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The Third Burmese War,

1885-1887

   

The background to the conflict

Conflict between Britain and Burma broke out for the third time in 1885, the roots of this conflict lay in the two preceding Burmese Wars and in a continuing border dispute between Burma and India. In 1878 King Theebaw came to the Burmese throne and celebrated his accession by murdering eighty possible contenders for the throne. British protests to this were ignored. In addition Burmese trading monopolies began to conflict with British trade in Burma and French expansion in Asia began to worry the British authorities. The Third Burmese War became inevitable.

The conflict

The British aims were to remove King Theebaw from the throne, to fully assimilate Burma into the British Empire and gain control of Burma's raw materials. The main aim, to depose King Theebaw, was achieved quite soon. Major-General Prendergast, the leader of the expedition, with a collection of troops from India, crossed the Burmese border on 15 November 1885 and proceeded up the Irrawaddy River. British steamers had been trading up and down the Irrawaddy River for many years and thus the waterway was a familiar route, this coupled with the dense jungle terrain of Burma led to the decision to launch an amphibious attack. The town of Minhla was occupied on the 17 November and Mandalay received the same fate just eleven days later. On 1 December 1885 terms of surrender were agreed upon, King Theebaw was dethroned and deported to India and Burma was fully incorporated into the British Empire.

It appeared that the war was over, the British aims had been achieved and the Burmese people were peaceful believing the British would leave soon. However, as soon as it was realised that the British forces were there to stay the Burmese soldiers, who had returned to their villages, began to form small private armies to expel the British. In response the British established entrenched forts throughout the country. The terrain made communication difficult, the main routes of communication were dry riverbeds through which soldiers had to march single file. The British forces were split up into many small groups, thus earning the conflict the nickname, 'The Subalterns' War'. The enemy attacked in small groups and there were frequent small skirmishes, but no large scale battles. Eventually the Burmese were worn down and its was a victory for the British. It is telling that in the whole campaign in the 13th Regiment of Foot, 17 men were killed and 35 were wounded, whilst 150 men died through disease.

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