The tactics of the British military during the era of ‘the Great Game’
By the end of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British Empire had secured the Indian sub-continent as the most significant jewel in the imperial crown. It is in the nature of empires that having expanded to their geographical limits, they must then turn their efforts to the consolidation and security of all they have won. Naturally, for the British at that time, it was upon India’s frontiers—beyond the limits of perpetual imperial control and power—that the order of the the ‘Raj’ was most regularly threatened, tested and compromised. The British and Indian armies campaigned and fought their most significant engagements from the last decades of the 19th century to the outbreak of the First World War in the jungles of the east and most especially in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of the North-West Frontier. The warlike peoples of India’s frontiers proved perennially troublesome, enabling the British by constant engagement to become masters of the art of colonial warfare. This book, written by an acknowledged expert, examines the business of Asiatic warfare as the British knew it during the later 19th century. It will be an invaluable resource for everyone interested in the period and for those interested in understanding the difficulties that these regions and their native peoples pose in the conflicts to the present day. Each branch of the late Victorian British and Indian armies is appraised and considered in turn and examples of its greatest achievements and errors are analysed by Younghusband. Many of these actions occurred during the Second Afghan War—and other tribal conflicts—of the mountainous north-western region, but the military methods employed in the campaigns in Assam and Burma are also evaluated. A vital book for all those who wish to understand the finely tuned and efficient military machine the colonial period British army became.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The post of Chilas had, in March, 1893, been for some time held by 300 men of the Kashmir Maharajah’s bodyguard, under the command of two British officers, Major Daniell, of the 1st Punjab Infantry, and Lieutenant Moberly, of the 37th Dogras.<br>
For some time Major Daniell had been in receipt of warnings, which had prepared him for the possibility of being attacked on the night of the Mohamedan feast known as the Shab-i-Barat. Owing to a mistaken calculation, it was understood that the night in question was that of the 3rd March, and when that night had passed quietly it was considered that the storm had blown over. During the night of the 4th, however, a determined attack on the post was made by 1,000 or 1,200 men, and was repulsed by the steady volleys of the garrison.<br>
So far no harm had been suffered from the mistake in dates, but it is open to question whether the further operations would have taken place if fuller information of the enemy’s numbers and dispositions had been obtainable, and if the plan of action could have been decided upon after due deliberation, instead of on the spur of the moment, after a severe night attack.<br>
It has elsewhere been mentioned that one of the great endeavours of a British commander in dealing with these ubiquitous mountaineers, is to place them in such a position that they are compelled to fight, being so placed as to make their usual manoeuvre of dispersing to collect again on a later occasion impossible. In this endeavour the resources of the British force are occasionally so attenuated as to be weak at all points, running that peculiar danger which threatens an encircling force which pens in, or attempts to pen in, superior numbers, compelled by the nature of their position to fight. The action at Chilas is a ready instance of the dangers incurred in such an undertaking.<br>
It appears that, immediately after the night attack on the fort, Major Daniell determined to take the offensive and to attack the enemy, who had now swarmed into the neighbouring village. Consequently at 3.30 a.m. Lieutenant Moberly, with 35 men, was ordered out to attack the village. After severe fighting and some loss, he effected a lodgement in the outer line of houses, but being shortly after badly wounded, and finding the village too strongly held for his small party to make any further progress, he retired with his detachment to the fort. The enemy kept up a heavy fire on the fort till 8.30 a.m., when it ceased, and Major Daniell determined to issue forth and execute the encircling movement alluded to. The sound of firing and news of the night attack had spread like wildfire amongst the tribes, and it was estimated that there were now from 4,000 to 5,000 armed men collected in the vicinity of Chilas.<br>
Major Daniell for the contemplated enterprise had available only 140 men, the remainder being required to garrison the fort. Issuing therefore from the south-eastern gate of the fort, he made a circuit round the village, and attacked it in two parties, one from the western side and the other from the eastern. He thus encircled the village, having two small parties of seventy men each on two sides, whilst on the third the fort acted as a barrier. After two hours’ fighting, during which one of the two attacking parties gained a partial footing in the village, wounded men began to struggle back to the fort, and reported that Major Daniell and many men had been killed and that the attack as a whole had failed.<br>
The remnants of the attacking parties were then collected by a native officer and brought safely into the fort at about 11.30 a.m. The casualties in killed and wounded were very heavy, including two British officers, four native officers, and forty-six rank-and-file. The enemy lost about 250 men killed, besides large numbers of wounded. Curiously enough, they did not, however, follow up their success by attacking the fort, and next morning the entire combination, probably thinking that British reinforcements would arrive, had melted away.<br>
In reviewing an action of this description comment is scarcely necessary, but one lesson useful in border warfare may be learnt, and that is that, though great undertakings may be attempted and accomplished with small numbers, yet that there is a point beyond which it is unwise to strain the valour of the troops. They may be highly, very highly, tried, but there is a point beyond which it is not safe to try them. Major Daniell’s plan of attack, though extremely gallant, was faulty in conception. To reach the point from which he intended delivering his attack, he had to pass through a raking cross-fire, and the direction of his attack was such as to cause the garrison of the fort to cease fire for fear of hitting his men. He was, it appears, perfectly confident of defeating the enemy, and his only fear was that they would not stand.<br>
His attack was, therefore, as we have seen, practically an encircling one, which by cutting off the enemy from all avenues of escape, led to unnecessary loss on our side, while the losses of the enemy were not appreciably increased. If the attack had, on the other hand, been delivered only on the front and flank of the enemy, he would have been driven out into the open ground beyond, suffering severely, whilst our own loss might have been considerably diminished.