Arthur Wellesley’s First Battle II

Battle of Mallavelly

The main British army was at Cankanelli on 21 March 1799 and moved through nearly continuous tope country for four days – a total of about twenty miles. On the 26th they came out on cleared, almost flat land east of the considerable village of Mallavelly. Before evening the British saw some of Tipoo’s artillery and infantry in the distance. There were elephants and cannon on a skyline.

Soon after daybreak on 27 March the allied armies began their slow plodding towards Seringapatam. Mallavelly was six miles away; it was the next campsite at which there was ample water. The order of march was about the same as in the Baramahal, the British and the Hyderabad armies in column to each side with the vast conglomeration of baggage between them. Each army was preceded by cavalry and the infantry pickets. Contacts between the allied cavalry advance guards and the enemy were heavier than normal; when the heads of the main infantry columns were no more than a mile from Mallavelly, they came under long-range artillery fire for the first time in the campaign. Tipoo’s guns, said to be brass 18-pounders, were in position on some low hills a mile west of the village. The enemy was not attacking, but they did seem to be solidly in position and ready to fight defensively.

The day was well advanced and the Quartermaster-General’s party was already laying out the Mallavelly camp. Harris felt, however, that the opportunity to defeat Tipoo in the field was so valuable that he made every effort to close. His two armies were not fatigued and in superb condition; the terrain would give no considerable advantage to the enemy. In the open Tipoo could not possibly match British discipline, firepower and controlled mobility.

Soon after the Mysore guns opened, both the 25th Dragoons under Stapleton Cotton and the British pickets of the day under John Sher-brooke were engaged north-west of Mallavelly. The cavalry held in check a larger body of Mysore light horse by using their new ‘galloper’ 6-pounders; the infantry drove back some rocket boys and their supporting horsemen.

Bridges’s right wing led the British infantry column; it passed just to the north of the village of Mallavelly without halting. This unit was formed 5th Brigade, 1st Brigade and finally 3rd Brigade. Harris ordered it into line en echelon left in front, which meant that Baird’s all-European Brigade should have been in the centre of the line. Somehow the 1st Brigade got ahead of the 5th Brigade; the actual formation appears to have been an arrowhead V with one brigade up and two back. All were moving at speed; less than two hours of daylight remained.

The Hyderabad army under Meer Allum and Arthur Wellesley was level with Harris’s but at least a mile further south. Initially Wellesley had an infantry column of eleven battalions, led by the King’s 33rd. About 3.30 p.m. he received Harris’s order to continue his advance and endeavour to force the enemy to fight. In order to save time, he also formed line from column en echelon to the south on the 33rd which continued to advance. This meant an oblique line of battalions still in column of half companies at quarter distance each about 200 yards behind the one on its right and about 200 yards south. It is likely that only the King’s 33rd and six EIC battalions were in this formation. Malcolm’s four Hyderabad units probably formed a reserve. In Wellesley’s area the terrain had been a trifle more open than in Baird’s; the movements of the southern army are less confused.

Wellesley galloped to the south – he was mounted on Diomed – to make sure all his units were properly spaced. The six EIC battalions were to go from column into line simultaneously with the 33rd and continue their advance. Then he quickly returned to the 33rd. He was pleased to see that his army was now about a quarter mile ahead of Baird’s brigade of the main force. Everybody realized that Tipoo might not remain for long in a position where he could be attacked. As Wellesley and the 33rd approached the low ridge where the enemy could be clearly seen, he ordered his regiment to form line from column to the left. The first half company continued as it was, but slowed its pace; the others obliqued various distances to the left and double-timed to catch up. In less than two minutes the whole battalion was in a two-deep line about 350 files long. The EIC units to the south-east also executed this manoeuvre. What a thrill it must have been for a young colonel to see his command perform in this manner. He had been in the Army for twelve years, but had not yet taken part in a real battle.

Tipoo’s line was still mostly to be identified by the sudden puffs of cotton white which preceded the sound of each artillery discharge. Occasionally a ball would pass close enough for men involuntarily to bob their heads. Suddenly Wellesley saw a heavy column of Mysore infantry, between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers, emerge from Tipoo’s hilltop line and advance toward the centre of the 33rd with unusual bravery. Every man in the 33rd must have realized that this was their moment of truth. For nearly six years they had drilled and practised under their present commander. This was their first opportunity to use their experience for maximum advantage in battle. The enemy column was still coming straight for the British colours; they were not much more than a hundred yards away. An incisive, well-known voice rang out: ‘Thirty-third, Halt! Half-right, Face! Make ready!’

The enemy column was more numerous by three to one and moving fast. Surely the heavy mass could penetrate the thin red line, even though it extended further on both flanks. The last time the veterans of this British regiment had fought in earnest had been more than four years before in cramped frozen country against the French. Now there was no congestion; the formation allowed every man to fire with perfect ease at the head of the approaching column. There were no cold fingers either. The clamour from the enemy was almost deafening; they were so close together that they seemed able to exert shock by sheer mass in motion. The incisive voice came again: ‘Present!’ Up came two lines of polished brown wood stocks and bright steel barrels. The muzzles of the rear rank muskets projected well past the faces of the soldiers in front. The glittering bayonets were probably already fixed. Outwardly Wellesley was calm and steady as a rock, but he must have asked himself, ‘Are they close enough?’ Surely! He could see clearly the frenzied dark faces. The enemy was no more than sixty yards away.

‘Fire!’ Seven hundred cocks drove flint against hard serrated steel frizzens. Flame spurted from every pan; a line of fire and then white smoke jumped from the muzzles. There was the single resounding crash of a well delivered volley. The head of Tipoo’s column collapsed almost to a man from the impact of heavy British bullets. Those behind were brought to a stand; men in column could not advance over their own dead and wounded. The 33rd, still completely under control, recovered, faced back to the front and advanced in a disciplined formation. The flanks moved a bit faster to cup round the head of the enemy column. Tipoo’s men had displayed exceptional courage in opposing disciplined European soldiers in the open, but as Wellesley said later they ‘did not quite stand’ to receive the bayonets. As the unfortunate Mysore infantry streamed back in disorder, they were overtaken by the 1st Brigade of Floyd’s cavalry under Colonel James Stevenson. It was the type of action where disciplined horsemen with long practice with the sabre could be most damaging. Tipoo failed to support his brave men; they were nearly exterminated.

While Wellesley’s army had been engaged as described, Baird’s brigade of the main force had been attacked first by Mysore cavalry trying to get at the British baggage and later perhaps by infantry. The King’s 74th, Baird’s central regiment, momentarily got itself into a little trouble by being too impetuous, but Baird personally corrected this. To the north the enemy was repulsed as completely as it had been to the south.

Tipoo made these attacks on Harris’s army to gain time for the retreat of the rest of his forces, especially the artillery. The sight of Harris’s army and of Wellesley’s coming forward en echelon probably caused the Mysore commander to change his mind about fighting a battle. It is interesting to note that Colonels Sherbrooke and Cotton were already moving around Tipoo’s left flank and were soon in a position to attack his rear or cut off his retreat, had he actually fought. However, the enemy went back too fast and too far for this to be effective. A British pursuit could not be carried far because of the approach of darkness and the presence of still unbroken masses of enemy cavalry.

Mallavelly was not large as battles go. The 33rd lost just two men, and even Baird’s brigade lost only twenty-nine. But it was surely creditable from the British point of view. They could hardly have gained more from it considering the enemy commander’s early change of heart and the mobility of his forces, including his artillery drawn by fine big white bullocks. Sedaseer and Mallavelly together were so disheartening to Tipoo that he lost confidence in himself, his forces, and his military ability.


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