The Naval Brigade in Upper Burmah 
The Naval Brigade in Upper Burmah 

Royal NavyCampaigns  

W.L. Clowes on the Naval Brigade in Upper Burmah

The next work of really important character in which the Navy participated was the completion of the conquest of Burmah.

After the second Burmese war and the annexation of the province of Pegu, a revolutionary movement in Upper Burmah placed upon the throne a peaceable prince (known as the Mendoon Prince) who proved himself a wise and moderate ruler and cultivated friendly relations with the British. In 1854 he sent a mission to Calcutta, and, in the following year, he received at Amarapoora a British mission headed by Major Phayre, who took with him as his secretary Captain Henry Yule, R.E. This mission failed, however, to negotiate a commercial treaty, which was badly needed. A little later the seat of government was shifted from Amarapoora to Mandalay. In 1869, Phayre, then a Colonel, headed another mission to Burmah, and concluded a rather one-sided commercial treaty, arranging also for a British representative to reside at the capital.

The treaty did not work well, Burmah securing all the advantages, and giving nothing in return. In 1866 a third mission was on the point of departing from India with the object of improving the position of British trade, when an insurrection broke out, and plunged the country into confusion. The king had favoured his brother, whom he had created Crown Prince, at the expense of his sons; and, in August, two of the latter rose, murdered their uncle and one of the ministers, - and blockaded their father the King in his palace at Mandalay. Captain (later Sir) Edward Sladen, the British resident, being warned that his position was unsafe, went down to Rangoon; but, after a period of anarchy, the old King suppressed the insurrection, and, at the end of the year, again received Colonel Phayre at the head of a mission. In 1867 Colonel Fytche, who had by that time succeeded Colonel Phayre, concluded an agreement more favourable than that of 1869; and thenceforward for many years relations between Burmah and her most powerful neighbour were fairly satisfactory, although, in 1875, they were imperilled by the breaking out of' frontier disturbances and internal disorders. In 1878, however, the old King died.

The rightful heir was a personage known as the Myoungan Prince; but the intrigues of an old and unscrupulous Princess named Sinbyumaryin, who had married her daughter Soopyah Lat to Theebaw, one of the King's younger sons, secured Theebaw's proclamation as monarch. Theebaw began his reign by murdering eighty-six of his blood relations. Mr. Shaw, the British resident, protested, but Britain was just then much engaged elsewhere, and failed to take up a firm attitude. Mr. Shaw died at his post, and was succeeded by Colonel Horace Browne, who, unwilling to put up with the treatment accorded to him at Mandalay, presently quitted that capital, and was succeeded by Mr. St. Barbe. By that time, in consequence of British inaction, the Burmese had come to believe that they might do exactly as they pleased; and eventually not only the resident but also nearly all the European inhabitants had to quit the country. This was in 1880. Theebaw seems to have celebrated the event by carrying out the massacre of five hundred people. It is hardly astonishing that when later he sent an envoy to Simla, asking for a treaty, his advances were coldly received. Subsequently he coquetted with France. Writing to the Indian government in September, 1885, Colonel Sladen said: -

"...we have... been compelled to withdraw our resident from the capital, and stay further relations with the court, because the condition of things there is so barbarous and insecure, and the attitude of the government so intractable, that we cannot consent on the one hand to countenance massacres and misrule, or on the other to invite insult and risk the lives of our political officers.... After refusing the treaty we offered King Theebaw at Simla in 1882, he has thought proper to make political capital out of our forced retirement by forming alliances with European states which have no interests in Burmah, and whose presence on the scene is only intended to encumber our action, and even menace our possessions in British Rurmah. As a consequence we already find ourselves in the false and anomalous position of having a powerful ruling state on our borders intriguing against us...."

Colonel Sladen recommended as the only satisfactory remedy for this condition of things that the whole of Upper Burmah should be annexed. Early in October, therefore, an ultimatum was despatched to Theebaw, offering him the alternative of complete submission to British direction, or of war; and preparations were made for the campaign which, it was then felt, was inevitable. Major-General H. N. D. Prendergast, V.C., C.B., was nominated to the chief military command, and, owing to the nature of the country in which operations were to be carried on, the co-operation of the Navy was requested, although the point from which the advance was to begin was, by water, more than two hundred miles from the sea. On November 13th, 1885, the General received orders to move upon Mandalay.

The advance upon the capital was naturally made up the river Irrawaddy, Mandalay being upon that stream, which is navigable for many miles beyond it, and there being practically no roads from the British frontier to the heart of Upper Burmah. The town of Thayetmyo, on the Irrawaddy, a short distance south of the border line, became the British base, and was a most convenient one, as it is in immediate water communication with Rangoon, and is, moreover, only fifty or sixty miles north of Prome, which was then the rail-head. The numerous steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company afforded ready means of transport for the military part of the expedition.

The official conquest of Upper Burmah was little more than a military promenade, Mandalay being occupied, and Theebaw a prisoner, a fortnight after the issue of the order to advance, and there being no fighting of very serious importance during that period. Nor was there any very extensive employment of naval force. It was, however, to the co-operation of the Navy with the Army that the rapidity and comparative bloodlessness of this official conquest were mainly due. After the official conquest, and the fall of Tbeebaw, the Navy proved itself equally valuable in the far more arduous and wearisome work of repressing the guerillas and dacoits [robber gangs] who sprang up in almost every corner of the land, and for many months obstructed the general re-establishment of order, and the effective completion of the conquest. If, therefore, the Navy won no great glory in Burmah, it at least rendered very substantial services.

In the middle of October, the only British man-of-war at Rangoon was the gun-vessel Woodlark, Commander William Robert Clutterbuck. On October 21st, upon reaching Trincomalee from a cruise, Captain Robert Woodward, of the composite cruiser Turquoise, received a telegraphic message from the Indian Government to the effect that a second man-of-war was needed; and, proceeding at once, he arrived at Rangoon early on the 27th, and conferred with the Chief Commissioner, with whom it was arranged that the paddle steamer Irrawaddy (mounting two 20-pr. B[reech-loading] and two 9-pr. M[uzzle-loading] guns), of the Indian Marine, and the little screw steam-launches Kathleen and Settang, should be immediately dispatched up the river to the frontier (Capt. John Hext, R.N., Director of the Indian Marine, rendered valuable service throughout the campaign. So also did Commander Alfred Carpenter, R.N., of the Indian Marine Survey. The latter received the D.S.O. for his services. He was much assisted by Lieut. Arthur Channer, R.N).

Commander Clutterbuck had already prepared these craft, and had armed and manned the Irrawaddy and Settang from the Woodlark. Captain Woodward, therefore, placed Lieutenant Frederick Perceval Trench, senior of the Turquoise, in command of the Kathleen, giving him a suitable crew, and entrusted the three vessels to Commander Clutterbuck, who had his pennant in the Irrawaddy, with orders to proceed to Thayetmyo. The flotilla departed on the 28th, and reached its destination some days before the order of November 13th, which authorised the advance into the enemy's country.

In the meantime, Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick William Richards, K.C.B. the naval Commander-in-Chief, who was then at Zanzibar in the Bacchante, had instructed Captain Woodward by telegraph to organise a Naval Brigade, and had informed him that twelve 25-pr. guns would be furnished to him by the Indian Government. As these guns arrived in succession from India, they were made ready; and four of them were sent on to the front on November 11th with the Turquoise's contingent of the Brigade, under Lieutenant Frederick Fogarty Fegen. The remaining eight were held back for the Bacchante's contingent, which, after the arrival of the flagship on the 19th at Rangoon, proceeded to the front on November 20th, under Commander Charles James Barlow. Woodward had prepared two barges as armed gunboats, mounting in each of them a 64-pdr. muzzle-loader from the Turquoise. These barges were fitted out under the superintendence of Carpenter Henry James Lilley, and were supplied with protection consisting of cotton bales and rifle-proof plates. The guns were so mounted at the bows as to admit of their being trained through an arc of 45 degrees. Each barge carried 200 rounds of ammunition for her gun, and two anchors and cables, and, when ready for action, drew 8 feet 9 inches of water. The two gunboats thus improvised left with Lieutenant Fegen on November 11th. With them went also a survey party under Commander Alfred Carpenter, R.N., who was employed at that time in the Marine Survey of British India, and borne for that purpose in the Bacchante. Captain Woodward also organised an explosive party, which, under Commander John Durnford, of the sloop MarinerExternal link, left Rangoon by train on the 13th, and reached Thayetmyo on the day following. In addition, flats, steamers, and launches were selected, made ready, and sent up the river for the use of the contingent. Leaving only the Bacchante's contingent to follow him, Captain Woodward himself departed for the front, and overtook the advance on the 17th at Minhla, where he assumed command of the Brigade.

The first hostile movement of the campaign was made on November 14th by Commander Clutterbuck, who, with the Irrawaddy and Kathleen, undertook a reconnaissance up the river, and, about twenty-eight miles above the Thayetmyo, came upon a Burmese steamer, which he engaged with his machine-guns. She made little or no resistance, and, being captured, was towed down to Thayetmyo, where she was received with cheers by the troops, of whom about 10,000 had been assembled for the expedition. In addition to a number of native Indian regiments and batteries, there were with the force the 2nd battalion of the Liverpool Regiment, the 2nd battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and some Royal Artillery; but there was neither cavalry nor military transport; and the omission to include these obliged the whole expedition to stick to the waterways, and so encouraged the outbreak elsewhere of that dacoity which, after the official conquest of the country had been completed, gave incalculable trouble.

The general advance up the river began almost immediately; and the Burmese forces were encountered on the 17th at Minhla, a town on the right bank, forty-four miles north of Thayetmyo. Close to the town was a fort, but on a knoll on the opposite side of the stream was a far more formidable one, called Gwe-Gyomg-Kamyo, or Kolegone, a work constructed by European engineers, and armed with numerous modern guns. General Prendergast landed troops on each side some miles lower down, and caused them to advance simultaneously by country paths, while, to divert the enemy's attention, the armed steamers engaged the forts in a long-range artillery contest. On the left, or Kolegone bank, the appearance of the troops on a rising ground on the inland side of the fort caused the enemy, who were already demoralised by the fire of the 1rrawaddy and Kathleen, to bolt in confusion. On the Minhla side the advance was pluckily disputed; but at length the fort was carried, and the enemy driven out with slaughter. The Army in these operations lost 5 killed and 31 wounded. The Navy had no casualties.

Off Minhla, on the evening of the 17th, Captain Woodward joined, and took command of the Naval Brigade. On the morning of the following day, he proceeded up the river with the Brigade in the Irrawaddy, Kathleen, Palow (steel paddle-vessel, 154 tons, belonging to the Irr. Flot. Co.), the two gun barges, and the flat Ngawoon (twin-screw vessel, 138 tons, belonging to the Irr. Flot. Co., having the survey party on board), and was informed by a native that 500 Burmese and 4 guns were occupying a fort at Membo. Steaming thither, he threw a few shell at the supposed work, and, getting no reply, anchored to await the arrival of the main body of the expedition, which moved from Minhla on the 19th. On the 20th, the whole flotilla weighed again, headed by the Naval Brigade. That night it lay to off Yenan-Gyoung, and, on the night of the 21st, a little above Yeo-Wah. The Intelligence Department received news that the enemy intended to make a determined stand at Pagan; but on the 22nd, when the flotilla advanced, that ruined city was passed without a shot being fired. Just above it, however, the flotilla was stopped, while the Irrawaddy steamed ahead to reconnoitre.

She soon returned, reporting the presence of two steamers higher up, and of large bodies of troops on the left bank; whereupon Captain Woodward was ordered to move forward with his vessels, and with the barge White Swan, having Royal Artillery on board, and engage the Burmese, who held a bluff on which were batteries. The batteries were soon silenced, and the Brigade landed and took and destroyed their eleven guns. The two steamers, which had been sunk, were also taken possession of. The Settang was left at Pagan at the service of the garrison which had been landed there; and at 2.30 p.m. on the 23rd the advance was resumed, the flotilla, however, anchoring again at dusk.

On the 24th it weighed and proceeded. On nearing the village of Kaoung-Wah, the leading craft were fired at from a stockade, which, however, was soon silenced by one of the gun-barges which was attached to the Ngawoon. The Kathleen was then sent forward to ascertain whether the work was still occupied, and, troops being landed, the stockade was destroyed. Further on, at 4.15 p.m., large bodies of troops were observed on high ground on Mingyan, and earthworks were also seen close to the river. The naval craft, assisted by the Royal Artillery in the White Swan, with the launches Yunan (paddle-vessel, 396 tons, belonging to the Irr. Flot. Co.) and Ataran (twin-screw, 140 tons, belonging to the Irr. Flot. Co.), and one of the gun-barges, moved up and engaged, slowly advancing meanwhile. Several little improvised batteries armed with small guns and filled with riflemen were successively silenced, the Burmese quitting them, and taking refuge in the high grass and standing corn in their rear. Near the upper end of the town the enemy was found much more strongly entrenched, and supported by a respectable battery commanding the river; and, for a time, he held his ground with some pertinacity; nor was it until 6 p.m. that the fire slackened. Indeed, during the whole of the night of the 24th there was intermittent firing, and not until the following morning were the Burmese dislodged and routed. In this affair the Brigade had two bluejackets wounded. A force of troops landed and destroyed the guns, but met with no opposition, and were re-embarked at noon on the 25th, only small detachments being left behind. In the evening the flotilla anchored off Yandaboo, the place of signature of the treaty which ended the war of 1826.

"At daylight on the 26th," says Captain Woodward's report to the General, "a large flat was found to be drifting down on the fleet. She was quickly grappled, towed clear, and anchored. At 7.30 the fleet started, and passed through a line of boats filled with stones prepared for sinking. These boats were cut adrift with but little delay, and the channel cleared. About 4 p.m. a large Burmese government boat was sighted coming down the river, flying a flag of truce."

A launch steamed up unceremoniously to this craft, which is said to have resembled an ancient Greek war-vessel, and, taking her in tow, conducted her to the head-quarter ship, the Thurreah. It was the beginning of the end. The boat brought high officers of state, bearing a deprecatory letter from the Burmese prime minister. The officers were sent back with an ultimatum that no offers or proposals could then be accepted, but that if Theebaw should choose to surrender his person, his army, and his capital, the lives and property of himself and his family would be respected, provided always that the European residents in Mandalay should prove to be safe. The ambassadorial boat had been escorted down the river by an armed Burmese steamer, which was boarded from the Kathleen, and taken without resistance. That night the flotilla anchored seven miles below Ava.

On the 27th, when the vessels weighed and proceeded, numerous troops were seen on the ramparts of the town; and arrangements were made for storming the defences. Meanwhile, however, another flag of truce appeared, with a message to the effect that Theebaw would surrender; whereupon the General went on board the Palow, Captain Woodward's craft, and steamed to the fort. The flotilla presently anchored abreast of the Ava fortifications, and a detachment went ahead in launches to find a passage through a line of sunken obstructions which barred the stream. A clear channel was soon reported.

At that point the steamer Palu (steel paddle-vessel; 148 tons, belonging to the Irr. Flot. Co.),with Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick William Richards, and the Bacchante's contingent, arrived and anchored, the naval Commander-in-Chief at once going to the Palow to visit General Prendergast. As soon as it appeared that the Burmese no longer purposed to resist, the troops were landed to take over the guns and other arms which were to be surrendered, a brigade being also sent to Sagain fort, on the right bank, for the same purpose. Only about 2500 stand of small-arms seem to have been given up. Probably as many more were carried off by the Burmese. That night the flotilla lay between Ava and Sagain; and on the 28th it moved up to Mandalay, which was reached, after three hours' steaming, at 9 a.m.

At 1 p.m. the Naval Brigade disembarked, and accompanied the troops to the King's palace, where it took over the custody of the eastern entrance during Colonel Sladen's interview with Theebaw, who agreed formally to surrender on the 29th, when the army made its triumphal entry, and received the monarch and his family. On the 30th the steamer Tigris, manned by a naval contingent from H.M. paddle-vessel Sphinx, 7, Commander William Llewellyn Morrison, arrived.

At 6.30 p.m. on the 30th, Theebaw, with his suite, was transferred to the Thurreah for conveyance to Rangoon; and on the following morning, escorted by the Ngawoon, Lieutenant Godfrey Michell Courage, and one of the Brigade's armed gun-barges, the fallen King departed for Rangoon. After the occupation of Mandalay, further operations were delayed for a time by the difficulties of transport, the prevalence of dacoity near the capital, and an outbreak of cholera among the Madras and Punjab coolies attached to the force. The disease appeared on board the vessels of the flotilla, and, to save them from the scourge, the troops had to be again landed and taken away from the river. In the interim, a party from the Naval Brigade was employed at the palace under the orders of the sorting committee; the Irrawaddy, Tigris, and Kathleen were detached on various services; launches patrolled the river for the suppression of dacoity, and the Bacchante's contingent was sent to the Chindwin river for the same purpose.

In December a river expedition departed from Mandalay for Bhamo, a town at the head of the Irrawaddy navigation, and not far from the Chinese frontier. It consisted of the Turquoise's and Woodlark's contingents of the Naval Brigade, and troops under Brigadier-General Norman, C.B.(though it was accompanied by General Sir H. Prendergast and the headquarters of the army), the naval party being in the Pulu and two flats; and it left for the north on the 18th. A search-light, which had been fitted up on the flying-deck of the steamer, and which was used every night, had an extraordinarily intimidating effect upon the natives, who everywhere professed friendship. Great difficulties of navigation were encountered, owing to the lowness of the river; but Bhamo, or, rather, a point within four miles of it, was reached on December 28th. Further progress by steamer was impossible. Theebaw's soldiers were disarmed, and, it being apparent that if they were left on the spot they would turn to dacoity, about 250 of them were sent down to Mandalay. The Bhamo expedition returned thither without having seen any fighting. It had left garrisons at the principal towns.

So much for the official conquest of Upper Burmah. The actual reduction of the country to a state of peace and order required a much longer time, necessitated the large reinforcement of the army of occupation, and was not completed until well on in 1887.

For their services in the campaign, Captain Robert Woodward was made a C.B. (May 29, 1886), Commander Clutterbuck was posted (March 1, 1886), and Lieutenant Frederick Perceval Trench was made a Commander (Dec. 81, 1885). After the institution of the Distinguished Service Order in November, 1886, several of the earliest appointments to it were made in respect of services in Rurmah in 1885-86. On January 14th, 1887, Commanders John Durnford, Alfred Carpenter, and Charles James Barlow, and Major Walter Miller Lambert, R.M.A., and on June 18th, 1887, Fleet-Surgeon Thomas d'Arcy Bromlow, and Engineer William Nicklin, were created Companions.

In the subsequent operations against the dacoits, the Ranger, 8, Commander John Pakenham Pipon, did long and arduous work which is deserving of remembrance. Three of his officers, Lieutenants Charles Brownlow Macdonald and Henry Faulconer Aplin, Gunner Thomas Holman, and Pipon himself, patrolled the waters of Upper Burmah in steam launches for a considerable period, and had several skirmishes with dacoits. Holman won special distinction by concealing himself and eight seamen in a native boat, Which he allowed to drift past the resort of a band of river pirates, who were thus tempted to fire upon him. Returning the fire, he killed five of the enemy, and then landed and destroyed their village, suffering no casualties. For this he was congratulated by General Sir F. S. Roberts, and thanked on the quarter-deck by Rear-Admiral Sir F.W. Richards. Lieutenant Macdonald was, unfortunately, killed in action with dacoits at Shemagar on January 9th, 1887. Lieutenant Aplin, having received an injury to his sight while soldering a tin of gun-cotton, had to be relieved. Commander Pipon was deservedly promoted on January 1st, 1887.

This was one of a number of occasions during the 19th century sailors and marines spent long periods fighting ashore. Three of William Loneys fellow officers in HMS Emerald served in Naval Brigades: Edmund Hope Verney and Lord Walter Talbot Kerr with the brigade from HMS Shannon during the Indian Mutiny (1857-8), and William Robert Clutterbuck in the Burmese War of 1885.

Source: Clowes, William Laird: "The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the death of Queen Victoria", Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1903, volume 7, 375 - 385 (1903). 

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