Malakand Field Force (1897)November 26, 2011 2 Comments
South Malakand Camp, August 1897
Pashtun tribesmen attacking a British–held fort in 1897
The ambush and murder in the Tochi Valley of the political agent, Mr. H. A. Gee, and the commander and other soldiers of his military escort in early July 1897 sparked the general uprising of the Pathan tribes on the North - West Frontier of India. A punitive expedition, the Tochi Field Force, was organized and sent to castigate the perpetrators from the Madda Khel of the Isazais tribe.
The wave of religious fervor, coupled with tribal concerns about growing British power and the possible loss of independence, spread quickly to the Swat Valley. A warning to prepare for tribal unrest was sent to the Malakand Brigade, commanded by Colonel W. H. Meiklejohn with elements in two garrisons astride the line of communication with Chitral. In the fort at Malakand were one squadron, 11th Bengal Lancers; No. 8 Bengal Mount ain Battery; No. 5 Company Madras Sappers and Miners; and three infantry battalions: the 24th and 31st Punjab Infantry and the 45th Sikhs. Ten miles northeast of the Malakand Fort was the Chakdara Fort, established to protect the suspension bridge over the Swat River, and garrisoned by 180 soldiers from the 45th Sikhs and 20 from the 11th Bengal Lancers.
Late on 26 July 1897 word of the approach of tribesmen— Swatis, Utman Khels, Mamunds, Salarais, and others, later joined by Bunerwals — was received at the Malakand Fort. A detachment of the 45th Sikhs was sent to delay their advance and, reinforced by the remainder of its battalion, successfully maintained its position until the tribesmen withdrew at about 2:00 A.M. During that time, however, a determined attack had been made on the north and center sectors of the Malakand Fort, with tribesmen successfully occupying an outbuilding and stealing ammunition until withdrawing at about 4:00 A.M.
Ferocious attacks against the Malakand Fort and desperate counter attacks by the British were conducted throughout the following four days and nights. A relief column under Colonel A. J. Reid arrived at the Malakand Fort on 31 July 1897, reinforcing the exhausted British defenders. Between the start of hostilities on 26 July 1897 and 1 August 1897, the Malakand garrison sustained 20 officers killed and wounded and 158 other ranks killed and wounded. Brigadier General (later General) Sir Bindon Blood, who was appointed to command an expeditionary force to punish the revolting tribes, arrived at Malakand on 1 August 1897 and assumed control of the operations. On 2 August 1897, a relief column from Malakand left for Chakdara. Meeting determined opposition along the way, this column was able to relieve Chakdara later that evening.
While the Malakand Fort had been under almost continuous attack from the tribesmen, the Chakdara Fort had also been holding out against tremendous odds. From 26 July until 2 August 1897, the disciplined, skilled Chakdara garrison, with 5 killed and 10 wounded, had killed an estimated 2,000 tribesmen. The tribesmen later admitted to having lost 3,700 killed, plus many more wounded.
The Malakand Field Force, under Blood’s overall command, was quickly constituted and ready for operations on 7 August 1897. It consisted of three brigades plus divisional troops. The 1st Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General W. H.Meiklejohn, consisted of the 1st Royal West Kents, 24th and 31st Punjabis, and 24th Sikhs. The 1st East Kents, 35 th Sikhs, 38th Dogras, and Guides Infantry composed Brigadier General P. D. Jeffreys’s 2nd Brigade. Commanded by Brigadier General J. H. Wodehouse, the 3rd Brigade consisted of the 1st West Surreys, 2nd Highland Light Infantry, 2 2nd Punjabis, and 39th Garhwal Rifles .This force advanced up the Swat Valley, dispersing opposition, and received the submission of the Swat Valley tribes on 24 August 1897.
Before Blood had a chance to pacify other tribes and restore order in the area, he was ordered to advance into Bajaur and coordinate operations with the Mohmand Field Force, commanded by Brigadier General E. R. Elles. ( On 6 August 1897, eleven days after the assault on the Malakand Fort , the Mohmands had attacked the border police fort of Shabkadr, 15 miles north of Peshawar.) Blood’s brigades frequently operated independently in the systematic operations to punish the clans in the Mamund Valley. Numerous villages were destroyed and supplies were confiscated and used to feed the British transport animals while occasional attacks were made on the British camps.
On 21 September 1897, Blood’s 3rd Brigade was attached to the Mohmand Field Force, and he reorganized his force before continuing operations. Twelve or fourteen villages were burned by the 2nd Brigade on 29 September. The Malakand Field Force attacked the villages of Agrah and Gat on 31 September, but it encountered surprisingly stubborn resistance as “it soon became apparent that large numbers of the enemy were concealed amongst the crags on the spur between the two villages” (Nevill 1912, p. 242). Fighting became desperate, and a British counter attack with bayonets fixed captured Gat. British casualties that day were 12 officers and men killed and 49 wounded.
The village of Badalai was destroyed on 3 October 1897, and active operations against the Mamunds ended although a settlement was not made until 18 October. The Malakand Field Force had accomplished its mission and was then dissolved.
Winston L. S. Churchill, who served as a war correspondent with the Malakand Field Force, immortalized the operations of this punitive expedition and the generalship of its commander through the publication of his book The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War. In many respects, the Malakand operations (as noted on the dustjacket of the 1990 reprint of The Story of the Malakand Field Force) were similar to those of m any other savage British campaigns on the North- West Frontier: “The danger and difficulty of attacking these fierce hill men is extreme. It is a war without quarter: They kill and mutilate everyone they catch and we do not hesitate to finish their wounded off.”
References: Barthorp (1982); Churchill (1898); Featherstone (1973); Fincastle and Eliott-Lockhart (1898); MacNeil (1997); Nevill (1912)