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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

The victories that made an empire

Update : 16 Jun 2016, 04:10 PM

For the English, there was no battle charge more terrifying than the “Highland Charge.” This was the “military manoeuvre” that, throughout history, enabled the numerically inferior Scots to so often withstand the arrival in their lands of the English.

Even before the advent of gunpowder, Highlanders, drawn by their chieftains from the mountains and glens of Scotland, threw off their famous plaids, and charged -- waving their enormous broadswords, shouting and screaming -- straight at the enemy. It is not hard to imagine just how daunting that could be.

The film Braveheart lacked in authenticity only in the very fully clad nature of the warriors, represented in Hollywood style.

In fact, in the heat of summer, it was not unknown for their foes to be confronted by a rush of wild, red-haired men, naked, or nearly so, hurling themselves at them.

In 1544, a battle between one of the Lairds, Clan Ranald and Lovat, chief of the Fraser Clan, fought on the banks of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen of Scotland, which is still known as “The Battle of the Shirts.”

In that battle, it is still recorded that, in the heat of summer, the warriors discarded all but their shirts to protect themselves from the sun.

At famous battles in Britain, such as that at Prestonpans, outside Edinburgh, the first great battle of the 1745 rebellion, lowlanders and English troops fled in the face of such a menace.

Even in the age of the musket, reloading time meant there were few more volleys of fire before the terrifying charge overwhelmed them. What else was the common soldier to do but turn and run?

It was, however, as many military historians believe to be, the last battle of that last rebellion in Britain that made a major contribution to the military achievements of British forces in the ensuing decade or so; not least of which were the battles that effectively secured the invaluable territories, in and around the lands of today’s Bangladesh. The battles of Plassey and Buxar.

And it is arguable that, it was on those victories especially that the British Empire was built.

At Culloden, the inexperienced commander of the rebel forces Prince Charles Edward Stuart (“The Young Pretender”), believing that the “Highland Charge” was an outdated manoeuvre, restrained his forces -- allowing the government forces to discharge volley after volley of musket and cannon fire to decimate his forces.

The lesson of timing and resources was well learnt, but officers on both sides subsequently came together in British forces, following the abject failure of the uprising on that bloody battlefield.

From the age of chivalry, through the advent of guns, battles were often conducted by formulaic manoeuvres; marching and counter-marching.

It was early in the 18th century that one of Britain’s most famous generals, John Churchill, Earl, then Duke of Marlborough, might be credited with developing military manoeuvres that reflect both ground and forces available.

As a consequence, he triumphed in the European wars of the early part of the 18th century; especially the War of the Spanish Succession, which limited the power of the French in Europe. His military ploys tended, rather than such formulaic manoeuvres, to foreshadow the famous maxim of Britain’s great naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson. In the War of the Austrian Succession (from 1740 to 1748), the British experience in battle, especially in Europe, was rather more mixed.

But it was, perhaps,  the 1745 Rebellion that honed the military skills of a sufficiently large number of British military figures -- for in the following 15 years, Britain to become, what is described by some modern historians as “Masters of the World” through its victories, on land and at sea, across most of the world.

It is arguable, therefore, that, as the clock counted down towards the Battle of Plassey, an encounter between the local rulers and the interlopers that the development of British naval and military skills was already measuring the likely, eventual, outcome.

Clive, together with Admirals Watson and Pocock, had already “cut their teeth” at Gariah, when they captured the stronghold of the Maratha pirate, Tulagee Angria, on the east coast of the sub-continent. Had Siraj-ud-Daulah been fully appraised of that conflict, he might have considered, more carefully, initiating conflict with the British!

Early in 1757,  Watson and Clive arrived to recapture Calcutta, invested by the Nawab, with the encouragement of his French allies in June 1756.

Indeed, close examination of both Plassey and Buxar would suggest that, militarily, both were effectively won by British military expertise, even before they were fought.

Even had Robert Clive been defeated at Plassey, the East India Company activities, especially the cargoes of saltpetre and gunpowder, were sufficiently important for the British to return, and, as they were doing in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and even the East Indies, conquering, provoking, and winning in the ensuing two years, another battle for possession.

Perhaps, after all, Mir Jaffar’s decision to “sit out” the Battle of Plassey, in the end, would not have changed the eventual outcome of the war. Clive, supported by Watson and Pocock, had already captured the city of Chandernagore, before confronting Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey.

In the following year, Admiral Pocock had his first encounter with the French fleet, under the command of Comte d’Ache, and began to neutralise French power. The encounter was something of a stand-off. Three months later, they engaged again, and the French, again, failed to overcome Pocock’s smaller fleet.

In December of 1758, French forces, in a desperate military endeavour, under Comte de Lally, laid siege to Madras, the East India Company’s second most important city in India. After a siege lasting six weeks, Lally was forced to retreat.

In Europe, Africa, and North America, British forces led, for the most part by men who had been victorious at Culloden, and triumphed against other French-led armies and navies. Ticonderoga, Minden, Lagos, Quebec, and Quiberon Bay have gone down in history, but none, arguably, was as important as Admiral Pocock’s third, and final action against d’Ache’s fleet, that drove French naval power from around the sub-continent and the area of the East Indies, for another half century. Without naval support, of course, French forces could not be reinforced.

By the time of the battle of Buxar, when the failing Mughal regime finally decided they had to confront the British, they met both British officers, such as General Hector Munro, tested at Culloden, and soldiers and gunners, both British and Anglo-Indian, experienced in victory, not only the Indian sub-continent, but across the world.

It has always seemed unlikely that it was, merely, trade in fabrics and fragrances that brought the British to Bengal and its environs; even Orissa diamonds seem scarcely likely to have justified such investment as that made in London in 1600, at the Chartering of the Company. There was, certainly, more to it than that.

And since, from the beginning of the gunpowder age from the 14th century Asia onward, international warfare began to grow, first as continental conflicts, then, by the early part of the 18th century, intercontinental, we may, perhaps, be forgiven for supposing that was the greatest appeal, to European nations, of north-east Indian sub-continent.

Historians write of 1759 as the year when Britain became “Masters of the World.” Certainly, in the following century and a half, first the “Americans,” successfully, then the French and Napoleon, unsuccessfully, challenged that supremacy, as Britain built, and sustained, at times with some difficulty, “The Empire upon which the sun never sets.”

Whatever the outcome of the two great battles for control of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, in the mid-18th century, there can, probably, be little doubt that, one way or another, the British domination for the next two centuries was as inevitable as that of the Mughals and Khilji before them.

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