Colonel Leslie Shakespear, CB CIE

 A distinguished Sirmoori who saw much active service on the North-East Frontier of India and in Mesopotamia, was awarded the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for saving the life of a drowning bugler, and took an active tactical role in military operations in Assam at the age of 58.

Shakespear as a Lieutenant circa 1890.  (This and other photographs of him below are
courtesy of Major JNW Shakespear, his great-grandson, who also served in the 2nd Goorkhas from 1969 to 1991).

Colonel Leslie Waterfield Shakespear was born on 5 September 1860, son of Major General John Shakespear – nicknamed ‘Chummy Shakes’ – who had served in the Honourable East India Company.  Leslie Shakespear was educated in Germany, first near Koblenz and later in Heidelberg, before attending an Anglican Military Academy in Wimbledon.  He spent a final year at Dr Fleming’s crammer in Tonbridge followed by the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

Shakespear was gazetted in January 1881 and appointed to the 75th (The Stirlingshire) Regiment of Foot.  Shortly after joining he embarked with his Regiment on the SS Egypt to take part in operations in South Africa.  However the war ended while the Regiment was on its way and the troops disembarked at Malta.  He was then transferred, in July 1881, to the 2nd Bn The King’s (Liverpool Regiment) which he joined at Mian Meer, the cantonment for Lahore, where he served for the next three years.

In January 1885 Shakespear was transferred to the Bombay Staff Corps and posted to the 25th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry (later 125th Napier’s Rifles) as a Company Officer.  In April 1885 he was transferred to the Bengal Staff Corps and posted to the 38th Bengal Infantry in which he was also a Company Officer.  From March 1886 he was with the 2nd Battalion 1st Gurkha Rifles based at Dharamsala but in June 1886 he transferred yet again to the newly raised 2nd Battalion 2nd Goorkhas at Dehra Dun, again as a Company Officer.

In February 1887 he was appointed Quartermaster and took part in the Chin-Lushai Expedition of 1889 -90.  This was the first operational tour by the 2nd Battalion in which initially a detachment consisting only of the Battalion HQ and a Wing was deployed for operations in the South Looshai Hills.  They sailed from Calcutta on the SS Simla for Chittagong and then went by river steamer some 300 kms up the Karnafuli River to Demagiri, the advanced base of the Chittagong Field Force.  Here they joined Brigadier General Tregear’s Column.  This had been raised as a ‘cold weather’ punitive force in response to marauding Shendu tribesmen who had attacked and killed members of a British survey party.  From Demagiri the Column undertook a difficult approach march over steep jungle terrain to the Mooisoom Hills.  After some cursory contact with the enemy tribesmen the Column established a strongly defended outpost to be manned by the Frontier Police and in March 1889 returned to India.  The 2nd Bn Detachment reached Dehra Dun in May.

Between May and October that year Shakespear qualified in Army Signalling, Musketry, Parvatia (the hill language spoken by the soldiers) and also for Staff employment.

In October 1889 the entire 2nd Battalion was ordered to return to the Looshai Hills and rejoined Brigadier General Tregear’s Column at Chittagong, which now comprised:

28th Bombay Pioneers
Wing 4th Goorkhas
2nd Battalion 2nd Goorkhas
2 x guns Bombay Mountain Battery
1 x company Sappers and Miners

In December 1889 Shakespear was appointed Adjutant of the 2nd Battalion. The Column, despite an outbreak of cholera, reached Lung Leh in January 1890 where three companies were sent to the Northern Looshai Hils.  The remainder (including Shakespear) continued on across the river Koladyne to link up with ‘Burma Force’, Brigadier General Penn Symons’s Column.  At a height of 1500m they helped to construct a large fortified post named Fort Tregear.

In March 1890, the Column returned down the Karnafuli River in wooden dugouts to Rangamatti and then by river steamer to Chittagong.  On 3 April 1890 at Kodala, about 40 km north of Chittagong, Shakespear displayed considerable personal courage in saving a bugler from drowning in the Karnafuli River for which he was awarded Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal.  The citation read:

‘On the 3rd April 1890 , the steamer with flats in tow was bringing the Battalion back from Looshailand to India down the Karnafuli River and had reached Kodala Tea Garden, some 25 miles above Chittagong.  It was evening and the vessel approached the bank to land men for cooking purposes; Lieutenant Shakespear had just crossed the plank connecting the vessel with the bank when Bugler Aitia Damaie slipped off the plank into the river and there being a strong ebb tide was swept under one of the flats and reappeared struggling with his water bottle and haversack which had got entangled round his neck and arm.  Seeing his perilous condition Lieutenant Shakespear jumped in as he was, in uniform, and swam out to the bugler, who seized him, and both disappeared.  The current was carrying them down stream when Subahadur Mudden Sing, who had landed, seized a long bamboo pole, rushed down the bank to the point where some rocks jutted out into the stream, from which he held out the pole which could just be seized by Lieutenant Shakespear as the current carried them past.  Pushing the bugler in front with one hand, the officer was dragged ashore in an exhausted condition.’  Shakespear was subsequently presented with his medal by Major General Sir John Hudson KCB General Officer Commanding the Meerut Division in March 1891 who commented: ’In the heat and excitement of battle many gallant deeds were done, some of which justly earned the coveted distinction of the VC, but it might be said that the brilliancy of such deeds was almost surpassed whe , as in this present case, without such exciting circumstances, in the calmness of cold blood, a man risked his life for the rescue of his fellow creature.’

In November 1891, at the end of his time as Adjutant, he was sent to Darjeeling to withdraw the depot there and move it to Purneah, where it came under command of the main depot at Gorakhpur.  In February 1892 the Nepalese Governor of Dhankuta district invited Shakespear across the border to Rangali to discuss some difficulties concerning the recruiting parties being sent into Nepal.  His unofficial attendance at this small durbar may have ironed out issues but it later attracted the ire of the British Resident in Nepal who demanded explanations.  Fortunately, the British Resident in Gorakhpur backed him up and the storm subsided.

Shakespear recruiting circa 1891.

In March 1895 Shakespear was with the 2nd Battalion when it was ordered to form part of the ‘Moveable Column’ of the Chitral Relief Force at Abbottabad under the command of Colonel A Gaselee, a separate organisation to the 15,000-strong Chitral Relief Force commanded by Major General Sir Robert Low.  It took the 2nd Battalion ten days to reach Abbottabad from Dehra Dun, but hopes of active service disappeared when the Kohistani tribesmen returned to their valleys.  However, with land around Dehra Dun lacking any any steep hills or mountains, an opportunity was taken to carry out useful piquet training when some men from the 2nd Battalion commanded by Shakespear and Captain Hall were detailed to work alongside the 5th Goorkhas whose depot was at Abbottabad.  The Regimental Historian commented: ‘Although their stay at Abbottabad was not productive of the excitement of service, it proved of help and use in other ways, for both the 5th and the 2nd Goorkhas found each could learn something from each other and a great friendship was established between the two sister corps.’

In November 1895 Shakespear was transferred to the 1st Battalion as  Officiating Wing Commander but rejoined the 2nd Battalion in January 1896.  In May 1897 he was appointed Commandant of the Naga Hills Military Police Battalion in Kohima, Assam, in which appointment he remained until 1902.  On arrival in Kohima to take over command, his predecessor told Shakespear that he would be sorry to give it up.  Indeed for a while he did miss the 2nd Goorkhas and apparently felt like ‘a rat in a trap’.  However, on leaving he wrote that ‘his five years with the Military Police had been of the best and he parted with as good a lot of Goorkha officers and men as one could serve with’.   Although headquartered in Kohima the Naga Hills Military Police battalion had seven outposts.  Busy with training and inspections, Shakespear toured the hills extensively, visiting not only the outposts but local villages and their gaonburas (headmen), chasing transgressors and occasionally involved in punitive tours targeted against recalcitrant Naga villages.  The formidable tribes with their intriguing cultures together with the strenuous terrain suited his interests and his appetite for adventure which took him to inaccessible territory and remote peoples including the Bhamo on the Chinese border, visited during a 10 week leave tour.

Shakespear, as a Captain, when Commandant of the Naga Hills Military Police.

While in Assam Shakespear had been promoted to Major and appointed, first as a Wing Commander in the 2nd Battalion and then, in November 1899, as Second-in-Command – but continued in his Assam appointment.  In August 1902 he returned to the 1st Battalion as Second-in-Command and officiated in command for a short while.  In April 1906 Shakespear was promoted Lieutenant Colonel and transferred back to the 2nd Battalion as Commandant, remaining in that appointment until April 1911. The Digest of Service stated: ‘His tact and kindness, generosity and sympathy were all beyond the common, and he retired, it may be said, the best loved Commanding Officer the Battalion had ever had.’

He was promoted to Colonel in January 1911and appointed officiating AQMG 7th ( Meerut ) Division until November 1911 when he was placed on the Unemployed List.  In September 1913 he was appointed AQMG 6th (Poona) Division commanded by Major General Arthur Barrett and, in November 1914, embarked with the Division at Bombay for Mesopotamia.  They were the first British Indian troops to arrive at Mesopotamia and on 6 November quickly overcame the Ottoman position at Fao.  Shakespear was present at the subsequent Battle of Sahil fought on the following day when the Ottomans suffered 1000 casualties.  By 12 November 1914 the British had occupied Basra.  He was also at the Battle of Shaiba in April 1915 when the Turks in attempting to recapture Basra with a force of 18000 were defeated by a much smaller British force of 7000.

Shakespear continued to serve on the Staff of HQ 6th (Poona) Division, now commanded by Major General Sir Charles Townshend.  Embarked on HMS Espiegle the Division pursued the Turks and their gun boats up the River Tigris towards Kut and Shakespear was present at the action at Qurna.  The 50°C heat affected the British troops with increasing cases of both dysentery and sunstroke.  In October 1915 Shakespear was invalided to England for six months before returning to Mesopotamia in April 1916 as Base Commandant, Amara.  However he never took up the post because when he arrived in Iraq in May 1916 he discovered that he had been appointed as AQMG HQ 15th Division, commanded by Major General Sir Harry Brooking and located at Nasiriyah on the Euphrates.  In September 1916 Shakespear took part in the action at As Sahilan and in March 1917 he moved with the Division to Baghdad.  He was twice Mentioned in Despatches (London Gazette April 1916 and August 1917).

Shakespear retired from Regular Army service on 5 September 1917 having reached the age limit of 57 as a Colonel.  He left Iraq for India in September and in the King’s Birthday Honours 1918 he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for his services in Mesopotamia and Iraq.  It was the habit in the First World War for countries to share quotas of decorations with their allies and Shakespear was also awarded the Russian Order of St Stanislaus (2nd Class) with Swords.

On his arrival in India in November 1917 Shakespear was made Deputy Inspector General Assam Rifles in Shillong, a temporary and nominally civilian employment.

Shakespear (left) as Deputy Inspector General Assam Rifles.

From January to May 1918 he took part in operations connected with the Kuki Rebellion on the North East Frontier.  The cause of the revolt was the decision to recruit tribesmen from the area of the Naga Hills to act as a labour corps in support of the British forces fighting in France.  While some tribes accepted this policy it was vehemently opposed by the Kuki tribe who fought a campaign against the well-armed British amongst the hills around Imphal.  Shakespear, who had been on active service in that part of the world almost twenty years earlier, learnt that the Kukis had been attacking posts in the Chindwin Valley and he moved to Imphal to control events.  He joined the punitive Column commanded by Capt H Coote of the 2nd (Sadiya) Battalion Assam Rifles and is mentioned in an account: ‘Coote set about his own task of punishing insurgents in the Mombi area.  His column marched through thick jungle for five days.  On 7 February 1918, having destroyed several villages, Coote was advancing along a densely-wooded ridge when he was ambushed.  Both Shakspeare and Higgins led flanking parties but the steep terrain defied their efforts to get behind the Kuki stockade.  Meanwhile Coote was losing men killed and wounded.  After 45 minutes of heavy firing from an almost invisible enemy the mountain gun was brought forward but the gun crew were hit.  Coote then decided to rush the position with Jemadar Kharga Singh’s platoon accompanied by Shakespear advancing on the left, whilst Coote and others provided covering fire, but the Kukis had not chosen to stand and fight and had withdrawn …bloodstains and trails confirm several Kuki casualties.’

Shakespear remained active during the campaign until May 1918.  It had proved to be an embarrassment for the Government of India who denied it any publicity.  The appointment of Lieutenant General Sir Henry Keary as commander of the campaign coincided with the issue of superior weapons including the Lewis machine gun and mortars.  The combination of these factors resulted in the disarming of the Kukis and by May 1919 all operations had been terminated.  Shakespear was made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire for his work during the Rebellion.

He finally retired on 1 October 1921 and lived in Ealing and later in Sutton Valence, Kent.  He died on 10 October 1933 and is buried in Gunnersbury cemetery.

Shakespear was a keen shikari and polo player.  He was also a golfer and in 1890 he was responsible for establishing the first golf course in Dehra Dun.  He was an accomplished military historian who in addition to writing Volumes I and II of the History of the 2nd Goorkhas, also wrote The History of the Assam Rifles, History of Upper Assam, Upper Burma and the North East Frontier, and A Local History of Poona and its Battlefields.  While serving in the Looshai Hills in the 1880s he began to write for The Pioneer as a means of supplementing his income and he continued writing for them for a number of years.

He was also a talented etcher and his books contain several of his own illustrations (including Volume II of the Regimental History).  Both he and his first wife were enthusiastic photographers and from 1898 they used hand-held cameras which had recently became available.  His books are also illustrated by his photographs.

He married first, in March 1885, Miss Constance Biddulph.  Sadly she died at sea in February 1914 on her way to England and he married secondly, Miss Sibell Barton-Smith, in September 1920.   He and his first wife had one son, Major W B Shakespear, who also served in the 2nd Goorkhas.

His decorations and medals are in the possession of the Shakespear family.


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