Saturday, December 11, 2004

Churchill On The Frontier - Mamund Valley III

Our hero has got to the head of the notorious Mamund Valley - and discovered why it's notorious.

The Buffs had now arrived, and it was obstinately decided to retake the spur down which we had been driven in order to recover prestige and the body of the Adjutant. This took us till five o'clock. Meanwhile the other company of the 35th Sikhs which had ascended the mountain on our right, had suffered even worse experiences. They eventually regained the plain bearing with them perhaps a dozen wounded, and leaving several officers and about fifteen soldiers to be devoured by the wolves. The shadows of evening had already fallen upon the valley, and all the detachments so improvidently dispersed in the morning, turned their steps towards the camp, gradually enveloped by a thunderstorm and by the night, and closely followed by savage and exulting foes. I marched home with the Buffs and the much-mauled 35th Sikhs. It was dark when we entered the entrenchments which now surrounded the camp.

All the other parties had already got home after unsatisfactory, though not serious, fighting. But where was the General ? And where was his staff ? And where was the mule battery ? The perimeter of the camp was strongly guarded, and we got ourselves some food amid the usual drizzle of sniping. Two hours passed. Where was the General? We now knew that he had with him besides the battery, half a company of sappers and miners, and in all about ten white officers.

Suddenly, from the valley there resounded the boom of a gun, calculated to be about three miles away. It was followed at short intervals by perhaps twenty more reports, then silence. What could be happening ? Against what targets was the General firing his artillery in the blackness of night ? Evidently he must be fighting at the very closest quarters. They must be all mixed up together; or were these guns firing signals for help ? Ought we to set out to his relief ? Volunteers were not lacking. The senior officers consulted together. As so often happens when things go wrong formalities were discarded, and I found myself taking part in the discussion. It was decided that no troops could leave the camp in the night. To send a rescue force to blunder on foot amid the innumerable pitfalls and obstacles of the valley in pitch darkness would be to cause further disaster, and also to weaken the camp fatally if it were to be attacked, as well it might be. The General and the battery must fight it out wherever they were till daylight. Again the guns in the valley fired. So they had not been scuppered yet. I saw for the first time the anxieties, stresses and perplexities of war. It was not apparently all a gay adventure. We were already in jeopardy; and anything might happen. It was decided that the squadron of Bengal Lancers, supported by a column of infantry, should set out to relieve the General with the first light of dawn. It was now past midnight and I slept soundly, booted and spurred, for a few hours.

The open pan of the valley had no terrors for us in daylight. We found the General and his battery bunched up in a mud village. He had had a rough time. He was wounded in the head, but not seriously. Overtaken by the darkness, he bad thrown his force into some of the houses and improvised a sort of fort. The Mamunds had arrived in the village at the same time, and all night long a fierce struggle had raged from house to house and in the alleys of this mud labyrinth. The assailants knew every inch of the ground perfectly. They were fighting in their own kitchens and parlours. The defenders simply hung on where they could in almost total darkness, without the slightest knowledge of the ground or buildings. The tribesmen broke through the walls, or clambered on or through the roofs, firing and stabbing with their long knives. It was a fight in a rabbit warren. Men grappled with each other; shot each other in error; cannon were fired as you might fire a pistol at an enemy two or three yards away. Four of the ten British officers were wounded. A third of the sappers and gunners were casualties, and nearly all the mules were dead or streaming with blood. The haggard faces of the surviving officers added the final touch to this grim morning scene. However, it was all over now. So we proceeded to shoot the wounded mules and have breakfast.

When we all got back to camp, our General communicated by heliograph through a distant mountain top with Sir Bindon Blood at Nawagai. Sir Bindon and our leading brigade had themselves been heavily attacked the night before. They had lost hundreds of animals and twenty or thirty men, but otherwise were none the worse. Sir Bindon sent orders that we were to stay in the Mamund Valley and lay it waste with fire and sword in vengeance. This accordingly we did, but with great precautions. 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. So long as the villages were in the plain, this was quite easy. The tribesmen sat on the mountains and sullenly watched the destruction of their homes and means of livelihood. When, however, we had to attack the villages on the sides of the mountains they resisted fiercely, and we lost for every village two or three British officers and fifteen or twenty native soldiers. Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell. At any rate, at the end of a fortnight the valley was a desert, and honour was satisfied.

It's obvious from the last paragraph that Churchill was at the least agnostic about this punitive expedition, but that didn't stop Goebbels using it (in 1941) as evidence of Churchill's ruthlessness.

Churchill doesn't mention the award of three Victoria Crosses for bravery during the General's 'rough time'. The map (from my paperback edition of 'My Early Life') shows the battle as taking place between the villages of Haxrago and Ka Lozagi, whereas the citations call the village 'Bilot', which I can't find on the map. Nonetheless it looks as if this was the battle where James Smith of the Buffs and Lieutenants James Colvin and Thomas Colclough Watson of the Royal Engineers distinguished themselves.

The attack on Bindon Blood's Nawagai camp is illustrated at the Sikh Cybermuseum site, a more strategic overview of the Malakand Campaign, noting that the pacification of the Mamund Valley cost 282 men out of 1200, is available here.

Last of all and totally off topic, the obituary of a Pathan whose bravery was in our cause - the late Jemadar Ali Haidar VC, who won his medal in this battle.

Links to previous episodes:
Churchill On The Frontier - Introduction
Sir Bindon Blood
Mamund Valley I
Mamund Valley II

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