Friday, December 03, 2004

Churchill On The Frontier - Mamund Valley

September 1897 - our hero has joined Sir Bindon Blood's Malakand Field Force just in time for a scrap.

Churchill (behind the scorer) on the polo field 1897

Our march to the Mohmand country led us past the mouth of the Mamund Valley. This valley is a pan-shaped plain nearly ten miles broad. No dispute existed between us and the Mamunds. Their reputation was pestilential, and the greatest care was taken to leave them alone. But the spectacle of the camp with its beautifully-ruled lines of shelters against the sun, with its cluster of hospital tents and multitudes of horses, camels, mules and donkeys, was too much for the Mamunds. Our fires twinkling in a wide quadrilateral through the night offered a target too tempting for human nature as developed on the Indian frontier. Sniping by individuals was inevitable and began after dark upon the camp of our leading brigade. No great harm was done. A few men were wounded. Sir Bindon Blood continued his dinner impassively, although at one moment we were obliged to put out the candles.

In the morning, overlooking Mamund impudence, we marched on to Nawagai. But the tribesmen were now excited, and when our second Brigade which was following at two days' interval arrived, hundreds of men, armed with every kind of weapon from the oldest flintlock to the latest rifle, spent three exhilarating hours in firing continuously into the crowded array of men and animals. The great bulk of the troops had already dug themselves shallow pits, and the whole camp bad been surrounded with a shelter trench. Nevertheless this night's sport cost them about forty officers and men, and many horses and animals besides.

On this being reported, Sir Bindon Blood sent orders to retaliate. General Jeffreys commanding the second Brigade was told to enter the Mamund Valley on the following day and chastise the truculent assailants. The chastisement was to take the form of marching up their valley, which is a cul de sac, to its extreme point, destroying all the crops, breaking the reservoirs of water, blowing up as many castles as time permitted, and shooting anyone who obstructed the process. “If you want to see a fight," said Sir Bindon to me, " you may ride back and join Jeffreys”. So availing myself of an escort of Bengal Lancers which was returning to the second Brigade, I picked my way gingerly through the ten miles of broken ground which divided the two camps, and arrived at Jeffreys' Headquarters before nightfall.

All night long the bullets flew across the camp; but everyone now had good holes to lie in, and the horses and mules were protected to a large extent. At earliest dawn on September 16 our whole Brigade, preceded by a squadron of Bengal Lancers, marched in warlike formation into the Mamund Valley and was soon widely spread over its extensive area. There were three separate detachments, each of which had its own punitive mission to fulfil. As these diverged fanwise, and as our total number did not exceed twelve hundred fighting men, we were all soon reduced to quite small parties. I attached myself to the centre column whose mission it was to proceed to the farthest end of the valley. I began by riding with the cavalry.

We got to the head of the valley without a shot being fired. The villages and the plain were equally deserted. As we approached the mountain wall our field-glasses showed us clusters of tiny figures gathered on a conical hill. From these little blobs the sun threw back at intervals bright flashes of steel as the tribesmen waved their swords. This sight gave everyone the greatest pleasure, and our leading troop trotted and cantered forward to a small grove of trees which stood within rifle shot of the conical hill. Here we dismounted - perhaps fifteen carbines in all - and opened fire at seven hundred yards' range. Instantly the whole hill became spotted with white puffs of smoke, and bullets began to whistle through our little grove. This enjoyable skirmish crackled away for nearly an hour, and meanwhile the infantry toiled nearer and nearer to us across the plain.

When they arrived it was settled that the leading company of the 35th Sikhs should attack the conical hill and two more companies should proceed up a long spur to the left of it towards a village whose roofs could be seen amid the boulders and waving Indian corn of the mountain-side. The cavalry meanwhile would guard the plain, and keep connection with the reserve of our force under the Brigadier, which consisted mainly of the Buffs (the East Kent Regiment). I decided to go with the second party up the long spur towards the village. I gave my pony to a native and began to toil up the hillside with the infantry. It was frightfully hot. The sun, nearing the meridian, beat upon one's shoulders. We plodded and stumbled upwards for nearly an hour - now through high patches of Indian corn, now over boulders, now along stony tracks or over bare slopes - but always mounting. A few shots were fired from higher up the mountain; but otherwise complete peace seemed to reign. As we ascended, the whole oval pan of the Mamund Valley spread out behind us, and pausing to mop my brow, I sat on a rock and surveyed it. It was already nearly eleven o'clock.

The first thing that struck me was that there were no troops to be seen. About half a mile from the foot of the spur a few of the Lancers were dismounted. Far off against the distant mountain wall a thin column of smoke rose from a burning castle. Where was our Army? They had marched twelve hundred strong only a few hours ago, and now the valley had swallowed them all up. I took out my glasses and searched the plain. Mud villages and castles here and there, the deep-cut water-courses, the gleam of reservoirs, occasional belts of cultivation, isolated groves of trees - all in a sparkling atmosphere backed by serrated cliffs - but of a British-Indian brigade, no sign. It occurred to me for the first time that we were a very small party: five British officers including myself, and probably eighty-five Sikhs. That was absolutely all; and here were at the very head of the redoubtable Mamund Valley, scrambling up to punish its farthest village. I was fresh enough from Sandhurst to remember the warnings about “dispersion of forces," and certainly it seemed that the contrast between the precautions which our strong force had taken moving out of camp in the morning and the present position of our handful of men, was remarkable. However, like most young fools I was looking for trouble, and only hoped that something exciting would happen. It did!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i m mamund