By Frank Jastrzembski
From October to December of 1814, the East India Company’s army invading Nepal was plagued by failure. The expedition was supposed to be a demonstration of Anglo strength, but it encountered an unanticipated determination from the Nepalese people. Yet one forgotten young British officer managed to save Britain from additional humiliation, albeit at great personal cost. Here’s his story.
BY 4 P.M. Major William Richards’ column was nearly out of ammunition. The situation was becoming desperate as more than a thousand kukri-wielding Nepalese warriors grew ever bolder in their attacks amid the slacking British gunfire. Richards quickly scribbled a note to his commander, Major-General Gabriel Martindell, and ordered two sepoys to shed their uniforms and sneak through the jungle to deliver the message in person to the English headquarters in Nahan. This was the despairing situation 600 soldiers of the East India Company faced on Peacock Hill on Dec. 27, 1814.
As the crisis worsened, Richards ordered his troops to conserve fire until the attackers were within point-blank range. Even the column’s surgeon, Mr. Darby, shouldered a weapon and helped to beat back each successive wave. During pauses in the fighting, pioneers frantically collected and piled stones to provide a defensive perimeter.
In the gathering dusk, the Nepalese mounted one last desperate effort to breach the English defences on Peacock Hill and crush the foreign invaders once and for all. The heroic deeds of 25-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Thackeray would prove to be the salvation of the column that day.
Thackeray was the archetypal British officer: Brave, selfless, and bold. And this kind of grisly fighting was hardly new to him. He had entered the Bengal Army in 1803 at the age of 14. Within two years, he’d risen to lieutenant. Young Thomas had already seen service in the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803–1805) under Lord Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) and previously served in operations in Bundelkhand (1807-1810). He had been praised for his “extraordinary valour” and was something of a local celebrity as an elephant hunter in Sylhet. A veteran of the gruesome fight at Kalunga in October, he was severely wounded in the right arm. Yet despite his debilitating injuries, he insisted on taking part in the operations surrounding Jaithak.
As the fighting on Peacock Hill raged, Thackeray asked permission from Richards to lead a counter attack against the next Nepalese onslaught. The exhausted major had no choice but to grant his subordinate’s wish. Thackeray gathered men from the Light Company of the 26th Native Infantry and waited for the enemy to close in on the buckling British line. When the Nepalese surged for the eighth time, the lieutenant led his company out past the piled stone defenses and crashed into the surprised attackers, driving them back down the hill.
As the fighting eased off with the falling darkness, the Englishmen and sepoys still clung to the hill thanks to Thackeray and his company, although all were nearly out of musket cartridges. Richards, believing that fresh ammunition and reinforcements were on the way, was devastated when he received a note from Martindell. It turned out that the cautious general had no intention of sending any additional men or supplies to Peacock Hill. Instead, he ordered Richards and his command to return immediately to Nahan, vacating their strong forward position. Another British column, under a Major Ludlow, had failed earlier in the day at Jaithak; Martindell did not want yet another debacle on his hands.
Richards and his men suddenly found themselves in a perilous predicament. They would be forced to stumble blindly back to Nahan in the dark only by passing single-file down a treacherous pathway through the hills, all the while being pursued by an enemy three times their number. Richards chose to delegate the role of rearguard to an unlucky few in order to cover the retreat of the column. The men who were selected would face certain death while safeguarding the rest of the column. Richards tapped the brave Thackeray and his light company for the forlorn mission. One could only wonder what sobering words were exchanged between Richards and Thackeray that night.
History records that the young lieutenant disregarded pleas from some of his men who urged him to withdraw with the main force. A 22-year-old ensign and devoted friend of Thackeray by the name of William Wilson volunteered to serve as his second-in-command. Another ensign named Turner also volunteered to stay. In all, 200 men were assembled, a large number of sepoys making up the tiny force. They would be facing nearly 1,500 determined attackers, all of whom were assured of the victory that was clearly within their grasp.
Thackeray formed his men into two squares on the heights overlooking the British escape route as the main force began its withdrawal. The retreating column formed a single line and made their way sluggishly down the path that skirted the cliffs. Darkness and the treacherous terrain complicated the maneuver. Meanwhile, Thackeray and Wilson positioned themselves in the square to the front while Turner commanded the formation to the rear. The men were ordered to fix bayonets and to hold until the last man — or until the column escaped. As they stalled for time, nearly 1,300 Nepalese soldiers appeared from the jungle.
The two squares fought ferociously in the dark to keep the enemy from overwhelming their fleeing comrades. The small force succeeded in holding back the tide and checking it for over an hour.
Encircled and with casualties mounting, Thackeray ordered his remaining men to fall back rather than face complete annihilation. More than half of the original 200 were already down, either killed or wounded, and the rest almost entirely overrun. The lieutenant massed the survivors and attempted to break through the swarms of Nepalese warriors that stood between his dwindling band and the path to Nahan.
Fighting was vicious, with men engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Thackeray was suddenly shot in the chest, and crumpled to the ground mortally wounded. Knowing he could not be moved, the lieutenant ordered Wilson to take command. The ensign was soon shot in the thigh and collapsed. Command fell next to Ensign Turner. He in turn ordered the few remaining men to disperse into the jungle and save themselves. Those not killed outright were captured by the enemy warriors.
A few days later, Thackeray’s body was recovered. In a show of respect, all the officers at Nahan, including Martindell, attended his funeral. The surviving sepoys, defying the rules of their caste, carried the body of their beloved leader with their own hands. Wilson and the other recovered dead were all buried in the same spot. Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Governor General of India, issued a special order honoring Thackeray “whose heroic spirit and personal example animated his little band to as daring an effort of zeal and courage as ever distinguished any portion of the Bengal Native Infantry, and, His Excellency may say, any description of troops whatever.”
A large marble obelisk was erected by the surviving officers in memory that still stands in Nahan to this day.
The man who ordered Thackeray to remain with the rearguard, Major William Richards, would be promoted to colonel and later general and receive the KBE. He died in 1861.
Frank Jastrzembski has a passion for researching and writing about underappreciated wars and soldiers of the 19th century. He currently contributes to a number of magazines, journals, and online publications and is a member of the Victorian Military Society. He is working on his first book titled, Valentine Baker’s Spartan Stand: A tarnished English soldier’s redemption at Tashkessen, 1877. Follow him on Twitter @fjastrzembski10 or visit his website frankjastrzembski.weebly.com.
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