The Sabre_s Edge
THE BAY OF BENGAL 1823
'The Commander-in-Chief can hardly persuade himself, that if we place our frontier in even a tolerable state of defence, any very serious attempt will be made by the Burmans to pass it: but should he be mistaken in this opinion, he is inclined to hope that our military operations on the eastern frontier will be confined to their expulsion from our territories, and to the re-establishment of those states along our line of frontier which have been overrun and conquered by the Burmese. Any military attempt beyond this, upon the internal dominions of the King of Ava, he is inclined to deprecate; as instead of armies, fortresses, and cities, he is led to believe we should find nothing but jungle, pestilence and famine.' The Adjutant-General of the Presidency's Army, to the Government of Bengal, 24 November 1823
JUNGLE, PESTILENCE AND FAMINE
'Sile-e-ence!' The gun-deck of His Majesty's Ship Liffey at once fell still. The big fourth rate had furled sail, dropped anchor and beat to quarters, and her first lieutenant would have the gun crews silent to hear the captain's next order.
Astern of Liffey were the sloops of war Larne, Slaney and Sophie, their guns likewise run out and trained ashore. And astern of these, with great pyramids of white sail still set, was the rest of the British flotilla – close on a hundred men-of-war and transports, sailing slowly with the tide up the broad, brown Rangoon river.
The stockades at the water's edge were silent too. Like the gun crews aboard the warships, the Burman soldiers crouched behind their wooden walls, but teak-built walls, not oak. With their spears and ancient muskets, they had no doubt that the white-faced barbarians would pay for their effrontery in sailing up the river without acknowledging the supreme authority of King Bagyidaw, Lord of the White and All Other Elephants.
On Liffey's quarterdeck, Commodore Laughton Peto turned to Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell, general officer commanding the Burmese Expeditionary Force. 'Well, Sir Archibald?' 'They have had their time, Peto.'
But the commodore required a more emphatic order. Firing first on an almost defenceless town was not a decision to be entered lightly. 'You wish me to commence firing, sir?'
Before the general could reply, the shore battery erupted in smoke and flame. Two or three heavy shot whistled harmlessly through Liffey's rigging.
The general was obliged, but amazed. His flotilla had violated the sacred waters of the Kingdom of Ava: but in such force that could not be resisted. He, Sir Archibald Campbell KCB, veteran of the Peninsula, had offered suitable terms of surrender. By all the usages of war the Burmans should have accepted at once.
'Presumption, and folly,' he declared, snapping closed his telescope. 'Commence firing!'
Peto nodded to his first lieutenant. 'Commence firing.'
The lieutenant raised a speaking trumpet to his lips. 'Fire!'
Hervey started. The roar of cannon was like nothing since Waterloo – fourteen twenty-four-pounders firing as one, nearly the weight of shot that the whole of the horse artillery could dispose that day along the ridge of Mont St-Jean. He gripped the taffrail as if he would be shaken off his feet. But before the smoke rolled back over the quarterdeck, he just managed to glimpse the destruction that the broadside had wrought – the guns in the shore battery toppled and the great teak doors of the stockade beaten down.
There was another broadside, this time from Larne, and even closer to the bank. Not as heavy as Liffey's, but almost as destructive, it battered down yet more of the stockade, the nine-pound shot from the guns on her upper deck firing high and sending showers of bricks and tiles from the buildings within. Hervey did not think the business could take much longer.
Now Sidney's and Sophie's guns were bearing on the walls, and soon too were those of the East Indiamen-of- war astern of them, so that there was a drumroll of fire as the crews worked their pieces like demons.
No, the Burmans could not take a pounding like this for much longer. No one could.
Campbell agreed. He turned to the little knot of staff officers behind him. 'How our work might have been easier in Spain, eh, gentlemen, had we been able to sail our artillery about so!'
And had the enemy been so obliging as to call a pile of logs a fortress, said Hervey to himself.
Major Seagrass, the general's military secretary, turned to his temporary assistant. 'Where are these war boats of yours, Hervey?'
Hervey nodded. He had warned of them, albeit from limited experience, and the flotilla was taking particular precautions against surprise. 'It seems our luck is great indeed. And the Burmans', too, for those boys yonder are bruising for a fusillade.' He indicated the lines of red at the gunwales of the transports, private men and sepoys alike in their thick serge, muskets trained ready to repel the war boats. The attack would be a swift, swarming affair if it did come.
The general judged it the moment. 'Signal the landing!'
A midshipman had the signal-flag run up in a matter of seconds. There was cheering from the transports, audible enough even with the crashing broadsides. Soon boats were being swung out and lowered, or hauled alongside by their tow lines, and redcoats began descending to them.
As they began pulling for the bank, fire erupted once more from the battery. Liffey answered at once, and there was no more firing from the stockade.
The landing parties scrambled from the boats and raced for the breaches. They exchanged not a shot, and soon there was more cheering as the Union flag rose above the shore battery. Campbell saw his success, called off the bombardment and ordered the rest of his force to follow. In half an hour two brigades were ashore, with still not a musket discharged by either side. Later the general would learn that not a man of his had been so much as grazed, and he would remark again on the address with which battle could be made with artillery such as he had.
He turned now to the little group of officers on Liffey's quarterdeck. 'Well' he said, with a most satisfied smile, his thick red side-whiskers glistening with sweat in the clammy heat of the season before the monsoon. 'Let's be about it. We have a great need of beef and water, and it is there ashore for the taking. My boat, please, Commodore Peto!' Captain Matthew Hervey had watched many an infantry action in his dozen and more years' service, but always from the saddle. The quarterdeck of one of His Majesty's ships was undoubtedly a more elevated vantage point, and perhaps preferable in that respect, but it was no less frustrating a place for an officer to be when there was hot work to be done with the enemy. But then the only reason he was able to observe the action at all was that he had a friend at court – or, more exactly, on the supreme council of the presidency of Bengal – who had arranged that he join the expedition on General Campbell's staff, the general being clearly of a mind that there was no place for cavalry on this campaign. Indeed, the general had planned his operations certain that everything would be accomplished by his infantry – King's and Company's – with the sole support of the guns of the Royal Navy, and without any transport but that which floated, or supply other than obtained locally. It was, by any reckoning, an admirably economical expedition.
Hervey's regiment, His Majesty's 6th Light Dragoons, had been scattered about Bengal on countless trifling errands these past three years, frustrating to officers and men alike. They had hoped to be employed against this impertinent King of Ava, who threatened the Honourable Company's domain, insulted the Crown and boasted of his