The Burma War of 1851

During the year 1851 Captain Sheppard, the master and owner of a trading vessel, was charged with throwing a man overboard and was fined 900 rupees and imprisoned by the Burmese Governor of Rangoon. He accused the Governor of ill treatment and the extortion of 900 rupees. Other acts of opression and insolence followed, and the merchants of Rangoon and Moulmein applied to the Governor-General for protection. This resulted in Commodore Lambert repairing to Rangoon with H.M.S. Fox and two other shops to settle matters and restore confidence. The Commodore demanded the removal of the Governor of Rangoon, and the payment of 9,000 rupees to Captain Sheppard for the indignity he had been subjected to. The Burmese court agreed to these terms - the Governor was relieved of his post and the money paid.

On the arrival of the new governor the Commodore requested him to receive a deputation of British officers. He expressed a willingness to do so; but on the officers arriving at his house at the agreed time, they were treated with the utmost insolence by his servants, who said the governor was asleep and could not receive them. The Commodore was not the main to stand for this kind of treatment. On the 6th January, 1852 he replied by seizing the king's ships then in the Rangoon river, and declaring the rivers Rangoon, Bassein and Salween to be in a state of blockade. On the 10th January having taken on board the Hermes those inhabitants of Rangoon who sought the protection of the British flag, the Commodore set sail with his prizes. The Burmese opened fire from their stockades and the ships relied, quickly deciding the unequal contest. The flotilla proceeded to Calcutta where Commodore Lambert reported to Lord Dalhousie all that had occurred. The Governor-General approved the strong measures adopted: but hoped to avoid war by negotiation. This was to no effect. War was inevitable, and on the 12th February, 1852, it was decided to send a second expedition to Burma.

The beginning of April, 1852 witnessed the arrival of the following shops of war in Rangoon waters, the Feroze, Mozuffer, Zenobia, Sesostris, Berenic, Medusa, Rockcliffe, Sir Thomas Gresham, Hempsyche, and Atlanta, had come from Madras; while from Calcutta had come the Hermes, Tenasserim, Enterprise, Fire Queen, Proserpine, Salamander and Phiegethon. The new steamer Rattler had also arived from Penang with Admiral Austen on boarde, the land force which had travelled by sea was under the command of Major-General Godwin, C.B., and consisted of the following corps: 18th Royal Irish; 35th Royal Sussex, 51st Light Infantry and Staffordshire Regiments; the 9th and 35th Madras Native Infantry; 40th Bengal Native Infantry; six companeis of European artillery, three from Madras and three from Bengal. Total force ofEuropeans, 2,725, Native Infantry 3,400, to which force, if we add the sailors who were available for land service, 8000 men at least could be assembled for the attack on Rangoon.

Before commencing operations against Rangoon, General Godwin decided to strike a decisive blow against the town of Martaban, which was immediatley opposite the British town of Moulmein, the capital of the Tenasserim Provinces. Accordingly, he set out with a wing of the Staffordshires, which was reinforced by the garrison of Moulmein - a wing of the 18th Royal Irish - for the attack on the town. As soon as the British ships arrived opposite the stockaades they were fired upon by the defenders. This fire was replied to by the Rattler who had worked her way to within 200 yards of the wall and close to the pagoda: a storming party was formed under the command of Colonel Reignolds, 18th Royal Irish which stormed and captured Martaban very quickly and with few losses. This first engagement was a complete success.

At about 9 o'clock on the morning of the 11th April the British warships opened fire on Rangoon on the left bank and Dalla on the right. The enemy replied with some vigorous and accurate fire, but it soon died away to an occasional shot. By 11 o'clock the fire from the defences of Rangoon was silenced, with the stockade and part of the town in flames. On the Dalla side the Burmese stuck to their defences. Sailors were sent in boats as a storming party. After landing upon low mud banks they quickly formed up and rushed the defenders. Their attack was so fierce that the enemy abandoned their works and fled.

Shortly after daybreak on the following morning, the ships once more opened fire from Rangoon and at the same time the following two brigades landed:

First Brigade: 18th Royal Irish (right), 51st Light Infantry (left), 40th Bengal Native Infantry (centre), the Sappers and Miners wree placed in rear of the left flank.

Second Brigade: 9th Madras Native Infantry (right), Staffordshires (centre), 35th Madras Native Infantry (left).

When they were ready the General sent the First Brigade into action with the Second Brigade in support. The road from the river led to a white building which was constructed fo solid maasonry and had formed our principal redoubt in the First Burmese War, and it was along this road the Burmese decided that the British assault would come. However, the British commander chose another route, which was to the East of the white building. The enemy, who were entrenched in the building which was defended by a stockade, ramparts and ditches, had anticipated such an advance and were prepared. Four companies of the 51st Light Infantry covered the British advance, accompanied by four guns of the Bengal Artillery. After about a mile the British troops found themselves in contact with the enemy and under direct enemy artillery firre from the defences signted on the line of advance, while from the jungle the flanks were ambushed by skirmishers. Major Reid, Bengal Artillery, supported by Major Oakes, Madras Artillery, opened fire on the building with four guns at a range of eight hundred years; unfortunately they had too little ammunition for a prolonged action, and had to cease firing.

It was decided that an assault on the building should be made immediately and a storming party was formed consisting of the 51st Light Infantry and Sappers and Miners. The troops advanced led by Major Fraser, Chief Engineer, closely followed by Captain Rundall, Royal Engineers. The party advanced slowly, encumbered by five heavy scaling ladders and under heavy fire from the skirmishers in the wood. As the enemy grew bolder it was found necessary to ground ladders, unsling muskets and drive them off after which the storming party again advanced. Despite heavy fire from the building they were able to raise their ladders and scale the ramparts after which the enemy evacuated the building and ran into the jungle. British losses were considerable, including, Lieutenant Donaldson and Captain Blundal who were mortally wounded; and Major Griffiths, Brigade Major, and Major Oakes, Royal Artillery who both died of sunstroke.

After camping overnight on the open plain the next day, the 14th January, was used to prepare for the main attack on the Great Pagoda. The troops, despite the heat, dragged four 8-inch howitzers up from the river. At daybreak the entire force advanced in two brigades. The Staffordshires with four guns of Montgomery's battery formed the advance, and soon reached the desired position a rise in the ground about 1,000 yards south-east of the Pagoda defences. The troops following formed up under fire about 700 yards from the Pagoda.

Lieutenant Laurie, describes the Shwe Dagon Pagoda as it was at the time:

"The hill upon which the temple stands is divided into three terraces each defended by a brick and mud rampart. There are four flights of steps up the centre of each terrace threeof which are covered over: the east, the south, and the west. Their heavy guns were on the upper terrace, their light ones on the second and third. The rampart of the upuper terrace being mostly of bricks and mortar if of a superior description."

The British guns continued to fire at the Pagoda with little apparent effect upon the morale of Burmese defenders who showed little fear of the bombardment. It was decided to assault the Pagoda using a wing of the Staffordshires undre Major Lockhart, two companies of the 18 Royal Irish under Lieutenant Hewitt, and two companies of the 40th Bengal Native Infantry; Colonel Coote, 18th Royal Irish to command. Over an open space of 800 yards the force advanced exposed to fire form the Pagoda. The leading company, led on by its officers, arrived at the foot of the stone steps, rushed up, followed closely by the wholeattacking force. This caused panic among the neemy which, resulted in a hedlong stampede northwards into the jungle, their chiefs at their head. British losses in two days' fighting were 2 officers and 15 men killed, 14 officers and 118 men wounded.

After a lapse of nearly a month an expedition consisting of 500 men of the 18th Royal Irish, and 500 of the 35th Madras Native Infantry under Colonel Abthorpe wa despatched in search of the ex-Governor of Rangoon, who had fled northwards with his beaten troops. On the 9th May the expedition returned to Rangoon not having found any enemy. On the 12th May the force at Rangoon was reinforced by the 67th Bengal Native Ianfantry from Arakan. The rains now set in and with them fever and dysentery. The temporary hospitals were thronged with sick men and medical officers were at a premium. Despite sickness it was decided to attack Bassein, an important settlement in South Arakan. It was strongly fortified and estimated to be defended by a force of 7,000 men. The defences were about one mile in length, with a strongly built mud wall occupying the left of the line, while in the centre was a huge padoda welll armed with guns and jingals.

General Godwin conducted this expedition in person. The British troops consisted of a total of 800 men, who were embarked on the Sesotris, Mozuffer, Tenasserim, and Pluto/ The ships anchored of Nigrais Island on the 17th May and on the following morning steamed up the Bassein river. At 4 p.m. the flotilla arrived opposite the town.

The Burmese allowed the troops to land without interference, evidently fearing retaliation from the ships. General Godwin in his despatch described the attack which followed:

"The contest that stamped the operations of this remarkable day with a brilliant conclusion was the atack on the mud fort, most scientifically built and of great extent, which could only have been constructed under a despotism that commanded the labour of its subjects in the short time they had been about it. It was not entirely completed in its details within. The storming praty under Major Errington proceeded to the left of the Burmese work accompanied by Lieutenant Rice of H.M. Frigate Fox and Lieutenant Ford of the Madras Sappers, came upon the mud fort fully garrisoned and well armed. The attck was most determined as was the defence obstinate. It was bravely stormed, but with the consequence of Major Errington and several officers and men being severely wounded. The whole affair was over at a little after 6 o'clock."

Meanwhile a party of sailors had captured a stockade on the opposite bank of the river, taking six guns. Bassein was garrisoned by two companies of the 51st Light Infantry and 300 of the 9th Madras Native Infantry, the remainder of the force returning to Rangoon.

In the intervening time a rebellion had broken out at Pegu. The Tailong portion of the troops had mutinied and taken possession of the city, but were shortly afterwards driven out, and order, to a certain extent, restored. The British authorities at Rangoon resolved to take advantage of this mishap in order to get hold of the city. Major Cotton was sent there with ordres to side with the Talaings and drive out the King's troops. He arrived to find all in confusion, and had great difficulty in finding out which factin was which. He succeeded, however, after some sharp fighting, in occupying the place and demolishing its defences, after which he returned to Rangoon.

In the beginning of July an expedition proceeded up the Irrawaddy to Prome, at this time a large and populous city. Captain Tarleton R.N., conducted this expedition, and finding little sign of prepared defence he landed and took possession almost unopposed, capturing twenty guns, many of them of large calibre, and many war boats, barges etc. This operation may be said to have brought to a close the first phase of the Second Burmese War.


The Coming of the Great Queen, by Major E.C. Browne,
Harrison & Sons, St Martin's Lane, London 1887
The Battles of the British Army by R.M. Blackwood.
Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., London c1910. Chapter xxxvi The Battle of Martaban 1852

Originally published in 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 82

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