GENERAL FREDERICK YOUNG (1786 – 1874) – FOUNDER OF THE GURKHAS
Lieutenant Frederick Young raised himself off the wet green grass, drew his sword and prepared to die. The leather-
‘Why did you not run away too?’ he asked.
‘I have not come so far in order to run away’, replied Young with ‘fearless Irish eyes’.
Lt Young was not killed. Greatly impressed by his fighting zeal, the hillmen took him prisoner. And over his next year in captivity, he learned an incredible amount about Nepalese society and the Gorkhas in particular. He mastered their language, their customs and their military techniques. In 1815, this indomitable Irishman used this knowledge to become the founding father of the fearsome ‘Gurkha’ Brigade.[ii]
At least, that’s how the story goes. Indeed, the tale of Frederick Young’s capture by the Gorkhas is a deeply entrenched part of British military folklore. Depending on which history you read, you might find a Gorkha telling Young that the British are ‘almost as brave as the Gorkhas themselves’. Another version claims that, as they led Young off to captivity, ‘the merry men of the Nepalese hills’ remarked ‘Ah you are a brave man. We could serve under a brave man like you’. All this sets the plot up nicely for the Nepalese soldiers to be flattered beyond belief when Young duly suggests that they form a regiment and join the good old British East India Company.
The truth is rather more shady.
Most of what we know of Frederick Young comes from his biography, written by his daughter, Louise Hadow Jenkins, and published over a century after his capture.[iii] He was born on the Inishowen peninsula in the far north of Co Donegal in 1786.[iv] His Presbyterian ancestors arrived from Devonshire in the 1630s as tenants of the Marquis of Donegal and settled at Culdaff, near Malin Head, where members of the family still live today. By 1679, the Rev Robert Young was Rector of the adjoining parishes of Culdaff and Cloncha. His great grandson George succeeded as family head in 1747 and built Culdaff House in 1779.[v] George’s brother the Rev. Gardiner Young (1745-
Frederick Young went to India at the age of 14 to take up a career in the British Army. His first years were spent serving under General Lake, the man who destroyed the Irish rebels at Ballinamuck at the close of the 1798 Rebellion.[vii] After seeing action in the Second Anglo-
In 1814, Sir Rollo and Lt Young were sent to defeat the Gorkhas. A war between the British East India Company and the fledgling Kingdom of Nepal had been inevitable ever since the Gorkhas conquered the Kathmandu Valley in 1769 and began threatening British interests in India.
Seeking a quick and decisive campaign, the British committed 22,000 troops to the campaign.[viii] Sir Rollo was assigned the task of dislodging the enemy from a strategic fort at Khalunga. This was to be Sir Rollo’s last hurrah. As he led his men in a head-
Over the next six weeks, Young watched with mounting admiration as the 600 Gorkhas within the fortress steadfastly refused to submit. The British gradually managed to cut off their freshwater supply and killed 520 of the defenders but the Nepalese never surrendered and ultimately the survivors slipped out of Khalunga under the cover of darkness. [x]
In February 1815, the British forces attacked another prominent Nepalese fort at Jaithak. When they learned that a force of Gorkha soldiers was on their way to relieve the besieged fort, Lt Young was dispatched at the head of a column of 2,000 native Indian troops to intercept. However, this was the moment when Young’s Irregulars were surprise-
According to Mrs Jenkin’s account, when Lt Young was released, he was summoned to explain his experiences to his superior officers. He described the Gorkha’s immense soldiering qualities and vouched for the hillmen as a hardy, brave, humourous and likeable people. His opinion, she said, proved instrumental in persuading the British to enlist the demobilized Gorkhas to serve under the Crown.[xii]
However, it is here that we must question the legend. Early histories of the Nepalese War refer to the defeat of Young’s Irregulars at Jaithak but there is no mention of his capture in any of the key sources. Even if he had been briefly imprisoned and escaped, there would have been some record of the event -
John Pemble, author of The Invasion of Nepal: John Company at War, agrees. He believes that Mrs Jenkin’s romantic account of her father’s captivity, published in 1923, is pure mythology. ‘But it is no less interesting for that’, he reasons. ‘It demonstrates just how powerfully the Gurkhas appealed to the Western imagination in the 1920s’. The Gurkhas extraordinary heroics during the First World War certainly elevated these tough, wiry men to the status of mystical super-
That said, Young is known to have frequently quoted the opinion of the Gorkhas in his conversation. In 1829, for instance, he declared ‘the superiority of the Gorkha army over any other with which the British power has come into contact’. And he also admired their famous credo, ‘Kafar hunu bhanda marnu niko’ – ‘It is better to be dead than live as a coward’.
The Gurkha regiment was not Young’s idea. That ingenuity belongs to his friend William Fraser, a Scottish cavalry officer and political agent. During the latter stages of the Nepalese War, Fraser proposed that the British East Indian Company assemble several thousand Gorkha prisoners and deserters into an Irregular outfit that served for the company.[xiii] Most of those recruited were not ‘real’ Gorkhas as such but Kumaonis, Garhwalis and other Himalayan hill men. At this time the British forces were slowly pushing the Gorkha army higher and higher into the mountain. In April 1816, the Gorkha general Amar Singh was obliged to sue for peace. In recognition of the Gorkha’s heroic defences of their various forts, Amar Singh was permitted to march out with honours, men and arms, and return home.
After the defeat of Amar Singh, Fraser’s Irregulars became an official regiment, the Nasiri Pulteen.[xiv] These groups were eventually grouped together under the term ‘Gurkha’ and became the backbone of British Indian forces.
In 1816, Lt Young became the first British officer to command a regiment of Gurkhas when he was sent to raise a regiment at Sirmoor in Northern India, some 150 miles beyond Nepal's western border. That much is fact. ‘I came there one man’, he later said. ‘And I came back three thousand’. These 3,000 soldiers formed the Sirmoor battalion, later to become the 2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles.[xv] The hierarchy was assumed from the outset -
Lieutenant Young was promoted Captain in 1816 and Major in 1824. The following year he married Jeanette Bird, mother of his eight children.[xvii] By June 1833 he was a Lt Col and serving as Agent in the Himalayan city of Dehradun, near Sirmoor. He built a shooting lodge nearby and so inadvertently founded the famous tourist city of Mussoorie. He also apparently planted the first tea and potato ever grown in the Himalayas. In 1854, he concluded over fifty years of military service in Southern India and retired to his Irish homeland where he lived at Fairy Hill, Bray, Co Wicklow. However, the old warhorse lost all his money when his bank folded in 1854. Shortly afterward he relocated to Ballybrack near his birthplace in Co Donegal.[xviii] General Frederick Young died at his Dublin townhouse, The Albany, Dublin, on 22nd May 1874 aged 88.[xix]
At the partition of India into the two new countries of Pakistan and India in 1947, the Gurkhas were divided between India and Britain. Young’s regiment was among those retained by the British and, in 1994, became part of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. On 21 May 2009, following a high-
[i] Khaluga was, a typical Gurkha garrison, built on a hill 500 feet high and surrounded by dense undergrowth and palisade of rough-
[ii] As a prisoner, Young would have learned how the King of Gorkha had conquered the three ancient kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley. For many long centuries, the three kingdoms were stagnated by constant warring between them. In 1769, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king of Gorkha, seized the opportunity to invade the valley, conquering all three kingdoms and effectively laying the foundations for the present-
[iii] In his book ‘Warrior gentlemen -
[iv] Frederick Young’s older sister Hatton Elizabeth Young (1781-
[v] In 1816, Culdaff was recorded as a tiny village on the river Culdaff comprising of a church, a school-
[vi] The Rev Robert Young became Rector of the Parish of Culdaff in 1661, and of the adjoining parish of Cloncah subsequently. Both parishes belonged to the Chichesters and Robert is said to have come to Ireland from Devonshire under the auspices of the Donegal family. In 1667, he married Anna Cary and had two sons and five daughters. By his second wife Elizabeth Hart of Kilderry, whom he married in 1679, he had a son George (b. 1680) and four daughters. The Rev Young died in 1705. His youngest son George was married in 1702 to Elizabeth, sister of the Rev George Me Laugh (rector of the parish of Clonmanny) and a near relative of Sir Caher O Doherty, proprietor of the barony of Ennishowen. George died in 1730 leaving, with three younger sons and three daughters, a son Robert Young (1703-
[vii] He became an ensign in 1802 and was promoted Lieutenant in 1805.
[viii] As the BEIC were also fighting wars in the Punjab and other areas, they were eager for a quick conquest of the Gorkhas. With an army of 22,000 men, they had numerical superiority, serious weaponry and some useful allies in the form of hill chiefs who had been dispossessed by the Gorkhas. Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa and General Amar Singh Thapa showed no fear, reasoning that the Gorkhas keen understanding of the terrain and experience of fighting against the Chinese and Sikhs would serve them well.
[ix] The Battle of Khalunga began the day before the official declaration of war on 1 November 1814 when Sir Rollo was killed. Colonel Sebright Mawby assumed command and managed to take Kalanga by cutting off its freshwater supplies. However, when Gillespie’s successor Major-
[x] The 4,000 strong British force lost 31 officers and 732 other ranks in the same time-
[xi] Taking a prisoner like Young would have been something of a novelty for the Nepalese warriors. In their recent wars against the Chinese in Tibet and the Sikhs in the Punjab, the military protocol allowed for no prisoners. All those left behind on the field were simply massacred after the battle. But fighting against the British was different. Not only did the British accept prisoners but they also looked after their wounded enemies. This, according to contemporary accounts, greatly impressed the Gorkhas.
[xii] The Anglo-
[xiii] The idea of assembling the Gorkha force of prisoners and deserters is attributed to the swashbuckling Indian officer Hyder Jung Hearsey. It greatly appealed to the Boston-
[xiv] Later in 1815, the Gorkhas rejected the terms offered by the British leading to a second campaign. General Ochterlony invaded Nepal with 20,000 men and gradually surrounded Kathmandu. This Nasiri Pulteen regiment saw action at the Malaun fort under the leadership of Lieutenant Lawtie, who reported to Ochterlony that he "had the greatest reason to be satisfied with their exertions". The Nasiri Pulteen later became the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles.
[xv] Under Colonel Young, the regiment was also known as the 65th Bengal (Goorka) Light Infantry Regiment.
[xvi] An additional battalion, the Kumaon battalion was also raised eventually becoming the 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles.
[xvii] At Cannanore, in the Presidency of Madras, 26 Sept 1843, it was noted that the wife of Lt Col Young of HM’s 25th Regt had a stillborn daughter. (Births: The Times, Thursday, Dec 07, 1843; pg. 7; Issue 18473; col B).
[xviii] (This bank could have been R Guinness & Co which went bankrupt in 1849 or else John Sadlier’s Tipperary Joint Stock Bank which collapsed in 1856.
[xix] He became an ensign in 1802 and was promoted Lieutenant in 1805, captain 1816, major 1826, lt-
Another son may have been Frank Young, a 23-
With thanks to Winnie Healy, Charles Allen, Mike Allen, Tom Sykes and John Pemble.
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Jenkins, Louisa Hadow Young, General Frederick Young; first commandant of Sirmur battalion (Second Gurka rifles) the life-
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