By the time Britain declared war on Nepal in November 1814, tensions between Nepal's ever-expanding Gorkha Raj (Gorkha empire) and the British East India Company had been building for several years. Nepal had increased its territories in every direction and had begun to encroach on areas controlled by the British - a fact made worse by the lack of clear boundaries in the Tarai plains between the Himalayan foothills and the states of Northern India. Both sides knew that a conflict was becoming inevitable.
Although the final catalyst for war was the killing of a British revenue officer by Nepali soldiers near Gorakhpur, the British had many reasons for wanting to invade: they coveted Nepal's strategic location; the Nepali trade routes to Tibet and China; the fertile Tarai plains and the 'hill stations' such as Dehradun and Darjeeling with their cool climate and majestic landscapes. Nepal was increasingly getting in their way: controlling the vast British territories of Northern India was being made more difficult by having to negotiate Nepal's expanding borders.
The Nepalis, under the leadership of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa and General Amar Singh Thapa (King Girvan Yudha Shah was still a teenager), feared the British but also felt confident that they could repel an invading army, given the battle-hardened experience of their forces and their knowledge of Nepal's difficult terrain.
Nepal was massively out-numbered - estimates put the Gorkhali army at between 12,000-16,000 strong, while at the end of the conflict the British had a force of over 35,000 men, equipped with modern rifles and backed by devastatingly effective cannons. Despite these odds the British campaign started badly: three successive British Generals failed to beat the Gorkhali army in a series of unevenly matched battles that Nepal either won or simply refused to concede.
The Battle of Khalanga
The first battle between Nepal and the British took place in the West, near present day Dehradun in what is now North West India. During the Battle of Khalanga (also known as Kalinga and 'Nala Paniko Ladai', literally 'Drain Water Battle') 600 Gorkhali, including women and children, defended the fort of Khalanga against over 6,500 British soldiers led by British General Rollo Gillespie.
Gillespie was killed early on in fierce fighting, while the Nepali forces, led by General Balbahadur Singh Thapa Kunwar, held the fort despite constant attacks and bombardment by the British cannons. The Gorkhali troops finally abandoned the fort when the British cut off their water supply (their food long since having run out) and they were literally dying of thirst. Balbahadur Kunwar and his men had held Khalanga for over 30 days under horrific conditions, costing the lives of more than 520 of their 600 people. They in turn had killed 750 British soldiers and 31 officers using inferior rifles, their kukri knives and improvised weapons. Moved by the astonishing bravery and sense of honour with which the Gorkhali army had fought the battle, the British erected a memorial to honour both them and their own fallen General. On the memorial, which still stands today, are inscribed the words: "...A tribute of respect for our gallant adversary Balabhadra Singh and his brave Goorkhas..."
General Gillespie's own officers were extremely moved by the courage and conduct of the Gurkhas. Two of them wrote the following:
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 the 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 at Kalunga, during the period of the siege.
Whatever the nature of the Goorkhas may have been found in other quarters, there was here no cruelty to wounded or to prisoners; no poisoned arrows were used; 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 the intervals of actual combat, a liberal courtesy worthy of a more enlightened people.
James Fraser, 1814
I never saw more steadiness or bravery exhibited in my life. Run they would not and of death, they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them, for we were so near that every shot told.
John Ship, 1814
And so, quite unexpectedly, at the very beginning of the war between Britain and Nepal, the continuing mutual respect and admiration between British and Gurkhas was born.
British Frustration and then VictoryAfter the Battle of Khalanga, the British Generals suffered further losses and embarrassments as they failed to defeat the Gorkhali army in battles at Jaithak, Parsa and Jeetgargh. General Gillespie was replaced by Major-General Gabriel Martindell who proved to be an extremely ineffective leader. Major-General George Wood gave up attacking the stronghold of Butwal after only two attempts - quickly retreating back to his base in Gorakhpur - and greatly boosting the morale of the Gorkhali army. Major-General Marley took British incompetence a step further by actually deserting his 8,000 strong force - intended to lead the invasion of Kathmandu - after two of his advance troop posts were defeated.
David Ochterlony, the British General who began the campaign as a mere Colonel, was the only British military leader who was able to adapt his strategy to deal with the Gorkhali army's tactics and the difficult mountain terrain. In the book 'Military Sketches of the Goorkha War', an eye witness describes how:
A body of Gorkhas advancing to charge bears no resemblance to a European column. Several huge trumpets putting up a harsh but stirring noise, set the multitude in motion who, except some carry shields, grasping each a matchlock [rifle] in his left hand and a broad sword in his right, rush on, disregarding all regularity, like a pack of hounds in full cry.
From 'Military Sketches of the Goorkha War'
Ochterlony wisely avoided one-on-one battles with the Gorkhali army wherever possible and instead made full use of his long range guns and the power of his heavy artillery. In the decisive Battle of Deothal, Ochterlony used his cannons and guns to force General Amar Singh Thapa and his men into a slow retreat back to their fortress at Malaun. On April 16th 1815 Amar Singh Thapa's Chief Officer, Bhakti Thapa, launched a famous suicide attack on the British in a desperate attempt to swing the battle. Unfortunately Bhakti Thapa's sacrifice only served to demoralise the Gorkhali forces and the battle turned even further against the Gorkhali army. Amar Singh Thapa finally conceded defeat in May 1815. At last the British had triumphed.
In recognition of their courage, Ochterlony allowed both Thapa and his son Ranjur and their armies to leave their fortresses at Malaun and Jaithak, with all their arms and equipment. They returned to Kathmandu.
The Sugauli Treaty
Amar Singh Thapa refused to accept the treaty he had been obliged to sign at Malaun and so the war continued for several months longer. This led to a second campaign by the British who put Ochterlony, now a Major-General, in charge of a force of 20,000 with which he was able to secure a final victory at Makwanpur. Eventually Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa ratified the Sugauli Treaty on the 4th of March 1816.
The terms of the Sugauli Treaty were disastrous for Nepal. Many hard-won territories were lost: Sikkim in the East, most of the Terai to the South (although much of it was returned in 1816) and the Kumaon and Garhwal districts in the West. The British installed a ‘Resident’, effectively an official spy, in Kathmandu and, crucially, were now able to recruit men from the Gorkhali army and their homelands into the British Indian Army.
Brian Houghton Hodgson, the most influential British Resident forced upon the rulers of Nepal after their defeat, called the Gurkhas:
...By far the best soldiers in Asia... If they were made participators of our renown in arms, I conceive that their gallant spirit, emphatic contempt of Madhesias [people of the plains], and unadulterated military habits, might be relied on for fidelity.
Brian Houghton Hodgson British Resident, 1816
His foresight was proven true much sooner than he might have imagined.