The Siege of Arcot
After his return from Devikota, Clive was made commissary of the forces, but before he could take up his duties, he fell ill and was sent for a long cruise in the Bay of Bengal. On his return in 1751 he fitted out a small force for the relief of Trichinopoli, which the French and their allies were still trying to take. Then, as commissary, he accompanied another body of English and native troops which had been ordered to march to a place called Volkonda, about forty miles north east of Trichinopoli, there to try French army which was marching against Trichinopoli. But the officer in command of the force with which Clive went was not a very clever soldier, and he greatly mismanaged the expedition. Clive could see, but he could not prevent, the commanding officer's mistakes, so he left him and returned to Fort St. David.
There he found that an expedition, made up of eighty Europeans and three hundred sepoys, was about to start to convoy provisions to Trichinopoli. But the Governor had no officer whom he thought fit to take the command, so he had appointed a Mr. Pigot, a civilian, to lead it. Clive volunteered to go with him, and in three days they had carried the expedition to a spot beyond which there was no danger of its being captured.
Mr. Pigot and Clive then turned back for Fort St. David, through a country which was swarming with the enemy's cavalry. Again and again, as they pushed their cautious way by jungle paths and byways, bodies of horsemen dashed at the two Englishmen, trying to capture or to kill them. Again and again would Clive and Pigot turn on their enemies and charge, or, if needs must, gallop for their lives. And at last they reached Fort St. David in safety.
At Fort St. David they found another expedition about to set out; but again the Governor had no officer fit to lead it. Clive, of course, was only a civilian; though he had fought at Pondicherry and at Fort St. David, and at Devikota, his commission had only been what is called a temporary one, that is to say, it was meant to last only during the one campaign. Now he decided that he would remain a civilian no longer, and he applied to the Governor for a commission in the army, offering, if necessary, to join without pay.
The Governor thought so highly of Clive that he gave him a commission as captain, and ordered him to march at once, with the few troops available, to Devikota, there to join another small force, and to proceed to Trichinopoli, whence he was to report to the Governor the state of affairs.
At Trichinopoli, Clive found Chunda Sahib with a huge host of native troops and 900 Frenchmen, besieging Muhammad Ali in the fortress. Muhammad Ali had but 5000 of his own men and 600 English soldiers, and in the whole force there was scarcely an officer or man who was not out of spirits, and who did not feel certain that nothing was to be expected but defeat. There was no money to pay the native troops; the English soldiers had lost faith in their officers, and most of the officers had lost faith in themselves. Affairs were about as bad as bad could be.
Clive saw that something must be done at once to rouse both officers and men; they could not fight if they went into battle believing that they must be beaten. Now Clive had always been fond of reading books about great soldiers, and he cast about in his mind for what some of these great commanders would have done in like case. He knew that Chunda Sahib, keen to take Trichinopoli, had brought all his best soldiers there, and had left his capital, Arcot, without any good troops. Here, Clive saw, was his chance. He set off at once to Fort St. David, and laid before Mr. Saunders, the Governor, his idea of taking Arcot. Mr. Saunders saw at once that if Arcot were taken, Chunda Sahib would be obliged to withdraw his men from before Trichinopoli in order to try to get back Arcot.
The Governor was not afraid of taking responsibility. There were at Madras and at Fort St. David only 350 European soldiers in all, but he promised 200 of them for the expedition, and to Clive he gave the command, Clive, who had been a soldier for just one month.
"It was on the 26th of August 1751 that Clive set forth from Madras on the march that was to bring him immortal fame, and to secure for his countrymen the first footing on the ladder which was to conduct them to Empire."
Clive had with him in his little army but 200 English soldiers, 300 sepoys, and three guns. There were in all but eight officers, six of whom had never been under fire, and the troops themselves were without experience of warfare. It was not a force from which at best much could be expected; it was a force which, badly led, could meet only with disaster. But the brilliant genius of Clive brought it through with extraordinary success.
In three days the little army was within twenty-seven miles of Arcot. Clive learned that there were 1200 native soldiers in the place, but that their discipline was not good, and he thought that it might be taken by surprise.
At once, in the middle of a terrible storm of rain, he set off with all possible speed, and two days later he "rushed" the town and fort without losing a man. Then he marched against the Fort of Timeri, where the garrison of 600 native soldiers fled without fighting. Clive thereupon went back to Ascot, but two days later, hearing that 2000 of the enemy had returned to Timeri, he marched out and gave them a severe beating; but because he had no heavy guns with which to pound the mud walls, he was not able to take the fort.
Now Clive with all his might set about collecting provisions and making the walls and fortifications of Arcot as strong as possible, for well he knew that soon he must be attacked by the French and by thousands of natives.
He wrote to Madras for some eighteen-pounder guns, which were at once sent. But the enemy had heard of their despatch, and they determined that the guns should never reach Arcot. Clive, through his spies hearing of the enemy's plans, left only eighty men in Arcot (thirty English soldiers and fifty natives), and marched hastily to save the guns.
Meantime, whilst Clive was absent on this expedition, the enemy made a fierce attack on Arcot, thinking to sweep away with ease the few English soldiers left there. But the brave little garrison held its own, every man fighting like a hero, and when Clive returned in safety with the guns, Chunda Sahib's men retreated.
Now began the famous siege of Arcot. Even after all Clive's work, the place hardly seemed one that could possibly be defended, against such a force as was being sent against it. The walls were in many parts broken and in ruins; the ditches were almost without water; there was little shelter for the troops whilst they fought, and it was found impossible to mount guns on the narrow ramparts. Moreover, sickness and wounds had brought the garrison down to 120 Englishmen and 200 sepoys, with, in all, but four officers. What were they, to meet the many thousands that Chunda Sahib and the French could, hurl against them?
The eyes of all India were eagerly watching what was going on at Arcot, and many native princes, struck with wonder at what Clive had already done, and impressed by the fighting powers of the English, now sent troops to help the Prince Muhammad Ali, whom the English were supporting. The whole future of England and France in India depended on whether or not Clive could hold out in Arcot.
On 23rd September Chunda Sahib's hordes of warriors, strengthened by French troops, closed round the city. Day and night, for fifty days there was no cease in their assaults, no rest for the little garrison. Clive was everywhere; wherever danger was greatest, where the storm of bullets fell thickest, where the fight was fiercest, there he was to be found, and wherever he went came victory. Fired by his example, his men fought with a furious energy against which nothing could stand, and the sepoys now, for the first time, showed those qualities of which they have so many times since given proof, a courage and a self-denial, a capacity to endure fatigue and to withstand hunger and thirst, that are worthy of the best soldiers in the world.
Provisions were scarce, and the sepoys came to Clive, and said that the English men needed food more than they did, and that if all the rice were given to the English, they themselves could live and fight on the gruel-like mess which was left after the rice was boiled.
The supply of water began to run out, and enough could only be got with great difficulty and danger. Fighting is at best a thirsty business, and when men fight under the scorching sun of India, thirst becomes an agony. Yet those brave sepoys, when water was brought to the sore-pressed garrison, stood back and refused to drink till the Englishmen had drunk their fill.
Nothing was left undone by the enemy in their efforts to take Arcot. A great bribe of money and jewels was even offered to Clive if he would but surrender. If he refused, they said, the fort would be at once stormed, and every man in it would be slaughtered without mercy. But Clive only answered that they had better think twice before they dared to come within reach of Englishmen.
And now, at last, after seven weeks of never-ending cannon-fire, the enemy had battered a breach in the wall, a breach big enough for them to pour through in numbers.
It was the day of a great Mahommedan festival, a day when, even to the present time, the Moslem inhabitants of India work themselves into a frenzy of religious enthusiasm. All good Mahommedans who during this festival fell fighting against Infidels,—(that is to say, Christians),—they believe will by such a death atone for all the sins committed during their lives, and will pass straightway to Heaven—to the Garden of the Houris.
It was on this day, then, that Chunda Sahib's commander ordered an assault to be made on Arcot. He was sure of success. But to make success doubly sure, he caused drugs to be served out to his troops, drugs which increased their frenzy to madness. Death was nothing to these men, they courted it. What was Death but Heaven, and forgiveness of all their sins? Who could stand against such men?
"Through the breach they rushed, sure of victory, for the defenders, too few in number at the beginning, had now lost very many men, and those that were left were worn and weak with hunger and want of sleep.
For an hour Clive and his men fought furiously, sometimes borne back, but never despairing. Muskets grew hot with firing, smoke and dust swirled in clouds round the fierce-eyed men who swayed and fought and panted for breath as the bayonets grew red, and the ground slippery, with blood.
Then, before men could realise what had happened, the long strain was over; the enemy were running for their lives, beaten and humiliated. Before daylight next morning they had disappeared.
The siege of Arcot was over, and the fame of the English, and especially of their leader, spread far and wide. In the eyes of the natives, Clive was the greatest man in India; through fire and water, to death, they would have followed him.
But Clive did not think that he had done enough. He was not content to have beaten the enemy; he must follow him up and strike blow on blow. Joined by 1000 Mahratta cavalry, he marched to attack, in his turn, the army which for so long a time had been attacking him, an army now strengthened by fresh French troops from Pondicherry. This army was far more than twice as strong as Clive's little force, and when its commander saw how few were Clive's men, he turned back, thinking to finally crush the English. But where Clive had halted there were in his front rice-fields, across which troops could only attack by marching along a narrow causeway; one of his flanks was protected by a village, the other by a grove of palm-trees, both places easy to hold.
The French soldiers tried to advance across the causeway, while their native cavalry in swarms attacked the village and the palm grove. Clive brought all his guns to bear on the causeway, and swept the Frenchmen off it, till they turned and fled. Then dashing at them with his English soldiers before the French could rally, he broke the enemy's centre, and the whole army fled, panic-stricken. Clive followed them up till dark, killing and slaying.
Then, leaving a garrison to hold Arcot, he returned, after some further successful fighting, to Madras. Here he laid before the Governor his plans for the future against the French and their allies. A new expedition, led by Clive, was to go to the relief of Trichinopoli as soon as fresh troops should arrive from Bengal.