The Battle of Nalapani is considered among the most important battels in history of both Nepal and Britain. It was the first battle of the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814–1816, fought between the forces of the British East India Company and Nepal.
Britain has always wanted to trade through Nepal and expand its business to Tibet and East Asia. So they made constant efforts to persuade the Nepalese Government to allow for trade. Nepalese government was totally aware of what East India Company was doing in India, and they decided not to allow East India Company to trade through Nepal at any cost.
In 1814 the long-standing diplomatic disputes between the Kingdom of Nepal and East India Company caused due to the expansionist policies of both parties reached its extremities and finally descended into open hostility. The British East India Company sought to invade Nepal not just to secure the border and to force Government of Nepal to open trading routes to Tibet, but also as a geopolitical necessity to ensure the foothold of the East India Company in the Indian sub-continent.
The initial British campaign Strategy was to Assault On two fronts across a frontier extending over 1,500 kilometres (930 miles), in the Sutlej river from the west to the Koshi River in the east. So the force was divided into four groups, two columns towards eastern Nepal through Tarai towards the Kathmandu Valley and the remaining two columns towards western Nepal. The western columns faced the Nepalese army under the command of Amar Singh Thapa.
The division at Meerut shaped under Gillespie with 3,513 men marched straight to Dehra Dun, which had been the principal town in the Dun Valley. After destroying the forts at the valley, Gillespie marched Towards the Sutlej so as to isolate Amar Singh and force him to negotiate.
Balbhadra Kunwar with about 600 men including women and children was commander of the Nepalese defence army at Dehradun, When heard the approach British Army quickly moved his force to the Nalapani hill for better defence and to prepare for war.
The Nalapani fort was situated on a 150–180m hill covered with heavy forest. The water source that the Nepalese force depended was outside the fort. This was the only weakest part of the Nalapani fort.
It wasn’t easy for the British army to get to Nalapani Fort because of the dense forest and the irregular shape of the fort, having been built to conform to the shape of the ground.
When the British army arrived in the valley they figured out the walls of the fort was not completely build and the Nepalese army was trying to improve its defence system. Though the construction of the wall was incomplete, still the walls were higher enough to stop British army getting over it without ladders.
Each place where the fort was approachable or believed weak by its defenders was bolstered by stockades made from stone and stakes that were stuck to the floor. These were coated by cannons which were set where they are effective, and also a wicket gate which flanked a huge region of the wall has been left open but cross-barred, to ensure it is hard for assaulting soldiers to input.
First Attack on Nalapani
On arrival, the British reconnoitred the fort and began planning for an attack. Two 12-pounder guns, four 5.5-inch howitzers, and four six-pounders were carried up the hill on elephants. The British secured the table-land without any Nepalese resistance and the gun batteries were ready to open fire on the fort on the morning of 31 October, at a distance of 550 m.
The first British attack on Nalapani took place on 31 October, a day before the official declaration of war. It was planned to storm the fort from four sides. The storming party was formed into four columns, support by a reserve of 939 men, under Major Ludlow, the first, 611 men under Colonel Carpenter, the second,363 men under Captain Fast, the third: 541 men under Major Kelly, and the forth: 283 men under Captain Campbell. It was intended to attack Nepalese from different sides at the same time so that they could divert the attention of the Nepalese and prevent them from concentrating their fire on any one point, allowing the attackers to gain an advantage.
Heavy boarding by the Bal Bhadra’s cannons positioned along largest part of the wall and heavy showers of arrows and of stones rained down on the assailants forced Gillespie’s men to fall back. Even women inside the fort threw stones, arrows and missiles exposing themselves to British fire. Seeing this British general Gillespie decided to lead the army himself which cost him his life. He was shot to death by a Nepalese marksman while he was cheering his men, waving his hat in one hand, and his sword in the other.
The General’s death forced the British to temporarily cease their attack and withdraw. Total British casualties for the day were 32 dead and 228 wounded, some of whom subsequently died.
Second British Attack on Nalapani
Not having anticipated this kind of determined resistance from the Nepalese, Colonel Sebright Mawbey, that was following in command of the British troops in Nalapani, retired to Dehra before 24 November to ensure heavy firearms could arrive from Delhi. Following the reinforcements had arrived, the fighting resumed on 25 November and for three times that the fort was bombarded before, at noon on 27 November, a huge part of northern wall eventually gave off. The British forces, visiting their chance, double attempted to charge in the violation that afternoon but were repelled and trapped into an exposed place just beyond the wall. An effort was then made to fire among the light firearms into the breach to give obscuration with gun smoke to pay a further assault, but that also proved ineffective. The afternoon finished with the British attack force withdrawing after spending two hours trapped out the wall, exposed to heavy fire in the garrison, and having suffered considerable losses. British casualties for the day amounted to 37 dead and above 443 wounded.
Third British Attack and Nepalese Withdrawal
When British failed to capture Nalapani Fort besides their two successive straight forward attacks, they resorted to attrition tactics.
On 28 November, rather than starting another infantry attack, the fort was surrounded from all areas and put under siege. This averted Nepalese reinforcements from getting into the fort. Mawbey then ordered his gunners to fire in the fort. In addition, he sent scouts to track down and cut the fort’s only water resource located outside of the Nalapani. The water situation was made worse for the Gurkha soldiers. Also, more than hundreds of earthen vessels filled with consumable water, stored in a portico, were destroyed in the bombardment.
The southern and northern walls of this fort were razed to the floor. The constant bombardment disabled all the cannons set up on the fort’s battlements. British managed to drop three of those four cannons beyond the fort, while others in the inside. Other cannons the Nepalese owned were unusable, with either been handicapped by misfiring during past strikes or because they were buried beneath rubble from the British bombardment. They continued to withstand with gunfire and rocks, but the couple of individuals who stayed in the fort became distressed and couldn’t hold on any more. That night, despite risks to their property and person, desertion became uncontrolled.
By the following day, 29 November, the fort’s water supply had been exhausted. The walls of the fort had also collapsed and Balbhadra Kunwar was exposed, leading to further casualties among the Nepali troops. Seeing the disheartened state of men, the Captain and other officers asked them to sign a pledge to fight to the last. Eighty-four soldiers signed.
Thus, after 4 days of thirst and continuous bombardment, on 30 November 1814, Capt. Balbhadra emerged from the fort with a sword in his hands along with his 70 survivors roared to the British – “You could have never won the battle but now I myself voluntarily abandon this fort. There is nothing inside the fort other than dead corpses of the children and women”.Later on the night Capt. Balabhadra Kunwar abandoned the Nalapani fort with about 70 of his remaining men to the nearer hills. Somehow British figured out Nepeales evacuation and attacked them but Nepalese resisted the attack and successfully made their way through the besieging force to Dwara in the morning.
When the British entered the fort, then discovered around 90 Dead bodies of men and women as well as a number of wounded lying around the fort.
After the evacuation, Captain Balabhadra sent a letter to the British containing a message as “We had handed over to you your dead and injured soldiers on your request. We now request you to hand over our injured soldiers to us.” The British treated 180 wounded Gurkhas as they promised on their letter back to Balbhadra.
After a long battle between Nepal and Britain the East and west the Anglo-Nepales war came to a conclusion. A peace treaty was signed on Dec 2, 1815, between the King Girvan Yuddha Vikram Shah and the British East India Company, known as the Sugauli Treaty.
Balbhadra Kunwar was born on 30 January 1789 to father Chandrabir Kunwar in Kavrepalanchowk District of Nepal. His mother name was Ambika Devi and she was a sister of Kaji ( title and position used by the nobility of the Gorkha Kingdom and the Kingdom of Nepal between 1768–1846 more) Ranajor Thapa and daughter of Bada(Elder) Amar Singh Thapa.
His name is constituent of two Sanskrit words Bala and Bhadra meaning strength and auspicious. Balabhadra Kunwar is a national hero who was highly praised for his military skill for the defence of the Nalapani fort.
Balabhadra Kunwar didn’t die in Anglo-Nepales war. He was killed by Afghan artillery on 13 March 1823 in Naushera in Sikh-Afghan war of 1822, Afghanistan.
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A war memorial was erected by British East India Company later on at Nalapani in honour to bravery and commitment of the Gorkhalis and Capt. Balbhadra Kunwar to the motherland.
Capt. Balbhadra Kunwar is often wrongly referred as Bulbuder Singh or Balbudder Thapa by some peoples.
Note: The information and data s related to First, Second and third British attacks on Nalapani are quoted from Wikipedia page Battle of Nalapani.
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The word Gurkha is originated from the village in Nepal Gorkha so Gurkhas are often called Gorkhas too.