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David Baird

BAIRD, (the Right Honourable, General Sir) DAVID, a distinguished commander during the wars of the French Revolution, was the second surviving son of William Baird, Esq., heir, by settlement, of his second cousin Sir John Baird, of Newbyth, Bart. He entered the army, December 16, 1772, as an ensign in the 2nd foot, joined the regiment at Gibraltar, April 1773, and returned to Britain in 1776. Having been promoted to a lieutenancy in 1778, he immediately after obtained a company in the 73rd, a regiment then just raised by Lord Macleod, with which he sailed for India, and arrived at Madras, January 1780.

This young regiment was here at once ushered into the trying and hazardous scenes of the war against Hyder Ally, whom the English company had provoked by a shameful breach of faith into a hostility that threatened to overwhelm it. In July 1780, while the company, exclusive of Lord Macleod’s regiment, had only about 5,000 men under arms, Hyder burst into the Carnatic with an army of 100,000 men, disciplined and commanded by French officers, and laid siege to Arcot, the capital of the only native prince friendly to the British. Sir Hector Munro, commander-in-chief of the Company’s troops, set out to relieve this city on the 25th of August, expecting to be joined on the 30th, by a large detachment then in the northern circars under Colonel Baillie. On learning this movement, Hyder left Arcot, and threw himself in the way of Colonel Baillie. In order to favour, if possible, the approach of this officer, Sir Hector Munro, on the 5th of September, changed his position a little, and advanced two miles on the Trepassore road, which brought him within a short distance from the enemy. Hyder then detached his brother-in-law, Meer Saib, with 8,000 horse, to attack Colonel Baillie, and afterwards an additional force of 6,000 infantry, 18,000 cavalry, and 12 pieces of cannon, under his son, the celebrated Tippoo. He at the same time made demonstrations on his front, to keep up the attention of Sir Hector and the main army. Baillie, though commanding no more than 2,000 Sepoys and a few European companies, gained a complete victory over the immense force sent against him, but at the same time sent word to Sir Hector, that, unless provision were made for accomplishing a junction, he must certainly be cut off. The commander-in-chief held a council of war, when it was determined at all hazards to send a reinforcement, for the purpose of achieving the relief of this gallant officer. A small force was selected, consisting principally of the grenadier and infantry companies of Lord Macleod’s regiment, which, having received strict injunctions as to the necessity of a secret and expeditious march, set off towards Colonel Baillie’s position, under the command of Colonel Fletcher and Captain Baird. Hyder Ally had secret intelligence of this movement, and sent a detachment to cut it off; but Colonel Fletcher and Captain Baird, having fortunately conceived some suspicion of their guides, suddenly altered their line of march, and were thereby enabled to gain their point. Hyder was determined that Colonel Baillie, with his friends, should not advance so safely to the main army. He therefore, with the most consummate ability, and under his own personal inspection, prepared an ambuscade at a particular pass through which they would have to march. This part of the road, he had occupied and enfiladed with several batteries of cannon, behind which lay large bodies of his best foot, while he himself, with almost his whole force, was ready to support the attack. While these real dispositions were made, a cloud of irregular cavalry was employed in several motions on the side of Conjeveram, in order to divert the attention of the English camp.

The morning of the 10th of September had scarcely dawned, when the silent and expectant enemy perceived Colonel Baillie’s little army advancing into the very toils planted to receive it. The ambuscade reserved their fire with admirable coolness and self-command, till the unhappy English were in the midst of them. The army marched in column. On a sudden, while in a narrow defile, a battery of twelve guns poured a storm of grape-shot into their right flank. The English faced about; another battery immediately opened on their rear. They had no alternative, therefore, but to advance; other batteries met them here likewise, and in less than half an hour, 57 pieces of cannon were so brought to bear on them as to penetrate into every part of the British line. By seven o’clock in the morning, the enemy poured down upon them in thousands, and every Englishman in the army was engaged. Captain Baird, at the head of his grenadiers, fought with the greatest heroism. Surrounded and attacked on all sides by 25,000 cavalry, by 30 regiments of Sepoy infantry, besides Hyder Ally’s European corps, and a numerous artillery playing upon them from all quarters within grape-shot distance, yet this heroic column stood firm and undaunted, alternately facing their enemies on every side of attack. The French officers in Hyder’s camp beheld the scene with astonishment, which was increased, when, in the midst of all this tumult and extreme peril, they saw the British grenadiers performing their evolutions with as much precision, coolness, and steadiness, as if under the eyes of a commander on a parade.

Colonels Baillie and Fletcher, and Captain Baird, had only ten pieces of cannon; but these were so excellently served, that they made great havoc amongst the enemy. At length, after a dubious contest of three hours (from six in the morning till nine,) victory began to declare for the English; the flower of the Mysore cavalry, after many bloody repulses, were at length entirely defeated with great slaughter, and the right wing, composed of Hyder’s best forces, was thrown into disorder, and began to give way. Ryder himself was about to give the orders for retreat, and the French officer who directed the artillery began to draw it off.

At this moment of exultation and triumph, when British valour was just about to reap that safety which it had so well fought for, there occurred an accident, which entirely altered the fortune of the day. The tumbrils containing the ammunition suddenly blew up, with two dreadful explosions, in the centre of the British line. The whole face of their column was laid open, and their artillery overturned and destroyed. The destruction of men was great, but the total loss of their ammunition was still more fatal to the survivors. Tippoo Saib, a worthy son of his martial father, instantly saw and seized the moment of advantage, and, without waiting for orders, fell with the utmost rapidity, at the head of the Mogul and Carnatic horse, into the broken square, which had not yet time in any degree to recover its form and order. This attack by the enemy’s cavalry being immediately seconded by the French corps, and by the firing line of infantry, determined at once the fate of our unfortunate army. After successive prodigies of valour, the brave Sepoys were almost to a man cut to pieces.

Colonels Baillie and Fletcher made one more desperate effort; they rallied the Europeans, and, under the fire of the whole artillery of the enemy, gained little eminence and formed themselves into a square. In this form, did this invincible band, though totally without ammunition, the officers fighting only with their swords, and the soldiers with their bare bayonets, resist and repulse the enemy in thirteen different attacks; until, at length, incapable of withstanding the successive torrents of fresh troops which were continually pouring upon them, they were fairly borne down and trampled upon, many of them still continuing to fight under the very legs of the horses and elephants.

Out of about 4,000 Sepoys and 800 Europeans who had commenced the engagement, only about 200 of the latter survived. Colonel Fletcher was among the slain, and Captain Baird had wounds in four places. When he and Colonel Baillie, with other captive officers, were taken before Hyder Ally, the latter gentleman said to the barbarous chief, "Your son will inform you, that you owe the victory to our disaster, rather than to our defeat." Hyder angrily ordered them from his presence, and commanded them instantly to prison. The slaughter among the Mysore troops was very great, amounting, it is said, to three times the whole British army. When Sir Hector Munroe learned the unhappy fate of his detachment, he found it necessary to retreat to Madras.

Captain Baird, with the officers, remained in a dungeon in one of Hyder’s forts for three days and a half; he was chained by the leg to another prisoner as much of the slaughter in Hyder’s army was attributed to the grenadiers. At length, in July 1784, he was released, and joined his regiment at Arcot. In 1787, he removed with his regiment (now styled the 71st) to Bombay, and returned to Madras next year. On the 5th of June 1789, he received the majority of the 71st, and in October obtained leave of absence, and returned to Britain. In 1791, he returned as lieutenant-colonel of the 71st, and joined the army under the marquis Cornwallis. As commander of a brigade of Sepoys, he was present at the attack of a number of Droogs, or hill-forts, and at the siege of Seringapatam, in 1791 and 1792; and likewise at the storming of Tippoo Sultaun’s lines and camps in the island of Seringapatam. In 1793, he commanded a brigade of Europeans, and was present at the siege of Pondicherry. He received a colonelcy in 1795. In October 1797, he embarked at Madras with his regiment for Europe; in December, when he arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, he was appointed Brigadier-general, and placed on that staff, in command of a brigade. June 18, 1798, he was appointed Major-general, and returned to the staff in India. In January 1799, he arrived at Madras, in command of two regiments of foot, together with the drafts of the 28th dragoons. May 4, he commanded the storming party at that distinguished action, the assault of Seringapatam; when, in requital of his brilliant services, he was presented by the army, through the Commander-in-chief, with the state sword of Tippoo Sultaun, and also with a dress-sword from the field-officers serving under his immediate command at the assault.

The eminent merit of Brigadier-general Baird was now fully known and acknowledged by the government at home. He was therefore, in 1800, appointed to the command of an expedition against Batavia, but which was afterwards sent to Egypt. He landed at Coseir in June, crossed the desert, and, embarking on the Nile, descended to Grand Cairo; whence he set out for Alexandria, which he reached a few days before it surrendered to General Hutchinson. Next year he led the Egyptian Indian army overland to India, where he was concerned in various military transactions. His services, however, being soon after superseded by Sir Arthur Wellesley (afterwards the illustrious protector of Europe), he sailed for Britain with his staff, March 1803, and after a tedious voyage, during which he was taken prisoner by a French privateer, but afterwards retaken, he arrived in England in November.

Sir David Baird was received at the British court with great distinction. In December, he received the royal permission to wear the Turkish order of the Crescent. In June, 1804, he received the honour of knighthood; and on the 18th of August following became a knight companion of the Bath. With the increased rank of Lieutenant-general, he commanded an expedition which sailed in October 1805, for the Cape of Good Hope. Landing there, January 6, 1806, he attacked and beat the Dutch army, and on the 18th received the surrender of the colony. Being recalled, he arrived in Britain, April 1807, and was shifted from the colonelcy of the 54th, which he had held for some years, to that of the 24th, and placed on the foreign staff under General Lord Cathcart. He commanded a division at the siege of Copenhagen, where he was twice slightly wounded; and returned with the army in November.

After a short period of service in Ireland, Sir David sailed in command of an armament of 10,000 men for Corunna, where he arrived in November 1808, and formed a junction with the army under General Sir John Moore. He commanded the first division of that army, and in the battle of Corunna, January 16, 1809, he lost his left arm.

By the death of Sir John Moore in this action, Sir David succeeded to the chief command, and had the honour of communicating intelligence of the victory to government. On this occasion, he received for the fourth time in his life the thanks of parliament, and, April 13, was created a baronet, with very honourable armorial bearings allusive to the transactions of his life. After this period, he never again appeared in active service. In 1810, he married Miss Preston Campbell, of Ferntower and Lochlane, Perthshire, by whom he left no issue. In 1814, he was promoted to the rank of General, and in 1819 became governor of Kinsale in Ireland, and in 1827, of Fort George in the north of Scotland. This brave veteran died at an advanced age, August 18, 1829, at his seat of Ferntower in Perthshire. His lady, who survived him till 1847, erected a monument to his memory on the top of a romantic hill, named Tom-na-chaistel, (i.e. the hill of the castle,) in the neighbourhood of Ferntower.

The Life of General, The Right Honouble Sir David Baird, Bart G.C.B. K.C. &c.
Volume 1   |   Volume 2

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