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Captain Welsh’s Expedition To Assam
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Captain Welsh’s Expedition To Assam

*This hasn’t been prepared by any expert, but by a journalist with some interest in military history. That’s me! So don’t kill me for this!*

In the twilight years of the 18th century, the Honorable East India Company held sway over most parts of the country with only two major Indian power centers remaining— the Marathas and Mysore. In the east, Bengal was firmly in British hands and Company Bahadur wasn’t interested in expanding beyond that. But trouble in the Ahom kingdom presented the Company an opportunity to study the region. It was the Moamariya rebellion.

King Gaurinath Singha, after losing his capital to the rebels, contacted Governor General Lord Cornwallis and sought his help. The Company vacillated initially, as it was fighting a taxing war with Tipu Sultan of Mysore. But after the Siege of Srirangapatnam and eventual signing of treaty in 1792, the Company was once again in a position to concentrate on
other affairs. That same year, Captain Thomas Welsh of the Bengal Army was sent to help the King of Assam with six companies of sepoys (each company having 60 fighting men). The whole unit didn’t exceed 550 men and included
a small medical corps under Dr John Peter Wade.

The Bengal Army’s first military encounter with the local population happened towards the end of November, 1792. Darrang raja Krishnanarayan had occupied northern Kamrup, including North Guwahati, and several requests by the English to disband his barkandaz army were ignored. So the Company forces gave battle. After two engagements, the king accepted defeat, expelled barkandazes from his army, and accepted vassalage of the Ahom king.

Barkandazes were Hindustani irregular infantrymen or cavalrymen, who were basically freebooters

By early 1794, Captain Welsh began negotiations with the Moamariyas in upper Assam. Those fell through and once again, an armed encounter became imminent. The English gave battle once again, and once again, the militia was no match for the Bengal Army. Gaurinath Singha was reinstalled as king and the English army retired to Bengal.

*What made the Bengal Army invincible?*

Considering the fact that this small detachment had just about 360 fighting men and opposed an enemy several times bigger, it’s really amazing how it could post defeat after defeat on the rebels. This hasn’t been studied in depth by scholars; at least the military importance of it has been ignored by many. So, I thought about writing it. Of course, I’m no expert, but I have some knowledge about battle tactics.

*Philosophy of war*

The Company armies fought in true European fashion when it came to infantry. The Honourable East India Company, for a long time, didn’t have proper cavalry units, unlike their counterparts in the British Army. This was in stark contrast to the Indian armies, which relied totally on cavalry and gave minimum importance to infantry. Ahom army was an exception in this regard. It was probably the only army in the country that had no cavalry arm at all. Assamese had always been foot soldiers and brilliant in guerrilla warfare. Despite that, why couldn’t the Moamariyas fight at all with such a small infantry detachment?

It goes without saying that the Company’s sepoys were better trained and led. They had better arms as well. The troops were well drilled and infused with the doggedness that English armies throughout the world at different theatres of war have displayed. Whatever be the circumstances, a British army would never break up and flee; they would hold their ground, no matter what. It was this superior will to prevail that probably made all the difference.

*English battle strategy*

The English believed in fighting as a unit, more or less like the Roman centurions. They marched in columns and formed up in line formation in front of the enemy. The firing methods varied according to formation.

In a typical line formation, troops would fire their muskets one after the other. So, if it the line had 60 men, then 60 shots would ring out in a minute, sometimes in less than a minute. When the last man on one side had fired his weapon, the first man on the other end was ready for his next shot. This way, constant fire could be maintained. And no man, either on foot or on horse, would find it easy to advance in face of constant gun fire.

In the row formation, troops would form two rows, and the front row would kneel. All guns would open up at the same time. This tactic was called volley fire. Against a superior force, the English deployed a third tactic
by keeping four rows of infantry. After the first two rows had discharged their guns, they would fall back and two fresh rows would take their place. This type of formation had another advantage: it could be easily converted
into a phalanx formation, four-men deep. In case the enemy broke past defences and reached the line, the troops would fix bayonets and hold the advance. This was particularly effective against cavalry charges.

A fourth tactic, the square style of infantry fighting, was used only when there was a cavalry charge. At Waterloo, at a critical juncture, when the Duke of Wellington moved his troops back in order to protect them from cannonade, Marshall Ney thought the English were retreating. At once, the French cavalry charged; but upon reaching the English line, they found that the enemy hadn’t retreated, but formed fighting squares. Napoleon’s elite
cavalry was massacred as the English resorted to volley fire (the English weren’t any lucky with their cavalry either: earlier in the day, the British had made a cavalry charge, too, with the Royal Scots Greys at the helm. This charge broke up as Napoleon matched them with his Polish lancers.).

An infantry square was a reliable form of offensive defence when faced with a cavalry charge. The front line would kneel, point their bayonets at the charging enemy, and fire. Horses don’t go over sharp objects.

During the climax of the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, which was fought during the Spanish War of Succession, nine battalions of French infantry tried to hold their line by making an abortive bid of forming infantry squares after General Tallard’s cavalry broke up. However, Colonel Blood’s close artillery fire combined with platoon volley fire cut them down.

Even before the advent of firearms, military strategists had found out that horses couldn’t jump over pike formations. At the battles of Falkirk (1298) and Bannockburn (1314), the Scottish pike formations or schiltrons had
frustrated English heavy cavalry charges. This evolved into infantry squares in the gunpowder age.

*The weapon that made the difference*

By the 1790s, the Company’s troops were provided the Short-land Pattern .75 calibre flintlock musket and the India pattern (highly accurate) of the same musket. This weapon, popularly known as the Brown Bess, was used in
the Napoleonic Wars, too, with great success. Troops in Captain Welsh’s detachment had any of these two muskets or both. This was a high-performance musket, which was easier to load; in fact, it took about a
minute (average 43 seconds for three shots) for an expert soldier to fire four rounds.

Brown bess musket: Weighing a little over 4 kilos and having a barrel length of 39 inches, this was a highly accurate musket and required minimum maintenance. It also had a high rate of fire (three shots in 43 seconds), making it a reliable infantry weapon.

In contrast, the Moamariyas were poorly armed and poorly led. They were completely alien to European fighting style. Besides, they didn’t have any firearms worth the name, barring a few matchlocks, which were obsolete and
stood no chance against the Brown Bess. The Ahoms themselves didn’t have any muskets. Purnananda Burhagohain was particularly impressed by the British weapons and their drilled infantry. Most Moamariyas fought with whatever weapon they could find: swords, pikes, pick-axes, spears, and even bamboo sticks. The battles were over even before they began.

In 1794, when Sir John Shore replaced Lord Cornwallis, he recalled the expedition of Captain Welsh. The team went back with tales of Assam, which helped the Company Bahadur to intervene in its affairs once again in the
future.

0 05 January, 2012 News January 5, 2012

11 comments

  1. Aritra

    Amazing!All of a sudden I am interested in battlefield tactics! More of such pieces will be nice :)

  2. Manimugdha Sharma

    Aritra, I will ensure that you have a regular dose of warfare right in your inbox. :-) But it’s a niche topic, so I’m not sure how many of our esteemed GingerChai readers would appreciate that. Waiting to hear comments from others.

  3. Asif Iqbal Haque

    Wow!!!! I was that kind of person who was never really interested in history. But, this write-up has got me all hooked in to the concept of historical battle strategies. The article gives one the insight that the author had to do a mammoth job of research and it is so tastefully done that it makes one feel the one is a part of the actual battle. Kudos …… eagerly waiting for a follow up

  4. Anahita Mukherji

    Great job, Mani! Really enjoyed the piece! Look forward to reading more of your work.

  5. Aloke Chakravartty

    Good to read this small note. But the real story was not mentioned about Darrang Raja Krishnanarayana who was re-instead by capt. Welsh as raja of Darrang and was an independent king. He was also of Brahmin decent.This dynasty started with Dhamanarayana. Please write and find out more about their family. No one knows this fact where as people confuse with Balinarayana who died in the battle with Lakhminaraya.I know this fact because people say that I come from same lineage.

  6. Manimugdha S Sharma

    Thank you, Aloke, for reading it. The idea was to focus only on the reason for success of the British expedition from a military point of view. That’s why I didn’t touch upon other things.

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