The British Empire Library

Challenge in Chitral: The Remarkable Story of the Relief of the Chitral Garrison, 1895

by Michael Dudding

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The siege and relief of Chitral occurred in 1895 at the high noon of the British empire. The events combined all the ingredients of classic imperial Victorian drama: the beleaguered garrison, the heroic defence, the noble strivings of the gallant forces battling through the savage mountain passes of the Hindu Kush to effect a relief; all taking place in the shadow of the great imperial bogeyman of the Raj, the Russian bear.

There have been other books written in the past on the siege and relief of Chitral and even on some of the principal players (Much Sounding of Bugles: The Siege of Chitral, 1895 John Harris, Hutchinson 1975; The Unlikely Hero: George Scott Robertson Dorothy Anderson, The History Press 2008; Chitral Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Major General Charles Townshend N.S. Nash, Pen and Sword 2010, being among the relatively recent).

However, the focus of these was more upon the campaign or its principal characters, rather than its backdrop. The author of this book gives a detailed description of the various events that took place in the decades that preceded the campaign in order to provide the reader with a better understanding of the reasons that led up to it in 1895. While the book is not an in-depth examination of the larger and far greater canvas of what came to be known as the 'Great Game', it does examine, in considerable depth, the interaction between Britain, Russia and Afghanistan commencing from the 1860s and the imperial British policy that evolved in the late nineteenth century as a result. The book also provides a narrative account of the operations of the Chitral Relief Force from Peshawar in the south, as well as the advance of Colonel Kelly's relief column from Gilgit in the east. It covers the disaster that befell the small force advancing along the Reshun Road at the Koragh Defile, apart from the events of the siege itself. The author acknowledges the lack of a countervailing perspective to the narrative, which is based solely upon available British accounts. There are no works that record the point of view or experiences of the people of Chitral or of the other local participants. Recourse could have been made to records of the Jammu and Kashmir State and its forces to provide at least a part of the Indian side of the story, but this has not been done. The author has however made an attempt to be balanced in his analysis of events and personalities. His sympathetic review of the motives of one of the main opposing protagonists, Sher Afzal, is a case in point.

The role of Indian soldiers is acknowledged by noting awards of the (Indian) Order of Merit for gallantry in a number of engagements. However, the summary of awards misses out this important decoration altogether. The Order of Merit was then the Indian Army's equivalent of the Victoria Cross and the following numbers were awarded during the Chitral operations: defence of the fort 33 (including one advancement to the 2nd class); disasters at Reshun and Koragh 27; relief columns 22. The large number of awards bears testimony to the fierce nature of the fighting and the bravery of the troops. An epilogue provides a brief sketch of subsequent developments in the region and traces the fortunes of the principal personalities involved in the campaign.

The book is very much focused on its subject but the author could have added greatly to the story by fleshing out certain aspects of it. For example, there is no mention of the substantial media impact in Britain of the siege as it unfolded. This is said to have had an influence on Townshend's subsequent decision to hole himself up with his Division in the town of Kut-al-Amara during the First World War with disastrous consequences.

There are four useful appendices that list the leading personalities involved, provide a handy timeline and give the ORBAT of the Chitral Relief Force. There is a fairly extensive bibliography, but historians will be disappointed to note that there are no endnote references in the text. In addition, the lack of adequate detailed maps detracts from a work of this nature where constant reference has to be made to place names by the reader. The two maps provided (showing Central Asia and the route of the two relief columns) do not entirely serve the purpose. Likewise, the three sketches of the positions at Chitral, Chalkalwat and Nisa Gul (pgs 116, 144 & 145, respectively) are too small to yield details to the naked eye.

While analysing the causes of the disaster at the Koragh Defile, the author's assertion that the Indian Army in 1895 did not have much experience in fighting against the tribes on the North-West Frontier is not entirely correct. In the preceding 35 years, there had been some 45 recorded actions against tribes on the western frontiers alone, from Baluchistan to Hunza, excluding the Second Afghan War. This includes the Hunza-Nagar campaign of 1891 and Chilas 1893 within the Gilgit Agency itself While admittedly there were some parts of the army that had more exposure to frontier warfare than others, there existed adequate expertise as well as knowledge, within the military and political establishment, to effectively deal with such situations.

The author is also mistaken in stating that a clasp "Malakand 1895" to the India Medal was instituted for service across the frontier between 2nd April and 15th August 1895 (p.241). Events were covered by the award of two clasps only: "Defence of Chitral 1895" (3 March -19 April 1895) and "Relief of Chitral 1895" (7 March -15 August 1895). A clasp for "Malakand 1897" was instituted three years later and awarded to the defenders of Chakdarra and Malakand as well as the members of the relief force from Mardan, but that, as the saying goes, is another story. The Kashmir troops involved in the operations received an additional bronze medal instituted by the maharaja which bore the clasp "Chitral 1895".

These minor quibbles aside, the author has produced a well researched book that will be of use to readers with an interest in the Great Game and in the evolution of British imperial policy in Central and South Asia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It may even interest scholars of modern South Asia in gaining a better understanding of how imperial policies shaped the borders of their homelands over a century ago.

British Empire Book
Michael Dudding
First Published
Carr Design Studio
The Author
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2017 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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