Foye Du Soldat

The Siege of Pondicherry was the first military action on the Indian subcontinent following the declaration of war between Great Britain and France in the American War of Independence. A British force besieged the French-controlled port of Puducherry in August 1778, which capitulated after ten weeks of siege.

Following the American victory at Saratoga in October 1777, France decided to enter the American War of Independence as an ally to the United States. Word first reached the French Indian colony of Puducherry in July 1778 that France and Britain had recalled their ambassadors, a sign that war was imminent. The British colonies had already received orders to seize the French possessions in India and begun military preparations.

Pondicherry was the capital of French India and the largest of France’s possessions on the subcontinent. The British would capture all of the other possessions without resistance in 1778; only Pondicherry was actively defended. The French governor, General Guillaume de Bellecombe, had at his disposal about 700 French troops and 400 sepoys (local Indian troops), and a city whose fortifications were in some disrepair. Pondicherry, as was the case with a number of other European colonial outposts in India, changed hands due to military action several times in the colonial period. Attempts to significantly improve its defences after the last round of battles in the Seven Years War were frustrated by political infighting in the French colonial administration. In 1778 the outer works of the city were largely incomplete, with significant elements unfinished and parts of the city exposed to direct attack.

The British colonial administration in Madras placed General Hector Munro in command of an army of nearly 20,000 men, which began arriving within a few miles of Pondicherry on 8 August. By 20 August the full army had arrived, the city was surrounded, and siege operations began.

The British troops were not noticeably active in their siege operations until September. Bellecombe used the remaining time to further strengthen the defences, constructing more dikes and iron-cladding the powder magazine. He also repeatedly had to stop the ineffective fire of cannon at the distant British positions.

On the night of 1 September the British advanced a force of about 300 as cover for engineers to begin siege operations. Two positions were identified for attack; the northwest bastion, and the southernmost bastion. Batteries were established to cover this work, and a third battery was placed to the southwest on 3 September that was positioned to enfilade the French defences. Bellecombe’s response was to send out a few hundred men to feint an attack on the southern battery. This drew nearly 3,000 British troops within reach of the French guns, which inflicted significant damage with only a single French death.

On 19 September a British cannonball killed the commander of the French artillery. By 24 September breaches were beginning to show in the bastions under attack, and by 6 October the British trenches had reached the inner ditches, with additional gun batteries doing significant damage along the entire French works.

On 25 September the French attempted a night-time sortie to destroy the southern battery. The effort was abandoned when secrecy was lost (a sentry was disarmed but not killed, so he was able to raise the alarm) and when the company lost its way. A second sortie on 4 October was a little more successful. The southwest gun battery was reached while its crew was asleep; the guns were spiked (albeit poorly enough that they were soon back in service), and some of the crew were slaughtered. Bellecombe also received a minor injury after a musket ball struck him on 4 October, but was able to continue leading the defence.

Between 6 and 13 October the British siege operations continued, but heavy rains hampered them. The British succeeded in draining the northern ditch, which the French unsuccessfully attempted again to flood. On 14 October the walls of the two bastions the British had targeted lay in ruins, and preparations began for an assault.

Bellecombe was also running out of ammunition. After holding a war council on 15 October, he sent a truce flag to Munro the next day. He signed the terms of capitulation on 18 October.

The French force of less than 1,500 had withstood a siege of nearly eighty days by a British force that numbered 20,000. The defenders’ losses were high: more than 300 French and nearly 150 sepoy casualties, along with more than 200 civilian casualties. The British suffered more than 900 casualties. The French defenders were allowed to march out with full colours and were eventually returned to France.

The Foyer du Soldat is the legion hall for retired soldiers from Puducherry who waged wars on behalf of France in Europe and the colonies. The building is interesting with its typical yellow and white walls and a dash of colour added to it in by the ‘tri-colour’ (red, white, and blue) flag fluttering in the wind.

16, rue Law de Lauriston