1897: Young Winston Churchill Fought Afghan Muslims

1897: Young Winston Churchill Fought Afghan Muslims
Photo Credit To Wikipedia Commons

Story Highlights

  • Historical event:
  • 2 August 1897
  • Muslim Mullah Saidullah, who was rumored to have mystic powers, declared a jihad against the British colonial authorities. Winston Churchill, at that time a lieutenant in the British Army, took part in the resulting conflict. He was a member of the hussars, who were known for their flashy uniforms, based on those of the hussar light cavalry of Hungarian fame.

This day in 1897 marked the end of an interesting episode in the history of warfare in what is today northern Pakistan.

One of its participants was the 22-year-old Winston Churchill, who later became the British prime minister. Churchill’s life was filled with adventure, and this was the first time he found himself in combat against an enemy (he had previously experienced combat during the Cuban War of Independence two years earlier, but only as an observer).

The area of Pakistan where the conflict ended was at that time the northernmost border of the British Empire in India. Many know that British India also encompassed what is now Pakistan, and that in the north it almost reached the Russian Empire, a powerful rival. In order to prevent possible Russian expansion in the direction of India, the British wanted to organize Afghanistan as a sort of neutral area i.e. buffer zone.

So, they drew a boundary line between the British colonial empire in India and Afghanistan – the so-called Durand Line (the current Afghan-Pakistani border runs along it). Of course, the British placed troops on their side of the border, and these represented a vanguard which was supposed to protect the whole of British India.

However, the Afghan tribal population didn’t like the border, nor the British military presence on their tribal territory. For this reason, this border area was in a constant state of tension. And indeed, in 1897 members of the Pashtun people rose up in rebellion against the British. Incidentally, it was the Pashtuns who later comprised most of the Taliban.

Winston Churchill, at that time a lieutenant in the British Army, took part in the resulting conflict. He was a member of the hussars, who were known for their flashy uniforms, based on those of the hussar light cavalry of Hungarian fame. Indeed, hussars were probably the most extravagant-looking units in the world’s armies at the time, bearing characteristic cords on their uniforms.

The first fighting broke out near Malakand, when the Pashtuns attacked the British troops stationed on that area. This led to some truly bloody episodes, in which Churchill also participated. For example, on one occasion his unit was attacked by a much larger Pashtun force and forced to retreat. Four British soldiers tried to evacuate one of their own officers, but the Pashtun attack was so fierce they were forced to abandon him on the way. Churchill saw the Pashtuns killing him with his own eyes.

All in all, things were going badly for the British. It is interesting that the Pashtuns were led by Muslim Mullah Saidullah, who was rumored to have mystic powers (the British called him “The Great Fakir”), declared a jihad against the British colonial authorities. Who knows how the conflict would have ended were the local British forces not relieved by reinforcements led by General Sir Bindon Blood. On this day, the Muslim siege of Malakand was broken.

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