Analysing the Anglo-Manipur war from military point of view

Lt Gen LN Singh, VSM & BAR *

 The battle of Khongjom : RKCS Art Gallery
The battle of Khongjom.
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery


There is a difference between battle, campaign and war. A battle is between two or more armed forces. The aim and scope of battle is limited. Battles are usually short, lasting few hours to few days or months. Geographically it is confined. Examples are battle of Imphal, battle of Kohima, battle of Bulge etc.

When there are many battles for a long time in a particular region it is called campaign, examples are the Burma campaign, North Africa campaign etc. But in a short war there may be no campaign but only battles. Many battles and campaigns make up a war. War is between two or more countries or nations to achieve a national aim.

A battle/campaign achieves only tactical victory or maybe even a strategic victory. But winning a battle may not necessarily result in winning the war. For example, during the Second World War, both the German and Japan, initially won many battles but they eventually lost the war. Similarly in Vietnam, the Americans won a number of battles but lost the war.

The Manipur campaign is one of minor campaigns fought by the British during the Victorian era. Nearly 6500 soldiers under a Maj Gen were required to tackle Manipur whereas 360 soldiers under a Capt were involved in Assam. Even in those days, there were only three axes (roads) leading to Imphal, a cart track over the Naga Hill, a bridle-path connecting with Cachar; and the third connecting to Chindwin.

The third was considered important by the Manipuris as they were in perpetual conflict with the Myanmarees whom they call 'Ava' with the Myanmarees calling the Manipuris as 'Kate'.

Manipur and its army : Post 1st Burmese war

The British were possibly interested in maintaining Manipur as a front line country, mainly against Myanmar. Since the 1st Burma war, the British armed the Manipuris. The 'Manipur Levy' was raised by Maharaja Gambhir Singh at the request of the British with strength of 500. In subsequent years, it increased to 2,000. British officers were deputed but withdrawn by 1853.

However, the Manipuri army continued to grow. They assisted and helped the British forces under, Lt Col Johnstone in 1879 during local fights The British gifted a large number of weapons and ammunition, and again the Manipuris contributed troops to the British in 1885 during the 3rd Burmese War. Anglo-Manipur relations seemed good.

According to Mark Simner, in 1889 the strength of Manipuri Army was about 6,200 including irregulars. It was purely infantry based with no cavalry. For fire support, it was believed, that they had eight 3-pounder brass cannons which could fire only balls. There was political instability even after its liberation from the Burmese. The ruling-elite of the state were squabbling over power.

There was a revolt against Maharaja Sur Chandra on 21 September 1890. He abdicated voluntarily and fled. He appealed to Lord Landsdowne, the Viceroy of India, for assistance. Since he had technically abdicated and also considering Manipur's contributions to the British efforts against the Burmese, they declined to help him instead chose to recognise Kula Chandra as the rightful regent.

However, they felt that there was a need to neutralise Tekendrajit, who was the Senapati of the Manipuri Army to ensure a lasting peace, as they felt that he was the main instigator of the revolt. This was the beginning of the Manipur war which could be divided into three distint phases.

Phase one : Diplomacy with show of force

In this phase the British conducted a typical coercive diplomacy with show of force. Quinton, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, was sent to Manipur with 400 local troops of the 42nd and 44th Gurkhas under Lt Col Skene. They arrived at Imphal on 22 March 1891. The Manipuris extended a traditional warm welcome. The plan was to capture Tikendrajit at a durbar.

However, Tikendrajit, having been tipped off, was aware of the conspiracy. Citing ill-health, he did not attend the durbar. It was re-scheduled for the next day but again he did not attend. Quinton gave an ultimatum to Kula Chandra for handing over of Tekendrajit or lose the support of the British. The demand was declined.

Battle of Residency: Application of force commenced early morning on 24th March. The Gurkhas who tried to enter Tekendrajit's house had serious fighting with the Manipuri troops. Lt Brackenbury was mortally wounded. Eventually the Gurkhas entered the house but did not find Tekendrajit. The Manipuri soldiers succeeded in pushing back the Gurkhas into the British Residency. Manipuris now attacked and fired upon the British defences inside the Residency.

The fighting continued till evening. By 8 PM, Quinton, sensing his precarious position, requested for a truce. Tekendrajit invited Quinton for talks. The commissioner accepted the invite and went for talks with four other officers.

As they came out of the Residency, there was a commotion by an angry mob whose kith and kin have been killed or injured during the indiscriminate action of the British native troops and all five men killed. This perhaps was one of the very important moments in the history of Manipur. What could have happened to Manipur if the British were not killed? Would Manipur remain a front line country for the British?

Phase 2 : Withdrawal, link up and rescue

WITHDRAWAL & LINK UP: The death of British officers was unknown to the soldiers inside the residency, but there were unconfirmed reports and indicators suggesting that the Chief Commissioner was unlikely to return; for instance the firing on the residency resumed after mid -night.

Because of heavy pressure from Manipuri troops, the chances of being defeated & overrun were large hence the British decided break contact and withdrew towards Cachar. On 26th, Captain Cowley and 200 men of the 43rd Gurkhas from Cachar linked up with the withdrawing party at Laimatak.

ATTEMTED RESCUE BATTLE OF THOUBAL. Reports on events in Imphal reached Tamu on 27 March, but the British were not aware of the death. Lt Grant volunteered to rescue the British prisoners. He started 28 March with thirty soldiers of the 43rd Gurkhas and fifty of the 12th Madras Infantry.

On 31 March he reached Thoubal, he encountered about 800 Manipuri soldiers stretched on a long front. The Manipuris brought down heavy fire on them, but they eventually pushed the Manipuris to the bank of the Thoubal River. The British crossed the river and took defensive positions in a village. Having been possibly reinforced, the Manipuris strength went up to around 2,000 with two guns (cannons).

The Manipuris were very determined and relentlessly attacked the British force over a period of ten days till 9th April. The Lt, was equally as determined and demanded release of the prisoners. A civilian, named Williams handed over to Grant informed that no other European was held at Imphal. Grant withdrew as Captain Presgrave with seventy-five men relived him. As Grant withdrew he was closely pursued by the Manipuris.

Lieutenant Grant was later awarded the 'Victoria Cross', the British highest gallantry award equivalent of our 'Param Vir Chakra' for his actions in Manipur, the citation for which was published in the London Gazette of 26 May 1891; it read:
'For the conspicuous bravery and devotion to his country displayed by him in having, upon hearing on the 27th March, 1891, of the disaster at Manipur, at once volunteered to attempt the relief of the British Captives, with 80 Native Soldiers, and having advanced with the greatest intrepidity, captured Thoubal, near Manipur, and held it against a large force of the enemy. Lieutenant Grant inspired his men with equal heroism, by an ever-present example of personal daring and resource.'

Phase 3 : The punitive attack

THE PLAN. The British assessed that a major operation with a much larger force with proper planning would be required to defeat the determined Manipuris and inflict proper punishment. Three brigade group task forces were to advance into Manipur on three different axes starting on different dates to converse on the same date ie 27 April at Imphal.

The aim was to disperse the Manipuri forces but enable concentrated application of the British forces on the Center of Gravity viz Imphal. Accordingly troops were moved and concentrated. A task force of 1,200 with the overall headquarters under Maj Gen Collett advanced through Kohima on the 20th April.

The task force of 1,900 under Col Rennick started early on 15 April from Cachar as terrain friction was expected. Another Task of 1,800 under Brig Gen Graham advanced through Tamu on 23 April. In addition to these 5000 odd troops, the 5th Madras was the reserve besides guarding the lines of communication.

BATTLES. The first encounter for the Kohima column was on 21st, at Mao. Captain Macintyre and 200 soldiers overcame the Manipuri resistance. This short but sharp clash effectively opened the axis(road) from Kohima to Imphal, enabling easy move. There was hardly any resistance till Imphal. Another minor action was also fought by Colonel Browne and 300 soldiers during the advance from Cachar at a point halfway to Imphal.

Battle of Khongjom

However, the task force under Brig Granham from Tamu was very bitterly contested by the Manipuris. The British had intelligence report that a large force of Manipuris were had taken up defences in and around Khongjom. The Manipuris had constructed an oval shaped defence which basically trenches, ditches, snager (parapet) along a stream full of water.

Initially, Capt Rundall, with 250 soldiers of the 2/4th Gurkhas, 50 of the 12th Madras Infantry and another 43 mounted infantrymen; a total of nearly 350 soldiers and four guns (cannons) was to lead the assault.

The British first used the guns (canons) to shell the Manipuris position, followed by concentrated aimed small arms fire. Believing the morale of the Manipuris would be sufficiently dented, the British infantry advanced, but they were surprised by the ferocity of the Manipuris resistance who fought very stubbornly and refused to abandon their position.

Even after some parts of their defences were captured by the British, the Manipuris did not give up instead continued to put up a very stiff resistance. This resulted in hand-to-hand combat. However, superior weapons and better training eventually ensured that the Manipuris could no longer resist the British and they broke. The mounted British infantrymen pursue the withdrawing Manipuris.

The task force, did not encountered any more resistance and reached Imphal on 27th. By then all Manipuri resistance had ended and the Union Jack was raised above the Kangla Fort. The British effectively disarmed the Manipuris, seizing an estimated 4,000 firearms.

Lessons learnt

Political instability due to squabbling and lack of unity amongst Manipuri leaders was there even those days. On 24th Mar, if the mob had been restrained then the spiraling of the events out control could have been avoided and also perhaps history might have been different.

The Manipuris literally had no allies; even now we need to cultivate allies. Preparations for such an eventual showdown are a long tedious and continuous process and have to be anticipated, visualized, more detailed and elaborate. Manipuris won the first two phases including the battles of Residency and Thoubal but eventually lost the war.

* Lt Gen LN Singh, VSM & BAR, wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 30 2019.

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