Strategic Defeat

For Robert, his vision was clear. He had just one mission…to take Arcot.

July 30, 2015 02:57 pm | Updated 03:22 pm IST

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

August 30, 1751 CE, Somewhere between Kanchipuram and Arcot, Thamizh Nadu

You’re mad. You know that, don’t you?” Edmund Maskelyne gasped, as they huffed and puffed along a dark road. Huge neem and tamarind trees loomed, the branches rubbing against each other. Every time the wind roared with gale-like force, a shower of small leaves drenched them. It was a horrible night to be out.

“Our ally, the rightful Nawab of Arcot, Mohammad Ali Khan Wallajah is imprisoned inside the Trichy Fort; the French forces and that pretender, Chanda Sahib have surrounded him,” Robert said, slinging his gun into a more secure position.

A distraction

“And you’ve worked out a diversionary tactic by planning the take-over of Arcot, Chanda Sahib’s capital — but he has thousands of men, horses and guns,” Edmund objected. “You have less than 500 men, eight European officers — six of them have never fired a single shot and four were clerks with the East India Company, just like you!”

“Fortune favours the brave, Edmund,” Robert said. “In this case, us — the British.”

“The Arcot fort is heavily defended,” Edmund said, worried. “They have double the number of men we have; a 1,00,000 people within and ammunition, and…”

“Oh, stop worrying! Everything will be all right.”

Lightning lit a jagged line across the sky; thunder crashed, and the rain fell in torrents.

“This is a ridiculous attempt. We’re going to fail,” Edmund prophesied. “Not even our superiors at Madras believe in us.”

“But they’ve still promised us guns.”

“But the Marathas haven’t promised to come to our help.”

“Will you stop?”


“Because we’ve arrived.”

In the distance, across the Palar river, running in full spate, loomed the imposing fort of Arcot, dark and silent.

November 14, 1751 CE, Fort of Arcot

Huge, armoured elephants battered the fort gates. The fort walls, already in bad condition after months of siege, rained down crumbling rocks and mortars. The dull roar of guns reverberated around them; the air stank with the smell of burning men, animals, trees.

“We may have taken the fort, but the last of our food is gone,” Edmund whispered beside Robert, as they crouched under a battlement, trying to protect themselves from the gunfire. “The fort reservoir’s water supply is brackish and unhealthy; more than half of our men are dead ...”

“I know all this,” was Robert’s calm reply. He jumped up abruptly, fired a couple of shots at the swarming hordes of Raza, Chanda Sahib’s second-in-command, down below. “The Marathas have promised to come. All we need to do now is engage the enemy — take as many down as we can…”

Vision of victory

Edmund stared at his closest friend. They were dressed in tattered clothes; the last full meal they'd eaten was more than fifty days ago, before the siege had begun. They had less than 100 men, while Chanda Sahib had sent more than 7,000 soldiers to re-capture Arcot. “You’re enjoying all this, aren't you?”

Robert stared back at him. His eyes blazed a brilliant blue; his sun-burnt skin, hunger and thirst must have been agony — but he was grinning. “I've never felt more alive. You see, Edmund,” he whispered. “The only moment a man lives — is when he's about to die.”

Below, there was an almighty crash. Robert’s men marched calmly to their positions, arming guns and cannons with the last of their ammunition. “They’re in,” Edmund whispered. “We’re dead.”

Robert gazed at the men under his command. They were exhausted — but there was determination in their eyes. Below, the enemy forces were scattered, screaming, running here and there, in aimless fashion. “No one’s dead, until they draw the last breath,” he announced. “And I’m more fortunate than Raza Sahib, outside.”

Edmund stared at him in astonishment. “How?”

“His men are in the thousands, but they’re all terrified. They don’t obey their commanders, and are just running around as they wish. You’re all facing death — but you haven’t deserted me.”

The fort walls shuddered again. “Last round,” Robert exulted, as he leant over the fort wall to fire. “Prepare to…”

He stopped. Silence fell suddenly, like a heavy blanket.

Edmund scrambled up to stand beside Robert. “What is it?” he gasped.

Robert pointed to the distance. Chanda Sahib’s forces were in full retreat. A huge dust cloud rose, obscuring the horizon.

“Why?” Edmund asked. “Is it — is it because the Maratha forces have arrived?”

“No. They’re not here.” The fort was silent. A confused babble arose among Robert’s men.

“Then why did they leave?” Edmund demanded. A sudden, unbelievable thought glimmered in his mind. “Did they — did they think that we were winning? But we have just a handful of men…”

“They didn’t know that,” Robert said triumphantly. “You see, we never gave up. We gave the impression that we were stronger than they thought — and they believed it.”

“Arcot is now ours,” Edmund breathed, awestruck. “Chanda Sahib will have to send more men to take back his capital — and that will mean less men at Trichy. Either way, our re-inforcements and the Marathas will take care of him. You’ve successfully beaten his strategy.”

Robert Clive, the man who later laid the foundation for the British Empire in India, grinned. “Told you.”

Historical Note: Despite beginning life as a clerk, Robert Clive (September 29, 1725 – November 22, 1774), fulfilled his early promise: he became a soldier, and is credited with establishing British supremacy in India. The Siege of Arcot was said to be the turning point in this massive venture and such was the skill he exhibited that he was later known as Clive of India. His bond with Edmund Maskalyne grew stronger; he married Edmund’s sister Margaret, in St Mary’s Church, Madras.

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