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Royal Naval Biography/Fraser, Thomas


THOMAS FRASER, Esq.
[Commander.]

Third and youngest son of the late Vice Admiral Alexander Fraser, Equerry to H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge, by Helen, eldest daughter of John Bruce, Esq., Advocate, and Collector of the Customs in Shetland[1].

We first find this officer serving as admiralty midshipman on board the Leander 60, Captain Edward Chetham, at the battle of Algiers, in Aug. 1816. His promotion to the rank of lieutenant took place on the 16th of the following month, but his commission appears to have been dated back to the 5th, in order to give him precedence of others who did not happen to be so highly connected. He subsequently served under Captain William Ramsden, in the Scout sloop, on the Mediterranean station; and, in Mar. 1823, was appointed to the Larne 20, Captain Frederick Marryat, which ship he commissioned at Portsmouth on the 1st April. Previous to his sailing for the East Indies, he assisted in taking round to the Downs the Ramillies 74, and bringing back the Severn frigate. The following is au outline of his services during the Burmese war.

In the beginning of May 1824, he caught the jungle fever, while indefatigably exerting himself in procuring a supply of water for the Rangoon expedition, assembled at Port Cornwallis, in the Great Andaman island[2]. On the 3d June following, two boats under his directions, proceeding from Rangoon to Kemmendine, in advance of a reconnoitring force headed by Sir Archibald Campbell, “carried a small stockade and brought off an 18-pounder carronade: they were afterwards engaged under a most harassing fire of great guns and musketry from another stockade, and suffered severely, though infinitely less than could have been expected on such service.” On this occasion, the senior naval officer present officially reported, that “he had every reason to be much satisfied with the co-operation of Lieutenant Thomas Fraser, who commanded the Larne’s pinnance, and whose exemplary zeal and gallantry were both conspicuous[3].”

The numerous fire-rafts which the enemy sent down from Kemmendine, had hitherto kept the naval force at Rangoon in a constant and harassing state of exertion. The incessant annoyance experienced from these attacks rendered it necessary that the stockades which commanded that part of the river should be occupied by the British forces; and they were accordingly attacked and carried on the 10th June. About three thousand troops were employed on this occasion, commanded by Sir Archibald Campbell in person: the naval force consisted of two of the Hon. Company’s cruisers, six gun-vessels, six row-boats, and a proa, the whole under the command of Lieutenant Fraser, whose official report is given in p. 12, et seq, of our “Narrative of the Naval Operations.”

On the 8th July, being then in command of the Satellite armed transport. Lieutenant Fraser accompanied Sir Archibald Campbell to the attack of a fortified and commanding point of laud, which not only obstructed the navigation of the river above Kemmendine, but afforded an excellent situation for the construction of fire-rafts, by the judicious employment of which the enemy contemplated the destruction of our shipping. To this post the Burmese seemed to attach the greatest importance, and their stockades, three in number, were so constructed as to afford mutual support, presenting difficulties apparently not to be overcome without a great sacrifice of lives. “I therefore resolved,” says Sir A. Campbell, “to try the effect of shelling, and consulted with Captain Marryat upon the employment of such armed vessels as he might select to breach, in the event of our mortar practice not succeeding. The shells were thrown at too great distance to produce the desired effect, and the swampy state of the country would not admit of any advance. The armed vessels, viz. the Satellite, Teignmouth, Thetis, and Jessey, the whole under the command of Lieutenant Fraser, of H.M.S. Larne, now took their stations according to a disposition made by Captain Marryat, and opened a fire which soon silenced that of fourteen pieces of artillery, besides swivels and musketry from the stockades, and in one hour the pre-concerted signal of ‘breach practicable’ was displayed at the main-mast-head. The troops, as previously arranged, entered their boats on the signal being hoisted. The assault was made in the best order and handsomest style: * * * * the enemy kept up a sharp, but ill directed fire, while the troops were landing, but, as usual, fled on our making a lodgment in the place; * * * * the second stockade was carried in the same style; the third was evacuated by the enemy. * * * * To the officers and men of the breaching vessels every praise is due; and I much regret that severe indisposition prevented Captain Marryat from being present to witness the result of his arrangement[4].”

On the 11th July, Captain Marryat wrote to the senior officer on the East India station as follows:–

“When I sent away the expedition, under Lieutenant Fraser, on the 7th instant, I could only muster three officers and twelve men fit for duty. The conduct of Lieutenant Fraser, in the several expeditions which he has commanded, has been that of a gallant and steady officer.[5]

On the 8th Aug., a detachment of 400 men, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly, proceeded in boats up the Dalla river, accompanied by a party of seamen and marines of the Larne, under Lieutenant Fraser.

“After entering a large creek on the east side of Dalla, and proceeding two miles, two stockades were observed, one on each bank of the river, immediately opposite to each other, and both in commanding situations, particularly that on the left bank, which the lieutenant-colonel instantly decided on attacking. The boats were hove to for a short time, to maUe the necessary preparations; and as soon as these were completed, the whole moved on under a heavy fire from the guns and musketry in both stockades. The landing was effected under an incessant fire from them, and after great labour and exertion in getting through the mud, which was remarkably stiff, and thigh deep, the scaling ladders were placed, and the stockade stormed and immediately carried. Some of the troops then re-embarked, crossed the river, and took possession of the opposite stockade. In his official report to Sir A. Campbell, the lieutenant-colonel expressed himself “highly indebted to Lieutenant Fraser, whose unremitting exertions, throughout the affair, greatly contributed towards the success of the day[6].” In a letter addressed to the senior officer of H.M. squadron on the East India station. Captain Marryat says, “the gallantry of the officers employed in this expedition deserves the highest encomiums. I am sorry that our list of killed and wounded is so heavy[7]; but it will be accounted for when I state, that in these attacks the Lascars, who man the other boats, will not pull into the fire unless they are led by the officers and men of H.M. sloop the Larne.[8]

On the 2d Sept., Lieutenant Fraser accompanied Captain Marryat to the Dalla creek, for the purpose of dislodging the Burmese from the stockades which they had re-occupied. Two mortar vessels and one gun-boat having been anchored within six hundred yards of the enemy’s works, and the other gun-boats having taken up a more advanced position, in a battering line, the whole opened their fire at 6 a.m., which was smartly returned by the enemy, both with guns and musketry. At 9 o’clock, a detachment of row-boats, with troops under the command of Major R. L. Evans, pulled up the creek. By this time, the enemy’s great guns were silenced, and their magazine blown up; they still, however, held possession of the stockades, and maintained a constant fire of small arms.

The ditches of these works had been so widened as not to allow the scaling ladders to be planted, and a strong chevaux-de-frise was found placed across the creek to impede the advance of the flotilla. The original intention of storming the stockades from the river side was therefore abandoned, and Major Evans determined to attack the smallest in the rear. At half-past 9, he landed with 150 men, forced his way through the jungle by single files, and succeeded in dislodging the Burmese. Possession having been gained, the advance was sounded, and the boats pulled up to the main stockade, which was stormed without loss, the enemy retreating into the jungle. From the precision of the mortar practice, and the excellent fire of the gun-boats, which had completely riddled the stockades, the enemy’s loss must have been considerable. Leaving a sufficient force to defend the stockades, Captain Marryat and Major Evans then pushed higher up the creek, where they discovered between twenty five and thirty boats and canoes, laden with arms and ammunition, the whole of which were either destroyed or brought away. In his official letter on this occasion. Captain Marryat says, “the zeal and activity of Lieutenant Fraser was as highly satisfactory to me as creditable to himself[9].”

The captured stockades now became the site of constant warfare, the enemy proving extremely tenacious of any passage being opened up the creek leading to Thon-tai (the capital of Dalla, and the retreat of the Rangoon people, who had resisted the decree for a levy-en-masse). The flotilla and troops left to defend these works were every night assailed with musketry from the surrounding jungle, and the officers and men of the navy were constantly in their boats, watching, grappling, and towing away fire-rafts.

On the 5th Sept., at midnight, a straggling fire was again heard in the direction of the Dalla stockade, and shortly afterwards a rocket was thrown up, the signal previously arranged with the detachment, in case of immediate assistance being required. With the advantage of a strong flood tide, the boats of the Larne proceeded rapidly to the point of contention, where a heavy fire was exchanged; and as their approach could not be perceived, in consequence of the smoke, the officers and men cheered, to announce that support was at hand; and they had the satisfaction to hear it warmly returned, both by the military and those afloat. The attacks of the enemy had been simultaneous; the gun-vessels in the creek having been assailed by a number of war-boats, while the troops on shore were opposed to a force estimated at from fifteen hundred to two thousand men. Upon perceiving the boats of the Larne advancing a-head of the gun-vessels, the Burmese war-boats made a precipitate retreat. Chase was immediately given, and five of them, which had been most severely handled, and could not keep up with the main body, were successively boarded and carried. “The active and zealous support which he received from Lieutenant Fraser,” on this occasion, was publicly acknowledged by Captain Marryat[10].

On the 9th Sept., Lieutenant Fraser was sent to search for the passage up to Thon-tai, by way of the Dalla creek, but, after an absence of three days, he returned without having been able to find it. While on this service, two persons under his command were wounded, by musketry from the shore[11].

The scurvy was now making a rapid progress among the crew of the Larne, in consequence of their having been for four months confined to a diet of salt and damaged provisions, added to a total privation of vegetables, and the usual effects of a long continued wet season. Captain Marryat, therefore, supposing that a period of at least six weeks must elapse before active operations could be re-commenced, determined upon proceeding to Penang, where those comforts essentially necessary for the recovery of his crew were then most conveniently to be had. In reply to Captain Marryat’s representation of the inefficient state of the Larne, Sir A. Campbell says,– “In taking, I hope, a very short leave of yourself, and the officers and men of the Larne, I shall not dwell, as I otherwise would, on the valuable and ready aid I have invariably received from you all, since the commencement of the present service, embracing duties of perhaps as severe and harassing a nature as ever were experienced by either sailors or soldiers, and under privations of the most trying nature. Any number of Malay sailors you may require, to assist in navigating the Larne to Penang, are at your service.”

At the request of Sir Archibald, Captain Marryat left his first lieutenant, William Burdett Dobson, and sixteen of the Larne’s crew, in charge of the Satellite, stationed at Pagoda Point[12]. He then dropped down the river, with only twenty-seven of his original officers and men on board, leaving the naval force at Rangoon under the command of Captain George F. Ryves, of the Sophie sloop, the only vessel of war belonging to his Majesty, then attached to the invading army[13].

On the 24th Dec, the Larne returned from Calcutta; and soon afterwards, the army and flotilla received large reinforcements from Bengal, Madras, Ceylon, and Chittagong.

In the beginning of 1825, Sir Archibald Campbell and Captain H. D. Chads, of the Arachne sloop, then senior naval commander, prepared to advance upon the Birman capital. The joint crews of the Arachne, Larue, and Sophie, including supernumeraries, and the officers and men employed in the flotilla, at this time amounted to no more than 237 persons[14].

On the 11th Jan. and following day, Lieutenant Fraser assisted in driving the enemy from the old Portuguese fort, and doubly stockaded pagoda of Syriam: “his steady bravery and good conduct” on this occasion was officially reported[15]. On the 6th Feb. he commanded a division of boats, under the orders of Captain Chads, at the capture of a formidable stockade at Than-ta-bain, the particulars of which service have been given in the preceding memoir[16]. On the 17th of the same month, the Larne sailed from Rangoon, accompanied by the Hon. Company’s cruiser Mercury, and the Argyle transport, with 780 troops under Major Robert H. Sale, for the purpose of attacking Bassein, on the western branch of the Irrawaddy. After a tedious passage, this little armament arrived off Great Negrais on the 24th Feb.; and next day, the boats of the Larne, under Lieutenant Fraser, were sent in to reconnoitre, and sound the passage, in the execution of which service they received a harmless fire from two stockades, apparently full of men, and distant about a mile from each other. On the 26th, at daylight, the Larne and her consorts stood in; the Mercury, on account of her light draught of water, taking the lead. At noon, the first stockade commenced firing; and shortly afterwards the Larne and Mercury took their positions, within one hundred yards: the enemy soon fled, and the troops landed and occupied the work. The second stockade was taken in the same manner, without loss; both of them were burnt, and their guns, &c. either brought off or destroyed. On the 27th, at dark, the expedition anchored about thirty-five miles above the entrance of the river. From this point, the stream being very narrow, and the wind blowing strong down every reach, the ascent became extremely arduous; the ships often getting on shore, towing and warping day and night, till the evening of the 3d March, when they anchored about three miles below the town of Bassein, then in smoking ruins and deserted by its garrison. Finding this to be the case. Major Sale immediately landed his troops, and took post in the area of the principal pagoda, a strongly fortified and commanding position. He subsequently made a reconnoissance as far as Lamina, with three hundred troops and seventy seamen, proceeding up the river in boats, under the command of Lieutenant Fraser, and bivouacking at night upon the banks. All the villages he passed were found deserted, the population having been driven into the interior by the retreating Burman warriors. Lamina, also, although a place of great extent, was found abandoned. On the 23d, he returned to Bassein, bringing with him a state barge and several war canoes. During this excursion, two men were wounded by musketry from the jungle, five died from fatigue and privation, and many others became incapable of service.

On the 26th Mar., the Larne weighed and dropped down to Naputtah, a considerable village, which had accepted British protection. On the 28th, he proceeded against the town of Thingang, situated up a branch of the river leading to Rangoon, taking with him fifty seamen and marines, twelve sepoys, and fifty villagers whom he had prevailed upon to fight against the Burmese, and armed with swords and spears. At 3 p.m., while forming for the attack of a force reported to consist of eight hundred men, a canoe came off with intelligence that the enemy would submit to his terms: these were, that all arms should be surrendered, that one hundred and fifty Naputtah men, then detained there to be forwarded to Donoobew, should be liberated and provided with canoes to return to their homes, and that the Wongee of the town should be placed at his disposal. This personage, who had commanded 1000 men at the attack of Rangoon, and been invested with the gold chattah, was brought away as a prisoner.

On the night of the 30th, the same force was sent, under Lieutenant Fraser, to surprise the village of Pumkayi, where the enemy were stated to be three hundred strong, and commanded by another gold chattah chief. The attack was successful; the Burmese submitted to the terms proposed, and the Wongee, who had fled into the jungle, was followed and taken by the Naputtah men, who, in consequence of their good conduct, were now entrusted with muskets. A party of one hundred men, the only force that remained between Negrais and Bassein, subsequently sent in their submission.

The conduct of Lieutenant Fraser during the above operations was reported to Captain Alexander, then commanding the naval force before Donoobew, in terms of high commendation.

On the 15th April, 1825, Captain Marryat assumed the command of the Tees 26, at Rangoon; and on the 8th of the following month, the Larne took her final departure from thence. The manner in which she was subsequently employed will be seen by reference to our memoir of Commander John Kingcome under whom and his successor. Commander W. B. Dobson, Mr. Fraser continued to serve as first lieutenant, until Aug. or Sept. 1820, when he was removed into the Athol 28, at Trincomalee. His promotion to the rank of commander took place at home, July 22d, 1820.