Did you know that in the nineteenth century we fought not one, not two, but three wars against Burma? Yes, there was a First Burma War, a Second Burma War and a Third as well.
The first war was a bitter and bloody affair. The Burmese Empire had been expanding west into areas such as Assam, while British influence had been expanding eastwards from India. A clash between the two was perhaps inevitable. Early in the war, Burmese forces advanced further, and even managed to capture Cox’s Bazar (still the name of a town in Bangladesh) and cause some panic in Calcutta (Kolkata). We decided to strike back deep inside Burma, landing an expeditionary force at the port of Yangon (Rangoon) in 1824. Bitter fighting followed and cost both sides heavily, but with our forces slowly pushing the Burmese back, a month’s armistice resulted in September 1825. We demanded assorted territorial concessions and, among other demands, a £2 million indemnity, in the days when £2 million was a huge amount of money. Eventually negotiations broke down and the Burmese tried one more military move. This was repelled with the aid of a flotilla of gunboats at the Battle of Prome. Finally, in 1826, the Burmese agreed to a peace deal, in which the indemnity had been reduced to £1 million, still a vast amount at the time.
In 1852 we were back. The Second Burma War started in extremely dubious circumstances, which have led to accusations that Brits deliberately provoked it. We occupied Rangoon on 12 April and Prome in October. Even though no peace treaty was ever officially signed, we effectively won and annexed a chunk of southern Burma. During the war, Rear Admiral Charles Austen died of cholera at Prome. He’s a naval officer with an interesting career in his own right, but as the brother of author Jane Austen, it seems strange there hasn’t been more focus on him. Perhaps a biopic starring Colin Firth is in order.
In 1885 we were involved in the Third Burma war. We had been getting nervous about increasing French influence in the country and there was also a legal dispute over the amount of teak being extracted. We gave the Burmese an ultimatum. They rejected it. We invaded. And invaded quickly. In November, in a lightning advance, under the spectacularly named Major General Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast, a force moved along the Irrawaddy River and captured the Burmese capital at Mandalay and the Burmese king. On 1 January 1886 we annexed Burma. With our annexation of the country a resistance war started that dragged on for years.
Then in January 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma. They rapidly took Rangoon and our forces had to make an exhausting and grim withdrawal through Burma up the Irrawaddy. Despite the desperation of the situation, Lieutenant General William Slim managed to hold the Burma Corps together and, by May 1942, the withdrawal had come to an end. In late 1942 we struck back, attacking into the Arakan. Sadly the attack didn’t make much progress. But Orde Wingate’s first Chindit campaign managed to hit back at the Japanese far behind the front line. In 1944, the Japanese launched a desperate assault into India to try to take Imphal and Kohima. After bitter fighting the Japanese were thrown back, and Slim’s Fourteenth Army began to pursue them through Burma, while behind their lines the Japanese suffered continued Chindit attacks. Meanwhile, some Burmese nationalists who had previously sided with the Japanese in the hope of winning independence had already become disenchanted with them, and as the Japanese fell back, these Burmese switched sides. Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, brought his Burmese National Army over to us. Rangoon fell in the interestingly named Operation Dracula in May 1945 after a Gurkha parachute battalion dropped on Elephant Point and the 26th Indian Infantry Division landed from ships.
After the Second World War, Aung San helped negotiate the shape of an independent Burma but was assassinated in 1947. Burma became independent in 1948.