THE ANGLO-NEPALESE WAR, NEPAL, 1814
Major-General Rollo Gillespie
Memorial Statue, Town Square, Comber, County Down
Eight miles south-west of Belfast, at the northern end of Strangford Lough, stands the small town of Comber, with its population of nine thousand. Nowadays its most prominent child is probably Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic, but in the 19th Century it would undoubtedly have been the Flashman-esque figure of General Rollo Gillespie, the man whose statue dominates the town square. He may have been a brawler, seducer, duellist and fraudster, but he was also hailed as one of the great fighting soldiers of the Georgian era, and one can see why.
Rollo Gillespie was born in Comber in 1766, the only son of Robert Gillespie, and educated in London. He was due to go to Cambridge, but chose instead to join the 3rd Irish Horse as a cornet (would now be 2nd-lieutenant) in 1783. Three years later he met Annabel Taylor, of Grange in County Dublin. After a courtship of only a few weeks they conducted what has been described as a “clandestine” marriage, from which we can assume it was met with disapproval. Shortly after the marriage Gillespie was a second in a duel between two fellow officers. After the duel had finished, with neither party injured, Gillespie got into an argument with his principle’s opponent, challenged him to a duel on the spot, and killed him. He and his wife fled to Scotland, to her family. All in all, an eventful twenty-one years.
Eventually he returned to Dublin to be tried for murder, but, before a jury which contained several army officers, got away with a verdict of “justifiable homicide”. His family and friends wanted him to settle down on the family estates, but he could not sustain it. In 1792 he purchased a Lieutenantcy in the 20th Light Dragoons (not the most prestigious regiment) and sailed for Jamaica, leaving his wife with his mother in Belfast. Even on the voyage out he managed to secure some drama, being shipwrecked off Madeira, where he then contracted yellow fever. In the Caribbean he saw action against the French on Haiti, including an incident where he swam ashore to demand the surrender of French garrison at Port-au-Prince. He was captured, and allegedly only escaped execution as a spy because the fort’s commander was a fellow-Freemason. Why the French should execute a British officer is not clear.
By 1796 he had been promoted to Major and appointed commander of the town of St. Domingo on Haiti. While there a group of eight brigands/rebels broke into his house and killed one of his servants Gillespie, in his nightgown, attacked the eight with his sword, killing six and forcing the other two to flee.
By 1802 Gillespie was back in England, in command of the 20th Lights, when he was accused of embezzlement and fraud by one of his own officers, Major Allan Cameron. He was eventually cleared of all charges in 1804 and Cameron, who had previously been tried by Gillespie in Jamaica for mutiny, was discharged from service. Gillespie was, however, despite the court-martial’s judgment, forever impecunious, and in the same year he transferred to a less expensive regiment, the 19th Light Dragoons, which he joined in India after travelling overland.
Trouble seems to have been tracked Gillespie like a demon lover. Within days of his taking command at Arcot in Southern India he received news of a mutiny at nearby Vellore. Gathering what troops he could immediately, he set off for Vellore, arriving to find a small group of survivors surrounded on a section of the ramparts. Gillespie used a rope to get up the walls, and led the survivors in a bayonet charge, seizing enough time for further reinforcements to arrive and relieve the siege.
In 1811 Gillespie found himself in Java, fighting the French. He was in command of the forces which took Fort Cornellis, and was then appointed commander of the occupied island.
It was, therefore, as an experienced and famed general that he was ordered to command a column as the East India Company and the Governor-General, Lord Moira, decided to invade Nepal.
By 1814 Nepal had been irritating the British for over a decade. The Nepalese had been extending their kingdom and spheres of influence, leading to arguments with not only the British, but also the Chinese and the Sikhs. Conscious of potential threats from the Sikhs to the west and the Mahratta Confederacy to the south, the British (who were also expanding their influence) were wary of Nepalese expansionism. By 1814, with concerns about a possible united front being formed between the three Indian powers, the British were prepared to take action against Nepal.
The ostensible region was a town called Bulwal, a trading town in the south of Nepal, on a flatlands known as the Terai. Bulwal had been a fiefdom of Oude (now Awadh), so when the British annexed Oude in 1801 they also claimed Bulwal. The Nepalese claimed The Terai, and in 1804 occupied Bulwal, dismissing the British claim to it. Cue a reason for war, should it ever be needed.
Commercial considerations were also a factor, involving, bizarrely, a goat. The British wanted access to Tibet, to trade the high-quality wool produced by there by a variety of the Pashmina goat (the wool now known as cashmere). Access to Tibet involved going through Nepal, and Nepal refused that access to British traders. Add wounded pride and upset merchants to the Bulwal grievance, and stir in the apprehensions about a Gurkha-Sikh-Mahratta alliance. Result, invasion.
The British army was divided into four columns, one commanded by General Rollo Gillespie, and in early October 1814 the invasion began- even though war had yet to be officially declared. Gillespie’s column was the first to see action, when he attempted to take the fortress at Nalapani, north east of Dehra Dun , which he could not afford to bypass and leave occupied in his rear as he progressed northwards.
On the morning of 31st October (the day before the official declaration of war) Gillespie split his force into four columns, with plans for simultaneous attacks. Communications went awry however, and when the signal was given only two of the columns were ready for the assault. The defenders’ fire could therefore be more concentrated on those attacking, and Gillespie could see the assault faltering. He left his observation point in the artillery lines and moved to the front of the infantry line, leading men of the 53rd Regiment as reinforcements, waving his sword in an attempt to rally his havering troops. As he encouraged his men forward he was shot through the heart and killed instantly. Thus ended a colourful career in a most appropriate way, leading his men from the front, possibly the only British general to be killed in action before a war had actually been declared., brave and contrary at the same time.
Gillespie’s death led to a withdrawal, and the fort did not fall for another month, when it was abandoned following an extended siege. The war dragged on in various stages for another two years, when the Nepalese eventually sued for peace. Nepal lost a considerable amount of land, including Nalapani, Dehra Dun, Simla and Darjeeling, but retained its independence as a useful buffer state between British India and China. It never again threatened British interests in the region, instead providing the British with a steady supply of reliable troops, the Gurkha Regiments. The British merchants attempts to establish themselves in the shawl wool trade failed when they found that the Tibetans would trade only with the Sikhs.
Rollo Gillespie got his statue in Comber, and became a legend. One has to doubt whether he really tried to rally his Indian sepoys and men of the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment with the cry, “One shot more for the honour of Down” – after all, most would never have known where Down is. It makes a good story though, as much of his life does. It may not all be true, bits may be exaggerated, but his exploits at Vellore are acknowledged, and he died fighting for his country, in true heroic fashion.