Defending a Nation in the Making

If the unification battles brought the bravery of the Gorkhalis into the limelight, that bravery was to be tested to the limits by the wars they had to fight to preserve the fledgling Kingdom. The stories that follow show how the Nepalese forces kept up their reputation even during adverse circumstances. They were almost always vastly outnumbered and outgunned, but rarely out-soldiered.

Battle against Mir Kassim - 1763 AD

The fortress of Makawanpur has a historical and military significance for the Nepalese. It was here that the Nepalese defeated superior forces of Mir Qasim and seized 500 guns and two cannons. Later on, these weapons were used by Nepalese troops and four regular companies were established, namely, Sri Nath, Kalibox, Barda Bahadur (Bardabahini) and Sabuj. (Purano) Gorakh Company was established a few months later. It was the first rank and file system beginning the modern organizational history of the Nepalese Army. The battle against Mir Qasim’s troops was the first battle of the Nepalese Army against a foreign power.

Sardar Nandu Shah was the fortress Commander of Makawanpur with 400 troops, some guns and home-made traditional weapons like Dhanu (bows), Khukuri, Talwar (swords), Ghuyatro (sling shot) etc. They devised different hit-and-run strategies to surprise the enemy. For instance, a night spoiling attack base was set up on the Taplakhar mountain ridge.

Mir Qassim's renowned warrior, Gurgin Khan commanded about 2,500 troops with cannons, guns, ammunition and superior logistics back up. Their attack base was at the bottom of the Makawanpur Gadhi hill. They had planned a night attack. When the enemy’s heavy forces marched on December 1762 and arrived at Harnamadi in January 1763, they found all the local houses already evacuated and the area short of food provisions. Makawanpur Gadhi was on top of a mountain, about nine kilometers uphill from the Harnamadi area. Although the Nepalese had physically occupied all the fortresses enroute, the enemy was able to initially push them back to the Makawanpur Gadhi area.

About 300 troops launched a strong attack on 20th January 1763 putting the Nepalese even more on the defensive. But they were totally surprised by the preplanned spoiling sttack when they were resting in Taplakhar, where Kaji Bamsa Raj Pandey led a downhill attack on them. Kaji Naharsigh Basnyat led an uphill attack from below them and Nandu Shah led a frontal attack. The smooth coordination among the three, leading their, by now battle-hardened, troops in the dark of the night, led the bewildered enemy to scatter. About 1700 of them died and 30 Nepalese soldiers were lost in that battle. The Nepalese captured 500 rifles and two canons with other military equipment. More importantly, the battle led to the beginning of a modern reorganization of the Nepalese Army.

Defeating the Kinloch Campaign- 1767 AD

King Jayaprakash Malla of Kantipur was in search of foreign military help against the Gorkhali military campaign. He decided to seek urgent military assistance from East India Company’s Consular General of Betiya, Mr. Goulding, in March 1767. King Prithvi Narayan Shah for his part sent a message to the British asking them not to help the Malla King. But the company ignored the message and a threatening letter was sent to King Prithvi Narayan Shah to fall back to Gorkha and not to block the trade routes to Kathmandu Valley.

Captain Kinloch, a veteran of many campaigns, was the Commander of about 2,400 well armed and equipped men. He planned to advance from Patna (India) to Panauti (Kabhrepalanchok). Kinloch marched from Patna on 17th August 1767. But when they were marching form Dhungrebas to Sindhuli Gadhi, the Nepalese troops launched ferocious surprise attacks from both front and rear, routing the column. Captain Kinloch managed to escape with about 1600 men. Kinloch fell back to Janakpur with his surviving troops. He planned to launch another offensive via the Bagmati river and the target was Hariharpur Gadhi. He reorganized and regrouped his surviving troops.His second military expedition started towards Hariharpur Gadhi on 20th September 1767. But the adverse weather conditions and the swelling river stalled his advance.

Prithvi Narayan Shah deployed Kaji Ram Krishna Kunwar with reinforcements at Hariharpur Gadhi. When Kinloch received the news he lost heart. He was physically restricted by the flooded Bagmati and mentally harassed by the Nepalese Army tactics. With low morale among the troops, Kinloch reluctantly retreated to India in disgrace after a small battle.

Anglo-Nepal War 1814 AD – 1816 AD

Border tensions and ambitious expansionism led to the inevitable Anglo-Nepal War in 1814. Nepal was in difficulty due to shortage of war materials as the Nepalese had been fighting continuously for half a century, ever since the unification process began. Huge amount of resources were spent on the first and second wars against the Tibetans. And now, they had to fight the numerically superior and well equipped British. The commanders of the Nepalese Army were hard pushed to concentrate the troops in time because they remained over extended and scattered in many places between the Tista river in the East to the Alakhnanda of Gadhwal in the West. Bada Kaji Amar Singh Thapa, Sardar Bhakti Thapa and Captain Bir Balabhadra Kunwar were not in favour of war with the British at the time, but, Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa and his officers had calculated otherwise. Nepal had about 14,000 troops. They had some pieces of cannons and about 4,000 rifles to fight the British.

The Nepal-East India Company war was a painful ordeal for Nepal. About half of the Nepalese territory was lost in this war. But the battles also proved the fighting mettle of the Nepalese under severely adverse conditions. The British military strategy against Nepal was to launch multiple offensives to split reaction while primarily threatening Kathmandu directly. Their strategy was to capture the whole of Kumaun and Gadhwal, Bushair in what is now a part of India’s Himanchal Pradesh and adjoining hill states. The British also wanted to free other areas from Gorkha control. For this they would have to contain the Sikhs and the Marathas through alliances. They would also need to pacify the Chinese. The British made a detailed plan for a huge offensive thrust against Nepal, which was designed to divide the Nepalese forces into fragments. Their armed forces not only greatly outnumbered the Nepalese side but had far superior weapons. Major General Marley led the first division to seize the pass at Makawanpur as a preliminary step to advance to Kathmandu. Major General John Sullivan Wood led the second division. Major General Rollow Gillespie had the third division under his command and his aim was to advance to Deharadun via Saharanpur and then reach Srinagar. Colonel David Ochterlony was given the fourth division to advance through Bilaspur- Ramgadh, Arki/Malaun-Subathu-Jaithak and then link up with Gilliespie’s troops. Captain B Latter was given approximately 2,400 troops to secure a firm base and provide flank protection to Major General Marley’s troops from the Eastern direction.

Battle of Jitgadh 1814 AD

With the help of an ousted Palpali king, Major General Wood planned to march on Siuraj, Jit Gadhi and Nuwakot with a view to bypass the Butwol defenses, flushing out minor opposition on the axis, and assault Palpa from a less guarded flank.

Nepalese Colonel Ujir Singh Thapa had deployed his 1200 troops in many defensive positions including Jit Gadhi, Nuwakot Gadhi and Kathe Gadhi. The troops under Colonel Ujir were very disciplined and he himself was a dedicated and able commander. He was famous for exploiting advantage in men, material, natural resources and well versed in mountain tactics.

The British advance took place on 22nd Poush1871 BS (January 1814 AD) to Jit Gadh. While they were advancing to this fortress, crossing the Tinau River, the Nepalese troops opened fire from the fortress.

Another of the attackers’ columns was advancing to capture Tansen Bazar. Here too, Nepalese spoiling attacks forced the General to fall back to Gorakhpur. About 70 Nepalese lost their lives in Nuwakot Gadhi. Meanwhile, more than 300 of the enemy perished.

Battle of Makwanpur Gadhi 1814 AD

Major General Marley was tasked to occupy Hetauda and capture the fortresses of Hariharpur and Makawanpur before proceeding to Kathmandu. His frontage of advance lay between Rapati river and Bagmati river. After additional reinforcements, he had 12,000 troops for his offensive against the Makawanpur and Hariharpur axis. A big attack base was established but Major General Marley showed reluctance to take risks against the Nepalese. Some skirmishes had already started taking place. Similarly, Major General George Wood, sometimes known as the Tiger of the British Indian Army, proved exceedingly cautious against the hard charging Nepalese.

Colonel Ranabir Singh Thapa, brother of Bhimsen Thapa, was to be the Sector Commander of Makawanpur-Hariharpur axis. He was given a very large fortress and about 4,000 troops with old rifles and a few pieces of cannons. But the British could not move forward from the border. Colonel Ranabir Singh Thapa had been trying to lure the enemies to his selected killing area. But Major General Wood would not venture forward from Bara Gadhi and he eventually fell back to Betiya.

Battle of Hariharpur Gadhi 1815 AD

No special military action had taken place in Hariharpur Gadhi fortress in the first campaign. Major General Bannet Marley and Major General George Wood had not been able to advance for an offensive against Makawanpur and Hariharpur Gadhi fortresses.

Battle of Nalapani 1814 AD

Gillespie’s Army entered Dehradun well before the declaration of war. When Bal Bhadra Kunwar, commander of the Nepalese Army defences there, heard of the approach of the British Army and its size, he realized that it would be impossible to defend the city. He withdrew from Dehradun and moved his six hundred men, mainly of Purano Gorakh Batallion including dependents, to a hill Northeast of the city, where he took up position in the small fort of Nalapani, Khalanga.

The first British attack on Nalapani took place on 31st October, the day before the official declaration of war. Gillespie’s plan was to storm the fort from three sides. Under cover of fire, pioneers swarmed up to the walls, only to be cut down by the fearsome blast of Bal Bhadra’s cannon. Gillespie’s men fell back. Bravely, but perhaps a bit foolishly, Gilespie moved forward to rally his men but a Nepalese Army marksman got him. Marley and Wood never really recovered from the shock of Gillespie’s death, and even with very substantial reinforcements they could not be brought to engage the Nepalese Army in their respective areas of responsibility.

Major Mawbey, who was next in command at Nalapani, after reinforcement, bombarded the fort and breached the wall. The British forces then tried to storm the breach, but hesitated when they found their way blocked by sharpened bamboo sticks. The Nepalese Army troops fired on the attackers and drove them off. The day ended with the British withdrawing. British casualties for the day mounted to over five hundred men dead and wounded. And still Bal Bhadra held his position.

Mawbey then instructed his by now strongly reinforced gunners to fire into the fort, and he sent scouts out to discover the fort's water sources. The water supply was finally blocked, and the Nepalese were forced to evacuate the fort on 30 November, but Bal Bhadra and some seventy of his men were able to cut their way through and escape into the hills. This battle more than any other established the warrior reputation of the Gorkhalis. Balbhadra and his 600 had held against the might of the British/native troops for a month. Gen Gillipsie had been killed. Even with only 70 remaining survivors after his water source had been cut off, Balbhadra refused to surrender, instead charged out and successfully hacked their way through the seige. It set the tone for the rest of the campaign. To this day, the British made memorials still stand in Nalapani. One in the honour of Gillespie but the other, in the highest traditions of the British Army, in honour of "Our brave adversary Bul Buddur (Bal Bhadra) and his gallant men".

Battle of Jythak 1814 AD

Nalapani had cost both sides dearly, but in Nahan and Jaithak, further West, they were to suffer more. Kazi Amar Singh Thapa’s son, Ranajor Singh Thapa, was in command there. Nahan had been left undefended, and Ranajor Singh set up his defences at Jaithak on a ridge overlooking Nahan. Major-General Martindell, who had meanwhile assumed command of Gillespie’s forces, took possession of Nahan on 25 December and immediately set about preparations for the attack on Ranajor Singh’s positions.

The result of the first day’s battle at Jaithak was almost a repetition of the first day at Nala Pani for the British. They were the very troops who had fought at Nalapani - British grenadiers, not just the native sepoys. During the night of 25th December, Major Richards set out first taking his troops on a wide sixteen mile sweep around to the North to get into position for the attack on Ranajor Singh’s ridge, early the next morning. Major Ludlow, who led the attack up the Southern slope of the ridge, left camp in the early hours of the 26th. The combined force of British grenadiers and Indian sepoys carried on to a small ruined temple, where they were to await the attack by Major Richard’s party to the North. In the distance a small, lightly defended Nepalese Army stockade was seen which the British grenadiers in Ludlow’s force attacked to avenge the humiliation they were suffering. This was a questionable move as it meant abandoning the original battle plan.

Jaspao Thapa who had concealed the major part of his forces in a slight hollow behind that stockade, sent out flanking parties on both sides of the British troops. When the force of the British charge was broken on the stockade itself, these flankers caught the British in a deadly cross-fire. The Nepalese Army soldiers pursued the British down the mountain side. The Indian sepoys who were waiting in the assigned area to the rear were caught up in the rush of the retreat, which rapidly developed into a rout. Ludlow and his men, defeated and exhausted, arrived back in camp at the foot of the ridge before 1000 that morning, before, in fact, the attack had even been scheduled to begin.

Meanwhile, Major Richards and his men on the Northern approaches managed to secure a point on the top of the ridge and hold it throughout most of the day. But they were pinned down by Nepalese Army fire, and instead of reinforcing them, Martindell, fearing another Nalapani, ordered Richards and his men to retreat. This first day of battle at Jaithak cost the British over three hundred men dead and wounded and cooled Martindell’s ardour for battle. For over a month and a half, he refused to take any further initiative against the Nepalese Army. Thus by mid-February, of the four British commanders the Nepalese Army had faced till that time, Gillespie was dead, Marley had deserted, Wood was harassed into inactivity, and Martindell was practically incapacitated by over-cautiousness. It set the scene for Octorloney to soon show his mettle and change the course of the war.


Trying times for Nepalese Troops 1814 AD – 1816 AD

Out West, the Nepalese were hopelessly overextended. Kumaun, a key link in Nepalese Army communications with the Far West, was defended by a small force, numbering perhaps seven hundred and fifty men, with an equal number of Kumaoni irregulars, altogether about fifteen hundred men to defend a whole province. In addition, Doti which was to the East of Kumaun, had been practically stripped of troops. Bam Shah, as governor of Kumaun, had final responsibility for the defense of the province.

The British force, numbering initially over forty five hundred men, was easily able to out maneuver the Nepalese Army defenders and force them to abandon one post after another. Despite a significant victory over Captain Hearsey’s force, which had been sent on a flanking movement though Eastern Kumaun, and the capture of the captain himself, the Nepalese Army was unable to stem the tide of the British advance. Hasti Dal Shah arrived in Almora with a small body of reinforcement troops. A further reinforcement of four companies was sent from Kathmandu to aid the beleaguered defences of Kumaun, but the difficulties of communication through the hills prevented them from arriving in time to be of any help.

Meanwhile, Hastings sent Colonel Nicolls, Quartermaster-General for the British troops in India, to take charge of the Almora campaign and assigned two thousand regular troops to this front in addition to the very large number of irregulars already assigned to the area – all of this against fewer than one thousand Nepalese Army soldiers. Hasti Dal Shah and some five hundred Nepalese Army men had set out from Almora to secure Almora’s Northern line of communications with Kathmandu. This party was intercepted. Hasti Dal Shah, the ablest Nepalese Army commander in this sector, was killed in the first moments of the battle. The Nepalese Army suffered terrible losses. When word of this disaster reached the defenders at Almora, they were stunned. The British closed in on Almora and the Nepalese Army was unable to prevent the British advance. Subsequently, the British managed to establish gun positions within seventy yards of the gate of the fort at Almora and the British artillery demolished the walls of the fort at point blank range. Bam Shah surrendered Almora on 27th Arpil of 1815.

Hasti Dal Shah and some five hundred Nepalese Army men had set out from Almora to secure Almora’s Northern line of communications with Kathmandu. This party was intercepted. Hasti Dal Shah, the ablest Nepalese Army commander in this sector, was killed in the first moments of the battle. The Nepalese Army suffered terrible losses. When word of this disaster reached the defenders at Almora, they were stunned. The British closed in on Almora and the Nepalese Army was unable to prevent the British advance. Subsequently, the British managed to establish gun positions within seventy yards of the gate of the fort at Almora and the Brtish artillery demolished the walls of the fort at point blank range. Bam Shah surrendered Almora on 27th Arpil of 1815.

Soldier Morale

The final Nepalese Army success of this period was in a way the most devastating to the opposition's morale. On 17th February word reached Martindell at Jaithak of the approach of a small party of two hundred Nepalese Army reinforcements moving from Malaon to Jaithak. Lieutenant Young with some two thousand irregulars was sent out to intercept them. Contact was made, and the Nepalese Army was surrounded. The Nepalese realized that there was little hope of victory, so they discussed their next move and decided to sell themselves dearly rather than surrender. With Khukuri in hand they charged the irregulars, even though they were outnumbered ten to one. The irregulars broke before them, their morale shattered. From that time on the Nepalese Army treated the irregulars with contempt and whenever they encountered a force of irregulars, no matter how strong, they charged. Regardless of numbers, the irregulars were never once able to withstand the hill men and their Khukuris. By the same token, a strong sense of mutual admiration started to take hold between the British regulars and the Nepalese.


Second Battle of Malaon and Jythak 1815 AD

The second battle of Malaon and Jaithak cut the Nepalese Army lines of communication between Central Nepal and the Far West. It also sealed the fate of Kazi Amar singh Thapa at Malaon and Ranajor Singh Thapa at Jaithak. At Malaon, now Major-General Ochterlony had moved with extreme care summoning reinforcements and heavy guns from Delhi until his total attack force consisted of over ten thousand men well-equipped with heavy cannon.

Kazi Amar Singh Thapa’s position in the Malaon Hills depended on Bilaspur in the lowlands for his food supplies, and the nature of the hills forced him to spread his forces very thin in an attempt to defend every vantage point. Ochterlony cut off the supply of food from Bilaspur and then turned his attention to the intricate network of defensive posts that were designed to withstand any frontal assault. Although rear fortifications supported these posts, none could withstand a long cannonade by heavy guns. Because Ochterlony had sufficient troops to attack and overwhelm several positions simultaneously, the thinly spread Nepalese defences could be dangerously divided.

Ochterlony chose his target, a point on the ridge, and then proceeded to move slowly, consolidating each position that he took, and allowing the pioneers time to build roads so that the heavy guns could be moved forward to support each attack. After a series of carefully planned and executed moves, he succeeded in establishing a position on the crest of Deothal, not even one thousand yards from Kazi Amar Singh Thapa’s main fort at Malaon. The old warrior Bhakti Thapa valiantly led assault after assault on this position, but he died and the position did not fall. Immensely impressed by Bhakti's sustained courage against impossible odds, the British made the well appreciated and honorable gesture of returning his body with full military honours. The British superiority in numbers made it inevitable that they would be able to establish themselves and their heavy guns on a vantage point within range of Ranajor Singh’s fortifications, sooner or later.

Both Kazi Amar Singh Thapa and Ranajor Singh Thapa were thus hemmed in and looking down the barrels of the British guns when Bam Shah’s letter arrived, announcing the fall of Almora. Although the old commander was still reluctant to surrender, Kazi Amar Singh Thapa at last saw the hopelessness of the situation and, compelled by circumstances and the British guns, surrendered with honour for both himself and Ranajor Singh. The Nepalese Army positions in the Far West were turned over to the British on 15th of May 1815.

Second Campaign - Deployment of Nepalese Troops and the British Offensive 1815 AD

The outstretched Nepalese Army was defeated on the Western front i.e. Gadhawal and Kumaun area. Ochterlony had finally outfoxed Bada Kaji Amar Singh Thapa. He was the only successful British Commander in the first Nepal-Company campaign. British India appointed him as the Main Operational Commander in the second offensive on the Bharatpur-Makawanpur-Hariharpur front.

Colonel Kelly and Colonel O’Hollorah followed the river Bagmati to reach Hariharpur Gadhi. Some of the heads of villagers were bribed for sensitive information about the defensive positions in the area of Hariharpur Gadhi.The information seriously compromised the Nepalese defences. Secret routes would have given the enemy advantage even if they were able to get only a battalion through. But the British were able to advance with more than a brigade’s strength.

Colonel Kelly and Colonel O’Hollorah launched their attack from two different directions on 29th February. Many Nepalese lost their lives. Kaji Ranajor Thapa withdrew to Sindhuli Gadhi to link up with Bada Kaji Amarsingh Thapa. The British troops did not approach Sindhuli Gadhi and fell back to Makawanpur by the end of March 1815 AD. Two days later the ratified treaty was handed over to the British in Makawanpur.

The British had given a 15 day ultimatum to Nepal to ratify a treaty on 28th November. But the points of the treaty were very difficult for Nepal to ratify quickly. The delay provided the excuse for the British to commence the second military campaign against Nepal. Colonel Bhaktabarsingh Thapa, another brother of Bhimsen Thapa, had been appointed as Sector Commander for defensive battles for the area from Bijaypur to Sindhuli Gadhi in the first campaign. In this second campaign, Bada Kaji Amarsingh Thapa was detailed as Sector Commander for Sindhuli Gadhi and the eastern front. Colonel Bhaktabarsingh Thapa was manning his headquaters at Makawanpur Gadhi. Major General David Ochterlony, was the overal commander against Nepal with a huge nubmer of British troops to assault the fronts including Upardang Gadhi, Sinchyang Gadhi, Kandrang Gadhi, Makawanpur Gadhi and Hariharpur Gadhi.

The Nepalese troops were eventually driven back from Hariharpur Gadhi after a big battle. The situation became very critical for Nepal and the British could have reached Kathmandu if the signing of the treaty was delayed any further. Major General David Ochterlony settled down to receive the treaty, signed by Nepal Durbar through Chandra Sekhar Upadhyaya, Pandit Gajaraj Mishra and finally though Bhaktabarsingh Thapa. The war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli and Nepal succeeded in remaining independent but lost about half her territory. The river Mechi became the new Eastern border and the Mahakali the Western boundary of Nepal.

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