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The Mount and the battlefield below

The OTA ground  

At 4.30 p.m. on a workday afternoon, the St. Thomas Mount/OTA/golf course environs are incredibly quiet. In that “garrison” area, I could have heard a leaf fall. Inside the gate, the maintenance staff point to golfers in the rolling vastness ahead but all I can see are the Metro bridge in the distance, ancient banyan trees, silent greens and bougainvilleas in bloom. Inconceivable as it sounds, I'm here looking for signs of a battle that was fought between two foreign armies 256 years ago.

The search was triggered by the intriguing label on Google Maps for a spot just beyond Kathipara flyover towards St. Thomas Mount. The red teardrop points to the words Battlefield 1759. “Check it out!” friend Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan had said, adding, “Madras, we know, was a coveted territory, many battles were fought over it. But the 1759 battle (and the one in 1746 when Madras was captured by the French) is important because it was fought against the larger backdrop of the Seven Years' War between England and France — basically, European power games were played out in Madras.”

The story, known as Siege of Madras, starts with Count Lally, the French Governor-General of Pondicherry attacking Fort St. David at Cuddalore, reducing it to rubble, and then turning his attention to Madras. In that ongoing war, the British had improved the infrastructure at Fort St. George and made it almost impregnable. Lally made an unsuccessful visit to Tanjore to collect funds and reached Vandalur on December 6, 1758. The news sparked a flurry, and the British headquarters asked the native forces stationed outside to march in, and reinforced the field troops at St. Thomas Mount under Col. Stringer Lawrence.

Lally advanced, and by December 10, he had pushed the field force to the south of Harris Bridge-Mount Road; by December 12, he had forced Lawrence to retreat into the Fort. Only a minimum detachment now guarded the outlying Black Town (George Town). Lally stationed his considerable troops and cavalry at the southern, northern, and north-western fronts of the Fort. On December 14, he crossed the Cooum, marched through Vepery and entered Black Town. He found no opposition.

It was Lally's battle to take. Ah, but the indisciplined French troops began to plunder Black Town and in no time were “reeling drunk”. Colonel Draper and major Brereton from the British side mounted a sortie, Brereton following a route to cover Draper's retreat. There were hits and misses, and at one point, Draper rushed forward to capture the four French cannons. The French rallied from a position of surrender and chased Draper, forcing him to take a road leading to the northern face of the fort.

The way was blocked by a stagnant North River with just one bridge. All Lally's infantrymen had to do was reach it before Draper did and cut off his retreat. But Bussy, his commander, failed to act. With Brereton's support, the British re-entered the fort safely. Lally's men had gifted them a lifeline.

The British forces, rallying under John Caillaud, Achilles Preston and Yusuf Khan carried out a series of attacks threatening French communications, especially around Conjeevaram. On December 27, Khan, with his men, marched to St. Thomas Mount and by December 30, managed to repulse Lally's large detachment. Another bloody battle ensued, the French routed Khan's forces, but Preston's unit attacked and caused heavy losses to the French.

On January 2, 1759, the French began firing at the Fort. In spite of a five-day bombardment of the citadel, they failed to make a breakthrough, the indiscipline which Lally had permitted during his earlier operations slowing down the advance. The British forces remained largely intact. On January 30, a British ship arrived with men and ammunition. There was news a British fleet under Admiral Pocock was on its way from Calcutta. Lally made a desperate attempt, Preston advanced at St. Thomas' Mount, and Caillaud joined him. In that bitter battle, Caillaud's Tanjore horses (cavalry) proved their mettle. Lally's repeated attacks melted his supplies, ammunition and money and none arrived as reinforcement. His disgruntled, demoralised troops deserted him. On February 16, a British naval squadron brought more troops. On February 17, Lally, in bitter rage, hastily left for Arcot and the 67-day siege of Madras came to an end.

I stand there imagining the battle. Is this where and how it all happened? British soldiers in embroidered coats, black hats with brims, turned up to form three angles fighting the French similarly kilted? Did gunfire echo here? It was a battle fought street-to-street, house-to-house. This area around St. Thomas Mount must contain remnants of that eventful siege. Maybe the garrison church will know more about it.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:36:03 AM |

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