British in Burma 19th Century

Though mentioned by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD, Burma remained largely closed to the outside world for much of the next millennium. Most foreign contact was with India, from where the Burmese assimilated the Buddhist religion but little else; they remained stoically immune, for example, to the Indian caste system. In the late thirteenth century the Burmese kingdom of Pagan was overrun by the Mongol hordes of Kublai Khan and the country fragmented into a patchwork of states ruled by the Shan princes from the eastern plateau. The Shan were still in power when the first European, a Venetian traveller and writer named Niccolò de’ Conti, visited Burma in 1435. It was not until the early seventeenth century, however, that the English and Dutch East India companies established trade links with the Toungu Dynasty of King Thalun. But foreign trade ceased entirely in 1755 with the overthrow of the Toungus by a Burmese resistance leader who called himself Alaungpaya (‘Embryo Buddha’). For the next fifty years King Alaungpaya and his successors terrorized the region, launching one war after another from their capital of Ava on the Irrawaddy River. Siam – modern Thailand – was overrun in 1767, though never brought properly under control, and a number of Chinese invasions from Yunnan Province were successfully repulsed. But it was the conquest in 1785 of the coastal kingdom of Arakan, which lay between Ava and British India, that set the Burmese on a collision course with the HEIC. Thousands of Arakan rebels fled across the border to British-controlled Chittagong, which they used as a base for raids. Protests from Ava were ignored, and frequent border incidents – such as the pursuit of ‘bandits’ into Chittagong by Burmese troops in 1795 – continued to sour Anglo-Burmese relations.

Tensions rose further in 1819, when the Burmese conquered the border states of Assam and Manipur, causing a fresh flood of refugees into east Bengal. In September 1823 a small British garrison was ejected from the island of Shahpuri near the Chittagong border; four months later the Burmese invaded Cachar, which was under British protection – and these further encroachments were the final straw for the HEIC. War was declared on 5 March 1824 by William Amherst, the governor-general, citing the Burmese government’s ‘mischievous aggression’. But even the Calcutta pessimists cannot have expected the fighting to last for two years, costing the British £13m and the lives of almost 15,000 men. Stout Burmese resistance, the swampy terrain, bad weather and poor logistics all played their part; but the biggest killer by far was sickness and disease. Of the 3,115 European fatalities, for example, only 150 died in battle. Despite the huge butcher’s bill, the British eventually managed to fight their way to within four miles of the Burmese capital, prompting King Bagyidaw to sue for peace. By the terms of the subsequent treaty, he ceded Arakan, Assam and Tenasserim to the HEIC; he also promised to respect the independence of Manipur and Cachar, and to open up Burmese ports to British trade.

While Bagyidaw ruled, relations between Ava and Calcutta remained cordial. But in 1837 the king was overthrown by his brother Tharawaddy, who then denounced the earlier peace treaty and expelled the British resident. Tharawaddy’s son and successor, Pagan Min, was just as Anglophobic as his father, and his subordinates followed his lead. In 1851, tired of reports that the Burmese governor of Rangoon was harassing British merchants and trading captains, Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, demanded redress. Pagan Min made a show of contrition by recalling the governor to Ava; but his replacement was hardly an improvement. He deliberately insulted the British flag, and, in response, the commodore of the nearest British squadron seized a Burmese ship and blockaded the Irrawaddy Delta. On 15 March 1852 Dalhousie issued the Burmese government with an ultimatum: stop interfering with British shipping and trade or face the consequences. When no reply was received, Dalhousie dispatched an expeditionary force. This war, unlike the previous one, was more about ‘face’ than regional security. ‘We can’t afford’, explained Dalhousie, ‘to be shown to the door anywhere in the East.’

Compared to the earlier conflict, this one was a model of British organization and efficiency. The initial British force of two brigades – furnished by the Bengal and Madras armies – was commanded by Major-General Sir Henry Godwin, ‘an old man in a wig’, who had fought in the first war as a regimental commander. Before leaving India, Godwin put this experience to good use by training his Bengal troops in the art of bombarding and storming stockades, the preferred mode of Burmese defence. British weapons had also improved, with the percussion musket far superior to the assortment of outdated firearms possessed by the Burmese; and, unlike the 1824 campaign, which had deliberately been launched during the monsoon when the rivers were in flood, Godwin timed his expedition to arrive at the Irrawaddy Delta in April, a good six weeks before the rains began.

Godwin’s greatest advantage over the previous campaign, however, was the use of steam-powered transports and gunboats to navigate the Irrawaddy. The first successful trial of a steamboat, the tug Charlotte Dundas, had taken place on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1802. But steam-towing was abandoned for fear of injuring the banks of the canal, and it was not until 1812 that Henry Bell’s Comet began to operate on the Clyde as a commercial paddle-steamer. Yet it took some time to convert the Royal Navy to the idea of steam. This was partly because a steamer’s paddles were thought to be vulnerable to enemy fire and did not leave enough room for a full broadside of guns. In 1840, by which time the British merchant fleet had no fewer than 720 large seagoing steamships, the Royal Navy had none. But all this changed with the launch of the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship, the SS Great Britain by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in 1843. Within two years the Royal Navy had introduced the world’s first steam battleship, HMS Ajax, and four years after that, in 1849, a screw-propeller battleship, HMS Agamemnon. France finished its own screw-propeller battleship, Napoleon, just three months before Agamemnon was launched, and it was the potential threat to Britain’s naval supremacy from another country’s steam-powered fleet that had prompted the Royal Navy to act. From 1851 to 1871, when HMS Devastation became the world’s first mastless warship, all new British warships had sails and screw propellers. The best of the hybrids was HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled battleship, launched in 1860. Displacing nearly 9,200 tons, with iron masts and retractable funnels for a full spread of canvas, she was the fastest, most powerful warship afloat.

In 1852, however, a much smaller steam-powered vessel gave Britain’s armed forces a crucial tactical edge: the gunboat. Under 200 feet long, with pivot-mounted guns and a crew of around thirty, its greatest asset was its manoeuvrability. A two-mast sailing rig gave it speed and agility in open sea, while its steam engine allowed it to chug up navigable rivers, deep into hostile territory. ‘The gunboat’, writes one naval historian, ‘made the Royal Navy for the first time a power on land as well as at sea. Without the gunboat, the navy could never have fulfilled its role as global policeman, intervening at the request of British officials and merchants virtually anywhere in the world.’ At no time was the gunboat more effective than during the Second Burma War of 1852–3.

The fighting began in earnest on 5 April 1852 when a British amphibious assault, with gunboats to the fore, captured Martaban on the Rangoon River; a week later, in a battle that raged for three days, Godwin’s combined force of 6,000 men stormed and took the fortified settlement of Rangoon itself. British casualties were light: just seventeen killed and 132 wounded. Many more died of sickness and disease during the following month of relative inactivity, as Godwin waited for reinforcements and supplies. By mid May he was ready to continue his advance, this time up the Negrais River to Bassein. This strongpoint, styled the ‘Key of Burma’, was captured in less than an hour, underlining once again Godwin’s facility for combined sea and land operations. After a half-hearted, and only partially successful, expedition to assist anti-government rebels in the southern Burmese province of Pegu, Godwin turned his attention to the lower Irrawaddy Valley. Gunboats reached Prome in early July and found it undefended. But Godwin, short on men, decided not to garrison it until the arrival of extra troops from India.

Lord Dalhousie ..A Govenor General of India 1848 to 1856

In 1852 Dalhousie’s priority was to get enough troops to Burma to finish the war. Most of the reinforcements – including the 67th Native Infantry, the 38th’s substitute – arrived in Rangoon in early September. Later that month Godwin headed up the Irrawaddy with part of the Bengal Contingent, capturing Prome without a fight on 9 October. But, having discovered that the main Burmese Army, 18,000 strong, was dug in ten miles to the east, Godwin chose discretion and returned to Rangoon, leaving the commander at Prome with orders to act on the defensive.

In November, Godwin led a second – and this time successful – expedition to capture the town of Pegu. Once back in Rangoon, however, he received word that the tiny British garrison at Pegu was under siege. Two relieving forces were hastily dispatched, one by water (which Godwin accompanied) and one by land. Not surprisingly, the flotilla arrived first, and, on 17 December, Godwin’s force of 1,200 men was able to outflank the besieging army and force it to retreat. Two days later, the pursuit was broken off because of a lack of supplies, and Godwin withdrew to Pegu, where he was met by the land column, which had just arrived after an uneventful march through seventy miles of hilly jungle.

It was gradually dawning on Godwin that his lack of land transport was hamstringing his attempts to bring the enemy to a decisive battle. As things stood, his troops could never venture far from their waterborne supply line, which made it easy for the Burmese to fight a hit-and-run style of guerrilla warfare. Constant attacks, lack of sleep and inadequate provisions were beginning to take their toll on British morale. Further pressure was heaped on the British commander by Dalhousie’s premature announcement on 20 December 1852 that the HEIC had annexed Pegu Province. It had yet to be pacified, let alone annexed, and to this end Godwin sent another land column into the province, 2,000 strong, under the experienced Brigadier-General S. W. Steel. With transport provided by 120 elephants and 300 bullock carts, Steel’s march was a leisurely one, his troops finally reaching Toungu in the extreme south of the province in late February 1853.

Godwin, meanwhile, had returned to Prome, where on 5 January he received some very welcome news: King Pagan Min had been overthrown in a palace coup, and the main Burmese Army had withdrawn to Ava to share in the spoils. In late January, advancing cautiously upriver, Godwin met emissaries from the new king, Mindon, who, they said, was willing to negotiate. The sticking point, however, was Mindon’s refusal to cede Pegu. As negotiations continued, the last major operation of the war took place downriver near Donabyu, where the local chief, Myat-Toon, had long been a thorn in the British side. The first attempt to penetrate the narrow creek that led to the chief’s stronghold was beaten back on 17 January. A second more powerful expedition was launched in early February, but it too was forced to retire, with the loss of two naval guns and eighty men, including its fatally wounded commander, Captain Granville Loch, RN. With the honour of the British military at stake, Brigadier-General Sir John Cheape was given the task of capturing the stronghold. He chose to attack by land but lost his way in the jungle and was forced to return to the Irrawaddy. On 7 March, his column increased to 1,100 men and four guns, he set off again with a week’s supplies and assurances that his destination was within three marches. It was not. Harassed by the enemy and slowed by endless river crossings, Cheape made tortuous progress, and on 12 March, with provisions running short, he put the men on half-rations and sent the bullock carts back for more supplies. The convoy returned on the 16th, and two days later, leaving his sick and wounded with a small escort, Cheape continued his advance. Early on 19 March his advance guard at last discovered Myat-Toon’s formidable stockade.

The officer leading the vanguard was Garnet Wolseley, the young ensign of the 80th Foot who had been so shocked by Wellington’s death a few months earlier. Born near Dublin in 1833, the scion of an ancient but hard-up Anglo-Irish family that traced its Saxon descent to pre-Conquest times, Wolseley was a studious and fiercely ambitious officer who had spent much of the voyage out to India learning Hindustani and reading military history. He had been in the army for only a year, the recipient of a commission without purchase in recognition of his late father’s many years of distinguished service. Like many of his poorer colleagues, he ‘looked forward to an Indian career where high pay enabled the infantry officer to live without assistance from home’. Yet he also hoped to emulate the military feats of his forebears, notably Brigadier-General William Wolseley, his great-great-great uncle, who had raised his own regiment of horse and served with William III in Ireland, and his grandfather, who had fought in the Seven Years War with the 1st (Royal) Dragoons before becoming a parson.

Even at this early stage of his career, Wolseley was fiercely critical of anything that did not meet his exacting standards. The ‘great bulk’ of officers he met in India and Burma were, he wrote later, ‘lacking in good breeding, and all seemed badly educated’. Only a small proportion, like him, took their ‘profession seriously, studied hard at all military sciences, and spent many of those deadly midday hours of the Indian summers reading military history and the lives of the great commanders’. As for British uniforms, he regarded them as ‘entirely unsuited for campaigning in a tropical climate’. He wrote:

The Queen’s Army took an idiotic pride in dressing in India as nearly as possible in the same clothing they wore at home. Upon this occasion, the only difference was in the trousers, which were of ordinary Indian drill dyed blue, and that round our regulation forage cap we wore a few yards of puggaree of a similar colour. We wore our ordinary cloth shell jackets buttoned up to the chin, and the usual white buckskin gloves. Could any costume short of steel armour be more absurd in such a latitude?

The army’s only concession to the climate was to allow soldiers to remove their stiff leather stocks, but most of the veterans ‘clung to theirs, asserting that the stock protected the back of the neck against the sun, and kept them cool’. The Burmese soldier, by contrast, was simply dressed in a short cotton jacket, loin cloth and ‘small pugree twisted through his long hair’. His weapons consisted of a dah, or hiltless sword, and a variety of outdated muskets. ‘A cloth fastened round him contains his rice,’ wrote Wolseley, ‘and the pot to boil it in is usually slung to the barrel of his ill-kept firelock, together with the mat which forms his bed. A few bananas and a little native tobacco constitute his luxuries.’ Broad-shouldered, muscular, hardy and brave, the Burmese should have made ideal soldiers. What they lacked, in Wolseley’s opinion, was discipline. ‘They revolt against restraint,’ he wrote later, ‘and if punished for any offence against discipline they desert, and once in their dense forests they are hard to find. They stand being shot at well when behind stockaded defences, but they dislike leaving them, even though a favourable opportunity presents itself, when they might easily inflict great loss upon their enemy.’

This, then, was the foe that Wolseley came up against for the first time – his baptism of fire – on 19 March 1853. Accompanying him on point duty were four privates of the 80th, all recruits in their teens. As they crept along a narrow path, with dense jungle on each side, they could hear the sound of trees being felled for the Burmese to strengthen their defences. Then, as the path turned sharply to the left, the sight of an enemy stockade came into view, about a hundred yards distant on the far side of a large creek: they had found Myat-Toon’s stronghold. With no pickets thrown out, the Burmese were quite unaware of the British presence. Speaking in whispers, Wolseley sent word back to the main force and a short while later received orders to continue his advance – he was ‘to move slowly and be careful not to show [himself]’. He had almost reached the point at which a road forded the creek when the Burmese spotted the approaching column and opened fire along the length of their stockade. He recalled:

The whiz of bullets and the sound of their thud into the stems of trees about us at once added enlivenment to the position. Their fire was too high, and it was not until we began to form up to our right, facing the enemy, that I saw any one fall near me, but before the place was taken all the four boys with whom I started in the morning were hit. The detachments of British troops were now withdrawn into the jungle and formed into line facing the enemy’s works; our two guns, which had been far behind, were now brought up and into action.

Detachments from three regiments – Britons, Sikhs and sepoys – were ordered to advance up the road and storm the stockade. But the sepoys had gone through the horror of the previous expedition and refused to break cover. ‘They seemed in an abject funk’, remembered Wolseley, ‘and I believe could not be got on by their gallant officers. As we passed over them, our men abused them in strong terms, which they seemed in no way to resent.’

The Sikhs were bolder and advanced shoulder to shoulder with the British troops, but had some of the fight knocked out of them when their popular commander was shot in the head and badly wounded. Before long the troops were all mixed together, and, confronted by a withering fire from front and flank, the advance stalled. Volunteers were called for to lead a storming party, and Wolseley and Lieutenant Allan Johnson, another officer destined for high rank, stepped forward. With the two officers in the lead, the mixed detachment tore down the road towards the stockade’s main gate as the Burmese opened up with everything they had, including the two British naval guns that had been lost during the previous expedition. Though out front, and in mortal danger, Wolseley felt something akin to exhilaration as he waved his sword and cheered the men on. Suddenly, not far from the stockade, the ground gave way beneath him, and he fell heavily into a pit disguised with earth and brushwood, a wooden stake almost knocking him unconscious. Gathering his senses, he scrambled out of the far side of the pit and, to his horror, found himself alone, just thirty yards from the enemy stockade. The rest of the storming party had melted away. With bullets kicking up the ground around him, he jumped back into the pit, but it quickly occurred to him that, having dropped his pistol, he would fall easy prey to the first Burmese sally. His only chance was to run for it, and, choosing the moment after a heavy Burmese volley, he set off. Every lungbusting stride brought the anticipation of a bullet in the back. But not one found its mark, and he soon reached the safety of the ragged British line, still angry at being deserted. ‘Had a formed company with its officers been there,’ he wrote later, ‘the whole thing would have been over in a very few minutes.’ Instead the storming party was a mixture of volunteers, many of them raw recruits.

By now Brigadier-General Cheape had appeared on the scene and, seeing the difficulty of the approach, ordered the 24-pounder howitzer to be brought forward. He also ordered up his remaining troops and called for a fresh storming party. Wolseley again volunteered, saying he knew the way, and was joined by a young Madras lieutenant called James Taylor. Having warned Taylor about the pit, Wolseley collected as many 80th men as he could before setting off at the run. He could see numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’

Never again in his long and illustrious career would he experience ‘the same unalloyed and elevating satisfaction’. But it could not last. Having safely skirted the pit, he saw Taylor tumble head over heels. A few paces on he too fell heavily, shot in the left thigh by a bullet from a gingall, a heavy musket fired from a rest. As he clamped his left hand on the wound, blood squirted in jets through the fingers of his pipe-clayed gloves. But the seriousness of the wound did not stop him from urging his men on, including one sergeant who stopped to help him. ‘In a few minutes,’ recalled Wolseley, ‘he and those he led – for he was then in command – had clambered up the roughly-constructed stockade and the garrison bolted. Some more men coming up from the rear carried poor Taylor and put him beside me, where he bled to death. He too was shot through the thigh, the bullet in his case cutting the femoral artery. Mine was a remarkable escape. A doctor soon arrived on the scene and put on a tourniquet, which hurt me, but allowed me to be moved.’

Wolseley was evacuated back to Donabyu in a naval pinnace, and from there to Prome on a flat boat towed by a steamer. By the time he reached England, in late 1853, he could walk again. His ‘gallantry in leading the storming party’ was mentioned in dispatches and would probably have merited the Victoria Cross if that medal had then existed.

The size of Myat-Toon’s garrison was later estimated at 4,000 men, one man for every four yards of stockade. Most fled with their chief, leaving behind a huge stockpile of weapons and food, which the British destroyed. Cheape then retraced his steps to Donabyu, arriving on the 24th. His total casualties were not light – 130 killed and wounded, with a further hundred succumbing to cholera – but just about acceptable, considering the difficulties of the climate and the terrain. The fight near Donabyu was the last serious action of the war. After much negotiation, King Mindon agreed to cede Pegu, and hostilities ceased on 30 June 1853.