How Clive With A Handful Of Men Met And Defeated Surajah Dowlah And His Hosts
As a youngster Bobby Clive was the fool of the family which, in later years, was proud to call him one of them. They could do nothing with him in England, so shipped him off to India, and to fame. He went as a writer in the East India Company. He arrived in India minus money and introductions to anyone who could serve him, for the letters he did carry were useless because the man they were addressed to had returned to England. Early days in India were anything but pleasant for him; he quarreled with an officer, got homesick, and contemplated suicide.
Then the Franco-English war which had been raging for some time in Europe spread to India, and at twenty-two Clive was an ensign in the Company's army. He went up by leaps and bounds, distinguishing himself at numerous places—Pondicherry, Devecotta, Trichinopoly, and then at Arcot, which he took and held against an overwhelming body of French and Indians, sallying forth occasionally to give them a thrashing. So did this youngster behave, and when, after a dazzling career, he returned to England in 1753, he was hailed with enthusiasm, promoted to general in the Company's army, and stood for Parliament. Then India called him again, and he went across the seas carrying in his pocket a lieutenant-colonel's commission in the regular army, and a warrant making him commander of Fort St. David.
He at once got to work, captured the fortress of Geriah—a stronghold of pirates—then, in revenge for the Black Hole of Calcutta, took Hugli and Fort William, and later tackled the Nabob Surajah Dowlah near Calcutta, but was obliged to retire—with honour.
He had subdued the Nabob, or at least it appeared so, for that swarthy gentleman concluded a treaty with the English at the expense of the French. But the Nabob was a traitor, and at once opened negotiations with the French in the Deccan, advising and indeed entreating them to fall upon the English in Bengal. Clive took his revenge in his own way, with the result that after the Nabob had received a severe drubbing he threw caution to the winds and openly allied himself with the French.
But the Nabob had a traitor in his camp—Meer Jaffier, who aspired to his master's throne. Jaffier promised Clive help, a pledge which Clive accepted, promising to give his help in return.
At the same time Clive opened up negotiations with the Nabob, professing friendliness in order to put him off his guard. It may not have been "cricket," but it certainly was war.
The Nabob had collected a large army at Plassey, but Clive, by counterfeiting friendliness, played upon him to such an extent that he dismissed it, not without some suspicions, however.
"If this colonel should be deceiving me!" he said.
The Colonel was deceiving him, as he soon found out, and, enraged, vowing vengeance, while filled with fear of the Englishman whose way through India was marked with triumph, he recalled his army and prepared to meet Clive.
Clive was nothing loth. The only thing that worried him was the fact that Meer Jaffier had renewed his oath of allegiance to the Nabob, and he could not tell what that might mean. Still, with about eight hundred Europeans, two thousand sepoys, and a small force of artillery consisting of eight six-pounders and a howitzer, he moved off to Plassey, incidentally reducing a fort and a town that barred his progress.
Absence of news from Meer Jaffier still worried him, for information constantly reached him that that gentleman was firm in his loyalty to the Nabob. "I feel," he wrote, "the greatest anxiety at the little intelligence I receive from Meer Daffier; and, if he is not treacherous, his sangfroid, or want of strength, will, I fear, overset the expedition. I am trying a last effort, by means of a Brahmin, to prevail upon him to march out and join us. I have appointed Plassey as the place of rendezvous, and I have told him at the same time that unless he give this or some other sufficient proof of the sincerity of his intentions, I will not cross the river. . . I shall act with such caution as not to risk the loss of our forces; and whilst we have them, we may always have it in our power to bring about a revolution, should the present not succeed."
From which it will be seen that Clive the Conqueror realised that he had a hard nut to crack.
Next day Meer Jaffier sent word to Clive that he would join forces with him with about three thousand cavalry, but even then Clive doubted. He therefore called a council of war to discuss the situation. Should they go ahead without waiting for Meer Jaffier? The majority of the officers, including Clive himself, said no, though the minority argued that to strike at once was the best policy, lest the Nabob should receive help from M. Bussy, the French commander.
Here a pass—the majority was for waiting, while to wait was evidently almost as dangerous as to go on. Clive left the council, sought solitude in a neighbouring grove, fought the question out, and then changed his mind. He would fight—and fight at once. He did care a jot for the majority—he was the chief.
So back he went to his army, issued orders for the advance to be resumed on the morrow, and on June 22, 1757, the British force crossed the Hugli and set out on their march to Plassey, towing their store-laden boats against the current as they marched along the river bank.
By one o'clock in the morning Clive was encamped in the grove of Plassey, about a mile from the Nabob's army.
That night the army lay under arms, within sound of the gongs, cymbals, and drums of the Nabob's camp. Clive had chosen his position well, for the grove, eight hundred yards by three hundred yards, consisted of mango trees, and was surrounded on three sides by the river, being guarded by a trench on the other. It was therefore particularly suitable to withstand an attack. It was a hunting ground of the Nabob's, who had a hunting-lodge on the bank of the stream. It "afforded, with its walled garden and enclosures, an excellent point of defence for one of Clive's flanks, as well as a convenient station for his hospital. In the meantime the enemy occupied an entrenched camp about a mile or a mile and a half in his front, which, commencing at the neck of the peninsula formed by the curvature of the stream, ran directly inland for two hundred yards, after which it formed an obtuse angle and bore away nearly three miles to the north-east."
The Nabob had erected a redoubt in this angle, on which he had mounted his cannon, and although there were some well-wooded eminences near by he did not take advantage of these, but when the morning came brought his whole army down into the open, and Clive, standing on the roof of his watch-tower, saw that the Nabob was bent on attacking at once. Thirty-five thousand infantry and fifteen thousand cavalry were coming down upon the little European force, bringing with them over forty cannon, each one drawn by a team of bullocks, and an elephant, and some of them worked by Frenchmen.
Against all these Clive had about three thousand men and nine guns.
"He drew his whole force in one line, with the three slender European regiments in the centre, and just beyond the skirts of the grove. He did this under the impression that if he kept his men in cover, the Nabob, mistaking prudence for fear, would acquire additional confidence; besides this, he felt that a corps so pliable might at any moment be thrown back long ere the unwieldy masses of the enemy could interfere with his alignment. He posted three cannon on each flank, and the remaining two, with the howitzer under cover of a couple of brick-kilns, so as to protect his left." His orders were for his men to "keep steady, and neither advance nor retire without orders."
The enemy began the battle, determined to take things at the rush. Their artillery opened fire, but, being on platforms and not depressed sufficiently, the shots flew over the heads of the English force, which, according to orders, lay on the ground. About an hour after the engagement began Clive's men advanced into the grove; the enemy imagined that they were put to flight, and came on with terrible yells and a more terrible fire. The yells did not frighten, nor the fire much damage the Europeans, who were safe behind the shelter of the mango trees. On the other hand, the enemy suffered severely from the steady fire poured into their dense masses, though they still kept up their own heavy fire.
Clive went to sleep. There was not much doing; after all, they were only having to keep their ground—the natives could not get into the grove. At last the firing slackened, for a storm broke out and spoilt a great part of the Nabob's ammunition.
Then something upset the Nabob. Meer Murdeen, one of his greatest chiefs, had been killed, and the Nabob lost heart altogether. He could not get into the grove; he could not lure the enemy out, and, besides, he doubted Meer Jaffier.
Meer Jaffier was sent for. Throwing his turban at that courtier's feet, the Nabob cried:
"That turban must be defended!"
Meer Jaffier promised it should be done, bowed, and went out—to send a message to Clive that he should attack at night, when he would be able to drive the enemy off.
Clive, however, did not receive the letter until after the battle was won; and meanwhile another traitor obtained audience with the Nabob, and advised him to retire. He played on the Nabob's fears so successfully that he issued orders for a general retreat, and at two o'clock the big guns went to the rear, and the army began to retreat.
Clive was still asleep, and Major Kilpatrick determined to attack. The Frenchmen working some of the guns, however, stuck to their post at a water-tank and worked their guns bravely and well, and before the English could effectively fire upon the retreating army it was necessary to dislodge the battery. First he awakened Clive to acquaint him with what he intended to do, and received a reprimand for daring to dream of doing such a thing on his own responsibility! The Colonel, however, "warmly praised the idea of the proposed movement, and, sending Kilpatrick to the rear to bring up the rest of the troops, he took command of the storming party, and captured the tank without the loss of a single life."
The whole English force then advanced. Coming towards them was a large column of the enemy, really a corps which Meer Jaffier was sending along at last. There were, however, no signals to this effect, and the English opened fire upon them and scattered them, one corps only remaining steadfast and flying Jaffier's standards—"so the fact of his adherence to the original secret agreement became proved to Clive and his officers," for the traitors did not fire.
Away went the little army after the Nabob's force, took the camp at the point of the bayonet, and in little more than an hour had put the seal upon the victory. The Nabob was defeated, and, mounted on a camel, was fleeing for his life—first in the ranks of the vanquished. Behind came the victorious Europeans who, led by their gallant Clive, had that day achieved a great thing for England. Meer Jaffier was next day hailed as Nabob of Bengal, and English supremacy in Bengal was assured.