The British Empire Library

When the Tiger fought the Thistle: The Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army

by Alan Tritton

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
After the first battle of Pollilur in 1780, the victor, Tipu Sultan, instructed an artist to paint a mural on his palace walls to commemorate the defeat of the East India Company' s Madras Army. It is an exciting picture and copies still survive. The sepoys, smart in their white trousers and red jackets, form a large square, the classic defensive position of the time. Within the square, Colonel William Baillie sits in his palanquin which has been placed on the ground. He seems unaware that an enormous ammunition cart has just exploded, sending smoke and flames into the air. In fact this was one of two carts that blew up when they were hit by Tipu's famous iron-dad rockets, thus altering the course of the battle, which had seemed, until then, to be going in the Company' s favour. Baillie got out of his palanquin and reformed the square with those soldiers who hadn't run away in fear. But in spite of a gallant last stand, praised even by his enemies, Baillie was doomed. It was his last day as a free man and in a little over two years he was to die a terrible death in Tipu's palace dungeons at Seringapatam. It was one of the most significant defeats for the Madras Army during the Mysore wars, which blighted southern India for almost fort y years. Doubts were raised at home over w hether the Compan y could hold on to its possessions in India.

Had the ammunition carts not exploded, then the tactical errors that preceded the battle would have been brushed aside. General Sir Hector Munro, former Commander-in-Chief, seems to have been one of the main culprits, not only for his failure to join Colonel Baillie's brigade column, as originally intended, but then by sending Colonel Fletcher and his men as substitutes. 'All the General's errors arose from an indistinctness of judgement and a facility to be misled by designing men' wrote a contemporary critic. Also to blame, in the author's eyes, are the French, both individually, as mercenaries in Tipu's army, and collectively, as a nation. Wars between England and France during the late eighteenth century meant, by extension, that they also had to be fought in India between English and French settlements there. Both countries were also keen to lend their fledgling, but superior, armies to local rulers, with the result that nawabs and rajas saw Europeans, in their employ, fighting each other, as happened at Pollilur.

The author, Alan Tritton, has a personal interest in the life of William Baillie, because he is a direct descendant of Baillie's brother John. Three years ago he went with family members to a rededication service at the handsome memorial built at Seringapatam to William Baillie.

This was erected in 1816 by Baillie's nephew, another John, who was then British Resident in Lucknow. The memorial has been expertly restored with funds from donors, including BACSA. There are many interesting themes in this book, particularly the discovery in two Scottish archives, of previously unpublished letters to, and from, William Baillie. The preliminary chapters give a useful insight into why so many Scottish younger sons went to seek their fortunes abroad - the 1707 Act of Union meant they could seek army commissions to fight abroad in the rapidly expanding British empire. William's intention was to make enough money in India to support his family and its estate at Dunain, which was by no means wealthy. In this he was disappointed, because his regiments, the 89th (Highland) and subsequently the Company's 4th Carnatic Battalion, were not involved in any major conquests, which meant there was no prize money to share out and send home. His longing to return to Scotland is clear in his letters, but after twenty years soldiering his only reward was a prison cell in India and death. There are a few editing errors in this book and the index is rather inadequate, but William's story is highly and warmly recommended for the general, as well as specialist reader. Refreshingly, there are no footnotes at all, but discursive and elegant chapter headings in the eighteenth century manner.

British Empire Book
Alan Tritton
First Published
Radcliffe Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2014 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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