A skirmish during the Chitral expedition
|British Empire and Pro-British Chitralis||Chitralis Bajouri and Afghan Tribesmen|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Maj. Gen. Sir Robert Low, K.C.B
Colonel James Graves Kelly
Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend
|15,249 (Low Force)
1,400 (Fort & Gilgit force)
|Casualties and losses|
|21 killed, 101 wounded (Low force)
165 killed, 88 wounded (Fort & Kelly force)
The Chitral Expedition (Urdu:چترال فوجی مہم) was a military expedition in 1895 sent by the British authorities to relieve the fort at Chitral which was under siege after a local coup. After the death of the old ruler power changed hands several times. An intervening British force of about 400 men was besieged in the fort until it was relieved by two expeditions, a small one from Gilgit and a large one from Peshawar.
Background to the conflict
In the last phase of the Great Game attention turned to the unclaimed mountainous area north of British India along the later Sino-Soviet border. Chitral was thought to be a possible route for a Russian invasion of India, but neither side knew much about the local geography. The British sent people like George W. Hayward, Robert Shaw and probably some Pundits north to explore. The ruler of Chitral may have had some involvement in Hayward's murder. From 1871 there were Russian explorers in the Pamir Mountains to the north. Around 1889 some Russians entered Chitral territory as well as Hunza to the east and Gabriel Bonvalot reached Chitral from Russian territory. From around 1876 Chitral was under the protection of the Maharaja of Kashmir to the southeast and therefore in the British sphere of influence but there was no British resident. At this time Chitrali power extended east to the Yasin Valley about half way to Hunza. The British established the Gilgit Agency about 175 miles east in 1877. In 1891 the British occupied Hunza north of Gilgit.
From 1857 to 1892 the ruler (Mehtar) was Aman-ul-Mulk II of the Katoor Dynasty. When the old ruler died in 1892 one of his sons, Afzul-ul-Mulk, seized the throne and killed as many of his half-brothers as he could. The old ruler's brother, Sher Afzul Khan, who had been in exile at Kabul about 150 miles southwest, secretly entered Chitral with a few supporters and murdered Afzul. Another of the old ruler's sons, Nizam-ul-Mulk, who had fled to the British at Gilgit, advanced westward from Gilgit, accumulating troops as he went, including 1200 men Sher had sent against him. Seeing the situation was hopeless, Sher fled back to Afghanistan and Nizam took the throne with British blessing and a British political resident called Lieutenant Gurdon. Within a year Nizam was murdered by his brother, Amir-ul-Mulk, while the two were out hunting. Umra Khan, a tribal leader from Bajour to the south marched north with 3,000 Pathans either to assist Amir-ul-Mulk or replace him. George Scott Robertson, the senior British officer at Gilgit, gathered 400 troops and marched west to Chitral and threatened Umra Khan with an invasion from Peshawar if he did not turn back. Amir-ul-Mulk began negotiating with Umra Khan so Robertson replaced him with his 12-year-old brother Shuja-ul-Mulk. At this point Sher Afzul Khan re-entered the contest. The plan seems to have been that Sher would take the throne and Umra Khan would get part of the Chitral territory. Robertson moved into the fortress for protection which increased local hostility. Since Umra Khan and Sher Afzul continued their march secret messengers were sent out requesting help.
Siege of Chitral
The fort was 80 yards square and built of mud, stone and timber. The walls were 25 feet high and eight feet thick. There was a short covered way to the river, the only water source. The fort held 543 people of whom 343 were combatants including five British officers. The units were the 14th Sikhs and a larger detachment of Kashmiri Infantry. Artillery support was 2 seven-pounders without sights and 80 rounds of ammunition. There were only 300 cartridges per man and enough food for a month. There were trees and buildings near the walls and nearby hills from which sniping was possible with modern rifles. Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend of Mesopotamia fame commanded the troops, or part of them.
On March 3 a party was sent out to determine the enemy strength. Its loss was 23 killed and 33 wounded. Harry Frederick Whitchurch won a Victoria Cross for aiding the wounded. At about the same time a small force from Gilgit was defeated and the ammunition and explosives they were carrying captured. By April 5 the Chitralis were 50 yards from the walls. On April 7 they set fire to the south-east tower which burned for 5 hours but did not collapse. Four days later the Chitralis began digging a tunnel in order to blow open the fort. The tunnel started from a house where the Chitralis held noisy parties to hide the sounds of digging. By the time sounds of digging were heard it was too late to dig a counter mine. One hundred men rushed out of the eastern gate, found the mouth of the tunnel, bayoneted the miners, blew up the explosives and returned with a loss of eight men. On the night of April 18 someone shouted over the wall that the besiegers had fled. The next morning a heavily armed party found that this was true. Kelly's relief force entered Chitral on April 20 and found the besieged "walking skeletons". The siege had lasted a month and a half and cost the defenders 41 lives.
When the British heard of Robertson's situation they began assembling troops around Peshawar, but they were not in a hurry since they assumed that Umra Khan would back down. When reports became more serious they ordered Colonel James Kelly at Gilgit to act. He gathered what troops he could: 400 Sikh Pioneers - mostly road-builders, 40 Kasmiri sappers with 2 mountain guns, 900 Hunza irregulars, all hearty mountain men, and a number of hired coolies to carry the baggage. Although his force was small he had the advantage that the Chitralis did not think that anyone would be fool enough to cross 150 miles of mountains in late winter. He left Gilgit on March 23, probably up the valley of the Gilgit River, and by March 30 had crossed the snowline at 10,000 feet. Seeing what they were in for, the coolies deserted with their laden ponies but were soon rounded up and kept under guard. The main problem was the 12,000 foot Shandur Pass at the head of the Gilgit River which was crossed in the waist-deep snow dragging mountain guns on sledges (April 1 to 5). Fighting began the next day when the Chitralis became aware of them. By April 13 they had driven the enemy from two main positions and by April 18 the enemy seemed to have disappeared.
Meanwhile the British had assembled 15,000 men at Peshawar under Major-General Sir Robert Low. They set off about a week after Kelly left Gilgit. Accompanying Low was Francis Younghusband who was officially on leave and serving as a special correspondent for the London Times. On April 3 they stormed the Malakand Pass which was defended by 12,000 local warriors. There were significant engagements 2 and 10 days later. On April 17 Umra Khan's men prepared to defend his palace at Munda, but finding themselves greatly outnumbered, they slipped away. Inside the fortress the British found a letter from a Scottish firm offering Maxim guns at 3,700 rupees and revolvers at 34 rupees each. The firm was ordered to leave India. Low was still crossing the Lowari Pass on the day Kelly entered Chitral. Although Kelly got to Chitral first, it was the massive size of Low's force that forced the enemy to withdraw. The first person from Low's force to reach Chitral was Younghusband who, without permission, rode out ahead of the troops. (Max Hastings performed the same stunt in 1982.) That night Younghusband, Robertson, and Kelly shared the garrison's last bottle of brandy.
Umra Khan fled with eleven mule-loads of treasure and reached safety in Afghanistan. Sher Ali ran into one of his foes and was sent into exile in India. Robertson was knighted. Kelly was made an ADC to the queen and given a CB. Eleven DSOs were awarded, along with Whitchurch's VC, and all ranks were given 6 months extra pay and three months leave. Townshend became a Major General and at least nine participants became generals. There was talk of building a road from Peshawar, but this was rejected because of the expense and the fear that the Russians could use the road too. Two battalions were stationed at Chitral and two at the Malakand Pass. In the spring of 1898 Captain Ralph Cobbold was on "hunting leave" in the Pamirs and learned that the Russians had planned to occupy Chitral if the British abandoned it.
- Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game, John Murray Ltd. (1990)
- "The Relief of Chitral" by Capt G. J. Younghusband, Macmillen & Co (1896)
- "With Kelly to Chitral" by Capt Beynon
- "Campaigns on the North West Frontier" by Captain H L Nevill, Naval & Military Press
- "Chitral - the Story of a Minor Siege" by Sir George Robertson, KCSI. (1898)
- "Townshend of Chitral and Kut" by Erroll Sherson John (1928)
- Much Sounding of Bugles: The Siege of Chitral, 1895, John Harris, Hutchinson (1975)