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The First Burmese War,
1824-1826

 

 

A photograph of a watercolour drawing by a Private of the 13th showing Major Sale saving a soldier and killing a Burmese chief

The background to the conflict

Burma, located on the edge of the Indian Empire, was a thorn in the side of the British East India Company. Leading up to the outbreak of the 1st Burmese War, the King of Ava became increasingly expansionist and aggressive towards the British-held territories. In 1766, the Burmese had seized Tenasserim from Siam, 1784 saw the incorporation of Arakan into the kingdom of Ava and 1813 saw the conquering of Manipur, which lay near the Surma Valley. This expansion and advance towards the Indian border made an Anglo-Burmese War inevitable. However, the British were involved in other areas and tried to delay the inevitable. The final straw came in September 1823, when the Burmese seized the Shalpuri Island near Chittagong, which was owned by the East India Company. Preparations for war began and the declaration of war came on 24 February 1824.

 The conflict

Until this point all actions against Burma had been land-based, but it was now decided that an amphibious attack should be tried in order to take the town of Rangoon, which lay upon the banks of the Irrawaddy river. Thus, a joint naval and infantry expedition was organised at Port Cornwallis in the Adaman Islands under the joint control of Brigadier-General Archibald Campbell and Commodore Grant. The 13th made up part of the 11,000 strong infantry sector and were placed under command of Major Robert Sale.

The first role the 13th played in the conflict was to seize and then occupy the island of Cheduba on the Arakan Coast. Three companies were detailed with this attack whilst the remaining forces proceeded to Rangoon. The attack on Rangoon passed off smoothly and the town was soon converted to a defensive stronghold. However, the Burmese were not a walk-over, 50,000 men armed with muskets, swords and spears who were familiar with jungle fighting, soon dug themselves in and surrounded Rangoon. In addition the monsoon season arrived turning the country into mud and spreading disease.

It was believed that a purely defensive action would prove demoralising and thus an attack was planned. It was hard fought, artillery had to be man-handled through the jungle, soldiers were falling thick and fast due to disease and each town was heavily defended. However, the Burmese army were slowly pushed back up the Irrawaddy Valley. By February 1826 the Anglo-Indian army had advanced three hundred miles to the town of Yandaboo, the Burmese capital lay just four miles away. The advance on the capital began on 9 February 1826 with the 13th leading a night attack, which caused the enemy to flee. The capital was reached just two weeks later when the King of Ava sent out a peace treaty to be ratified by the British, in which the King agreed to pay the expenses of the war and to forego a considerable part of his territory.

For service during the war, three of the Officers of the Regiment, including Major Sale, were awarded the honour of becoming Companions of the Order of the Bath, and Ava was added to the regiment's Battle Honours. In 1851 when the general service medal was issued for campaigns in India the bar 'Ava' was added and fifteen officers were still alive to receive it.

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