“Horrible and revolting” – that’s how 22-year-old British cavalry officer turned war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and Pioneer newspapers, Winston Churchill, described in a dispatch what he saw when entering the ruins of the village of Desemdullah in the Mohmand Valley in British India’s Northwest Frontier (today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwestern Pakistan) on the morning of September 22, 1897.
Pashtun tribesmen had unearthed the 36 bodies of fallen British and Indian soldiers, hastily buried a few days earlier in unmarked graves, and mutilated them beyond recognition. “The tribesmen are among the most miserable and brutal creatures on earth. Their intelligence only enables them to be more cruel, more dangerous, more destructible than the wild beasts. (…) I find it impossible to come to any other conclusion than that, in proportion that these valleys are purged form the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated,” a shaken and sulfurous Churchill jotted down in his notebook that day.
The Pashtun tribesmen, the forebears to today’s Pashtun insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, had risen against the British in 1897 due to the division of their tribal territory by the Durand line in 1893, as well as the gradual British occupation of Pashtun lands. They rallied under the leadership of the Pashtun fakir Saidullah, nicknamed “Mad Mullah,” by the British, who declared a “jihad” against British India and rallied more than 10,000 warriors to his cause.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Pashtun warriors under Saidullah attacked forts and camps guarding the Malakand Pass and by doing so threatened British control of the entire Northwest Frontier. “The British held the summit of the Malakand Pass and thus had maintained the road from the Swat Valley and across the Swat River by many other valleys to Chitral,” Winston Churchill summarized the strategic importance of the pass in his autobiography My Early Life.
The British reacted quickly and assembled a punitive expedition, the so-called Malakand Field Force, to pacify the Pashtun tribes along the Afghan-Indian (today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan) border. The force included young Churchill, who for around $420 (in today’s value) per piece, wrote a number of dispatches under the heading of “The War in the Indian Highlands,” which were signed—much to Churchill’s consternation, since he wanted to become famous through his writing—“By a Young Officer.”
Yet, finding the mutilated corpses on that September morning put a slight temper on the “medal hunter” as he was sometimes dismissively called. Some of the desecrated dead he found in Desemdullah were young British soldiers of his age, perhaps bringing home for the first time the realities of war to Churchill, who joined hoping “like most young fools” that “something exciting would happen” while he was with the troops.
Churchill would later on sardonically boast in My Early Life that luckily for those, like himself, who were fond of war “there were still savages and barbarous peoples. There were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes of the Soudan. Some of them might, if they were well-disposed, ‘put up a show’ someday.”
And a show the Pashtun tribesmen in the ten-mile long Mohmand Valley, located in the mountains to the northwest of Peshawar, did put up. In fact, they had beaten back the British-Indian force sent against them, under British Brigadier-General P.D. Jeffreys, which sustained 149 casualties. Churchill saw some of the British wounded himself with “their faces drawn by pain and anxiety, looked ghastly in the pale light of the early morning.” Even the general had received a head wound and wore a uniform covered in his own blood. “It was not apparently all a gay adventure,” Churchill would later write.
The battle was a setback, but the British—“the dominant race” in Churchill’s words—would wreak terrible retribution on the “the savages” and step up their even campaign of burning villages and killing everyone in their path who resisted. “After today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed without quarter,” Churchill wrote to a friend that September. “The Mohmands need a lesson, and there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.” In his autobiography he matter-of-factly noted how the British went about their business:
We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.
He goes on to note that whenever the Pashtun tribesmen would put up resistance the British would lose two to three officers and 15 to 20 Indian soldiers. However, “no quarter was asked or given,” Churchill noted, “and every tribesman caught was speared or cut down at once.”
Time and again he praised the endurance of the British soldier in his dispatches and compared them—true to his imperialist credo-favorably to their Indian comrades-in-arms. “The soldiers of India naturally feel the effects of the climate less than those from cooler lands. This, of course, the British infantryman will not admit. The dominant race resent the slightest suggestion of inferiority. (…) This is the material for empire‑building.”
The young war correspondent was also apparently not a fan of what today would be called a “hearts and mind approach” in dealing with insurgents, at least so he claims in My Early Life. He dismissively talks about political officers, who “parleyed all the time with the chiefs, the priests and other local notables,” which made them very unpopular among fellow army officers.
He singled out one particular efficient British envoy who always “just when we were looking forward to having a splendid fight and all the guns were loaded and everyone keyed up, this Major Deane and why was he a Major anyhow? so we said being in truth nothing better than an ordinary politician would come along and put a stop to it all,” by seeking some sort of diplomatic accommodation between a tribe and the British.
True to his bellicose nature, Churchill conversely rather believed in the power of the dumdum bullet, a soft-point bullet that expands upon impact, and the well-aimed volleys of British and Indian soldiers, who, when they caught them in in the open, killed thousands of Pashtuns, and proved the British poet Hilaire Beloc’s truism right that “whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun [a type of machine gun], and they have not,” when reminiscing about the uneven clashes between imperialists and natives in the late 19th century.
Indeed, the campaign against the Mohmand tribe would come to a rather swift end in early October 1897, with the tribesmen agreeing to hand over their rifles and promising to live peacefully (at least for a while). Churchill rejoined his regiment, the 4th Hussars, stationed at that time in Bangalore. The punitive expedition had cost the British Raj 282 men killed or wounded out of a force of roughly 1,200. Pashtun casualties are unknown but some estimates are as as high as 10,000. In January 1898, the Malakand Field Force was officially disbanded and the soldiers returned to their garrisons.
While embedded with the troops Churchill saw “more fighting than I expected, and very hard fighting too,” the overall commander of the Malakand Field Force, Major-General Sir Bindon Blood later recalled. More than once, Churchill saw people around him killed (“The British officer was spinning just behind me, his face a mass of blood, his right eye cut out,” as he recounted in one instance.), endured the sight of massacres, the agonizing cries of the wounded, and the psychological toll of fighting, what in Victorian eyes, must have been a merciless enemy encapsulated in Kipling’s The Young British Soldier: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains…”
Churchill does recount on a few occasions in letters what today (and back then) without a doubt would be considered war crimes on the British side. For example, he saw how Sikh soldiers of the British-Indian Army torture and slowly kill a wounded Pashtun tribesman by shoving him little by little into an incinerator that slowly melted the skin off the poor man’s bones amidst his agonizing cries. The other side was not much better. “The tribesman,” Churchill wrote in a letter, “torture the wounded & mutilate the dead. The troops never spare a man who falls into their hands – whether he be wounded or not . . . The picture is a terrible one.”
While admitting to acts of barbarism on both sides during the campaign, he never condemned it, although he felt the need to assure his mother in a letter that he himself, during his six week stint as a war-correspondent, did not commit any heinous acts. “I have not soiled my hands with any dirty work,” he wrote to her.
Dismissing the entire region and its inhabitants as uncivilized —“savages impelled by fanaticism”—he did not expect his side or the enemy to follow the rules of gentlemanly (European) warfare he had been taught at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. As a result, it must have been easier for him to shed the horror of war, dismissing it as an abnormality in the conduct of warfare and something that would not occur during the clash of “civilized nations.” For him, a child of the Victorian period, war remained a game, best exemplified by Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem Vitai Lampada, coincidentally first published in 1897, the same year that Churchill was fighting on the Northwest Frontier:
The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
That war will be like a game of cricket, of course, turned out to be a fatal miscalculation; one that Churchill was not alone in making around the turn of the last century.