Most historians credit the Battle of Plassey, fought on June 23, 1757, as the decisive event that brought about ultimate British rule over India. But was it really? A case can be made that the true turning point for control of the subcontinent was the victory of British forces under Eyre Coote over a French force led by Comte Thomas Arthur de Lally at Wandiwash on January 22, 1760.
Robert Clive, the victor at Plassey, amazingly had only 900 European troops and 2,100 native sepoys with him to engage about 50,000 natives, including 15,000 horsemen. He managed to rout this horde, but bribery and treachery played a role in the outcome. At Wandiwash, on the other hand, it was a stand-up fight between two tiny European armies, each led by a brave and capable general–a pair of Irishmen at that.
Thomas Arthur de Lally was born in 1702 at Romans in Dauphiné, France, the son of Sir Gerald Lally and Marie Anne de Bressac. His mother’s family was part of the provincial Irish aristocracy, while the Lallys (or O’Mullallys) had been a prominent family in County Galway, descended from the old Gaelic chieftains. After the surrender of the Jacobite army (supporters of the abdicated James II) at Limerick in 1691, Sir Gerald had been among the native Catholic leaders who had chosen to follow Patrick Sarsfield and other ‘Wild Geese’ into exile, thereby forfeiting any chance of keeping their estates. He took up a military career in the famed Irish Brigade, and when his son Thomas was only 7, Sir Gerald obtained a commission for the youngster as an ensign in Dillon’s Regiment. Five years later the boy was doing guard duty in the siege trenches at Barcelona. After a college education, young Lally advanced steadily in the army, repeatedly winning recognition for his military skill and courage. He is reported to have saved his father’s life at the siege of Phillipsburg (War of the Polish Succession) in 1734. He was entrusted another time with a secret mission to England to assess Jacobite strength there. He once traveled to Russia as well, to promote a Russo-Jacobite alliance against England, but the plan fell through and he was lucky to escape a trip to Siberia. By 1744 he commanded a new regiment, bearing his own name, in the Irish Brigade. The wealth and social prestige of his mother’s family no doubt helped in this matter.
He led his Régiment de Lally at Fontenoy (War of the Austrian Succession), where some credit him with saving the battle for Marshal Comte Maurice de Saxe by rushing up a battery to a critical sector just in time to block the Anglo-Hanoverian advance. When French King Louis XV visited the Irish Brigade after the battle to thank the men and promise rewards, Lally, still stunned by the Irish losses, replied: ‘Your Majesty’s blessings are like those of the Bible. They fall on the blind and crippled.’ It is said the king made no reply but rode on.
Lally’s future opponent, Eyre Coote, was born in 1726, the fifth son of a clergyman in Kilmallock, County Limerick. The family apparently originated in France, and the first Coote had come to Ireland in 1600. Over the next century the Cootes held high positions in Ireland in both the army and the civil government. Eyre Coote obtained a commission as ensign in Blakeney’s Regiment in 1745–just in time to be sent against the Highlander forces of Prince Charles Stuart that were taking control of Scotland. Blakeney’s unit took part in the Battle of Falkirk on January 17, 1746, in which an English army was routed by claymore-swinging clansmen. All the officers in the regiment were court-martialed. But young Eyre was later pardoned when it was learned that although he was the first member of Blakeney’s Regiment to reach Edinburgh, he had saved the regimental flag.
In April 1749, he became a lieutenant in the 37th Foot. Six years later, he was sent to India as commander of a company of reinforcements for the 39th Regiment at Fort Saint David. His record must have been exceptional because in May 1757 he was promoted to major, just in time to serve under Robert Clive at Plassey. There, it is said, he was the only officer under Clive to urge an attack. When he returned to England later that year, he had won a reputation as an outstanding officer. Clive’s secretary described him thus: ‘A bodily frame of unusual vigor and activity, always awake. Daring, valour and cool reflection strove for the mastery. A master at once of human nature and the science of war, his rigid discipline was tempered with an unaffected kindness and consideration for the want and prejudices of those whom he commanded which won him the affections of his European soldiers and made him the idol of the native troops.’
In March 1759, Coote was promoted to colonel and sent to Bengal to command the 84th Regiment. The Seven Years’ War had broken out, and when Clive sailed back to England, Coote, at the insistence of East India Company officials in London, was put in command of British forces in India. He was only 33 years old.
With the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, fellow Irishman Lally was called to Paris, promoted to lieutenant general and placed in command of French forces in India. Some years before, he had prepared for the War Office a plan for driving the British out of India, and this apparently had so impressed government officials that they now chose him to carry it out. The trouble was that he was also assigned to the task of cleaning out the graft and corruption that were rampant among the officials of the French Compagnie des Indies Orientales. His private wealth and honest reputation seemed to make him the ideal candidate for that formidable job.
The French war minister, le Compte d’Argenson, a shrewd judge of character, warned that the Irishman was impetuous, blunt and blessed–or cursed–with the gift of savage sarcasm. To deal with crooks well-versed in intrigue and linked together in graft required patience and diplomacy, plus the skill to play one set of rascals off against another. Lally would need their support in his military campaigns, and that was not likely to come if he launched a frontal attack on them and their policies.
Despite d’Argenson’s warning, Lally was awarded the Order of St. Louis in February 1757 and was promised that in addition to his own two battalions of 1,080 men he would have the regiments of Lorraine and Berry, plus artillery and engineer detachments.
India, the destination of both Lally and Coote, was a country in political chaos, with assorted rajahs and nabobs fighting and plotting against each other. The French and English traders arriving in the 1600s had gained power and influence by taking sides in local wars in exchange for trade concessions and territory. By the 1740s, the French Compagnie des Indies Orientales and the British East India Company each ruled several towns along the coast of eastern India and had their own small armies made up of European troops and native soldiers called sepoys. Their discipline and superior weapons were more than a match for the untrained hordes of the Indian rulers.
When the War of the Austrian Succession erupted in Europe, both France and England sent units of their armies to assist the company troops in India. During the fighting that followed, the French gained the advantage, but the peace terms returned to England most of the territory it had lost, including a large base at Madras. At that time, the strength of both European powers was still so weak that a powerful rajah could impose neutrality in his area upon both French and British.
Although there was peace in Europe, an undeclared war raged on in Bengal and along the subcontinent’s Coromandel Coast, where local chiefs acted as proxies for their European allies. In this political snakepit, palace revolutions and assassinations won temporary alliance, but treachery was endemic, and the loyalty of native rajahs was ensured only by gold or the presence of European garrisons. With so vast a territory to loot and with government supervision half a world away, the temptation to extort tribute from the native rulers and make fortunes from illegal acts was simply too great for most officers of the trading companies. From the top down to the lowliest clerks, graft was a way of life. If one did not die from the climate or disease, one had a good chance of returning home with a fortune. More often than not, the national policy of London or Versailles was ignored as company officials lined their own pockets. Such was the environment in which Lally was to fight a small war.
His troubles began even before he and his men left France. Some of his men had been diverted to Canada, and his war chest was slashed from 6 million livres to 4 million. His greatest cross, however, became the man picked to command the expeditionary fleet, Comte d’Aché. While personally brave, d’Aché was one of the most inept naval commanders ever to serve in the French navy. On the day of departure, February 2, 1757, one ship was damaged leaving port, and the admiral returned the whole fleet to harbor, where it then became trapped by contrary winds until May 2. Once at sea, the ships maintained a leisurely pace more suited to a pleasure cruise than a military convoy. Precious weeks then were wasted in Rio de Janiero selling off the cargo of a captured prize ship. In his memoirs, Lally said that d’Aché would pull in sail at the slightest threat of a storm, or change course if a single sail had been sighted. It was April 28, 1758, before the fleet finally reached the French base at Pondicherry.
Once ashore, the new governor of French India found that sloth and incompetency had squandered time and resources. The Chevalier de Soupire had landed eight months before with the Lorraine Regiment. Although his regiment heavily outnumbered the British forces then available in India, he had confined his operations to taking a few small posts, while refusing to move against Clive, who was busy driving the French out of Bengal. To make matters worse, a British naval squadron had left England three months after d’Aché’s departure from France and had reached Madras six weeks before Lally’s corps finally arrived off Pondicherry. Had the French admiral sailed his convoy at normal speed, he could have overwhelmed the small English fleet on station under Admiral George Pocock before it was reinforced by the fresh English squadron.
Released at last from his shipboard confines, the Irish general reacted to almost a year of delay and frustration by waging a whirlwind campaign that took several English outposts, including Fort Saint David, an important base a short distance south of Pondicherry. Lack of money and supplies then slowed down his campaign, while an expedition intended to extort funds from the rajah of Tanjore came up a failure. It was here, too, that Lally learned a lesson in Oriental treachery. A group of 250 Tanjore cavalry came to his camp as deserters. Once inside the picket lines, they charged for the general’s tent, and Lally found himself using his walking stick, or shillelagh, to ward off a scimitar-wielding Indian. His attacker was shot by a guard–although Lally was run down by the enemy horsemen, he was saved from injury, and his troops wiped out the rest of the raiders.
By now the civilian officials at Pondicherry were in open opposition to their new governor because of his public condemnations of their misconduct. A man with more tact would not have lashed out at them in public with savage anger and biting sarcasm. Then, too, while Lally’s charges were mostly true, he did nothing to punish or remove the culprits from office, thus leaving his enemies in positions where they could sabotage his military plan and plot against him. The civilian veterans of duty in India had a legitimate complaint, moreover, in Lally’s disregard of the Indian caste system, shown when he forced natives of all castes to work as sappers and transport coolies. This ruthless, if efficient, policy aroused the natives and made it more difficult to recruit native labor.
The Irish general made another mistake in recalling General le Marquis de Bussy Castelnau from the Deccan in the north, where the Frenchman had been making a good showing against the British after Clive left for England. Bussy came reluctantly, and Lally was later to accuse him of intrigue. The small force that Bussy left behind in the Deccan under a less capable commander was defeated by British forces operating out of Calcutta.
In December, Lally moved north to besiege the English base at Madras and almost took the place, despite the absence of d’Aché’s squadron. A couple of costly but indecisive sea fights with English ships had sent the French admiral scurrying south to the French island of Mauritius for repairs. Just as Lally’s troops were about to overrun the Madras garrison, a British naval force arrived with reinforcements. There was now no choice but to lift the siege. Hampered by shortages of money and supplies, Lally could do little during the rest of 1759. At one time his soldiers mutinied over back pay.
One local success did come in September, when an English night attack upon Wandiwash was thrown back. The town, 60 miles southwest of Madras, was an inland post about equidistant from Madras and Pondicherry.
On November 27, Coote appeared before the walls of Wandiwash with a small siege army. Since the French had only 68 Europeans and 100 sepoys to defend the town, they raised the white flag. The English general next moved against the important town of Arcot. On hearing of those events, Lally began to assemble a relief force, and he and Bussy began to argue over campaign strategy. Meanwhile, a local Maratha chief, Yunus Khan, had been lured into the French service with the promise of rich booty from the English and their Indian allies. Yunus Khan brought with him 2,060 cavalry and a horde of loot-hungry foot followers.
Lally scored an initial success by plundering the British supply depot at Conjeeveram. That was followed up by storming Wandiwash, with Lally himself one of the first over the wall. Inside the fort, 30 stout Britons and 800 sepoys under a Captain Sherlock still held out. A night attack failed to dislodge them, due to the cowardice of a marine detachment left behind by Admiral d’Aché in response to Lally’s appeal for help from the navy. On first seeing them, Lally declared, ‘They are the scum of the fleet.’ Apparently the admiral had taken the opportunity of unloading on the army all his troublemakers and goldbricks. They numbered about 500.
Bussy wanted to abandon the siege and concentrate the full French force against Coote’s approaching army, but Lally insisted on leaving 150 Europeans and 300 sepoys to man the earthworks containing Sherlock’s garrison. That left him with two French regiments, the de Lally and the 69th Lorraine, each numbering about 400 men, plus the Battalion of India, a company unit with a strength of 700 muskets. He also had the naval contingent, plus 200 European cavalry. His sepoy force came to about 1,800, of which a third were horsemen. The French artillery train had 10 light guns. Along with those regular troops came Yunus Khan’s Maratha irregulars.
On the other side, Coote had his two regiments, the 84th and William Draper’s, plus two battalions of East India Company troops–native soldiers, a third of whom were mounted–backed up by 80 white cavalrymen under a Swiss commander named de Vasserot. He also had seven small field guns and one howitzer. Thus both small armies were rather evenly matched, although the French were handicapped by discord and poor morale.
On January 21, 1760, the British army again came within sight of the walls of Wandiwash. That night its commander ordered his men to place green branches in their hats and turbans to serve as identification marks during the turmoil of combat.
Sunup the next day found the opposing forces lined up for battle. Coote had arranged his troops in three lines facing south, with his own 84th Regiment holding the left front, the two company battalions occupying the center and Draper’s men manning the right front. Guns were sited between the units and on the flanks. The extreme flanks were covered by sepoy companies. In the second line, 300 grenadiers held the center, supported by some guns and two 200-man sepoy companies on each flank. Coote’s third line consisted of 1,250 native horse, stiffened by de Vasserot’s 80 European cavalrymen.
Lally had drawn up his force in a single line, one regiment on the left with its flank resting on a walled ‘tank,’ or paddy, off to the side. The Battalion of India held the center, and the 69th Lorraine occupied the right. Cannons were sited between the formations, and the native foot were stationed behind them. The paddy on Lally’s left was manned by 200 of the sailors d’Aché had dumped ashore. Farther to their rear was another tank occupied by a body of sepoys raised by Bussy. The French horse and a couple of hundred native cavalry hovered on the right flank, while another 400 sepoy horsemen were posted to the left rear. The fort of Wandiwash was a mile or so to the left of the French battle line; the French camp was a mile to the rear. This was the approximate situation at midday when, after some hours of maneuvering and cannonading, the main action started.
Lally thought he saw some unsteadiness on the enemy left and figured that his artillery had softened up this sector. He therefore ordered his cavalry to charge around Coote’s left flank and take it from the rear. But the horsemen refused to move. Relieving the commander on the spot, Lally ordered the second captain to advance, but he, too, balked. The general now spoke directly to the men, and one officer stepped forward to assume command.
At first the attack went well–the enemy cavalry fled and the native infantry, which could have hit the charging force in the flank, offered little resistance. But then Coote’s artillerymen, on hand with two guns, emptied a dozen saddles and brought the hussars to an abrupt halt. When de Vasserot’s cavalry, a forlorn squadron of only 80 Europeans, boldly galloped toward the wavering French hussars, the latter broke and fled back to camp, pursued by the native horsemen.
It was now past 1 o’clock, and the British line was slowly advancing toward the French position. Sensing the growing impatience–or nervousness–of his troops, Lally formed his 69th Lorraine into a column of twelves and sent it forward to drive back Coote’s regiment, the 84th Infantry. That unit opened up with platoon fire at 60 yards with deadly effect. Even so, the weight of numbers carried the Lorrainers through the two ranks of the 84th. Now, however, the white-coated column was lashed on both its flanks by murderous volleys from the unbroken platoons. Savage hand-to-hand fighting erupted with bayonet and musket butt. Suddenly the Lorrainers had had enough, and the regiment dissolved into a mob of running and limping men.
At this moment a chance shot from an English gun hit an ammunition cart near the paddy that held the naval contingent. It exploded, killing and wounding more than 80 defenders, including the local commander, a Knight of Malta named the Chevalier de Poète. Such a calamity would unnerve the best of regular troops, and it was all that was needed to send d’Aché’s sorry lot racing for the rear, followed by several hundred panicky sepoys.
Quickly taking advantage of this fortuitous accident, Coote sent Draper’s regiment to seize the now abandoned paddy. Bussy came on the scene and managed to rally two platoons of soldiers, plus a few fugitives from the naval unit, some 50 or 60 men in all. He then rushed to the rescue of Lally’s men, who had been thrown into confusion by the collapse of the French left flank. Draper’s men reached the paddy and overran the position before Bussy could throw in more men to hold it. It appears that the Régiment de Lally now wheeled to its left and faced the second line of Draper’s, while a few platoons were pulled out to retake the paddy from the British. From behind the embankments of the paddy, the redcoats poured a heavy fire upon the guns that had been supporting the French troops and naval corps. The gunners were driven off, and the soldiers assigned to counterattack were abandoned. They lost all enthusiasm for moving ahead and contented themselves with exchanging shots with the British while crouched behind the paddy dikes.
Meanwhile, Draper’s Regiment had brought up two cannons and began to punish Lally’s regiment with unopposed fire. The ranks of the Irish began to waver, and here and there men ran off. Before he lost all control, Bussy decided upon an all-or-nothing counterattack. His horse was shot from under him, and as he led the charge on foot, three or four balls tore through his clothes. In the face of furious musketry, only 20 of Lally’s men followed him–the rest held back, and the brave Frenchman was soon surrounded and taken prisoner.
While that was taking place, Lally was trying to push forward those sepoys who had been aligned in the rear of the European battalions. Most of the native troops had been enlisted by Bussy, and when they refused to budge, Lally assumed treachery on the part of his second-in-command. As for the company battalions that both sides had posted to the center, they did nothing but keep up an indifferent fire upon each other from a safe distance. It was evident that while such mercenaries were good against native hordes, they had great reluctance to close with European regulars. Now, with both French flanks collapsing and the enemy center staying in place, the British center turned bold and advanced. Off on a nearby hill, the Marathas had up to now played the role of onlookers, waiting to see which side would win. When it became clear that their French allies were losing, they left for home, their hopes of loot abandoned. Yunus Khan had exemplified the Hindu proverb ‘In talk a lion, in fighting a lizard.’
In despair Lally did all he could to save his army. His European horsemen, who had behaved so shamefully before, now charged into Coote’s sepoy cavalry, driving them back, along with the British horse, thus saving the men of the Lorraine Regiment from being cut down. Once back in camp, some resolute soldiers of the regiments manhandled a couple of guns they found there and set them up facing the oncoming enemy. Lally took personal command of the Battalion of India, to which now rallied the retreating troops of his own regiment. Safe from harassing cavalry, these two units re-formed and made an orderly fallback to the camp. Here, the stores and heavier baggage were burned, while the lighter baggage and the wounded were carried away.
Moving westward, toward Wandiwash, the defeated army collected the small siege force there and marched off. Although Coote repeatedly ordered his cavalry to hit the departing column, the fire of a few small artillery pieces and some fine screening by Lally’s horse kept the British at a respectful distance. The Irish general had saved his force from destruction, but it had been badly hurt and would never again take the offensive. He had lost between 600 and 800 men killed, wounded or captured, including his second-in-command. The English claimed they buried 200 on the battlefield and took 200 wounded and 40 unwounded prisoners. More wounded were left behind on the retreat to Pondicherry. Coote’s losses were 53 from the 84th Regiment, 59 from the East India Company Regiment, and 80 from the elements of Draper’s regiment (the 79th Foot, actually) that had been in contact with Lally’s Regiment.
The war in India would drag on for another year, with Lally holding out in the enclave of Pondicherry in the hope of seeing reinforcements from France or hearing news of a peace settlement. Neither came, and faced with the exhaustion of supplies and the opposition of company officials and the civilian population to further resistance, Lally surrendered what was left of his army on January 15, 1761. A small force of French and Irish still held out in the interior, but within a few months they, too, were forced to give up. The way now was open for India Brittanica.
While his troops were sent to Bombay for later return to France, the captive Lally was sent to Madras, from which a ship took him to England, where he was treated with respect. Upon learning that in Paris he was being charged with treason against the French crown, he obtained permission from the British government under Prime Minister William Pitt to return and defend himself. He was promised a fair hearing but ordered to make no comments. More than a year passed while his enemies at court plotted against him. They were allied with those company officers who needed a scapegoat for the loss of French India. In May of 1766 a weak King Louis XV gave in to corrupt lobbyists and condemned Lally to death. He was beheaded like a common criminal.
Years later, under the new King Louis XVI, Lally’s son Trophime Gerad Lally-Tollendal, assisted by the writer-philosopher Voltaire, got the case reopened. Eager to show a spirit of reform, the king reversed the verdict and in effect exonerated Lally.
Coote apparently assisted, for he wrote to Lally’s son: ‘Nobody had a higher idea than I of General Lally, who to my knowledge has struggled against obstacles which I believed unconquerable and has conquered them; nobody at the same time, is more his enemy than I, seeing him achieve those triumphs at the prejudice of my nation. There is certainly not a second man in all India who could have managed to keep on foot, for so long a period, an army without pay, and without any kind of assistance.’
Eyre Coote was to serve in India for many years with great success against those native rulers opposing the steady expansion of English rule. Coote, who was knighted in 1771 and became a lieutenant general, died in Madras on April 27, 1783, while preparing to return home to England.
Years would pass before England did gain control over India, but on that day at Wandiwash when two tiny European armies fought it out, the fate of India really was decided. A young British officer inside the besieged fort at Wandiwash wrote that at 7 in the morning he and his companion heard cannon fire. He added with great prescience: ‘Then followed the battle that gave us India.’
This article was written by Thomas J. Mullen, Jr. and originally appeared in the February 1994 issue of Military History magazine.
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