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Battle of Nalapani
Part of the Anglo-Nepalese War
Gurkha Commander Nepal War.jpg
Balbhadra Kunwar, Gurkha commander of the Nalapani fort
Date31 October – 30 November 1814
LocationDehradun, India
Result Nepalese force ceded Nalapani
Flag of the British East India Company (1801).svg East India Company Pre 1962 Flag of Nepal.png Kingdom of Nepal
Commanders and leaders
Major-General Rollo Gillespie
Colonel Sebright Mawbey
Captain Balbhadra Kunwar
3,513 men initially about 600 men
Casualties and losses
over 69 dead
671 wounded
over 90 dead
440 wounded

The Battle of Nalapani was the first battle of the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814–1816, fought between the forces of the British East India Company and Nepal, then ruled by the House of Gorkha. The battle took place around the Nalapani fort, near Dehradun, which was placed under siege by the British between 31 October and 30 November 1814. The fort's garrison was commanded by Captain Balbhadra Kunwar, while Major-General Rollo Gillespie, who had previously fought at the Battle of Java, was in charge of the attacking British troops. The failure to obey the field orders by his men led Gillespie to be killed on the very first day of the siege while rallying his men. Despite considerable odds, both in terms of numbers and firepower, Balbhadra and his 600-strong garrison successfully held out against more than 3,000 British troops for over a month.

After two costly and unsuccessful attempts to seize the fort by direct attack, the British changed their approach and sought to force the garrison to surrender by cutting off the fort's external water supply. Having suffered three days of thirst, on the last day of the siege, Balbhadra, refusing to surrender, led the 70 surviving members of the garrison in a charge against the besieging force. Fighting their way out of the fort, the survivors escaped into the nearby hills. Considering the time, effort, and resources spent to capture the small fort, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the British. A number of later engagements, including the one at Jaithak, unfolded in a similar way, but more than any other battle of the war, the fighting around Nalapani established the Gorkhalis' reputation as warriors. As a result, they were later recruited by the British to serve in their army.

Background[edit | edit source]

Situation[edit | edit source]

Battle of Nalapani is located in India
Location in India

In 1814 under the new and ambitious Governor-General Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, the Earl of Moira, the long-standing diplomatic disputes between British India and the Kingdom of Nepal, caused by expansionist policies of both parties, descended into open hostility.[1] The British East India Company sought to invade Nepal not just to secure the border[2] and to force the Nepali government to open trading routes to Tibet, but also for what Hastings saw as a geo-political necessity to secure the foothold of the Company in the Indian sub-continent.[3]

The initial British campaign plan was to attack on two fronts across a frontier stretching more than 1,500 km (930 miles), from the Sutlej river in the west to the Koshi river in the east. On the eastern front, Major-Generals Bennet Marley and John Sullivan Wood led their respective columns across the Tarai towards the heart of the Kathmandu Valley; at the same time Major-General Rollo Gillespie and Colonel David Ochterlony led the columns on the western front. These two western columns faced the Gorkha army under the command of Amar Singh Thapa.[4] Around the beginning of October 1814, the British troops began to move towards their depots and the army was soon after formed into four divisions: one at Benares, one at Meerut, one at Dinapur, and one at Ludhiana.[5]

The division at Meerut was formed under Gillespie, and originally consisted of one British infantry regiment, the 53rd, which with artillery and a few dismounted dragoons, made up about 1,000 Europeans. In addition to this, there were about 2,500 native infantrymen; this made up a total force of 3,513 men.[6][7][8] Once assembled, it marched directly to Dehra Dun, which was the principal town in the Dun Valley. After having captured or destroyed the forts in the valley, the plan called for Gillespie to either move eastwards to expel Amar Singh Thapa's troops from Srinagar, or westwards to take Nahan, the largest town in the Sirmaur district, where Amar Singh's son, Ranjore Singh Thapa, controlled the government. Once completed, Gillespie was to sweep on towards the Sutlej in order to isolate Amar Singh, and force him to negotiate.[4][9]

Of the four British divisions mentioned above, Gillespie's was the first to penetrate the enemy's frontier.[10] The Nepalese had anticipated that Dehra Dun would be the first place of assault, and had tasked Captain[fn 1] Balbhadra Kunwar with the fortification of the place.[12] When Balbhadra Kunwar, commander of the Nepalese defence army at Dehradun, heard of the approach of the British Army and its size, he realised that it would be impossible to defend the city. He withdrew from Dehradun and moved his force of about 600,[10] including dependents, to a hill north-east of the city. He subsequently took up a position in the small fort of Nalapani, Khalanga. His force was ethnically diverse, consisting of Magar soldiers belonging to the Purano Gorakh Battalion and soldiers that had been recruited from Garhwal and nearby areas.[13] On 22 October, well before the declaration of war,[fn 2] Gillespie seized the Keree Pass leading into the Dun Valley. He then proceeded to Dehra unchallenged.[10]

A letter was sent by the British to Balbhadra, summoning him to surrender the fort. Upon receiving the note, Balbhadra tore it up. The letter having been delivered to him at midnight, he observed that "it was not customary to receive or answer letters at such unseasonable hours".[14] Nevertheless, he responded by sending his "salaam" to the English "sirdar", assuring him that he would soon visit him in his camp.[14]

Terrain and defences[edit | edit source]

The layout of Nalapani fort. The water source that the Nepalese depended on is seen to be outside the fort.

The Nalapani fort was situated on a 500–600 feet (150–180 m) high hill that was covered in dense jungle. The approach to the fort was very steep in most directions and the top of the hill, which formed a tabletop feature, was about .75 miles (1.21 km) in length. Its highest point was to the south, where the town of Kalanga was located.[14] The fort's construction was of an irregular shape, having been built to conform with the shape of the ground upon which it was situated. At the time the British entered the Dun Valley, the fortification was still incomplete and its walls had not been finished. Upon their arrival, the British found the Nepalese defenders working to improve the fort's defences and raising the height of the walls.[14]

By the time the first attack took place, the walls of the fort still had not been finished, although they had been raised somewhat. Nevertheless, as a result of the hasty construction work, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the attackers to reach the top without ladders, even at the lowest part.[15] Every point where the fort was approachable, or thought weak by its defenders, was bolstered by stockades made out of stones and stakes that had been stuck into the ground,[15] and which were covered by cannons that were placed where they could be most effective. A wicket gate that flanked a large part of the wall, was left open but cross-barred, so as to make it difficult for attacking soldiers to enter. A cannon was placed at the wicket gate so as to enfilade the approach to the gate with showers of grapeshot.[15]

Battle[edit | edit source]

First British attack[edit | edit source]

File:Rollo Gillespie.jpg

Rollo Gillespie.

The British reconnoitered the place and plans were immediately made for the assault: parties were employed in preparing fascines and gabions for the erection of batteries; two 12-pounders, four 5.5-inch howitzers, and four six-pounders were carried up the hill on elephants.[15] The table-land was taken possession of without any resistance on the part of the Nepalese; and the batteries for the previously mentioned guns were ready to open on the fort on the morning of 31 October, at a distance of 600 yards (550 m).[15]

The first British attack on Nalapani took place on 31 October, a day before the official declaration of war.[15][16] Gillespie's plan was to storm the fort from four sides. The storming party was formed into four columns, and a reserve: the first, under Colonel Carpenter, consisted of 611 men; the second, under Captain Fast, was 363 strong; the third, under Major Kelly, was made up of 541 men; the fourth, under Captain Campbell, of 283 men; and the reserve, under Major Ludlow, possessed 939 men.[15][17] It was intended for these columns to ascend, at a given signal (a specific manner of firing of guns), from different points, and thus attack the Nepalese from different sides.[18] It was purposed to divide the attention of the Nepalese from focusing on any one point, allowing the British to gain an upper hand.[15]

However, the execution was not equal to expectation. Only two columns under Carpenter and Ludlow managed to respond to Gillespie's signal to assault, which was given some hours earlier than was intended; and which, probably from being unexpected, was not heeded by either Kelly, Campbell, or Fast.[19][20] Under the cover of fire, pioneers twice swarmed up to the walls, only to be cut down by the enfilade fire of Bal Bhadra's cannon along a great part of the wall.[19][20] A heavy fire was maintained from the walls by the garrison, and showers of arrows and of stones were discharged at the assailants.[20] The women were also seen throwing the missiles, and undauntedly exposing themselves to enemy fire.[21] Gillespie's men fell back. Seeing this, Gillespie, who until this time had stayed with the artillery battery, moved forward to personally rally his men.[19] With three fresh companies of the 53rd Regiment, he reached a spot within 30 yards (27 m) of the wicket, where, "as he was cheering the men, waving his hat in one hand, and his sword in the other," a Nepalese marksman shot him "through the heart, and he fell dead on the spot."[20][22] The death of the General forced the invaders to retreat.[22] The total British casualties for the day was 32 dead and 228 wounded, some of whom subsequently died.[fn 3][21][22]

Second British attack[edit | edit source]

Not having expected such a determined resistance from the Nepalese, Colonel Sebright Mawbey, who was next in command of the British troops at Nalapani,[22] retired to Dehra until 24 November so that the heavy guns could arrive from Delhi.[24] After the arrival of the reinforcements, the fighting resumed on 25 November and for three days the fort was bombarded until, by the noon of 27 November, a large section of northern wall finally gave away.[24][25] The British forces, seeing their opportunity, twice tried to charge into the breach that same day, but were repelled and pinned to an exposed position just outside the wall.[24][25] An attempt was then made to fire one of the light guns into the breach to provide obscuration with gun smoke to cover a further attack, but that too proved unsuccessful.[26] The day ended with the British retreating after spending two hours pinned outside the wall, exposed to tremendous fire from the garrison, and having suffered significant losses.[25][26] British casualties for the day amounted to 37 dead and over 443 wounded.[26]

Nepalese withdrawal[edit | edit source]

After these two failed attempts to capture the fort, the British changed their tactics. On 28 November, instead of launching another infantry assault, the fort was encircled from all sides and placed under siege. This prevented further reinforcement of Nepalese troops into the fort.[27] Mawbey then instructed his, by now strongly reinforced, gunners to fire into the fort. He also sent scouts to discover and cut off the fort's external water source.[27][28] To the dismay of the garrison, some of the shells that entered the fort smashed about a hundred earthen vessels kept in a portico stocked with water.[29] The eastern and the northern walls of the fort were razed to the ground.[29] The continuous bombardment caused three of the four cannons installed on the battlements of the fort to fall outside the fort, while one fell inside. The other cannons that the Nepalese possessed had been rendered unusable either by misfiring during previous attacks, or because they had been buried under large stones.[30] The garrison was left without any cannons; and the unilateral bombardment by the British was piling up Nepali casualties.[30] Despite their stubborn resistance with gunfire and stones, the few people that remained in the fort became desperate and could not hold on anymore. That night, despite threats to their person and property, desertion became rampant.[31]

The next day, 29 November, the walls of the fort had all been demolished and the garrison was exposed, leading to further casualties amongst the Nepali troops. There was also no water to drink. Seeing the disheartened state of men, the Captain and other officers asked them to sign a pledge to fight to the last. Eighty-four soldiers signed.[29] However, that same night the Mleccha Kalanala Company, which had arrived as reinforcements and which was stationed at a portico some distance towards the east of Nalapani, secretly abandoned their post, taking with them their arms and colours. Seeing this, some of the men who had signed the pledge also followed suit.[29][31] The 50 or 60 men that remained, overcome by the hopelessness of the situation, felt that instead of confronting certain death by remaining in the fort, it was better to escape to the hills and hold their position there. Perhaps unable to convince their commanders with words, the escaping men caught hold of their Captain and other officers by their arms, and dragged them away from the fort. Learning of this new movement, the British renewed their fire; but the Nepalese managed to cut through and make a successful escape.[29][30][31]

Thus after days of thirst and continuous bombardment, the Nepalese were forced to evacuate the fort on 30 November.[28] Instead of surrendering, though, Bal Bhadra and about 70 of his surviving men were able to cut their way through the besieging force and escape into the hills.[28] When the British troops entered the fort, it was found, as Prinsep writes, in a "shocking state, full of the remains of men and women killed by the shot shells of our batteries; a number of wounded were likewise lying about, and the stench was intolerable."[32] [fn 4]

Upwards of 90 dead bodies were found and cremated, while the wounded were sent to British hospitals; the rest of the fort was then razed to the ground.[32]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

Conduct during battle[edit | edit source]

As testified by the British accounts given earlier, the Nepalese exhibited fair conduct towards their enemies. This endeared them to the British, who were willing to reciprocate by giving medical aid to the wounded and captured Nepalese. The confidence the Nepalese exhibited in the British officers was significant: they not only accepted, but also solicited surgical aid, even while continuing to fight.[34] This gave rise, on one occasion, to a scene, which was recounted by the Scottish traveler James Baillie Fraser:

While the batteries were playing, a man was perceived on the breach, advancing and waving his hand. The guns ceased firing for a while, and the man came into the batteries: he proved to be a Ghoorkha, whose lower jaw had been shattered by a cannon shot, and who came thus frankly to solicit assistance from his enemy.

It is unnecessary to add, that it was instantly afforded. He recovered; and, when discharged from the hospital, signified his desired to return to his corps to combat us again: exhibiting thus, through the whole, a strong sense of the value of generosity and courtesy in warfare, and also of his duty to his country, – separating completely in his own mind private and national feelings from each other, – and his frank confidence in the individuals of our nation, from the duty he owed his own, to fight against us collectively.[35]

Legacy[edit | edit source]

This battle, more than any other, established the warrior reputation of the Gorkhalis, and won the admiration from their enemy. Balbhadra and his 600 had held against the might of the British and native troops for a month. General Gillespie had been killed. Even with only 70 remaining survivors after his water source had been cut off, Balbhadra refused to surrender, and instead charged out and successfully hacked his way through the siege. It set the tone for the rest of the campaign.[36]

Fraser writes in glowing terms:

The determined resolution of the small party which held this small post for more than a month, against so comparatively large a force, must surely wring admiration from every voice, especially when the horrors of the latter portion of this time are considered; the dismal spectacle of their slaughtered comrades, the sufferings of their women and children thus immured with themselves, and the hopelessness of relief, which destroyed any other motive for their obstinate defence they made, than that resulting from a high sense of duty, supported by unsubdued courage. This, and a generous spirit of courtesy towards their enemy, certainly marked the character of the garrison of Kalunga, during the period of its siege.

Whatever the nature of the Ghoorkhas may have been found in other quarters, there was here no cruelty to wounded or to prisoners; no poisoned arrows were used;[fn 5] no wells or waters were poisoned; no rancorous spirit of revenge seemed to animate them: they fought us in fair conflict, like men; and, in intervals of actual combat, showed us a liberal courtesy worthy of a more enlightened people.

So far from insulting the bodies of the dead and wounded, they permitted them to lie untouched, till carried away; and none were stripped, as is too universally the case.[34]

The battle also had political repercussions. The confidence of the British army was shaken. It showed the vulnerabilities of the British forces, and encouraged the native Indian states – in particular the old Maratha Confederacy in central India – to launch further resistance against British imperialism in the hope that they could still be defeated.[37]

In the years following the battle, the British constructed two small obelisks that still stand in Nalapani to this day. One was made in honour of Gillespie, while another, in the highest traditions of the British Army, was dedicated with the inscription "Our brave adversary Bul Buddur[fn 6] and his gallant men".[38] In Nepal, this battle has taken a legendary status and has become an important part of the national narrative, while Balbhadra himself has become a national hero.[39] The fighting spirit displayed by the Nepalese in this and other following battles of Anglo-Nepalese War ultimately paved the way for the Gurkha recruitment in the British Army.[40]

Nalapanima[edit | edit source]

The battle provides the setting to a Nepali musical drama written by Bal Krishna Sama and composed by Shiva Shankar called Nalapanima. In the drama, the patriotism of a Nepalese soldier is depicted when, after being wounded, the soldier seeks help from the British camp. Later he is grateful for the humanitarian assistance provided by the British but refuses an offer to defect to their army.[41]

See also[edit | edit source]

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. "The use of English terms for their grades of command was common in the Gurkha army, but the powers of the different ranks did not correspond with those of the British system. The title of general was assumed by Bhimsen Thapa, as commander-in-chief, and enjoyed by himself alone; of colonels there were three or four only; all principal officers of the court, commanding more than one battalion. The title of major was held by the adjutant of a battalion or independent company; and captain was the next grade to colonel, implying the command of a corps. Luftun, or lieutenant, was the style of the officers commanding companies under the captain; and then followed the subaltern ranks of soobadar, jemadar, and havildar, without any ensigns."[11]
  2. Britain declared war against Nepal on 1 November 1814.
  3. It should be noted that neither Prinsep nor Fraser records the number of men who subsequently died of their wounds in any of the attacks. Given the pre-antiseptic era of medicine, it is likely that the number of men who succumbed to their wounds after the battle was high. When this is taken into account along with those killed during the attacks, the British mortality figures tally more closely with the estimates given by Nepali agents within the British forces.[23]
  4. Fraser describes the interior of the fort in more graphic terms: "The whole area of the fort was a slaughter-house, strewed with the bodies of the dead and the wounded, and the dissevered limbs of those who had been torn to pieces by the bursting of the shells; those who yet lived piteously calling out for water, of which they had not tasted for days. The stench from the place was dreadful; many of the bodies of those that had been early killed had been insufficiently interred: and our officers found in the ruins the remains and the clothes of several thus incompletely covered, starting into view. One chief was thus found out, who had fallen in the first attempt, and had received this wretched semisepulture. The bodies of several woman, killed by shot or shells, were discovered; and even children mangled, and yet alive, by the same ruthless engines."[33]
  5. This is a very contradictory observation, considering the fact that Balbhadra had written to his superiors asking for the replenishment of, among other things, poisoned arrows.[23]
  6. Bal Bhadra.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Parker, pp. 40–41.
  2. Anon (1816).
  3. Pemble.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Anon (1816), p.427. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Anon (1816), p. 427" defined multiple times with different content
  5. Princep, pp. 83–85.
  6. Smith, pp. 215–219.
  7. Prinsep, p. 84.
  8. Thorn, pp. 225-226.
  9. Fraser, p. 13.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Prinsep, p. 86.
  11. Prinsep, pp. 86–87.
  12. Acharya, Jan. 1971.
  13. Onta, p. 227.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Fraser, p. 14.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 Fraser, p. 15.
  16. Prinsep, pp. 87–88.
  17. Thorn, Field Orders. pp. 221–224.
  18. Thorn, p. 227.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Prinsep, p. 88.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Fraser, p. 16.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Fraser, p. 17.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Prinsep, p. 90.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Pant (1979), Letter 2. p. 13
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Prinsep, p. 91.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Fraser, p. 27
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Prinsep, p. 92.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Pant (1979), Letter 5. p.23
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Prinsep, p. 93.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 Pant, The Battle of Nalapani. Ripumardana Thapa's Letter. p.190
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Pant (1979), Letter 5. p.24
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Pant (1979), Letter 6. p.26
  32. 32.0 32.1 Prinsep, p. 94.
  33. Fraser, pp. 28–29.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Fraser, p. 29.
  35. Fraser, pp. 29–30.
  36. Prinsep, pp. 96–94.
  37. Gott, pp. 197–198.
  38. Farewell, p. 32
  39. Onta.
  40. Parker, pp. 43–45.
  41. Shiva Shankar homepage, Nalapanima [1]. Retrieved 14 March 2012.

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Fraser, James Baillie. (1820). Journal of a Tour Through Part of the Snowy Range of the Himālā Mountains, and to the Sources of the Rivers Jumna and Ganges. London: Rodwell and Martin.

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Prinsep, Henry Thoby. (1825). History of the Political and Military Transactions in India During the Administration of the Marquess of Hastings, 1813–1823, Vol 1. London: Kingsbury, Parbury & Allen.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

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