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The Naga siege of Kohima and the British attack on Khonoma (i)


For maps and further photos please go HERE


The Naga Hills and the British


As the British East India Company expanded its influence in north-eastern India in 1832 it came into contact with tribes living in the strip of hills running along the eastern side of the Assam Valley.  These tribes were the scantily but colourfully dressed and decorated Naga people who took heads off opponents as a sign of warrior prowess.  In 1835 Nagas raided some villages in North Cachar and the Company had to do something, though it did not wish to administer Naga territory.  Between 1839 and 1847 seven punitive expeditions entered the Naga Hills but the raids continued.  In 1847 a British Resident, an Indian police officer named Bogchand Daroga, was sent to represent the company at Samaguting (ii), but on a mission to Mozema(iii) where he arrested raiders the Nagas ambushed and killed him and 21 of his men(iv).

Right: Naga 1879-80 obverse

The Company’s response was to mount a punitive expedition from Assam under Captain Vincent and when that failed due to the Nagas setting fire to the stores in Vincent’s camp, to send 334 men with 4 guns into the hills in 1849.  This expedition, again under Vincent who commanded men from the Assam Light Infantry, the Cachar Levy and the Jorhat Militia, was able to inflict severe punishment on Mozema and Khonoma villages.  The Company then decided that the best policy to take towards the Nagas was one of non-intervention and the troops were withdrawn in 1857.  The Nagas cheered and during the next 12 months made 22 raids into British territory.  Constant raiding then became the norm, British officials being ordered not to intervene although they wanted to.

By 1866 this situation needed tidying up and a British Deputy Commissioner, Lieutenant Gregory, was sent as Resident to Samaguting; he immediately punished two groups of raiders.  This stopped raids into British territory and Naga energy was then expended on inter-tribal feuding.  In 1874 Assam was taken over as a Province and the Angami Naga territory around Kohima became British-administered territory under Captain J. Butler.  As the British learned more about the Nagas they became aware of the village structures that featured groups of men and women of similar ages; these age-groups were all born within five years of each other.  Each age-group had a separate meeting place in its village where decisions for that group were made; in a village some age-groups might wish to fight the British whilst others did not.  Village leaders could find common village policies difficult to formulate because of the strength and often differing attitudes of the age-groups.

British survey parties started entering the Naga Hills, causing intense unease amongst the Nagas.  Survey groups began to take large numbers of casualties and this led in 1875 to a punitive expedition under Colonel J.M. Nuttall CB, 44th Sylhet Light Infantry; Nuttall with 308 men of the 42nd and 44th Native Infantry destroyed the implicated villages and recovered arms and plunder taken from the survey parties.

Peace lasted for only a year until another survey party under Captain Butler was ambushed, Butler being killed; the next day his escort destroyed the villages involved in the ambush.  Hostilities ceased again until 1877 when Nagas raided North Cachar, resulting in a punitive expedition commanded by Captain W. Brydon, 42nd Assam Light Infantry, marching with 210 men and 50 policemen to Mozema.  The Mozema Nagas fired on Brydon and were joined by fellow tribesmen from Khonoma and Jotsoma.  Brydon was then in difficulties as his force was not strong enough and the rough terrain allowed his enemies to cut his line of communication and constantly harass him.  Brydon stockade his force at Mozema and requested support.  Brigadier-General Nation, commanding the Eastern Frontier District, sent from Shillong 100 men of the 43rd Assam Light Infantry under Lieutenant MacGregor, 44th Sylhet Light Infantry.

Above: Khonoma Village on its spur. The attack was from the right up the ridge.

As reinforcements arrived the Khonoma and Jotsoma Nagas decided to seek terms, not wanting to lose all their stored crops as had happened to the Mozema Nagas.  Unfortunately the Political Officer with Brydon, Mr. Carnegy, wandered out of the Mozema stockade one evening and was shot dead by a sentry.  Captain Williamson, an Assistant Political Officer who had marched in with MacGregor, took over the negotiations with the hostile Nagas and through ignorance of the prevailing local situation he was far too lenient with the Khonoma and Jotsoma men, letting them off scot-free.  Brydon’s force then fell back on Samaguting leaving some Nagas believing that they could act with impunity.

Left: Naga 1879-80 reverse


The siege of Kohima

The Angami Nagas around Kohima, a frontier post on the track from Dimapur in the Brahmaputra Valley to the Princely State of Manipur, were industrious farmers, clearing selected jungle below the 1,500 metres-above-sea-level contour, and terracing the cleared areas for rice and other crops.  Once off the Dimapur-Manipur track and away from the cultivated areas the terrain was steep with dense jungle growth.  Anybody traversing it was constantly either climbing or descending almost vertical hill-sides, or else marching up steeply-banked riverbeds that dissidents could easily ambush.  The Nagas constructed their impressive villages on hill summits and defensive tactics strongly influenced the architecture, with entrance gates being very vulnerable to defensive volley-firing and sniping.  Naga villages tended to be permanent in contrast to those of other tribes such as the Kuki and Lushai, who were more nomadic people. In 1879 the British Political Agent at Kohima was Guybon Henry Damant, a studious man who researched and wrote about many interesting facets of Indian tribal life that he observed.  But he was also naïve and rather too sure of his own judgement and opinions.  Damant had heard that Bengali traders were secretly supplying the hill tribes with old muskets, and that the villagers at Khonoma had acquired several of these weapons.  On 13th October 1879 Damant set out to visit Jotsoma, Khonoma and Mozema with an escort of 65 constables of the Frontier Police and 21 rifles from the 43rd Assam Light Infantry.  He seems to have been unaware that the men of these three villages deeply resented the fact that coming under British administration involved the regular payment of tribute, the cessation of head-hunting and the provision of labour whenever the British required it.

When passing through Jotsoma a friendly chief implored Damant not to go to Khonoma, but the chief’s entreaties were ignored.  At Khonoma Damant left his baggage party at a stream below the village and with an escort climbed up the path towards the village gate.  The heavy door was closed and Damant called out for it to be opened.  In reply a large group of Nagas appeared over the side wall and fired at close range into the bunched escort, killing Damant and most of his group.  The Nagas then swarmed down onto the baggage party and cut it up; the remaining escort fled to Kohima having lost 25 constables and 10 riflemen killed, plus Damant’s servants, and 19 others wounded.  

As survivors trickled in to Kohima the garrison of 158 men there quickly erected defences, abandoning one of the two stockades in order to concentrate the soldiers and the 240 non-combatants into an area that could be adequately defended.  Captain D.G. Reid of the 43rd Assam Light Infantry was commanding but he appears to have been ill throughout the siege.  Subadar Mema Ram and Jemadar Kurung Singh of the Field Police took charge under Mr. Cawley of the Civil Police.  Although it was an advanced frontier post, Kohima was not prepared for a combat situation as Guybon Damant had been unduly confident that there would be no trouble with the Angami Nagas.  The area surrounding the stockades had not been cleared, the stockades themselves were dilapidated, and the water supply was an external wooden aqueduct that was soon cut; also and incorrectly for an advanced post, there were the wives of Damant and Cawley and the two Cawley children residing at Kohima.  The soldiers had rations for a month but the non-combatants had only 125 kilograms of rice.  Messengers sent by Cawley to Samaguting were intercepted and cut up but one messenger got through to Wokha just before the Nagas closed the track and another reached Imphal.

The first Naga attacks on the stockade began on the 16th October and warriors began using higher ground to fire into the defences.  This prevented the defenders from drawing water from two weak springs inside the stockade until a sortie drove off the snipers.  The Nagas then put up a sangar 500 metres from the stockade and for the next two days attempted unsuccessfully to set alight the defenders’ store houses.  On 19th October Mr. H.M. Hinde arrived with 43 soldiers of the 43rd Assam Light Infantry and 22 policemen; he had forced-marched from Wokha and by using the cover of darkness and the assistance of friendly Nagas he entered the stockade without loss.

Warriors continued assembling at Kohima until several thousand were there, 500 of them with firearms.  Organised attacks were mounted, with some Nagas rolling boulders and logs downhill to make mobile fire positions whilst others constantly projected flaming missiles onto the roofs of the defenders’ buildings.  Inside the stockade the occupants were now on quarter-rations, and groups of men stood-by every building to sweep the flaming materials off roofs using long bamboo poles.  The European women and children sheltered in a large oven shed.  This state of affairs continued for ten days, with the Naga earthworks steadily approaching the stockade until they were only 35 metres away.  In reply the defenders threw up their own breastworks to shelter marksmen who could pick-off the approaching Nagas.

Eventually only 45 sepoys were fit to fight from the stockade, sheltered areas were covered in wounded and sick men, and the police were demoralised.  Cawley was about to surrender if allowed to have a safe passage to Samaguting – a dream that would never have happened – when a messenger got into the defences to report that Lieutenant-Colonel J. Johnstone, Political Agent Manipur, was arriving from Imphal with 2,000 of the Maharajah’s levies, 50 of the Surma Valley Field Police and 34 rifles of the 34th Native Infantry.  Johnstone marched his men in on 26th October and the Nagas faded away to their villages.

Above: Looking down the British attack route on the northern spur, Khonoma Village



The British attack on Khonoma Village

Johnstone quickly exerted a military grip on Kohima, clearing away both jungle and old Naga earthworks and preparing proper defences.  He ordered the return of Damant’s head which was brought in and buried, the body having been destroyed.  Johnstone wished to move out and attack Khonoma immediately, but he was ordered to stay where he was.  The government gave General Nation a free hand to deal with the problem, and Nation formed a column at Piphima (ii) of all his available troops who totalled 1,135 men.  Detachments came from the 42nd and 43rd Assam Light Infantry and the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry.  Two 7-pounder mountain guns and 100 9-pounder rockets were added from the 16/9 Battery Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant A. Mansel, Royal Artillery and Lieutenant E. Raban, Royal Engineers.  The Manipur levies were available to Nation, as were some local levies recruited from the Kuki tribe.

The Chief Commissioner of Assam decided that the following policy was to be adopted to the Nagas:

‘Khonoma to be absolutely destroyed and rebuilding prohibited.  Headmen (v) implicated in Damant’s murder to be captured and executed.  All other villages concerned in the rising to be subjugated, and complete disarmament of firearms enforced.  Terms of submission should include payment of substantial revenue in grain and nominal revenue in money, together with contribution of labour.  Dismantling of village walls and defences left to discretion of Colonel Johnstone.’

On 14th November Nation ordered Nuthall to advance on Secuma Village which was found it to be deserted; Nuttall occupied it and then was immediately attacked from the surrounding jungle by Nagas who fought violently until the main body of the column arrived on the following day.  Meanwhile Major H.M. Evans, 43rd Assam Light Infantry, was attacking Sephema Village, which he rushed and destroyed on 16th November.  The column halted at Secuma until the two mountain guns arrived.  These guns were carried by porters and manned by men of the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry under the supervision of three British gunners.  More firepower was provided by the rocket detachment, but as the elephant carrying the rockets had fallen down a hill the accuracy of the rockets was affected by the shaking-up that they had received. Leaving a firm base at Secuma Nation advanced on Khonoma on 22nd November.  The British were to be surprised by the strong defences of the village, which were constructed along a narrow ridge.  Loop-holed stone walls and forts built on terraces covered the approaches to the village, and beds of sharpened panji sticks were liberally planted to slow down attackers.  Large piles of rocks were positioned ready to be rolled downwards.

AT 0600 hours on 22nd November 1879 Nation’s force advanced on Khonoma, attacking it up the northern spur.  The mountain guns and rockets engaged Naga outposts and then moved forward to come in range of the village.  Nation led the direct attack up the spur with Major C.R. Cock, Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General, Eastern Frontier Section, Captain Walker, Major Johnstone and Lieutenant Raban, whilst the advance on the right was led by the Adjutant of the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry, Lieutenant R.K. Ridgeway, and Lieutenant H.H. Forbes.

The British had greatly underestimated both the strength of the physical defences and the number of Nagas with firearms facing them.  Both attacks failed, Major Cock died of wounds, Subadar Major Narbir Sahi was killed, and Nuttall was wounded.  Lieutenant Ridgeway reached a gateway and slowly forced it open but he then received a severe gunshot wound in his shoulder, nevertheless he maintained his post and forced the door back until men could get through; his gallantry was to be acknowledged by the award of the Victoria Cross.  However Forbes was mortally wounded (iv) and the men who entered the doorway were either killed or forced to flee.  As dusk was approaching Nation decided to hold the ground already gained and to attack again at dawn.

At dawn scouts found Khonoma deserted, the Nagas having moved higher up the ridge to the Chaka (viii) Spurs on the northern slopes of Hophera Mountain where strong defences had been constructed.  During the battle this Naga escape route to the higher ground to the south had been blocked by detachments from the 43rd Assam and the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry, and they had repulsed two Naga attempts to gain the higher ground, but at dusk the detachments were withdrawn due to a message being misunderstood.  Nation occupied Khonoma and garrisoned the main fort inside the village.  Apart from the officer casualties already mentioned 44 sepoys had been killed or wounded; Naga losses were believed to be double that figure.

Left: Lt H.H. Forbes' grave at Secuma

Naga hostile actions did not cease but were reduced to ambushing and skirmishing.  Other villages that had supported Khonoma were punished, but the strong Chaka Spurs fortifications were initially only blockaded, as Nation did not want to lose more men by attacking them before further reinforcements arrived. However the blockade could be avoided as was shown in January 1980 when a group of 55 Naga warriors left their Chaka position, moved through Manipur territory and attacked the Baladhan tea estates in North Cachar.  Only seven of the Nagas carried firearms but they killed the tea estate manager, Mr. Blyth, and 16 of his workers, plundered and burned down the buildings and then returned to Chaka with their trophies; this raid caused intense civilian panic throughout North Cachar.  The final Naga action of the campaign was an attack on the Nichuguard stockade when two sepoys were killed and six others were wounded.  But by the end of March 1880 the Nagas were ready to agree terms as they could see that preparations were being made for an attack on their Chaka fortifications.  Firearms were surrendered and reparations made by the Khonoma Nagas who were dispersed and resettled elsewhere, although later this policy was modified to allow a return to Khonoma.  Some minor skirmishing and intrigue followed but eventually those Nagas under British administration settled down and during the Great War a Naga Labour Battalion was recruited for service in France.  During World War II the Naga tribe was one of Britain’s staunchest allies during the 1944 Japanese invasion of India.

Commemoration

In 1906 or 1907 a memorial to those officers who fell during the 1879 attack on Khonoma was set up on the highest point in the village by Sir William Reid KCIE, then Deputy-Commissioner at Kohima.


Gallantry Awards for the 1879-80 Naga Campaign

Although the attention of most people in India was focused on the Second Afghan War (1878-80), several gallantry awards were made to soldiers who had fought at Khonoma.

Victoria Cross

The London Gazette of May 11th 1880 notified the award of the Victoria Cross to Captain Richard Kirby Ridgeway of the Bengal Staff Corps:

For conspicuous gallantry throughout the attack on Konoma, on the 22nd November, 1879, more especially in the final assault, when, under a heavy fire from the enemy, he rushed up to a barricade and attempted to tear down the planking surrounding it, to enable him to effect an entrance, in which act he received a very severe rifle shot wound in the left shoulder.


Indian Order of Merit, 3rd Class


No. 1154 Sepoy Narbahadur, 43rd Assam Light Infantry:

For conspicuous gallantry at the action at Konoma, on the 22nd November 1879, on which occasion when a detachment of the regiment was advancing in skirmishing order to attack a breast work held by the enemy, he rushed ahead under a heavy musketry fire and showers of spears, and was the first to climb over the breastwork and jump into the enclosure.

Jemadar Rajman Rai, Havildar Jumon Sing Thakur and Sepoys Kubberaj Karkie, Kubernidi Tewari and Madan Sing Bandari, all of the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry, also received the Indian Order of Merit 3rd Class:

For conspicuous gallantry at the attack on Konoma, in the Naga hills, on the 22nd November 1879.


Distinguished Conduct Medal


In 1890 Acting Bombardiers John Watts, Harry McAndrew and Thomas Portman, all of the Royal Artillery, were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals: ‘In recognition of their gallant conduct at the attack on Konoma on the 22nd October 1879, during the Naga Hills Expedition’.   The medals were presented by Her Majesty Queen Victoria.


Campaign Medal

A clasp NAGA 1879-80 was authorised for the India Medal.  The qualifying dates were later extended to commence with the 1875 expedition.

Above Left: The Damant memorial panel
Above Right: The memorial panel to Lt. H.H Forbes, 44th Gurkha Rifles.

Above Left: The memorial panel to Major C.R. Cock.
Above Right: The memorial panel to Subadar Major Nurbir Sahi, 44th Gurkha Rifles.

(Gratitude is expressed to the eminent Naga historian Charles Chasie of Kohima who has advised on aspects of this article, and to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge for the use of their images of the India Medal.)


SOURCES: (most economical shown)

Abbott, P.E.: Recipients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1855-1909. (J.B. Hayward & Son, Polstead, Suffolk 1987).

Allen, B.C.: Naga Hills and Manipur. (Publisher unknown, Shillong 1905 available: https://archive.org/details/NagaHillsAndManipur ).

Chasie, Charles: The Naga Imbroglio. (A Personal Perspective). (City Press paperback, Kohima 2005).

Hayward J., Birch D. and Bishop R.: British Battles and Medals, Seventh Edition. (Spink, London 2006).

Heath, Ian: Armies of the Nineteenth Century: Asia. 3. India’s North-East Frontier. (Foundry Books, Guernsey 1999).

Huxford H.J. Lieutenant Colonel, compiler: History of the 8th Gurkha Rifles 1824-1929. (The Army Press, Dehra Dun 1965).

Intelligence Branch, Division of the Chief of the Staff, Army Headquarters India (compiler): Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, Volume IV, North and North-Eastern Frontier Tribes. (Naval & Military Press reprint and online at: https://archive.org/details/NorthAndNorthEasternFrontierTribes  ).

Johnstone, Major-General Sir James: My experiences in Manipur and the Naga Hills. (Sampson, Low Marston and Company, London 1896 and available on-line: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6492873M/My_experiences_in_Manipur_and_the_Naga_hills ).

Maitland, Captain P.J.: Detailed Report on the Naga Hills Expedition of 1887-80. (India Office Library, London reference IOR L/MIL/17/18/24 and online at: http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/naga/coll/44/records/detail/all/index.html ).

Ryan D.G.J., Strahan G.C. and Jones J.K., compilers: Historical Record of the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Volume I, 1817-1919. (Private Publication 1925).

Shakespear, Colonel L.W.: History of the Assam Rifles. (Naval & Military Press reprint).

Whitehead, John: Far Frontiers. People and Events in North-Eastern India 1857-1947. (BACSA, Putney, London 1989).

[i] The modern spelling of Khonoma has been used, but other locations are spelt as on the attached map, and any differences in Naga spelling or naming are detailed in the endnotes below.
[ii] Known to the Nagas as Piphema.
[iii] In fact Naga society did not have Headmen, but village leaders were appointed from those men who had displayed leadership skills within their age-groups.
[iv] Forbes’ grave, complete with headstone, is in Secuma Village.
[v] Known to the Nagas as Thephegai.

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