The pitched battle showing that the English ‘could fight’
(Morari Rao, Mahratta leader), even against greater numbers.
Mahratta Horseman
Mahratta horseman
Battle: Arni
War: Anglo-French Wars in India (Second Carnatic War)
Date: 3rd December 1751
Place: In Tamil Nadu in South East India.
Combatants: The Nabob of Arcot, Chunda Sahib, assisted by the French against Mohammed Ali, the son of the previous Nabob of Carnatica, assisted by the British.
Generals: Raju Sahib, son of Chunda Sahib, against Robert Clive.
Size of the armies: Clive commanded 200 European soldiers, 700 sepoys, 600 Mahratta horsemen under Bassin Rao and 3 guns. Raju Sahib commanded 300 French troops, 2,500 French trained and led sepoys, 2,000 native horse and 4 guns.
French Governor Dupleix
The French Governor Dupleix with French troops meeting an Indian Prince
Winner: Robert Clive and his British, sepoy and Mahratta force
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The native Indian soldiers were armed with bows, swords and spears. There were some firearms. The Indian princes possessed field guns but they were not well handled by the Indian gunners.
The significant component of warfare in India in the 1750s became the disciplined French and British infantry and artillery. There were few of these troops, and, while effective in the field against the native levies, they were susceptible to disease and quickly became casualties.
The answer for the French and the British to the small number of European troops, and their vulnerability to tropical disease, was to recruit native sepoys, arm them with muskets and train them in European battle drill. This both European nations began to do.
The European troops and sepoys raised by the East India Companies of Britain and France were equipped and armed in the same way as their national infantry. The weapons carried were a musket and bayonet and small sword, known in the British army as a ‘hanger’. On campaign, each soldier carried around 25 musket rounds, made up in paper cartridges, in a leather pouch hung from a shoulder belt. The uniform was a coat, red for the British and blue for the French, waistcoat and tricorne hat, worn according to the demands of the weather. In some instances, white was worn, instead of blue or red. Sepoys wore shorter coats of their employing nation’s colour. The headgear for sepoys was a local variant of the tricorne.
European troops wore stockings, gaiters and heavy shoes. Sepoys wore native clothing on their lower body, with sandals or bare feet.
Contemporary accounts of the wars refer to ‘European’ troops, rather than British or French. Both British and French East India Companies recruited whatever European soldiers were prepared to join their armies, regardless of nationality. If captured, a European soldier was very likely to enlist with his captor, rather than remain in prison, so that the British forces contained Frenchmen, along with soldiers of many other European nationalities, with a predominance of British. Equally so with the French.
The presence of the various European nationalities in India was initially to trade, and there was a reluctance to become involved in the raising, training and paying large bodies of troops, until it became clear that this was unavoidable if a presence was to be maintained in India. The French and British quickly became a major force in Indian warfare, particularly in the South, due to their advanced technology and discipline.
Malleson states that the rate of fire for Indian gunners in the 1750s was around 1 shot every 15 minutes. The European rate of gunfire, 2 or 3 rounds a minute, came as a shock. Malleson states that the battle tactics of Indian commanders were based on the erroneous assumption that, once European guns were discharged, there was a period of 15 minutes during which an attack could be launched, while the guns were reloaded. Other features of French and British tactics that came as a surprise were disciplined volley firing and the aggression of European infantry assaults. (In these early days there were no European cavalry or sepoy cavalry in India, and the French and British relied on native horsemen, such as the Mahrattas)
The combination of these tactical characteristics, with the adept and ruthless leadership shown by Robert Clive and other British officers, and by some of the French officers, such as M. Paradis, explains how battles were won by small numbers of European troops and sepoys fighting large native armies.
As the French and British sepoy armies became stronger, the 2 nations ceased to fight as proxies for local rulers, and the fighting between them became direct, although the wars with the native rulers continued to be the most important component in the politics of southern India, particularly as the French lost ground to the British.
A constant threat from North-West India were the Mahrattas, better disciplined mounted warriors, who in the wars of the 1750s acted as allies to the British. Later, war was conducted by the British against the Mahrattas.
The Mahratta horsemen were armed with sabres, and were accompanied by an equivalent number of foot soldiers, armed with swords, clubs or spears. If a horse was disabled, the rider continued fighting on foot. If a rider was disabled, one of the foot soldiers would take over the horse.
Robert Clive by Gainsborough
Robert Clive: picture by Thomas Gainsborough
The predominant power on the Indian sub-continent in the mid-18th Century was the Muslim Mogul Emperor in Delhi. The Emperor maintained a loose rule over a system of sub-rulers of varying power and loyalty. These rulers struggled over the suzerainty of a number of states of differing sizes, the contests being particularly savage when a ruler died, leaving family and retainers to fight over the succession.
The British presence in India was by way of the trading organisation, the East India Company, with no direct British Crown involvement, although Royal Troops and ships assisted in the wars. The French equivalent was also an East India Company, although there was closer involvement by the French Crown.
In the south of India, the native rulers in the Deccan, Mysore, Carnatica, Tanjore and other states, turned to the two competing European powers, Britain and France, for assistance. The Carnatic Wars were a protracted struggle between rival Indian claimants to the Carnatic throne, supported by the French and the British.
Between 1748 and 1751, the French Governor Dupleix worked to build up French influence in the area. The departure of Boscawen’s British fleet for England in the autumn of 1749, with the arrival of the monsoon, lifted a major restraint on French ambition, and the French quickly established control of the Deccan, much of the Carnatic and other states in Southern India.
In July 1751, Chunda Sahib, the Nawab of Arcot, with a force of 8,000 native and 400 French troops, advanced to lay siege to Trichinopoly, held by Mohammed Ali, the Nawab of Tanjore, an ally of the British East India Company.
The British hurried such forces as they had to assist Mohammed Ali in holding Trichinopoly. If Trichinopoly was to fall, British prestige would suffer a heavy blow and most of its troops and officers would be lost. Ensuring that Trichinopoly held out and was relieved became an essential aim for the British.
Robert Clive, a junior officer in the service of the East India Company, and one of the few officers not immured in Trichinopoly, devised a plan to divert Chunda Sahib by attacking his capital, Arcot. Robert Saunders, the East India Company governor at Madras, adopted Clive’s plan and dispatched him with a small force of British troops and sepoys, for the attack on Arcot.
Clive marched to Arcot, seized the fort in the city and held it against a force sent by Chunda Sahib and commanded by his son, Raju Sahib. See the Siege of Arcot.
Map of the Battle of Arni
Map of the Battle of Arni, 3rd December 1751: map by John Fawkes
On 26th November 1751, Raju Sahib abandoned the siege of Arcot, following his heavy defeat in attempting to take the fort on the previous day, and in view of the approach of a relief column from Madras under Captain Kilpatrick, with a force of 1,000 Mahratta horsemen commanded by Morari Rao.
Raju Sahib withdrew his army to Vellore, to the west of Arcot. During the course of this withdrawal, the army broke up, leaving Raju Sahib with his original force from Trichinopoly, all the other contingents leaving for their home areas.
Raju Sahib marched his army south from Vellore, intending to rejoin his father in the siege of Trichinopoly, a route that required him to cross the river at Arni. He there received a re-inforcement of European troops which restored his confidence.
Clive left a garrison in the Arcot Fort under Captain Kilpatrick, and marched in pursuit of Raju Sahib’s force, catching up with Raju Sahib at the approach to the river crossing north of Arni.
Clive’s force comprised 200 European soldiers, 700 sepoys, and 600 Mahratta horsemen under Bassin Rao, making 1,500 in all, with 3 guns.
Raju Sahib commanded 300 French troops, 2,500 French trained and led sepoys, and 2,000 native horse, making 4,800 in all, with 4 guns.
In view of his superiority in numbers, Raju Sahib turned back from the river crossing, and advanced to attack Clive’s force.
Clive took up a position with the 600 Mahratta horsemen in a grove on his left flank. He placed his 700 sepoys in a village on his right flank, and his 2,000 European troops and 3 guns in the 300 yards of open ground between the 2 flanks. Between Clive’s positions and the river stretched an open area of marshy rice paddy, crossed by a raised causeway from the river to the village on his right.
Raju Sahib launched 2 simultaneous attacks on Clive’s force: his 4 guns, 300 French infantry and 1,500 sepoys advanced along the causeway, to attack the sepoys in the village on Clive’s right flank, while his 4,000 native infantry and horsemen, with the remaining 1,000 sepoys, advanced towards the Mahrattas, in the grove on Clive’s left.
Indian Soldiers
Indian soldiers
As Raju Sahib’s force marched along the causeway, they halted and discharged salvos of canon fire into the village, and at Clive’s centre. This delayed their advance, so that the first engagement occurred on the other flank between the native troops and sepoys and the Mahratta horsemen in the grove.
As Raju Sahib’s men advanced, the Mahrattas launched charge after charge, 5 in all, in an attempt to repel the attack, but were driven back on each occasion by the volleys of the French-led sepoys.
On Raju Sahib’s left, the force of French infantry and sepoys advanced along the causeway, but with increasing difficulty, as they were subjected to a heavy enfilade fire by the 3 guns in the British centre. Raju Sahib’s men suffered heavy casualties, until the advance came to a halt, and his troops spilled into the rice paddy to escape the gunfire, leaving only the gunners and a few infantry on the causeway. No further advance was possible in the marshy rice paddy.
Taking advantage of this repulse of the causeway attack, Clive sent 2 of his guns to assist the Mahrattas on the left flank, and ordered an attack along the causeway by the sepoys in the village, supported by 2 platoons of European troops dispatched from the centre.
This counter-attack caused the French gunners to take their guns out of action, and withdraw them back along the causeway towards the river. Seeing this withdrawal by their guns, Raju Sahib’s infantry in the rice paddy also began to retreat, in increasing disorder.
On Raju Sahib’s right flank, the native troops and sepoys suffered from the fire of the 2 guns moved to the grove, and, seeing the retreat by the rest of the line, also fell back, vigorously pursued by the Mahratta horsemen.
No longer needing to cover the centre of his line, Clive led the remaining gun and his European infantry into the village, and attacked aggressively along the causeway.
Raju Sahib’s men fell back, attempting to make a stand on the causeway at 3 points, where there were buildings, or choultries. But on each occasion they were beaten back and the pursuit continued.
The battle came to an end with nightfall. Raju Sahib’s army crossed the river, and entered Arni in considerable confusion. At around midnight the army left Arni and headed towards Gingee.
The next morning, Clive’s troops crossed the river and took over the town. They found many tents and a great deal of abandoned baggage. The Mahrattas pursued the retreating army, capturing 400 horses and around 100,000 rupees, representing Raju Sahib’s war chest, before returning to Arni later that day.
The British enlisted some 600 French sepoys, who surrendered with their arms, into the British East India Company’s service.
Clive summoned the fort at Arni to surrender with any of Raju Sahib’s baggage left there. The governor sent out an elephant, 15 horses and a quantity of baggage. He agreed to take an oath of fealty to Mohammed Ali, the British sponsored Nawab of Arcot, but refused to surrender the fort. Clive was not in a position to attack the fort, having no siege artillery.
Casualties: Raju Sahib’s force suffered 200 killed and wounded. The British lost 8 sepoys. The Mahratta horse suffered 50 killed and wounded. Clive captured the 4 guns.
Battle Honour and Campaign Medal:
No battle honour or decoration was awarded for the Battle of Arni.
A Mughal warrior
The Siege of Arcot followed by the Battle of Arni, both in 1751, were the first significant victories for the British in India. The comment of the Mahratta leader, Morari Rao, after these 2 actions, was that ‘the English can fight.’
The reputation the British acquired in India that they were traders only and incapable of conducting warfare was dispelled. An era of British conquest in India was under way.
The previous battle in the sequence is the Siege of Arcot
The next battle is the Battle of Kaveripauk.
  • Military Transacttions by Orme
  • The East India Military Calendar Volume II
  • The Decisive Battles in India by Malleson
  • History of the British Army by Fortescue Volume II

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