The Pulse

Winston Churchill in India

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The Pulse

Winston Churchill in India

The great statesman’s literary career was shaped by fighting in some familiar territory.

Winston Churchill in India
Credit: Winston Churchill via

January 31, 2015, marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Spencer Churchill. Churchill is known mostly for his lengthy political career, especially his wartime leadership as prime minister of Britain between 1940 and 1945. But Churchill had another, longer career as a writer of journalism and books on history and historical figures – a career that began in Cuba in 1895, when as a war correspondent for the Graphic he wrote five dispatches about the Cuban insurrection. However, Churchill’s writing was shaped much more significantly on India’s North-West Frontier in 1896-1897, when he was assigned to the Malakand Field Force.

It was the high tide of British imperial rule, and India was the “jewel in the crown” of British possessions. On September 11, 1896, Churchill sailed from Southampton on the S.S. Britannia with other officers of the Fourth Hussars bound for Bombay. When he arrived at Bombay Harbor, he wrote in My Early Life, we “pulled up the curtain on what might well have been a different planet.” The officers traveled next to Bangalore, a thirty-six hour train journey.

It was while Churchill was in India that he discovered an intense desire to learn history. He “resolved to read history, philosophy, economics, and things like that.” He wrote to his mother Jennie, asking her to send books – mostly history books. He “devoured” Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Macaulay’s 12-volume History of England. He also read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Darwin, Malthus, Aristotle, Plato and others.

Using his mother’s considerable influence, Churchill arranged to work as a war correspondent for the Pioneer newspaper and the Daily Telegraph. He traveled from Bangalore to Nowshera to join the Malakand Field Force at the front, where it was commanded by General Sir Bindon Blood. “For three years,” Churchill wrote in My Early Life, “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.” The Malakand Pass was, according to historian Arthur Herman, “a deep cleft in a jagged bowl of mountainous ridges, guarded by a typical British garrison of Sikhs, Punjabis, and Bengal Lancers under the command of white officers.” Muslim Pathan tribes in the Swat Valley had attacked the soldiers holding the Malakand Pass and laid siege to Chakdara, the fort that defended the bridge across the Swat River.

This was a direct challenge to British imperial rule. Churchill wrote to his brother Jack on August 31, 1897, that “The frontier is a scene of great trouble and excitement. Practically all the fierce wild warlike tribes of Afghan stock . . . are in revolt.” He believed that “the time of offensive measures is now at hand. It is impossible,” he wrote, “for the British Government to be content with repelling an injury – it must be avenged.

Churchill was clearly excited about the impending battle and his participation in it. He wrote to his mother on September 5, 1897, that “At the first opportunity I am to be put on the strength of this force – which will give me a medal if I come through.” He continued, “As to the fighting, we march tomorrow, and before the week is out, there will be a battle – probably the biggest yet fought on the frontier this year.” He brashly yet prophetically told his mother that he had “faith in my star – that is that I am intended to do something in the world.”

Churchill was frequently at the front and under enemy fire. On one occasion, after other officers fell in battle, he commanded a company of Punjab infantry. According to William Manchester, “[t]here can be no doubt that he was remarkably brave, at times even rash.” In a letter he told his mother that he rode on his pony along a skirmish line while other soldiers sought cover on the ground. His commanding officers lauded his courage and bravery.

“The war in the mountains of the North-West Frontier,” wrote Churchill biographer Carlo D’Este, “was fierce and without quarter.” In one letter, Churchill described the fighting. “The tribesman,” he wrote, “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.” In one instance of reprisals, Churchill wrote, “we proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”

In one of his dispatches that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on November 6, 1897, Churchill eloquently explained the situation faced by Britain on the North-West Frontier:

The rising of 1897 is the most successful attempt hitherto made to combine the frontier tribes. It will not be the last.. . . The simultaneous revolt of distant tribes is an evidence of secret workings. . . Civilization is face to face with militant Mohammedanism. When we reflect on the moral and material forces arrayed, there need be no fear of the ultimate issue, but the longer the policy of half-measures is adhered to the more distant the end of the struggle will be.

An interference more galling than complete control, a timidity more rash than reckless, a clemency more cruel than the utmost severity, mark our present dealings with the frontier tribes. To terminate this sorry state of affairs it is necessary to carry a recognized and admitted policy to its logical and inevitable conclusion; to obtain the Gilgit-Chitral-Jellalabad-Kandahar frontier, and reduce to law and order everything South of that line.

Churchill returned to Bangalore and garrison duty, and used the time to write his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, which was published in 1898. Churchill began this book with a vivid description of the geography of the battlefield. “The Malakand,” he wrote, “is like a great cup, of which the rim is broken into numerous clefts, and jagged points.” The Malakand Pass was the deepest cleft. Guarding the pass was a fort, Chakdara, which overlooked a “broad graded road [that] runs like a ribbon across the plain.” The road crosses a mountain pass then “leads to the fortified bridge across the [Swat] river.” “Without this road,” Churchill explained, “there would have been no Malakand Camps, no fighting, no Malakand Field Force, no story. It is the road to Chitral.” British governments, with the exception of Lord Rosebery’s, had since 1876, he wrote, followed a “forward policy” on the North-West Frontier, and that meant holding Chitral.

He described the conflict as “the great tribal upheaval of 1897,” and attributed its cause to a Mohammedan jihad against the infidel. “The mine was fired,” he wrote. “The flame ran along the ground. The explosion burst forth in all directions.” In late July 1897, the Malakand Camp was repeatedly assaulted by the enemy along the two roads that accessed the camp. After heavy fighting and considerable losses on both sides, the tribesmen realized that the Malakand Camp could not be taken. “Thus,” wrote Churchill, “the long and persistent attack on the British frontier station of Malakand, languished and ceased.”

The enemy now laid siege to Chakdara fort. Churchill noted that India’s Governor-General in Council determined to come to the relief of the besieged fort and ordered General Sir Bindon Blood to form the Malakand Field Force for that purpose. Blood’s troops reached the Malakand on August 1st, and the next day went into action and successfully relieved the siege of the fort. Then, Churchill wrote, “[t]he 11th Bengal Lancers, forming a line across the plain, began a merciless pursuit up the valley.” “No quarter was asked or given,” Churchill noted, “and every tribesman caught was speared or cut down at once.” Commenting on the scene of carnage, Churchill memorably wrote: “The spectator who may gaze unmoved on the bloodshed of the battle, must avert his eyes from the horrors of the pursuit, unless, indeed, joining in it himself, he flings all scruples to the winds, and indulges to the full those deep-seated instincts of savagery, over which civilization has but cast a veil of doubtful thickness.

In the book’s remaining chapters, Churchill described the expedition into the Upper Swat Valley; the advance against the Mohmands who had crossed the British frontier line, burned a village and attacked a fort; the march to Nawagai and the Rambat Pass; battle in the Mamund Valley and Inayat Kila; and the final submission of the Mamunds. Churchill noted that “neither the importance of the issues, nor the numbers of the combatants” in this frontier war were on a European scale and the “fate of empires” did not hang on the outcome. “But on the frontier,” he continued, “in the clear light of morning, when the mountain side is dotted with smoke puffs, and every ridge sparkles with bright sword blades, the spectator may observe and accurately appreciate all grades of human courage. He may remark occasions of devotion and self-sacrifice, of cool cynicism and stern resolve.”

In My Early Life, Churchill noted that his first book “had an immediate and wide success.” “The reviewers,” he noted, “vied with each other in praise,” and this filled him “with pride and pleasure” because he had never been praised before. “I was thrilled,” he wrote, and “I knew that if this would pass muster there was lots more where it came from . . .”

Indeed there was. The Story of the Malakand Field Force was followed by Savrola (his only novel), The River War, London to Ladysmith, Ian Hamilton’s March, Mr. Broderick’s Army, Lord Randolph Churchill (2 volumes), The World Crisis (6 volumes), My Early Life, Thoughts and Adventures, Marlborough: His Life and Times (4 volumes), Great Contemporaries, The Second World War (6 volumes), and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (4 volumes). Many of these are great works of history, written in a memorable style first developed by Churchill on the North-West Frontier of India.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, the University Bookman, The Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, Strategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.