The Story of the Malakand Field Force
An Episode of Frontier War
by Winston S. Churchill

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

oriiginally appeared as a series of 15 articles —
"The War in the Indian Highlands"
    by a Young Officer
The Pioneer, Allahabad, 9 September 1897 - 5 November 1897
The Daily Telegraph, London, 6 October 1897 - 6 December 1897

Longmans, Green: London, 1898
336 pages

Norton: New York, 1990
233 pages

collected (abridged) in —

Frontiers and Wars December 2001

Kipling at the frontier

Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail —
Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can —
The odds are on the cheaper man.

Rudyard Kipling
"Arithmetic on the Frontier"  (1886)
Rudyard Kipling's Verse,
Definitive Edition

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 old North-West Frontier of India

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:

In 1892 [the ruler of Chitral] died, leaving many sons, all equally ferocious, ambitious, and unscrupulous. One of these, Afzal by name, though not the eldest or acknowledged heir, had the good fortune to be on the spot. He seized the reins of power, and having murdered as many of his brothers as he could catch, proclaimed himself Mehtar and invited the recognition of the Indian Government. He was acknowledged chief, as he seemed to be "a man of courage and determination", and his rule afforded a prospect of settled government. Surviving brothers fled to neighboring states.

Nizam, the eldest, came to Gilgit and appealed to the British. He got no help. The blessing had already been bestowed. But in November, 1892, Sher Afzul, a brother of the late Aman, returned by stealth to Chitral, whence fraternal affection had driven him, and killed the new Mehtar and another brother, both of whom were his nephews. The "wicked uncle" then ascended the throne, or its equivalent. He was, however, opposed ...

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:

It is no exaggeration to say that perhaps half the tribesmen who attacked the Malakand had thought that the soldiers there were the only troops that the Sirkar [the Government of British India] possessed. "Kill these," they had said, "and all is done." What did they know of the distant regiments which the telegraph wires were drawing from far down in the south of India? Little did they realise they had set the world humming; that military officers were hurrying 7,000 miles by sea and land from England to the camps among the mountains; that long trains were carrying ammunition, material and supplies from distant depots to the front; that astute financiers were considering in what degree their action had affected the ratio between silver and gold, or that sharp politicians were wondering how the outbreak in Swat might be made to influence the impending bye-elections. These ignorant tribesmen had no conception of the sensitiveness of modern civilisation, which thrills and quivers in every part of its vast and complex system at the slightest touch.

They saw only the forts and camps on the Malakand Pass and the swinging bridge across the river.

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,

was very proud to be the direct descendant of the notorious Colonel Blood, who in the reign of King Charles II had attempted to steal by armed force the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. ... Brought to trial for high treason and several other capital offences, he was acquitted and immediately appointed to command the King's bodyguard. ...

The General [Sir Bindon Blood], then [in 1897] already a veteran, is alive and hale today [1930]. He had one personal ordeal in this campaign. A fanatic approaching in a deputation ... whipped out a knife, and rushed upon him from about eight yards. Sir Bindon Blood, mounted upon his horse, drew his revolver, which most of us thought on a General of Division was merely a token weapon, and shot his assailant dead at two yards.

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:

Into this happy world the nineteenth century brought two new facts; the breech-loading rifle and the British Government. ... The convenience of the breech-loading, and still more of the magazine, rifle was nowhere more appreciated than in the Indian highlands. A weapon which would kill with accuracy at fifteen hundred yards opened a whole new vista of delights to every family or clan which could acquire it. ... Rifle-thieves scoured all India to reinforce the efforts of the honest smuggler. A steady flow of the coveted weapons spread its genial influence throughout the frontier, and the respect which the Pathan tribesmen entertained for Christian civilization was vastly enhanced.

The action of the British Government on the other hand was entirely unsatisfactory. ... a monstrous spoil-sport.

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.

Writing home under fire

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:

Here out of one brigade we have lost in a fortnight 245 killed and wounded and nearly 25 officers. ...

Here I am lying in a hole — dug two feet deep in the ground — to protect me against the night firing — on a mackintosh with an awful headache — and the tent & my temperature getting hotter every moment as the sun climbs higher and higher. But after all, food and a philosophic temperament are man's only necessities.

WSC to Lady Randolph, 2 October 1897

Randolph S. Churchill
Winston S. Churchill, 1: Youth 1874-1900

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:

The Malakand Field Force had an immediate and wide success. The reviewers, though sarcastic about the misprints, etc., vied with each other in praise. When the first bundle of reviews reached me [in India] together with the volume as published, I was filled with pride and pleasure at the compliments, and consternated about the blunders. The reader must remember that I had never been praised before. The only comments which had ever been made upon my work at school had been 'Indifferent,' 'Untidy,' 'Slovenly,' 'Bad,' 'Very bad,' etc. Now here was the great world with its leading literary newspapers and vigilant erudite critics, writing whole columns of praise! ...

I resolved that as soon as the wars which seemed to have begun again in several parts of the world should be ended, and we had won the Polo Cup, I would free myself from all discipline and authority, and set up in perfect independence in England with nobody to give me orders or arouse me by bell or trumpet.

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

Project Gutenberg online versions:
The Story of the Malakand Field Force — all formats

Paul A. Rahe on American regional policy, October 2009:
Afghanistan: Butcher & Bolt?

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