The Story of the Malakand Field Force
oriiginally appeared as a series of 15 articles —
Longmans, Green: London, 1898
Norton: New York, 1990
collected (abridged) in —
|Frontiers and Wars||December 2001|
Kipling at the frontier
Winston S. Churchill often heard these lines quoted by fellow officers on the Malakand campaign. A young cavalry lieutenant in the British Army, anxious to achieve fame through action, Churchill got himself attached as a press correspondent to an expeditionary force new-formed in 1897 to restore order on the North-West Frontier of India. The Story of the Malakand Field Force was Churchill's first book, the first of a long line ranging from this account of a border war up through the multi-volume works on World War I; his great ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough; World War II; and the English-Speaking Peoples. The Malakand Field Force is a good start.
Churchill was twenty-two during this campaign, and he wrote the book immediately afterward. In addition to his Army studies and polo which he really enjoyed, he'd been self-educating himself in history and politics, reading Gibbon, Plato, Carlyle and many others. While stationed in India he also systematically read and annotated a number of volumes of the Annual Register of English politics, forming his own opinion on each major issue before reading the debates.
The area of concern is the disputed area between the old North-West Frontier of British India and the Afghan border — now in northern Pakistan. Churchill provides six maps. The regional map places the Khyber Pass and Peshawar in its lower-left corner, with the Afghan border along the left edge; disputed Chitral near the northern edge; and the area of operations of the Malakand Field Force in the middle.
Although there are ancient ruins indicative of more peaceful and prosperous times, this region has suffered a long run of warlike tribes with feuding leaders. Churchill has some fun summarizing the political background:
We like to think that succoring refugee kings, queens, ministers, and generals who flee from revolution or invasion, and thereby supporting Governments in Exile, keeps alive the continuity of legitimate government against the day of its reestablishment in its oppressed homeland. We should remember that there are other points of view:
The avuncular usurper, realising that it might be dangerous to wait longer, fled to Afghanistan, as James II had fled to France, was received by the ruler with hospitality and carefully preserved as an element of future disorder.The telegraph speaks to Britain
British India is entangled in this upheaval; its frontier posts and settlements become a target under "the combined allurements of plunder and paradise". But the isolated warriors of this remote terrain could have little idea of what they had stirred up:
Sir Bindon Blood
In a couple of chapters of his later autobiography, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Churchill shares more personal and even breezy observations and conclusions than he could put into The Malakand Field Force. The general leading the force, Sir Bindon Blood,
Pathan tribesmen take delight in rifles
The land of the Pathan tribesmen is steeped in centuries of tradition of feuding and fighting, as he describes with more license for humor in My Early Life:
Humor, bravery, coolness
There are touches of humor in The Malakand Field Force also, but mostly young Churchill is serious and objective, and strives for the high and balanced viewpoint. The tribesmen were tough fighters:
No one knew, though there were many who were wise after the event, that these tribesmen were as well armed as the troops, or that they were the brave and formidable adversaries they proved themselves. "Never despise your enemy" is an old lesson, but it has to be learnt afresh, year after year, by every nation that is warlike and brave.
The Malakand Field Force included British infantry and cavalry, as well as Sikh, Punjab, Bengal and other units from India. Churchill is careful to give credit for bravery and resourcefulness to many individuals by name, Sepoys as well as British soldiers. His own disregard for danger emerges strongly on the Malakand campaign, but his personal adventures are not described in his history here — having to await the memoir, My Early Life.
In a technical note he approves the tight ammunition expenditure during the four days that a portion of the force at Chakdara was besieged — the British using Maxim machine-guns as well as rifles:
This is approximately twenty rounds per man per diem. The fire control must have been excellent.Forward Policy, or butcher and bolt?
Along with the close-up look at the Army and its Malakand campaign and fighting, with bravery and adventure, Churchill shares a feeling for the people and the countryside. The young lieutenant also is brash enough to stretch beyond the frontier war to discuss Imperial policy, preferring the "Forward Policy" (basically, reach out to secure the frontier regions) to the "butcher and bolt policy" (basically, punish attacks and inroads, but without commitment to stabilizing the frontier). He comments on Army procedure and even on Army nomenclature. It's no wonder that he early acquired professional and political enemies as well as friends and admirers.
In his letters home, Churchill provides personal details that he did not feel appropriate for a campaign history. This first excerpt, after a regimental battle and retreat under deadly fire:
The regiment was fairly on the run and only stopped at the bottom by want of breath. ... the young officers of this regiment were highly delighted at a few bullets that whistled about or kicked up the dust close by and considered each a tremendous escape. It was a very nice regiment and works well but they have not yet seen what it means to be well punished.WSC to Lady Randolph, 19 September 1897
His objective military judgment, at age 22 only three days after his first action as a combatant, comes from coolly applying his knowledge of history. The next excerpt, in a tented shallow dugout during a sweltering morning:
Despite misprints, fame
Entrusting the book's preparation for press to assistance far away in England led to an unusual swarm of misprints and even inserted infelicities, but all came right in the end. In My Early Life, Churchill looks back on his first book's reception:
But in fact, before young Winston Churchill settled into this writer's paradise, he managed to get himself into other wars in the Sudan and South Africa — at least these did lead to three more books. And on the tide of his Boer War fame, in 1900 at age twenty-five the Khaki Election put him into Parliament.
© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson
Paul A. Rahe on American regional policy, October 2009:
Warfare at Troynovant