Aysgarth Church and a Gurkha Officer

Hidden behind the prayer tree near the Lady Chapel in Aysgarth church is a small brass plaque commemorating the life of Lieut. Colonel Alban Wilson D.S.O. who died at West Burton in April 1928. He spent the majority of his military service as an officer with the 44th Gurkha (Rifle) Regiment (later 8th Gurkha Rifles) helping to secure the British empire’s northern borders on the India sub-continent, especially around Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh and in Nagaland. That certainly doesn’t explain how he came to hold an extremely rare medal awarded by the German princely state of Waldeck and Pyrmont (below)

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His full name was James Alban Wilson and he was born in Warrington. Lancashire, in February 1865. It is likely that he attended Uppingham School in the early 1880s1 and in 1885 joined the 3rd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders militia.

He gained his first commission with the Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, the Duke of Albany’s) in 1887 and became a 2nd lieutenant in November 1887. Two years later he transferred to the 44th Gurkha (Rifle) Regiment of the Bengal Infantry of the Indian Army2. From then until the 1st World War gained promotions and honours by taking part in punitive expeditions against unruly tribesmen in the North East and North West of India.

In 1895 he and the 44th Gurkhas were sent to Burma (Myanmar) to take part in counter-insurgency operations. The British had annexed Burma in 1886 after the 3rd Anglo-Burmese war but had not been able to stop the insurgency which followed. And so in 1895, working from an extensive system of small military police posts, small lightly equipped columns were sent out to chase insurgents and punish any villages which harboured them. Villages were burned and property confiscated and by 1895 these punitive expeditions had brought the country fully under British control3.

Wilson was involved in similar campaigns on the N West Frontier of India between 1901 and 1902 but the biggest one of all was that against the Abor (now known as the Adi people) in 1911 to 1912 in the North Eastern enclave the British had claimed which bordered on Tibet, China and Burma. By then the 44th Gurkhas had been renamed the 8th Gurkha Rifles.

The Abor expedition4  into what is now part of Arunachal Pradesh was described as a classic punitive expedition to subdue and settle tribesmen who, in their jungle and mountain retreats, were used to being independent. To the nearby Assamese they were savages who raided their farms on the plains beside the young River Brahmaputra. The Abors also attacked saw mills.

The British found it impossible to recruit cooks, sweepers or water carriers in Calcutta when it became known that the campaign would be in Abor Hills, and in Assam it proved just as impossible to recruit coolies. Instead the British turned to another tribe which had not yet fully accepted colonial rule – the Nagas. The Nagas, who were more dreaded that the Abors because of their head-hunting activities , offered to sort out the Abors themselves so long as they could take over the land.

The British had tried a few punitive expeditions before against the Abor but none as large as that led by Major General Hamilton Bower in 1911. This was in retribution for the murder of two British men – an Assistant Political Officer and a doctor – plus some of the coolies who had been travelling with them.

Angus Hamilton in his book about the expedition reported that the Gurkhas made up the bulk of the troops and added: “The Gurkha is the ‘handy-man’ of India, and Gurkha sepoys are deservedly most popular figures with the ‘man in the street’. Short and sturdy, they are as active as cats on the hills, and take to bush warfare instinctively.”

And Bower would comment later: “A better corps for jungle warfare it would be hard to find.”

That was fortunate as the Abors, much to the frustration of the British officers, relied mainly on guerrilla tactics rather than pitched battles. The British led columns faced raging torrents, avalanches, booby traps and arrows tipped with either the poisonous powdered root of the wild aconite or with blood.

Bower was very careful to protect his lines of communication and supply as the columns moved through the thick jungle and up into the hills. Heliographs were in constant use and the sappers laid telephone cables. Wilson (by then a Major) and a couple of companies of the 8th Gurkhas cleared the route for the main column to the first halting place beside the Kemi River en route to Pasighat. Hamilton commented: “A pleasant camp was laid out by the gallant Major’s merry men.”  (Below – Wilson in a camp during the Abor expedition. He is in the foreground with back to the camera.)

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From there they could see the jungle and the snow-capped mountains. The Abors believed that their villages were inviolable because the forest was so impregnable with almost impassable undergrowth. On occasions it took an hour to move an army column just one mile and the biting insects and leeches proved to be as difficult and elusive enemies as the Abors.

The sappers and miners used elephants and even dynamite to clear the jungle. And as they moved up into the mountains they had to build bridges across rocky gorges and blast paths out of the precipitous slopes. In one place it took three days to clear two miles.

As it was so difficult to protect a single file of coolies in the forest they were very limited in what they could carry. Officers and civilians accompanying the expedition including a botanist, zoologist and an anthropologist cum geologist were allowed 60lb or even less later in the expedition. Some discarded their pillows for suits of “Burberry’s indispensable Gabardine” and others chose to include their Kodak cameras and films.

The officers personally carried: a Sam Browne belt; a sword, kukri or shotgun; field glasses, revolver and ammo; map, compass; emergency rations; first aid dressing and brandy flask; haversack; water bottle; regulation waterproof; rations for two days; whistle; knife and notebook.

Once they reached the area of the most inhospitable tribes the soldiers had to clear the way themselves as it was too dangerous to send the road making parties ahead even if they had guards. The Abors waited in their stockades perched high above the track ready to rain down arrows and rocks upon the column. In one such attack even Bower was injured.

The British expedition forced the Abors to retreat and there was an attempt to hold peace talks. One of the Abors leaders, however, was killed when en route to the talks. So Major Wilson with 300 Gurkhas was sent to avenge his death. But the Abors fled.

Peace talks did begin after a major village had been burnt and those who had murdered the political officer and the doctor were captured. Wilson was among those who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) after that expedition.

Bower reported: “He (Wilson) commanded when Lt Col Murray was invalided and carried out his duties to my satisfaction. He has shown energy and enterprise throughout, and has commanded detached bodies on several occasions.”

In February 1913 Wilson led a successful punitive expedition into Nagaland to exact reparation for an attack on a Military Police station. In 12 days with a column which included 216 8th Gurkha Rifles and 250 Military Police, six villages which had been involved in the attack were burned and all the livestock and property destroyed. Over 130 Nagas were killed. It was predicted afterwards that the Nagas in those areas would not defy the Government again or attack any of its representatives5.

Following that expedition Wilson was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in June 1914 he was appointed a Commandant with the 8th Gurkha Rifles. His battalion was sent to Mesopotamia in March 1916 a month before the fall of Kut (now in eastern Iraq). This was one of the most crushing defeats experienced by the British Army with 23,000 British and Indian lives being lost either in Kut or in the attempt to break the siege by the Turkish Army. Those of the 2nd Battalion 8th Gurkhas were among the 8,000 troops taken into captivity during which about half died.

Major General Stanley Maude was much more careful about his supply lines when he took over command of the British Army in Mesopotamia and led a very successful campaign which included recovering control of Kut and then capturing Baghdad in March 19176.

Wilson was put in command of the 21st Infantry Brigade in May 1916 and returned to command the newly formed 3rd Battalion 8th Gurkha Rifles in July 1917.

After he retired in May 1918 he began writing. The most collectable of his books is his Trout Fishing in Kashmir which was published in 1920. He also wrote Sport and Service in Assam and Elsewhere, published in 1924.

By the time he died in April 1928 his daughter, Dolores, had divorced her first husband and in September 1927 married William Westenra which meant she became known as Baroness Rossmore of Monaghan. She died in 19817.

There’s nothing in his service in India which explains how Wilson managed to acquire a collection of 300 Polynesian spears, bladed paddles, axes, clubs, daggers and blowpipes. Nor why they were donated, in the 1930s, to the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto8.

Nor is there anything to explain how he came to be entitled to wear the Waldeck and Pyrmont order of merit 3rd class. Only 111 of these medals were awarded between 1878 to 1897 by that small Princely State in Germany9.

Sources and  notes:

1.Census return of 1881 – from Ancestry.co

2. My sincerest thanks to Gavin Edgerley-Harris, curator of the Gurkha museum, for providing details of Lt Colonel James Alban Wilson’s military career including the medals he was awarded.

3.Wikipedia

4.Details and photograph from Angus Hamilton’s book In Abor Jungles published by Eveleigh Nash, London, 1912 (a year before Hamilton’s death). Hamilton joined the Abor expedition as the correspondent for the Central News Agency. There was also a Reuter’s correspondent. Now available on openlibrary.org (https://archive.org/stream/inaborjunglesbei00hami)

5.The 1913 Nagaland expedition (known as the Totok Punitive Expedition) –  details from the PhD thesis by Joseph Longkumer submitted to the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth University in India, doctorate awarded in 2011. http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/2478/7/07_chapter%203.pdf

6.The First World War Mesopotamia Campaigns: Military Lessons on Iraqi Ground Warfare, by LCDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, Strategic Insights, Volume IV Issue 6 (June 2005), published by the Centre for Contemporary Conflict

7. www.thepeerage.com

8.http://www.rcmi.org/index.php?action=display&cat=15

9.On the Wikipedia sites providing information about the princely state of Waldeck and Pyrmont there is no guide to how an Indian Army Gurkha officer came to be awarded that medal. But it was interesting to see that the present hereditary prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont is Wittekind Adolf Heinrich Georg-Wilhelm. He was born in March 1936 and his godfathers were Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. His father, Josias, had joined the Nazi party in 1929 and became a member of the SS in March 1930.

For more about those from mid Wensleydale who served during WWI see the Roll of Honour on Thoralby Through Time.

2 thoughts on “Aysgarth Church and a Gurkha Officer

  1. I just happened to come across your article when researching Colonel Wilson’s wife. The Waldeck connection is most probably due to his connection with the Seaforth Highlanders (Duke of Albany’s, Ross-shire Buffs), of which HRH Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany was Colonel-in-Chief between 1882 and his death. HRH also served as Honorary Colonel of the militia battalion from 1881.

    Prince Leopold married Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, 27th April 1882.

    It is possible that the colonel was either associated with the Seaforths in regard to that event, or some other subsequent Royal event. Perhaps acting as liaison officer or ADC in attendance on the Waldeck & Pyrmont party.

  2. hello,
    a fascinating account and many thanks for the info, its been more then valuable! Working on a piece on Major Lindsay of the 2nd Gurkhas who partook in the Abor Expedition.

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