The British Empire Library

Pathan Rising: Jihad on the North West Frontier of India 1897-1898

by Mark Simner

The Pathan Risings of 1897 and 1898 were a diverse set of challenges to the borders of the British Empire's Raj. Mark Simner must be congratulated for distilling the complexity of this series of risings into a perfectly understandable narrative with this clearly organised and well written book. In fact, I wish many more non-fiction writers would take a leaf out of Mark Simner's book and incorporate his excellent use of maps, appendices, plenty of images, a clear glossary, medal citations, bibliography and most importantly of all a comprehensive index. It should seem like common sense to include these, but for some reason they are becoming rarer with modern historical writers. There is also a clear introduction which sets out the direction of the book and discusses the sources cited and their limitations (especially in trying to get the view of Pathan/tribal accounts) and there is an equally clear epilogue which summarises the difficulties faced and the consequences of the events discussed - even up to the modern era. Taken together, these items transform a book from a simple narrative account into a reusable reference book and therefore allows it to attain a much more valuable space on your bookshelf. They also help those who are unfamiliar with this particular period of history as it provides handrails and an ability to go back and check earlier events or clarify words and concepts. If you are contemplating how to organise a historical non-fiction book then you would do far worse than to see how this book is organised. It is a pleasure to work with.

It should also be pointed out that the author makes it clear that he is seeking neither to condemn nor to justify what was done in this nasty and often brutal conflict. He merely seeks to tell the story of what took place and to acknowledge the accounts of those who participated. Inevitably, due to the imbalance of sources and through no fault of the author, it leans heavier on British accounts and particularly from regimental histories. With the best will in the world, it is hard to represent the story of those who did not record their actions but the author does go to admirable lengths to at least acknowledge these limitations and to confront them where possible.

As to the story that the author is telling, he explains the roots of British involvement in the region through their displacement of the Sikhs as the paramount power after their war of 1849. Interestingly, the British seem to have adopted many of the Sikh methods of attempting to stamp their authority over so vast an unruly area with such awesome geographical difficulties; mountains, valleys, ridge lines and passes dominate the region making permanent occupation an almost forlorn activity as even the best armed soldier shrinks in the face of such an imposing environment. Of course, the harsh terrain is exacerbated by the harsh climate be it the hot and dry summers or the bitingly cold winters. The Sikhs long controlled the region through the punitive expedition for any tribe who caused them problems or challenged their authority. The punitive expedition had the advantage of being a short, sharp instrument that would not tie down troops in garrison duties for years on end in areas that could not hope to be reinforced rapidly. They were, however, brutally blunt as instruments of policy. The victims tended to be villages, farmers and towns who may or may not have sympathised with tribesmen taking up arms for whatever reason. Property and fields could not be carted off and hidden from the expeditionary forces launched against the tribes, so they were inevitably the first casualties. The British not only inherited this system of control, they seem to have perfected it with the addition of mountain artillery, heliographs and well trained soldiers. In many ways, this book is one continuous set of accounts of one punitive expedition after another. Occasionally, these mobile columns could support one another but most of the time, they were large enough and strong enough to hold local tribes to account. However, their zones of control rarely extended beyond the roads and valleys they were travelling along and for not much longer than the time they were physically present.

The North West Frontier seems to have had a harsh set of values all of its own. Incredible hospitality could be shown one day but ruthless attacks from the same tribe could be delivered the next. Prestige was key and only strength was truly respected. Unfortunately for the British, this prestige seemed to have been lost in the Tochi Valley at Maizar in 1897. An Indian Army punitive expedition did not appreciate the heightened levels of tension in the region and did not take adequate precautions when striking up camp in this particular valley. They were to be ambushed by 500 tribesmen who had only just showed them considerable hospitality. The battle itself, despite its inauspicious beginnings, turned into a heroic rear guard action which first hinted at the professionalism of the Indian Army on the frontier even under straightened circumstances. However, this sudden loss of face for the British emboldened other tribes to chance their luck especially with newly circulating captured British rifles.

The complexity for the author is that this was a whole series of different uprisings by different tribes in different parts of the North West Frontier and so trying to find commonalities and sequences of overlapping and related, but utterly different, uprisings is a tall order indeed. The author has done a good job at breaking down the events into manageable chapters which generally chart a distinct tribe or a distinct geographical location or follow a particular British Field Force. Of course, it was this lack of coordination on the side of the various local tribes that precluded any chance of success. And although the imposing geography hampered the British who had to follow certain routes and pass through certain passes to get to their quarry, the geography also undermined those rising up in rebellion. The British at least had access to heliographs and could often return to points of modern communications such as telegraphs and railheads in the Punjab which could bring fresh reinforcements and supplies speedily to the theatre of operations if needed. The tribes, on the other hand, were too independently minded for their own good and often were ignorant of events elsewhere in the region or were susceptible to manipulation by actors with their own agendas. Ultimately, religion did seem to provide the catalyst to encourage the risings especially those in the Swat Valley. However, with no central leader coordination was never achieved. It did not help that the British could employ divide and rule tactics of their own and a number of key tribes provided important aid to the British at crucial points or could be encouraged to abandon their co-religionist allies when a punitive expedition arrived in their homeland and/or offered reasonable terms for capitulation. Those tribes who held out longer were, perhaps inevitably, treated more harshly than those who stood aside or changed sides rapidly.

The British certainly had modern weaponry, training and military technology on their side, but in these harsh conditions it still relied on age old beasts of burden to move supplies around. In fact, these supply columns could be the Achilles Heel of the British as the hit and run tactics of the tribes identified the weakest points of their enemy to attack. I was also surprised to see how much night fighting went on in this campaign. I realised that the British trained for it, but hadn't anticipated how much the tribes realised that darkness afforded them some protection from the superior rifles and artillery of their foes. This series of campaigns reminded me of the old fashioned 'whack-a-mole' game at holiday resorts. A new tribe would rise up, a Field Force was sent out to deal with it, passes were guarded but high ground was invariably taken by the well trained troops who then could use the roads for passage by the rest of the soldiers and supplies, until night time brought new attacks and sniping from afar. Tribes tended to attack only isolated outposts but they certainly could use local knowledge and terrain in defensive situations and could present considerable problems to even the largest of the British expeditions if the geography was in their favour. However, the author conveys a kind of relentless professionalism by the British forces which time and again force key passes or capture strategically important towns and villages - although not without sustaining casualties.

Many of the battles recorded seem to be straight out of boy's own literature (which of course was highly influenced by this series of risings in turn). The number of British officers who became casualties certainly strikes the reader as disproportionately high. It seems as if they took the concept of leading from the front literally. In return for their bravery, the very many Indian and Sikh regiments who participated performed admirably. Indeed the levels of loyalty to the British Raj could be quite surprising including from locally raised levies. Additionally, many of the battles could have incredible disparities in the two sides and the amount of bravery demonstrated - on both sides - could be considerable. Some of these battles should be every bit as well known as say Rorke's Drift or Gordon's Defence of Khartoum but for some reason they have fallen off the historical radar. I challenge anyone to read the defence of Chakdara with its all important suspension bridge to keep the lines of communication open under attack from over 8,000 tribesmen and not be stirred by the bravery of the defenders or of those sent to relieve it. Similarly, the defence of Shabkadr by a tiny force of 60 Border and District Police with antiquated rifles fighting a force of some 5,000 tribesmen and holding them off is equally stirring stuff. Not all defences, however heroic, were successful. The Battle of Saragerhi where a mere 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikhs held off two waves of attacks against overwhelming odds before finally succumbing on a third attack showed loyalty and bravery beyond all expectations. These battles may have been in remote locations over obscure issues, but they involved individuals whose commitment and professionalism could rarely be questioned. There were plenty of setbacks for the British also, although it tended to be isolated piquets, separated soldiers or rear guards who took the brunt of these reversals whilst the Field Force columns themselves tended to be relentless in their relative power if slow to react and often constrained by their tortuous communication lines in the region. However, they could rarely be stopped only delayed.

The joy of reading a book about this entire campaign, rather than one which just highlighted the individual actions, is the holistic overview that the author can give of the theatre as a whole. I am as fascinated by the role of the engineers and pioneers in cleaving out roads and building bridges as I am of the soldiers on the front line. I am delighted to read that military innovation was not confined to the British - I was really interested to learn that the start of one night battle by tribesmen was signalled by the burning of a balloon in the night sky for instance. It is clear that the tribesmen valued their firearms above all else and went to extraordinary lengths to protect their own or to acquire new and more modern ones. And despite the harsh realities of life on the frontier, with its mutilations and treachery, the tribes could be reasoned with through Jirgas (meetings with tribal leaders). Accommodation could be reached between those who had been bitter allies. It appears as if the British realised that 'controlling' the region would be doomed to failure in the long run and took steps to respect the autonomy of local tribes. It is interesting that not long after the end of the war, the British pretty much evacuated all their soldiers from the region and relied on paying locally raised levies to keep the peace on their behalf. In a strange way, although the tribesmen lost this particular series of rebellions on the battlefields of the North West Frontier, they had earned the respect of their foes who in return respected the fierce independence of mind of these frontier people. Both sides began to take extraordinary lengths not to step on each others toes as they both realised that they could not definitively 'defeat' the other.

To conclude, this book provides a great overview of a little known frontier war that sucked in thousands of actors many of whom showed remarkable professionalism and bravery in an inhospitable theatre of war. The organisation of the book is to be thoroughly commended. I suppose if I was to really nitpick, I would request a timeline (or series of timelines) to help visualise what could at times be complicated sequences of events. However, the author has provided more than most to help the reader understand what is going on. The level of detail is fascinating without being overwhelming. I also think that the author has a very clear writing style making the book yet more accessible. I can add from experience that not all non-fiction writers have this gift. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in how the British Empire went about defending the most arduous part of its borders of its most important colony.

British Empire Book
Mark Simner
Other Books by Author
The Sirdar and the Khalifa