The battle of Kaveripak (28 February 1752) was a major victory won by Robert Clive, despite his being outnumbered and ambushed by his French and Indian opponents (Second Carnatic War). Clive’s victory allowed the British to concentrate on lifting the siege of Trichinopoly (July 1751-April 1752).
The Second Carnatic War was dominated by two unsuccessful French sieges of Trichinopoly. The first of these sieges began in the summer of 1751, and saw most British troops in southern India trapped inside the besieged city. The British position was at least partly restored by Robert Clive. In September 1751 he captured Arcot, the capital of Chanda Sahib, the French supported Nawab of the Carnatic. Chanda Sahib dispatched his son Raju Sahib to recapture his capital, but Clive successfully defended Arcot in a siege that lasted into November. He then defeated Raju Sahib’s army at the battle of Arni (3 December 1751), before capturing the town of Conjeveram (16-18 December 1751).
Clive’s successes improved the British position and helped increase their prestige, but the French and their allies still had the upper hand. Trichinopoly was still under siege, while Raju Sahib and his army were still at large. Early in 1752 they reoccupied Conjeveram and began to raid the nearby countryside, getting close to Madras. Clive was ordered to suspend his plans for lifting the siege of Trichinopoly, and instead concentrate on pushing Raju Sahib and his army away from Madras.
Clive advanced towards Conjeveram from Madras, but found that Raju Sahib had retreated to Vendalur (or Vendalore). Raju Sahib had decided to leave a garrison in Conjeveram to hold up Clive, and take his main army to Arcot, hoping to take the defenders by surprise. This plan failed, and Raju Sahib retraced his steps to Kaveripak (or Covrepauk).
Clive reached Vendalur in the mid afternoon. An over-night march took them to Conjeveram by four in the morning on the following day. The garrison surrendered immediately. Only now did Clive discover where Raju Sahib had gone. Clive allowed his men to rest until noon, and then set off in pursuit of Raju Sahib. Instead, at about sunset, Clive fell into an ambush at Kaveripak.
Raju Sahib had the larger army, with 400 European troops, 2,000 sepoys, 2,000 Indian cavalry and nine guns. The guns, and part of the infantry, were posted under cover of a grove of mango trees to the north of Clive’s road (putting them on Clive’s right). The rest of the infantry was posted in a sunken water course to the left of the road. The cavalry was posted between the road and the water course, and behind the water course, allowing it to block Clive’s advance or cut behind him to block his retreat.
The battle began when the nine French guns opened fire on Clive’s advance guard. Clive was now in a very dangerous position. He was badly outnumbered, with 380 Europeans, either 1,300 or 1,800 Sepoys, six guns and no cavalry. Clive responded by sending most of his infantry to take shelter in the water course, where they were soon involved in a vicious fight with the French infantry. Three of the six guns were ordered to take on the nine French guns. Two more guns were moved around the eastern end of the water course, in an attempt to prevent the French cavalry from getting into Clive’s rear. The last gun and the baggage were sent back about half a mile.
The battle settled into a pattern that lasted for about three hours. In the watercourse the British and French infantry exchanged musket volleys, but didn’t get any closer. The French artillery slowly overwhelmed the outnumbered British gunners. The French cavalry was largely ineffective, often threatening the British rear, but never attacking.
Eventually Clive decided to try and outflank the French guns and attack them from the rear. A scout reported that the guns were undefended from the rear, and so Clive picked 200 men, and prepared to lead this outflanking manoeuvre in person, but was forced to return to the main battle when the rest of his infantry began to waver. Instead a Lieutenant Keene was given command of this force.
The scout’s report wasn’t accurate. The guns were actually guarded by 100 French infantry, but their attention was focused on the battle taking place in front of them. Keene got into the French rear, and then sent Ensign Symmonds to check the French position. Symmonds ran straight into part of the French force guarding the guns, but was able to bluff his way past them. He then returned to Keene by a different route, and guided the 200 British troops around the French guards. Keene’s men got to within thirty yards of the French troops before opening fire. This first volley was decisive. Caught entirely by surprise, the surviving French infantry and the gunners fled, abandoning the guns. Sixty were taken prisoner, while others escaped to carry news of the disaster to the troops fighting in the water course.
When this news reached them, the French infantry in the watercourse fled from the field, followed by their Sepoys and the Indian cavalry. The French had lost 50 European and 300 Sepoys killed, as well as all of their guns. Clive lost forty Europeans and 30 Sepoys killed.
Clive’s victory at Kaveripak gave the British a temporary advantage in the war. They were soon able to lift the siege of Trichinopoly. The French besiegers retreated onto the nearby island of Srirangam, where they were besieged in turn (10 April-13 June 1752) and forced to surrender. The British were dominant for much of the rest of 1752, but Governor Dupleix of Pondicherry, the French commander in the south of India, was an active and able man. By the start of 1753 he had rebuilt his position, and began a second and much longer siege of Trichinopoly (3 January 1753-August 1754).