Gurkha War

Gurkha War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Anglo-Nepalese War

caption=Balbhadra Kunwar, Gurkha commander of the Anglo-Nepalese War
result=British Victory, Sugauli Treaty
commander1=Francis Rawdon-Hastings
David Ochterlony
Rollo Gillespie†
Bennet Marley
John Sullivan Wood
commander2=Bhimsen Thapa
Amar Singh Thapa
Ranjur Singh Thapa
Bhakti Thapa†
strength1=34,000 at height
The Gurkha War (18141816), sometimes called the Gorkha War or the Anglo-Nepalese War, was fought between Nepal and the British East India Company as a result of border tensions and ambitious expansionism. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.

Historical background

For centuries the three kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhadgaon, (now Bhaktapur) – had quarrelled amongst themselves and were too concerned with internal rivalry to pay attention to any potential danger from without. This insularity however had by 1769, enabled Prithvi Narayan Shah the king of Gorkha to conquer the valley, forming the foundations for the modern Kingdom of Nepal.

In 1767, a request to the British for help by the traditional valley kings under threat from Gorkha expansion resulted in an ill-equipped and ill-prepared expedition numbering 2,500 lead by Captain Kinloch. The expedition was a disaster – the Gorkha army easily overpowered those who did not succumb to malaria or desertion. This ineffectual and token British force not only provided the Gorkhas with firearms but also filled them with suspicion, causing some to underestimate their future opponents.

This conquest of the Kathmandu valley was only the beginning of an explosion of Gorkha power throughout the region. The Gorkha armies had overrun all of eastern Nepal by 1773 – by 1788 Gorkha forces had also annexed some western portions of Sikkim. In the west, all rulers as far as the Kali River had submitted or been replaced by 1790. Farther west still, the Kumaon region and its capital Almora, had also succumbed to the Gorkhas.

To the north however, aggressive raids into Tibet (concerning a long-standing dispute over trade and control of the mountain passes), finally forced the Chinese emperor in Peking to act. In 1792 he sent a huge army, expelling the Nepalese out of Tibet to within 5km of their capital at Kathmandu. Acting regent Bahadur Shah, (Prithvi Naryan’s son), appealed to the British Governor-General of India, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord Moira for help. Anxious to avoid confrontation with the Chinese, Lord Moira sent Captain Kirkpatrick as mediator, but before he arrived the war with China had finished. The Nepalese were forced into signing a humiliating treaty revoking their trading privileges in Tibet and requiring them to pay tribute to Peking every 5 years.

The Tibet affair had postponed a previously planned attack on the Kingdom of Garhwal, but by 1803 the raja of Garhwal had also been defeated – he was killed in the struggle and all his land annexed. Further west, general Amar Singh Thapa overran lands as far as the Kangra – the strongest fort in the hill region – and laid siege to it (although by 1809, Ranjit Singh the ruler of the Sikh state in the Punjab, had intervened and drove the Nepalese army east of the Sutlej river).

The British were also expanding their sphere of influence. The recent acquisition of the Nawab of Awadh's lands by the British East India Company brought the region of Gorakhpur into the close proximity of the raja of Palpa – the last remaining independent town within the Gorkha heartlands. Suspicion of the raja’s collusion with the British led first to his imprisonment by the Gorkhas, then to his assassination. Bhimsen Thapa the Nepalese Prime Minister (18061837) installed his own father as governor of Palpa leading to serious border disputes between the two powers.

These disputes arose because there was no fixed boundary separating the Gorkhas and the British. A border commission imposed on Nepal by the Governor-General failed to solve the problem. Gorkha raids into the flatlands of the Tarai (a much prized strip of fertile ground separating the Nepalese hill country from India) increased tensions – the British felt their power in the region and their tenuous lines of communication between Calcutta and the northwest were under threat. Since neither side had any idea where the border was supposed to be, confrontation between the powers was inevitable.


While the Gorkhas had been expanding its empire – Sikkim in the east, Kumaon and Garhwal in the west and into the British sphere of influence in Oudh in the south – the British East India Company had consolidated its position in India from its main bases of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. This British expansion had already been resisted in parts of India culminating in the Mahratta Wars, as well as in the Punjab where Ranjit Singh had his own empire-building aspirations. It was therefore imperative to the British that the Gorkha war was quickly and successfully concluded.

When the Kathmandu "durbar" solicited Gorkha chiefs’ opinions about a possible war with the British, Amar Singh was not alone in his opposition, declaring that – "They will not rest satisfied without establishing their own power and authority, and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed." This contrasts sharply with the prime minister Bhimsen Thapa – " ... our hills and fastness are formed by the hand of God, and are impregnable." The Gorkha prime minister realised the Nepalese had several advantages over the British including knowledge of the region and recent experience fighting in the mountainous terrain. However, the British had numerical superiority and far more modern weapons.

First campaign

The initial British campaign was to attack on two fronts across a frontier of more than 1,500km (930miles). In the eastern front, Major-General Bennet Marley and Major-General John Sullivan Wood, would lead their respective columns across the Tarai towards the heart of the valley of Kathmandu. Further east, on the Sikkim border, Captain Latter led a small force in a primarily defensive role. Major-General Rollo Gillespie and Colonel David Ochterlony commanded the two columns in the western front. These columns were pitted against the cream of the Gorkha army under the command of Amar Singh Thapa. All four columns were mainly made up of Indian troops, though Ochterlony’s was the only column without a single British infantry battalion. The Commander-in-Chief of the British forces was Lord Moira.

The campaign started badly. A day before the Governor-General officially declared war on 1 November 1814, General Gillespie had been killed trying to take the weakly defended fort at Kalanga at the Battle of Nalapani. In the interval before Gillespie’s successor Major-General Gabriel Martindell took over command, Colonel Sebright Mawby managed to take Kalanga by cutting off its water supplies. Soon after Martindell arrived however, the British suffered further setbacks at the hands of Ranjur Singh Thapa (Amar Singh Thapa’s son), at the Battle of Jaithak. Martindell eventually reduced Jaithak to rubble with his guns but, even with vastly superior numbers, he failed to occupy it for fear of counter-attack.

The generals in the east mirrored this pusillanimity with both Wood and Marley reluctant to face the enemy. After two attempts to advance on Butwal, Wood, with superior numbers, feebly retreated and took up a defensive posture at Gorakhpur. His compatriot, Major-General Marley, whose 8,000 strong force was supposed to provide the main striking force on Kathmandu, showed even more timidity. After his advance posts at Samanpore and Persa were wiped out due to lack of support, he was reduced to abject inactivity and, on 10 February 1815, "unable to endure the irksomeness of his situation ... took the sudden and extraordinary resolution in leaving the camp". He had deserted!

The company’s hopes now rested on the abilities of Colonel Ochterlony’s force of around 10,000 troops. Unlike the other generals, Ochterlony showed determination, skill and an ability to adapt to the circumstances. Although there were no initial decisive encounters, Ochterlony slowly pushed Amar Singh’s army higher and higher into the mountains until, in April 1815, the Gorkha general had been forced into his main fort at Malaun.

The ensuing Battle of Dionthal was the decisive moment in the campaign. Attempts by Amar Singh’s most able lieutenant, Bhakti Thapa, to dislodge the British from the Dionthal ridge overlooking the Malaun fort, failed. Although Bhakti Thapa was killed in the action on 16 April, the fort held out for a while. However, when news arrived announcing that Almora had fallen to Colonel Jasper Nicolls’ 2,000 strong force of regular sepoys on 26 April, Amar Singh Thapa realized the hopelessness of the situation and, threatened by the British guns, surrendered. In recognition of their heroic defences of their respective forts of Malaun and Jaithak, Ochterlony allowed Amar Singh and his son Ranjur (who had joined him at Malaun) to return home with their arms and men. During the campaign Ochterlony was promoted to major general.

econd campaign

After Ochterlony’s successful campaign, the Kathmandu durbar failed to ratify the peace agreement signed on 28 November 1815. This reticence to sign soon led to the second campaign. Unsurprisingly, Lord Moira placed Ochterlony in command of the 20,000 strong invasion force of Nepal.

While General Ochterlony advanced towards Makwanpur, simultaneous operations by the chogyal, or king, of Sikkim would drive the Nepalese army from the east. Amar Singh Thapa would take no part in the campaign – he had retired to a temple, dying shortly after the war ended.

After the decisive Battle of Makwanpur on 28 February 1816 and the fall of the neighbouring fort of Hariharpur (after Ranjur Singh abandoned his post), the situation became very critical for Nepal. The British threat on the capital Kathmandu compelled the Nepalese to ratify the treaty without any further delay.


The Treaty of Sugauli

The Treaty of Sugauli was ratified on 4 March 1816. According to the treaty, Nepal would lose Sikkim, the territories of Kumaon and Garhwal, and most of the lands of the Tarai; the British East India Company would pay 200,000 rupees annually to compensate for the loss of income from the Tarai region. However, the Tarai lands had proved difficult to govern and some of them were returned to Nepal later in 1816, simultaneously abolishing the annual payments.

The Mechi river became the new eastern border and the Mahakali river, the western boundary of Nepal. Kathmandu was also forced to accept a British Resident – a hateful symbol of its reduction to client status in relation to the British administration in Calcutta.

Demise of the protagonists

Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, in collusion with the queen regent Tripura Sundari, remained in power despite the defeat of Nepal. Other ruling families, particularly the Pandes, decried what they saw as Bhimsen Thapa’s submissive attitude towards the British. The prime minister however had been able to retain power by maintaining a large, modernised army and politically dominating the court during the minority of King Rajendra Bikram Shah, (reigned 18161847). Additionally, he was able to freeze out the Pandes from power by appointing members of his own family into positions of authority.

When queen Tripura Sundari died in 1832, Bhimsen Thapa began to lose influence. In 1833, Brian Hodgson became British resident, openly favouring Bhimsen Thapa’s opponents, and in 1837, the king announced his intention to rule independently depriving the prime minister and his nephew of their military powers. After the eldest son of the queen died, Bhimsen Thapa was falsely accused of attempting to poison the prince. Although acquitted, the Thapas were in turmoil. When the head of the Pande family, Rana Jang Pande, became prime minister, he had Bhimsen Thapa re-imprisoned. This final episode proved too much – Bhimsen Thapa committed suicide in August 1839.

For his part, David Ochterlony received thanks of both Houses of Parliament and became the first officer in the British East India Company to be awarded the GCB. Lord Moira also reinstated him as Resident at Delhi and he lived in the style appropriate to a very senior figure of the Company. However, after Lord Moira left India – succeeded by Lord Amherst as Governor-General in 1823 – Ochterlony fell out of favour.

In 1825 the Raja of Bharatpur died and the six year old heir to the throne, whom Ochterlony supported, was usurped by his cousin Durjan Sal. When Durjan Sal failed to submit to Ochterlony’s demands to vacate the throne, the British general prepared to march on Bharatpur. He did not receive the backing of the new Governor-General however, and after Amherst countermanded his orders, Ochterlony resigned – just as Amherst had anticipated. This episode badly affected the ailing general who died shortly after on 14 July 1825. Soon after, Amherst was himself obliged to do precisely what Octherlony had prepared to do, and laid siege to Bharatpur.

A 165-foot-high memorial was erected in Calcutta in his memory; however, Sir David Ochterlony’s greatest legacy is the continuing recruitment of Gurkhas into the British and Indian armies.

Gorkha recruitment

David Ochterlony and the political agent William Fraser were quick to recognise the potential of Gorkha soldiers in British service. During the war the British were keen to use defectors from the Gorkha army and employ them as irregular forces. His confidence in their loyalty was such that in April 1815 he proposed forming them into a battalion under Lieutenant Ross called the Nasiri regiment. This regiment, later to become the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles, saw action at the Malaun fort under the leadership of Lieutenant Lawtie. Lawtie reported to Ochterlony that he "had the greatest reason to be satisfied with their exertions".

About 5,000 men entered British service in 1815, most of whom were not ‘real’ Gorkhas but Kumaonis, Garhwalis and other Himalayan hill men. These groups, eventually lumped together under the term "Gurkha", became the backbone of British Indian forces.

As well as Ochterlony’s Gurkha battalions, William Fraser and Lieutenant Frederick Young raised the Sirmoor battalion, later to become the 2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles; an additional battalion, the Kumaon battalion was also raised eventually becoming the 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles. None of these men fought in the second campaign.


*Gould, Tony. "Imperial Warriors – Britain and the Gurkhas", 2000,Granta Books ISBN 1-86207-365-1

External links

* [ History of Nepal]
* [ Anglo Nepalese War]
* [ Indian-Nepalese border; The Tarai region]
* [ The Sugauli Treaty]

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