Face-to-face with the enemy
On 4 November 1814, Amar Singh Thapa moved to Ramshehar Fort from Arki (near Shimla) with 3,000 of his troops and supplementary forces from Bilaspur. General David Ochterlony, who was promoted to Major-Gen and the overall commander of the Anglo-Gorkha war following the death of Major-Gen Robert Rollo Gillepsie in Khalanga, Dehradun, had expected Amar Singh to put up maximum resistance at Nalagarh or Sirmour, but the Gorkhali commander was now coming to meet him head-on.
Nalagarh fell on 5 November and three weeks later, the British troops moved to Ramshehar Pass to break Amar Singh’s supply lines to and from Arki. The army engineer Lt Peter Lawtie spent a week surveying the fort and concluded that the walls were impenetrable, and any attack would be futile except from a small settlement towards the rear of the fort called Nauri.
Lawtie, a highland Scotsman only 24 at the time, was an eager engineer who led the previously impossible task of carving roads on mountain-sides at Nalagarh and Ramshehar. It was through his roads that the Company troops were able to climb the perilous slopes, and bring their heavy mountain cannons within range of the Gorkhali forts.
On 19 November, coolies and elephants pulled the British heavy artillery up the mountains to the Nauri plateau. In response, Amar Singh Thapa sent his troops to defend the approach with stockade and bulwark. The British guns could only get to 150m below the fort, which was too far and too low from the Gorkhali base, and were soon pulled back.
Then on 24 December, the Gorkhalis and the British began a fierce assault at Mangu, North-east of Nauri. Three hours later the Gorkhalis retreated up the ridge with 150 of their soldiers dead and 250 wounded.
Ochterlony wanted to push Amar Singh Thapa back further North to Bilaspur, a principality that was a strong Gorkha ally. Then in January, Amar Singh’s son Ramdas Thapa and the Gorkhali families at Ramshehar covertly relocated to Malaun Fort.
Tracing the march of the Gorkhalis, Jyoti Thapa remarks that they were now again returning via the route they had taken when they first came from Arki to Ramshehar. Malaun, which lies between the two places and closer to Bilaspur, was meant to be a refuge from the battle which Amar Singh wanted to contain in the Ramshehar, Taragarh and Chamba forts across the River Gambar, and prevent the British from encroaching into Gorkhali territory any further.
But Gen Ochterlony had other plans. With spies planted along Amar Singh’s routes of communication, a letter was intercepted. Gen Ochterlony discovered the Gorkhali tactics and ordered Lt Lawtie to begin building roads to the fort, while he would send reinforcements to Bilaspur. He expected Amar Singh to soon leave for Malaun or Bilaspur and was not taking any chances.
Malaun Fort was not supposed to be a battlefield. Ever the devout and a loyal family man, he promptly hurried towards the fort from Mangu, leaving about 100 men to guard Ramshehar, which ultimately proved insufficient when the British took the fort on 16 February.