India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

How Clive Saved the English

The story which now follows is both extraordinary and romantic. It is a story of plot and counter-plot, of battles and adventures of the most desperate description, and the heroic deeds of stout-hearted Englishmen which saved us from complete disaster.

When peace was made between England and France the warfare in India naturally ceased as well. But, although he could not fight the English, Dupleix, who could never rest, saw that he might get the better of them in another way. And this is how he went to work.

A desperate struggle was just then breaking out in two of the native States between rival princes who claimed the chief power. Dupleix at once plunged boldly into the general confusion. Now the English and French settlements of Madras and Pondicherry were both situated in a province on the sea-coast called the Carnatic, and the cunning French leader planned to set up a ruler of this part who would be friendly to the French and have to obey them. That was the first move in the game. The second, which was even more important, was to set up a ruler in the Deccan who would also be under French influence. As the Deccan was the most important State in southern India, Dupleix saw that if he could succeed in both these schemes it would undoubtedly make France the greatest Power in the country, and leave the English of no importance at all.

For some time the French were successful in every direction. They helped their Carnatic pretender to defeat the ruling nabob, or prince, and seized Arcot, his capital. They then marched with their Deccan pretender against the Nizam of that State, who meantime appealed for help to the English. This was granted, but very shortly afterwards this Nizam was murdered by his own men, and as the French at once placed their friend on the throne, they seemed everywhere victorious. They had got hold of the Deccan, and had all but seized the Carnatic too.

So far the game had gone entirely in favour of Dupleix, and the English realised that they were in greater danger than they had ever been before, because, as they wrote home, the French would soon be able to surround their settlements and prevent provisions or merchandise being brought to them. Of course this would drive us out of India, which was just what Dupleix wanted. Only one place in the Carnatic still held out against the French and their nabob. This was Trichinopoly, which was defended by Mohamed Ali, a son of the old nabob whom the French had driven from Arcot.

The English, knowing that all was lost if this place were captured by Dupleix's native friends, scraped together two thousand men and sent them to the rescue. But the next news of them was that they had been driven back on Trichinopoly and shut in there by the enemy. What was to be done? Scarcely any more troops were left, still fewer officers, and, if Trichinopoly fell, it would be all over with us in India.

The prospect seemed black enough, but it was at this moment that out of the darkness there stepped the figure of the hero who was not only to save the little beleaguered garrison but to win India for the English.

In the little Shropshire town of Market Drayton twenty-six years before had been born a boy called Robert Clive. As he grew up he became a terrible scapegrace, known and reprobated throughout the place as a daring good-for-nothing, a leader of a band of equally bad boys, whom the good people of Market Drayton called "lawless resolutes." It was, therefore, with a feeling of general relief that he was at last shipped off to India as a clerk in the East India Company's service.

He seems to have hated the loneliness and drudgery of his life, and one day a friend found him sitting dejectedly at a table with a pistol before him. Fire that thing out of the window, will you?" said young Clive. His friend did so. And as the pistol went off Clive remarked, "I have twice held it to my head, but it missed fire both times, so I suppose I must be meant to live for something."

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


When fighting began Clive at once left his office work and was quickly in the thick of it. Several times he had wonderful escapes from death, and his daring courage was soon noticed by his superiors. But in addition to this he was now to show that he possessed soldierly skill of an unusual kind.

The garrison of Trichinopoly were beginning to despair and the enemy outside were in high spirits at the thought of its speedy capture, when their confidence was suddenly turned to blank dismay. The astounding news had reached them that Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic, whose prince, aided by the French, was attacking Trichinopoly, had fallen into the hands of the English.

It was true. Young Clive had proposed this daring scheme for the relief of Trichinopoly to Mr. Saunders, the Governor of Fort St. David, who, sharp enough to see its cleverness, had sent him off with all the men they could scrape together, no more than five hundred, mostly sepoys, with eight officers, six of whom had never seen a shot fired.

Five days later, in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm, Clive and his gallant five hundred rushed the defences of Arcot, to find that the garrison had fled before him and that the capital of the Carnatic was in his power.

By this deed of splendid daring the whole state of things was changed. It was, of course, no good for the French and their allies to take Trichinopoly if they lost Arcot. The capital must be retaken at all costs, they decided, and a force of ten thousand men was detached from the siege and sent off to Arcot.

Meanwhile Clive had thrown himself into the fort, where he and his men worked their hardest to strengthen the old fortifications and build new ones, collect stores, and mount guns. But when all was done the position was a very weak one. For the walls were low, the towers ruinous, and the ditch around the fort was dry. Few could have hoped to hold such a place with a tiny force against the attack of ten thousand.

But for two long months Clive did so, even though fighting and sickness had reduced his little garrison to two hundred men. The story of that defence is one of the wildest of the romances of war. Away in his mountain stronghold Morari Rao, the fierce Mahratta chieftain, was so affected by the splendid heroism of the battle of the few against the many that he swore that if the English could fight like that they should not fight alone.

And so one day the news came that a relief column, escorted by clouds of terrible Mahratta horsemen, was coming from Madras. Hearing this the French and their allies determined on one more desperate attack. Accordingly, in the early morning of November 25, which was a great Mohammedan festival, when the Moslem soldiers were worked up to the wildest pitch of excitement, the besiegers rushed to the attack from all sides.

But Clive had learnt from his spies of what was intended, and all was ready when the moment came. That is to say, as ready as the weakened garrison, now numbering scarce two hundred men, could make ready against twenty times as many foes. Two places in the walls had been broken down by the enemy's artillery fire, and these points, as well as the two gates, were the real objects of attack.

Well might Clive and his brave little garrison have felt their hearts sink as the attacking columns rushed forward in the sunrise of that November morning. Charging in front of the enemy's ranks were elephants, their heads encased in steel to drive in the gates like living battering rams. Two broad causeways led to the gates, and these were swept by a murderous hail of bullets from Clive's men lying behind the ramparts. The huge beasts, struck by the British fire, turned in a frenzy of fear and pain and plunged back in a murderous retreat through the dense masses which were charging behind them.

For one desperate hour the assault went on. At every point of danger there was Clive. At one place where the wall was broken the enemy rushed on in a dense swarm with loud yells and nearly broke in, but Clive, darting to a cannon covering the breach, fired at close range into the faces of the oncoming masses, who fell back in confusion. In the space of sixty minutes Clive's 200 men had fired 12,000 rounds with deadly effect into the crowded ranks of their assailants. Their bravest were lying in heaps in front of the walls, and now the rest refused to face the British fire again.

Elephants at Arcot


The siege of Arcot was over, and from that moment the power of the French gradually declined. The news of Clive's wonderful defence rang throughout southern India. The Indians called him "Sabut Jung," the "Daring in War," and such was the terror of his name that wherever he went hundreds of native troops began to desert the French service.

There were years of hard fighting before we finally triumphed, but only three months later Clive dealt the French another deadly blow. A strong French force of horse, foot, and artillery made a secret dash for Arcot, most of whose garrison had gone with Clive in another direction. Hearing of this, Clive pursued them. Our men at Arcot had been warned, and as the native troops of the French were afraid to attack those deadly walls again, they turned back and concealed themselves in a strong position on the road by which Clive and his weary troops were hurrying along in the pale light of a rising moon.

Suddenly, to their utter surprise, a heavy fire burst upon them from the mango-groves of Covrepauk. Without a moment's delay Clive sent his baggage-carts back, threw his men into a watercourse on his left, and brought up his artillery to fire on the French guns. But these were too numerous and too well placed, and Clive, whose gunners were falling fast, saw that unless he could silence the French artillery his force was lost.

Accordingly he sent away Ensign Symmonds—let us record this gallant officer's name—with orders to creep round behind the French position, if possible, with a party of picked men and attack them in rear. Symmonds succeeded in getting well round, and then, crawling forward by himself, stumbled over a trench full of Frenchmen. They shouted to him, but as he replied in their own language they did not bother about him any further.

Then Symmonds, having found out where to make his attack, crept back in the darkness to his own party and, leading them forward to within thirty yards of the very centre of the unsuspecting enemy, lay down and fired a sudden volley right into their midst. That one volley was enough. The French force, panic-stricken to find themselves attacked from behind, at once broke and fled, leaving their guns and baggage in Clive's hands. Instead of defeat it was a brilliant victory, and proved the death-blow of French dominion in India.

Following this, Clive and Major Lawrence pressed the French hard, cut their communications, broke up the army besieging Trichinopoly, and captured the French officers who were with it. To complete the overthrow of Dupleix's plan to set up native princes in the Carnatic and Deccan under French management, his two native princes were shortly afterwards slain by the Mahrattas, and after two more years of further disaster Dupleix was recalled to France, where the unfortunate man eventually died in poverty and discredit.

The strangest thing about this war in the Carnatic was that all the time England and France were at peace in Europe, so that, although their officers and native soldiers were fighting in India, it was always pretended that their troops were merely lent to the rival native princes. Consequently the English could obtain no help from their fleet, nor could they attack the French town of Pondicherry. For the same reason the French could not attack Madras. This very curious state of things was soon to be ended, but in the meantime the English were assailed by a fresh and more powerful foe.