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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter V - The Frontier Umbeyla Campaign: 1863


BETWEEN the date of Browne’s joining the Mahsood Wuzeeree expedition at Dera Ishmael Khan and the close of his charge of the frontier division of Public Works—i.e. between i860 and 1863— a very great and serious, if not actually fundamental, change had been gradually getting introduced into the civil and political management of the Punjab frontier. This change lay in the substitution of rule by regulations and courts with the intervention of pleaders and petty officials, and the consequent spread of bribery and corruption and oppression, in place of the original system introduced by Sir Henry Lawrence and his exceptional staff (Mackeson, Edwardes, Nicholson, Abbott, Bechor, and the like), the system of personal intercourse, and open-air courts—the village Peepul-tree justice as it used to be called. The result now in progress was to drive out our well-wishers across the borders into foreign ground, where they had then, from their inferiority in numbers and want of standing, to do as others did, and to join in influence and unaided. Think of Edwardes’ career from Mooltan and Bunnoo to Peshawur, the virtual framer of the treaty with Dost Mahomed, the author of the Afreedee army in the Mutiny. Think of George Lawrence at Peshawur at another stormy period—and of Sidney Cotton and Neville Chamberlain and Harry, otherwise Joe, Lumsden, whose names are household words on the frontier. Kaka1 James too, as he was called at Peshawur, was still there, a man of tried strength, with a reputation second to none, but now beginning to feel himself hampered.

Such were the officers who had been instrumental in making the Punjab frontier what it was in its early, palmy days; and it has been shown, in the beginning of this chapter, what changes had been since creeping in up to the era of 1862.

Except on the trans-frontier, or on the very borders, there had been no ill-feeling, no state except of perfect tranquillity anywhere else in the Punjab; and the high officials of the province had been more taken up, ostensibly, with infanticide and missionary conferences, and the like, than frontier politics, though, as described, the system there was being changed, and men like Herbert Edwardes were glad to leave it for more interior posts, such as Umballa.

But meanwhile a very serious evil had begun to arise in India—a wave of religious fanaticism, not of the wild frontier description, but of deep-seated sectarianism or proselytism, of which the site and origin lay at Patna far away to the south, on the borders between the North-west Provinces and Bengal. It had existed there during the Mutiny and had caused the Dinapore outbreak, but it had, for the time, been overshadowed by the excited feelings of that crisis.

It had been since then vigorously at work, and had found a site for mischief just outside the most northern border of British India, and had begun to people it with the defeated Mahomedans of the late Sepoy army. That site was precisely in the close neighbourhood of the Akhoond of Swat and other wild Afghan fanatics already described.

Though well watched, this fanatical centre was now —in 1863—growing into a serious evil, and fresh adherents were being rapidly forwarded by the Patna Propaganda, for the suppression of which the local Government had taken no adequate steps; and other evils were beginning to prevail. It was known that Russia was on the war-path—far off, however, at present, in the Kirghiz country—and though somewhat ostentatiously holding aloof from Afghanistan borders, was really vigorously at work there, fomenting the fratricidal war which had immediately followed on the death of the old Ameer Dost Mahomed, and was also filling India with emissaries to create excitement and keep the people in a ferment.

The action and attitude of the Wahabee fanatics at Sitana near the Akhoond’s domicile, as above described, were now becoming serious and attracting attention. They had taken part in one of the border raids four years before, and their present attitude seemed to make it necessary to adopt strong measures and to attack and destroy their colony.

It was not till later years that Browne was so much interested in the political questions. At present he was more boyishly excited at the prospects of warfare and combat. Still the matters that were then stirring the surface of the waters covered a very wide range. They were not merely local matters; there was much more to be dealt with—much more at issue than usual and much that needed both judicious and vigorous treatment Unfortunately the treatment does not seem to have been either judicious or vigorous.

As a matter of course, the agitation—if not actual scare—that now existed or arose very quickly was widely ascribed to Russian intrigues, but on only slight foundation. It is certain that at this period— towards the end of 1863—no overt hostile action had yet been shown on the part of Russia. Her troops in Asia were engaged in the northern Kirghiz tracts; and there were no prominent emissaries of rank or weight hovering in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan. But there were suspicious characters and secret intriguers abroad all along the northern frontier and scattered through the plains of the Punjab, spreading rumours of the approach and of the hidden presence, in disguise, of Russian soldiery. As Sir Herbert Edwardes described them, “These fellows, in such times as the present, are just showing themselves sufficiently, like snakes putting their heads out of their holes in the rains, so as to keep up alarm and agitation.” As an instance of the result, not far from Umballa where Sir Herbert then was, a large village was suddenly, during the night, scared and emptied by the vague rumour of an impending raid by a party of Russian troops! In some of the chief cities of the Punjab tales were rife of a Sikh rising, and some of the missionaries were warned against an “imminent massacre.”

These remarks will show that the expedition against the fanatic settlement at Sitana was causing an agitation the virulence of which must have been largely due to many other and wholly extraneous causes quite outside anything connected with the Punjab. In fact, there can be little doubt that Russian intrigue was at the bottom of it. At any rate not only now, but throughout the whole of Browne’s career the principal public subject ever pressing on his mind and attention was the attitude and designs of Russia against India. From the days of the blunder of the Crimean war Russia had accepted the challenge which it seemed to imply, not for that one contest only, but for a permanent struggle in the East; and Browne had from time to time a broad and vivid recognition of this fact forced on him.

What with the insidious movements of Russia, the state of the frontier and the measures now impending, the late Governor-General, Lord Elgin, had evidently thought it advisable to be near the seat of operations against Sitana—and he had left Simla shortly before for a tour along the Lower Himalayas towards Kooloo and the neighbouring hills where he would be within reach of the passes near the Indus. Most unfortunately, however, he was not in vigorous health, and hence, as he was essaying to traverse one of the pliant rope bridges peculiar to those mountains, his heart got seriously affected, leading to a fatal issue. This catastrophe, with all the other circumstances of the frontier troubles, made the state of public affairs a very anxious one, if not actually critical. Temporary arrangements had to be made forthwith, and the ferment was such that John Lawrence was sent out in hot haste as the new Viceroy—a departure from the old practice, that the Viceroy must be a peer, but held to be indispensable in view of the crisis.

Meanwhile Browne, as executive Engineer in the Peshawur districts, had been busy preparing the professional arrangements and requirements for the expedition—such as its field and Engineer park— and collecting them all at the starting-point, Nowakilla, a short distance from Peshawur, frontier-wards. He was directly attached to Colonel Taylor as field Engineer, and in charge of the Engineer park, as well as interpreter to the expeditionary force, which was under the command of Sir Neville Chamberlain as in the Wuzeeree business.

An obligatory portion of the route to be traversed by the force was the Umbeyla Pass—Sitana could not be reached otherwise from the Peshawur direction. But the whole operation was to be at first a profound secret. Hence it was essential to divert attention from any thought of using the Umbeyla Pass. The detachments from Peshawur, then, began to assemble at Nowakilla, and the first party to advance thence moved in accordance with the above plan, not towards the Pass, but to the village of Durrum, quite off that route. But the next day, both a second party from Nowakilla and the first party at Durrum marched towards the mouth of the Umbeyla Pass, and there peacefully halted for the night of October 19th.

Next day, on the morning of October 20th, the west end of the Pass was entered, and the Umbeyla campaign began. It was under the military command of Sir Neville Chamberlain and the political guidance of Colonel Reynell Taylor, who had already sent to the Bonairwals and to Chumla the formal official proclamation of the intention of the British carefully to avoid molesting the tribes in any way and to proceed against the Sitana Hindoostanees only. There had been some slight desultory sniping while the force advanced to the east end of the Pass, where it camped, but no damage had occurred, and all was quiet at night both about the camp and also at the entrance of the west end of the Pass. Colonel Alexander Taylor, of Delhi fame, was chief Engineer of the force, and his assistants—all of them subalterns —were Blair, Browne, and Carter.

The Umbeyla campaign, then, was opened by our unexpected and deceptive entry into the Umbeyla Pass (which lay immediately beyond our own proper frontier) in order to find our way eastwards through it, and then through the Chumla country to the Mahabun Mountain on the Indus, where the Hindoostanee fanatical settlement at Sitana was to be attacked and destroyed.

The clan that dominated the Umbeyla Pass and the plain beyond it were called the Bonairwals, whose chief location was the village of Bonair, situated just outside the Pass itself at the eastern end of the northern slopes of the Guroo Hill, a mountain which formed the northern side or ridge of the Pass. The valley, as it may be called, of the Pass, once it became a Pass at its west end, sloped up nearly straight eastwards, gently, but along very rough and impracticable ground for about eight miles, till it reached its eastern end, when the route, debouching suddenly down steep but open ground into the more level Chumla country, led away, in a north-easterly direction, to the Sitana site.

The Pass was entered, as has been described, and so the war began—technically—on the morning of October 20th. By the evening the bulk of the force, including the guns, had reached the high or eastern end of the Pass, whence the exit descended suddenly and steeply into the Chumla Plain beyond, as above described.

The site of the camp at the east was on suitable ground on the narrow levels between the two hill slopes forming the valley or pass where the ground, first gradually, then sharply, sloped up right and left into the northern and southern ranges or ridges which were on the two flanks of the position. Its front was to the east, where the advance would lie, and its rear to the west, whence the rear-guard and baggage had still to come up. Browne was first sent back to help it up and remove difficulties. He found the entrance to the Pass obstructed by a couple of rocks which had fallen inwards from the opposite sides or slopes. Instead of removing the obstructions, he filled up the ends of the narrow channel so formed, and then built ramps from each side to the top of the rocks and so passed all the traffic over it.

It had been hoped that the political arrangements would prevent any serious opposition or molestation to the force on its way through and beyond the Pass; and the secrecy with which the movement was carried out did, as a fact, minimise all difficulties for two or three days. But, though the tribes were not at once seriously alarmed, the Hindoostanee settlement, which had been all along wide awake and on the alert, had roused the fanatical or professional religious leaders of the tribes, the Akhoond, the Moolvee, and others in their own neighbourhood; and a jehad or religious war had been forthwith proclaimed.

The result, which will now be dealt with, was one of the most singular, persistent, and stubborn conflicts ever thoroughly fought out to a finish, and was filled daily with brilliant and exciting incidents; so as to represent a romantic and stirring tale of a prolonged contest instead of only that of a short couple of months. This impending result did not become apparent till the following evening, October 22nd.

After the halt on October 21st to bring up the baggage and pull the force together, and while nothing serious was going on, a reconnaissance in force, eastwards, was made on the 22nd under Colonel Taylor, the chief Engineer, whom Browne accompanied. He examined the country for some ten miles eastwards, keeping clear and to the south of the villages that were to be let alone, and returning in the evening; by which time an adequate knowledge of particulars and of the lie of the country had been obtained. The Bonair town lay on the north side of the Guroo Hill, but east of it; Umbeyla lay some miles farther beyond to the east; other villages still farther to the south-east, and so on. And now, on returning, Taylor found the Bonair people, who had been announced as friendly, advancing southward, from their town on the north, towards the foot of the Pass as if to intercept him. A skirmish ensued: Taylor drove off the Bonairwals and duly reached the camp, but the Bonair people closed in behind the party, and kept up a fight all night with it That party and post afterwards formed the advanced picket of the position. There Browne remained all night—joining in the scrimmage and meeting with some adventures.

His special function as an Engineer was to strengthen this position and assist the defence of the picket; hence he was all night engaged on its outskirts, and this brought him twice into conflict with isolated Bonairwals creeping forward into the position. The first of them he had marked down at a spot whence he had been keeping up an unpleasant fire; and pouncing on him at last, he cut him down and stopped his doing any further mischief. Then, later on, he came unwittingly on an ambushed foe and was himself suddenly and vigorously attacked. The combat that issued was typical—nay, Homeric. The Bonair’s tulwar was of superb steel, a splendid weapon. It shattered Browne’s sword at the hilt; but with that hilt Browne felled his foe to the ground, receiving, however, a slash on the arm at the same time. A struggle ensued. Browne, hammering the enemy, mastered him in spite of his wound, and seizing the tulwar, slew him with it, and ever held it as the choicest in his collection of trophies. He was thenceforward a special hero in the eyes of the 20th Punjab Infantry who formed the picket and witnessed the combat.

It had been hoped by the political officers that there would be no opposition at all on the part of the tribes; but this fond idea had been ruthlessly swept away, and the hostility which had been roused in them outstripped immeasurably the force of any opposition that could be met with only from those to whom we had expected the contest against us would be restricted.

Hence this episode of October 22nd, with the obvious combination against us of the three parties—the Hindoostanees, the Akhoond fanatics, and the local tribes—altered the whole aspect of the case, of the outlook, and of the policy and line of action to be adopted. The enemy, already in obviously superior strength, were increasing in numbers. An immediate attack on them was out of the question. All that was possible was to retain and strengthen the position held in the Pass, await reinforcements, and defer further aggressive action till the enemy should have felt our strength. Steps were therefore forthwith taken to send back all encumbrances, and make the camp and its defences as compact and strong as possible, and also to press for an increase to the reinforcements that had been already arranged for.

The site of the British position included a collection of rocky peaks and the like, which, if turned into breastworks and held by us, would greatly strengthen it, but if occupied by the enemy would make it insecure, if not untenable. There were on the north slope the Eagle’s Nest and some minor posts, on the south slope the Crag Picket, the Conical Hill, and others. The camp lay south of the Eagle’s Nest and north-west of the Crag Picket and the Conical Hill.

It was known forthwith that the Hindoostanees and at least three large tribes were advancing against the British position, and the next day, the 25th, they attacked the right pickets, but were repulsed, while the tribesmen on the left, on the Guroo Hill, did not attack, because the Bonair clan held somewhat aloof, Next day, however, the Eagle’s Nest, the peak on the left, was attacked in force, as well as another near it; but both were gallantly held, the enemy was driven off, and the Engineers so strengthened these posts that it was decided to occupy them permanently.

By October 30th, besides the Sitana men, the tribes that had collected were in great force, such as the Hussunzyes, the Chuggurzyes, the Muddar Kheyls. the Bonairs, the Salurzyes, the Dowlazyes, and the Gadarzyes. The Swatees, too, were gathering and advancing (some 3,000) and the Bajourees from greater distances; the Mullazyes also under the Rajah of Dir, and so on. It was clear that there was a general combination of all the tribes between the Indus and Cabul. Old animosities were being held in abeyance, and, under the influence of the fanaticism, tribes that were usually at feud with each other were hastening in concert to join the Akhoond and fight for “the Faith." Further, the Akhoond had heretofore been opposed to the Sitana Moolvee as being the representative of a heretical sect; but now these two were united in a common cause.

On October 30th the enemy advanced in force and attacked both the right and the front of the camp, but were repulsed without difficulty, leaving some forty dead on the ground. The Crag Picket, too, had first been rushed by the enemy, and then immediately retaken by Keyes.

By November 7th—i.e. in a fortnight after the formation of a definite position at this camp had been decided on—the arrangement that had been planned for it was carried out. It had become evident that the Umbeyla Defile could not be long depended on as the line of communication with the rear. Hence a new route to the rear had been devised and constructed by the south instead of the west. This was to Permuli, running by the villages of Khanpore and Sherdurra and over the heights on the right or south flank of the position.

The surveying and reconnoitring for these routes, the defending and strengthening of the several posts, rushing to the help of the pickets when attacked, and the multifarious Engineer duties, kept Browne and his brother officers hard at work day and night. And now, on the completion of this new line of communication to the rear, they had another difficult task to carry out—the withdrawal from the whole of the northern position (t.e. about the Eagle’s Nest, and all that northern slope which they had been holding up till now), and the concentration instead on the positions on the southern slope about the Crag Picket, the Water Picket, and the Conical Hill.

By November 14th this withdrawal from the northern slopes had been carried out as proposed, and the whole force was concentrated at the southern position. But the Bajourees and other great accessions to the enemy had now arrived; and so they proceeded to attack the Crag Picket in force. At first they succeeded in driving the defenders out of it, fighting hard and suffering severely; but the tables were speedily turned. The ioist Fusiliers in the camp turned out and formed up at once, doubled the whole way up the hillside without a halt, charged over the defences into the picket ground, and hurled the tribesmen over the opposite side of the position down the precipice. Those who were there and witnessed the sight said it was one that could never fade out of vision—not merely the actual impact of the Fusiliers on the clansmen, but the even unchecked race of the whole battalion, in formation, up the steep hill at a good stiff pace.

The serious feature of the Crag Picket was that owing to its steepness there were no means of seeing the movements of the enemy immediately on its far side, during their approach to its summit, and so forth. Hence they could collect close under the stockade unseen, and then at their own time and signal dash over en masse in two or three seconds. The only deterrent was the use of what was called “Umbeyla Pegs"—i.e. soda-water bottles filled with gunpowder or explosives, and fitted with short time fuses, forming practically extemporised grenades.

There was heavy fighting again on November 20th, and the Crag Picket was the scene of attack and capture and recapture for the third time; and though contests continued and there was no intermission in the daily ceaseless sniping and skirmishing, no attack so serious as heretofore seems to have been again attempted after the 20th. This was an important stage in the struggle.

General Chamberlain was wounded on this day, and had to resign the command to General Garvock. And now signs were apparent of the early ending of the struggle. Reinforcements, on the one hand, were rapidly arriving; and, in spite of the heavy losses, there was soon an effective force present of nearly 8,000 men. Major James, too, the political officer of the frontier, had returned from England and was on the spot, and had at once begun to influence not the fanatics, but the tribes, who were now seeing that they had been entirely misled when cajoled into supposing that we had ever intended to meddle with them.

About November 25th, then, General Garvock took over the command at Umbeyla from Sir Neville, but he did not start from the position which they had been holding, and move to attack the enemy’s posts and finish the contest, till December 14th. These operations will be shortly described.

But a few words may first be said of the general aspect of the camp and its life during the seven or eight weeks it had been held. The fighting had been daily, and ceaseless. There was no day on which there was not some sort of an attack on some post or other. The Engineers were at work day and night, but there was no intermission in their jollity and the liveliness that spread round from their tents. They were present at every bit of fighting, and they were noted for their ceaseless part in hand-to-hand struggles. Chamberlain—so noted himself in his younger days for personal gallantry and swordsmanship—dubbed them “Gladiators" and threatened Blair and Browne with arrest; their mirth too in the night watches occasionally called down his remonstrances, however valuable the tone that resulted. Occasionally Browne’s knowledge and power of imitation of the tribesmen’s songs and cries used to come into play and add an unexpected feature to the humour of the scene.

Besides taking his full share of the general Engineer duties, Browne had to undertake others which were special or exceptional—such as the charge of the Engineer park and stores—and the functions of Interpreter in all cases of documentary or verbal communications with the enemy, as he was the only officer who was qualified for the task.

At length, on December 15th, Garvock began his attack. Leaving a reserve of some 3,000 men in the camp, he advanced against the enemy with about 5,000 men and 13 guns, and attacked and carried first the fortified positions of Lalloo and other points near it, then the spurs leading up from the valleys. Eventually he completely routed the whole of the hostile gathering who had been holding that ground. This was his first operation.

Next day the force descended into the valley, and finding that the defeated enemy thought of defending the approach to Chumla, he advanced against it and drove the enemy thence towards the Bonair Pass and continued to encircle them, the Bonairwals themselves holding absolutely aloof.

The cavalry then intercepted the retreat of the whole of the hostile array and hemmed them in, on which the Ghazees (*.. fanatics under a death vow) made a blind rush en masse at the British line opposite them, which consisted of the 23rd and 32nd Pioneers. General Turner, who commanded them, met the attack scientifically, strengthening the point attacked, and throwing forward the outer companies of the regiments so as to flank it. The fanatics, like the French Guard at the last charge at Waterloo, never gained ground; they were simply swept away by the rifle fire from front and flank and annihilated—not a man escaped! On this effective stroke, the rest of the enemy broke, scattered, and fled precipitately. The fighting of the campaign was over. In this action Browne was severely wounded and was warmly praised and thanked by General Turner.

After this the Bonairs and others, under the guidance of the British politicals, proceeded to Sitana, and burnt down and destroyed the fanatic settlement there; and thus was the object of the campaign accomplished. The difficulty and delay of the campaign were due to its having been started on the supposition that we should have to deal with merely a small band of fanatics supported by a few special sympathisers, and that our word, that we did not mean to interfere with the tribes, would be trusted.

Browne was present at every day’s fighting and was prominent in the final action, as well as throughout. He and his friend Blair were being constantly engaged in the hand-to-hand close fighting. He had numerous narrow escapes. On one occasion a bullet tore away the side of his cap or helmet, and grazed his head. He was twice severely wounded, and was three times mentioned in the dispatches. Sir Hugh Rose’s verdict was that his service had been of a most distinguished character; and he was registered for a brevet majority, on attaining the regimental captaincy, which was not to be till seven years later.

On this termination of the campaign, the troops were withdrawn, and Browne and his party were back, on Christmas Day, at Nowakilla, the point from which they had started, on the north of Peshawur. This campaign assured Browne of the same high status as a military engineer and officer which his work on the Frontier Public Works had secured for him as a civil engineer; and he was now free, as regards prospects, to take such rest and leave to England as might suit him.

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