The Burmese Wars
1st Anglo-Burmese War
War in 1824
Britain had been involved in an ongoing war with the various kings of Burma ever since Arakan, a coastal kingdom, had been conquered by the Burmese in 1785. That set the East India Company on a collision course with the Burmese kings. In 1819 trouble flared up when the Burmese conquered the border states of Assam and Manipur. War was declared in 1824 and the war that lasted two years cost the British taxpayer £13 million and the lives of 15,000 men. Eventually the British prevailed and forced the Burmese king Nagyidaw to sign a peace treaty by which he promised to cede the lands previously conquered and respect the independence of Manipur and Cachar.
Several kings later and with continual harassment of British merchants using the Irrwaddy delta, fighting began again. This time the advantage clearly lay with the British who were able to use steam powered gunboats to support the advance of infantry. With King Pagan Min overthrown in a coup in January 1853 and the main Burmese army withdrawn to the capital Ava, Major-General Godwin was able persuade the new king, Mindon to negotiate. There remained though an outpost of opposition near Donabyu where the local chief Myat-Toon, remained in his fortress stockade with 4,000 men. Several attempts to penetrate the jungle to reach Donabyu failed with the British troops beaten back. Defeating Myat-Toon beame a matter of honour for the British and the task was given to Brigadier-General Sir John Cheape.
Wolseley leading a party of British soldiers storming the stronghold of Myat-Toon
Wolseley's first military engagement
Wolseley was part of this expedition and was the officer in charge of the advance guard that discovered Toon’s stockade on 19 March. Having seen the stockade Wolseley crept along a small path through thick jungle with four privates towards the stockade across from a small creek. As Wolseley approached the creek his party was seen and the Burmese opened fire.
Detachments from three regiments were asked to advance on the stockade. The sepoys refused and Wolseley would never forget the incident. Many years later he made it quite clear that he would never trust the Indian army in battle. The advance on the stockade continued but stalled whereupon volunteers were asked for to storm the fortress. Wolseley volunteered and led the attack but this too failed with Wolseley found himself isolated after falling in to a pit disguised with brushwood.
With Cheape now on the scene orders were given for the 24 pounder howitzer to open fire and for a fresh storming party to attack the fort. Wolseley again volunteered saying that he knew the way. He led the advance exhorting his men of the 80th Foot to follow him. As he ran towards the fort his fellow officer was fatally shot and then Wolseley felt something hot in his thigh – he had been shot- but he continued to advance on the fort with his men forcing the Burmese to flee. A doctor soon arrived on the scene and applied a tourniquet. Wolseley was evacuated by boat down the Irrawaddy and eventually on to a ship bound for India and England which he reached in late 1853. For his role in the fight Wolseley was mentioned in despatches and soon promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the 90th Light, a Perthshire regiment but based in Dublin. Dublin would have been a good posting for an officer for it afforded plenty of opportunities for riding, shooting and dancing but Wolseley had little money and with his wounded leg he could not dance. He was able though to spend time with his family.