The British Empire Library

The Frontier Ablaze: The North-West Frontier Rising 1897-98

by Michael Barthorp

by R.T.S.
G.W. Steevens, the Daily Mail's brilliant correspondent, visited India in the winter of 1898-9. He reported that, 'When you speak of "the war", in India now, you can only mean one war - the Tirah-Mohmund-Swat- Bajaur-Buner campaign of '97 and '98. There is a great deal of disappointment and a little bitterness in India about "the war" ... soldiers feel that perhaps the most difficult campaign in history, and deeds certainly never surpassed for endurance and valour, have been scantily recognised at home, where popular applause and official reward have been reserved for the luckier heroes of easier enterprises'. Now, over a century later, the story of the greatest Indian frontier war fought by the British Raj - using a force larger than the entire British regular army today - has been retold by Michael Barthorp, whose family regiment served in that war. The Frontier Ablaze: The North-West Frontier Rising 1897- 98 is an attractively-produced, large-format book in the same series as Ian Knight's Zulu: Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. It is well illustrated with contemporary photographs and drawings, maps, and specially-commissioned colour plates by Douglas N. Anderson. Researched from a range of contemporary publications, and from letters and diaries in the National Army Museum, regimental museums and elsewhere, it puts the war into its historical context, describes the forces involved — including their weapons and uniforms and vividly narrates the campaigns and their outcome.

Steevens - who like Kipling is very quotable - wrote that 'to find the real British army you must go to India'. Major Barthorp shows what you would have found. He shows the difficulties of the war: cruel, cunning and weU-armed enemies; harsh terrain and climate, and the killer diseases dysentery and cholera. He shows the courage, endurance and military skills with which British, Gurkha and Indian troops responded to the test, and the heavy price paid by some British units which, though brave, were inexperienced and unskilled in frontier warfare. Among the episodes described is the famous, much-portrayed storming of the Dargai heights. To read of such endurance and courage is a humbling experience for the stay-at-home armchair reader.

Good books stimulate as well as answer questions. One question stimulated by Major Barthorp's book is why the army failed to learn from frontier warfare certain specific lessons which now with hindsight seem obvious. During the Malakand campaign a squadron of Bengal Lancers had to be rescued by Guides infantry because the lancers' carbines were outranged by the Mahmunds' rifles. Yet in 1899 British cavalry were sent with short-range carbines against Boer riflemen. In hot weather British infantry exhausted their water-bottles, yet for years after they each continued to carry only one water-bottle. Also during the Frontier War, officers, conspicuous as such, were deliberately targeted by the enemy - one old soldier warned a friend, 'Don't go near no officers nor white stones' - and suffered disproportionate casualties. Yet the lesson was unlearned until during the Boer War and then, amazingly, forgotten by 1914. Nineteenth-century British governments, unlike their twentieth-century successors, were lucky in the timing of the challenges to British imperial defence over-stretch. What would have happened if the Mutiny had coincided with the Crimea, or the Frontier War with the Boer War?

Regular readers of this journal will not be surprised that Major Barthorp, in emphasising the scale and importance of the Frontier War, compares it to the Zulu War of 1879. He states the Tirah campaign alone involved nearly three times as many infantry as the entire Zulu War, and claims the heroic defence of Chakdara should rank with that of Rorke's Drift, but was much less publicised and rewarded. Indian Army veterans and enthusiasts, collectors, and all interested in the heyday of the Raj, would do well to purchase The Frontier Ablaze.

British Empire Book
Michael Barthorp
The Crowood Press Ltd


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