Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Story of Dilawur Khan


The story of Dilawur Khan, subadar of the Guides, is one which kindles many a kindly memory of the rough brave fellows who, under a sprinkling of English officers, upheld British supremacy on the North-West Frontier of India in the early 'fifties.

When Lumsden was raising the Guides he looked about for men who, as he expressed it, were "accustomed to look after themselves and not easily taken aback by any sudden emergency,"—men born and bred to the sword, who had faced death a hundred times from childhood upwards, and who had thus instinctively learnt to be alert, brave, and self-reliant. To these hardy warriors Lumsden explained the simple doctrine that they were enlisted for three years, had to do what they were bid, and would receive a certain fixed salary every month for their trouble.

Soldiers of fortune and dashing young bloods from all the countryside flocked to his standard, and so popular was the corps that there were sometimes as many as thirty of these receiving no pay, and maintaining themselves and their horses, while awaiting a vacancy. And great indeed was the excitement when Lumsden, in his bluff breezy way, would say: "Well, here's a vacancy, and I don't for the life of me know which of you to give it to. Come along down to the rifle-range, and shoot it off amongst yourselves; the best shot gets the vacancy." And off they would go to the range, with all their friends and relations to the fifth generation, and all the partisans in the corps of each competitor: shooting for the King's Prize at Bisley is a flat and tame proceeding in comparison with this. And as each shot was fired the friends of the competitor would yell: "Shahbash! Bravo! Well shot! Another bull's eye! You will win for certain." While rival interests would with equal emphasis discredit the performance: "This bull's eye was certainly an accident. God willing he will miss next time. Bravo! let us not lose heart!"

The demeanour of the winner on such occasions would make a Master in Lunacy look grave. The happy young fellow would jump into the air, yelling and pirouetting, brandishing a sword, and at frequent intervals letting off a gun, nominally into the air, while most of his friends did likewise, embracing and congratulating him in the intervals. Without taking a seat amongst the Scribes and Pharisees, it is perhaps permissible to notice that such a scene as this is in curious contrast to that to be seen in any French or German country town when lots are being drawn for conscription. There the youth, who by drawing a lucky number escapes serving his country, is congratulated, feted, and led in procession round the streets.

One hard and fast rule, however, Lumsden made. He would take no low caste men; he would have naught to say to the washermen, sweepers, and fiddlers of the village; he would take only the highest, which in this land is the fighting caste. His argument was one which still holds good. It is not in reason to expect the classes which for hundreds of years have been hewers of wood and drawers of water, and for hundreds of years have been accustomed to receive the cuffs and kicks of their village superiors, to face readily the fighting classes in the day of battle. The prestige of the soldier would be wanting to them, and prestige counts for as much in the East as elsewhere.

Yet holding these views, a brave man was a brave man to Lumsden, be his birth or caste what it might be. Most English-speaking people have read Mr. Rudyard Kipling's poem about Gunga Din the bhisti, or water-carrier, who by the unanimous verdict of the soldiers was voted the bravest man in the battle. Whether Mr. Kipling got that incident from the Guides or not his poem does not show, but there it actually occurred. The name of the bhisti was Juma, and so gallantly did he behave in action at Delhi, calmly carrying water to the wounded and dying under the most tremendous fire, that the soldiers themselves said: "This man is the bravest of the brave, for without arms or protection of any sort he is in the foremost line; if any one deserves the star for valour this man does." And so the highest distinction open to an Indian soldier was bestowed on Juma the bhisti; and further, the soldiers petitioned that he should be enlisted and serve in the ranks as a soldier, and no longer be menially employed. Nor was this all: in spite of his low birth, in a country where birth is everything, he rose step by step to be a native officer; and then to crown his glory, in the Afghan War he again won the star for valour, and the clasp which that great distinction carries. But this story is not about Juma, and so we must reluctantly leave him and get to our theme.

At this time it so happened that the most notorious highwayman and outlaw in the whole of Yusafzai was one Dilawur Khan, a Khuttuk of good family belonging to the village of Jehangira, on the Kabul River near its junction with the Indus. Brought up to the priesthood, his wild and impetuous nature and love of adventure could not brook a life of sedentary ease, and therefore, like many a spirited young blood, both before and since, he "took to the road." In his case the step was taken, if not actually with the sanction and blessing of his Church, at any rate with its unofficial consent. In those days the Sikhs held by force the country of the Faithful, and Hindus fattened on its trade. It was no great sin therefore, indeed, an active merit, that the sons of the Prophet, sword in hand, should spoil the Egyptian, by night or by day, as provided for by Allah.

To recount all the adventures of Dilawur would fill a book, and require a Munchausen to write it; but there was about them all a touch of humour, and sometimes of almost boyish fun, accompanied often by the rough courtesies of the gentlemen of the road, which reminds one of Dick Turpin and other famous exponents of the profession on the highways of England.

Now it so happened that it was at this time one of Lumsden's duties to hunt down and capture Dilawur, who for just and sufficient cause was now an outlaw, with a price on his head of no less than two thousand rupees. Many a time and oft did Lumsden and his men plan and strive, and ride and hide, but no nearer could they get to the capture of Dilawur.

Sitting one evening outside his tent, after yet another unsuccessful attempt, it suddenly occurred to Lumsden that Dilawur must have an astonishingly intimate knowledge of every path, nullah, and pass in the district to thus evade capture, as well as a remarkably efficient intelligence department, to give him timely warning. "Just the man for the Guides," exclaimed Lumsden. "I'll send for him." A polite note was accordingly written inviting Dilawur Khan to come into the Guides' camp, at any time and place that fitted in with his other, and doubtless more important, engagements, "to talk matters over." At the same time a free passport was sent which would allow of his reaching the camp unmolested. It speaks volumes for the high estimate which British integrity had already earned amongst these rough borderland people, that a man with two thousand rupees on his head could accept such an invitation. For the same man to have accepted a similar invitation from the Sikhs, or even from his own countrymen, would have been an act of culpable and aimless suicide.

One fine day, therefore, Dilawur strolled into camp, and he and Lumsden began "to talk matters over." After compliments, as the Eastern saying is, Lumsden with much heartiness, and in that free and easy manner which was his own, took Dilawur with the utmost candour into his confidence.

"Look here, Dilawur," said he; "you are a fine fellow, and are living a fine free life of adventure, and I daresay are making a fairly good thing out of it. So far, although I have done my best, I have failed to catch you, but catch you I assuredly shall some day. And what do you suppose I shall do with you when I do catch you? Why, hang you as high as Haman,—a gentleman whose history appears in our Good Book. Now, that's a poor ending for a fine soldier like you, and I'll make you an offer, take it or leave it. I'll enlist you, and as many of your men as come up to my standard, in the Guides, and with decent luck you will soon be a native officer, with good fixed pay, and a pension for your old age, and, meanwhile, as much fighting as the greatest glutton can wish for. Well, what do you say?"

Dilawur Khan first stared, thunderstruck at the novelty and unexpectedness of the offer; and then, tickled with the comical side of it, burst into a roar of laughter. It was one of the very best jokes he had ever heard. He, an outlaw, with a price on his head, his sins forgiven, enlisted in the Guides, with the prospect of becoming a native officer! "No, no," he exclaimed, "that won't do"; and, still shaking with laughter, rose to take his leave. And as he walked away he was followed by the hearty and genial voice of Lumsden roaring after him: "Mind, I'll catch you some day, Dilawur, and then I'll hang you, as sure as my name's Lumsden!"

Lumsden, having many other matters on hand, thought nothing more about the matter, till, much to his surprise, one day six weeks later, who should walk calmly into his camp, without passport or safe conduct, or anything save serene confidence in the British officer, but Dilawur Khan.

"I've been thinking of what you said," he began, "and I have come to enlist, and as many of my band as you care to take."

"That's right," said Lumsden, with great affability. "I thought you were a sensible fellow, as well as a brave one. I'll take you on."

"I have, however, one condition to make," solemnly continued the outlaw.

"Well, what's that?" asked Lumsden, thinking that he was going to drive some desperate bargain.

"I'll enlist on one condition," replied Dilawur, "and that is, I must be let off doing the goose-step. I really can't stand about on one leg, a laughing-stock amongst a lot of recruits."

"Oh, nonsense," laughed Lumsden; "you'll have to begin at the beginning, like everyone else. The goose-step is one of the foundations of the British Empire. If a king came into the army he'd have to do it. Why, I had to do goose-step myself! Of course you'll have to do it."

So with much good-humoured laughing and chaffing Dilawur Khan enlisted; and for weeks after one of the sights of Yusafzai, which notable chiefs rode many a mile to see, was the dreaded Dilawur, the terror of the Border, peacefully balancing himself on one leg, under the careful tuition of a drill-sergeant of the Guides.

Long years afterwards, when he had reached the highest rank open to him, in one of his friendly talks with Lumsden, he said: "Yes, Sahib, when I enlisted I thought you were one of the most unsophisticated persons I had ever come across. All I took on for was to learn your tricks and strategy, and how British troops were trained, and how they made their bandobust (a tying or binding; any system or mode of regulation discipline; arrangements) for war. Directly I had learnt these things I had intended walking off whence I came, to use my knowledge against my enemies. But by the kindness of God I soon learnt what clean and straight people the sahibs are, dealing fairly by all, and devoid of intrigue and underhand dealing. So I stopped on, and here I am, my beard growing white in the service of the Queen of England."

His early religious education had given Dilawur more than the average insight into the intricacies of Mahomedan doctrine, and being possessed of ready wit, and considerable ability in debate, he was ever anxious to enter into doctrinarian discussions with the mullahs. Their superstitions especially came in for his lively ridicule, and a good story is told by old native officers illustrating his views. One day, Dilawur with a crowd of other passengers was crossing the Indus, which there was very deep and rapid, in the ferry-boat. Being over-heavily loaded, the boat, when it felt the strong current, appeared in great danger of filling and sinking. Then the Mahomedans on board with one accord set up loud lamentations, and began to call upon their saints to succour them. "Oh Ali! Oh Hosein! Oh Kaka Sahib! save us," they cried. Whereupon Dilawur, not to be outdone, in his turn commenced yelling and shouting vociferously: "Lumsden Sahib! Oh Lumsden Sahib, save me!" "What are you doing, you accursed infidel?" exclaimed the scandalised passengers, furiously. "Why do you supplicate Lumsden Sahib? It is enough to sink the boat straight away." "That is easily explained," calmly replied Dilawur. "You are calling on saints who have been dead for ages, while Lumsden Sahib is alive and lives close by. Personally I consider it more sensible to call on a living man than on a dead saint."

On another occasion his enthusiasm in the cause of religious enlightenment nearly cost him his life. When the Amir Dost Mahomed Khan came to Peshawur in 1856, he was accompanied by Hafiz Ji, a leading mullah of Afghanistan and a great doctrinarian; to whom came the learned amongst the Faithful, to discuss the tenets of their religion and to listen to the wisdom of the wise. With them came also Dilawur, full of zeal and thirsting for knowledge, who artlessly introduced so debatable a subject, that the assembly was thrown into an uproar; and lest worse things might happen unto him, the worthy, but too enquiring, subadar was hustled hastily forth, and requested in future to stick to soldiering, and to avoid bringing his infernal questions to cause discord amongst the chosen of the Prophet. As Dilawur afterwards pathetically remarked, he "didn't think much of a religion which instead of meeting argument with argument only threw stones at the head of the seeker after knowledge." Indeed the occasion seems to have thoroughly unsettled him in the convictions of his youth, for shortly afterwards he finally shook off all connection with the Mahomedan religion, and turning Christian was baptised at Peshawur in 1858.

During the Mutiny he did excellent service, making the famous march to Delhi with the Guides, and serving with them throughout the siege and storming of that place. He served also in the many skirmishes which occurred on the frontier during the next twelve years, getting what he had bargained for on joining, plenty of fighting. And then came that call of duty which asked of the staunch old warrior to lay down his life for the foreign Queen whose good servant he was.

In 1869 the British Government wanted a man to go on a special and important mission, a man of infinite resource, well educated, hardy and brave, for he would need to carry his life in his hands for many a long day and many a weary mile. The man selected was Dilawur Khan, and joyfully he undertook the risks and excitement of the service. With him went a comrade, Ahmed Jan, also of the Guides. The two set forth together, and after many hardships and adventures had reached the territory of the Mehtar of Chitral, and were nearing the completion of their task. Seated one day under a tree, making their midday halt and chatting with some fellow travellers, they were suddenly surrounded by the soldiers of the Mehtar and hurried back under close guard to Chitral. Seeing danger ahead, Dilawur, before he was searched, managed to drop into the river certain documents and reports of a secret nature, which it was important should not fall into strange hands.

On arrival at Chitral he and his companions were thrown into prison, there to await the Mehtar's pleasure. When eventually they were brought before him, that chieftain, addressing Dilawur, asked, "Who are you and whence come you?" "I am the Mullah Dilawur," replied the prisoner, "on my way from Bokhara on a religious mission."

"No, you are not," replied the Mehtar; "you are Subadar Dilawur of the Guides, a heretic and an infidel."

"Quite true," answered Dilawur readily; "I was at one time a subadar of the Guides, but I have been many things in my time, and now I am a mullah."

"I have reliable information," said the Mehtar, "that you are in the secret employment of the British Government."

"Go to," laughed Dilawur, "what next? I have a proposal to make. If you doubt that I am a mullah, and not an ignorant one, be pleased to call together all your most learned priests and I will discuss doctrine with them, till all are convinced."

"If you will confess and tell me the secrets of the Government," replied the Mehtar, "I will give you a handsome present and take you into my service."

"I have no secrets," said Dilawur, "and I beg of your Highness to allow me to proceed on my way. On my arrival at the ziarat (cemetery) of the Kaka Sahib near Nowshera I will make a special offering on behalf of your Highness, and extol your generosity."

But the Mehtar evidently had very straight information regarding Dilawur, and it was the custom of the land to kill all strangers who could not account for themselves, and more especially those who had any connection with the dreaded Feringhis. For the Pathan saying is: "First comes one Englishman, as a traveller or for shikar (sport); then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. It is better therefore to kill the first Englishman." Dilawur was consequently sent back to prison, and a meeting of the mullahs decided that he should be stoned to death as an apostate. "It must be the will of God," said this brave man when the news was brought him, and prepared to meet his fate.

But not yet was his time fulfilled. For two months he and his travelling companions were kept in prison, probably to enable the Mehtar to correspond with his agents in Peshawur. The reply received was evidently not in favour of extreme measures for the strong arm of the British was notoriously far-reaching, and serious trouble might ensue if the subadar were killed. The Mehtar therefore decided to release the prisoners, and to give them such assistance as they needed in getting away.

On their way towards India the little party got as far as the great range of mountains, some twenty-four thousand feet in height, which divide Chitral from Bajaur, and attempted to cross it by the Nuksan Pass, the Pass of Death. For four days and nights they struggled on, through the ever deepening snow and ever increasing cold. Dilawur Khan's comrade, Ahmed Jan, was the first to die; and then, on the fourth night, the brave old soldier himself gave out, and as he was dying he called to him one of the survivors, and said: "Should any of you reach India alive, go to the Commissioner of Peshawur and say 'Dilawur Khan of the Guides is dead'; and say also that he died faithful to his salt, and happy to give up his life in the service of the Great Queen."

So he died, and the eternal snows cover as with a soft and kindly sheet the rugged soldier who knew no fear. The serene and majestic silence of the mountain is given to him whose life in the plain below had been one great and joyous fight from the cradle to the grave.