A House-To-House Combat Encounter from 1756 Calcutta
Lieutenant Thomas Blagg’s defense of a British mansion in the 1756 siege of Calcutta was a footnote in the overall battle. Though valorous, the defense had no real impact on the siege’s outcome. Still, it makes a great template for a setpiece combat encounter in your own campaign.
The siege of Calcutta was a relatively brief affair marked by widespread cowardice, incompetence, and desertion on the part of the defending senior leadership. It was, however, to have lasting consequences. The overwhelming British response to the Nawab (King) of Bengal’s attack on their fort/trading post in Calcutta ushered in more direct control by the British East India Company over its possessions in the subcontinent, and eventually led to Crown rule in India.
The event we're leading up to occurred at a point in the siege when most of the colonial defenders had retreated behind the walls of Fort William, Calcutta’s not-so-impregnable fortress on the river. Bengali forces had taken most of the city. The defenders tried to slow the Nawab’s advance on Fort William’s walls by sending squads of men out into the city to hold strongpoints. Some of these strongpoints were batteries. Some were just mansions in tactically-important places. The hope was that the Nawab’s forces would exhaust themselves sufficiently taking these strongpoints that they wouldn’t have the will or manpower to take Fort William.
It sure didn’t work.
Compared to the British defenders, the Nawab’s forces were numerous, poorly armed, and remarkably poorly coordinated. They moved almost at random through the so-called ‘White Quarter’ of Calcutta, moving into unoccupied mansions and raising flags over them. This practice of raising flags might have proved convenient to the defenders. It gave them a way to track the Bengalis’ movements. But since the Brits never really moved from their strongpoints, it’s not clear they actually did anything with the information.
Sometimes, the Bengalis seized a building that proved tactically-important, like when they moved into the mansion of a Mr. Dumbleton, and from its second story, were able to rain fire on the British defenders of a roofless battery. Often, the British and the Bengalis would be occupying houses next door to each other, yet neither would shoot at the other, as their attention was focused in other directions. Every now and again, the British dislodged the Bengalis from a house using cannon fire from the fort. In the case of the Dumbleton house, the barrage destroyed most of the second story and set the house ablaze. I will admit that I don’t know how Mr. Dumbleton felt about that.
One squad of ten men, led by young Lieutenant Thomas Blagg, was sent to hold a mansion belonging to Captain-Commandant George Minchin, the garrison commander. Captain Minchin’s house guarded the way to a cluster of mansions nearer to the fort. The house was a hundred feet on a side and surrounded by a balcony. It had a huge (and never-used) banquet hall on the ground floor, with living quarters above accessed by a grand staircase and a smaller servant’s staircase. The house was part of a larger gated compound that included a dormitory for twenty servants, a separate kitchen and bakery, a vegetable patch, and a stable. The house was grand, but not remarkable by the standards of a wealthy colonial notable in Calcutta.
Blagg intended to fight from the ground floor of the Minchin house. It afforded his men greater mobility, and gave them a stronghold to retreat to (the second story) if they needed it. But when Bengali flags were raised over the mansions on either side of the Minchin house, Blagg knew he was in trouble. He fought from the first story until the attackers had almost broken down the front door, then ordered his men to retreat to the second story.
The defenders built a barricade at the top of Minchin’s grand staircase. The attackers had to come up the stair to get at the defenders, which gave Lieutenant Blagg the advantage. That held until the Bengalis used fire arrows to set the barricade alight. The defenders retreated to the roof. The attackers now had to come up through a narrow trapdoor, but the defenders had only a few shots left apiece. They waited until they were out of ammunition, then hacked their way back down into the mansion and out through the front door, somehow losing only two men in the process. Their valiant defense of the Minchin house slowed the Bengali advance, but accomplished nothing in the end. The British lost – badly.
At your table, Blagg’s action in the 1756 siege of Calcutta makes great inspiration for a setpiece combat: the sort of combat where you put a lot of work into making a cool battlemap, statting up a variety of really interesting enemies, and you bust it out at the climax of a plot arc or campaign. You’re providing a memorable high point for the story. All you really need to make this setpiece encounter work is an urban environment where the buildings don’t touch and a lot of low-level enemies.
There’s two ways you can handle turning Blagg’s action into a setpiece combat.
First, you can model it on what Blagg actually did. I don’t recommend this. Yes, you get to design a cool battlemap of the mansion’s gated compound, the houses around, and the mansion’s ostentatious interior. But while desperate defenses are very heroic, literally limitless waves of low-level enemies get old fast.
The other way to do it is to build a combat on what Blagg could have done, especially if he had access to the resources of a typical adventuring party. In this version, the PCs are heavily armed, and facing overwhelming numbers of uncoordinated light infantry.
Instead of the battlemap being one house and the properties around it, zoom the camera out, and sketch out the locations of all the mansions, outbuildings, and walled compounds in the neighborhood. You don’t have to get detailed with this. Every twenty minutes, roll to randomly determine how many and which mansions the attackers seize. Mark the raised flags on the battlemap. Keep track of the locations of enemy units as they enter and leave houses and move through the streets.
If the PCs implement an active defense, they just might have a chance. They can take advantage of the fact that their enemies are uncoordinated. They can make a plan, move house to house, and defeat their more lightly-armed adversaries in detail.
In the historical siege, Fort William forced its Bengali besiegers out of some houses with cannon fire. You can do something similar. Orbital space lasers, unpredictable magical effects, ghosts, or well-placed artillery can all make the party’s enemies vacate a house and move to a different one. If the PCs are breezing through the combat, an airstrike on a house could unexpectedly drive some enemies right into their path and screw up their plan. If the PCs are having a really hard time of it, a convenient airstrike could drive off the enemies pinning them down. It gives you an opportunity to fine-tune the combat’s difficulty on the fly.
Fort William’s defenders didn’t have a prayer. They were undermanned, under-equipped, under-trained, and under-supplied. But your PCs can still have a grand old time in a combat inspired by Lieutenant Blagg’s defense of Captain Minchin’s Calcutta mansion.