1759 - British expedition against Masulipatam

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The campaign took place from January to April 1759

Description

Initial situation

In October 1758, major-general Robert Clive had taken advantage of the departure of the marquis de Bussy-Castelnau from Deccan to join the forces of comte Lally-Tollendal for the siege of Madras (today Chennai). Clive immediately sent lieutenant-colonel Francis Forde with a force of some 2,600 men against the small French force under the marquis de Conflans occupying the Northern Circars.

During his operations in Deccan, Forde defeated Conflans at the battle of Condore on December 9 and the latter retreated to the fortress of Masulipatam (today Machilipatnam).

Forde wanted to immediately march on Masulipatam but he was delayed by negotiations with his Indian ally the rajah Anunderaj who now refused either to supply funds or to set his army in motion to accompany Forde.

On hearing the state of affairs with Forde, Mr. Andrews, who had been sent from Madras to arrange terms with the rajah, came to Forde's assistance, lending him ₤ 2,000, and then proceeding to Anunderaj's hiding-place, which he reached on January 15 1759.

The rajah ignored the former treaty which he said he had signed under a misapprehension and Mr. Andrews was constrained to make a supplementary treaty by which Anunderaj agreed that whatever sums the rajah should furnish should be considered as a loan, and that the revenues of all the districts south-west of the Godavari river which might be reduced should be equally divided between the East India Company and the rajah. This arrangement completed, Anunderaj marched to join Forde's camp, having agreed to assist the British in their attack on Masulipatam; at the same time paying on account ₤ 600, and giving bills for ₤ 6,000 more, payable in 10 days.

Preparations were now made for a general advance; Bristol, with his European artillerymen and a portion of the rajah's troops, being left in command of the fort of Rajahmundry, where a depot was formed for the British stores, sick, and wounded. At length after six weeks of negotiation, operations could resume. However, 50 precious days had been lost and the French had gained time to recover themselves.

Forde marches on Masulipatam

On January 28 1759, Forde resumed his march.

On February 6, Forde occupied Ellore (today Eluru), 77 km north of Masulipatam, the French soldiers who had garrisoned this place having been withdrawn by Conflans as he was retiring from Condore. Here again Forde was compelled to halt by the dilatoriness of the rajah in sending forward supplies; but he was not on that account idle.

Meanwhile, Conflans had placed garrisons in Narsurpore (probably today Narasapur) situated on an island in the delta of the Godavari and Concal (probably today Kaikalur), two outlying strongholds to the north of Masulipatam, and had organised, a corps of observation, consisting of 250 French and 2,000 Sepoys under M. du Rocher. The dispositions of this latter force were so faulty as to leave Narsipore in isolation, and Forde lost no time in sending captain Knox with a detachment of Sepoys to capture it.

On the approach of Knox's detachment, the Narsurpore garrison of 100 French soldiers and 400 Sepoys made their escape by water, and joined Du Rocher's corps of observation encamped about 50 km from Ellore, and watching Forde's movements. The British detachment captured several guns and a large quantity of stores at Narsurpore, after which it returned to Ellore, where it joined the headquarters camp of the British army. Then came more delay.

On March 1, Forde was again able to move. He commenced his advance on Masulipatam, Anunderaj having by this time rejoined; the zamindar (official employed by the Mughals to collect taxes) of Narsurpore, a witness to British success, also joining Forde with 1,500 men.

On March 2, the British Army crossed the lake of Kolleru, at this season little more than a swamp.

On March 3, Forde attacked Concal which was most gallantly defended by a French sergeant. Finally, a party of Sepoys under the command of captain Macleane took the place.

On March 6, Forde came in sight of the fortress of Masulipatam. Conflans occupied a strong position before the town, which he might have held with advantage but he retired within the fortifications.

The place of Masulipatam

Map of the siege of Masulipatam - Source: Fortescue J. W., "A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899"

The defences of the fortress of Masulipatam had been improved by the French since their entry into possession in 1751, and now formed an irregular parallelogram about 800 meters in length and 500 in breadth, open on the south side, where a broad estuary furnished sufficient natural protection, and closed on the three other sides by mud walls faced with brick and strengthened by 11 bastions connected by curtains. There was also a wet ditch and a narrow palisaded space between ditch and parapet, but no glacis. On the landward side the fort was surrounded everywhere by a heavy swamp, the road to the town of Masulipatam (2.5 km distant) being carried on a causeway to the main gate on the north-west front. This causeway was covered for a distance of a 120 meters from the wall by a parapet ending in a ravelin, which commanded the whole length of the road. The only sound ground within reach of the fort was to be found on some sand-hills to east and west of it; of which those on the eastern side, being within 730 meters of the wall, were selected by Forde for his position. Regular approaches for a formal siege were out of the question for so small a force, so Forde was fain to begin the erection of batteries on the sandhills, to play on the works from thence as best they could.

Preparations for the siege

From March 7 to 25, Forde's corps undertook the construction of 3 batteries in front of Masulipatam, one on the south-western angle which abutted on the sea, and near which his transports were at anchor with stores and ammunition; a second to the north, and a third in the centre, about 100 meters in rear of the other two. The siege-guns were landed from 2 ships which had followed the movements of the army along the coast. On the two flank batteries were mounted 24- and 18-pdrs; and in the centre 13-, 10-, and 18-inch mortars.

During this short period it seemed as though fate had laid itself out to raise every possible obstacle against Forde's success. No sooner had he invested Masulipatam than du Rocher's army of observation woke to sudden activity, and moved round upon Rajahmundry and the British communications with the north. Bristol, the officer in charge of that fort, being unable to make any defence, was obliged to evacuate the town, sending his sick to Vizagapatam (today Visakhapatnam) and the treasure, which had been received from Bengal, to the Dutch factory of Kukanar. Thus Forde's supply of ready money was cut off. Du Rocher occupied Rajahmundry and then advanced a little to the northward of the town, vowing vengeance against Anunderaj's country and so terrified the rajah that he declined to employ either his money or his credit for the service of the British army. He left the British camp with all his followers and marched to protect his own dominions. Forde was left absolutely penniless. He had already borrowed all the prize-money of his officers and even of his men, and knew not whither to turn for cash for the payment of his troops. The soldiers became apprehensive and discontented.

Conflans, feeling perfectly secure in his fortified position, now only needed a powerful ally to attack the besiegers in rear, and therefore placed himself in communication with Salabat Jang the nizam (ruler) of the Deccan, asking assistance. Conflans' request was so readily acceded to that Salabat Jang immediately marched to the relief of the beleaguered French garrison with an army of 35,000 men, having previously sent his commands to the rajah Anunderaj and to the zamindar of Narsurpore to join him at once with all the troops at their disposal.

On March 19, the whole of the European troops of the British expeditionary force turned out with their arms in open mutiny and threatened to march away. With great difficulty Forde persuaded them to return; and the men, once conciliated, went back to work with all their former ardour.

Siege begins

On March 25, Forde's batteries were completed and opened against Masulipatam, maintaining a hot fire and doing considerable injury to the fortifications; but the French were usually able to repair at night the damage of the day. The British mortars, however, destroyed and set on fire several important buildings in the fortress.

On March 27, news arrived that Salabat Jang, was arrived at the river Kistnah, not more than 60 km away, with an army of 40,000 men, to expel the intruders who had dared to invade the provinces under his suzerainty.

Forde had dispatched Mr. Johnson to Anunderaj now en route to his own territories to point out to him that he was exposing himself to great danger by separating himself from his alliance with the British. He could not, observed Forde, hope to escape from the clutches of both Salabat Jang and Du Rocher, but, returning to his allegiance and joining in the attack on Masulipatam, he would, as soon as the fortress was reduced, have all the countenance and support of the British. Anunderaj was only with difficulty recalled by Forde's representations and occupied the town of Masulipatam, now entirely denuded of the enemy's troops. In the faint hope of gaining time, Forde proposed to open negotiations with Salabat Jang, who to his great relief consented to receive his emissary and undertook for the present to advance no farther. Here, therefore, was a respite, though not such as could be counted on for long endurance.

During these negotiations with Salabat Jang, the siege continued. Damage done to the works by day were regularly repaired by the besieged at night, three of the bastions had been sufficiently ruined to give foothold to a storming party.

On April 5, the southern monsoon broke with a flood of rain that soaked the morass around the fort to its deepest. The storm put a stop to the artillery fire.

On April 6, the storm ceased, but the day was ushered in by the gloomiest of tidings for Forde. Salabat Jang was advancing from the Kistnah and du Rocher was on the point of junction with him. Finally, on the same evening, the artillery-officers reported that but two days ammunition was left for the batteries. Here, therefore, was the climax. Before Forde was a fortress with a garrison of greater strength than his own army; behind him was a force which outnumbered his own by more than 10 to 1; his communications were cut, and his ammunition and his funds were exhausted. It was open to him to embark and retire ignominiously by sea, or to stake all on a single desperate venture. He chose the bolder course and resolved to storm the fort.

The storming of Masulipatam

During the progress of the siege: it had been remarked that at the south-western corner of the fort, adjoining the sound, no ditch had been constructed; the ground without being a mere waste of mire, which might well be accounted a more difficult obstacle than any ditch. Natives, however, had more than once been seen traversing this quagmire; and captains Yorke and Knox on making trial of it found it to be stiff and heavy indeed, but not more than knee-deep. This, therefore, was a point at which at least a false attack could be made and Forde resolved to take advantage of it. Another point at which a feint might be directed was the ravelin outside the main gate. The true attack must of necessity be delivered against the front which had been damaged by the batteries; and the north-east bastion, known as the Caméléon, was the place selected. The necessary dispositions were quickly settled. The rajah's troops were some of them to guard the camp, and the rest to make a demonstration against the ravelin in front of the gate. Captain Knox with 700 Sepoys was to conduct the feint attack upon the south-west angle, and the remainder of the troops were detailed for the true assault on the Caméléon bastion. The British, who numbered 312 men of the Bengal European Regiment, 30 artillerymen and 30 sailors borrowed from the “Hardwicke”, were told off into two divisions, the first under captain Callender (grenadier company of the Bengal European Regiment and grenadier companies of the Sepoys battalions), the second under captain Yorke (4 coys of the Bengal European Regiment and 30 sailors); while of the 700 remaining Sepoys part formed a third division under captain Macleane, and the remainder a reserve under Forde himself. It was ordered that both the true and false attacks should begin simultaneously at midnight, when the tide would be at ebb and no more than one meter of water in the ditch; and the last stroke of the gongs within the fort was to be the signal for the storming parties to advance.

On April 7, the British batteries maintained a fierce fire all through daylight, playing impartially upon the three bastions of the eastern front. At length night came to silence the guns, and at 10:00 pm the troops fell in for the assault. Knox having the longer distance to traverse was the first to move off, and his column presently disappeared into the darkness. The minutes flew by, and the time came for the advance of the British troops; but captain Callender, the leader of the first division, was not to be found. There was anxious enquiry and search for him during some 30 minutes before Forde decided to replace him with captain Fischer. The British column finally marched off without Callender. By midnight, the men were still struggling through the morass towards the Caméléon bastion when the sound of firing told them that Knox, punctual to a second, had opened his false attack. Furthermore Anunderaj, with his troops, immediately rushed along the causeway firing in all directions and making a terrible noise, which speedily attracted the attention of the garrison, many of whom rushed to defend the entrance gate.

Quickening their speed as best they might, the troops of the three columns of attack plunged heavily on, knee-deep in mire over the swamp, waist-deep in mud and water through the ditch; when, just as Fischer's column reached the palisade, a sharp fire from the breach and from the bastions on either hand showed that they were discovered. All the more eagerly Fischer's men hewed and hacked at the palisade while Yorke's division engaged the St. John's bastion to his left and Macleane the Small-Gate bastion to his right. The men fell fast, but presently the palisades were cleared away, and the first division swarming up the breach swept the French out of the Caméléon bastion. Fischer halted for the arrival of Yorke with the second division, and then the two officers parted, Fischer to the right to clear the northern, and Yorke to the left to clear the eastern face of the fort.

Finding a field-gun with its ammunition in the Caméléon bastion, Yorke at once trained it along the rampart to southward, and was preparing to follow in the same direction himself, when he observed a party of French Sepoys advancing between the rampart and the buildings of the town to reinforce the Caméléon bastion. Instantly he ran down, and seizing the officer at their head bade them lay down their arms and surrender. Startled beyond all thought of resistance they obeyed, and were at once sent back to the captured bastion; while Yorke, taking the way by which they had advanced, pressed on against the St. John's bastion. The French guard, which had sought shelter within the angles from the raking fire of Yorke's field-gun, fired upon him and struck down not a few of his men, but surrendered immediately afterwards. They too were sent back to the Caméléon bastion, where the Sepoys took charge of them; and Yorke pursued his way to the next bastion to southward, named the Dutch bastion, where the same scene was repeated and a fresh consignment of prisoners was sent back to the custody of the Sepoys. The François bastion, the most southerly of all, alone remained untaken, and Yorke was eager to prosecute his success; but now the men hung back. The division had been not a little thinned by previous losses and by the detachment of guards for prisoners and for the captured bastions; and the handful of men that remained with the captain began to wonder where such work was going to end. By threats and exhortations Yorke after a time induced them to follow him; but while passing an expense-magazine a little way beyond the Dutch bastion, one of the men caught sight of powder-barrels within it and cried out “A mine, a mine.” Immediately every man rushed back in panic to the Caméléon bastion; and Yorke was left alone, with his black drummers by his side vainly beating the Grenadiers' March. Fortunately the guards in the captured bastions stood fast; and Yorke returning to the fugitives, who were on the point of leaving the fort, stopped the panic by threatening death to the first man who attempted to run. Rallying 36 men he went back to complete his work but the delay had given the French in the François bastion time to train a gun upon the line of his advance. Waiting until his party was come within close range they fired, killed 16 of them outright and wounded several more, including Yorke himself, who was brought to the ground with a ball in each thigh. The survivors picked him up and carried him off; but with his fall the attack in that quarter came, for the time, to an end.

Fischer meanwhile had been even more successful on the northern front. He cleared the two first bastions without difficulty, and on reaching the third, by the causeway, seized the gate and cut off the troops in the ravelin from the fort. Captain Callender, the missing officer, suddenly appeared, no man knew from whence, in the middle of the affair, but was instantly shot dead; and Fischer was still pushing on, when he received orders from Forde to halt. Conflans throughout the attack had remained by the south front of the fort, quite at his wits’ end, and adding to the general confusion by a succession of contradictory orders. Knox's attack distracted him on one side, the rajah's troops made an unearthly din by the ravelin, and the true assault on the eastern front fairly broke his spirits down. At the very moment when Yorke's men were returning discomfited from the François bastion, he sent a messenger to Forde, offering to surrender on honourable terms. Forde was far too shrewd to betray his own weakness. He replied that he could hear of nothing but surrender at discretion; and Conflans, concluding his position to be hopeless, acceded. Soon, 500 French and 2,539 French Sepoys laid down their arms. The French had lost 113 European soldiers killed in this affair.

During this attack, the British lost 2 officers (Callender and Mallitore) and 22 European soldiers killed and 62 wounded and 50 Sepoys killed and 150 wounded.

On April 8 at daybreak the British collected their prisoners on the parade-ground, and placing them under a guard of 100 Europeans and 200 Sepoys, with 2 field-pieces, the British flag was hoisted on the staff, and the fortress and town of Masulipatam passed over, by conquest to the East India Company.

Aftermath

Salabat Jang was within 24 km and du Rocher even nearer at the time of the assault; but the victory was sufficient to paralyse them also. The nizam quickly consented to open negotiations, and though he haggled for a whole month, finally concluded a treaty whereby he granted to the British 128 km of the coast and engaged himself not only never to entertain French troops again, but even to compel such as remained to evacuate the Circars. Thus not only was the district secured, but French influence was displaced in favour of British at the court of Hyderabad.

Colonel Forde now gladly dispensed with the services of Anunderaj and his troops; but it is only just to record that the soldiers of his army did the work appointed to them during the siege and capture of Masulipatam satisfactorily, several of his soldiers being wounded in maintaining their position on the causeway which Forde had instructed them to hold.

After the capture of the fortress of Masulipatam the British army in the Northern Circars was broken up, and the right wing of the Bengal European Regiment returned to its own Presidency.

About October 15, colonel Forde left Masulipatam by sea for Calcutta, delivering over command of the garrison (300 men of the Madras European Regiment and 800 Sepoys) to captain Fisher.

On December 5, Fisher marched with the greater part of his garrison to Coconadah near Rajahmundry and captured nearly all the chevalier Poete's detachment of Europeans. The chevalier himself and a few of his men escaping in a vessel lying at anchor off the nearby Dutch factory.

References

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, 165-168, 175
  • Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 445-453
  • 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. 82-94