An extract from Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans. (St Martin's Press 2014)
In 1897, British forces launched a bloody campaign against Pashtun tribesmen on the North West Frontier. It was the first time Winston Churchill, a junior cavalry lieutenant and aspiring war correspondent for 'The Daily Telegraph,' had taken part in military action.
Young Winston was conspicuous riding a grey charger when the 2nd Brigade of the Bengal Lancers moved out from Inayat Kila at six o'clock in the morning and headed for the Mohmand Valley. By choosing to ride a grey, Churchill was making sure that no one could fail to notice his endeavours were he to find himself in the thick of the action.
The Mohmand Valley, to the south-east of the Afghan border, is a fan-shaped cul-de-sac about ten miles in length from north to south. Traditionally, it has been controlled by tribes that jealously guard their independence and it later became a stronghold for the Taliban.
The 2nd Brigade's mission was to "chastise" the valley's tribes by burning crops, destroying reservoirs and blowing up fortified buildings in the villages. Within the context of Major General Sir Bindon Blood's broader campaign to restore order to the North-West Frontier, this was a routine operation designed to curtail the threat posed by one particularly troublesome group. But it was not without risk.
The Afghans had learned, over many decades of fighting, that they were no match for the British in set-piece battles. Instead, they relied on classic guerrilla tactics, withdrawing when confronted by a superior force, and then launching highly effective ambushes.
Churchill rode out with a force of 1,000 fighting men, who were divided into three columns to cover as much of the valley as possible in a day. He was attached to the center column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Goldney of the 35th Sikhs.
The objective of Goldney's column was to destroy two villages at the far end of the valley, Badelai and Shahi-Tangi. Seventy-five men from the Sikhs were detached from the main force to take the conical hill between the two villages, while another company of around 85 men, including Churchill, were ordered to advance up the long, rocky spur that led to Shahi-Tangi.
Having satisfied themselves that the village was deserted, the soldiers set fire to whatever would burn before being ordered to withdraw after 15 minutes. But in their haste to reach the village, the Sikhs had inadvertently strayed beyond the safety of the cover provided by the mountain guns.
This was just the opportunity the tribesmen thrived on. The British force suddenly found itself isolated, and the tribesmen gathered to attack. As Churchill and the other soldiers rested from the exertion of their morning climb, they found the eeriness of the deserted village disconcerting. "We are rather in the air here," remarked one officer.
When Goldney eventually gave the order to retire, the enemy began to collect on all sides, and "thereupon promptly attacked in force, and the Sikhs were driven back about a mile, to the foot of the spur," as the official account recorded. While Churchill and the Sikhs were fighting their way to safety, another large group of tribesmen moved to the foot of the hills to cut off their retreat.
Winston and his party suddenly found themselves in a position of the utmost peril. As he later recalled in My Early Life: "Like most young fools, I was looking for trouble, and only hoped that something exciting would happen. It did!"
The tribesmen had kept themselves well concealed as the Sikhs advanced on Shahi-Tangi, but now attacked the retreating British in force: "Suddenly the mountain-side sprang to life. Swords flashed from behind rocks, bright flags waved here and there. A dozen widely scattered smoke-puffs broke from the rugged face in front of us. Loud explosions resounded close at hand. From high up on the crag, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand feet above us, white or blue figures appeared, dropping down the mountainside from ledge to ledge like monkeys down the branches of a tall tree. A shrill crying rose from many points. Yi! Yi! Yi! Bang! Bang! Bang! The whole hillside began to be spotted with smoke, and tiny figures descended nearer to us."
The spur, along which the British force was retreating, consisted of three interconnected knolls. Churchill, another officer, and eight sepoys were left to hold the second knoll and provide cover as the rest of the unit withdrew to the third knoll below. But when the turn came for Churchill's group to retire, they came under heavy fire from tribesmen who had seized the first knoll vacated by the retreating British.
Then, as Churchill's 10-strong group rose to withdraw to the third knoll, they were met with a well-aimed volley of fire from the tribesmen, which killed two, including Churchill's fellow officer, and wounded three others.
As Churchill recalled: "The rest of our party got up and turned to retreat. There was a ragged volley from the rocks: shouts, exclamations, and a scream. I thought for a moment that five or six of our men had lain down again. So they had: two killed and three wounded. One man shot through the breast and pouring with blood, another lay on his back kicking and twisting. The British officer was spinning round just behind me, his face a mass of blood, his right eye cut out. Yes, it was certainly an adventure."
Winston and the other uninjured soldiers desperately tried to pull the wounded back to safety, but had no covering fire. As Churchill observed: "It is a point of honour on the Indian frontier not to leave wounded men behind. Death by inches and hideous mutilation are the invariable measure meted out to all who fall in battle into the hands of the Pashtun tribesmen."
The adjutant of the 35th Sikhs, Lieutenant Victor Hughes, with a number of sepoys, rushed to assist with the recovery of the dead and injured, but was himself shot. Churchill and the other survivors continued to drag and carry the casualties down the hill, passing through a group of deserted houses, with the tribesmen in hot pursuit, firing at the retreating British.
"The bullets passed in the air with a curious sucking noise, like that produced by drawing the air between the lips," Churchill observed. One of the Sikhs helping to carry the wounded along the spur was shot through the calf, causing him to shout out in pain. "His turban fell off," Churchill recorded, "and his long black hair streamed over his shoulders - a tragic golliwog."
Churchill reacted with fury when he spotted a group of Pashtuns about to attack the injured adjutant and his rescuers. Four soldiers trying to carry Hughes to safety were attacked by half a dozen Pashtun swordsmen.
The bearers dropped the adjutant and rushed for their lives. Churchill was aghast as "the body sprawled upon the ground. A tall man in dirty white linen pounced down upon it with a curved sword. It was a horrible sight."
As he later wrote: "I forgot everything else at this moment except a desire to kill this man. I wore my long cavalry sword well-sharpened. After all, I had won the Public Schools fencing medal. I resolved on personal combat a l'arme blanche. The savage saw me coming. I was not more than 20 yards away. He picked up a big stone and hurled it at me with his left hand, and then awaited me, brandishing his sword. There were others waiting not far behind him. I changed my mind about the cold steel. I pulled out my revolver, took, as I thought, most careful aim, and fired. No result. I fired again. No result. I fired again. Whether I hit him or not, I cannot tell. At any rate he ran back two or three yards and plumped down behind a rock. The fusillade was continuous. I looked around. I was alone with the enemy. Not a friend was to be seen. I ran as fast as I could. There were bullets everywhere."
Churchill had demonstrated courage and resolve in the face of a determined enemy - qualities he would display on many more occasions during his long and eventful life.
Con Coughlin is the Executive Foreign Editor at Daily Telegraph and author of Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans.
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