrence.

Lawrence’s appointment as commander of the Company’s forces was a belated response to the death of Major Knipe back in 1743. Like Knipe, he was a veteran of the regular army. He had fought at Fontenoy and Culloden and, though now into his portly and crabbed fifties, he combined military flair with a Churchillian bullishness that endeared him to his troops. While the stalemate lasted, Lawrence concentrated on transforming Fort St David’s motley collection of Europeans, topazes and peons into an effective fighting force. The Europeans and topazes became a single battalion, the peons (or now more commonly ‘sepoys’) were formed into regular companies, and an amply officered command structure was established. It included Robert Clive who, having shown himself to be ‘of a martial disposition’, had just been commissioned an ensign. Of necessity these new arrangements were perfunctory, but the authority of Lawrence and the charisma of Clive would ensure for them posterity’s reverence. According to the former’s biographer, ‘it was in such humble beginnings that the Anglo-Indian army had its origin’; according to the best of the latter’s many biographers this little force ‘was the germ of an army that won an empire for England’.

Winning an empire was not, however, the immediate priority. When Griffin and his squadron were at last lured away by a French fleet, Dupleix saw his chance. Again the French troops marched out of Pondicherry under cover of darkness. This time they skirted Fort St David and arrived before Cuddalore which Lawrence, with his augmented garrison, was now holding. Long and low, the walls of Cuddalore positively invited attack and French ladders were soon in position; with surprise on their side, French arms should have triumphed. But somehow word of the plan had already reached the English. Lawrence’s men were waiting and the French were thrown back with considerable losses.

Six weeks later Admiral Boscawen’s long expected fleet from home anchored off Fort St David. When united with Griffin’s squadron Boscawen’s fleet formed the largest concourse of European shipping ever seen in the East – thirty-nine vessels including thirteen ships of the line. Additionally he brought munitions, guns, treasure and 1200 troops. Raised by officers of the regular army and formed into twelve companies, these were the first Royal (as opposed to Company) troops to serve in India since that ill-fated garrison sent out by Charles I to occupy Bombay. They were also the first British (as opposed to English) troops, having been largely recruited in Scotland and Ireland. It was forty years since the Act of Union, but only after Culloden and the ‘45 had Scots begun to play their major role in the affairs of India and of the Company.

Scarcely had the new arrivals found their land legs than they were marching off to the siege of Pondicherry. The tables were turned and it was the British who now took the offensive. With 4000 Europeans (including marines and seamen provided by the fleet) plus 2000 sepoys, the British greatly outnumbered the French. With a force ten times the size of that which had surrendered Madras even Lawrence expected a quick victory. But Dupleix had long been preparing for this eventuality and had greatly improved Pondicherry’s defences. Boscawen in over-all command had no experience of siege warfare. And Lawrence was taken prisoner before the siege proper got under way. As a result, the English made a series of disastrous errors, squandered their forces, and inflicted negligible damage. After two months and over 1000 fatalities (mostly due to sickness) the siege was lifted. As with the Company’s first trial of strength with a European rival – that with the Dutch in the archipelago more than a hundred years before – the whole affair was as unnecessary as it was ignominious. For in Europe preliminary terms for the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle had already been agreed in the previous April. They contained a stipulation whereby the hostilities in India were supposed to have already ended.

The Peace of Aix also provided for the exchange of all prisoners (Lawrence had already been freed) and the restitution of Madras. Accordingly, in August 1749 the French garrison hauled down its flag and marched out by the sea gate while the Company’s troops marched in by one of the landward gates. They found the fabric of both town and fort ‘in extreamly bad condition’. But at least the Indian merchants and middlemen were relieved to see them back; from The Coast’s other trading settlements they flocked to the city, trade was resumed, and Black Town again began to expand. It was a sign of the times, and of priorities, that Robert Clive now relinquished his commission and resumed civilian employ as Fort St George’s Steward (in charge of purchasing provisions) and as an ambitious private trader. With Lawrence as Acting Governor the Fort’s Council resumed its ‘Diary and Consultations Book’ in November 1749.

The appearance of normality was, however, illusory; both Clive and Lawrence would soon be back in the field. Peace had neither reconciled the two rival Companies, nor dispersed the concentration of troops which each now commanded; nor had it removed the ambitious Dupleix. Indirect hostilities had already broken out before the restitution of Madras. They would continue for six years, their results would far outweigh anything that had been achieved during the previous five years of outright war, and they would be quickly followed by another period of full-blooded confrontation sanctioned by the Seven Years War in Europe. The Peace of Aix had merely concluded the first phase of the struggle.

It would probably be tedious and certainly, given the many published accounts, superfluous to chronicle the military details of this protracted struggle. Similar power games were in progress all over the subcontinent as the fragile confection which was once the mighty Moghul empire crumbled like a crushed papadom. Sometimes large sections would break off more or less intact as was the case with Bengal and Hyderabad. Nominally the Carnatic – the province immediately inland from the French and British settlements – was still subordinate to the Nizam of Hyderabad; but here, at the most friable extremity of the Empire, a combination of Balkanization and Byzantine intrigue had so compounded the confusion that, as the Nizam himself had remarked, every landed poligar (feudal chief) considered himself a Nawab and for every so-called Nawabship there were several claimants.

The Carnatic Wars, in which the French and British now became eager participants, mirrored this chaos. In fickle alliances the numerous contenders marched and counter-marched their forces across a rich and champaign land of large horizons and lofty palmyras. Single rocks of Cyclopean size suggested tactical advantage and provided a focus for manoeuvres. The few solitary boulder-strewn hills were invariably fortified – ready-made redoubts for a series of interminable sieges in which besiegers and besieged easily changed places. Like Flanders or Picardy, the Carnatic dictated a diffuse and wearisome species of warfare in which victory contained little promise of peace and defeat was rarely fatal.

Bound over by the European peace, and further constrained by their subordinate status within the old Moghul hierarchy, the French and English Companies could neither oppose one another directly nor make conquests in their own name. Instead they operated by proxy, adopting the causes of rival Nawabs. These dignitaries had a claim on the active support of their European feudatories and thus, in taking the field on their behalf, the French and British could claim to be discharging a legitimate obligation. It was, though, an obligation with strings. For such was now the reputation of European arms that a heavy price could be demanded in return. The territories and revenues which would accrue to the two Companies were acquired not by right of conquest and at the expense of their enemies but by right of cession and at the expense of their allies.

A pattern of sorts was quickly established. Although history usually credits Dupleix with taking the initiative, it was in fact the British who first evinced a taste for mischief. In early 1749, while the peace arrangements were still under negotiation, a force of 1400 British and Indian troops marched south out of Fort St David in support of an adventurer with a doubtful claim to the throne of neighbouring Tanjore (Thanjavur). It seems that Boscawen and Floyer, the Company’s new President, had hatched the scheme. The former anticipated restoring the reputation of British arms after the failure to take Pondicherry and the latter welcomed any ploy that would remove from the Company’s shoulders the burden of housing and feeding a temporarily redundant army.

There were, though, other considerations of a more traditional and commercial nature. As well as defraying the cost of the expedition, the ‘Tanjorine’ pretender had undertaken to reward the Company with the grant of Devikottai, a coastal fort fifteen miles south of Fort St David at the mouth of the Coleroon river. Ten years earlier the French had acquired the nearby port of Karikal. It was important for commercial reasons to establish an emporium on the rich Tanjore littoral where, besides the French, both the Dutch (at Negapatnam) and the Danes (at Tranquebar) were already established.

When the first Tanjore expedition failed and a second, commanded by Lawrence and twice as strong, sailed direct for Devikottai, it became clear that this acquisition was the real objective. The ‘Tanjorine’ in whose name the British were supposedly fighting was simply pensioned off as soon as the fort was taken. In return for a title to the place from the existing Raja of Tanjore, the British agreed to a cessation of hostilities. Mission accomplished. According to Robert Orme, whose usual informant, Clive, had played a conspicuous part in the attack, Devikottai was not only well situated to tap the local production of ‘linnen’ but also commanded the mouth of the Coleroon river which, with a bit of dredging, could become the only harbour on the entire Coast ‘capable of receiving a ship of over 300 tons burden’. In other words, Devikottai was just another of those obscure anchorages – like Divi, Chittagong, Pulo Condore – in which over-enthusiastic factors detected a second Bombay. Like them, it too failed to live up to expectations, but the whole affair serves to emphasize the continuity of Company thinking. A secure commerce, and not territorial expansion, was still the priority.

It remained so until Dupleix’s altogether more imaginative intrigues began to bear fruit. While the British were double-dealing in insignificant Tanjore, the French had found a worthier assignment for their footloose soldiery in promoting the claims to the Nawabship of the Carnatic of the energetic Chanda Sahib (‘the only leader capable’, in Orme’s quaint phrasing, ‘of exciting intestine commotions’) and those of Chanda Sahib’s ally, Muzaffar Jang, to the Nizamate of Hyderabad. Again French arms carried all before them and in July 1749 the confederates duly defeated and killed the incumbent Nawab. Chanda Sahib succeeded. By way of appreciation the French received various territories including Masulipatnam (the port of Hyderabad) and a cluster of villages in the vicinity of Pondicherry. The latter could be seen as a reasonable provision, like the Trivitore grant in the case of Madras, for the future defence and expansion of Pondicherry. But to the British it looked much more sinister. For as a result of the grant, nearby Fort St David was now ringed by French territory and effectually cut off from the inland weaving centres on which its trade depended.

Floyer and his Council responded by seizing San Thome, the erstwhile Portuguese settlement on the outskirts of Madras, and by having their acquisition confirmed by Mohammed Ali, the son of the Nawab slain by Chanda Sahib and his confederates. Among pretenders to the Nawabship legitimacy was scarcely a relevant consideration given that in both Hyderabad and Delhi the only sanctioning authority was now also up for grabs. But Mohammed Ali had as good a claim as anyone to the Carnatic throne and had shown himself a loyal friend during the late war with France. Henceforth he would be the British candidate. In late 1749 a first trickle of Company troops was put at his disposal. Like his rival, he acknowledged the help by awarding those same villages round Fort St David to the Company. Six months later he added the large district and fort of Poonamallee near Madras, ‘the key to all this country’ according to the optimistic Madras Council.

But still the British were merely responding to French pressures. It was not until the end of 1750, when the second part of Dupleix’s master plan fell into place, that it dawned on them that they were involved in more than a tussle for commercial advantage. First Mohammed Ali, the British candidate for the Nawabship, was roundly defeated; then, two months later in December 1750, the incumbent Nizam of mighty Hyderabad was murdered and Muzaffar Jang, the French contender, took his place. Both the Carnatic and Hyderabad were now ruled by French puppets. Dupleix was heaped with honours and presents, rewarded with further territory said to yield an annual revenue of over 350,000 rupees, and co-opted into the Moghul hierarchy as ‘Zafar Jang Bahadur’ and the new Nizam’s Viceroy for the Carnatic. And all this was only the tip of the iceberg. For with French arms apparently invincible and with the rulers of both the Carnatic and Hyderabad (whose territories stretched west almost to Bombay and north to Bengal) dependent on them, Dupleix was master of half the peninsula.

It would be hard to over-estimate the impact on the Company’s men of what the Madras Council called ‘this extraordinary revolution’. They now recognized that Dupleix had changed the rules of European involvement in India. For 150 years the Company had been endeavouring to appease the existing political hierarchy; in three years Dupleix had simply usurped it. The English must either follow suit or leave the table.

In the person of Thomas Saunders, who had just succeeded Floyer as President of Madras, they accepted the challenge. In the summer of 1751 all available troops were rushed to Trichy (Trichinopoly, Tiruchirappalli) where Mohammed Ali was making what looked like his last stand; and to relieve the pressure still further by diverting some of the besieging forces, Robert Clive was re-commissioned as a captain and authorized to march on Arcot. ‘It is conceived that this officer may be of some service’, opined the Fort St David Council. With 800 recruits and three guns Clive left Madras in September 1751 to launch a campaign that would redeem the Company’s supremacy; or, in the words of his biographer, that would ‘lay the first stone of the foundation of our Indian Empire’.

In the mightily confused struggle that followed, none of the European settlements was directly affected and only Company troops were involved. France and Britain were, after all, at peace. Instead of Madras and Pondicherry, it was Arcot, Chanda Sahib’s capital, and Trichy, Mohammed Ali’s headquarters, which bore the brunt of the fighting. There were no less than three sieges of Trichy plus countless skirmishes in its vicinity. In all these, as in the few really decisive engagements, European troops again demonstrated their superior firepower. But their numbers were always small. Although some of Boscawen’s Royal troops had taken service with the Company, and in spite of an erratic supply of recruits from Bengal, such was the mortality (more from the climate than the fighting) that the Company could rarely deploy over 1000 Europeans; at most engagements there were only a couple of hundred. The same was true of the French, many of whose best troops had marched with Muzaffar Jang to Hyderabad.

charles_de_bussy_de_castelnau

Charles Joseph Patissier de Bussy.

In this situation battles were won by opportunism, mobility, surprise, individual acts of bravery, and sheer good luck. A single officer with a taste for improvisation and a reputation for victory could tip the balance. In the Marquis de Bussy the French had just such a man but he was now regulating the affairs of Hyderabad. In Clive and Lawrence the British had two and they were on the spot.

After nine months of fighting their endeavours were rewarded with the surrender of the French at Srirangam and the murder of Chanda Sahib. Peace negotiations were opened but quickly broken off when Dupleix opportunely took delivery of 500 new recruits. The fighting flared up again. It dragged on throughout 1753 with neither party gaining a distinct advantage. More peace negotiations followed in January 1754 with Saunders offering an equal division of the spoils in the Carnatic; but Dupleix declined. By fighting on in the Carnatic, he was drawing the British fire and leaving de Bussy with a free hand in the greater affair of Hyderabad. Only when Dupleix was recalled to France in August 1754 was the way at last clear for a truce and a provisional treaty.