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A FINE SERIES OF 'PEGU' INDIA GENERAL SERVICE MEDALS 1854-95 TO OFFICERS
The Second Burma War 1852-1853
In contrast to many of the actions and expeditions which easily qualified men for the India General Service Medal 1854-95, the operations in Pegu between 1852-53 were protracted and tough on everyone who took part. Fought in terrible jungle terrain under extreme climatic conditions and under the ever-present threat of cholera, the War was divided into two distinct phases - a period of conquest from April to December 1852, and a period of pacification lasting until June 1853. The conflict owed its origins to the outcome of the War of 1824-26 when the Burmese King signed the Treaty of Yendaboo, guaranteeing British merchants the right to trade. By 1852 the Burmese were ignoring the terms of the treaty, and insults, restrictions and harassment became the staple of the British merchants at Rangoon. Consequently a Naval Squadron under Commodore G.R. Lambert, R.N., was despatched seeking an improvement. The Burmese King refused to listen and offered such insult that Lambert was forced to show his teeth by confiscating the Burmese Royal Barge lying off Rangoon. Realising that hostilities were now inevitable he further ordered the evacuation of British nationals and under fire from the Burmese Shore Batteries beat a hasty retreat out to sea.
The Government of India quickly resolved to send a task force into Burma consisting of two Native Infantry Brigades stiffened by Artillery, Engineers and the European troops of the 18th Royal Irish, the 35th, and 50th Light Infantry. Major-General H.T. Godwin, C.B., who well knew the miseries of campaigning in Burma, was the sensible choice for overall command. Having personally suffered from poor administration during the First Burma War, he insisted all troops were drilled in attacking the formidable stockades he knew they would encounter, and, insisting on a large number of extra Doctors, took strenuous measures to combat cholera before the force sailed. War was officially declared on 2 April and started well with the capture of Martaban and Moulmein on the Salween River by troops of the Bengal Brigade. Returning to the river mouth with the main body of the Brigade, Godwin effected a junction with the Madras Brigade, and sailed with his whole force up the coast to Rangoon.
On Sunday 11 April, the Steamers lying off the city opened a fierce cannonade and swiftly silenced the Batteries that had previously troubled Commodore Lambert, whilst his Marines and Seamen stormed the neighbouring pagoda at Dalla, and picked off large numbers of Burmese soldiers whose golden hats made them easy targets. At 4 a.m. on the 12th it was the turn of Godwin's Bengalis and Madrassis, and they came ashore carrying 60 rounds of ball per man and one day's cooked rations. Unfortunately the European troops were still dressed in the thick uniform worn in winter in England, a factor which took a heavy toll as the day wore on. Advancing inland through dark jungle, they drove off a number of skirmishers, before coming upon the major stronghold known as the White House Stockade, which it was clear had to be captured before the city itself could be assaulted. It fell after several hours of fierce fighting which so reduced the troops that Godwin had to suspend further operations until the 14th when the city itself was attacked with the Shwe Dagon Pagoda as the main objective. On this searingly hot day the pagoda was secured at a cost of 154 casualties including two senior Officers who died of sunstroke. The old Portuguese citadel of Bassein held by 7,000 Burmese was next on Godwin's list and this fell on 19 May after a vicious fight which left 800 Burmese dead or dying. Having obtained sovereignty over the whole of the seaboard of Pegu, Godwin next directed the capture of Pegu itself which was duly executed in June by men of the 80th South Staffords, the 67th Bengal Native Infantry and a party of Madras Sappers and Miners.
In August Governor-General Dalhousie visited Rangoon to assess the situation and rapidly concluded that a continuance of the War was unfortunately unavoidable on the grounds that if he evacuated the country the situation would return in a very short time to that which had existed before the invasion. Consequently more troops were ordered to Burma and by September the Anglo-Indian military presence had increased to two Divisions of three Brigades each. Prome was captured in a joint Naval and Military operation in October, and in November it became necessary to retake Pegu as it had been re-occupied by the Burmese Army. It was again carried by British bayonets and garrisoned, though the force Godwin left behind again proved too small when it became besieged by a force estimated at 6000-8000 of the enemy. On the satisfactory outcome of the relief operation in December, Godwin resolved to finally catch and destroy the now retreating Burmese Army in an attack on a newly discovered line of entrenchments. Unfortunately, however, the Burmese soldiers managed to escape before battle could be joined and, to the annoyance of everyone, were next reported streaming away into the interior.
Dalhousie decided not to advance beyond Pegu Province and declared its annexation in letters to the King of Burma. The letters provoked strong reaction, especially at Prome, where the Burmese attacked Sir John Cheape's Bengal Division in strength before suddenly dispersing and leaving Dacoits and other marauders in the locality. The reason for the sudden evacuation was a revolution at the King's capital. When it was over the Burmese throne had a new occupant whom Dalhousie addressed with his annexation letters, and though the new King was deeply unhappy about the loss of Pegu, he decided to refrain from taking up arms against the British, at least until he had time to establish his authority over the rest of his country.
This left the British with a large and unruly province to pacify, which for the troops on the ground meant setting up bases in the main towns and carrying out the hazardous business of patrolling the jungle in an effort to stamp out widespread banditry, chiefly instigated by one Myat Tun. In January 1853 a river expedition to destroy Myat Tun's stronghold near Donubyu ran into serious difficulties when the Senior Naval Officer refused to hand over command to the Senior Army Officer after disembarking from the boats. As a direct result, the Expedition lost 13 killed, 79 wounded and was lucky not to be totally annihilated. In March Sir John Cheape set out with a strong force to avenge the earlier disaster and after a series of punishing marches and counter-marches Myat Tun's stronghold was stormed in a bloody action which saw Ensign (later Field Marshal Viscount) Wolseley shot through the leg. With the unfortunate escape of Myat Tun the country was finally pacified and with it, on the conclusion of the War on 30 June, work was begun on a military road linking Prome and Calcutta, and opening up the whole of the Arakan.