Pictures of a Gurkha in the British Army and of Gurkhas on the parade ground
Long Reads

Gurkhas – The Origin Story

Pictures of a Gurkha in the British Army and of Gurkhas on the parade ground

Major General Sir David Ochterlony had his objective.

He was to march the 9,500 men of third and fourth brigades north east across the Indian-Nepalese frontier and into the Churia Hills to confront the enemy. 

His force, the central element of a private army controlled by the Honourable East India Company (HEIC), had plenty of support. It was bolstered by artillery being hauled on the backs of elephants. It had high-quality British government troops, men of His Majesty’s 87th Regiment of Foot, amongst its various units. Finally, Ochterlony had sent two smaller columns, similarly endowed with artillery and British government men, advancing along parallel axes far to his left and right. 

Yet all this would be of little use if Ochterlony did not win his race against the clock. He had six weeks until the tropical disease season began, at which point his forces would be decimated by malaria.

The literal uphill battle into Nepal could also very easily slow him down. To begin with, the Churia Hills were actually rugged mountains, only ‘hills’ in comparison with the Himalayas that lay beyond.

Map showing the Terai region of Nepal
Nepal with the Terai shown along its southern border in light green (image: by Captain Blood)

Furthermore, before he even reached them, he had to cross a dozen miles of thickly wooded country called the Tarai. Here, the ubiquitous foliage and densely packed trees afforded cover and concealment to any enemy who might choose to harass him.

From John Pemble’s description of this area, it seems clear the Tarai must have been like another world to the HEIC men who entered it on the morning of February 9, 1816. Describing it as a mist-enveloped primeval jungle in which tigers roamed, Pemble says:

“Sal and sissu trees of huge girth and height, draped with weird vegetation, utterly still, and receding ever farther like the reflections in facing mirrors, shut out the sunlight, stifled every echo and confused all sense of direction. For nine miles the army crept up the western bank of a dry river channel, encumbered by dense tropical undergrowth. The pioneers often had to clear a passage by chopping and firing, and then the screams of startled parakeets broke the silence; but there was neither sight nor sound of enemy soldiers.”

Indian Jungle in the Terai region
Jungle in the Terai today, shown here in north-eastern India (image: Vipin Vasudeva)

They were not, then, slowed by attacks as Ochterlony had feared – at least, not yet. It was when third and fourth brigades reached a small hamlet called Bichakori that Ochterlony first heard of the enemy plan.

Just behind the hamlet lay the Bichakori pass, a narrow defile through which the British force would have to travel in order to get at the enemy strongholds beyond. However, scouts and spies informed their commander that this choke point had been turned into a killing zone, replete with defences from which the enemy could rain fire down on their HEIC attackers. Pressing on would have been suicide.

Fortunately, there was another way.

Ochterlony’s quartermaster, a man named Captain Joshua Pickersgill, had reconnoitred this border area before the HEIC army set off. He had discovered an alternative route through the Churia known to smugglers. It was more formidable a path in terms of its natural obstacles, but this, and its relative obscurity, meant that the British would (hopefully) be unmolested whilst travelling through it.

On the night of February 14, under the cover of darkness, Ochterlony set off in this new direction with third brigade, leaving fourth brigade behind at Bichakori to conceal his movements. His force now consisted of 3,000 men, supported by two 6-pounder artillery guns hauled by elephants.

Pemble describes them as moving, in their respective columns, like a giant funeral procession along the channel of the Bali river, which was dry. The only sound they made was when their axes felled trees as engineers periodically cut a path, though even this was probably masked by the distant and continuous roar of waterfalls. 

The large party continued until the riverbed became a ravine. The enemy were still nowhere in sight, though the HEIC men did see white baboons staring out at them from the jungle. 

When morning broke, the men were confronted by a 300-foot cliff face, which they climbed up by grabbing at tree branches and bushes. Ochterlony, who had just turned 58, had to be helped up with a lifeline made of sashes that his artillerists pulled up after them. Promotions took a long time in the HEIC’s private armies, and senior officers like Ochterlony were often considerably older than their counterparts in the British government’s army. 

The cliff was also difficult for the elephants. Pioneers dug and chiselled away at the slope, scraping it away in pieces and laying down felled trees until it had become a giant staircase. They also set up a pulley system, ascending with the ropes, then pulling the artillery guns up with their weight as they went down the other side. Yet, even without being encumbered by the guns, the elephants still struggled. According to Pemble, for one elephant, " … it was too steep for him (and) … There was a moment of acute suspense as he swayed, trumpeted, and almost toppled over … "

They must have breathed a sigh of relief when the enormous creature did not, and the brigade made it down the other side.

Portrait of Major General Sir David Ochterlony
A portrait of Ochterlony (image: Arthur William Davis, ‘Major-General Sir David Ochterlony, 1758 – 1825. Soldier’, National Galleries Scotland)

Ochterlony and his men had shown great tenacity and skill, but he knew they had also been very lucky. If the enemy had known of their precarious position, they would have been sitting ducks. In fact, the attempted bypass did become known, prompting a withdrawal from the Bichatori Pass that allowed the fourth brigade to advance as well.

Ochterlony pressed on in pursuit, this time over a landscape Pemble describes as a rolling countryside crisscrossed by streams and sprinkled with flowers – a welcome relief, no doubt, from the mountainous ordeal he and third brigade had just endured. 

He eventually linked up with fourth brigade and the combined force pressed on together, encountering another scene of natural beauty as they did so:

“They found themselves in an exquisite valley, which was bisected by the Karara. On the southern bank of the river there were broad green pastures, inclining gradually to the stream. To the north the ground rose more sharply and culminated in a hefty ridge of sandy hills, some 1,500 feet high. It was a different world from the Tarai. Foliage had lost its waxy patina, trees and grasses moved and breathed, partridges and woodcocks flickered through the sunlight, and the water was transparent.”

The British were now within striking distance of their objective, the fort of Makwanpur. It was positioned on a steep hill connected by a road that ran along a ridge to a village called Sikhar Khatri. Within this village, the enemy awaited them. 

A view from the area of Makwanpur (or Makwanpurgadhi) today, looking roughly south west, towards where the British had advanced (image/embed:Google)

Ochterlony camped out for the night, resolving to strike the next day, though by the following morning, the enemy had vanished again.

At first, Ochterlony wondered if he should await the arrival of the second brigade, which dispatches revealed had made good progress to his left, in the west? 

No. He decided time was of the essence and dispatched three companies of sepoys (Indian troops) and 40 soldiers from 87 Foot to take the now empty village.

A map showing Makwanpur within Nepal
Makwanpur shown within Nepal today (image: Google)

They were led by Captain Tickell and Captain Pickersgill, the quartermaster who had informed his commander about the route around the Bichakori Pass. Entering the village, they stationed their party amongst its huts, then went out at the head of a reconnaissance party along the road that ran over the cliffs to the fortress at Makwanpur. The enemy was still proving elusive when the party moved into a forest. 

Then they sighted them. 

A large enemy force was creeping out of the woodland ahead and around the ridge, on course to cut the reconnaissance party off from the village behind them.

Realising they had been outflanked, Pickersgill and Tickell led their men in an escape. They tore out of the tree line and scrambled down the rise, heading straight for Ochterlony and the HEIC camp below. 

Their enemies, meanwhile, came on, flooding the ridge behind them. 

They were the Gurkhas, fierce warriors who made up the army of Nepal, and they fired their muskets after the fleeing British, striking nine sepoys and killing eight. 

Next, the 1,000-strong Gurkha force turned in the direction of the village. 

The HEIC men within watched as their enemies unsheathed their dreaded kukris, and then charged right at them …

A kukri, the curve-bladed machete used by Gurkhas
The kukri, a kind of curve-bladed machete, up close and being used by a Gurkha in World War 2 (image: JumpStory)


Like almost any episode from the history of Britain’s imperial wars, the answer to the question of how and why British soldiers ended up facing fearsome, kukri-welding Gurkhas on a remote mountainside in Nepal is long and complex.

The more general explanation is that the 1814 – 16 Anglo-Nepalese War was a border dispute that became a full-blown military conflict. It occurred as a result of empire building by both Britain and the Gurkhas, who ultimately ran into each other.

In the mid-18th Century, India’s ruling Mughal Empire had gone into decline. This created a power vacuum and presented an opportunity for expansion by both local powers and the British, who had already established a trading footprint on the Indian subcontinent. 

One of these local competitors was the Gurkhas, and while the British expanded their territory within India, the Gurkhas spread out across Nepal. 

These historical parallels then end where the geographic differences begin. While the British were acquiring and learning to rule the flat, hot and sometimes mosquito-ridden plains of north-eastern India, the Gurkhas were becoming masters of the mountainous terrain that lay between India and Tibet. 

The border with Tibet is delineated by the snow-covered tips of the Himalayas, visible year-round within Nepal. In fact, in ‘Britain’s Gurkha War’, John Pemble reminds us that Himalaya in fact means ‘region of snow’ in Sanskrit, which was the main language of the region. 

Tracing not just their physical majesty, but also their vast age, he says:

“Earthquakes and landslides testify that the causes which raised the Himalayas continue in operation, moulding them into some cosmographic design whose completion man will never witness, and which will come about as though he had never been.”

Kumaon Himalaya range from kausani, Uttrakhand
The Himalayas in Nepal as seen from Kausani in Uttrakhand, India (image: Sujayadhar)

Not all of Nepal lies at extreme elevation – by definition, being essentially rimmed by mountains, it also has valleys, and the country is in fact internally like one big valley, one that used to be a giant lake. 

Though even below the extreme mountain peaks that are ever present in the distance, there are impressive evergreen forests quite unlike the tropical ones along Nepal’s border with India. As if sticking to a common design principle, they too are particularly tall, rising to an impressive 200 feet, their “natural colours (having) a prismatic purity”, according to Pemble.

Over the centuries, various peoples from India and Mongolia have moved into the Nepalese valley, mixing over time. This resulted in a diversity of languages, ethnicities and religions, namely Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. In fact, when they emerged to begin conquering adjacent territories, the Gurkhas themselves were a kind of nation in microcosm, being made up of numerous tribes. Their version of Hinduism proved to be useful to later British recruiters, since they were not as strict about what they ate and only required a more limited wash before mealtimes than other Hindu troops. This made it easier for the British to deploy and attend to them in the field. 

Although they were multi-ethnic, one group did predominate amongst the Gurkhas. These were the Chetris. 

The word comes from the Sanskrit ksatriya, meaning ‘warrior’, the second of four castes in Hindu society, the others being priests, peasants and serfs (the lowest order of worker.) The Chetris in Nepal were not a caste in the Indian sense, but they had retained the main characteristic that delineated one caste from another, namely intermarriage within the group.

Like Nepal and the Gurkha nation, the Chetris too consisted of ethnic subgroups (such as the Magars, Khas, Brahmins and Rajputs) who had been absorbed over the centuries. As a result, their appearance still varies considerably. Some are shorter and more slightly built; others, of Mongolian descent, are bigger and more muscular.

Four Gurkhas in the British Army
Gurkhas in the British Army today are drawn from various ethnic groups from across Nepal

When the British first started recruiting Gurkhas following the Anglo-Nepalese War, they initially focused their efforts on the Chetris and other martial jats (tribes.) These days, Gurkha selection is open to any Nepalese male*, though in practice certain tribal groups (i.e. the Gurungs, the Magars) still tend to predominate amongst those who apply for and get into the British Army.

(*Female Gurkha recruits may be permitted in the near future).

In ‘The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers’, John Parker explains that the Gurkha practice of using their tribal names as surnames initially caused confusion. When, for instance, a British officer asked for a Rifleman Gurung to step forward, 25 percent of his company might do so.

On the other hand, Gurkha surnames have been useful indicators of where a given recruit has come from. Those named Gurung, Thakur, Pun, Tamang and Magar have traditionally come from the west of Nepal. They would end up in “western” battalions. “Eastern” battalions meanwhile would typically have had those named Rai, Limbu, Tamang and Sunwar, as well as some Sherpas.

At one point in his book, Parker recounts an exchange with Major Gordon Corrigan in Nepal, an officer with extensive experience with the Gurkhas. Parker quotes Major Corrigan talking about the process by which a British officer gets to know his Gurkha men, and how the regional differences can play into this process:

“The westerner gets up in the morning, walks from his village, farms his strip of land and then walks back to his village when the task is completed, chatting on the way to anyone he might meet, so he is socially inclined. He lives in a community. The easterner lives on his own land so his next-door neighbour may be some distance away … (he is) pretty remote. He is a bit more suspicious of strangers and in some ways more independently minded … From the point of view of the British officer, a westerner would come in whom I didn’t know and his mental process would be: ‘Ah . . . sahib is a senior man; good. He speaks the language well; good. He’s all right.’ The easterner’s thought process would be the same except he will not commit himself to immediate acceptance: ‘He may be all right . . . I don’t know. I shall have to wait and see.’ Thus, he reserves judgement until he has got to know you.”

Gurkhas in the British Army

Historically, the various groups within Nepal had initially been united under the 14th Century rule of Jayasthiti Malla, a Hindu king renowned for his administration and standardised weights and measures. 

His Malla dynasty, however, did not last long. His grandson Jaya Yaksha Malla split the kingdom amongst his own sons who soon went to war with one another.

It was from this political chaos that the Gurkhas eventually emerged triumphant, establishing their own kingdom in the 16th Century. 

Later, during the 18th Century, they broke out and conquered Nepal as a whole. Mughal influence had stretched into Nepal as well as across nearby India and it was the aforementioned decline of the Mughals that essentially gave the Gurkhas the opportunity to establish their own empire.

The Gorkha Durbar in Gorkha, Nepal
The Gorkha Durbur, a palace, fort and birthplace of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king who would strike out from here and unify Nepal in the 18th Century (image: Adrian Sulc)

As to the origins of the Gurkha kingdom itself, Chris Bellamy relates one story about this in his book ‘The Gurkhas: Special Force’:

“The eighth-century guru Gorakhnāth had a high-born disciple, Bappa Rawal, who allegedly founded the Gorkha or Gurkha dynasty and is said to be the ancestor of the modern royal family of Nepal (that existed until 2008). There is a legend that Bappa Rawal found Gorakhnāth meditating and stopped to guard him while he was so preoccupied. When the guru emerged from his meditation, he was pleased at Bappa’s devotion and gave him a kukri … the traditional distinctive curved Gurkha knife. He supposedly said that the disciples of the Guru Gorakhnāth would be called Gorkhas – or Gurkhas – and that their bravery would become world famous.”

The key word here is of course “allegedly”, since any tale of this nature is very likely apocryphal. 

A map of Gorkha District in Nepal
A 3-D map of Gorkha district in Nepal
Maps showing Gorkha district within Nepal (images: Google)

Bellamy also explains that the word Gurkha is derived from “Gorkha”, the name of what was once a town and is now also a district in Nepal. He says that if you utter the word Gurkha in Nepal today, it is likely to be taken to mean the place, not the name of the Nepalese soldiers who join the British Army. For that, the Nepalese have another term - UK lahure, which essentially translates to ‘mercenary of the UK’.

The town of Gorkha first fell into the possession of what would become the Gurkha line of kings in 1559. It was captured by a man named Drabya Shah, youngest son of the king of nearby Lamjung. 

Picture of a valley in Lamjung in Nepal
Lamjung, where Drabya Shah struck out from to conquer the nearby town of Gorkha (image: Dmitry A. Mottl)
Map of Lamjung district Nepal
Lamjung shown within Nepal (image: Google)

Drabya Shah’s descendent, Prithvi Narayan Shah, later broke out of this kingdom in the mid-18th Century to conquer and unify all of Nepal, and beyond. 

By that point, the multi-ethnic military force he had created was known as the Gurkhas and they were united by their common language, Gurkhali, which became the official language of Nepal.

It was during this period of Gurkha expansion that the first Anglo-Gurkha War could have taken place. Two of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s enemies, the kings of Kathmandu and nearby Patan, solicited help from the HEIC headquarters in Calcutta. 

Prithvi Narayan had behaved particularly cruelly as a conqueror, cutting off the ears and noses of all adult males when he took the town of Kirtipur on the way to Kathmandu. It was rebranded Naskatipur, ‘the City of Cut Noses’, by the brutal Gurkha king.

A statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah
Prithvi Narayan Shah, who struck out from Gorkha militarily in 1768, forming the Gurkha Empire and the Kingdom of Nepal (image: Rajivkilanashrestha)

As well as helping the Kathmandu and Patan monarchs fight a cruel tyrant, the request for a British intervention represented an opportunity for the HEIC. If successful, they would contain the ascendant Gurkha king, whose growing military might was becoming a potential threat to the HEIC’s existing commercial arrangements in the region.

The HEIC expedition sent to stop him in 1767 consisted of 2,500 men and was led by a man named Captain Kinlock. 

It did not go well. The British force was ravaged by malaria and put out of action before it had seen any combat with the Gurkhas. This allowed Prithvi Narayan to press onto Kathmandu, capturing it and then making it his new capital city. 

Technically, he still did not have full hegemony over all of Nepal. Resistance would continue from north of Kathmandu up until the Anglo-Nepalese War, though Prithvi Narayan certainly did control the rest of the country. 

There was, however, instability within his ascendant kingdom. After his death in 1775, court intrigues arose and infighting soon erupted.

It is perhaps a cliché these days to compare such matters to ‘Game of Thrones’, but in this instance, the comparison seems justified. 

To begin with, the factionalism was multi-layered, involving a split within the royal family as well as  within the circle of civil servants who advised them. 

It was also very bloody.

The trouble started with the ascension to the throne of Prithvi Narayan’s grandson, Rana Bahadur Shah. He was a child at the time and so was too young to rule. The regency instead passed first to his mother and, when she died, to his uncle. 

The idea was for them to control the monarchy until Rana Bahadur Shah was old enough for the crown to be passed peacefully onto him. 

Unfortunately, the path from mother to uncle to son was not a smooth one. One report suggests that court life became embroiled in a bi-polar contest between his mother’s and his uncle’s competing regencies and factionalism became a normal feature of the Gurkha royal court. 

In 1795, Rana Badahur Shah came of age and assumed the throne for himself (Wikipedia puts the year at 1794, Pemble says the following year.) More turmoil followed. 

First, he sidelined his uncle, then had him imprisoned and finally killed in 1797. 

Next, the cycle of temporary regency and factionalism was repeated anew when Rana Badahur Shah abdicated and put his infant son on the throne. 

The rationale for this was, quite simply, love. Rana Bahadur already had two wives when he took a third, the widow of a Brahmin, generally thought of as the priestly caste.

He had very deep feelings for this woman and when she became terminally ill, he put their infant son on the throne so that she could live long enough to see the child become king. This child was Girvin Yuddha Bikram Shah, and he would still be king during the war with the British in 1814 – 1816, though again, under the control of another regency.

When the boy’s mother eventually succumbed to her illness, Rana Bahadur Shah was stricken with extreme grief. In his anger and despair, he lashed out, desecrating temples and cruelly punishing physicians and astrologers who had tried to help, and failed to save, his ailing third queen. He was subsequently convinced to retire to Benares in India as a religious pilgrim. 

In 1804, he followed his first queen and returned to Kathmandu to challenge the government being headed there by his second queen. Nepalese troops soon challenged him in turn, but then came over to his side.

He returned to power as Prime Minister (or Mukhityar) rather than king, but he was assassinated (beheaded) by a rival family member in 1806. In reprisal killings known as the Bhandarkhal massacre, Pemble says upwards of 50 people were then killed. Wikipedia puts the number at 93. 

Whatever the true death toll, the most likely chief instigator of the massacre was a man named Bhimsen Thapa. 

Bhimsen-thapa-painting from The National Museum of Nepal
Bhimsen Thapa, Prime Minister of Nepal from 1806 until 1837 (image: The National Museum of Nepal)

Bhimsen Thapa’s rise to power was the tip of an iceberg in which, like the monarch he served, factionalism had set in between two competing families. While the Thapas were on one side of this internal power struggle, the Pandes were on the other. 

Both were Chetris, but subgroups within the Chetris began to jostle for social influence and Pemble explains that some Chetris of Rajput descent came to think of themselves as purer than other Chetris. The Thapas were treated disdainfully, ostracised at mealtimes and deemed to be an inferior caste. 

This fuelled resentment in what was a highly ambitious family, and competition for social rank and influence became fiercest with the Pande family. The Pandes had controlled political appointments since Prithri Narayan’s death in 1775.

The main figure in the Pande family during this period was Damodar Pande, who continued to consolidate the territorial gains Prithvi Narayan had made, but behaved diplomatically and with moderation. Pemble describes him as having shown remarkable diffidence, sobriety and decorum. 

This was in sharp contrast to Rana Bahadur Shah, who Damodar Pande and others convinced to go into religious exile as recompense for his outrageous behaviour following the death of his third queen. 

Bhimsen Thapa in turn served Rana Bahadur Shah while he was in exile in India. Over time, he helped convince the former king to return to Kathmandu, where Damodar Pande had imprisoned Bhimsen’s father, Amar Singh Thapa (often referred to as just Amar Thapa.)  

When Rana Bahadur did just that, Amar Thapa was freed and Damodar Pande beheaded. 

Following the murder of Rana Bahadur Shah in 1806, it was the Pande family and their allies who were slaughtered in the reprisal killings. This removed them from government and paved the way for the Thapas. 

Bhimsen would become the Prime Minister in 1806, a post he still held when the Anglo-Gurkha War started eight years later. His father, Amar Thapa (or Amar Singh Thapa), was a regional ruler and became Kaji (or specifically, Sanukaji), the highest Nepalese rank for a non-royal. 

The rise of the Thapas presented a problem for the British, who had established good relations with Damodar Pande’s government. Things were bound to get off to a frosty start with his arch rival and successor Bhimsen Thapa.

Gurkha soldiers and Prithvi Narayan Shah


Yet, a frosty relationship with Bhimsen Thapa’s government was not, on its own, reason enough for the British and the Nepalese to end up at war.

Neither was trade, if John Pemble is to be believed.

His assessment contradicts other reports on the conflict, which say the establishment of a trade route through Nepal to Tibet was a major cause of the 1814 – 16 Anglo-Nepalese War. Tibet was a great prize, a source of valuable goods such as shawls made with fine wool, salt, musk (which was used for making perfumes) and borax (which was used in the manufacture of glass.) Pemble himself admits that one motivating factor for the 1767 HEIC expedition into Nepal was the prospect of opening up trade with Tibet.

Yet, he also maintains that the HEIC’s commercial interests lay in avoiding a war with Nepal rather than starting one. 

The reason for this was that the British already had a much larger, more profitable trade network running by sea from India down to Canton. This involved the British sending bullion, which could be used for the manufacture of gold and silver. It was exchanged in China for tea. Later the bullion would flow the other way and was replaced by cotton and opium that were sent to China instead.

This arrangement was hugely valuable to the HEIC and they were very concerned about not being seen to threaten Tibet through Nepal. Tibet was, and still is, in China’s domain. 

To a lesser extent, they also did not want to provoke the Sikhs, another local power who had become more prominent following the decline of the Mughal Empire.

One clear example of Britain’s efforts not to rock the diplomatic boat was its choice to, rather uncharacteristically, stay out of a border dispute in what today is part of north east India. Pemble explains that the HEIC ignored a request to move into and assist Sikkim, a state in northern India nestled between Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, which came under threat during the period of Gurkha expansion. Doing so might have put the British right on the border with Tibet, and risked provoking the Chinese, and so Sikkim was ignored.

What could not be ignored, however, were the border issues that arose directly between the Gurkhas and the British elsewhere in India. These were the real trigger for the Anglo-Nepalese War, and they arose because, when they had taken on new territories, the British and the Gurkhas also inherited the border disputes that came along with them. 

The British essentially ran a system of privatised tax collection in which local rulers who were under their control known as zamindars took in revenue from their lands and passed a tax onto the HEIC. This was a simple enough process in theory, but in practice, the boundaries around the zamindars’ land frequently turned out to be rather poorly defined.

One dispute the British got dragged into involved one of their zamindars and the Bhutanese raja, or ruler. A magistrate sent out to inspect the area found that the boundary line ran vaguely along ridges, streams and brooks and that his guide claimed changes in the colouring of the grass and other ‘fanciful’ features were how he recognised the border.

The essential problem, Pemble points out, is that when all of the disputed territories were under the sway of the single Mughal Empire, any disputes were resolved internally. The Mughals were able to simply arbitrate within their own overarching territory. Following the breakup of the Mughal domain and the emergence of competing powers, however, any territorial dispute between the powers or their agents had the potential to blow up into a major international conflict. 

This is precisely what happened between the British and the Gurkhas, and despite the fact that,  Pemble argues, both sides started out very consciously and judiciously trying to avoid a conflict. (For his part, Bellamy notes that Nepal was being aggressive in policing and pushing the frontiers of its new empire. He attributes this in large part to Bhimsen Thapa, and to his need to create unity and discourage internal dissent by orienting the country towards the defence of its imperial boundaries). 

A map of Nepal following the Anglo-Nepalese War, also showing its territory before the conflict
Map of the boundary lines after the Anglo-Nepalese War which shows, in grey, areas that had been incorporated into the Gurkha empire before the conflict (image: Rebel Redcoat)

Disputes arose in the aforementioned territory of Sikkim, which lay to the east of Nepal’s present-day border, as well as in areas to the west of present-day Nepal, like Kumaun and Garhwal, and in and around the Terai. Once again, this was the tropical, malaria-ridden band of jungle that made the Indian-Nepalese frontier impassable for much of the year, except for the natives of the region who were resistant to malaria. 

Because of the inhospitable nature of the Terai, it was quite by accident that in 1811 a British official came across a fort that the Gurkhas had built at Kheri, in what is now territory in north-eastern India. Such were the vagaries of the rules regarding territorial ownership that he could not say whether or not the Gurkhas were officially entitled to Kheri, or if the British were within their rights to challenge this.

A significant part of the problem was that general confusion distracted officials from noticing things like this sooner. Poor administration and lack of clear authority opened many areas up to crime and there was widespread banditry in some places. 

The British sought to address the issue by doing what they have become somewhat known for historically: they drew a line on a map and told the Gurkhas not to cross it.

This was done around the hills west of present-day Nepal, adjacently to the highland territories there that the Gurkhas had recently acquired. There was a precedent that occupation gave them rights to this hill territory, but, according to the British at least, that did not extend to the lowlands. The British now gave support to local rajas who had been dislodged from the highlands and wanted to defend the adjacent plains from further Gurkha incursions. 

Interestingly, this policy was challenged by David Ochterlony, the company major general (then a colonel) who would lead the final expedition of the Gurkha War featured at the opening of this article. He argued that restoring the royal houses of Garhwal and Sirmur to lands they had been pushed out of would give the British a useful buffer between themselves and the Gurkhas. 

He also held a contemptuous view of the Nepalese warriors, referring to their army as:

“ … a body of ill-armed and undisciplined barbarians, who affect a wretched imitation of the dress, accoutrements, and constitution of a British native battalion … “

He believed, wrongly, that they could be easily defeated. The company disagreed, opting to continue avoiding any unnecessary conflict.

The imitation of British troops Ochterlony referred to is noteworthy, and somewhat ironic, since Bhimsen Thapa was a major driving force behind it. His time with Rana Bahadur Shah during his exile in India had given Bhimsen plenty of opportunities to observe HEIC troops, and he saw much that was worthy of emulation.

Gurkha soldiers in the 19th Century
Illustration of eight Gurkha soldiers from the period (image: The Gurkha Museum)

Though the effort to modernise the Gurkha army went back further than Bhimsen Thapa. It had first started during the time of Prithvi Narayan Shah, when it was recognised that the Nepalese would need to learn from the Europeans. This did not mean total imitation. For instance, the Gurkhas did not establish cavalry units, which would only ever have had limited value in mountain warfare. They did, however, produce some artillery pieces based on European influence, and they also learnt from the Chinese, making a few lightweight cannons put together from leather and clay. 

The Nepalese also used British deserters to assist them in developing their own muskets, as well as in drilling their troops, who in some cases came to resemble the British in appearance. While the British had white officers leading sepoys, the Gurkha army had Chetri officers and Mongolian hillmen as troops, largely Magars and Gurungs. Much of the time, Nepalese soldiers still wore their traditional white clothing (see the illustration just above), though in some cases, Gurkhas wore red jackets, just like the British. 

British deserters also taught them the English language, and British military marching songs.

Picture of a leather cannon from 17th Century Sweden
An example of a leather cannon (image: Swedish Leather Gun c.1630. Courtesy the Trustees of the Royal Armouries)

The 6,000 – 8,000-strong peacetime Gurkha army, augmented with militia to reach twice that number in wartime, was also a kind of hybrid. Half of it was organised into battalions, like the British, whilst the remainder were arrayed in independent and widely dispersed companies. 

On the parade ground in Kathmandu, all the pomp of British-style marching and drilling might be on display, but on the battlefield it was a different matter. Here, Pemble stresses that the Gurkhas did not act like or owe their victories to their imitations of Europeans. On the one hand, they had not yet fully emulated European discipline and training; on the other hand, courage and endurance frequently saw them through. 

For example, they were natural guerrilla fighters who employed a handful of elemental tactics very well. Attacking from two or three directions at once was one of these, as was a reliance on ambushes with musket fire to force an enemy to retreat. (This is what would work so well on Ochterlony’s scouts at Makwanpur in 1816). They also excelled at besieging their enemies from makeshift barricades made of rows of branches weaved into wickets and filled with mud, stones and sticks. From behind these, they would raid their enemies at night and also possibly starve them out.

And thanks to the breakdown of civil relations between the two sides, the Gurkhas would very soon get the chance to test their military reforms and well-practised tactics against the British.

An officer and private from the British 40th Regiment of Foot in 1815
An officer and private from the British 40th Regiment of Foot in 1815 (image: Public Domain)

Although tensions between the Gurkhas and the British had been building for some time, it was the dispute over a few key territories that would eventually trigger a full-blown conflict between them.

Butwal was an example of the aforementioned fertile portions of the Terai which runs along today’s Indian-Nepalese border. But ownership of this territory came into question not only because of its potential agricultural value, but also because two different precedents were used to claim it. The Gurkhas claimed they had a right to it because they had conquered it – finders keepers. For their part, the British played the seniority card. Land rights belonging to a local raja who had been there before the Gurkhas were now under British jurisdiction. This made Butwal theirs by default, they argued back. 

The British tried to break the impasse by offering to give up their claim to a nearby territory called Siuraj. The Gurkhas though were having none of it. They offered the British a rent payment to keep Butwal. Again, no dice. 

But while the British refused to give up Butwal, they also did not enforce their claim to it and Bhimsen Thapa’s father Amar Singh Thapa (Sanukaji) sent more soldiers to garrison the villages there.

Butwal shown on a map of Nepal
Butwal, shown within the modern-day borders of Nepal (image: Google)

Problems also flared up in the nearby territory of Saran. There, a zamindar working for the HEIC sent soldiers to take back villages in that area which the Gurkhas had claimed.  A Nepalese civil engineer was killed in the chaos and the resulting dispute was referred to a judge. He did not find the zamindar to be any more at fault than the Gurkhas and the HEIC authorities chose not to punish him. 

The two sides did eventually agree to a joint commission to resolve the Butwal issue, but the result was that it failed to do so. The British now claimed rights to Butwal as well as Siuraj, the territory that had formally been prepared to give up. The Gurkhas, meanwhile, also refused to budge. As it turns out, fertile lands in the Terai like Butwal were a vital source of revenue for the Gurkha government in Kathmandu. This was especially so since they gave away all other territories in Nepal to soldiers and militiamen in lieu of payment. The British did not appreciate this at the time.

A commission was also established to deal with the matter in Saran. The Gurkhas had occupied 22 villages following the dispute with the company’s zamindar, but vacated them to facilitate the setting up and running of this commission. 

Google map of Saran, in India
Saran (image: Google)

Yet, it was never allowed to proceed properly. The British simply said existing evidence showed the Saran belonged to them and that any further investigation was useless, particularly in light of the Gurkhas’ intransigence, as the British saw it, over the matter Butwal. They said 22 years’ worth of occupation by the British in Saran gave the HEIC the right to it, but refused to allow the same argument to be made for the Gurkha claim to Siuraj, which the Gurkhas had held for 25 years. The Gurkhas were also disingenuous, Pemble says, claiming that prior evidence gathered by the commission clearly showed they had a right to the Saran, which it did not. 

With both sides at loggerheads over the matter, the Gurkhas pulled out from the commission and returned home. They would later attack an HEIC-controlled police post in Butwal, killing 19 people, including the chief police officer, who was executed. 

Once again, the Gurkhas did not really want to fight the British, at least if Pemble is to be believed. He says they likened the fights they had with local powers to build their empire as akin to stalking game, but saw fighting the British as the military equivalent of taking on a tiger.  At the same time, they also reckoned they could withdraw into their mountainous homeland if needs be and hold off a British incursion from there. 

On the British side, by contrast, one major driver of the conflict may simply have been that they wanted it. 

Back in Calcutta, the Governor General of British India, the Marquis of Hastings, was weighing his options. Restoring order in the wake of the slow-motion collapse of the Mughal Empire and the need to secure HEIC territory and revenues were certainly factors in the decision-making process. Yet Pemble argues Hastings’ real motivation for going to war was likely a kind of pre-emptive strike. Specifically, it was a growing fear that, given enough time, the Gurkhas would eventually ally themselves with other local powers like the Sikhs and the Marathas and gang up on the British, ejecting them from the subcontinent. 

Portrait of Governor General Hastings of India
Governor General Hastings (image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)

Pemble also shows that this fear was largely unjustified. Exchanges had occurred between the Gurkhas and other local powers, but there was no developed plan to eventually link up and annihilate the British. 

But Hastings did not know that, and if securing HEIC territories ultimately meant conquering potential enemies in isolation, it made sense to start with the strongest of them all: the Gurkhas.


Officially, the Anglo-Nepalese War began when the British declared it in November of 1814, but preparations for the campaign had started before that.

These preparations, and the war they turned into, would also play out in multiple places. Governor General Hastings decided to pursue his two objectives, the defeat of the Gurkha army in the west and the capture of their capital Kathmandu in the east, simultaneously. 

To that end, he dispatched four main columns (dubbed divisions) in October of 1814, two for the western theatre and objective, and two for the eastern. 

An additional force was also sent into the territory of Kamaun. Today this lies in India but at the time it lay partway between the Gurkha forces around Kathmandu in the east and the western side of the Gurkha empire. British troops here were meant to prevent Gurkhas moving across the territory so that, for instance, spare troops in the east could not reinforce the Gurkha army in the west.

In total, the British force had about 21,000 men, not including associated camp followers, and it would be taking on around 16,000 Nepalese. 

The plan was to have things wrapped up before April, 1815, before the malaria season returned. 

British Army Gurkha shown in black and white

The campaign in the east

At a number of points in his account of the conflict, Pemble shows that some on the British side tended to underestimate the Gurkhas. And the opening of the eastern campaign certainly had the potential to fuel this overconfidence. 

Action here started out with the HEIC’s Major Bradshaw still holding the much-disputed villages of Saran that had helped kick-start the war. 

Although Bradshaw was meant to wait for support from the oncoming Major General Bennet Marley, he rashly split his forces and set them loose on three objectives in the area: a Gurkha post at a place called Barharwa, an enemy mud fort at Baragarhi and a ruined stronghold at Parsa. 

Map of Parsa district today outlined in red, south of Kathmandu
Parsa district today outlined in red, south of Kathmandu; the Barharwa and Baragarhi attacks by the British would have occurred in this general area as well, 20 miles from Parsa, a ruined stronghold at the time (image: Google)

Bradshaw’s rashness initially paid off. At Barharwa, the British force led by Captain Sibley caught their Nepalese enemies completely off guard. Their commander was killed by a sabre blow to the head, and his men fled to the Baghmati, a nearby river. In total, 78 of them were killed and 23 taken prisoner. 

The garrison at Baragarhi, a mud hut with ramparts and a defensive ditch, was similarly rapidly overwhelmed. And 20 miles away at the stronghold at Parsa the British force simply marched up on an already abandoned position. 

This fast-paced opening to the conflict immediately blew up into a diplomatic spat, with Hastings simply brushing off Bhimsen Thapa’s allegation of a scandalous diplomatic violation. If only the rest of the war would be that easy. On the contrary, the Gurkhas were going to get their own back.

On January 1, 1815, 5,000 Gurkhas burst out of the jungle with war elephants in support, attacking the British garrison of 360 men who had settled in around Parsa. 

The British commander, Captain Henry Sibley, could not fit all his men in the fort and had arrayed them around the surrounding jungle, yet failed to cut back the undergrowth. The Gurkhas simply used the tree cover to sneak within rifle range and then launched their counter-attack. They quickly overwhelmed then seized the British ammunition supplies in their tents. 

Their elephants followed, crashing through the undergrowth and hauling jingals, which were large matchlock muskets that fired heavier-bore two-pound bullets. One of these weapons soon took out a support gun on the British side.

Captain Sibley was also wounded in the attack, leaving his deputy Lieutenant Smith to take command. 

The British tried desperately to fight back, but the 6-pound artillery gun they still had just ended up shredding bark off the trees the Gurkhas were taking cover behind and the British were shot at in the open. 

In events that have echoes of being a smaller-scale Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, Lieutenant Smith first attempted to hold off the attack by forming a defensive circle, then, when that failed, by pulling back to the fort. 

Unlike Rorke’s Drift, the enemy did not relent and the British themselves were now chased over a river. It was Marley’s subordinate Major Greenstreet who came upon the survivors, still fleeing from enemy gunfire. Sibley’s garrison had sustained 258 casualties, 121 of whom were killed outright, three of whom were missing and 134 wounded. Captain Sibley was left behind and killed by his captors. 

News of the disaster filtered up the chain of command to Major General Marley, who had brought his army in behind Bradshaw’s men, and he rushed to stop reinforcements heading straight into the enemy at Parsa. He would soon learn the British were being similarly overrun by vast numbers of the enemy at Samanpur as well.

Panicked estimates put the enemy force blocking the way to Kathmandu at 13,000. Pemble explains this was an overestimate arrived at from the overwhelming nature of the attacks, and support for the Gurkhas from local peoples who disliked the British zamindars. 

Picture of Kathmandu
Kathmandu today (image: Canon55D)

On that note, it is worth pointing out that although the term Gurkhas is used to describe Nepalese forces throughout this article, its accuracy varies. Soldiers in the eastern theatre of operations were often Nepalese rather than Gurkhas, irregular troops recruited from areas conquered by the Gurkhas in decades past. The bulk of the Gurkhas (i.e. those from the original Gurkha territories before Prithvi Narayan Shah’s expansion), and the Gurkha army, was in the western theatre (see below.)

For their part, the British got nowhere trying to raise their own militias in the eastern theatre. Given this difficulty winning local ‘hearts and minds’, the way the second British column behaved in the east was disastrous. 

This ‘division’ was led by Major General John Wood and was intended to act as a diversion to the attack on Kathmandu. His men also ran into stiff resistance and he made the decision to raze 200 villages, burn grain stores and destroy homes. Even if the displaced Tharus people, the malaria-resistant natives of the Terai, were relocated elsewhere, it can only have frustrated British efforts to win them over. The land they were removed to turned out to be far less fertile than the land they left behind.

While one Major General Wood (John Wood) was doing his part to tie down Nepalese attention and manpower, another Major General Wood (George Wood, no relation) was getting ready to replace Marley. 

Hastings used the ambushes at Parsa and Samanpur as a pretext for this, though Pemble says  George Wood had always been his first choice for command of the column marching into Kathmandu. As previously noted, promotions took a very long time in the HEIC’s armies, and senior officers certainly were very senior in age, often well past their prime. They tended not to retire because years of poor pay meant they simply did not have the money to do so, and they hung around clogging things up for those who would otherwise have risen through the ranks. In Marley’s case, even though he would never serve on the staff or again as a commander of operations, he remained in service, finally becoming a full general at the age (or old age) of 85.

In any case, Major General George Wood turned out not to get on any better fighting the Nepalese than Marley had. In complete contrast to the rashness that had invited the Gurkha counter-attack at Parsa, George Wood went the other way, becoming so cautious that no progress was made at all. 

A large part of this was down to his extreme sensitivity about his reputation, and his fear that it would take a huge hit when, having assumed command late, he would run into the malaria season and be blamed when things went wrong. The remainder of the campaign in the east seems to have floundered on his ongoing disagreements about this with Hastings.

Pemble notes that, even though Hastings’ was right to criticise Wood for being too cautious and moving too slowly, this had the unintended consequence of preventing disaster. If Wood had tried to push into the Bichakori pass, the one that Ochterlony was later on fortunate to avoid, the ambush that lay in wait there would almost certainly have cost many British and Indian sepoy lives.

Stopping reinforcements in Kumaun

The failure of the whole of the eastern campaign made the British incursion into Kumaun even more vital. If undefeated enemy forces in the east passed through Kumaun and swelled the main Gurkha army even further west, the British might lose the war.

The HEIC forces in this area intended to stop that happening were at first led by Lieutenant Colonel William Gardner. 

Map showing Kumaun in India
Kumaun, now in north eastern India (image: Google)

His advance to the capital of Kumaun, Almora, went over hills crested with snow and dense Himalayan cedar forests. The force then split as it moved towards Almora, with Captain Hyder Hearsey leading a diversionary unit. Hearsey was Gardner’s brother-in-law, a Eurasian soldier of fortune Pemble describes as being both flashy and rather shifty. 

On April 2, Hearsey first encountered the enemy, and the contempt he had formerly held for them and their army would quickly prove most unjustified. 

He had originally been tasked with guarding a series of ghats, stepped paths and possibly also mountain passes leading down to the Kali river. Instead, he developed his own particular form of mission creep, moving further into the province and even preparing to attack the province’s strongest fortress. 

Hearsey’s thinking was apparently influenced by a claim he said he had to nearby Dehra Dun, a valley at the time but an Indian city within it today. Hearsey believed his claim to the valley would be viewed more favourably if he had great success during the campaign in Kumaun. 

In the event, he stretched himself too thin to achieve either glory or to complete his basic task of guarding the ghats on the Kali. News came that a Gurkha force had crossed the Kali upstream of him and was in the process of building a stockade on one of the banks. It was led by Hasti Dal, brother of the commander of the main enemy force in the province.

Hearsey took 270 men to intercept Hasti Dal, incidentally a man he had reportedly met and saved from a bear during a survey of the upper Ganges in 1808. It was supposedly this familiarity with his opponent that saved Hearsey’s life when his unit was chased off and cut down by the larger Nepalese one. Hearsey himself, bearing a wound in his thigh, likely would have died as well, were it not for the intervention of Hasti Dal, who recognised and saved him. 

The Kosi river valley outside Almora
The Kosi river valley outside Almora (image: Rajarshi MITRA)

The defeat annoyed 37-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Jasper Nicolls, a government officer with the 14th Regiment of Foot who had just arrived to replace Gardner, due to his being more experienced. He said of Hearsey:

“I have never approved of Captain Hearsey’s grand views and great extension of his force … but I arrived too late to confine his exertions.”

Hearsey did not approve of Nicolls either, and Pemble says he never gave the lieutenant colonel credit for the victory he was about to win at the town of Almora. 

The attack on Almora started out as Hyder Hearsey’s excursion had been intended: by intercepting reinforcements led by Hasti Dal, who was killed in the process. The British and their sepoy troops then began fighting their way towards and into the town itself. 

Map showing Almora within India
Almora’s location within India today (image: Google)

Almora ran along a hillside and was about three-quarters of a mile in diameter, with one paved main street rimmed with houses which doubled as shops. It also had two forts, Fort Almora and Lal Mandi (later Fort Moira). 

Progress into the town was fiercely contested, with the Nepalese flinging themselves at the British in determined attacks, and the British and their sepoy troops flinging them back with equal determination. 

Pemble paints a vivid picture of what the fighting was like at this point in the campaign:

“The noise of the battle from Sitoli (a nearby peak) acted as a summons to the enemy in Fort Almora, who attempted to dislodge the advanced (British) post and battery at Dip Chand temple. They made a sortie and sprinted up the main street of the town. The wall of the temple enclosure was only five or six feet high. They lobbed stones over, with leather slings, and tried to vault. Several were shot or bayonetted on the wall, and one was killed actually inside the enclosure. The rest were beaten off.”

Almora India in the 1860s
Almora in the 1860s (image: The British Library - Photo 1060/(9))

Fighting continued into the night, lit up by the blast of muzzle barrels as the British and their sepoys held off more attacks in the darkness. 

Nicolls made a point of visiting his brave troops the next morning, April 25, and giving out bread, butter, warm tea and sweetmeats. Then he sent a force into the town’s palace, which lay between the British position in the temple and the Nepalese in Fort Almora. 

The enemy sprayed musket balls down on their attackers but the British managed to vault over the eight-foot-high wall and plunged inside, straight upstairs. A melee erupted within, with the British shooting or bayoneting up to 10 of the Gurkhas and sending the rest scrambling down the stairs and outside in search of safety. 

Street view of an open space in the mountainside town of Almora today, with a period building on the right and tightly clustered shops and/or houses visible in the background (image: Google)

Next, the British unleashed mortars and artillery on Almora Fort, effectively the Gurkhas’ Alamo for the town and the whole region of Kumaun.

And like the Alamo, it too did not hold. The artillery fire and mortars soon wore the Gurkhas down.

The campaign in Kumaun is noteworthy because it was Nicolls’ use of this artillery and mortars that helped bring it to a close. This would prove to be the case in the west too (more below.)

Also noteworthy was the fact that a Gurkha unit would later be recruited from Kumaun, going on to become 3 Gurkha Rifles. This too would occur in the western theatre of operations.

As John Parker puts it in his book:

“Seldom, if ever, in the history of warfare have two sides been so impressed by the other’s performance that they could not wait to merge.”

The Almora Bazaar in the 1860s
The Almora Bazaar in 1860s (image: The British Library - Photo 1060/(11))

The campaign in the west – Gillespie and Martindell

While the campaign in the east had Kathmandu and the Nepalese government as its target, the two columns in the west, led by Major General Rollo Gillespie and Major General David Ochterlony, sought to defeat the main Gurkha army. Its location this far from Kathmandu is explained by the Gurkhas’ defence of the outer limits of their empire. 

To track down and defeat the Gurkha army, the western columns concentrated their efforts in the provinces of Garhwal, shown on the map just below, and Sirmur, on which there will be more later. 

Within these areas there were a series of intersecting passes and strong points. One of these passes was Dehra Dun, the valley claimed by Hyder Hearsey, and the biggest strong point was the fortress of Kalanga. 

Map of Garhwal shown within north east India
Garhwal, where Major General Gillespie’s column operated during the war (image: Google)

It is no accident then that the battle for Kalanga was one of the major events of the war, while its principal protagonist, Major General Sir Hugh Robert Rollo Gillespie, was one of the most, if not the most, colourful characters of the whole campaign. Pemble refers to him as British India’s most controversial figure. He was a small man of Irish aristocratic heritage who had an outsized personality that pursued more than its fair share of women, drink and military glory.

One famous story about him involved a fight in which he killed six out of eight intruders who had broken into his quarters one night in San Domingo. He also once killed a man in a duel. 

Pemble attributes his mental instability to his over-consumption of alcohol, his megalomania and to a head wound sustained during his life of dash and danger. 

Outsized personality aside, he would meet his match at Kalanga. Gillespie’s own reconnaissance report serves as a useful description of it, and should have served as a warning against the rashness he would display there:

“The fort stands on the summit of an almost inaccessible mountain, and covered with an impenetrable jungle, the only approaches commanded, and swiftly stockaded.”

Gillespie admitted in the same report that it would be difficult to capture, but also that he was confident he could do so. 

The plan was for Gillespie’s column to split into sub-columns, with a main force carrying scaling ladders tasked with attacking the fort from adjacent table (flat) land, and multiple support groups ordered to attack from other directions. 

These three support groups set off hours before they were due to attack, following guides who were meant to lead them into position. The idea was for an artillery bombardment to commence on the fort early on the morning of October 31, 1814, which it did at dawn. Later that same morning, just before 10 o’clock, the bombardment was to cease for a number of minutes. This silence was to be followed by another simultaneous discharge of all the guns. 

This would be the signal that an attack by all elements of the column should commence two hours hence, at midday. The lead time of two hours was meant to give all elements of the attack time to finish getting into position. If it all worked as intended, the result would be attacks from the north, east, south and from the table land adjacent to the fort all converging on it at the same moment.

But in a series of events that, in retrospect, seem similar to the way badly timed artillery preparation went wrong in some places on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, piece by piece, the whole plan fell apart. 

To begin with, Gillespie lost patience with the preliminary bombardment when it either failed to do any real damage to Kalanga or missed the fort entirely. 

In response, he ordered the signal to be fired off early. He then confused things further by commencing his own attack one hour after the signal instead of the pre-arranged two.

Even if the support columns recognised the guns fired early as the signal, this spontaneous change in the attack plan guaranteed they would not be in position in time. They would therefore launch their diversionary attacks after Gillespie most needed them.

As if that was not bad enough, when Gurkhas inside the fort launched a sortie to counter-attack Gillespie’s main force on the land table, he sent his men in after them when artillery drove the the Gurkhas back. This left his men isolated and exposed. 

Pemble describes a scene where these British attackers, a unit of dragoons and pioneers, hauling knapsacks and scaling ladders, came upon some huts and a stockade about 70 yards from the fort. This was close enough for Gurkha reinforcements to spill over the walls of the fort and swamp the attacking British. A savage melee erupted in which bayonets and kukris came out and both sides rushed each other.  

Close up of a Gurkha in the British Army

In his book on the Gurkhas, Chris Bellamy gives a quote from the 1891 book ‘Travels in India and Nepal’ by Reverend Wood. This helps give a sense of the fierceness and fighting prowess of the Gurkhas, and what it might have been like for those British soldiers fighting with them just outside Kalanga:

“When we were engaged in the many wars in India, the Gurkha proved themselves our most formidable enemies, as since they have proved themselves most invaluable allies. Brave as lions, active as monkeys, and fierce as tigers, the lithe wiry little men came leaping over the ground to attack moving so quickly, and keeping so far apart from each other, the musketry was no use against them. When they came near the soldiers, they suddenly crouched to the ground, dived under the bayonets, struck upwards at the men with their Kukris, ripping them open with a single blow, and then, after having done all the mischief in their power, darting off as rapidly as they had come. Until our men learned this mode of attack they were greatly discomfited by their little opponents, who got under their weapons, cutting or slashing with knives as sharp as razors, and often escaping unhurt from the midst of bayonets. They would also dash under the bellies of the officers’ horses, rip them open with one blow of the Kukri, and aim another at the leg of the officer as he and his horse fell together.”

After only a few minutes, Pemble informs us the dragoons had sustained 62 casualties, four of which were fatalities, while the Gurkhas slipped back inside the fort. They then unleashed musket fire, arrows and stones on the next waves that came on, infantry with the King’s 53rd Regiment of Foot. A second confused melee erupted, though this time largely with missiles in the close confines around the fort. As if things were not as confused and dangerous enough, the huts outside then caught fire, sending up black smoke. 

Despite all of this, the British too displayed considerable bravery. However, British infantry that did manage to force their way through an opening in the outer wall just ended up running right into Gurkha artillery fire. Grapeshot ripped them to shreds. Then for good measure, the Gurkhas dashed out and disabled one of the British artillery pieces as well.

The Major General was apoplectically angry. Trying to egg on the next British attack wave, a yelling Gillespie ran straight into enemy fire with his sword drawn. The shot to his heart instantly killed him.

His body would later be preserved in spirits, causing a titter among the European ladies who would attend his funeral in India. According to Pemble, they said this made him “ … a pickle when alive, and a preserve when dead!”.

The Battle of Kalanga, during the Anglo-Nepalese War
An illustration of the Battle of Kalanga, which depicts Gillespie’s death at the bottom (image: The Gurkha Museum)

The assault on the fort continued without Gillespie, and made progress after a recently-arrived engineer figured out that the table land had actually not been the best place for the artillery. He instead placed the batteries to the north east of the fort, within 200 yards of Kalanga’s eastern walls. 

From here, firing finally breached the outer wall and a storming party rushed in. However, they were in for a nasty shock. A look inside revealed not a clear route to progress into the enemy liar, but a dropped floor with sharpened stakes along it. Anyone pushing into this risked impaling themselves and then being shot by defending Gurkhas.

British momentum ceased and a sniping war ensued as both sides struggled to swing the stalemate in their favour. When other attacks failed, a continuous bombardment meant to gradually wear down the defenders was the only option left, though it could only last as long as ammunition supplies did. 

At one point, a temporary suspension of violence allowed for the removal of bodies of dead British soldiers. In many cases, they had often been mutilated. 

Yet, while the Gurkhas showed brutality with the bodies of the dead, a mutual respect did begin to emerge. In ‘The Gurkhas’, John Parker relates this observation from James Fraser, whose brother William would later play a role in recruiting some of the first British Gurkhas: 

“They fought us in fair conflict like men, and in the intervals of actual combat, showed us a courtesy worthy of a more enlightened people.”

Another contemporary observer was John Ship, who was impressed by the extreme bravery of the Gurkhas. He noted that they would not run away despite their comrades falling all around them.

There was also at least one moment of unintentional levity amongst all the horror. Parker relates a story of an interaction that occurred in the midst of a British bombardment on the fort. 

At one point, a Gurkha was spotted waving his arms as he approached the British position, so the bombardment was paused in case this was a signal for surrender talks to commence.

In the event, no talking could occur with this particular Gurkha – at least, not at that moment. He came up to them pointing to his jaw, which had been damaged by musket fire. The British soldiers fetched a surgeon, who saw to him and helped him with his wound.

When he had been patched up, the British naturally expected he would surrender himself, and possibly discuss terms for the garrison as a whole. 

But no, the Gurkha said he was just going to go right back to fighting them again now, thank you very much. The British burst out laughing at his audacity.

They let him return to Kalanga though, and then both sides recommenced trying to kill each other.

Eventually, Kalanga did fall, with the British having sustained 763 casualties in the process, against 520 for the Gurkhas, and even then they were only able to take the fort because it was abandoned.

When the British stepped inside, they encountered a pitiful scene and were moved by the dead bodies and the groans of wounded who lay about. They did what they could for them, giving water to those who needed it.

With Gillespie dead, his column would now continue under the leadership of Major General Gabriel Martindell. It seems that a more extreme contrast could not have been found even if Hastings had been looking for one. Where Gillespie had been rash and extreme in his belligerence, Martindell turned out to be overly cautious. The expedition only continued to make progress because the enemy pulled back, from the town of Nahan west of Kalanga to the nearby fort of Jaithak.

Map showing Jaithak fort in north east India
Jaithak, not far from where the Battle for Kalanga had been fought, and the site of its own major battle (image: Google)

As with Kalanga, a protracted struggle ensued as both sides stubbornly wrestled for the position. 

In one example of the desperate fighting, Major John Ludlow and his men pushed the enemy up a mountainside across from Jaithak. Then reinforcements swelled the enemy ranks and Gurkhas poured down the ridge straight for them, with kukris drawn. Ludlow’s men went crashing down the mountainside, trying to control their descent by gripping at branches as they half ran and half fell to safety.

A similar incident occurred at a place dubbed Peacock Hill, where Ensign William Turner had to take command after his superiors were killed and wounded. After he too ordered a desperate retreat in the face of overwhelming numbers of Gurkhas plunging down right at his men, Turner himself would jump down a precipice to avoid capture. He ended up lost in the jungle for two days and in a story with echoes of Chris Ryan’s escape when the Bravo Two Zero mission went awry, Turner was discovered by a local peasant woman and her son. They fed him and led him back to British-held Nahan. 

Turner would always remember the old woman’s kindness and arranged to have pension money sent to her after the war was over. 

Goorkha Sepoy 1815
A Gurkha sepoy as he would have looked having come over to the British side during the Anglo-Nepalese War (image: The Gurkha Museum)

Towards the end of this part of the campaign, the idea of using Gurkhas first occurred to British commanders in this sector. 

On April 1, 1815, Martindell read a dispatch letter from his colleague Lieutenant Colonel Carpenter within which he said there simply were not enough troops to garrison the four forts the British had taken in the valley of Dehra Dun – Kalsi, Birat, Chamur and Jauntgarh. 

The British had been trying to raise units of locally-recruited troops (“irregulars”) as a part of their overall operations during the campaign. Martindell wanted 7,000 additional men, but only 6,000 had been found.

It was at this point that William Fraser, brother of the aforementioned James Fraser, suggested utilising Gurkha deserters. There were 500 of these men from Jaithak and another fort called Chaupal. 

Martindell agreed to the plan, and this is how another one of the very first Gurkha units came about. 

Furthermore, Fraser was close to another figure who would play a major role in the early history of the British Gurkhas: Lieutenant Frederick Young.

Illustration of Frederick Young, father of the Gurkhas
Frederick Young, who John Parker says was more deserving of the title of founding father of the British Gurkhas than anyone else (image: The Gurkha Museum)

Young was Gillespie’s aide-de-camp and the major general is said to have died in his arms at Kalanga. Like Fraser, Young was also much involved in the effort to use “irregulars”. John Parker relates a story in which Young was actually captured by the Gurkhas whilst leading irregular troops against them.  

The Gurkhas surrounded Young and asked him why he had not retreated from their attack along with his men. Young replied that he was an officer of the Honourable East India Company and he had not come all this way just to run away after seeing the enemy. It seems it was now the Gurkhas’ turn to laugh at a lone audacious Brit in their camp.

In captivity, he became friendly with the Gurkhas and after the war he would go on to establish the first official battalion of Gurkhas, formed from men taken from POW camps. This unit was the Sirmoor Rifles and would go on to become 2 Gurkha Rifles. 

As for Gurkhas who fought with the British around Jaithak, they do not seem to have been hugely engaged in direct military action there. Rather, their contribution to the fight seems to have come in the form of stockade building. Once again, they were well practiced at this, and the British were more than happy to learn from them. They also found the Gurkhas to be diligent and reliable comrades. 

This discovery would likewise be made further west, as Major General David Ochterlony also came to accept, and be impressed by, Gurkha troops.

Illustration of the Battle of Kalanga and the Death of Major General Gillespie
A close up of the Battle of Kalanga and the death of Gillespie (image: The Gurkha Museum)

The campaign in the west – Ochterlony

In the far west, Gurkha cooperation with the British began covertly, making it similar in a way to the development of the live-and-let-live system that evolved in World War 1.

Here, in the district of Sirmur, Major General David Ochterlony’s 6,000 fighting men and camp followers (18,000 in all) had chased the 5 – 7,000-man Gurkha army as it leap frogged from strongpoint to strongpoint. They first beat the enemy at Nalagarh, then at Ramgarh and other forts, then chased them to Mangu, and finally to the provincial capital, Malaun. 

Pemble points out that Governor General Hastings had expected this kind of cat-and-mouse warfare, and he had advised his commanders to take lightly equipped troops. Ironically, the chase had only been possible because Ochterlony had ignored him and taken a substantial amount of artillery support. With this, he blasted the Gurkhas out of one stronghold after another and built his own stockades to block their counterattacks. In the end, it would be his victory over the main Gurkha army that won the day, saving Hastings and his colleagues still floundering further to the east from ultimate defeat.

Map of The district of Sirmur in India
The district of Sirmur, where Ochterlony fought in 1814 to 1815 (image: Google)

Once again, as with British forces in Garhwal under Major General Martindell, Ochterlony had a little bit of help from the Gurkhas themselves.

Initially, this came in the form of collusion. Gurkhas who had surrendered to the British at the strongpoint in Ramgarh were permitted to rejoin the main Gurkha army at Malaun, upon which Ochterlony was slowly closing in. But when the Gurkhas arrived, the supreme Gurkha warlord Badakaji Amar Singh Thapa had their ears and noses sliced off as punishment for surrendering at Ramgarh. 

When news of this filtered out to another Gurkha garrison at Chambra, near Ramgarh, they arranged for the British to continue with perfunctory artillery fire even after they had surrendered themselves. This gave them time to send for their families at Malaun while keeping up the façade that they were still fighting. They certainly did not want to become the next targets of Amar Singh Thapa’s wrath. 

Portrait of the Gurkha army warlord Badakaji Amar Singh Thapa
The warlord Badakaji Amar Singh Thapa, the commander of the main Gurkha army in the west of their empire; not to be confused with Sanukaji Amar Singh Thapa, father of Nepalese Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa (image: National Museum of Nepal)

A large part of what drove the Gurkha warlord’s extreme cruelty, Pemble informs us, was at first his anger about an unnecessary war, as he saw it. His ire was stoked further by his government’s inclination to surrender after the fall of Kalanga. He saw himself as the sole guardian of the Gurkha Empire west of Nepal, and he would go to extreme lengths to defend it.

Yet his cruelty may also have been driving his own men away from him. As the months had passed and the campaign continued, more Gurkhas would end up on the British side. As well as the surrender of the garrison at Chamba, there were, by early April 1815, other Gurkhas in the British camp. Some of these were prisoners of war but others were simply deserters. The blockade of Malaun explains a lot of this, since lack of food and water left many with no choice but to leave, though presumably they may also have been driven away by Amar Singh Thapa’s extreme brutality. 

Whereas Ochterlony had formerly held a contemptuous view of the enemy soldiers, he was now being won over by the cheerfulness of diligence of the Gurkhas he had in his camp. It was suggested that the 324 men be formed into three companies of HEIC Gurkha troops. Ochterlony agreed, and this formation would eventually become 1 Gurkha Rifles. 

When they went into battle on April 15, 1815, it was officially the first time Gurkhas did so as mercenaries of the British. Pemble does not indicate they played a vital role in what was, essentially, the climactic battle of the war. However, the British certainly were impressed with their tight formations and their excellent discipline as they rolled into action as part of the larger machine that was Ochterlony’s division. 

Gurkhas in the British Army today on a training exercise
Gurkhas in the British Army today on a training exercise

Gradually the British forced their way closer and closer to Malaun. It was actually a less defensible position than the fort at Mangu, but Ochterlony had tricked Amar Singh Thapa into moving himself and his army there. 

Spies had informed the crafty Major General that the provincial capital was where the Gurkha warlord’s family and treasure were located. By appearing to threaten Malaun, but without actually blockading it (yet), Ochterlony had made his enemy rush to defend it.

Though in many ways, the old Major General may have got more than he bargained for, since Amar Singh fought tooth and claw for Malaun. At one point, a vicious back and forth erupted and one British officer, Captain Charles Showers, was stabbed to death. In this instance though, far from mutilating his body, Amar Singh Thapa’s men showed their respect for Showers, who had displayed extreme bravery and fighting prowess. They wrapped his body in cloth and lay it on leaves.

Things were about to get difficult for the Gurkhas too. Inside the fort at Malaun, Amar Singh’s best officer, Bhakti Thapa, prepared to make what would be a last stand. He left his son with the Gurkha warlord and swore he would either bring victory or die in the attempt. He took the elite core of the army, 2,000 men in scarlet-coloured broadcloth, and launched an April 16 early-morning raid.

On a pre-arranged signal of trumpets and Gurkha war cries, Bhakti Thapa’s men sprang out of the darkness and made straight for the British artillery. They were met with a wall of flying grapeshot that burst out of the cannons and scythed them down. 

But it was not over. The Gurkhas wore down the British with sniping, slowing down their reloading of the guns. Hoping this time to overwhelm the battery before the gunners could open fire, Bhakti Thapa’s men charged a second time. 

Pemble describes what happened next as the British just managed to open fire:

“ … again the hilltop shuddered and flared briefly into brilliance as (the Gurkhas) were blown away from the mouths of the guns.”

Incredibly, Bhakti Thapa’s men tried a third time, getting mere yards from the cannons before the guns discharged.

After another regroup, they were next attacking from a different direction, a furious melee erupting for two hours as each side relentlessly pressed the other. Then, all of a sudden, after the British had suffered 250 casualties and the Gurkhas twice that number, the fighting suddenly ceased. The Gurkhas just slipped away into the darkness. 

Malaun Fort Google Earth
A close up look at Malaun Fort in India on Google Earth
3-D maps show just how difficult the terrain was for the British to advance over (images: Google)

Very soon, the British discovered why: amongst the bodies of the dead lay Bhakti Thapa.

His body was given the same respectful treatment as Captain Showers’ corpse, being sent back to Malaun wrapped in shawls. Bhakti Thapa would be cremated later that night, with his widows committing ritual suicide by throwing themselves into the fire. Charles Showers was, at the same time, buried with full military honours in a nearby valley.

At this point, what remained of Amar Singh Thapa’s force gradually trickled away. When his main officers came to him and demanded either food or decisive action, they also deserted when they got neither. They left en masse, taking 1,600 of their men over to the British. 

Although Amar Singh stubbornly held out until early May with the 250 men he had left, the war was essentially over. 


Or was it?

The government in Kathmandu did enter talks with the British in May, 1815, but these talks would continue for the rest of that year because they failed to officially resolve the conflict.

The main sticking point was the fertile lands in the Terai that had helped trigger the whole war in the first place. The British were still slow to understand just how vital places like Butwal were to the Nepalese government, and when the proposed treaty was not signed, hostilities recommenced. 

Thus, David Ochterlony returned to Nepal to face his Gurkha opponents for a second time. As a thousand of them swamped the hills above Ochterlony’s camp on February 28, 1816, it is very likely he wished he was not.

They swept into the hamlet on the ridge above Ochterlony from four different directions and the major general quickly dispatched a reinforcement party to race up in support.

Then 2,000 more Gurkhas appeared, and Ochterlony sent more reinforcements up into the fight – around 2,000 of his own men. This force consisted of a battalion of sepoys, four companies from the 87th Regiment of Foot and artillery on the backs of elephants. 

In what sounds like a kind of replay of what had happened at Malaun the previous year, he ordered his artillery to pound the Gurkhas along the ridge. 

This time, though, they responded with their own artillery, narrowly missing Ochterlony and killing the man next to him who was holding his ink pot. 

The 87th Foot then mounted a bayonet charge on the Gurkhas attacking Sikhar Khatri village. Ensign John Shipp engaged in single combat with the Gurkha officer, Krishna Bahadur Rana, who had led the Parsa and Samanpur attacks in Kumaun during the first HEIC expedition into Nepalese territory. The Gurkha officer was, according to Shipp, very strong and protected by two shields, one of which he had tied around his waist. 

Shipp described a furious sword fight in which he eventually prevailed by making a feint as if to slice at Bahadur Rana’s feet, then sliced upwards across the Gurkhas chin when he moved his shield down.

The British then pushed the Gurkhas out of the village and formed a cordon around its edge to protect it.

The Nepalese side formed up in their own line across the ridge and continued pouring fire onto the village. 

Another mass battle ensued when the British advanced en mass on the Gurkhas, who responded by blowing up their own ammunition and tossing an artillery piece into a crevice before retreating to a nearby stockade. Pemble again references John Shipp, whose last impression as dusk came on was of the bodies of the battle’s wounded left behind, writhing in pain. 

By day’s end, the British had sustained 222 casualties to the Gurkhas’ 800. 

Beyond this point, the war really was over. After several more days of discussions, the Gurkhas gave up. In the end, the British did finally agree to relinquish much of the Terai, leaving open that vital source of funding for the Gurkhas’ government. Small portions of the Terai would, however, end up in British-controlled India.

Gurkhas in the British Army on the Parade Ground standing to attention
Modern Gurkhas being inspected on the parade ground (image: MoD)

The extreme eastern and western flanks of the Gurkha empire were broken off and also absorbed into British India. The present-day borders of Nepal exist as they do because of this. Kumaun, which lies just north west of Nepal today, was one of these areas, and so too was Dehra Dun, which did not end up as the property of Hyder Hearsey after all. 

Note that Pemble’s interpretation of all of this differs again from the Wikipedia account of the conflict. The taking of Kamaun was not, he argues, a reason for the war, but something the British decided to do after the conflict had started to make the ambitious enterprise more worthwhile.

Nepal itself though was not incorporated into the British Empire. After the Sino-Nepalese War had ended in 1792, Nepal had effectively been taken into China’s imperial orbit. For Britain to now escalate their border war with the Gurkhas into one of imperial expansion into Nepal itself would have invited military retaliation from China. Thus, even though it lost much of its own empire, Nepal remained independent, at least from Britain.

This last point is the most interesting because, although Nepalese independence meant there was no requirement to supply troops for the British Empire, that ended up happening anyway. 

In a tradition that lasts to this day, Britain began recruiting Gurkhas as mercenaries just as they had begun to do during the conflict. Wikipedia points out that they became the backbone of the British Indian army. 

The HEIC in turn would lose control of India in 1858, when the British government took control of its forces there in the wake of the 1857 Indian mutiny.

Nepal would go on to become a democracy in the 1950s while, at first, also remaining a monarchy. Democracy was suspended there twice, first in 1916 and again in 2005, while civil war eventually ended the monarchy itself in 2008. Up to that point, it had been the last remaining Hindu kingdom in the world. 

Today, Nepal is a republic, and one where its male citizens continue to serve in the British Army. 

To see a report on Gurkha recruitment for the British Army in recent years, click here.

And to learn more about the Anglo-Nepalese War and how it led to the recruiting of Gurkhas by the British, read ‘Britain’s Gurkha War: The Invasion of Nepal, 1814 – 16’ by John Pemble. 

The Gurkha War, the history of the Gurkhas within the British Army and the recruitment of Gurkhas in the modern day are also covered in ‘The Gurkhas: Special Force’ by Chris Bellamy and ‘The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers’ by John Parker.

Read this article for a brief summary of John Parker’s book along with several other military-themed works, and visit BFBS’s Gurkha page for more on the Gurkhas. 

Special thinks to The Gurkha Museum for help with fact checking for this article, and for the use of some of the images shown here. More information is available from the Gurkha Museum on their website, or by visiting the museum directly at its location in Winchester.

British Army Gurkhas and the Gurkha historical figure Prithvi Narayan Shah depicted as a statue

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