Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Malakand, 1897


As the officers of the Guides were sitting at dinner on the night of July 26th, 1897, a telegram was handed to Colonel Adams informing him that the Malakand position had been attacked by overwhelming numbers, that the garrison was with difficulty holding its own, and asking him to bring up his corps as speedily as possible to its succour.

Accustomed for decades to these sudden appeals, the Guides' cavalry, bag and baggage, supplies, transport, and all complete, were off in three hours, and the Guides' infantry followed them. The march was twenty-nine miles along the flat to Dargai, and then seven miles rise and two thousand feet climb to the summit of the Malakand Pass. For cavalry, considering the time of year, it was by no means a mean undertaking; for infantry it was one of the highest achievement. To march thirty-six miles under service conditions, in the most favourable circumstances of weather, temperature, and training, is a high test of endurance; but to do so when the muscles are enervated with heat, along a treeless, waterless road, during the fiercest term of the summer solstice, was a feat to secure the admiration of every soldier. The march was accomplished in sixteen hours, the first twenty-nine miles being covered without any regular halt, and the last seven miles up a mountain on which the blazing afternoon sun was beating its fiercest. Yet not a man fell out, and it is recorded by an eye-witness that as the regiment passed the quarter-guards, the men came to attention, and answered the salute as smartly as if just returning from a parade march. The Guides of 1897 had borne themselves no wit less worthily than the Guides of 1857 or the Guides of 1879. To Lieutenant P. Eliott-Lockhart belongs the honour of commanding the Guides' infantry in this fine soldierly performance, and the Distinguished Service Order worthily decorated him for this and other gallant service. To arrive as a reinforcement is to be welcome enough; to arrive by exertions beyond the compass of calculation, in time to afford assistance at the critical moment, is the fortune of few. Yet thrice has this good fortune smiled on the efforts of the Guides, at Delhi, at Kabul, and at the Malakand.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Guides by F. Younghusband


Arrived, and without a moment to rest or ease their belts, these weary, but stout-hearted fellows went straight on outpost duty, that 27th of July, 1897, and spent the livelong night, not in sleep, or even a quiet turn of sentry-go, but in a desperate hand to hand fight with swarms of brave and persistent warriors.

Piece by piece the officers heard the strange story of the sudden rising. It appears that while the officers of the Malakand garrison, in days of profound peace, were playing polo down at Khar, a village three miles away, the villagers came to them with a warning. They said that a very holy mullah from Upper Swat was coming down the valley with a large following to attack the Malakand, and advised the officers to get back to their defences as soon as possible; they even assisted back the grooms with the spare ponies. Yet these very same friendly villagers a few hours later were caught in the frenzied flame of fanaticism, and were charging with the most devoted bravery breastworks held by troops commanded by the very officers whom they had just helped to save.

Amongst the officers playing polo were Lieutenants Rattray and Minchin, who belonged to the garrison of Chakdara some seven or eight miles up the Swat Valley. To return to their posts they had therefore to pass right through the tide of armed men flowing down the valley in great numbers. Yet as illustrating the chivalrous nature of the wild hillmen, a trait somewhat unusual amongst the more fanatical Pathans, the officers were allowed to pass unmolested, and indeed here and there a friendly voice bade them make good speed home. The British officer's custom of being out and about doing something, instead of sitting permanently at home studying or playing chess, stood him in good stead on this occasion, giving, as it proved, a good four hours' warning in advance.

It was not till after ten o'clock at night that the carefully planned attacks on the Malakand and Chakdara were delivered simultaneously by great swarms of tribesmen, with a resolution and bravery worthy of the highest admiration. At the Malakand there were many anxious moments, for the position was an extended one, and, by the nature of the ground, difficult for a small garrison to preserve from penetration. It was a night of individual heroism, a soldier's battle, where little knots of men under their officers fought independently, and with undiminished courage, though often cut off from all communication. No less brave was the enemy, and it was not until dawn that he reluctantly withdrew. This was the first of five nights and days through which the British garrison had to stand this stern ordeal.

The first thing to be done when daylight made concerted movements possible, was to contract the perimeter of defence, so as to make it more tenable by the number of troops available. The original garrison was now augmented by the arrival of the Guides, horse and foot. It was with considerable reluctance that Colonel Meiklejohn, who had himself been wounded by a sword-cut, decided on abandoning what was known as the North Camp, a position some distance below and isolated from the Malakand. This camp had been established both to allow the cavalry and pack-animals to be near water, of which there was scarcity on the Malakand itself; and also for sanitary reasons, so as to keep so large a number of animals out of a restricted area. The abandonment of this camp, necessary though it was, undoubtedly had an extraordinarily heartening effect on the enemy. All night they had fought desperately, and lost heavily, without apparently gaining any result; but the retirement of the troops from the North Camp, besides leaving in their hands the large tents and heavy baggage of all sorts, impossible to move at short notice, showed that the garrison also had felt the stress of battle.

Strongly reinforced, and with new heart, so soon as night fell the tribesmen renewed their attack. As illustrating the desperate nature of the fighting, out of one picquet of twenty-five men of the 31st Punjab Infantry, the native officer and eighteen men were killed or wounded; while out of another picquet, consisting of the Guides and forty-five Sikhs, twenty-one were killed or wounded; and all this was done in close hand to hand fighting. Lieutenant Lockhart thus describes the scene:

It was a veritable pandemonium that would seem to have been let loose around us. Bands of ghazis, worked up by their religious enthusiasm into a frenzy of fanatical excitement, would charge our breastworks again and again, leaving their dead in scores after each repulse, while those of their comrades who were unarmed would encourage their efforts by shouting, with much beating of tom-toms, and other musical instruments. Amidst the discordant din which raged around, we could even distinguish bugle calls, evidently sounded by some soi-disant bugler of our native army. As he suddenly collapsed in the middle of the "officers' mess call" we concluded that a bullet had brought him to an untimely end.

The fighting went on all night, and at daybreak the garrison, to show that they were none the worse for it, made a spirited counter attack, the 24th Punjab Infantry under Lieutenant Climo, the senior surviving officer, doing great execution. A desultory fire was kept up by the enemy during the day, while the British force improved their defences.

As darkness fell on the third night, the enemy, undaunted and heavily reinforced from countries as far afield as Buner, again advanced to the attack, the brunt of which fell on the 31st Punjab Infantry, a regiment so depleted by losses that Lieutenant H. Maclean, of the Guides' cavalry, was requisitioned to give a helping hand. This officer, together with Lieutenants Ford and Swinley, were severely wounded. Towards morning the attack again died away, and the indomitable garrison still held its own.

On the fourth night, in addition to bonfires placed out in front of the defences, to make the enemy's movements clear, it was decided to try the effect of mines, and portions of a serai, lately occupied by the Sappers and now abandoned, were accordingly undermined. At nightfall the enemy immediately seized this serai as an advance post to further their attack, and when it was crowded the mine was fired with fatal results. For a time a death-like silence reigned, the enemy being apparently thunderstruck at the awful disaster. Minor attacks, however, were still persisted in, and the tribesmen did not draw off till three in the morning.

A fifth night had barely settled down on the garrison when, undeterred by four unsuccessful and costly attacks, or by the terrors of unseen mines, the enemy again swarmed down on the weary but undismayed defenders. To add to their difficulties, a severe dust storm, followed by torrents of rain, fell on the camp, and at the height of the storm a most determined attack was made on the 45th Sikhs, but was repulsed with great loss. Sitting drenched to the skin the garrison patiently awaited the dawn.

That day, the 31st of July, brought welcome reinforcements, consisting of the 35th Sikhs and the 38th Dogras, under Colonel Reid. Thus strengthened, Colonel Meiklejohn determined to take the offensive, and attempt to force his way to the assistance of the isolated garrison of Chakdara. The cavalry, consisting of the Guides and 11th Bengal Lancers, were to lead the way, but these regiments before they could get into the open were so strongly attacked in the rocky defiles from which they tried to issue, that they could make no headway and had to return to camp.

Meanwhile Sir Bindon Blood had arrived to take over the command, and decided to postpone further endeavours to relieve Chakdara till the next day. The intervening night seems to have been a quiet one, and before dawn the British force commenced to move. The attack was unexpected at so early an hour: the enemy were surprised and driven out from the heights to the east of the Malakand position; and the command of ground thus gained enabled this successful column to clear the flank of the exit from the Malakand, and to ensure the unopposed initial advance of the main body. Before reaching the open valley, however, strong parties of the enemy were found holding the rocky spurs and kopjes intervening. These after sharp fighting were carried with the bayonet by the Guides, 35th and 45th Sikhs, and the way was opened, the cavalry doing great execution amongst the flying enemy.

Meanwhile the small garrison of Chakdara had, for the space of six days and nights, been undergoing no mean adventures. It will be remembered that Lieutenants Rattray and Minchin (the Political Officer) were, on the afternoon of July 26th, playing polo at Khar, some seven or eight miles away down the Swat Valley. Warned there of impending trouble they rode back through the gathering storm to their post, the little fort of Chakdara situated on the north bank of the Swat River. Soon after ten o'clock that night a beacon, lighted by a friendly hand across the valley, gave timely notice that an attack was imminent. The garrison, two companies of the 45th Sikhs and twenty men of the 11th Bengal Lancers, hurried to their posts, and after a short delay the assault began, and never ceased for the best part of a week!

The fort was badly situated for defence, being indeed more a bridge-head guard than a fort. The rock on which it stood was commanded by a great spur running down to it from the west; and the only obstacle that prevented that spur being occupied in full by the enemy was a small tower, used for signalling purposes and occupied by a few Sikhs. The story of that little post is an epic in itself; surrounded on all sides, isolated from all help, with scanty food, and at the end no water, for six days and nights it gallantly held its own.

As for the fort itself, it was so completely commanded by the fire from the spurs that to move about in it was to court death. Yet thus glued to the walls, and assailed night and day by brave warriors whose numbers rose rapidly from fifteen hundred to over ten thousand, a few young British officers with a couple of hundred Sikhs again and again rolled back the tide of war. The history of that week was as the history of the Malakand, continuous attacks by night and day; but the execution done on the enemy, considering the smallness of the garrison, was comparatively higher; statistics are difficult to gather, but a fairly accurate estimate puts their loss at two thousand. And, to illustrate the indomitable courage and unflagging spirit with which the defence was maintained to the end, when on the last day the thrice welcome sight of the Guides' cavalry and the 11th Bengal Lancers, coming over the Amandara Pass, met the view of that weary little band, they in their turn became the attackers, and, led by the undaunted Rattray, sallied forth and stormed the enemy's positions. To Hedley Wright who commanded, and to Rattray and Wheatley who were the soul of the defence, as well as to the gallant Sikhs, is due the admiration of every soldier who loves to hear of a good fight fought out to the end as British officers and men led by them know how to fight it.

As at the Malakand, so at Chakdara, and so times without number, it is the gallant British subaltern, in spite of silly chatter, who again and again has shown the highest attributes of an officer and a soldier. It is the foolish custom of a certain class of Englishman to decry all that is their own; and amongst the latest of these victims of a dyspeptic imagination is the British officer. Men call him stupid, who would themselves have no chance of passing the intellectual test which every young officer has to go through. Sitting safe and smug at home they libel the courage and devotion of the gallant gentleman who is giving his life for them. Perhaps against these may be placed the word of an old soldier, who for thirty years has seen the British officer, as fighter, diplomatist, and administrator, in all parts of the world, and who has not lightly come to the conclusion that he has not his better in the army of any country, and is only equalled by his brother of the British Navy.

Marshalling and redistributing his forces, Sir Bindon Blood, after the relief of Chakdara, proceeded systematically to punish the tribes involved in the late fanatical upheaval. Amongst the first to be so dealt with were the tribesmen of the Upper Swat, and the action of Landaki was the result.

The tribesmen held a position on a big spur running down from the mountains, and meeting an unfordable river with a steep cliff. Round the face of this cliff a narrow causeway led to a fairly open valley beyond. It was the business of the infantry to clear this spur, or ridge, and this they accomplished after some severe climbing and hard fighting. As the defeated enemy were seen streaming across the valley, making for a further ridge two or three miles in the rear, the Guides' cavalry were let loose in pursuit; but before debouching into the valley they had to pass along the causeway, some three-quarters of a mile in length, in single file. As everyone knows, who has experience of single file work, even a moderate pace in front means inevitable straggling behind. The officer leading, in his eagerness to get at the enemy, lost sight of this fact, and so soon as he made the valley, with the first few men set off at a round pace after the enemy. At the head of the pursuit was also Lieutenant R.T. Greaves, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who was acting as war-correspondent to a newspaper. After traversing a mile, and leaving the men further and further behind, the two officers saw the enemy passing through a wooded graveyard and on to a spur some eighty yards in the rear.

Colonel Adams, who was coming up fast with the main body, shouted to the two officers to stop, but owing to the noise of firing could not make himself heard. He at once saw that the place to seize was the graveyard, cavalry pursuit up a rocky hill being naturally impracticable, and from there to open fire on the retreating enemy. He therefore at once seized the graveyard with dismounted men. To describe the events of the next few minutes it had best be done in the words of an officer who was an eye-witness and whose account appears in A Frontier Campaign:

On Palmer and Greaves approaching the hill, they were subject to a heavy fire from the enemy. Palmer's horse was at once killed, whilst Greaves, having been shot at close quarters, fell, some twenty yards further on, among the Pathans, who at once proceeded to hack at him with their swords. Seeing this, Adams and Fincastle went out to his assistance followed by two sowars, who galloped towards Palmer, at that moment engaged in hand-to-hand conflict with a standard-bearer. Palmer had been shot through the right wrist and was only saved by the opportune appearance of these two men, who enabled him to get back to the shelter of the ziarat in safety. Meanwhile Fincastle, who had had his horse killed while galloping up to where Greaves lay, tried to lift Greaves on to Adams's horse, in the process of which Greaves was again shot through the body, and Adams's horse wounded. They were soon joined by the two sowars who had been to Palmer's assistance, and almost immediately after by Maclean, who having first dismounted his squadron in the ziarat, had very pluckily ridden out with four of his men to the assistance of this small party, who otherwise would have been rushed by the enemy. With his assistance Greaves was successfully brought in, but unfortunately Maclean, who had dismounted in order to help in lifting the body on to his horse, was shot through both thighs and died almost immediately.

Of the survivors Colonel Adams and Lord Fincastle received the Victoria Cross for their valour on this occasion; while ten years after, as a graceful tribute to the heroism of the dead, the Victoria Cross was also bestowed on Hector Maclean, and sent to his family. As Lord Fincastle was attached to the Guides during the campaign the probably unique historic record was established of three officers in one regiment earning the Victoria Cross on the same day. Nor were the men forgotten, all those who had shown conspicuous gallantry being decorated with the Order of Merit.