John Manners-Smith VC

John Manners-Smith VC


5th Gurkha (Rifle) Regiment


Hunza-Naga Campaign


20th December 1891


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His Story

Born in Lahore in August 1864, at the age of 22, John Manners-Smith was appointed as a Lieutenant to the 5th Goorkha Regiment (The Hazara Goorkha Battalion). 

It was the following year that he left the Regiment for the Political Department and in 1891 he was on special duty in Gilgit at the same time as the Hunza-Nagar Expedition was being assembled at Chalt. 

The Field Force included the 5th Gurkha (Rifle) Regiment and Lieutenant Manners-Smith joined the Field Force as a Political Officer. 

During the storming of the fortress at Nilt on 2nd December 1891, Manners-Smith led the supporting force of Puniali Levies and the handful of rifles of the 20th Punjab Infantry on to the projecting spur adjacent to the fort, and thence gave close support to the assault by the I/5th Gurkhas when the gateway battle was joined and the fortress captured. 

The Field Force had halted for the night at Nilt after the successes of 2nd December and then attempted to advance and secure the enemy stronghold of Maiun.  

After exhaustive reconnaissance, night after night, a Dogra sepoy, Nagdu, of The Kashmir Bodyguard Regiment, from a patient study of the ground, concluded that although extremely hazardous, a way existed, possibly for cragsmen (skilled rock climbers), up the face of the Thol Cliffs.  He had already succeeded at a second attempt, to scale to a point close to four enemy sangars.  These were cleverly sited to dominate the ravine approaches and to provide mutual support to Maiun, and were strongly held.  It was decided to attempt the storming of the sangars by this difficult approach. 

The plan of attack was simple and was to be executed on the night of 20th December. Before moonrise at 10pm, Lieutenant Manners-Smith, accompanied by Lieutenant M A P Taylor of the 5th Gurkhas, was to lead out one hundred men and, under cover of darkness, reach a point on the floor of the Nilt Ravine immediately below the four enemy sangars explored by Sepoy Nagdu.  At dawn, the assault force (covered by support fire provided by selected marksmen in position on the spur above Nilt Fort) was to climb the Thol Cliffs and overcome the enemy positions.  The ‘support fire’ party comprised men of the 5th Gurkhas, the 20th Punjab Infantry and the Kashmir battalions, divided into four groups (one to cover each sangar), together with two seven-pounder guns of the Hazara Mountain Battery. 

At 7pm. Lieutenant Manners-Smith and his men started for the selected hiding place in the ravine below the sangar objectives.  Sounds of drumbeats were heard from the direction of Maiun but it soon became clear that the first important phase was undetected by the enemy.  

Before daylight, the covering troops left camp to take up position on the projecting spur and at 8am, when it was light enough to see clearly, fire was opened on the four sangars by the spur party.  The climbers then left their temporary shelter and started the ascent. The cliff was so steep that they remained out of sight of both the occupants of the sangars and the enemy positions on the opposite side of the ravine. Their objective was at a height of more than twelve hundred feet above the bed of the ravine, and, watched anxiously by their comrades, they surmounted laboriously one difficult passage after another, until only four hundred feet remained to be negotiated.  At this point, Manners-Smith and his advance party of fifty men of the 5th Gurkhas faltered and came to a standstill.  Descending to the nala, they made a fresh attempt, this time reaching a point only sixty yards from the nearest enemy sangar before shouting and drumbeats from Maiun Fort alerted the enemy to their presence.   

Spurred on by the danger confronting them, the enemy left the shelter of their sangars to hurl down rocks upon the climbers. 

Displaying great coolness and judgment, Manners-Smith worked forward gradually towards the objective.  Seizing every chance that offered, he and the leading Gurkhas reached the relatively flat ground on which the sangars were sited.  The first was rapidly surrounded, shots were fired through the opening in its rear, and a rush made for the interior.  Among the first to enter was Harkia Thapa, Manners-Smith’s orderly, whose conspicuous gallantry earned for him the Indian Order of Merit.   

A number of the enemy were killed before they could escape and, of those who fled, the fire of the covering detachment accounted for many more.  With the arrival of more men from below, the remaining three sangar positions were cleared and no time was lost in dealing with the neighbouring breastworks on the mountain-side. The effect of this brilliant coup was to turn completely the enemy’s left flank and to threaten his retreat.  Realisation of this was almost immediate as long lines of fugitives were observed streaming up the valley as they quit the strongholds of Maiun and Thol.   

Orders were issued for the pursuit and, having left detachments to deal with Thol and Maiun, the Force, led by the men of the 5th Gurkhas, pushed rapidly up the valley and reached Pisan, some seven miles distant from Nilt.  The action of the 20th December brought about the final collapse of enemy resistance.  Remaining enemy strong-points were either surrendered or abandoned on the approach of our troops.  One hundred of the enemy had been killed and one hundred and twenty captured, but more importantly the Hunza and Nagar, the hitherto unconquered brigands of the Kashmir frontier had been subdued. 

Legacy & Later Life

Lieutenant John Manners-Smith received the coveted award of the Victoria Cross that was announced in the London Gazette in July 1892 in the following terms: 

“For his conspicuous bravery when leading the storming party at the attack and capture of the strong position occupied by the enemy near Nilt, in the Hunza-Nagar Country, on the 20th December, 1891. 

The position was, owing to the nature of the country, an extremely strong one, and had barred the advance of the force for seventeen days. It was eventually forced by a small party of 50 rifles, with another of equal strength in support.  The first of these parties was under the command of Lieutenant Smith, and it was entirely owing to his splendid leading, and the coolness, combined with dash, he displayed while doing so, that a success was obtained.  For nearly four hours, on the face of a cliff which was almost precipitous, he steadily moved his handful of men from point to point, as the difficulties of the ground and showers of stones from above gave him an opportunity, and during the whole of this time he was in such a position as to be unable to defend himself from any attack the enemy might choose to make. 

He was the first man to reach the summit, within a few yards of one of the enemy’s sungars, which was immediately rushed, Lieutenant Smith pistolling the first man”. 

A number of tributes have been written about Manners-Smith’s personal qualities.  Sir Mortimer Durand wrote of him, “Manners-Smith was as kindly and trustworthy as he was brave.  One could depend on him in all circumstances, not only upon his courage, but also upon his unselfish devotion to duty.  Loyalty was the mainspring of his character”.  Another wrote, “He was a man of the toughest physique, great hardihood, unbounded energy, and indomitable courage.  He was a keen sportsman and devoted to big game shooting and the rough tribesmen of the high Himalayan valleys used to declare that he was the only Englishman who could surpass them on their own mountainsides”. 

Sir John Smyth said in his “Story of the Victoria Cross” (page 117), “There are four VC’s I have known who literally did not know the meaning of fear.  These were Carton de Wiart, with his one eye and one arm, the most shot about VC of them all. General Lord Freyberg, Field Marshal Lord Gort, and Jack Manners-Smith”. 

He was badly mauled by a panther in 1919 when shooting in Rajputana but from this he recovered. He died in January 1920 aged 55. 

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