published 27/04/2013 at 09:00 PM by Con Coughlin
In an extract from his new book, Con Coughlin tells how, as a young soldier in South Asia, Churchill learnt to fight while writing dispatches for the Telegraph
In 1897, British forces launched a bloody campaign against Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribesmen – forebears of the Taliban – on the North West Frontier. It was the first time Winston Churchill, then 22 and a junior cavalry lieutenant as well as aspiring Telegraph war correspondent, had taken part in military action. The subsequent experience greatly shaped his subsequent career as a politician.
A week into the campaign, Winston Churchill was still a knight of the pen, rather than one of the sword, so he concentrated his energy on finding good copy for his Daily Telegraph dispatches, getting scoops at the expense of Viscount Fincastle of The Times. He kept himself busy by accompanying the daily reconnaissance patrols, and observing their map-making efforts. As he told his friend Reggie Barnes, he spent most days with the 11th Bengal Lancers – “such nice fellows” – and the evenings in the general’s mess.
When out riding with the Lancers, Churchill was always on the lookout for action, but had little luck. “I take every opportunity and have accompanied solitary patrols into virgin valleys and ridden through villages and forts full of armed men – looking furious – but without any adventure occurring. It is a strange war. One moment people are your friends and the next they are shooting. The value of life is so little that they do not bear any grudge for being shot at.”
On September 12 his camp came under sniper fire. Churchill was having dinner with Major-General Sir Bindon Blood when “a bullet hummed by over head”. The incident strengthened Churchill’s view that the Mohmands, a local Pashtun tribe, needed to be dealt with. As he told Barnes: “After today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed without quarter. The Mohmands need a lesson, and there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.” Such action was vital, Churchill argued, because the Pashtuns “recognise superiority of race”.
On September 13, Blood dispatched two squadrons from the 11th Bengal Lancers to scout the north of the Mohmand Valley, the focus of the tribes’ anti-British revolt. The Lancers set fire to one village and, as they withdrew, came under fire from tribesmen hidden on the surrounding hillsides. It was a minor skirmish, with no British casualties, but it was a harbinger of the more serious fighting to come.
Churchill was at the camp to welcome the Lancers on their return and noted, with a degree of envy: “They were vastly pleased with themselves. Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Churchill’s galloping around with the Lancers provided good material for his Telegraph dispatches, for which he was paid £5 each (about £300 today). From Blood’s camp at Ghosam, Churchill sent three articles to London, where they appeared on consecutive days in the editions of October 7-9 under the same heading, The War in the Indian Highlands. All the articles were signed “By A Young Officer”, and Churchill did his best to post “picturesque forcible letters”, as the newspaper’s editor had demanded, even when he had not seen a great deal.
His dispatch of September 5 pays tribute to the bravery of the Pashtuns. “Their swordsmanship, neglecting guards, concerns itself only with cuts and, careless of what injury they may receive, they devote themselves to the destruction of their opponents.”
But he is less well disposed to the mullahs who incited the violence in the first place, and is appalled by their habit of trading their womenfolk to buy rifles. “This degradation of mind is unrelieved by a single elevated sentiment,” he writes. “Their religion is the most miserable fanaticism, in which cruelty, credulity, and immorality are equally represented. Their holy men – the Mullahs – prize as their chief privilege a sort of droit de seigneur. It is impossible to imagine a lower type of beings or a more dreadful state of barbarism.”
Churchill’s next article, written on September 9, opens with the somewhat pitiful observation, “I cannot recall any incident that occurred” – hardly the kind of insightful journalism that wins Pulitzers. He justifies this less-than-compelling remark by reminding his readers that, to obtain a clear idea of a soldier’s life on active service, they “must mentally share the fatigues of the march and the monotony of the camp”.
In the final article written from Ghosam on September 12, Churchill explains the challenge of marching in the heat of an Indian summer: “The soldiers of India naturally feel the effects of the climate less than those from cooler lands. This, of course, the British infantryman will not admit. The dominant race resent the slightest suggestion of inferiority.”
Continuing in this jingoistic vein, he tells how he meets soldiers from the Queen’s Regiment after they have completed a 14-mile march carrying their arms and ammunition. “Not one had fallen by the way. They looked strained and weary, but nothing would induce them to admit it. 'An easy march,’ they said. 'Should have been here long ago if the native troops had not kept halting.’ This is the material for empire‑building.”
Churchill was simply reflecting the view of his imperial contemporaries that British officers such as himself were superior to the Indians who served under them. “Nothing is so remarkable as the ascendancy which the British officer maintains over the native soldier. The dark Sowars [Indian cavalrymen] follow the young English subaltern who commands them with a strange devotion. He is their 'butcha’ – the best in the regiment – as brave as a lion. None ride so straight as he; no one is so confident.”
In this dispatch, Churchill sets aside his rivalry with Viscount Fincastle, and uses a recent incident at Landakai, where The Times correspondent won the Victoria Cross, to support his argument. “It is an excellent instance of the actions by which the ascendancy of the British officer is maintained over the gallant Asiatics he commands,” Churchill writes. “The example of these men calmly endeavouring to rescue their brother officers within fifty yards of a hundred rifles, and surrounded by a ferocious mob of swordsmen, probably does more to preserve the loyalty of the Indian soldier than all the speeches of Westminster.”
On September 14, Churchill moved seven miles west to Nawagai with the 3rd Brigade and Blood’s divisional headquarters, while the 2nd Brigade marched towards the Rambat Pass, aiming to cross it the following day. But as the 2nd Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Patrick Jeffreys, a highly decorated soldier who had fought in the Zulu wars and Burma, established camp at Markhanai, 11 miles south of the pass, it came under sustained attack.
Blood ordered Jeffreys to move against the tribesmen the next day. The following morning Jeffreys began moving up the Mohmand Valley with three columns, but he was met with strong resistance from the local Pashtun tribesmen, forcing him to withdraw.
By nightfall, the general and his small escort had been cut off, and defended themselves with some difficulty until relief arrived. The action resulted in the British sustaining nearly 150 dead and wounded, some of them subalterns no older than Churchill. As Blood later recalled in his memoirs: “As soon as I heard of General Jeffreys’ mishap, I sent for Churchill and suggested his joining the General in order to see a little fighting. He was all for it, so I sent him over at once and he saw more fighting than I expected, and very hard fighting too.”
The knight of the pen had become a knight of the sword.
published 27/04/2013 at 09:00 PM by Con Coughlin