The Story of the Malakand Field Force (Part 9)

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Editor’s note:  Here follows the ninth chapter of The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War, by Winston S. Churchill (published 1898).  All spelling in the original.

(Continued from Part 8)


While the infantry of both brigades remained halted at Ghosam, near Manda, the cavalry made daily reconnaissances in all directions. Sometimes the object in view was topographical, sometimes military, and at others diplomatic, or to use the Indian application of the term, “political.”

On the 10th, Major Deane visited the various chiefs in the Jandul Valley. I asked and obtained permission to accompany him. A change from the hot and dusty camp was agreeable to all who could be spared, and quite a party was formed, among whom were some whose names have occurred previously in these pages—Major Beatson, Major Hobday, and Lord Fincastle. A squadron of the 11th Bengal Lancers acted as escort.

The valley of the Jandul is about eight miles long and perhaps half as broad. It opens out of the main valley, which extends from the Panjkora to Nawagai, and is on all other sides surrounded by high and precipitous mountains. The bed of the river, although at the time of our visit occupied only by a small stream, is nearly half a mile broad and bordered by rice fields, to which the water is conducted by many artfully contrived dykes and conduits. The plain itself is arid and sandy, but at the winter season yields a moderate crop. The presence of water below the surface is attested by numerous groves of chenar trees.

This valley may, in natural and political features, be taken as typical of the Afghan valleys. Seven separate castles formed the strongholds of seven separate khans. Some of these potentates had been implicated in the attack on the Malakand, and our visit to their fastnesses was not wholly of an amicable nature. They had all four days before been bound by the most sacred oaths to fight to the death. The great tribal combination had, however, broken up, and at the last moment they had decided upon peace. But the Pathan does nothing by halves. No black looks, no sullen reserve, marred the geniality of their welcome. As we approached the first fortified village the sovereign and his army rode out to meet us, and with many protestations of fidelity, expressed his joy at our safe arrival. He was a fine-looking man and sat well on a stamping roan stallion. His dress was imposing. A waistcoat of gorgeous crimson, thickly covered with gold lace, displayed flowing sleeves of white linen, buttoned at the wrist. Long, loose, baggy, linen trousers, also fastened above the ankle, and curiously pointed shoes clothed his nether limbs. This striking costume was completed by a small skull-cap, richly embroidered, and an ornamental sabre.

Sir Harold Arthur Deane

He sprang from his horse with grace and agility, to offer his sword to Major Deane, who bade him mount and ride with him. The army, four or five rascally-looking men on shaggy ponies, and armed with rifles of widely different patterns, followed at a distance. The fort was an enclosure about a hundred yards square. Its walls were perhaps twenty feet high and built of rough stones plastered together with mud and interspersed with courses of timber. All along the top was a row of loopholes. At each corner a tall flanking tower enfiladed the approaches. At the gate of this warlike residence some twenty or thirty tribesmen were gathered, headed by the khan’s own cousin, an elderly man dressed in long white robes. All saluted us gravely. The escort closed up. A troop trotted off to the right out of the line fire of the fort. The advance scouts, passing round the walls, formed on the farther side. These matters of detail complied with, conversation began. It was conducted in Pushtu, and was naturally unintelligible to every one of our party except the two political officers. Apparently Major Deane reproached the two chiefs for their conduct. He accused them of having seized the bridge across the Panjkora and delivered the passage to the fanatic crowds that had gathered to attack the Malakand. This they admitted readily enough. “Well, why not?” said they; “there was a good fair fight.” Now they would make peace. They bore no malice, why should the Sirkar?

It was not, however, possible to accept this sportsmanlike view of the situation. They were asked where were the rifles they had been ordered to surrender. At this they looked blank. There were no rifles. There never had been any rifles. Let the soldiers search the fort and see for themselves. The order was given; three or four sowars drew their carbines, dismounted and entered the great and heavy gate, which had been suspiciously opened a little way.

The gate gave access to a small courtyard, commanded on every side by an interior defence. In front was a large low room of uncertain dimensions: a kind of guard-house. It simply hummed with men. The outer walls were nearly five feet thick and would have resisted the fire of mountain guns. It was a strong place.

The Lancers, accustomed to the operation of hunting for arms, hurriedly searched the likely and usual places, but without success. One thing, however, they noticed, which they immediately reported. There were no women and children in the fort. This had a sinister aspect. Our visit was unexpected and had taken them by surprise, but they were prepared for all emergencies. They had hidden their rifles and cleared for action.

The two chiefs smiled in superior virtue. Of course there were no rifles. But matters took, for them, an unexpected turn. They had no rifles—said Major Deane—very well, they should come themselves. He turned to an officer of the Lancers; a section rode forward and surrounded both men. Resistance was useless. Flight was impossible. They were prisoners. Yet they behaved with Oriental composure and calmly accepted the inevitable. They ordered their ponies and, mounting, rode behind us under escort.

We pursued our way up the valley. As we approached each fort, a khan and his retainers advanced and greeted us. Against these there was no definite charge, and the relations throughout were amicable. At the head of the valley is Barwa, the home of the most powerful of these princelets. This fort had belonged to Umra Khan, and attested, by superiority of construction, the intellectual development of that remarkable man. After the Chitral expedition it had been given by the Government to its present owner, who, bitterly hated by the other chieftains of the valley, his near relatives mostly, had no choice but loyalty to the British. He received us with courtesy and invited us to enter and see the fort. This, after taking all precautions and posting sentries, we did. It was the best specimen of Afghan architecture I have seen. In this very fort Lieutenants Fowler and Edwards were confined in 1895, when the prisoners of Umra Khan. The new chief showed their room which opened on a balcony, whence a fine view of the whole valley could be obtained. There are many worse places of durance. The fort is carefully defended and completely commands the various approaches. Judicious arrangements of loopholes and towers cover all dead ground. Inside the walls galleries of brushwood enabled the defenders to fire without exposing themselves. In the middle is the keep, which, if Fortune were adverse, would be the last stronghold of the garrison.

What a strange system of society is disclosed by all this! Here was this man, his back against the mountains, maintaining himself against the rest of the valley, against all his kin, with the fear of death and the chances of war ever in his mind, and holding his own, partly by force of arms, partly by the support of the British agents, and partly through the incessant feuds of his adversaries.

It is “all against all,” in these valleys. The two khans who had been arrested would have fled to the hills. They knew they were to be punished. Still they dared not leave their stronghold. A neighbour, a relation, a brother perhaps, would step into the unguarded keep and hold it for his own. Every stone of these forts is blood-stained with treachery; each acre of ground the scene of a murder. In Barwa itself, Umra Khan slew his brother, not in hot anger or open war, but coldly and deliberately from behind. Thus he obtained power, and the moralist might observe with a shudder, that but for the “Forward Policy” he would probably be in full enjoyment to-day. This Umra Khan was a man of much talent, a man intellectually a head and shoulders above his countrymen. He was a great man, which on the frontier means that he was a great murderer, and might have accomplished much with the quick-firing guns he was negotiating for, and the troops he was drilling “on the European model.” The career of this Afghan Napoleon was cut short, however, by the intervention of Providence in the guise or disguise of the Indian Government. He might have been made use of. People who know the frontier well, say that a strong man who has felt the grip of the British power is the best tool to work with, and that if Umra Khan, humbled and overawed, had been reinstated, he might have done much to maintain law and order. As long as they fight, these Afghans do not mind much on which side they fight. There are worse men and worse allies helping us to-day. The unpractical may wonder why we, a people who fill some considerable place in the world, should mix in the petty intrigues of these border chieftains, or soil our hands by using such tools at all. Is it fitting that Great Britain should play off one brutal khan against his neighbours, or balance one barbarous tribe against another? It is as much below our Imperial dignity, as it would be for a millionaire to count the lumps in the sugar-basin. If it be necessary for the safety of our possessions that these territories should be occupied, it would be more agreeable to our self-respect that we should take them with a strong hand. It would be more dignified, but nothing costs more to keep up than dignity, and it is perhaps because we have always been guided by sound commercial principles in this respect that we have attained our present proud position.

After looking round the fortress and admiring the skill and knowledge with which it was built, we were conducted by the khan to the shade of some beautiful chenar trees, which grew near a little spring not far from the walls of the fort. Here were a number of charpoys, or native bedsteads, very comfortable, but usually full of bugs, and on these we sat.

Remembering Maizar, and many other incidents of frontier hospitality, sentries were posted on all the approaches and a sufficient guard kept under arms. Then we had breakfast—a most excellent breakfast.

The arrangements for the comfort and convenience of the troops of the Frontier Force are unequalled. They live more pleasantly and with less discomfort on active service than does a British regiment at the Aldershot manoeuvres. Whether the march be long or short, peaceful or opposed, whether the action be successful or the reverse, their commissariat never fails. In fact it is only just to say that they have always lances and bullets for an enemy, and sandwiches and “pegs” for a friend.

On this occasion, our provisions were supplemented by the hospitality of the khan. A long row of men appeared, each laden with food. Some carried fruit,—pears or apples; others piles of chupatties, or dishes of pillau.

Nor were our troopers forgotten. The Mahommedans among them eagerly accepted the proffered food. But the Sikhs maintained a remorseful silence and declined it. They could not eat what had been prepared by Mussulman hands, and so they sat gazing wistfully at the appetising dishes, and contented themselves with a little fruit.

Very austere and admirable they looked, almost painfully conscious of their superior virtue. But I could not help thinking that had we not been spectators the chenar trees might have witnessed the triumph of reason over religious prejudice.

During the heat of the day we rested in this pleasant grove, and with sleep and conversation passed the hours away, while the sentries pacing to and fro alone disturbed the illusion that this was some picnic party in a more propitious land. Then, as the shadows lengthened, we started upon our return to camp.

On arriving, the political officers were pleased, and the soldiers disappointed, to find that the tribesmen were determined to accept the Government terms. A hundred rifles from the Utman Khels had already been surrendered, and now lay outside Major Deane’s tent, surrounded by a crowd of officers, who were busily engaged in examining them.

Opinion is divided, and practice has followed opinion as to whether, in a tale of travel or of war, it is preferable to intersperse the narrative with conclusions and discussions, or to collect them all in a final chapter. I shall unhesitatingly embrace the former method. The story shall be told as it happened, and the reader’s attention will be directed to such considerations and reflections as arise by the way. It will therefore be convenient to make a digression into the question of the supply of arms to the frontier tribes, while a hundred rifles, probably a representative hundred, are piled in the main street of the camp at Ghosam.

The perpetual state of intestine war, in which the border peoples live, naturally creates a keen demand for deadly weapons. A good Martini-Henry rifle will always command a price in these parts of Rs.400 or about 25 British pounds. As the actual value of such a rifle does not exceed Rs.50, it is evident that a very large margin of profit accrues to the enterprising trader. All along the frontier, and from far down into India, rifles are stolen by expert and cunning thieves. One tribe, the Ut Khels, who live in the Laghman Valley, have made the traffic in arms their especial business. Their thieves are the most daring and their agents the most cunning. Some of their methods are highly ingenious. One story is worth repeating. A coffin was presented for railway transport. The relatives of the deceased accompanied it. The dead man, they said, had desired to be buried across the frontier. The smell proclaimed the corpse to be in an advanced state of decomposition. The railway officials afforded every facility for the passage of so unpleasant an object. No one checked its progress. It was unapproachable. It was only when coffin and mourners were safe across the frontier that the police were informed that a dozen rifles had been concealed in the coffin, and that the corpse was represented by a quarter of “well hung” beef!

I regret to have to state, that theft is not the only means by which the frontier tribes obtain weapons. Of a hundred rifles, which the Utman Khels had surrendered, nearly a third were condemned Government Martinis, and displayed the Government stamp. Now no such rifles are supposed to exist. As soon as they are condemned, the arsenal authorities are responsible that they are destroyed, and this is in every case carried out under European supervision. The fact, that such rifles are not destroyed and are found in the possession of trans-frontier tribesmen, points to a very grave instance of dishonest and illegal traffic being carried on by some person connected with the arsenal. It need hardly be said that a searching inquiry was instituted.

Another point connected with these rifles is that even when they have been officially destroyed, by cutting them in three pieces, the fractions have a marketable value. Several were shown me which had been rejoined by the tribesmen. These were, of course, very dangerous weapons indeed. The rest of the hundred had strange tales to tell. Two or three were Russian military rifles, stolen probably from the distant posts in Central Asia. One was a Snider, taken at Maiwand, and bearing the number of the ill-fated regiment to which it had belonged. Some had come from Europe, perhaps overland through Arabia and Persia; others from the arms factory at Cabul. It was a strange instance of the tireless efforts of Supply to meet Demand.

The importance of the arms question cannot be exaggerated. The long-range rifle fire, which has characterised the great frontier war, is a new feature. Hitherto our troops have had to face bold sword charges but comparatively little firing. Against the former, modern weapons are effective. But no discipline and no efficiency can stop bullets hitting men. This is a small part of the question. In the matter of fighting, what is good enough for the tribesmen should be good enough for the soldier. A more serious consideration is raised than that of casualties, which are after all only the inseparable concomitant of glory. Transport in mountainous countries depends entirely on mules and camels. A great number are needed even to supply one brigade. At night these animals have to be packed closely in an entrenched camp. It is not possible to find camping grounds in the valleys which are not commanded by some hill or assailable from some nullah. It is dangerous to put out pickets, as they may be “rushed” or, in the event of a severe attack, shot down, by the fire of their main body. [This applies to Swat and Bajaur, where the sword charge is still to be apprehended.] The result is that the transport animals must be exposed to long-range fire at night. The reader will observe, as the account proceeds, that on two occasions a large number of transport mules were killed in this way. When a certain number are killed, a brigade is as helpless as a locomotive without coal. It cannot move. Unless it be assisted it must starve. Every year the tribesmen will become better marksmen, more completely armed with better rifles. If they recognise the policy of continually firing at our animals, they may bring all operations to a standstill. And so by this road I reach the conclusion that whatever is to be done on the frontier, should be done as quickly as possible. But to return to the story.

The next day, the 11th of September, the troops remained halted at Ghosam, and another squadron was ordered to escort the Intelligence Officer, Captain H.E. Stanton, D.S.O., while making a topographical reconnaissance of the passes into the Utman Khel country. The opportunity of making fresh maps and of adding to and correcting the detail of existing maps only occurs when troops are passing through the country, and must not be neglected. The route lay up the main valley which leads to Nawagei. We started early, but the way was long and the sun high before we reached the entrance of the pass. The landscape was one of the strangest I shall ever see. On the opposite bank of the river were the dwellings of the Utman Khels, and in an area seven miles by three, I counted forty-six separate castles, complete with moats, towers and turrets. The impression produced was extraordinary. It suggested Grimm’s fairy tales. It almost seemed as if we had left the natural earth and strayed into some strange domain of fancy, the resort of giants or ogres.

To reach the pass, we were compelled to traverse a large village, and as the situation in the narrow, winding streets was about as awkward for cavalry as could be imagined, every possible precaution was taken to guard against attack. At length the squadron passed safely through and formed up on the farther side. The steep ascent to the passes became visible. As there were two routes to be reconnoitered, the party was divided, and after a hasty breakfast we commenced the climb. For a considerable distance it was possible to ride. At every difficult turn of the track sowars were posted to secure the retreat, if it should be necessary to come back in a hurry. The head man of the village furnished a guide, a cheery and amusing fellow, who professed much solicitude for our safety. But no reliance could be placed on these people, and on the opposite side of the valley numerous figures could be seen moving along and keeping pace with our advancing party. At length the horses and the greater part of the escort had to be abandoned. I accompanied Captain Stanton, and Captain Cole, who commanded the squadron and was also Reuter’s correspondent, with a couple of troopers to the top of the pass. The day was intensely hot, and the arduous climb excited a thirst which there was nothing to allay. At length we gained the summit, and stood on the Kotal.

Far below us was a valley, into which perhaps no white man had looked since Alexander crossed the mountains on his march to India. Numerous villages lay dotted about in its depths, while others nestled against the hills. Isolated forts were distinguishable, while large trees showed there was no lack of water. It was a view that repaid the exertions of the climb, even if it did not quench the thirst they had excited.

While Captain Stanton was making his sketch,—one of those useful view-sketches, now taking the place of all others, in rapid cavalry reconnaissance, we amused our fancy by naming the drinks we should order, were a nice, clean European waiter at hand to get them. I forget what my selection was, but it was something very long and very cold. Alas! how far imagination lags behind reality. The vivid impressions which we conjured up—the deep glasses, and the clinking ice—did little to dissipate the feelings of discomfort.

Our guide meanwhile squatted on the ground and pronounced the names of all the villages, as each one was pointed at. To make sure there was no mistake, the series of questions was repeated. This time he gave to each an entirely different name with an appearance of great confidence and pride. However, one unpronounceable name is as good as another, and the villages of the valley will go down to official history, christened at the caprice of a peasant. But perhaps many records, now accepted as beyond dispute, are derived from such a slender authority.

The sketch finished, we commenced the descent and reached our horses without incident. The squadron concentrated near the village, and we heard that the other sketching party had met with more adventures than had fallen to our lot.

It was commanded by Lieutenant Hesketh, a young officer, who was severely wounded at the storming of the Malakand Pass in 1895, and who, having again volunteered for active service, was attached to the 11th Bengal Lancers. At the foot of the pass he dismounted his troop and, taking a few men with him, began the climb. The pass was occupied by tribesmen, who threatened to fire on the party if they advanced farther. The subaltern replied, that he only wished to see the country on the other side and did not intend to harm any one. At the same time he pursued his way and the tribesmen, not wishing to bring matters to a crisis, fell back slowly, repeatedly taking aim, but never daring to fire. He reached the top of the pass and Captain Walters, the Assistant Intelligence Officer, was able to make a most valuable sketch of the country beyond. It was a bold act and succeeded more through its boldness than from any other cause; for, had the tribesmen once opened fire, very few of the party could have got down alive. Making a detour to avoid the village, which it was undesirable to traverse a second time, the squadron returned and arrived at the camp at Ghosam as the sun was setting.

The service camp of an Anglo-Indian brigade is arranged on regular principles. The infantry and guns are extended in the form of a square. The animals and cavalry are placed inside. In the middle is the camp of the Headquarters staff, with the tent of the brigadier facing that of the general commanding the division. All around the perimeter a parapet is built, varying in height according to the proximity and activity of the enemy. This parapet not only affords cover from random shots, but also makes a line for the men to form on in case of a sudden attack. Behind it the infantry lie down to sleep, a section of each company, as an inlying picket, dressed and accoutred. Their rifles are often laid along the low wall with the bayonets ready fixed. If cavalry have to be used in holding part of the defences, their lances can be arranged in the same way. Sentries every twenty-five yards surround the camp with a line of watchers.

To view the scene by moonlight is alone an experience which would repay much travelling. The fires have sunk to red, glowing specks. The bayonets glisten in a regular line of blue-white points. The silence of weariness is broken by the incessant and uneasy shuffling of the animals and the occasional neighing of the horses. All the valley is plunged in gloom and the mountains rise high and black around. Far up their sides, the twinkling watch-fires of the tribesmen can be seen. Overhead is the starry sky, bathed in the pale radiance of the moon. It is a spectacle that may inspire the philosopher no less than the artist. The camp is full of subdued noises. Here is no place for reflection, for quiet or solemn thought. The day may have been an exciting one. The morrow may bring an action. Some may be killed, but in war-time life is only lived in the present. It is sufficient to be tired and to have time to rest, and the camp, if all the various items that compose it can be said to have a personality, shrugs its shoulders and, regarding the past without regret, contemplates the future without alarm.

(Continue to Part 10)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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