Monday, April 27, 2009

Churchill on Sikhs : The Story of the Malakand Field Force

Wed Mar 4, 2009 10:37 pm (PST)

In the Sikh the more civilised man appears. He does not shoot naturally,
but he learns by patient practice. He is not so tough as the Pathan, but
he delights in feats of strength--wrestling, running, or swimming. He is
a much cleaner soldier and more careful. He is frequently parsimonious,
and always thrifty, and does not generally feed himself as well as the
Pathan. [Indeed in some regiments the pay of very thin Sikhs is given
them in the form of food, and they have to be carefully watched by their
officers till they get fat and strong.]

15. During the fighting above described, the conduct of the whole of the
garrison, whether fighting men, departmental details, or followers, is
reported to have been most gallant. Not the least marked display of
courage and constancy was that made by the small detachment in the
signal tower, who were without water for the last eighteen hours of the
siege. The signallers, under No.2729, Lance-Naik Vir Singh, 45th Sikhs,
who set a brilliant example, behaved throughout in a most courageous
manner; one of them, No.2829, Sepoy Prem Singh, climbing several times
out of a window in the tower with a heliograph, and signaling outside to

the Malakand under a hot fire from sungars in every direction.

The Sikhs arrived first, but by a
very little. As they turned the corner they met the mass of the enemy,
nearly a thousand strong, armed chiefly with swords and knives, creeping
silently and stealthily up the gorge, in the hope and assurance of
rushing the camp and massacring every soul in it. The whole road was
crowded with the wild figures. McRae opened fire at once. Volley after
volley was poured into the dense mass, at deadly range. At length the
Sikhs fired independently. This checked the enemy, who shouted and
yelled in fury at being thus stopped. The small party of soldiers then
fell back, pace by pace, firing incessantly, and took up a position in a
cutting about fifty yards behind the corner. Their flanks were protected
on the left by high rocks, and on the right by boulders and rough
ground, over which in the darkness it was impossible to move. The road
was about five yards wide. As fast as the tribesmen turned the corner
they were shot down. It was a strong position.

In that strait path a thousand
Might well be stopped by three

Being thus effectively checked in their direct advance, the tribesmen
began climbing up the hill to the left and throwing down rocks and
stones on those who barred their path. They also fired their rifles
round the corner, but as they were unable to see the soldiers without
exposing themselves, most of their bullets went to the right.

The band of Sikhs were closely packed in the cutting, the front rank
kneeling to fire. Nearly all were struck by stones and rocks. Major
Taylor, displaying great gallantry, was mortally wounded. Several of the Sepoys were killed. Colonel McRae himself was accidentally stabbed in the neck by a bayonet and became covered with blood. But he called upon the men to maintain the good name of "Rattray's Sikhs," and to hold their position till death or till the regiment came up. And the soldiers replied by loudly shouting the Sikh warcry, and defying the enemy to advance.

On the right Colonel McRae and his
Sikhs were repeatedly charged by the swordsmen, many of whom succeeded
in forcing their way into the pickets and perished by the bayonet.
Others reached the two guns and were cut down while attacking the
gunners. All assaults were however beaten off. The tribesmen suffered
terrible losses. The casualties among the Sikhs were also severe. In the morning Colonel McRae advanced from his defences, and, covered by the fire of his two guns, cleared the ground in his front of the enemy.

How terrible that march must
have been, may be judged from the fact, that in the 35th Sikhs twenty-
one men actually died on the road of heat apoplexy. The fact that these
men marched till they dropped dead, is another proof of the soldierly
eagerness displayed by all ranks to get to the front. Brigadier-General
Meiklejohn, feeling confidence in his ability to hold his own with the
troops he had, ordered them to remain halted at Dargai, and rest the
next day.

Killed. Wounded.
No.5 Company Q.O. Sappers and Miners . 3 18
24th Punjaub Infantry . . . 3 14
31st " " . . . . 12 32
45th Sikhs . . . . . 4 28
Q.O. Corps of Guides . . . . 3 27


Colonel Goldney simultaneously advanced to the attack
of the spur, which now bears his name, with 250 men of the 35th Sikhs
and 50 of the 38th Dogras. He moved silently towards the stone shelters,
that the tribesmen had erected on the crest. He got to within a hundred
yards unperceived. The enemy, surprised, opened an irregular and
ineffective fire. The Sikhs shouted and dashed forward. The ridge was
captured without loss of any kind. The enemy fled in disorder, leaving
seven dead and one prisoner on the ground.

On this occasion, our provisions were supplemented by the hospitality of
the khan. A long row of men appeared, each laden with food. Some carried
fruit,--pears or apples; others piles of chupatties, or dishes of

Nor were our troopers forgotten. The Mahommedans among them eagerly
accepted the proffered food. But the Sikhs maintained a remorseful
silence and declined it. They could not eat what had been prepared by
Mussulman hands, and so they sat gazing wistfully at the appetising
dishes, and contented themselves with a little fruit.

Sikhs, who now numbered perhaps sixty, were hard pressed, and fired
without effect. Then some one--who it was is uncertain--ordered the
bugler to sound the "charge." The shrill notes rang out not once but a
dozen times. Every one began to shout. The officers waved their swords
frantically. Then the Sikhs commenced to move slowly forward towards the
enemy, cheering. It was a supreme moment. The tribesmen turned, and
began to retreat. Instantly the soldiers opened a steady fire, shooting down their late persecutors with savage energy.

Afterwards in
the Mamund Valley whole battalions were employed to do what these two
Sikh companies had attempted. But Sikhs need no one to bear witness to
their courage.

Out of a force which at no time exceeded 1000 men, nine British
officers, four native officers, and 136 soldiers were either killed or
wounded. The following is the full return:--

Killed--Lieutenant and Adjutant V. Hughes, 35th Sikhs.
" " A.T. Crawford, R.A.
Wounded severely--Captain W.I. Ryder, attd. 35th Sikhs.
" " Lieutenant O.G. Gunning, 35th Sikhs.
" " " O.R. Cassells, 35th Sikhs.
" " " T.C. Watson, R.E.
" " " F.A. Wynter, R.A.
Wounded slightly--Brigadier-General Jeffreys, Commanding 2nd Bde.
" " Captain Birch, R.A.
Killed. Wounded.
The Buffs . . . . 2 9
Killed. Wounded.
11th Bengal Lancers . . 0 2
No.8 Mountain Battery . . 6 21
Guides Infantry . . . 2 10
35th Sikhs . . . . 22 45
38th Dogras . . . . 0 2
Sappers . . . . . 4 15

The next day the first instalment of rifles was surrendered. Fifteen
Martini-Henrys taken on the 16th from the 35th Sikhs were brought into
camp, by the Khan of Khar's men, and deposited in front of the general's
tent. Nearly all were hacked and marked by sword cuts, showing that
their owners, the Sikhs, had perished fighting to the last. Perhaps,
these firearms had cost more in blood and treasure than any others ever
made. The remainder of the twenty-one were promised later, and have

There are many on the frontier who realise these things, and who
sympathise with the Afridi soldier in his dilemma. An officer of the
Guides Infantry, of long experience and considerable distinction, who
commands both Sikhs and Afridis, and has led both many times in action,
writes as follows: "Personally, I don't blame any Afridis who desert to
go and defend their own country, now that we have invaded it, and I
think it is only natural and proper that they should want to do so."

Such an opinion may be taken as typical of the views of a great number
of officers, who have some title to speak on the subject, as it is one
on which their lives might at any moment depend.

The Sikh is the guardian of the Marches. He was originally invented to
combat the Pathan. His religion was designed to be diametrically opposed
to Mahommedanism. It was a shrewd act of policy. Fanaticism was met by
fanaticism. Religious abhorrence was added to racial hatred. The Pathan
invaders were rolled back to the mountains, and the Sikhs established
themselves at Lahore and Peshawar. The strong contrast, and much of the
animosity, remain to-day. The Sikh wears his hair down to his waist; the
Pathan shaves his head. The Sikh drinks what he will; the Pathan is an
abstainer. The Sikh is burnt after death; the Pathan would be thus
deprived of Paradise. As a soldier the Pathan is a finer shot, a hardier
man, a better marcher, especially on the hillside, and possibly an even
more brilliant fighter. He relies more on instinct than education: war
is in his blood; he is a born marksman, but he is dirty, lazy and a

In the Sikh the more civilised man appears. He does not shoot naturally,
but he learns by patient practice. He is not so tough as the Pathan, but
he delights in feats of strength--wrestling, running, or swimming. He is
a much cleaner soldier and more careful. He is frequently parsimonious,
and always thrifty, and does not generally feed himself as well as the
Pathan. [Indeed in some regiments the pay of very thin Sikhs is given
them in the form of food, and they have to be carefully watched by their
officers till they get fat and strong.]

There are some who say that the Sikh will go on under circumstances
which will dishearten and discourage his rival, and that if the latter
has more dash he has less stamina. The assertion is not supported by
facts. In 1895, when Lieut.-Colonel Battye was killed near the Panjkora
River and the Guides were hard pressed, the subadar of the Afridi
company, turning to his countrymen, shouted: "Now, then, Afridi folk of
the Corps of Guides, the Commanding Officer's killed, now's the time to
charge!" and the British officers had the greatest difficulty in
restraining these impetuous soldiers from leaving their position, and
rushing to certain death. The story recalls the speech of the famous
cavalry colonel at the action of Tamai, when the squares were seen to be
broken, and an excited and demoralised correspondent galloped wildly up
to the squadrons, declaring that all was lost. "How do you mean, 'all's
lost'? Don't you see the 10th Hussars are here?" There are men in the
world who derive as stern an exultation from the proximity of disaster
and ruin as others from success, and who are more magnificent in defeat
than others are in victory. Such spirits are undoubtedly to be found
among the Afridis and Pathans.

since all been surrendered.
Total Casualties, 149; with 48 horses and mules.