J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Worse Than Bunker Hill

The British army’s worst day during the American War was the first pitched battle and its first victory, Bunker Hill, which we commemorated last week. Out of about three thousand Crown officers and enlisted men sent into the fight, more than one thousand were casualties: 226 killed and 828 wounded.

But was that the worst British loss of the global conflict? I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. We never hear of the more costly battle in American history because it didn’t take place in America.

After France and Spain declared war on Britain in 1778 and 1779, respectively, the three empires started to spar all over the world. For example, for almost four years Spain and its French ally tried to wrest Gibraltar back from Britain. The garrison survived that siege, a hugely important campaign for the British government. Yet hardly any Americans were involved, so we don’t study it.

India was a relatively new battlefield for the rival European empires, and the region’s kingdoms were still strong enough to tip the scales by allying with or resisting those outside powers. That produced another theater of war for the British military during the Americans’ fight for independence. The British East India Company, backed by the imperial government, attacked the French outpost at Mahé.

The French had a powerful ally in Hyder Ali, ruler of Mysore, who declared war on the British. In the Battle of Pollilur, on 10 Sept 1780, an army commanded by Hyder’s son, Tippu Sultan, met the British forces and inflicted a devastating defeat. As the Tiger and the Thistle website explains, the British fielded 3,853 men. The officers were mostly European, the enlisted men mostly locals, or sepoys. And the casualties at the end of that day?

Of the 86 European officers, 36 were killed or died of wounds, 34 were taken wounded, and only 16 taken unhurt. The whole of the sepoy forces [over 3,300 soldiers] were either killed, captured or dispersed, and only about 200 Europeans, most of them wounded, were taken alive by the enemy.
Even if most of the British sepoys survived by deserting, that army was simply erased. And the casualty rate among the group the Crown paid the most attention to—European officers—was over 80%.
In 1784, the Treaty of Mangalore ended the Second Mysore War, a clear victory for Tippu Sultan. (He had come to power after his father died from a carbuncle or cancer on his back.)

But the British Empire came back in 1790 and forced Tippu to give up half his territory two years later. The successful commander in that Third Mysore War was Gen. Cornwallis, making up for his surrender to French and American forces at Yorktown.

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