Tuesday, June 30, 2015

21 June 1757: Council of War

At a hamlet called Cuttawa, a column of 3,000 British troops settled in for the night.  Some were newly-recruited English lads, who had joined His Majesty’s army and never expected a posting in India.   Others were veterans of the East India Company’s service.  The majority of the force was native soldiers, or sepoys.  All were settling down for the night.  The lights in camp were extinguished, and the pickets began their weary vigils, ensuring that no enemy could surprise them while they slept.

But one tent still remained illuminated: the tent of British commander Robert Clive, who was holding a council of war.  Twenty European officers had been convened to answer the question: “Whether in our present situation without assistance and on our own bottom it would be prudent to attack the Nabob, or whether we should wait till joined by some Country Power.”

Much was at stake, and either decision was perilous in its own way.  The British had gotten in this situation because they had backed Mir Jafar in his secret bid to become Nabob.  Mir Jafar had suggested that the British should march to Plassey and battle the current Nabob, Siraj-ud-Doula.  The British had done so—but now what?

Clive’s question haunted the air.  To wait would mean the strengthening of the Nabob’s army with seasoned French soldiers.  With them, Siraj-ud-Doula would regain courage and his armies would crush the handful of British soldiers. But to attack the Nabob seemed suicidal, especially if Mir Jafar switched allegiances and joined the fight against them.  Could 3,000 European regulars, sailors, and Indian sepoys face the Nabob’s host of 35,000?  These two unpleasant alternatives now faced the council of war.

Usually in councils of war, the most junior officer would voice his opinion first, going on until finally reaching the highest officer.  Clive, however, broke with custom and gave his opinion first.  He declared that they must wait for Mir Jafar.  Major Kilpatrick (of his Majesty’s 39th Regiment of Foot) and Major Grant (of the East India Company) concurred.  Major Eyre Coote was of a different way of thinking. He said, “that the common soldiers were at present confident of success; that a stop so near the enemy would naturally quell this ardor, which it would be difficult to restore.”  He went on to say that a small French army would join the Nabob shortly, and when this happened, the Nabob would vigorously attack and cut off the British from their base at Calcutta.  Cut off from supplies, their position would become critical.

Down the ranks the votes went.  When it had finished, 13 officers had voted for waiting, and 7 had voted for attacking.  The vote was cast, and yet somehow Clive was not satisfied.  He exited the tent and, wandering up and down in a nearby mango grove, thought the matter over.  After an hour, he had come to a decision.

Drums beat as soldiers hurriedly formed ranks.  Officers bellowed commands and sergeants shoved and pushed to straighten the formations.  Clive had determined to march to Plassey and attack.  The battle, on 23 June, 1757, was a British victory.  Siraj-ud-Doula was killed soon after, and a grateful Mir Jafar loaded Clive and his men with presents.
“For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety.”—Proverbs 24:6

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