Robert Gillespie was one of the legends of his age. During his life (1766-1814), the Northern Irishman fought in all manner of arenas and participated in some amazing events. He stared death in the face many times - and came out on top much more frequently than his enemies.
In the final part of our look at Gillespie’s life, we pick up the story after he had put down a mutiny in India. Frank Jastrzembski explains. Part one of the story is available here.
After being stationed in India for a number of years, Gillespie then became involved in action further south - on the Indonesian island of Java.
With the planned British invasion of the French controlled island of Java in 1811, Gillespie was given command of a division of the 12,000 strong invasion force. The force was tasked with defeating a combined force of roughly 17,000 French, Dutch, and local troops under General Janssens. The British invasion force successfully managed to land, but was plagued by the spread of disease from the tropical climate, something that led to the loss of a quarter of the force before any fighting began.
Colonel Gillespie distinguished himself with rapid tactics and extreme boldness in all the subsequent actions he became engaged in Java. In the attack on the impregnable lines at Cornelis in August, he personally led the surprise attack, and in the process killed a French colonel in hand-to-hand combat. After being wounded in the breakthrough, he collapsed from complete exhaustion amid the momentum of the French retreat. His staff officers came to his relief, but Gillespie wanted no part of it. With indomitable will, he regained consciousness and cut a horse loose from a captured gun limber. He then spurred his horse toward the retreating enemy soldiers and relentlessly gave chase.
After the British occupation of Java, Gillespie again grew restless with the monotony of garrison duty. He voiced his differences toward Stamford Raffles, the Lieutenant Governor of Java, over the policies put into place in occupied Java. Gillespie requested transfer from Java and returned to service in India.
Promoted to major general, Gillespie was in command of the 2nd Division when the East India Company found itself at war with the growing power of the Gorkha Kingdom in 1814. The East India Company, tired of the “nibbling encroachments and conquests” against the British protected Indian states and trans-Himalayan trade, chose to act.
The initial British strategy was devised by the Commander-in-Chief and Governor-General in India, Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings, veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Hastings ordered 21,000 British and Indian troops to penetrate the 600-mile border of the Gorkha Kingdom that stretched across the Himalayas and bordered northern India and capture the capital of Kathmandu. Two of the four columns, under David Ochterlony and Rollo Gillespie, were ordered to penetrate the far western hills and cooperate to destroy the main Gurkha army, under Amar Singh Thapa, commonly referred to as the ‘Living lion of Nepal’.
The approximately 4,500 British and Indian infantrymen of the Gillespie column needed to first dislodge the defenders at the fortress of Kalunga, located five miles from the town of Dehra. A force of approximately 600 Gurkha men, women, and children garrisoned the small fortress. What these defenders lacked in experience they compensated for in courage. The stockade was under the command of Balbuhadur Sigh, a man specially selected for his intrepidness and valor. Gillespie wrote on October 28, “Here I am, with as stiff and strong a position as ever I saw, garrisoned by men who are fighting pro aris et focis in my front, and who have decidedly formed the resolution to dispute the fort as long as a man is alive.”
The landscape the Gillespie column encountered surrounding the fortress was daunting. The fortress was strategically posted on a detached hill rising approximately 600 feet. The approach was hindered by a stream that ran through a deep ravine to its front, with the flanks and rear protected by a clutter of hills and surrounding jungle. The fortress had a small stone wall enclosure that was enveloped and strengthened with wooden stockades approximately twelve feet tall.
Gillespie sent Lieutenant Colonel Mawbey with a small detachment to eliminate the fortress. Mawbey moved his guns within range on October 24 in an attempt to bombard the fortress, but withdrew due to the lack of damage the guns caused. Mawbey subsequently withdrew his detachment to await further orders from Gillespie.
When Gillespie arrived in person with the remainder of the force in front of Kalunga, he knew that time was of the essence. Gillespie had pledged to unite with the column under General Ochterlony westwards on November 1 and assume overall command of both columns in order to crush the Gurkha army under Amar Thapa. He could not conduct this union until Kalunga was removed from his flank. The option of bombarding the fortress with heavy artillery was out of the question since it would take at least four to five weeks to arrive from Delhi.
Similar to the bold tactics he used at Vellore and Cornelis, Gillespie gave the direct order on October 29 to take the fortress by assault. He ordered the use of only the bayonet and to refrain from stopping to fire until within the fortress walls. He intended to make a simultaneous assault by four separate detachments. The discharge of five guns was to be the signal to advance, three at intervals of a minute, followed by two in rapid sequence. On October 30, Lieutenant Carpenter and Major Ludlow constructed a forward position of batteries within 600 yards of the fortress. At 2AM on October 31, Major Kelly moved toward the village of Kusulle, Captain Fast moved toward the village of Luckhand, and Captain Campbell moved toward Ustall. By 7AM all units were in position. Two hour later the guns were fired to signal the start of the attack.
Problems ensued with the planned attack as the columns under Captain Fast and Major Kelly did not hear the signal or receive communications to begin the assault. Gillespie unwisely ordered an early advance to follow up on an ambitious Gurkha party that attempted to outflank the forces arrayed on their front. All his life Gillespie had acted on the principle of bold action. On this day it proved his undoing.
The British infantrymen met stiff resistance from the defenders armed predominately with arrows, stones, outdated matchlocks, and the feared kukris. At 10.30AM three companies of the 53rd Regiment arrived, and Gillespie promptly led them into the hottest point of action in an attempt to salvage the deteriorating situation. Gillespie personally led the men of the 53rd within twenty-five yards of the fortress under the sweeping fire of arrows, matchlocks and grape shot. He turned to Charles Pratt Kennedy, a horse gunner and fellow Ulsterman, and roared, “Now Charles. Now for the honour of Down.” A Gurkha sharpshooter took advantage of the exposed Gillespie frantically wielding his sword in the air and fired an aimed shot that penetrated his heart, instantly killing him. It was 12 noon.
The death of General Gillespie caused the assault to decay into complete chaos. A retreat was immediately called as the soldiers streamed to the rear in the face of the bold Gurkha defenders. The column suffered heavily with the loss of 35 killed and 228 wounded.
The campaign itself would drag on for eighteen long months, finally ending in March of 1816, and requiring the biggest army that the British had yet fielded in India. The victory at Kalunga in 1814 has been engrained in Gurkha legend to this day.
The body of Gillespie was retrieved by his men and preserved in alcohol until it arrived in Meerut on November 1. A simple obelisk was erected to mark his burial spot in Meerut, with his name and battle honors inscribed. They can still be found there today.
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- Kanchanmoy, Mojumdar. Anglo-Nepalese Relations in the Nineteenth Century. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1973.
- Pemble, John. Britain's Gurkha War: The Invasion of Nepal, 1814-16. London: Frontline Books, 2009.
- Pemble, John. “Forgetting and Remembering Britain's Gurkha War.” Asian Affairs 40, no. 3 (2009): 361–376.
- Thorn, William. A Memoir of Major-General R. R. Gillespie. London: T. Edgerton, 1816.
- Thornton, Leslie Heber. Campaigners Grave & Gay: Studies of Four Soldiers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925.
- Wakeman, Eric. The Bravest Soldier, Sir Rollo Gillespie, 1766-1814, A Historical Military Sketch. London: William Blackwood and & Sons Ltd., 1937.
1. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 162-175.
2. Mojumdar Kanchanmoy, Anglo-Nepalese Relations in the Nineteenth Century (Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1973), 20.
3. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 251-252.
4. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 253-254.
5. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 252.
6. John Pemble, Britain's Gurkha War: The Invasion of Nepal, 1814-16 (London: Frontline Books, 2009), 142.
7. Pemble, Britain's Gurkha War, 126.
8. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 254. Thornton, Campaigners Grave & Gay, 139.
9. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 222.
10. Pemble, Britain's Gurkha War, 146.
11. Wakeman, The Bravest Soldier, 260.
12. Pemble, Britain's Gurkha War, 152.
13. John Pemble, “Forgetting and Remembering Britain's Gurkha War,” Asian Affairs 40, no. 3 (2009): 362.
14. Pemble, Britain's Gurkha War, 152.