Like every year, 23rd June marks the date of the famous Battle of Plassey fought in 1757 on the hot and humid plains near Calcutta. The battle is considered as a landmark event which paved the way for 90 years’ long subsequent British encroachment towards west and northwest, finally halting short of Afghanistan in 1849. The battle also stands out in notoriety as Nawab’s own general/relative had conspired against him and refused to participate in the battle at the critical stage. The betrayal of Mir Jafar remains fresh in the minds of people of the Subcontinent; even today any individual with a similar act of traitorship is labelled as Mir Jafar. From a European perspective, it is considered as one of the Anglo-French encounters in India within the global scope of Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) which was mainly fought in Europe and America. As per the Encyclopedia Britannica the Battle of Plassey was only a cannonade duel. As per some accounts it was in a way a Palace Coup played in the field of Plassey. The key stone of the battle says “Battle for the British in India, fought on 23rd June, 1757 and won with treachery and tarpaulins”. Gauging by military standards of number of casualties it barely falls under the category of a battle. While the Indian Army of around 40,000 lost 500 sepoys, the European side only lost about 25 out of the total of 3,000 combatants. How could such a small body of troops decisively defeat an overwhelming opponent? Was it betrayal alone? Or was there something else which had emboldened the European troops to stand before a large army to begin with? Since it was fought in mid-18th century, which is accepted as a critical time frame being the post-Tenaissance and pre-Industrial Revolution, what could have been the possibilities had the Indian side not lost?
These are the questions which were incited by reading the latest book by William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. The book leaves little room for speculations as it quotes the eyewitness accounts by Muslim scholars of the time which had been documented and preserved in national archives. Since the purpose of the book is economic ambitions and depredations of the East India Company, the author narrates the Battle of Plassey within the permissible scope of the book, covering it in detail though.
As a military person one can’t but resist the urge to dig beyond the book by Dalrymple to explore the military side of the things. Two months long sifting of various papers and accounts available on the internet (No visit to the library due to COVID-19 restrictions) one finds very interesting facts and figures amply highlighting the underlying hard realities of military side. Wide angle view of the battle and military situation in the region and beyond enables the realistic setting of the battle under different perspectives.
Therefore, lets begin with setting the stage for a reader who is less familiar with era of mid-18th century India and beyond. Within the boundaries of Awadh which included Orissa, Bengal and Bihar; the richest province of Mughal Empire, the overall circumstances for the recently enthroned 20-year-old Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah were anything but encouraging. Western boundaries along with links to Delhi were severed under the constant threat of incursions by the Marhathas and Afghan forces. Though, the trade through sea was good but rivalry among the European trading companies of France, Britain and Holland, all of whom had permanent establishments on Indian soil, had eroded the state’s capacity to collect minimum desired taxes. As if the local competition was not enough, there was a direct impact of the wars in Europe. Latest was the outbreak of Seven Years’ War which started in 1756, which in turn had erupted after a short gap of ten years of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Both of these wars forced the French and British to opt for armed encounters embroiling the local rulers. Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah wanted to counterbalance French and British to his advantage: fair enough. Soon after his accession, in early 1756, he invaded Calcutta, then called British Fort William, on the justification that the settlement was not to be converted into a military fort as per the legal undertakings. The British were unable to convince the Nawab that fortifications were in view of the possible attack by French. The Nawab not only invaded Calcutta but also ransacked it, ending up killing many Europeans. The British who had solidified their position in Madras after defeating the French in the previous war sailed up north to reclaim Calcutta, finally arriving in January 1757. Utterly failing in his attempt to fight back, the Nawab retreated after a short but costly encounter and settled for paying to British. With the primary aim achieved, Lt Col Robert Clive should have returned to Madras but no sooner he learnt about the breakout of Seven Years’ War, he instead chose to attack and occupy the French settlement at Chandernagore located upstream. Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah, justifiably infuriated by such a blatant act by the British on his soil and partly fearing the loss of French counterbalance, opted for a punitive action against the British forces. The French contingent under St. Frais, mainly artillery pieces, also joined the Nawab’s forces against the common enemy. Lt Col Robert Clive, on learning the Nawab’s intentions, advanced up north and also entered into secret negotiations with the Generals of Nawab Sahib, Mir Jafar and Durlabh Singh being the most influential and most inclined. Such was the local situation just before the final battle.
Gazing beyond the borders of Awadh one finds to their disappointment that in the same year i.e., 1757 seat of the Mughal Empire Delhi had been invaded by Ahmad Shah Abdali and Marhathas in succession. Both invading forces mainly relied on fast-moving cavalry looted Delhi and its surrounding locations with impunity further disempowering the waning authority of the incompetent Mughal Emperor Alamgir II. The Province of Punjab which extended till Peshawar had broken away from Delhi few years before. If one extends the vision above the continental horizon it is the time when Frederick the Great’s Army was fighting and introducing fast-moving horsed artillery against the Austrian Army within the domain of Seven Years’ War. Europe was indeed at the cusp of a revolution in warfare brought about by latest scientific discoveries, advances in metallurgy/casting and, above all, the introduction of military discipline in conduct of the battle enforced through drills and practices.
Coming back to Bengal, when both the armies faced each other on June 23, 1757 the state of both armies was something like this: the Indian Army under Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah had approximately 35,000 infantry troops armed with bows, swords and spears. His main offensive component was 15,000 cavalry comprising seasoned Afghans and Pathans armed largely with swords and spears, placed on flanks. He had a large number of cannons, 53 pieces in total. All were large caliber heavy guns i.e., 24 and 32 pounders besides few 18 pounders. A small French contingent under St. Frais manned few guns and provided overall supervision for the artillery. Few pairs of artillery guns were placed on huge wooden carts which were pulled by oxen and pushed by elephants, an improvisation to make the artillery mobile in battlefield.
The European side, since so many nationalities were present in British contingent, Lt Col Robert Clive had 950 European troops (including 250 men of His Majesty’s 39th Foot, regular troops). He also had 2,100 native troops trained and equipped on the lines of Europeans. He had 60 sailors who were fighting as foot soldiers. He had 8 cannons of 6 pounder caliber and two howitzers manned by 100 gunners. He didn’t have any cavalry component.
On the day of the final battle the situation of Clive’s Army was quite precarious as it was hemmed against an overwhelming army in front and Bhagirathi River at the back while being tucked inside a mango grove. The Nawab’s Army positioned itself in accordance with the traditional Mughal way of fighting. Artillery in the centre and strong cavalry on flanks, while the Nawab placed himself on an elephant to remain visible. The battle started with artillery fire by the Nawab’s Army inflicting casualties among British forces. Robert Clive, who couldn’t afford casualties, retreated away from effective range but continued to bombard French Artillery Contingent. He desperately started waiting the defection of Mir Jafar’s forces as per the secret understanding, which were reassured a night before. Since the Mughal artillery fired one shot in 15 minutes and British small caliber 8 pounder cannons fired 2/3 rounds a minute with the ability to readjust for the range without changing location, British remained safe but the Nawab’s Army kept suffering under British artillery. By noon it started raining, lasting for an hour or so, putting the Nawab’s artillery to silence, as rain had soaked the unprotected powder. Mir Madan Khan who commanded the 5,000 strong cavalry dashed forward in a frontal attack thinking that rain must have had the same effect on British guns as well. British gunners were carrying tarpaulins to cover the powder as it was the monsoon season. The outcome was near decimation of Mir Madan’s attacking division. The brave Mir Madan Khan got fatally wounded by a well-aimed grapeshot. The loss of the most loyal commander disheartened the Nawab Sahib and encouraged Robert Clive to stand the ground. Soon Nawab’s gunners started abandoning guns and the British were ready to exploit it. At this particular moment Mir Jafar started withdrawing his forces, leaving the left of the Army open for further exploitation by the British. Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah lost his nerves and capitulated under pressure and opted to flee with his treasure and harem only to be mercilessly murdered a few days later.
Few Lessons from the Battle
▪ Leadership. By conventional military standards it was more of a battle of nerves among leaders at various tiers. When Robert Clive fought this battle he had earned a solid reputation as “heaven-born general” despite being a trained clerk. At the Siege of Arcot (1751) in Carnatic he had distinguished himself as a bold and aggressive leader. His repeated victories with a handful of native troops had filled him with confidence. But here in Plassey, his enemy being overwhelmingly large, Clive hesitated and appeared short of confidence as he never wanted to advance before Mir Jafar defected. On seeing abandoning of the artillery guns by Indian side, Major Kilpatrik of 39th Foot couldn’t hold back and dashed forward with his regular troops, capturing the artillery location. As quoted by William Dalrymple, the advance and capture of Indian artillery was in fact an act of disobedience by Major Kilpatrik which turned the tide of the battle. On the other side, groomed in the shaded environment of palace, untrained and inimidated Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah threw the towel soon after knowing the death of his only trustworthy commander Mir Madan Khan and refusal of Mir Jafar to participate. In fact, 4 months ago on February 5 once Clive initially arrived to retake Calcutta, he had surprised Nawab Sahib through his favourite discreet night attack. Unknowingly, the British troops had created a situation where Nawab Sahib had a narrow escape himself resulting in panic and hasty retreat. He accepted the costly terms and returned to his seat of throne Murshidabad. Some authors give space to Nawab Sahib as he suspected Ahmad Shah Abdali’s attack in the same time frame. Coming back to Plassey, as per my personal judgment, the heroes of the battlefield were Mir Madan Khan on Indian side and Major Kilpatrik on the European side, both of whom displayed courage and offensive spirit of leadership.
▪ Artillery. Artillery and its method of employment shaped the whole conduct of the battle and proved that high rate of fire achieved through skill could thwart a frontal cavalry charge despite being small in caliber and less in numbers. Displaying a smart innovation at Plassey, Indian gunners had come up with an idea of placing a couple of canons over huge carts achieving a kind of mobile platform, pulled by oxen and pushed by elephants. These proved far less effective being sluggish, and inaccurate; later spoiled by rain. Though, French Officers managed the artillery of Nawab Sahib it is hard to believe what kind of impact they had in mind. Ironically, Plassey appears a bit similar to the Battle of Khanwa in 1527 where a highly outnumbered Mughal Army under Zaheer-ud-Din Babur stood victorious. His historic victory is attributed to employment of cannons managed by an Ottoman gunner by the name of Ustad Ali Quli. It is suggested that had it not been for the cannon of Babur, Rana Sanga might have achieved victory. One of the primary reasons of losing the Battle of Plassey was the inability of Indians to modify and upgrade gun powder arms in general and the artillery in particular. They kept on trusting heavy canons despite the fact that many fired one round in three hours. Indian cannons lacked latest attachments like elevating screws at the rear which allowed adjustment of range. Domestic advancement in artillery had to wait another 40 years when Ranjeet Singh developed the modernized artillery.
▪ Infantry. Historically, Mughals considered infantry as an inferior arm best suited to defend and guard artillery and logistic areas. Though, they employed matchlock musketeers called “Bandookchies” they used those in conjunction with archers. For the want of critical role in battle, Indian infantry simply lacked modern flintlock muskets. European troops were equipped with British Long Land Pattern Brown Bess Musket M1742. It was an upgraded version of original Brown Bess Musket i.e., a flint lock muzzle loading rifle with a bayonet having a greater degree of accuracy and lethality. An average trained European soldier could fire 2 rounds per minute with 100% accuracy at 40 Ms. Concurrently Europeans had discovered in Carnatic Wars of the previous decades that natives could be drilled in to an effective employment of flintlock muskets. Through this they achieved double the economy by not needing to hire the costly royal troops (regular in nature) and to have an army which was immune to local diseases, drastically reducing attrition. In fact, the first ever native unit i.e., The First Native Bengal Regiment, famous as Lal Paltan, was raised by Robert Clive in early March 1757 after recapturing Calcutta.
▪ Great Irony. Ironically, saltpeter which was the basic ingredient of gunpowder was extracted in Patna and exported to Europe in great quantities. As per some records 16% of the total trade was saltpeter mainly because it was in great demand in Europe. Similarly, Bengali weavers were exporting fine cloth all over the world to a level where it accounted for a meaningful portion in the total world trade. Isn’t it ironic that Nawab of Awadh, who possessed the mines of saltpeter and weaving industry, was fighting his main battle at a stage where they could at best fire one shot in 15 minutes without an accuracy and their gunners simply didn’t have water resistant cloth as part of the essential pieces of equipment.
▪ Elsewhere in the World. A decade before and a decade after Plassey appeared as benchmarks in the history of warfare. In 1742 the first scientific booklet by the name of “New Principles of Gunnery” had been published by British scientist Benjamin Robins. This was supplemented by the introduction of newly discovered method (1747) of casting full gun barrel and then drilling the bore resulting in phenomenal increase in range and accuracy, besides reducing weight. The famous Battle of Rosbach (part of the Seven Years’ War) in November 1757 was four months away in which Frederick the Great introduced the skillful employment of ‘horsed artillery’. For the first time the cannons could be redeployed rapidly amidst the battle to a devastating effect. A decade after Plassey was no less than a revolution in artillery usage as well. Gribeauval System introduced in 1764 in France resulted in decrease of weight and increase in range and accuracy coupled with strict standardization. World over success of its efficacy during the Napoleonic Wars needs no further elaboration. Once it came to Turkey and Persia against Russia the results were near similar to Indian Sub-Continent. Russian armies fought in Bulgaria and Crimea in the same time frame i.e., 1768-1774 and paved the way for gradual occupation of Turkish and Persian lands which were comparable to land mass occupied by British in India by the end of 18th century.
It is true that deceit and betrayals played an important role in the final outcome of the numerous battles fought in the time frame when Mughal center was weakened and lacked authority; Plassey being the classical example. But like most battles, victory is attributed to skillful employment of resources and adoption of new forms of weapons and techniques. Superiority in weapons coupled with newly found methods of employment gradually emboldened the European commanders to accept battles against enemies many times greater in size. Commanded fire by line formation of western troops could repulse the strongest of the frontal attack by troops armed with swords and lancers. It’s pretty regretful to conceive that Mughals were the ones who introduced the effective use of cannons and matchlock muskets in 1526 and after 230 years their successors didn’t stand a chance in front of cannons operated by handful of highly drilled European soldiers. If Mughals could stimulate world level innovations in architecture, music, poetry and painting there is no reason to believe that they wouldn’t have achieved similar innovations in military hardware had they identified those as a necessity. Unlike Europeans, they didn’t have to import anything to forge a cannon or make high quality gunpowder. Perhaps it was the advancement in science as a subject and its acceptability in society which worked behind every field of advancement in the West. Yes, here the Mughals and most of the Eastern Powers including China, Ottomans and Persians lacked badly, hence ending up paying a heavy price through occupation of resources, colonization and unfavorable trading terms
Muhammad Khalil. Writer is ex Aviator and senior retired military officer.
Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org