Following the subjugation of the Punjab, the kingdom of the Sikhs, in the middle years of the 19th century the British Empire effectively controlled the Indian sub-continent. Although the Indian Mutiny of 1857 temporarily disrupted the peaceful consolidation of Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown,’ the borders of its Indian domain were not seriously threatened. As the century progressed the principal concern of the British was to hold all they had won. The greatest threat to this was the might of the Russian Empire and it was clear that, if it came, this threat would come via the Northern passes through Afghanistan or the smaller states in the east. So the ‘The Great Game’ began with each side vying for influence and with the British constantly engaged in wars or expeditions along the troubled and hostile border. All attempts to close the avenue of potential invasion through Tibet failed as a consequence of Tibetan unwillingness to put itself under British influence and so in 1903 Curzon initiated an invasion to establish a diplomatic mission. What followed was a particularly reprehensible example of imperial bullying as the most significant martial nation in the world took on a peaceful and militarily inept people armed with weapons a hundred years out of date. This book, written by one of its British officers, focuses less on the politics of the affair than on the experiences of the mounted infantry of the Indian Army. For those interested in the colonial campaigns of the later period this is an excellent first hand account.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Captain Cullen with his company of the 32nd was to move along the glacis on our right, keeping as high up the slope as possible so as to endeavour to turn the enemy’s left flank.<br>
Colonel Brander and one company of the 32nd in reserve, the Norfolk Maxims, and the two Gurkha guns took up their position on a commanding plateau on the left bank of the stream, 1,100 yards from the wall.<br>
At 9.30 a.m. the advance commenced, and the guns and Maxims were ready to open fire at 10 a.m. The Tibetans held their fire till we got to within about 600 yards, when one of them, losing control of himself, let off his rifle. This started them all off. Rifles, matchlocks, and jingals all rang out; the whole of the wall, and sangars on the right and left, were suddenly wreathed in smoke. Our Maxims promptly replied, and in this narrow defile, where every shot was echoed and re-echoed scores of times over, the roar of firearms was magnificent. We were quite safe marching down the bed of the stream, where we had good cover, and bullets from both sides were harmlessly passing over our heads. The bed of the stream bears to the left, and about 300 yards from the wall turns to the right. The right bank at this point is very steep and about thirty feet high.<br>
From the top of this bank or edge of the glacis, a large portion of the loopholed wall was only thirty yards away, but in the bed of the stream we were under cover from it. When Captain Bethune came to the corner, from which the wall is visible 300 yards off, he rapidly extended his men across the bed of the stream, where they laid down and opened fire, but it was quite futile, and the enemy behind their wall were perfectly safe. This wall was a work of art in fortifications; it was six feet high, built of large blocks of stone, and four feet thick. Behind each loophole it was chambered, so that the man firing through the loophole was screened from all but directly reverse fire. The enemy opened a heavy fire from all their loopholes, and at that close range a matchlock is nearly as good as a rifle.<br>
Several men were knocked over here, but Captain Bethune, recognising that it was yet impossible to take the wall by frontal attack, saved them by withdrawing them under cover of the right bank again, and at the same time sent me word to retire. The enemy in the sangars in the cliffs on the left which we had passed now turned their attention to us, and opened fire on our rear, but without effect, although the bullets were falling all round the men. Captain Bethune signalled to me with his hand to retire still further, and this was the last time I saw that good soldier alive. He commenced retiring after me, and was last of all himself, when I suppose, chafing at not being able to breach the wall, and indignant at retiring, he took a few men with him, climbed the steep bank on to the glacis, and made straight for the wall above, where he and his bugler and one sepoy, the first up, were all immediately killed.<br>
Meanwhile the rest of us continued to retire, not knowing what took place behind, and having left the Mounted Infantry, two of whose ponies had been hit, well under cover, joined Colonel Brander to watch for the opportunity when we should be of use. The enemy’s fire was so hot on the glacis, both from the wall in front and the sangar up on the right flank, that Captain Cullen and his few men could make no headway, but they lay down where they were and kept on peppering the loopholes. Several of these men were hit also. Major Row’s Gurkhas on the left found they could make no impression on the sangars at their first attempt, as the loopholes were on the ground level, and the men in them could not be touched by any fire except that coming from the cliffs directly above them. The Gurkhas had therefore to retrace their steps till they found a place up which they could climb, and get into a position whence they could hit the Tibetans in the sangar.<br>
The Maxim guns, although splendidly served and accurate, were useless against the wall. The range was too far for poor Bubble and Squeak, and although they fired over seventy rounds they only once hit their mark. The plateau on which Colonel Brander, his guns, Maxims, and reserve were posted was a very hot place, as the enemy’s jingals and good rifles had the range of it thoroughly, and but for a dip in the ground the casualties here would have been very heavy. Throughout this fire Sergeant-Instructor Champion, who was in charge of the guns (Captain Luke having been too unwell to leave Gyantse), stood to them manfully, and worked them with the utmost vigour in the open without any cover, while the enemy’s jingal bullets fell thick and fast around him, proving himself a credit to the Royal Regiment of Artillery.<br>
At 1 p.m. the Gurkhas had got well above the sangar, and the lull in the fight was broken by their rifles ringing out in a brisk fire. It came as a complete surprise to the fifty odd Tibetans in the sangar, and as they were getting severe punishment, those who were not hit bolted out of the sangar to the rear along the single path. On these the reserve company of the 32nd and the Maxims opened fire, making them retreat all the faster. Some of them lost their footing and fell over the cliffs, a drop of 500 feet, and were smashed to atoms. Not one of them escaped; all were either killed or captured.<br>
The capture of this sangar and the stone-shoots had no effect on the enemy’s main position; in fact, it seemed to instil new life into them, and their fire was delivered with redoubled energy.