Macleod's Highlanders in India

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A detailed account of the defeat of the British East India Company forces at the Battle of Pollilur in India in 1780, written by George Mackenzie an officer in Lord Macleod's Highland Regiment.

12 October 1780. 
73rd or Macleod's Highlander’s 
Addressed to, William Sutherland, Esquire. 
Skelbo by Dornoch North Britain

My Dear Sir: — Should this work its way across the Muckle Ferry it will give pleasure to my dear Jenny, and all our other good friends to hear that Christy and her two little ones and me are well and have kept perfect good health' since we arrived in this country. I wrote you in the month of March last by the Fleet in which Sir. Thomas Rumbold went home. I hope by this time you may have received it, and this goes by Colonel Hay who is married to General Mann's sister and goes home with his wife in a Danish ship, the safest conveyance of any in the present state of affairs. We have not had a scratch of a pen from Europe since the day we sailed, excepting one letter from Annyby Jack Gorry, and two short lines from George by the same ship that arrived in June last. There are two ships now here that left Portsmouth at the end of last March, and it’s a cruel disappointment that we had not a single line by any of them. 

Most of the people in the North and indeed many who should know better, lose their good intentions to their friends in this part of the world, by trusting their letters to acquaintances, or private passengers; it’s a hundred to one that any letter by a private hand ever is delivered, but if they are put into the Company's packets in the India House, there is no instance of letters being lost, if the ship is not lost, or taken. This I wish all my friends to know, that we may not any time be deprived by any accident of the pleasure we would have to hear of our friends. 

By the time this comes to your hand, the whole nation will be ringing with the unexpected commotions that have happened in this part of the British Empire, since the last ships went for England. The Company having for some time been engaged in an expensive and ruinous war against the Marrahtas upon the Malabar coast, lay sleeping in this settlement in a state of perfect security, and drained themselves of men and money, without considering or suggesting an idea that there was a possibility of attacking the Carnatic. The Nabob, Hyder-Alley a great and powerful Prince and the ablest general that ever appeared in a black skin, very soon discovered their weakness and took advantage of the situation. He marched into the Carnatic with an army of one hundred thousand horse, and thirty thousand infantry with a proportional train of artillery; and so infatuated were the despicable counsel of this state, that they would not believe any information that was brought them, or take any measures to make head against him, until he flourished his sword at the gates of Madras, burnt and destroyed the whole country around, and slashed down hundreds of the wretched inhabitants almost under the muzzles of their guns;

They at last upon the 24th July issued orders for their army to assemble, and take the field, but the army was so detached in small bodies, in distant parts of the country, that was overrun with the enemy, that it was impossible to get them together, however, about the 20th of August, they were able to join to our regiment 500 Europeans, 4000 Sepoy’s and a corps of Artillery of 30 field pieces, this was the whole strength of the Carnatic Army, to be opposed against so formidable an enemy, excepting a detachment of four Regiments of Sepoy’s each 500 men, 200 "Europeans and 10 guns that were in an interior part of the country under command of a gallant and experienced officer Colonel Baillie from near Inverness, but he was so hemmed in by the Enemy that he could not move.

The little Army, being at last formed, at our old quarters, Poonamallee. Hyder with a considerable body of his army presented himself before us, but finding we were strongly posted, he marched off again and laid regular siege to Arcot the Capital of the Carnatic, where our Nabob has all his wealth, and the principal supplies for supporting a war in the country. The Council hitherto treated his incursion with a seeming contempt, but now they became seriously alarmed, and ordered the command of their little array to Lord Macleod, with orders to go immediately to relieve Arcot. He immediately wrote them a letter (that you may probably see in the papers) which would do honour to the King of Prussia; he explained to them the absurdity of sending out such a small force against such immense multitudes, pointed out a plan without risk, or hazard to form a junction of their troops {happy were it for this country had they adopted it) and told them how soon he could get them formed, he would be proud to take the command of them and would answer for the event of the war, but if they did not act upon reasonable principles, he would do his duty at the head of his own Regiment and they might give the command to whom they pleased. To which General Munro replied— he had no ideal of a man starting difficulties at such a critical period, and that he in person would go and take the command, and never return to Madras whilst Hyder-Alley had a foot of ground on the face of God's creation.

He accordingly marched us off on the 25th of August and orders were at the same time sent to Colonel Baillie to march and form a junction with us at a place called Conjeveram. This opened the first scene of the tragedy of blunders, the operations of the first day were sufficient to convince every man in the Line capable of forming an opinion that we were led by a blockhead, not the master of the common sense necessary for a ploughman and short of the military skill that would be expected of a Corporal. I am sorry to suggest to mean an idea of a man on whom blind fortune by some accident threw some unmerited fame, but the fatal sequel has too clearly proven his insignificance. In the course of four days, we got to the appointed place of rendezvous. Hyder hearing of our approach relinquished his design upon Arcot, and appeared in amazing force close in our front the morning of the 30th. Our general, who was to have razed Hyder off the face of the earth, was all of a sudden stupefied, confounded and in the most distracted state of confusion. He could neither make a disposition to attack the enemy, or to defend himself, but the troops kept up a good countenance, and wished to be led on to the attack, though the enemy appeared at a moderate computation to be twenty to one. 

In this state of confusion, our small Army appearing more like a mob than regular troops, Lord Macleod (whose opinion was never asked) went up to the General and told him it was highly necessary to make some disposition, as the enemy from their movements, must have in view to attempt something at the same time pointed out a neglect in the order of the enemy, where they could be attacked with a great advantage, but no counsel, no advice, could drive us to take one proper step, the happy moment was lost, and you know the old adage. Opportunity lost is never to be regained. We were kept all day standing to our arms, broiling under the scorching rays of the most powerful sun ever felt by Europeans in this climate until upwards of one hundred of our best men were knocked down by it, and rendered useless to the service. Towards evening we took post, and next morning found ourselves completely surrounded by the enemy, without a foot of ground to feed out cattle, or any communication open to procure any supplies of any kind whatever; in this situation, one of Colonel Baillie’s Sepoy’s found means to get into our camp with information, that he was within 17 miles of us in the very same situation with ourselves. 

The day following we heard very smart firing, and at night another of Baillie's people came in, with the accounts that he had been attacked in a very brisk manner, hitherto unknown from Black troops, but that he had repulsed them with considerable loss on their side, but that he dreaded the next attack as his ammunition was nearly expended. This would appear to any man but our General a critical moment, when something was to be attempted at all hazards; but he took to the 8th of September to consider it, when he made a detachment of l0 companies of Grenadiers, the flower of our army, and sent them to reinforce Baillie. The dividing so small a body as ours, when the whole could have been moved -with equal facility, was a measure so contrary to every rule of War, and common sense, that every man amongst us, immediately gave themselves up for lost, and nothing but the Providence of God, and the good management of Lord Macleod (who at last took upon himself to act contrary to orders) could have saved a single man of us.

How soon the enemy discovered we had made the detachment, they instantly bent their whole force against Baillie, and attacked him within seven miles of our lines, at 1 o'clock in the morning, the action was continued very hot on both sides till ten o'clock, and Baillie made a most gallant defence and repulsed the enemy three different times; but one fatal shot blew up all his ammunition upon which his black troops were panic-struck, broke and gave way; the enemy observed the confusion and poured in all their cavalry. The Europeans stood firm, without a shot to fire and with their bayonets kept thorn at bay, until they brought artillery to bear upon them, finding no appearance of support, they charged into the heart of the enemy's lines, till the last man was cut down and not a single man remained to tell the story, excepting; one Artillery man, belonging to the Company and one man of our Regiment, who were left amongst the dead; and upon reviving their spirits, they by a mere chance made their way to us.

In this fatal affair we lost our Grenadiers and Light Companies complete, amongst them your friend poor Gunn who had he been spared would have been a credit to his connexions. The other officers of our Regiment are Capt. Baird, Lieut. John Lindsay, who was in my Company, Lieut. Alex. Geddes Mackenzie — Castle Leod — and Lieut. Melville Strathay's cousin, Captain Gilchrist was killed by the sun, and Lieut. Alexander Mackenzie son of Dundonald is shot through the leg, but in our possession and will recover, had we moved to their assistance upon hearing the action begin, there is no doubt but we would have prevented this fatal blow, but the same stupidity that directed all our blundering measures, delayed time till 7 o'clock when we marched to their support, but before we got within a mile of them, all was over, and in place of our friends, we found ourselves in the heart of the victorious army, who being flushed with victory, pressed very daringly upon us; some of our wounded Sepoy’s gave us the fatal news, which was kept secret, for fear of intimidating our little band. We immediately put about, with the enemy in force, in our front, rear, and both flanks, they instantly perceived on;' flight, and Hyder spirited up his people by declaring he would that night put an end to the British Empire in the Last, but we had a well-served Artillery, and plenty of ammunition which kept their horse at a respectful distance and their Infantry and Artillery were not able to come tip with us in machinery.

We continued our march or rather our flight for 32 hours, without a halt or any refreshment, and at last brought the poor worn-out remains of our army under the guns of this fort, where we are now in camp. After losing every article belonging to us, excepting the arms we had in our hands, thus ended the most shameful campaign that was ever attempted by a British General in any quarter of The Globe. I declare too I have no personal antipathy to the man, nor do I write from pique or prejudice, but fact? All consistent with my own knowledge, nor do I want to press all his infamy, though I tell facts to my friends. There are too many to expose him, that will be upon no reserve, for he is universally despised and detested here, and not a single merit or virtue allowed him, but they believe he is a simple honest man that would not defraud his neighbours. What is to be done now? I know not, for we have neither men nor money, but we have one of the strongest garrisons in the world, unless bribery or corruption prevails all the Powers in the East cannot take it. 

The principal part of our Black troops, called Sepoy’s abandoned us, and ran to the Enemy, looking upon us as lost. Lord Macleod sent a flag of truce with a letter to Hyder, to know if any of the King's officers or men had been taken in life, and desiring they might be supplied with everything they asked which he pledged his honour to pay in any place appointed, but his answer was so concise, we could make little out of it, only that Colonel Baillie was wounded and a prisoner, that Colonel Fletcher second in command was killed on the field of battle, and all the prisoner would be taken care of, but we have twice heard that Captain Baird, Lindsay and Melville were all wounded, but taken in life out of the field. Jack Gorry was also wounded, and taken in life, but my cousins Geddes and Gunn fell in the field. This is all we have been able to learn concerning them.

By this time Jenny can easily figure poor Christy's situation, when she saw me return as black as any crocke in Strath Brora, without a dog's meal of carrion upon me; but she is now making me fat with her good things, and if I could only get one month at your sheppors and goat-whey, I could yet be aide to show my tanned face to Hyder. All the connexions of the poor fellows that came with me, will upon hearing of a letter from me, be expecting to hear of their friends, and I wish to gratify them. William Sutherland, Cambuscoy's friend, is very well and with me here, but John Mackay, who came along with him from Strath Fleet, is lost with the Light Infantry. Another William Sutherland from Strath Brora recommended to me by Carrol is a very clever fellow, and a Sergeant in my Company, and a third William from Strath Rilly who brought a wife with him, is lost with the Grenadiers, widow Macleod's two sons, Malcolm and Innes are very well, but James Lawel from Mr. Polson and George Mackintosh from Loth are both dead. As is a fine handsome fellow Alexander Mackay from Gends, Robert Bruce from Navidale, wounded but will recover, this is all the casualties among my Sutherland men. Since my last, George Sutherland, the Mayor's son, is very well, and grown amazingly stout, Mr. Duncan's son was very well at Bengal by the last accounts, and all the rest of our gentlemen that I have not mentioned, perfectly well. 

I have just found out the company is making out a private despatch to be sent home by the King's ship, and if I can get this in, you will upon receipt of it acquaint all our friends as I shall not be able to get more than one letter put in. 

Mind us with affection to all friends, much do I long to get among them again, out of this damned burning climate, where I hope now a couple more years will put an end to our tour of it, but I much suspect not one of us will feather our caps out here, unless one lucky hit against an enemy does it. As King's troops can scarcely live upon their allowance in this country, it will surprise you when I tell you that I can scarcely make both ends meet now, and I receive about thirty pounds sterling a month, over and above mv British pay, but you may now be tired of Indian affairs, so shall only add our love and best wishes to you, my dear Jenny and the children, and to all our other friends who wish us well. 

I am sincerely, My dear Sir, George Mackenzie, 

Fort Saint George Your affectionate and humble servant,