1760-01-22 - Battle of Wandewash
Prelude to the Battle
In January 1760, the comte de Lally-Tollendal, commander-in-chief of the French army in India, resolved to besiege and capture Wandewash (actual Wandiwash).
On January 14, taking 500 Europeans, 1,000 Sepoys, and 650 French and Mahratta horse, Lally left Trivatore and marched on Wandewash, which had been his true object from the first. Lieutenant-colonel Eyre Coote received intelligence of his departure on the same evening.
On January 15, Coote marched also by the direct road to the same point. Lally meanwhile, anxious to recapture the post before Coote's arrival, had in the morning driven the small British detachment defending the place into the fort; after which he began to erect batteries against the walls.
On January 17, Lally learned from Bussy that Coote was advancing against him; by which time the British had actually arrived at Outramalore (unidentified location), about 24 km to north-east of Wandewash. Here Coote halted, being secure of his communications with Chingleput and Madras (actual Chennai), and resolved not to risk an action until the French were ready to assault the fort. The French works meanwhile progressed but slowly.
On January 20, the French batteries opened fire on Wandewash, Bussy's column having meanwhile joined Lally from Trivatore.
On January 21, Coote advanced to within 11 km of Wandewash.
The French camp was marked out in two lines about 3 km to the east of the fort of Wandewash and facing eastward, the left flank of each line being covered by a large tank. In advance of their left front was another smaller tank which had been turned into an entrenchment and armed with cannon, so as to enfilade the whole front of the camp and command the plain beyond it. The Mahratta horse were encamped on the left of the French positions.
Description of Events
On January 22, having directed that the rest of the army should immediately follow him, Coote went forward at sunrise with his cavalry to reconnoitre.
About 7:00 AM, Coote's advanced guard struck against an advanced party of Lally's Indian horse; and presently 3,000 Mahratta cavalry along with 300 French European cavalry came swarming over the plain in his front. Their skirmishers were driven back.
Coote brought up a division of Sepoys with 2 field-pieces masked behind his own cavalry. Coote then advanced slowly to the attack which the French and Mahrattas pulled up to receive.
On arriving within 200 meters, Coote wheeled his squadrons outwards right and left to unmask the guns. His squadrons then formed up on each flank of the Sepoys. The enemy mistaking this movement for unsteadiness preparatory to a retreat, at once pushed forward in great haste and were galloping to take advantage of it when the field-pieces opened up upon them with grape. The British Sepoys then delivered their fire with steadiness and execution. The Mahrattas soon broke and fled off the field with heavy loss. The French cavalry for some time stood firmly but on the flight of the other cavalry, the entire fire of the British became directed upon them and they were obliged to go about but they retired in good order, leaving the gound open up to the French camp.
Then Coote halted his cavalry and waited for the main body of his army which shortly came up, in 2 lines in order of battle, across a hard and level plain. The cavalry formed up in the rear and on the flanks of the line which halted and offered battle, but the French declined it.
Coote went forward to examine the French camp. He then ordered his army to move to his right.
Finding after a short halt that no notice was taken by Lally, Coote caused the whole force to file to its right across the French front towards the foot of a mountain, which stood about 3 km to northward of the fort. As soon as the leading files had reached some rough stony ground, impassable by cavalry, close to the base of the mountain, Coote again halted and fronted, at a distance of about 2 km from the French lines. The baggage and followers of the camp were at the same time placed in a small village in the rear.
Seeing that this movement also passed unnoticed, Coote ordered the army to file along the skirt of the mountain round the French left flank. By thus coasting the hill until he came opposite to the fort he would be able to form his line with his left resting on the mountain and his right covered by the fire of the fort, thus at once securing communications with the garrison and threatening the French flank and rear.
However, before this masterly manoeuvre could be fully completed, Lally came hurriedly out of his camp; and presently the whole of the French army was observed to be in motion. Coote thereupon desisted from his movement round their left flank, halted his filing columns, and fronting them to the left, formed his line of battle obliquely to the enemy. Lally was thus compelled to cancel his pre-concerted dispositions, to change front from east to north-east, and, while still resting his left on the entrenched tank, to move forward his right in order to bring his line parallel to that of the British. None the less this tank remained the pivot of his position.
The French army was formed in a single line with its left flank resting on the entrenched tank. which was itself manned by marines with four guns. Three guns were also posted between the tank and Lally's regiment, and as many more in the intervals between the different corps of the line, making 16 guns in all. About 400 Indian infantry occupied a smaller tank to the rear of the entrenched tank while 900 Sepoys were ranged on a ridge before the camp.
Coote's army was drawn up in three lines. The first line was composed of 4 European battalions, with a battalion of 900 Sepoys on either flank. The second line was, made up of European grenadiers in the centre, with a field-piece and a body of Sepoys on each flank. The third line consisted entirely of cavalry, Europeans forming the centre, with Indians on either flank.
In this order the British advanced; but before they arrived within cannon-shot Lally caught up his squadron of European hussars, and making a wide sweep over the plain came down with it upon the left flank of the cavalry in the British third line. Coote's Indian cavalry, in forming to their left to receive them, got confused and ultimately galloped off the field and the left divisions of Sepoys, while changing front to meet the attack, showed signs of wavering. The weak squadron of British dragoon stood firm and the 2 detached guns of the left front under captain Barker opened fire on the French cavalry as it was galloping up. Their fire fell heavily on their flank, bringing down 10 or 15 men and horses at their first fire. The French cavalry stopped and was immediately afterwards forced to hurry out of fire.
The Indian cavalry of the British, recovering from their panic, formed up and, led by the dragoons, in their turn charged the French European cavalry who broke despite all Lally's efforts to stop them and would not be rallied until they had galloped far to the rear of their camp pursued by the enemy cavalry.
During this attack the British halted, while the French batteries fired wildly and unsteadily with grape, though the British were not yet within range of round shot.
Coote coolly continued his advance until his guns could play effectively and then opened a most destructive fire. Lally finding his men impatient under the punishment placed himself at their head, and gave the word to move forward. Coote thereupon halted the whole of his force excepting the Europeans of the first and second lines, and advanced to meet him with these alone. Like Forde at the battle of Condore, he staked everything on the defeat of the French regular troops.
Coote, true to the British rule, intended to reserve his volley for close range; but some few Africans who were mingled in the ranks of the British opened fire without command, and this disorder was only with difficulty prevented from spreading to the whole line. Coote, galloping from right to left of the line, actually received 2 or 3 bullets through his clothes.
About 1:00 PM, order being restored in the British ranks, Coote took up his station on the left by his own regiment. Both lines halted within 200 meters of each other and opened a heavy fire of musketry. The 84th Coote's Foot had fired but 2 rounds, when Lally formed Lorraine Infanterie on the French right into a column of 12 men abreast and ordered it to charge with the bayonet. Coote met the column with line, reserved his fire until the French were within 50 meters and then poured in a volley which tore the front and flanks of Lorraine Infanterie to tatters. None the less, the gallant Frenchmen, unchecked by their losses, pressed on the faster and in another minute the two regiments had closed and were fighting furiously hand to hand. The column broke by sheer weight through the small fragment of line opposed to it but the remainder of 84th Coote's Foot closed instantly upon its flanks; and after a short struggle Lorraine Infanterie, already much shattered by the volley, broke up in confusion and ran back to the camp, with the British in hot pursuit, carrying dismay into the ranks of the Sepoys. Coote paused only to order his regiment to be reformed, and galloped away to see how things fared with the 79th Draper's Foot on the right.
As Coote passed, a flash and a dense cloud of smoke shot up from the entrenched tank, followed by a roar which rose loud above the din of battle. A lucky shot from the British guns had blown up a tumbril of French ammunition. The chevalier de Poete, commanding the entrenchment, was killed, 80 of his men were slain or disabled around him, and the rest of his force, abandoning the guns, fled in panic to the French right, followed by the Sepoys from the smaller tank in rear.
Coote instantly ordered the 79th Draper's Foot to advance and occupy the entrenchment; but Bussy, who commanded on the French left, brought forward Lally Infanterie to threaten their flank as they advanced, and forced them to fetch a compass and file away to their right. Bussy thus gained time to rally some of the fugitives and to re-occupy the tank with a couple of platoons; but the 79th Draper's Foot, with major Brereton at their head, moved too fast to allow him to complete his dispositions, and coming down impetuously upon the north face of the tank swept the French headlong out of it. Brereton fell mortally wounded in the attack, but bade his men leave him and push on. The leading files hurried round to the southern face of the tank, opened fire on the gunners posted between Lally Infanterie and the parapet, and drove them from their guns while the rest hurriedly formed up on their left to resist any attempt upon the eastern face.
Bussy did all that a gallant man could do, but the odds were too great for him; and he could hope for no help, since all the rest of the line was hotly engaged. He wheeled Lally Infanterie round at right angles to the line to meet the fire on its flank, and detached a couple of platoons from his left against the western face of the tank; but his men shrank from the British fire and would not come to close quarters. Then two of Draper's guns came up, and opening on the right flank of Lally Infanterie raked it through and through. As a last chance Bussy placed himself at the head of his wavering troops and led them straight at the southern face of the tank; but his horse was shot under him, and on looking round he saw but 20 men following him, the rest having no heart for the conflict. Two platoons of the 79th Draper's Foot at once doubled round to cut them off, while major Monson came up with part of the grenadiers of the second line to support the attack of the 79th Draper's Foot. Bussy and his devoted little band were surrounded and made prisoners and the whole of Lally Infanterie was captured or dispersed.
The battalions of the centre on both sides had throughout kept up a continual fire at long range; but when the Bataillon des Indes perceived both its flanks to be uncovered, it faced about and retreated, hastily indeed but in good order. Lally had some time before attempted to bring forward the Sepoys from the ridge, but they had refused to move and the Mahrattas took themselves off when they saw how the day was going.
Nothing was left to Lally but his few squadrons of French horse, which came forward nobly to save his army. A few men of Lorraine Infanterie, heartened by their appearance, harnessed the teams to 3 field-guns and joined with the cavalry in covering the retreat to the walled market of Wandewash where the detachment in the trenches joined them, having abandoned all their siege guns and ammunition.
The British dragoon squadron was too weak to attack the French cavalry, and Coote's Indian horse refused to face them; so Lally was able to set fire to his camp, collect the men from his batteries, and to retire in better order than his officers had dared to hope.
The British victory was sufficiently complete. About 200 of the Frenchmen lay dead on the field, as many more were wounded, and 160 were taken (including brigadier-general Bussy and quartermaster-general chevalier Godeville of Lally Infanterie), so that Lally's loss amounted to close on 600 Europeans. Besides this, 22 guns were taken (17 on the field and 5 in the batteries before Wandewash), together with all the tents, stores, and baggage that remained unburnt.
Against this the British had lost but 63 killed (including major Brereton) and 141 wounded: the 79th Draper's Foot lost 13 killed and 36 wounded; the 84th Coote's Foot 17 killed and 66 wounded; and the Madras European Regiment 36 killed and 14 wounded. The Madras European Regiment dragoons lost 4 wounded. The Indian horse lost 17 killed and 32 wounded and the Sepoys 6 killed and 15 wounded.
The speedy defeat of the French was doubtless due to the explosion which gave away the key of their position; and there can be no question but that this fortunate accident immensely simplified Coote's task for him. On the other hand, it may be asked why, seeing that this tank was the key of the position, Lally should have garrisoned it with sailors and marines, the worst instead of the best of his troops. It is improbable that, even without this stroke of luck, the ultimate issue of the action could have been different, especially if Lally's own figures as to the strength of his own force be accepted as correct.
It is plain that Lally felt no great confidence in his troops, and that his distrust was justified. His cavalry would not stand by him in his first attack on Coote's rear; his artillery was unsteady; he did not venture to attack the British infantry except with column against line; he seems to have advanced in the first instance chiefly because his men chafed under the fire of the British artillery; and his attack on Coote's left was not only a failure in itself but took all the heart out of his Sepoys.
Coote, on the other hand, felt perfect reliance on his troops, and proved it by advancing finally with his infantry only, leaving his guns to follow as they could. Moreover, he had the choicest of his troops, the grenadiers, still in reserve at the close of the action; so that it would have been open to him, after the defeat of Lorraine Infanterie, to have turned these or his own regiment upon the flank of the French battalions in the centre, and to have rolled up their line from right to left instead of from left to right. In fact, from the moment that he forced Lally to come out and fight, the superiority of his troops assured him of victory; and it is probable that Lally himself was painfully aware of the fact.
This defeat was a mortal blow to French domination in India.
Order of Battle
British Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: lieutenant-colonel sir Eyre Coote
Summary: 1,980 Europeans, 2,100 Sepoys and 1,250 Indian horse, with 16 guns.
|First Line||Second line||Third Line|
French Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Thomas Arthur comte de Lally-Tollendal
Summary: 2250 Europeans (Lally gives his Europeans as only 1,350 infantry, and 150 cavalry) cavalry and infantry and 1,300 Sepoys excluding troops left to besiege Wandewash and the Mahratta cavalry.
The French army was formed in a single line in the following order (from right to left):
- 1 gun
- European cavalry (300 men) on the extreme right, including a hussar sqn
- 3 guns
- Lorraine Infanterie (400 men)
- 3 guns
- Bataillon des Indes (700 men) in the centre
- 3 guns
- Lally Infanterie (400 men)
- 1 gun
- 3 guns between the line of infantry and the entrenched tank
- Marine and 4 guns in the entrenched tank
- Indian infantry (400 men) occupied the smaller tank in the rear of the entrenched tank
- Sepoys (900 men) on a ridge before the camp
Furthermore, there were some 150 Europeans and 300 Sepoys being left in the batteries before Wandewash. The Mahratta horse (3,000 men), having tasted the fire of the British artillery earlier in the day, had no relish for further share in the action.
This article is essentially a compilation of 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, p. 508
- 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, 177-185
- Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 463-470