1758 - Siege of Madras

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The siege took place from December 1758 to February 1759


At the end of 1758, the comte Lally at the head of all French forces that he could assemble advanced against Madras.

On December 13, Lally's entire force encamped in the plain, about 2 km to south-west of Fort St. George. Nearer approach to the fort was barred by two rivers, the more northerly of them, called the Triplicane, entering the sea about 1,000 meters south of the glacis; the other, known as the North River, washing the actual foot of the glacis, but turning from thence abruptly southward to join the Triplicane and flow with it into the sea. Lally therefore passed round to the other side of Fort St. George, the British evacuating the outer posts before him as he advanced.

Description of events

Plan of Fort St. George and the city of Madras - Source: Salmon, T., "Modern History or, the Present State of all Nations", 1739

On December 14, Lally established himself in the Black Town on the north-western front of the fort, and thence along its northern side to the sea. With his right thus resting on the town and his left on the beach, be prepared to open the siege of Madras. Lally Infanterie took its quarters near the beach while Lorraine Infanterie and the Bataillons des Indes took position on the rising ground to its right. The Black Town was rich, and the French troops, with the indiscipline now become habitual to them, fell at once to indiscriminate plunder, with the result that in a short time a great many of them were reeling drunk. Colonel Draper thereupon proposed a sortie in force, and the suggestion was approved as tending to raise the spirit of the garrison.

At 11:00 am on December 14, Draper with 500 men and 2 guns marched out from the western ravelin of the fort, and holding his course westward for some distance turned north into the streets of the Black Town to attack the French right, while major Brereton with another 100 men followed a route parallel to him, but nearer to the fort, in order to cover his retreat. By some mistake Draper's drummers began to beat the Grenadiers' March directly when they entered the town, and so gave the alarm. The French formed in a cross street to receive the attack, but in the confusion mistook the line of the British advance and awaited them at the head of the wrong street, too far to the westward. Draper therefore came up full on their left flank, poured in a volley, and bringing up his guns opened fire with grape. In a few minutes the whole of the French had taken refuge in the adjoining houses, and Draper, ordering his guns to cease fire, rushed forward to secure 4 cannon which the French had brought with them. The French officer in charge of them offered to surrender both himself and his guns, when Draper, looking behind him, found that he was followed by but four men, the rest having, like the enemy, fled for shelter to the houses. Had the British done their duty Draper's attack would probably have put an end to the siege then and there; but as things were, the Bataillon des Indes, hearing the guns cease, quickly rallied, and streaming out of the houses in superior numbers opened a destructive fire. Draper was obliged to abandon the guns and order a retreat, the French following after him in hot pursuit. His position was critical, for he could not retire by the route of his advance, but was obliged to take a road leading to the northern face of the fort. The way was blocked by a stagnant arm of the North River with but one bridge; and it lay within the power of Lally Infanterie, on the left of the French position, to reach this bridge before him and so to cut off his retreat. Bussy, however, who was in command on the French left, took no advantage of this opportunity. Brereton came up in time to cover Draper's retreat, and the British re-entered the fort in safety. They had lost over 50 killed, 50 wounded, and 103 prisoners in this abortive attack; and though the French had suffered as great a loss (Saubenet was mortally wounded), yet they were victorious whereas the British were demoralised. Had Lally Infanterie done its duty Madras would probably have fallen in a few days. So ended an episode most thoroughly discreditable to both parties.

On December 15, Lally began the construction of batteries over against the north and north-western fronts of the fort, from the Black Town to the sea. However, his siege guns were still at sea. Meanwhile Caillaud was despatched to Tanjore to obtain troops from the rajah; and captain Preston, who commanded the garrison at Chingleput, never ceased to harass the French by constant petty attacks and threatening of their communications.

On the night of December 19, the British made an unsuccessful sally.

On December 20, the nawab was evacuated from Madras by sea and landed at Negapatam (today Nagapattinam) from whence he proceeded to Trichinopoly (today Tiruchirapalli). His cavalry then gradually deserted Madras. That night, the British made another unsuccessful sally.

On December 21, another sally was repulsed.

On December 22, the guns for the breaching batteries arrived on board the sloop Harlem.

On December 26, Mohamed Issuf returned to Chingleput after having reduced several small posts and ravaged the country in all directions.

On December 27, the cavalry of Mahomed Issun was despatched to ravage with fire and sword the country arounf Conjeeveram (today Kanchipuram) from which the French drew their supplies. The same day, Mahomed Issun's infantry; supported by 80 men of the Madras European Regiment, 2 field-pieces and 6 Sepoys coys (600 men); left Chingleput and marched towards St. Thomas' Mount.

On December 28, the British made another unsuccessful sally from Fort St. George through Triplicane.

On December 29, Mahomed Issun was joined by his cavalry which had previously been detached against Conjeeveram.

On December 30, a detachment of 500 Europeans (including 100 cavalry), 300 Sepoys and 800 cavalry sent by Lally attacked Mahomed Issun near St. Thomas' Mount. Lally's detachment was repulsed and the British captured 2 field-pieces.

At length, on January 2 1759, the 2 French batteries (Lorraine consisting of cannon and mortars, and Lally consisting of 4 13-inch mortars) opened fire, The fort soon silenced the guns, but the mortars continued their fire, and during the day threw 80 shells into the fort, causing much mischief to the building but neither killing or wounding a single person.

On January 3, another engagement took place at St. Thomas' Mount between Mohamed Issuf's corps and a French force of 650 Europeans including 150 cavalry. The French quickly routed Mohamed Issuf's force but the captain Preston's detachment, who supported Issuf, attacked the French and drove them back in disorder, recapturing Issuf's guns. In this action, the French lost 100 men killed or wounded, including 2 officers. The Madras European Regiment lost 6 men killed or wounded and the Sepoys 180.

On January 6, the French received some more siege guns and again opened fire on the fort with both shot and shell.

On January 7, French artillery fire continued and lieutenant Brooke of the artillery was killed. The French batteries continued to bombard the fort throughout the month, but with no very great effect. The indiscipline which Lally had permitted during his earlier operations told heavily upon the efficiency of the besieging force; and everything moved slowly and with friction.

On January 11, several guns of the fort were dismounted.

On January 12 before daylight, a detachment of British European troops made a sally towards Triplicane. They brought back 2 guns and some prisoners. The French were now directing the brunt of their attack against the northern bastions of the fort and additional defences were begun in that quarter.

On January 13, a British shell fell behind Lally's battery and set fire to a few houses which communicated to a powder magazine and blew it up.

By January 16, additional guns had been added to the French batteries and the trenches had also been much advanced.

On January 17, the French batteries dismounted 3 guns on the works.

On January 18, additional guns were placed in Lally's battery and the Madras European Regiment lost 5 men killed by their fire.

On January 20, the British made two sallies from the fort with little loss and less success.

On January 21, the British made a new sally, destroying some of the works of the besiegers and killing or wounding several men. A detachment of the Madras European Regiment distinguished itself in this affair.

On January 23, the French advanced a battery nearer the works and for some time fired with considerable effect, until ammunition began to fail and its fire slackened. Repeated sallies were made during the night and part of the new French works destroyed.

On January 24, the British garrison received intelligence of the arrival on the coast of some ships with reinforcements from Great Britain.

On January 25, the British made another successful sally, in which captain Black and lieutenant Fitzpatrick of the Madras European Regiment were wounded.

On January 30, a British ship arrived to hearten the garrison with ammunition and specie, both of which were sorely needed. Having anchored in the roads, she qas exposed to a constant fire.

On February 3, Preston advanced at St. Thomas' Mount with his small force. Lally eith 300 Europeans, 600 Sepoys and 6 field-pieces attacked him. Preston stood his ground and the French retreated with considerable loss.

On February 5 at 2:00 AM, the French sprung a mine which however did little mischief. Soon afterwards, French ships stood out to sea, hoping to intercept the expected British squadron.

On February 6, the French breaching battery remained silent, but the mortars and another battery kept up their fire. In the evening, all the French horse along with Sepoys and a strong detachment of infantry moved into the plain. Preston and Mohamed Issuf were still at St. Thomas' Mount

On February 7, Caillaud, after endless difficulties at Tanjore, joined Preston at St. Thomas' Mount and increased his force by 1,300 Sepoys and 2,000 Tanjorine horse. Though half of the Sepoys and the whole of the horse were worth little, their combined forces now amounted to 103 men of the Madras European Regiment (including 12 artillerymen and 10 mounted troopers), six 3-pdrs 2,500 Sepoys and 2,000 Tanjorine horse. Assuming command of this combined force, Caillaud occupied the houses and enclosures at the bottom of the steps on the east side of the mount; the strongest wall enclosure was round a house of colonel Lawrence, and to the east of it was another called Carvalho's garden, which was considered the key of his position. Caillaud stationed 80 Europeans and 4 field-pieces in this garden. He also posted 20 Europeans, 300 Sepoys, and 2 field-pieces at the Sawmy house or choultry to the south of the enclosure. The left of Caillaud's position was protected by paddy-fields which extended all round the north and north-east of the enclosures. The inlets to the different lanes were barricaded, and the mud walls lowered for the guns or loopholed for musketry. The cavalry were encamped to the north under the hill and the rest of the Sepoys occupied different posts along the north and faces of the mount; about 1,700 were also distributed in the enclosures along the front (south side) of the hill, and communications opened in their different walls and enclosures. This growth of numbers in his rear, and the knowledge that Pocock's squadron was on its way from Bombay (today Mumbai) to relieve Madras, forced Lally to take strong measures against Chingleput.

On February 9, Lally detached a force of 900 French, 1,200 Sepoys and 500 Indian horse, with 8 field-pieces, under the command of colonel Lally (a relative) to attack Caillaud in earnest. At dawn, the French were perceived advancing in two columns, one (300 European cavalry, 600 European infantry, 8 field-pieces) on the east or left flank, from the direction of Mammelong; the other (1,200 Sepoys, 500 Indian horse) having no guns, on the front or south, across the plain. The Tanjorine cavalry under Caillaud, headed by the 10 mounted troopers, formed in front of the enclosures. Caillaud planned to wait until the French had advanced within a flanking fire of the field-pieces at the Sawmy house and then to charge them. However, Caillaud's cavalry marched to the French who came on at a trot and, suddenly halting, poured in a fire from their carbines wihich knocking over a few men and horses, all, with the exception of Caillaud and his 10 troopers, went to the right about and fled. Some pushed into the lane in their rear, followed by the French who, coming within range of the guns at the Sawmy house, were severely checked and obliged to retire. The rest of the Tanjorine horse rushed towards the lane between the left enclosure and the foot of the mount, hotly pursued by the French hussars who, whilst wedged up in the narrow road, fell under a close and galling fire from some of the Sepoys posted there. This obliged them in turn to fly and they rejoined their line of infantry which advanced to within 200 meters of the front of the British position. Lally realised that he would be obliged to first make himself master of the advanced post at the Sawmy house before considering an attack on the enclosures. Accordingly, he sent 100 Europeans to storm it. They approached within 30 meters before being repulsed. Lally sent them to the attack again and they were pushed back once more. Thirty minutes later, after reinforcing this detachment with 200 Europeans, he launched a third unsuccessful assault on the Sawmy house. The retiring detachment was then pursued by all the Sepoys posted at ther house along with a few Europeans under lieutenant Airey. Getting into disorder in hot pursuit, the British detachment was charged by the French horse and routed. The French then pursued the fleeing troops up to the gate of Lawrence's compound where they were stopped by the fire of Mohamed Issuf's Sepoys. The French cavalry suffered some losses and got confused, gallopping along the face and round the flank of the enclosures under a severe artillery and musketry fire. The British abandoned their position at Sawmy house which was soon occupied by the French who planted some guns there to cannonade the enclosures. Finally, in the evening, the French retired. In this affair, they had lost more than 50 Europeans killed or wounded while the British lost 7 killed and 13 wounded.

On February 10, Caillaud retired to Vandalur. However, Chingleput, that terrible thorn, remained still rankling in Lally's side. His position was now desperate. Supplies, money, ammunition, all were failing, and his troops, both Indian and French, were melting away by desertion. He had succeeded in battering a breach in the fort, but his officers were averse to attempt an assault.

Up to February 14, the fire on Fort St. George continued brisk and incessant, and the trenched were advanced.

On February 15, the long-expected British ships, with reinforcements from Great Britain and Bombay, were seen in the offing. In the evening, they anchored in the roads. The French battery kept up a heavy fire all night.

On February 16, captain Richard Kempenfelt, with 2 20-gun ships and 6 other vessels, containing men and stores, arrived. These reinforcements relieved the city while threatening Pondicherry. It was the end of Lally's project. His army marched to St. Thomas' Mount and crossed the Choultry plain, destroying the powder mills at Egmore Buildings on their way.

By the morning of February 17, Lally hastily raised the siege and marched for Arcot, leaving much of his siege artillery (52 guns among which only 26 had been spiked), large quantities of stores and ammunition, and 40 sick and wounded men behind him. By noon, 600 men from the 79th Draper's Foot were landed.

So ended the siege of Madras, the last offensive movement of the French in India. It had cost the garrison 33 officers, 580 British and 300 Sepoys killed, wounded and prisoners, while over 400 more of the Sepoys had deserted. Happily Pocock's squadron brought reinforcements which made good the loss of British troops. The French lost 700 Europeans killed, wounded or taken prisoners. The 2,000 surviving French Europeans were demoralised. Lally retired with bitter rage in his heart against the authorities at Pondicherry, to whose apathy and selfseeking he attributed his failure.


This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • 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, 149-162
  • 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. 174-181
  • Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 428-438