The Battle of Plassey
News of the taking of the English factory at Cossimbazar did not reach Madras till 15th July, and the Governor at once sent a detachment of 230 European soldiers, under Major Kilpatrick, to Falta, on the river Hoogly, below Calcutta. There they arrived on 2nd August, and lay, awaiting reinforcements.
Word of the capture of Calcutta, and of the horrors of the Black Hole, came to Madras three days after Major Kilpatrick had landed at Falta, and fierce was the cry for vengeance. At once preparations were begun for the despatch of an army to punish Surajah Dowlah. To Clive was given the command of the soldiers, whilst Admiral Watson, being the senior officer, was at the head of the whole expedition.
Nine hundred good English infantry, some artillery, and 1500 well-disciplined sepoys, were soon ready, but it was not until October that the fleet could sail, and the first ship did not arrive in the Hoogly, off Falta, till 11th December. By this time most of Kilpatrick's men were on the sick list, and what with fever, and the non-arrival of one of the ships with 200 troops on board, Clive's total force was reduced to 800 Englishmen, 1200 sepoys, and a few field guns—not a very large army with which to attack a prince whose hosts might be numbered by the hundred thousand.
Meantime the Nawab, Surajah Dowlah, was "dwelling in fancied security" at Moorshedabad, his capital. In his ignorance, he had not dreamt that the despised English would dare to oppose him in his own kingdom, and it was a rude shock to the puffed-up tyrant when he received from Admiral Watson a letter saying that if payment were not at once made for the injury he had done, and redress given to those who had suffered, the Admiral would take the law into his own hands.
The Nawab at once gathered together his vast army and marched towards Calcutta. The English fleet sailed up the river till it came within ten miles of the strong fort of Budge Budge. Both Clive and Admiral Watson saw that it would be necessary, before going farther, to take this fort. Clive wanted to sail up, then land and take it by storm, but Admiral Watson insisted that it was better to land where they were and to march up. As the Admiral was Clive's senior officer, the latter, very much against his better judgment, was obliged to give way. The troops, therefore, along with some sailors, were put on shore, and began their difficult march.
At night, tired out, they camped in two villages near the fort. But whilst they slept, the enemy fell on them, and the whole force was in great danger of becoming panic-stricken. Again Clive showed how splendid a soldier he was. Nothing could upset him or disturb his coolness. He soon rallied his men and drove back the enemy, and that same night the fort of Budge Budge was taken. A drunken sailor, pot valiant, scrambled in somehow, found that the enemy had fled, and loudly bawled to his shipmates to come and join him.
On 2nd January, Calcutta surrendered to Clive, and a few days after, he stormed and took the town of Hoogley. Surajah Dowlah with 40,000 men now advanced on Calcutta, and Clive, moving out to meet him, made as though he meant to attack, but, finding the Nawab's troops prepared, he again drew back. A few days later, Clive, having been joined by more seamen from the fleet, marched before daylight, and in a dense fog, before any one was aware of it got right amongst the enemy. For a few moments, about six in the morning, the fog lifted, and showed Surajah Dowlah's cavalry close to him, on his flank. But the cavalry was as much taken by surprise as were Clive's men themselves, and they fled on being fired at.
Again the fog fell, and Clive had no idea in which direction to head; his men were becoming uneasy, and showed signs of panic. Things began to look very serious, for even a slight cause might now have thrown the troops into confusion, and even Clive might not have been able to pull them together again. But he never lost his coolness and presence of mind.
The fog again lifted, and Clive saw that he had got into the very centre of the enemy's camp. Any hesitation now would have been fatal. Two thousand men would have been little more than a mouthful for the 40,000 by whom they were surrounded. Boldness was the only remedy, and Clive marched on as if he had the whole world at his back. The Nawab's army broke and fled.
So great an impression did Clive's boldness make on Surajah Dowlah himself that he sent next morning a flag of truce, and agreed to grant the English everything they asked, and promised to give back all the property he had seized at Calcutta. And a few weeks later, when Clive, (hearing that war had again been declared in Europe between England and France), attacked and took the French settlement at Chandranagore, Surajah Dowlah's fear of the English became so great that he was never afterwards able to shake it off.
Clive had now done in Bengal all that he had been ordered to do. But he very well knew that if he himself were to return to Madras, Surajah Dowlah might get over his fear, and would then probably once more attack and destroy Calcutta, and this time work even greater havoc than he had done on his first visit. Therefore Clive felt that before leaving he must see the English position in Bengal made perfectly secure; and this he knew to be an impossibility so long as Surajah Dowlah ruled over the land.
Now, there were amongst the Nawab's subjects many who hated him, and who were quite ready to betray him into Clive's hands. One of these was Meer Jaffier, Surajah Dowlah's Commander-in-Chief. This man sent a message that if the English would help to make him Nawab, he would join them in turning Surajah Dowlah off the throne of Bengal. The promise was given, and many great, Indian nobles and wealthy native bankers joined Meer Daffier in his conspiracy. But in the arrangements which were then made, things arose which unhappily have left a stain on Clive's name; though he himself always held that if he had not acted as he did, everybody concerned in the conspiracy must have been murdered, and the cause of the English in India ruined.
There was amongst the conspirators a man named Omichund, a very rich merchant of Calcutta. This man was thoroughly false, and now, thinking that by his knowledge of the plot he held Clive and Meer Jaffier and all the others in, as it is called, "the hollow of his hand," that their lives were indeed at his mercy, he came to them and said that unless a bond were given to him whereby he should in the end receive twenty lakhs of rupees (two hundred thousand pounds), he would betray their secret to Surajah Dowlah. There was nothing for it, Clive thought, but to outwit the man with his own weapons, and a paper was accordingly drawn up and signed in which was promised all that Omichund asked.
But Clive caused two documents to be written. In one, Omichund's name appeared; in the other, it did not appear. The first paper only was shown to Omichund, who went away satisfied, believing that now all was well for himself. He held a bond signed by Clive and the others, securing to himself a very large sum of money. He would now, he thought, gain more by keeping faith with Clive than he could get by betraying him. Too late, he learned how he had been duped. One man only, of all those concerned, had not signed the false document. This was Admiral Watson. Without his signature, Omichund would, of course, at once have seen that all was not as he imagined. But the Admiral refused again and again to put his name to what was a false promise. "No," he said, "I will not sign. If my name must appear, I have no objection to one of you putting it there for me, but I will not myself add my name to that document"
Accordingly, Admiral Watson's name was added by a Mr. Lusington. It was not a very moral proceeding, and long afterwards Clive's enemies made a great outcry over it. But we must remember that Clive was not acting in any way for his own benefit; it was of his country, and not of himself, that he had to think. He was, as it were, "in a cleft stick," with, so far as he could see, no other weapon at hand wherewith to counter-balance Omichund's double treachery. For the English, it meant victory or destruction. He decided that the end justified the means. He was wrong, of course, very wrong, but to the day of his death he always said that if he were again placed in alike position, he would again act as he had then done. And it is right to say that years afterwards, when Clive's enemies brought the matter to a head, the House of Commons after long discussion acquitted him of all dishonourable intent.
Surajah Dowlah, believing that he could depend on Meer Jaffier and his other nobles, now made up his mind to attack Clive, and once and for all to sweep the English out of Bengal. He had prepared a strong camp at Plassey, a village about twenty miles from his capital, Moorshedabad, and to this place he gave orders that his great army should march.
Clive at this time was at Chandranagore, where he had hurried every soldier that he could find, as well as 150 sailors whom he had borrowed from the fleet. But his whole army was very small—only 900 Englishmen, 200 men of mixed Portuguese and native blood, 2100 sepoys, and ten small guns. Few in numbers, the men were well disciplined and in good condition, and all the native regiments were officered by Englishmen. If ever you should happen to see the colours of the 1st battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment—the old 39th—you will notice on them the word "Plassey," and the motto "Primus in India." The right to carry these words on their colours, that gallant 39th Regiment won under Clive at the battle of which I am now going to tell you.
With so small a force Clive marched out to meet the Nawab's host, and on 17th June the advanced guard under Major Eyre Coote took from the enemy the fort of Katwa. Here Clive learned news which caused him to think that there was more than a chance that Meer Jaffier did not mean to keep faith with the English.
Without Meer Jaffier's help the risk of defeat was too great. What was to be done? To go on seemed to promise certain destruction; to go back was little better; whilst to remain where he was meant that the natives would see that he was afraid, and would cause the conspirators to lose faith in him, possibly would turn them against him. To advance meant that he must, in the season of heavy rains, cross a deep, wide river in the face of an enemy who outnumbered him by nearly twenty to one. He was far from help; defeat would be certain death to his whole force.
For once in his life Clive hesitated, and whilst he hesitated, word came to him that Meer Jaffier had sworn to destroy the English.
A council of war was held. After discussion, Clive and twelve of his officers voted that the danger of defeat was too great if they should try to advance: they must retreat. On the other hand, seven officers, led by Major Eyre Coote, voted against this, and advised an instant attack on the Nawab's camp. By thirteen to seven the council decided not to fight.
Then Clive was left by himself. He was not happy in his mind, and as he strolled about in the shade of the trees he began to think the whole question over again. Delay, he, knew, was dangerous, and would, moreover, give time for the French to come to the help of the Nawab; the more the delay, the worse the position for the English.
In an hour Clive had made up his mind; he would fight. Going back to his quarters, he met Major Eyre Coote:
"I have changed my mind, Coote. We will advance," he said. And joyfully Eyre Coote went to make ready to cross the river.
The little army started at sunset, and after a terrible march in pouring rain, often through water waist-deep, reached Plassey at one in the morning, utterly worn out, Here they camped in a grove of mango-trees near the river, and not more than a mile from Surajah Dowlah's army. The grove was about eight hundred yards long, by three hundred broad, and round it was a ditch and a bank of earth. It was a good position to defend. Close at hand stood a little hunting-box belonging to Surajah Dowlah, and which was surrounded by a strong wall. This house Clive at once occupied.
Surajah Dowlah had in his army 35,000 infantry, who were neither well armed nor well disciplined. But he also had no less than 15,000 good cavalry, and fifty-three guns, all of which were bigger than anything that the English could put in the field. Besides all this, the army held a very strong position, and they were helped still further by the fact that many of their guns were worked by French soldiers. The Nawab ought to have eaten Clive up.
The following morning the native army moved out of their camp and took up position, the Frenchmen with their guns being posted only 800 yards from the English. In those days, you must know, there were no such things as rifles, and it was little good, with the clumsy smooth-bore musket then in use, to fire at your enemy until you were near enough to see the whites of his eyes. Hence, artillery could then safely take up a position within half a mile of a body of infantry, which nowadays, with the modern long-distance rifle, would wipe out every gunner within five minutes. The big guns themselves in those days, carried no great distance, and they only fired round iron balls. Shells were unknown, and so infantry lying behind a mud wall were comparatively safe from danger. There was then no tempest of shrapnel-shell to burst over their heads and come scourging down into the trenches. There was no smokeless powder; a battle in those days was fought in clouds of smoke so thick that sometimes the troops went on loading and firing without, for a long time, seeing anything to fire at.
Far to Clive's right the native army stretched, almost surrounding the English position. That part nearest to the English right was commanded by Meer Jaffier. Would he keep his promise to Clive, or was he going to keep the oath he had sworn, to "destroy the English"? It was an anxious time.
The battle began at eight in the morning, and soon the Nawab's fifty-three guns were thundering, Clive's few little pop-guns making as good a reply as lay in their power. The aim of the English gunners was better than that of the enemy, but they had fewer guns, and the few they had were not heavy enough. Clive's men began to fall fast, and soon, leaving only a guard to hold the hunting-box, he withdrew them behind the shelter of the mud wall.
The enemy, thinking that this meant the beginning of the end, with yells of excitement and triumph brought their guns even closer to the mango grove and kept up a tremendous fire, to the great damage of the trees, but not of the English troops. In their excitement the Nawab's men fired too high, whilst Clive's soldiers were now making very good shooting and were causing heavy loss to the enemy. Still, at the best, the English were only holding their own, and Meer Jaffier's troops yet gave no sign of helping.
Clive himself all this time stood on the roof of the Nawab's hunting-box, whence he had a good view of the native army. As he saw column after column, regiment after regiment, gun after gun, move out and take up positions which so nearly surrounded his little force, he must have had many an anxious moment, must have doubted if this time he had not risked too much. But if he had doubts, he never showed them; then, as ever, he was perfectly cool and fearless. When such a man leads troops, when their general plays the game of war without hesitation and without hurry, men are hard to beat even when what appear to be hopeless odds are against them, and everything seems to be in the enemy's favour.
Hour after hour the thunder of the guns and the rattle of musketry went on, and neither side made much impression on the other, though men fell fast in both armies. At eleven o'clock Clive made up his mind that all he could do was to hold his present position till dark, and then, after midnight, to attack the Nawab's camp. But about mid-day there came on a tremendous rain-storm, such rain as is never seen in England, rain that comes lashing down in sheets that hide from view even trees a few yards away. The English quickly spread tarpaulins over their powder, and thus kept it from damage. But the Nawab's army had no tarpaulins ready, and their powder suffered so much that they could only with difficulty go on firing.
Thinking that the English must be in the same plight, and that they too would be unable to fire, one of the Nawab's generals advanced with a large body of cavalry to try to take the mango grove. But the English guns at once poured in so heavy a fire of grape—which means that the cannons were loaded with clusters of small balls, instead of with the big round ones generally used—that the cavalry were sent flying back in confusion, leaving the plain strewn with dead and wounded men and horses. Amongst the dead was the general, the best man in the Nawab's army, the only one, had he known it, on whose faith he could depend. When Surajah Dowlah heard of the death of his general, his nerve quite left him. He did not entirely trust Meer Jaffier, but he sent for him, and implored him to be true. Taking off his turban, he flung it on the ground, saying: "Meer Jaffier, thou must defend that turban!' And Meer Jaffier swore that he would help his master to the end. But the treacherous dog never meant to keep faith; he at once sent word to Clive, though Clive did not receive the message till after the battle was over.
Then to the wretched Nawab came another traitor, the Rajah Dulab Ram. This man now persuaded his master to give orders to his troops to retire behind their entrenchments, and advised him to leave the field while there was yet time; the English, he said, were advancing, and the day was lost. Let his Highness the Nawab quit the field and save himself; his generals would hold the English in check and prevent their further advance.
The unhappy young Nawab, in an evil hour for himself, took this advice, and getting on a swift camel, fled to Moorshedabad, taking with him as a guard 2000 of his best cavalry, and the remainder of his army began to retire.
Clive, of course, could not know what was happening in the enemy's camp; he could not even know that the Nawab's best general was amongst the slain, and he had not got Meer Jaffier's message. He had made up his mind to hold on to the grove till night came, and then to hurl his men against the Nawab's camp. Worn out with hard work, he lay down to sleep in the hunting-box, leaving orders that he should be called if the native army showed signs of movement.
Soon Major Kilpatrick noticed that the enemy were limbering up their guns and were preparing to retire; he saw, too, that the French gunners and their guns were being left unsupported in a very dangerous position, a position from which, if the English could take it, the enemy might be fired into on their flank as they retired. Kilpatrick sent a message to Clive, and at once, with 250 Europeans and two guns, moved out from the grove to attack the French. Clive, when this message reached the hunting-box was sound asleep, and he was furious that any officer should make such a movement without asking for orders. At once he ran over to the detachment and spoke angrily to Major Kilpatrick. But at a glance he saw the extreme importance of the movement that Kilpatrick had been making, and sending that officer back for reinforcements, he himself led on the troops already on the spot. The commanding officer of the French, now seeing himself entirely deserted by the Nawab's men, poured into Clive's force one heavy discharge before retreating, and the important post he had held was seized by Clive. From this spot he advanced still further until he could fire into the Nawab's camp. This completed the confusion of the enemy.
But though confused and without a leader, the Nawab's soldiers were by no means yet beaten. They rushed out of the camp and made attack after attack on Clive, who now from two points poured in a heavy artillery fire, and from a third raked them with musketry. Charge upon charge of the Nawab's cavalry was repulsed. It was in vain that the French guns roared, and that the brave gunners worked like demons to crush the English, in vain that the native soldiers fell like corn before the scythe. It was a case of brute force against science, and science won.
Clive had noticed a large body of troops far to his right, which seemed to threaten his baggage, and he had sent a large part of his own force to hold them in check. Suddenly, as he found that no further movement was made by these troops, no attempt made by them on his baggage or his rear, he realised that they were Meer Jaffier's men. The fear of being attacked in rear thus being ended, Clive at once hurled two bodies of his troops against the new position that the French had taken up, and against a post held by the native army. The latter soon ran, and the French, finding themselves again without support, were forced to retreat, leaving their guns on the field.
The battle of Plassey was over. It only remained to damage the flying enemy as much as possible.
Clive had himself lost very few men, though he had inflicted heavy loss on the enemy. But though comparatively so few of the English were killed, this battle of Plassey, fought in June 1757, was one of the most important that ever took place in India. It really gave India to England. Long afterwards it was said by the natives that "the English Raj (or rule) would last for one hundred years after Plassey. It would end in 1857." And you know how in 1857 our rule for a time was shaken by the great Mutiny. Plassey gave to England a secure footing in Bengal, with a secure base resting on the sea (so long as she possesses a strong navy), and from that starting-point she has gradually absorbed all India. The effects of that battle have spread beyond India on all sides, as you will be able to understand later, when you are older. Then you will remember that it was Clive who won this victory of Plassey, the effects of which are felt even to this day, and which perhaps may one day affect even some of yourselves.
It was not a great "battle"; yet it was a very great "victory." It was not a great battle as far as the number of troops engaged is concerned, nor as regards the number of killed and wounded, but it was a great victory, because of its far-spreading results. And its immediate effects were very great to all concerned.