1757-06-23 - Battle of Plassey
After Clive's unauthorised expedition against the French fort of Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar), Siraj Ud Daulah, the nawab of Bengal, decided to break the treaty that he had signed with the British. Clive then declared war to the nawab and left Chandernagore and undertook his famous campaign in Bengal. The nawab assembled his army at Plassey (present-day Palashi).
Meanwhile, Mir Jafar, the commander-in-chief of the nawab's army had made overtures to the British authorities at Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) and was ready to betray his sovereign in exchange for the title of nawab. Both parties came to a secret agreement on June 5 1757.
On June 23, Clive's army arrived at Plassey only at 1:00 AM. It had been much delayed by the slow progress of the boats against the stream. Clive was surprised to learn from the continued din of drums and cymbals that the nawab's army was close at hand. He had expected to meet with it farther north. Indeed, the whole of the nawab's army was encamped within the peninsula and the entrenchment to its south.
The mangoe grove of Plassey extended north and south for a length of about 0,8 km, with a width of about 0,3 km. The trees were planted in regular rows, and the whole was surrounded by a slight mud bank and by a ditch beyond it, choked with weeds and brambles. The grove lay at an acute angle to the Bhagirathi river, the northern corner being 45 meters and the southern 180 meters from the bank. A little to the northward of it and on the edge of the river stood a hunting-house of the nawab, surrounded by a garden and wall. About 1,5 km to northward of this house the river makes a huge bend to the south-west in the form of a horse-shoe, containing a peninsula of about a 1,5 km in diameter, which shrinks at its neck to a width of some 450 meters from stream to stream. About 275 meters to south of this peninsula an entrenchment had been thrown up, which ran for above 200 meters straight inland and parallel to the grove, and then turned off at an obtuse angle to the north-eastward for about 5 km. The angle itself was defended by a redoubt. Some 275 meters to the east of the redoubt, but outside the entrenchment, stood a hillock covered with trees. About 800 meters to southward of this hillock lay a small tank, and yet 90 meters farther south a second and much larger tank, both of them surrounded by a mound of earth.
Description of Events
At dawn on June 23, the nawab's forces began to stream by many outlets from the camp towards the grove, a mighty army of 35,000 foot, 15,000 horse and 54 pieces of artillery. The infantry was mostly armed with matchlocks, pikes, swords, bows and arrows, and a considerable number with rockets. The cavalry was particularly fine, the men a very superior class from upper Hindustan, and their horses of a larger and stronger breed than any the British had before met with in India. The guns were for the most part of large calibre (18-pdrs, 24-pdrs and 32-pdrs) and were carried, together with their crews and ammunition, on large stages, which were tugged by 40 or 50 yokes of oxen in front and propelled by elephants from behind. Mir Jafar deployed on the left wing with his division. Some 45 French under M. Saint-Frais, who had formerly been of the garrison of Chandernagore, took post with 4 light field-guns at the larger tank, which was nearest to the grove; while 2 heavy guns under a native officer were posted to Saint-Frais's right, between him and the river. In support of these advanced parties were 5,000 horse and 7,000 foot under the nawab's most faithful general, Mir Mudin. The rest of the Indian army extended itself in a huge curve from the hillock before the entrenchments to within 800 meters of the southern angle of the grove. Thus the British could not advance against the force in their front without exposing themselves to overwhelming attack on their right flank.
Clive watched these dispositions from the nawab's hunting-house, and was surprised at the numbers and confidence of the enemy. He drew his troops outside the bank which surrounded the grove and formed them in a single line, with their left resting on the hunting-house and their front towards the nearest tank. The Europeans occupied the centre of the line, formed in 4 divisions totalling about 950 men, partly of the East India Company's troops and partly of the 39th Foot, while 100 Indo-Portuguese topasses also were ranked within it. Three 6-pdrs were posted on each flank of these European troops, manned by 50 men of the Royal Artillery and by 57 seamen; and to right and left of these guns, 2,100 sepoys were drawn up in two equal divisions. The line extended for 550 meters beyond the grove, but the enemy at this point was too remote to advance upon the British flank before dispositions could be made to meet them. Two more field-guns and two howitzers were posted 180 meters in advance of the left division of sepoys, under shelter of two brick-kilns. Therewith Clive's order of battle was complete and the handful of 3,000 men stood up to meet the 50,000 men strong army of the nawab.
At 8:00 AM, the action was opened by the firing of one of the French guns at the tank. The shot fell true, killing one man and wounding another of the British grenadier company posted on the right of the Bengal European Battalion. Then the whole of the enemy's guns, from the tanks in front along the whole vast sweep of the curving line, opened a heavy and continuous fire. The British guns replied and with effect but Clive lost 20 Europeans and 30 sepoys in the first half hour of the cannonade.
At about 8:30 AM, Clive ordered the whole of his force to fall back into the grove. So his battalions faced about, passed into the trees and vanished from sight. Wild yells of elation rose up from the Indian army whose entire line closed in nearer upon the grove. The Indians then renewed the cannonade with redoubled energy. The shot, however, did little damage, for the British had been ordered to lie down behind the mud-banks. Meanwhile, Clive's field-guns, firing through embrasures made in the bank, wrought greater destruction, at the closer range, than before.
Until 11:00 AM, the two armies continued to cannonade each other.
At 11:00 AM, Clive called a council of officers and decided that it would be best to maintain the position until nightfall and to take the offensive at midnight, and attack the enemy's camp. In the meantime British troops were sheltered and consequently were suffering no loss; whilst from behind the banks which enveloped the grove they continued to pour a well-directed fire on the enemy; creating some havoc amongst the masses, and ever and anon exploding their ammunition, which, packed close to the guns on the raised stages caused much loss and confusion.
Around noon, a heavy storm of rain, which had been holding off for some hours, swept over the plain, drenching both armies to the skin. The British had tarpaulins ready to cover their ammunition but the Indians had taken no such precaution and consequently most of their powder was damaged. Their fire began to slacken while that of the British was as lively as ever.
At about 1:00 PM, believing that the British must be in the same predicament as himself, Mir Mudin advanced from the tank towards the grove to drive the British from it. His troops were met by a deadly fire of grape, his cavalry was dispersed and he himself mortally wounded.
When he heard that Mir Mudin had been killed, the nawab asked Mir Jafar to lead his troops, ignoring that Mir Jafar had been bribed by the British. Mir Jafar responded to the nawab's request but did not endeavour any action. Furthermore, he wrote to Clive informing him of what had taken place, and urging him to push on, for the victory was in his hand. Meanwhile, another general taking part into the conspiracy advised the nawab to suspend action for the day and to make another attempt the following day. The nawab acted on this counsel and orderer his army to fall back within the entrenchment. He then set forth with an escort of 2,000 horse for Murshidabad.
At about 2:00 PM, the fire of the Indian army ceased. The teams were harnessed to the guns and the whole army turning about flowed back slowly towards the entrenchments. Some guns were mounted on the bund of a tank forming a sort of mound in the centre of the Indian camp.
While all this was going forward, Clive, having resolved to make no offensive movement before night, had retired to the hunting-house to snatch a few minutes of sleep after the anxiety and fatigue of the previous day, giving orders to Kilpatrick to act on the defensive only. Clive was roused by a message from major Kilpatrick which brought him back speedily into the field. Despite the withdrawal of the nawab's army, Saint-Frais and his little party still held their position in the tank, and Kilpatrick, perceiving that the position was one from which the enemy's flank could be cannonaded during their retreat, sent word to Clive that he was about to attack it. Clive, waked abruptly from sleep, sharply reprimanded Kilpatrick for taking such a step without orders; but presently seeing that the major was right, he took command of his 250 Europeans with 2 light guns, and sending Kilpatrick to bring forward the rest of the army, himself led the advance against the tank.
Saint-Frais, though terribly outnumbered, fought manfully; but finding himself deserted and betrayed by his supports he gradually gave way, disputing every inch of ground and deliberately limbering up his guns retired in perfect order to the redoubt at the angle of the entrenchment, and made ready for action once more. Meanwhile, during the advance of the British, the southernmost division of the nawab's army was observed to be holding aloof from the rest of the host and approaching nearer to the grove. These were the troops of Mir Jafar, but their movement was misconstrued as a design upon the boats and baggage in the grove; and accordingly 3 platoons of sepoys and a field-gun were detached to hold them in check. The division therefore retired slowly, but still remained significantly apart from the remainder of the Indian army.
Around 3:00 PM, the main body of the British had reached the tank, and planting their artillery on the mound opened fire on the enemy behind their entrenchments. Thereupon many of the nawab's troops faced about again and moved out into the plain to meet them, the infantry opening a heavy fire while the artillery likewise wheeled about to enter the fight anew. However, the Indian army was now entirely under the command of the conspirators.
Clive perceived that his only chance was to press his attack home before the resistance to him could assume any organised form. He therefore pushed forward half of his infantry and 3 guns to the lesser tank and the remainder to some rising ground 200 meters to the left of it, at the same time detaching a 150 men to occupy a tank close to the entrenchments and to keep up a fire of musketry upon them. From these stations the firing was renewed at closer range than before and with admirable efficiency. The Indians suffered great loss and the teams attached to their heavy artillery were so much cut up that the guns could not be brought into action. Nevertheless Saint-Frais's field-pieces at the redoubt were still well and regularly served and the Indians, though lacking leadership, were able, under favour of the ground and of their immense superiority in numbers, to carry on the fight with some spirit. The entrenchments themselves, the hillock to eastward of the redoubt, and every hollow or point of vantage, were crammed with matchlock-men, while the cavalry hovered round, threatening continually to charge, though always kept at a distance by the British artillery.
At length, Clive realised that the isolated division of the nawab's army by the grove must be that of Mir Jafar and that his flank and rear were safe. Clive resolved therefore to cut matters short. He recalled the sepoys previously detached to guard the boats and sent forward two columns (the right column led by Kilpatrick at the head of the Madras European Regiment, the left by Coote at the head of the grenadiers of the 39th Foot) to make simultaneous attack upon the redoubt on one side and the hillock on the other, while the main body moved up between them in support. The right column gained an eminence commanding a portion of the Indian entrenchments; whilst the left column, charging the redoubt, succeeded in gaining a footing inside; when the right party, with cheers, rushing down the sloping ground, the two divisions uniting to attack the French. Saint-Frais, perceiving that he was now wholly unsupported, abandoned his guns and retired. The Indian troops within the camp then all fled, abandoning their artillery.
At 5:00 PM, the British were in possession of the nawab's entrenchments and camp and the battle of Plassey was won. The victorious British columns halted on the field of battle only sufficiently long to enable them to procure fresh bullocks to drag their guns. The British then pursued the Indian army 10 km up to Daodpoor, passing upwards of 40 guns they had abandoned.
At the end of the engagement, Mir Jafar sent a congratulatory message to Clive. The troops of Mir Jafar encamped in the neighbourhood of the British force that night.
The defection of some of the nawab's generals allowed Clive to win this battle against all odds. Indeed, about three-fourth of the nawab's army, the corps under Mir Jafar, Yar Lutuf and Rai Durlabh Ram, did not take part to the battle.
The British lost 7 Europeans and 16 sepoys killed, 13 Europeans and 36 sepoys wounded. The Indians lost about 500 men.
This victory gave the British the dominion over the provinces of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar.
Order of Battle
British Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Lieutenant-colonel Robert Clive
Summary: 950 European infantry; 120 European Artillery; 8 x 6-pdrs and 2 x howitzers; 57 sailors; 2,100 sepoys and some Lascars
- Advanced Posts
- 2 x 6-pdrs guns
- 2 howitzers
- Right Wing
- part of 1st Bengal Native Infantry (about 1,050 men) (also known as the Lal Paltan, Hindi for Red Platoon)
- Left Wing
- part of 1st Bengal Native Infantry (about 1,050 men) (also known as the Lal Paltan, Hindi for Red Platoon)
- Artillery under lieutenant Hater of the Royal Navy
Indian Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah
Summary: about 35,000 foot, 15,000 horse and 54 guns
- Advanced Guard under Mir Mudin
- Cavalry (about 5,000 men)
- Infantry (about 7,000 men)
- Right Wing under Rai Durlabh Ram (unknown strength)
- Centre under Yar Lutuf Khan (unknown strength)
- Left Wing under Mir Muhammed Jafar Ali Khan
- Pathan Cavalry (about 10,000 men)
- French Artillery (about 45 men with 4 light field-guns) under M. de Saint-Frais
- Indian Artillery (50 guns, mainly 24-pdrs and 32-pdrs with some 18-pdrs)
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- An anonymous staff officer; Historical Record of the Honourable East India Company's First Madras Regiment, London: Smith, Elder and Co; 1843, pp. X-xvi, 128-133
- Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London: 1899, pp. 418-425
- Innes, P. R.; The History of the Bengal European Regiment, now the Royal Munster Fusiliers and how it helped to win India, 2nd ed., London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1885, pp. 1-4, 58-68
Banglapedia, Palashi, The battle of
Clive, Robert, Letter of Robert Clive to the East India Company, June 23 1757
Harrington, Peter, Plassey 1757: Clive of India's Finest Hour, Osprey, London: 1994
Wikipedia, Battle of Plassey