The Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army

10 February 2014
imports_CESC_0-ldiuy7ro-100000_71715.jpg The Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army
Author Alan Tritton explores the military adventures of Colonel William Baillie, who was implicated in a major military blunder in eighteenth-century Madras. ...

 Author Alan Tritton explores the military adventures of Colonel William Baillie, who was implicated in a major military blunder in eighteenth-century Madras.

William Baillie – an indirect ancestor of the Author – his mother was Iris Baillie – was the elder son of a minor Scottish laird who had a small estate at Dunain not far south of Inverness. He was born in 1739, seven years before the battle of Culloden Moor. The estate rentals were low and he and his younger brother John knew that, when they grew up, they would have to seek their income and perhaps fortune elsewhere.

He was well educated at King’s College Aberdeen and Edinburgh University, where it was said that he inclined to a military life. He joined the 89th Highland Regiment of Foot, which was in course of being raised by no less a personage than the Dowager Duchess of Gordon. She had been rebuffed by the Duke of Newcastle in her efforts to obtain a Commission for her elder son the 4th Duke and in her efforts to find a Colonelcy for her rather younger second husband and, by raising her own Regiment she was able, as she put it, to kill two birds with one stone. 

The Regiment was duly formed and was ordered south and to the Dowager’s horror was then ordered out to Madras in the East Indies which would deprive her of the Duke and her new husband for an indefinite period of time and perhaps permanently, given the casualty rate in India either from battle or disease – the average length of life in those days of a newcomer to India was two monsoons, although the Madras Presidency was healthier than the other two – Calcutta and Bombay.


The Regiment arrived in India after an uneventful voyage towards the end of 1760, as it happens, just in time for the siege and capitulation of Pondicherry, the capital of French India - a siege, which had to be carried out all over again in 1778, but whereas on the first occasion William was only a Lieutenant, the second time he was a Lieutenant-Colonel and second in command of the besieging force.

In 1765, the 89th Highland Regiment of Foot was recalled home, thus enabling the Dowager Duchess to be re-united with her younger husband, but William had not by then benefitted much, if any at all, from prize money, which would enable him to help finance the Dunain estate. This was unlike Hector Munro of Novar, who had made a fortune by his victory at the Battle of Buxar in 1765 over the combined forces of the Nawab Vizier of Oudh, Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Moghul Emperor Shah Alam 11 and the deposed former Nawab of Bengal, Mir Kasim. As a result, William decided to transfer to the Coast subsequently renamed the Madras Army of the Honourable East India Company, where, at the age of 25 as a Captain, he was appointed to command a Sepoy Battalion – named after him for many years the Baillie-ki-Paltan. The history of this Battalion has recently been reprinted.

He fought in all the campaigns and battles in the 1760s and 1770s against the French, Haidar Ali – the Mysore usurper - and his son Tipoo Sultan, who were supported and reinforced by the French and on occasion by the Nizam of Hyderabad’s army, emerging victorious from all of them and as a result earned a high military reputation – some of these famous or perhaps not so famous now battles such as Chengam and Tiruvannamalai are recounted in the book ‘When the Tiger Fought the Thistle’.


In July 1780 Haidar Ali and his son Tipoo with a huge army, reinforced as usual by the French, invaded the Carnatic and even reached Madras. At that time, William Baillie was then commanding a Brigade Column of the Madras Army far to the north in the Guntoor Circar.

He was ordered to march south with instructions to join the main Army at Madras, which was then commanded by Hector Munro of Novar, when Lord Macleod of Cromarty – the senior King’s Army officer on the Coast – and who had just arrived with the 73rd Highland Regiment of Foot, refused to take command of the Army.

He did this for two reasons – the inadequacy of the Army’s provisions and the order for the Army to assemble with its outlying Brigades at Conjeveram now Kanchipuram – a town about fifty miles west of Madras, instead of at Madras itself, where it could assemble as a cohesive Whole instead of being fragmented.

This was a major blunder on the part of Hector Munro, although it could be said that there was a mitigating provision in the sense that Conjeveram was nearer to Arcot – the Nawab’s capital, which was then being besieged by Haidar Ali and the Nawab did not want it to be captured.

No provisions were found at Conjeveram despite the Nawab’s promises – and for Colonel William Baillie and his Brigade Column, it meant a long cross country march during which he would be exposed to the full might of the Mysore Army.

When he was nearing Conjeveram after a series of engagements with Tipoo Sultan, as a result of which he had more or less run out of ammunition, he was caught out by the whole of the Mysore army. By then, he was only a few miles away from Hector Munro and the main army but Munro only started moving towards him on the morning of the main battle, having fallen asleep.

However, by then it was too late, so he turned back to Conjeveram being pursued by the Mysorean cavalry and then that night fled to Chingleput and Madras, leaving the bulk of his Army behind and without orders. William Baillie having caught the full onslaught of Haidar Ali and Tipoo Sultan Conjeveram, was forced to surrender, after his ammunition wagons had blown up, he had suffered severe casualties and been surrounded.


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Afterwards, he was forced to watch the decapitated heads of his fellow officers being paraded in front of him according to the Muslim fashion.

Later, he was imprisoned in a dungeon at Seringapatam the capital of Haidar Ali, and having been placed in irons and denied medical help, died in the dungeon on 13 November 1782.
It is worth recording that during the second battle of Pollilur the following year, Sir Hector Munro, who was no longer the Commander-in-Chief and who was later dismissed from the Company disgraced himself again, when he sat alone, sulking under a solitary tree, refusing to give orders to his soldiers on the basis that he had been insulted by the new Commander-in-Chief Sir Eyre Coote, who had told him when he had made some suggestion to him, not to make suggestions but to do his duty!

Later, in 1816 his nephew Colonel John Baillie, who was then the Resident of Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, erected at Seringapatam near Mysore in his honour a large classical Memorial. This Memorial has recently been restored and conserved by the author’s Tritton and Baillie families and the British Association of Cemeteries for South Asia, of which the author is President.

The book ‘When the Tiger fought the Thistle – the Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army’ is the result of painstaking research at the Highland Archive Office in Inverness, the Scottish National Archive Office in Edinburgh and the India Office Library in the British Library. It is quite clear from these researches that Colonel William Baillie did not deserve being made the scapegoat for the Pollilur disaster in 1780 in the Carnatic and that the blame should fall primarily on Sir Hector Munro of Novar.

Alan Tritton is the author of When The Tiger Fought the Thistle: The Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army published by I B Tauris.

(Images copyright I B Tauris)




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