A series that examines 3 defining moments in the first hundred years of the Gurkha Rifles that made the regiment what it is today.
Pro aris et focis
Two major diplomatic expeditions had been mounted by the British by the time the Gurkha’s began encroaching on British territory. One in 1767 and the other in 1793, the first failed, the other achieved little for the Gurkha’s still mistrusted the British, despite having learned a few lessons about expansionism from them. Nevertheless in 1813 the Gurkha’s consistent incursions proved unsupportable to the Marquis of Hasting’s, who the next year delivered an ultimatum to Nepal demanding that she cede all recently conquered territory back to their original owners. In May the reply to the British ultimatum came. The Gurkha’s swept down from the hills and wiped out all the British garrisons they found and the war began. The British plan called for a multi pronged invasion by 4 columns and Hasting’s expected a short campaign. Ochterlorny and General Rollo Gillespie would advance from East and west against Amar Singh, hopefully destroying the main Gurkha field force between them. General Wood would cut off Katmandu from Palpa and Srinagar, meanwhile Major Marley would advance directly upon the Capitol.
Having received false information that Amar Singh was retreating, Hasting’s urged Octerlorny and Gillespie to hasten the attack “The bravest and most daring man in the army” was hesitant to move until Octerlorny came up with his column, and further requested mortars and howitzers. On the 20th of October the invasion began, no resistance was encountered until Gillespie arrived at the fort of Nalapani, Kalanga. This was a small hill defence manned by elements of the Magar Purano Gorkha battalion and local recruits.
On October 25th he was ready to commence operations against the fort:
“Here I am,” he wrote, ” with as stiff and strong a position as ever I saw; garrisoned by men who are fighting pro aris et focis in my front, and who have decidedly the resolution to dispute the fort so long as a man is alive. The fort stands on the summit of an almost inaccessible mountain covered with an impenetrable jungle; the only approaches stockaded, and stiffly stockaded. It will be a tough job to take it, but by the first prox. I think I shall have it, sub auspice Deo”
Gillespie duly began to cut Kalanga off from help and brought up 1,500 men eight hundred yards from the fort, four hundred feet below the walls. As they moved they came under desultory fire from the fort’s light cannon and musketry from the hills. Intelligence suggested that the area from Kalanga to Dehra Dun was held by no more than 600 men under an officer named Bulbahadar Singh, whose base was now apparently ripe for the picking. However the Gurkha army was no pushover, and apparently organised in a mix the British and Nepalese style.
During the night of the 30th gun batteries were dug for 8 cannons, 2 mortars and 2 howitzers. The guns were brought up by elephant and in place before dawn on the 31st. Gillespie then divided his forces into 4 columns, varying from 2-450 strong and sent 3 of them off to attack positions at 2 AM. The four assaults would strike from the main points of the compass at 9. As they marched Gillespie opened fire upon the fort, which was returned by the Gurkha guns, at 7 AM, the British signal guns were fired as a two hour warning. The column commanders checked their positions and kept moving, meanwhile a raiding force sallied out from the fort towards Gillespie’s batteries, positioned in front of the tableland below the hill. The howitzers were turned on the Gurkha’s who retired under their bursting shells. Gillespie perceived their disorder and immediately decided to rush the gates on their backs, the order was given to advance.
The General’s main column now set out, over what appears to be a some rough terrain, in the vanguard was 100 dismounted men of the 8th Light Dragoons followed by pioneers and Native infantry, roughly. The cavalry pressed forwards eagerly and overran a stockade guarding the approach to the walls. Followed by the party of pioneers, bearing ladders, this group dashed for the fort, but in doing so became isolated. Suddenly the Gurkha’s sallied out again and the Dragoons quickly found out that carbines and Sabres were no match for the yet to be famous Kukri at close quarters, and they were thrown back in confusion and with heavy losses.
The infantry now came up and were met by a heavy fusillade from the battlements and from an adroitly placed earth bastion thrown up by Bulbahadar, to enfilade an attack the gate. The forlorn hope were sprayed by musketry and grape shot, and cut down almost to a man, the sight of their demise took the heart out of those who followed, who promptly halted to return fire and uselessly expended ammunition at the walls before retiring, and being rallied with difficulty in the captured stockade.
It was now 10:30 and Gillespie arrived in the fortification with three companies of the 53rd Regiment and two 6 pounder guns of the Horse Artillery. His messages to the columns had gone unanswered, and it is implied the bearers never reached their destinations. Gillespie had the guns galloped up to within 25 yards of the walls and opened fire, the gunners working under fire did so with impressive coolness, and under their fire the storming party tried again. This third attack suffered the same fate as the others, they stalled under the fort’s galling fire and retreated. Gillespie saw that the men were badly shaken and now lead them forward personally. The General, true to his reputation brought them on right up to the foot of the walls, alone in front of his men he was a perfect target and as he turned to wave them on he was hit in the heart by a bullet and died before their eyes. So died the bravest man in the British army, up to that point.
Unsurprisingly the attackers now turned back, pursued by the Gurkha’s, and it was only the sudden arrival of one of the wayward columns that prevented utter disaster. In all casualties came to under 225. Much of the damage was to the five companies of the 53rd who lost 98 men and the 8th Light Dragoons who lost 5 officers and 58 men. Kalanga would eventually fall, as its garrison, deprived of water, reduced to 70 men, women and children and under constant bombardment, abandoned the fort on the 30th of November. The British entered the fort, which was in “a shocking state” and strewn with dead men, women and children.
This was the first major action of the Anglo-Nepalese war and it was a taste of what was to come. By February all the British columns except Ochterlorny’s, which had no British units in it, had been brought to a halt. The war stretched on often ingloriously for the British into 1815, the soldiers doomed to fighting a war no one cared about outside of Calcutta, and one that was filled with reverses and hardship. However in April an influx of young and intelligent officers turned the tide, and were teaching the Gurkha’s that they were indeed fighting a worthy foe. Ochterlorny, had through dint of impossible marches and taking impregnable positions, proved himself from the start the only officer capable of defeating the Gurkha’s. He brilliantly outmanoeuvred Singh and decisively defeated him at Deothul and things went swiftly downhill after that. In May after more stunning defeats emissaries went to Bengal to ask for terms, these proved unacceptable and the war dragged on into 1816, when finally Ochterlorny defeated the Gurkha’s again at Makwanpur and took Katmandu. The British were left in awe of their foes, indeed the conduct of the war was scattered with instances of good feeling from both sides and very little animosity is apparent, the feelings of the Gurkha’s is summed up by the story of an ambush. Lt Frederick Young was leading a detachment of Native irregulars was surprised by the Gurkhas, his men were terrified due to the fearsome reputation accrued by them since Kalanga and they scattered, yet he stood his ground. When he was finally made prisoner, the Gurkha’s asked him why he had not ran with his men, to which Young replied “I didn’t come all this way to run away”, which so impressed his captors that they all agreed that they could easily serve under a man like this. Little did they know that they would soon get that chance.
The Gurkhas: Special Forces. By Chris Bellamy.
The Last Mughal: The Fall of Delhi. William Dalrymple.
The Gurkha’s. Mike Chappell.
Imperial Warriors: Britain and the Gurkha’s. Tony Gould.
Britain’s Brigade of Gurkha’s. E.D Smith.
Indian Mutiny 1857-58 Vol. I. G.W Forrest.
British Troops in the Indian Mutiny. Michael Barthorp.
The History of the British Army: Vol XI 1815 – 1838. Fortescue.