1756 - British expedition against Calcutta
The campaign lasted from October 1756 to February 1757
On May 14, the squadron of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson, commander-in-chief in the East Indies, which had previously conducted operations on the Malabar Coast, arrived off Fort St. David, near the town of Cuddalore, about 160 km south of Madras (present-day Chennai). He was accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive who had been appointed governor of the fort. Watson had not been at Fort St. David long when he was informed that 6 large French East Indiamen, full of troops, were expected in India. Upon their arrival they were to be fitted as men-of-war.
On July 15, the news of the fall of Cossimbazar (aka Kasimbazar) reached Madras. It was resolved at once to make arrangements for sending reinforcements to Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), for it was thought not unlikely that the nawab, flushed by his paltry victory at Cossimbazar might possibly attempt the reduction of Calcutta itself. Vice-Admiral Watson was summoned to Madras where he learnt that the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj Ud Daulah, had launched an expedition against Calcutta and already seized Cossimbazar. Almost at the same moment, Watson received orders from the Admiralty to return with his squadron to Great Britain. At that time, Watson's squadron consisted of the following vessels:
- Kent (70) under Captain Henry Speke, flagship of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson
- Cumberland (66) under Captain John Harrison, flagship of Rear-Admiral George Pocock
- Tiger (60) under Captain Thomas Latham
- Salisbury (50) under Captain William Martin
- Bridgewater (24) under Captain Henry Smith
- Kingfisher (14) under Commander Richard Toby
Considering the general situation, Watson disregarded the orders received from the Admiralty and decided to remain in India. An expeditionary force of 230 "chiefly Europeans" was placed under the command of Major Kilpatrick of the East India Company.
On July 20, the force of Kilpatrick sailed from Madras in the troopship "Delaware" to the Hooghly River (present-day Hugli).
On August 2, the force of Kilpatrick arrived at Fulta, 40 km below Calcutta. Upon his arrival, Kilpatrick learned for the first time that Calcutta had been captured and partially destroyed. Though his force had been so considerably augmented by the refugees, he did not feel himself strong enough to attempt its recapture; and therefore determined to await instructions from Madras before taking further action. Meanwhile, the British authorities in Madras had been hesitating to send a larger relief force to Calcutta because they feared that war with France would broke soon.
On August 5, the news of the loss of the fort of Calcutta, the terrible story of the "Black Hole" tragedy, and the flight of the defenders, reached Madras. The Council was hastily summoned, and finally determined to dispatch all available ships and men – what was then considered an overwhelming force – to join Kilpatrick at Fulta and to recapture Calcutta.
On August 18, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive was offered the command of the expedition.
The punitive expedition, under the command of Clive, consisted of 250 men of the 39th Regiment of Foot under Captain Grant; 5 coys (570 men) of the Madras European Regiment under captains Gaupp, Pye and Fraser; 80 European artillerymen of the Madras European Regiment; and 1,500 Sepoys.
Sometime after the departure of Watson for Bengal, two small British vessels arrived from Great Britain to join him: the Triton (24) under Captain Edmund Townley and the Blaze (10), a fireship. The latter could not make the Ganges and had to bear away for Bombay (present-day Mumbai).
On December 5, Watson’s squadron arrived at the port of Balasore in Bengal.
On December 15, in spite of great difficulties, Watson assembled at Fulta a force consisting of the Kent (70), Tiger (60), Bridgewater (24), Salisbury (50) and Kingfisher (14), with some ships belonging to the East India Company. At Fulta, Watson found Governor Blake and other fugitives from Calcutta and learnt of the horrible fate of those Europeans who had been confined in the infamous Black Hole. Watson reinforced his command by the purchase of a craft, which he named the "Thunder", and fitted as a bomb under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Warwick.
On December 20, after long delays, the fleet transporting Clive's force finally reached Fulta. However two ships, one transporting 2 coys of the Madras European Regiment (200 men) and another carrying most of the field artillery, were still lagging behind. At Fulta, Clive made his junction with the remains of Kilpatrick's force. The latter, which had originally numbered 230 men, now counted only 30 men fit for duty. It had lost more than 100 men to sickness. Then there was the remnant of the Bengal military force, which had been strengthened by a company of 70 volunteers, formed from among the civilians and respectable inhabitants who had escaped from Calcutta and the out-factories. In addition, several sailors, belonging to ships which had arrived and were unable to discharge their cargoes, had offered themselves for service, and joined the military on shore. Captains Minchin and Grant were under arrest for having deserted their posts during the defence of Calcutta. Minchin was dismissed the service but Grant was pardoned.
On December 22, various detachments (remnants of Kilpatrick's force, remnants of the Bengal military force, volunteers and sailors) were collected together in a camp pitched to the eastward of the town of Fulta. A few days afterwards, they were formed, under Major Kilpatrick's supervision, into one regiment, which was then called "The Bengal European Battalion."
Clive had been entrusted with despatches from the Madras Government for Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah. These, together with covering letters from Clive and Admiral Watson, "which were full of threats," were forwarded unsealed to the care of Manakchand, the commanding officer left by Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah at Calcutta; but he declined to forward these dispatches; they being couched in terms which he feared would cause the nawab's resentment to rebound on himself.
Manakchand had not lost sight of the importance of defending the approaches to his capital. He first turned his attention to repairing the walls of Fort William, partially destroyed when it had been captured by the nawab in the previous June. He had also repaired and strengthened the walls of the Fort of Tanna; and commenced a new fort as an outpost, which he called Alighur. He also caused two large ships, laden with bricks and other heavy materials, to be kept in readiness, so that they might be sunk in the channel of the river if the British ships should attempt it's ascent. But it was to the Fort of Budge Budge, on the left bank of the River Hugli, between the Fort of Tanna and the port of Fulta, that Manakchand had devoted his special attention. Outworks were constructed commanding the approaches, the defences strengthened, and it was garrisoned by some of Manakchand's best troops. Obviously Budge Budge would be the first point of Clive's attack; and, indeed, on its capture depended the primary success of his expedition.
On December 27, the fleet sailed up the Hugli River.
On December 28, the fleet anchored at Mayapore, 3 km below Fort Budge Budge. Clive and Vice-Admiral Watson did not agree on the plan of attack. Watson's plan prevailed. The 39th Regiment of Foot would act as marines on board the ships of war while the "Bengal European Battalion", the 3 coys of the "Madras European Regiment" and the 1,500 Madras Sepoys, together with the European artillery and 2 field-pieces with ammunition; would form the army for service on land. This army was disembarked at Mayapore in the evening. The same day, anticipating an immediate attack on Fort Budge Budge, Manakchand assembled his troops, about 2,000 men, and marched to its support, occupying on arrival the very ground where the British army had intended to lie in ambush. Manakchand, who had dispatched scouts to watch and report on the movements of the British, had received information of their landing at Mayapore; and, hour by hour, these scouts, hovering round advancing British troops, brought him information of their movements.
During the night of December 28 to 29, Kilpatrick, in immediate command, although Clive accompanied the land force, found his difficulties commence as soon as he had landed his troops. He had hoped to procure cattle to drag his guns and ammunition, but the villagers, warned by Manakchand's scouts, and fearing the resentment of the nawab, had driven off their cattle into the jungle. Then Kilpatrick found himself surrounded by swamps and water-courses, whilst there was no road, and the guides pressed into his service soon proved their inability or unwillingness to assist him. The first difficulty was overcome by the soldiers volunteering to drag the guns, the second by trusting to the sagacity of the leaders; and thus the British force commenced its march; and Admiral Watson moved his ships further up the river, taking up his position during the night in close proximity to Fort Budge Budge. The country between Mayapore and Budge Budge was found to be a vast swamp, intersected by numerous ravines; and hardships and fatigues of the march are described as having been "very great." The guides in whom reliance had been placed purposely led the troops astray; and it was not until after 16 hours' hard marching that they halted on the Calcutta road, 2.5 km to north-east of Fort Budge Budge. Surprisingly, the camp was left unguarded. From the position which the British troops occupied, the ships could be seen at anchor; but the fort was hidden from their view by clusters of trees. Near the road was a deserted village, on the western side of which there was a hollow, formed by a large pond or lake, now dry. Into this hollow the main force, including the Bengal European Battalion, descended; the 2 guns having been placed on the north side of the deserted village. A detachment of 200 Sepoys was now sent from this position to reconnoitre in the direction of the fort and to open communication with the ships. The reconnoitring party was followed by Captain Pye at the head of the grenadier company and the rest of the Sepoys, with orders to possess himself of the suburbs of the town, and send an immediate report when he had effected it; but not attempt anything further. Captain Pye, finding the suburbs abandoned, marched down the riverside and put himself under the orders of Captain Coote, who was landed with the king's troops. They had just struck a flag on one of the advanced batteries. When Manakchand heard of Clive's dispositions, he decided to attack his camp at nightfall.
Menawhile, on December 29, Vice-Admiral Watson ordered the Kent (70) to sail up to Fort Budge Budge and to silence its guns. The ship poured shot and shell from his big guns on Fort Budge Budge. At noon, she had succeeded in silencing the enemy's cannonade and had effected a considerable breach. The 39th Foot, serving as marines aboard Watson's squadron, now marched down to the advanced battery near the river, which the enemy had abandoned in the morning. The 39th Foot then drew up in front of the fort, under cover of a high bank. At sunset 250 sailors, with two 9-pdrs, were landed from the Kent (70), these guns being mounted on the enemy's advanced battery; but this was not accomplished without loss, for, during the operation, some of the 39th Foot were wounded. The troops being now utterly exhausted a bivouac was ordered; sentries being planted and every precaution taken to guard against surprise.
During the night of December 29 to 30, Manakchand's force launched a surprise attack on Clive's camp while all his troops were asleep. The British artillerymen deserted their guns and took shelter among the infantry. The 2 guns were captured without a blow, and, indeed, might have been turned against the camp, had their captors understood how to bring them into action; neglecting to spike the guns, and having no draft cattle, Manakchand's soldiers did not attempt to remove them. The surprised infantrymen managed to recover their arms. Clive ordered his men to stand their ground and detached two platoons (one from the centre, one from the left) to make a counter-attack, driving the enemy back towards the village. Clive's force was now recovering from the surprise. A company of the Bengal European Battalion recaptured the 2 guns and soon the artillerymen returned to their guns, rapidly loading with grape and opening on the retreating enemy. Meanwhile infantry was formed into a line of battle. At this moment, Indian cavalry were observed advancing in great force, headed by Manakchand on his elephant. Clive ordered for a general advance. Manakchand first halted and then ordered his force to retreat. The skirmish had lasted but 30 minutes; the British loosing 1 officer and 9 privates killed and 8 wounded; the Indians 200 killed or wounded.
On December 30 at 7:00 a.m., orders were issued to the troops besieging Fort Budge Budge for the storming of the gateway, under cover of the two 9-pdrs which had been landed from the Kent (70) on the previous evening. The storming party consisted of the detachment of the 39th Foot, the grenadier company of the Bengal European Battalion, 100 seamen, and 200 Sepoys. At 8:00 a.m., just before the troops moved forward to attack, a sailor named Strahan, who with a few of his comrades had been drinking freely in anticipation of hard work, conceived the idea of seeing what was going on inside the fort. Clambering through the breach Strahan found the walls deserted, and, shouting to his companions, proclaimed with cheers that he had captured the fort. His companions quickly followed, but soon found themselves hotly engaged with the enemy's rearguard, who were smoking over the fire before joining their comrades, who, having received the news of the defeat and flight of Manakchand's army, had evacuated the fort during the night. More British sailors soon followed, and after a short skirmish it was proved that the drunken sailor, Strahan, was right when he proclaimed that he had taken the fort. But this capture was not accomplished without a sad loss; Captain Dugald Campbell of the Bengal European Battalion being unfortunately killed by accident as he was posting sentries over a captured magazine. In the fort, 22 pieces of cannon and 33 barrels of gunpowder were found. After disabling the guns, the batteries were demolished and the buildings inside the fort destroyed. On the evening, the troops re-embarked, the Sepoys taking the route along the banks of the river, and the artillery following in boats. The fleet advanced upstream to Alighur.
On December 31, Manakchand halted a few hours at Calcutta with his army. Leaving 500 men only to guard Fort William, he then marched with all haste to join the nawab at Murshidabad, and inform him of their disasters. Meanwhile, at 10:00 a.m., the British fleet sighted Fort Tanna where the Kingfisher (14) which had arrived on the previous day, was anchored. It was proved afterwards that the enemy at Tanna were so surprised at the sudden appearance of the Kingfisher (14) just as they were preparing to sink their laden vessels in the channel of the river, that they desisted, and the vessels were found lying snugly under the guns of Fort Tanna. As the British fleet approached random shots were fired by the enemy, but at 2:00 p.m., their guns were silenced.
On January 1 1757, when the British ships entered the channel between Fort Tanna and the battery opposite to it, the enemy abandoned both. The Salisbury (50) was left there to bring off the guns from the works, and to demolish the defences, and at night Vice-Admiral Watson manned and armed the boats of his squadron and sent them a few miles up the river, where they boarded and burnt some fireships, which had been collected there.
On January 2 at 5:00 a.m., colonel Clive, with the Bengal European Battalion, 3 coys of the Madras European Regiment and 2 field-pieces landed at Alighur, made a junction with his Sepoys and began the march towards Calcutta. While Clive's column advanced on Calcutta, 4 vessels of Vice-Admiral Watson's squadron (Kent (70), Tiger (60), Bridgewater (24), and Kingfisher (14)) proceeded to engage the enemy at Fort William. At 9:40 a.m., the enemy opened upon the Tiger (60) from their batteries below Calcutta but abandoned them as the ships drew near. At 10:20 a.m., the Tiger (60) and Kent (70) began a hot cannonade of Fort William and after two hours drove the defenders out of it. In this action the British lost only 9 seamen and 3 soldiers killed, and 26 seamen and 5 soldiers wounded. The troops of the nawab also abandoned the town of Calcutta. A detachment of the 39th Regiment of Foot, under Captain Eyre Coote, immediately occupied Fort William. The British expeditionary force rapidly became master of Calcutta, capturing 4 mortars, 91 guns and a large quantity of ammunition.
N.B.: Captain Eyre Coote was with the 2 additional companies of the 39th Regiment of Foot who had arrived in India from England in November 1756.
After the recapture of Calcutta, Clive reinstated and formed into levies some of the old Bengal Sepoys who had fled from the settlement when it was captured by Siraj Ud Daulah. These new levies were now officered from the Bengal European Battalion.
On January 10, informed that a portion of the treasure which Siraj Ud Daulah had captured at Calcutta had been conveyed to the town and fort of Hugli (now part of Hugli-Chuchura), 48 km above Calcutta, Vice-Admiral Watson detached an expedition to seize the town. The naval part of this detachment was under Captain Richard King with a 20-guns frigate and 3 smaller vessels while the troops, under Coote, consisted of 150 men of the 39th Regiment of Foot and 200 Sepoys.
On January 12, the British combined force took the town of Hugli by storm with trifling loss. They burnt store-houses of salt used by the army of the Nawab of Bengal. Another expedition, under Captain Speke, burnt the enemy's granaries at Gongee and, assisted by the troops, defeated a body of Indians which had attacked them.
On January 19, King's detachment returned to Calcutta.
When news arrived of the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain, the East India Company, fearing an alliance between Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah and the French, tried to come to terms with the nawab. However, the attempt failed. The nawab assembled an army of 40,000 men and moved upon Calcutta. At about this time the Company's transport "Marlborough" arrived at Calcutta with the 2 remaining coys of the Madras European Regiment and some field artillery.
On January 30, the nawab crossed the Hugli River at Fort Hugli. He also obtained tribute from the Dutch settlement at Chinsurah (present-day Hugli-Chuchura) and French settlement at Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar).
On February 2, the nawab's vanguard came into sight of Calcutta. Clive had already taken up a position at the northern end of the town to bar the way to the city.
On February 3, the entire army of the nawab (18,000 horse, 15,000 foot and 40 guns) was encamped along the eastern side of Calcutta, beside the entrenchment known as the "Mahratta Ditch". Clive made a last fruitless attempt at negotiation. He then immediately asked Admiral Watson for a detachment of sailors. Accordingly, Watson sent Captain Warwick with a party of sailors.
On February 4, Clive attacked the nawab's camp with about 2,100 men and guns. The Combat of Calcutta ended with the British force retiring to its camp after losing some 100 Europeans and 50 Sepoys killed and wounded.
Despite this marginal victory, the nawab was hard pressed to face an invasion from Afghanistan. Therefore, on February 9, a treaty was concluded between the British and the nawab. The parties agreed to restore the Company's factories, giving permission to the British to fortify Calcutta as they might choose, to coin gold and silver at their own mint, and hold their merchandise exempt from duty; the 38 villages granted to the British by the embassy in 1717 to be restored; and in general all previous privileges, imperial and vice-regal, to be confirmed.
On February 11, the nawab commenced his return march to his capital Murshidabad. He sent Amichand to Colonel Clive with a further treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, against all enemies. Clive then proposed to attack the French at Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar) where they had a force of 300 Europeans and a train of artillery. However, the nawab positively forbade such an initiative, asking that 20 British gunners might be permitted to serve in his artillery and further that a British resident might be appointed to his court.
Both these requests were readily acceded to, the gunners being sent and Mr. Watts appointed resident at Murshidabad. The nawab now continued his march to his capital.
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous: A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 181-184
- An anonymous staff officer: Historical Record of the Honourable East India Company's First Madras Regiment, London: Smith, Elder and Co; 1843, pp. X-xvi, 121-125
- Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 161-163
- Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London: 1899, pp. 411-414
- Innes, P. R.: The History of the Bengal European Regiment, now the Royal Munster Fusiliers and how it helped to win India, 2nd ed., London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1885, pp. 13-37
Kershner, Tod: Major Battles in India 1756-1763, Seven Years War Association Journal Vol. VI No. 2