The Place of Slaughter. Umbeyla 1863

Left to right: (a) Crag Picket. (b) Sketch of the British position above Panj Dara or Ambela Pass. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Illuminated initial B

arely three hours north of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, lies the Ambela Pass, an alternative route from the bustling town of Mardan to the relative peace of the Swat valley. A thin tarmac road snakes between mountains rising steeply on both sides. Its old name was Umbeyla but the pronunciation remains the same. Few people use the road today and fewer still are aware of the dramatic events which unfolded there between October and December 1863. The Umbeyla Campaign was not a minor frontier skirmish. In the forty-two expeditions against tribes in the North West Frontier between 1857 and 1890 the British suffered barely two thousand casualties. In the Umbeyla campaign alone they lost almost a thousand.

Few battlefields can have changed so little. The pass itself is still strewn with large boulders. The heights on either side are still rugged and are still covered in thick and sometimes impenetrable scrub. The key positions are still easily identifiable. Perhaps the main difference is that the vegetation has been largely cleared from the floor of the valley. I visited the scene twice in 1993 and 1994, with military history experts, an American diplomat and the second time with the British Defence Advisor. Sadly no westerner, and certainly no diplomat, would be wise to go there now without a substantial armed escort.

By 1863 the British had largely re-established their authority throughout the subcontinent after the 1857 Mutiny. However one branch of the Yousafzai Pathans (nowadays more usually called Pashtuns) had not been quelled. A Wahabi Islamic sect had been formed in the area in 1824 to fight Sikh rule. Mubarik Shah, the son of the founder, then declared Jihad (Holy War) against the British. He was reinforced in 1857 by fugitives from the 55th Native Infantry, which had mutinied at Mardan before being defeated by Brigadier John Nicholson. Fortunately for the British Mubarik’s appeal, even among the Yousafzai, was relatively limited. His habit of preying upon camel caravans in the Peshawar, Mardan, and Attock areas further alienated the local population. In 1863 the British decided on a final expedition against him and what they called his 'Hindustani fanatics'. In fact Mubarik’s brand of militant Islam was more akin to that practiced today in Saudi Arabia and by Al Qa’ida in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border area.

The Conical Hill

The plan was simple. A column would be sent quickly through the Umbeyla and Chamla Passes to get behind the rebels and to force them towards a separate British force waiting by the Indus. Thereafter the rebels' stronghold at Malka just 20 miles east of Umbeyla village would be destroyed. The task was given to two brigades (6,000 men and 19 guns). Although by no means an excessive force these were battle-hardened men many of whom had served with distinction during the Mutiny. The Gurkhas, the Corps of Guides and the Mountain Artillery would prove to be of particular value. The British force contained some eminent personalities. Its Commander was Brigadier General Sir Neville Chamberlain who had fought in the First Afghan War, the Sikh Wars and the Mutiny. Captain Probyn commanded Probyn's Horse (which still exists in the Pakistan Army), Colonel Reynell Taylor was the brilliant Political Officer and among the more junior officers were Robert Sandeman and Frederick Roberts.

The force moved into the mouth of the Umbeyla Pass on the 20th October but things immediately started to go wrong. Firstly the transport of the artillery and baggage (except for the few elephants) proved woefully inadequate in the rocky floor of the Pass. By the first evening a halt had to be called for 48 hours until the baggage and artillery arrived. Not only was all surprise lost (thereby making the original plan unworkable) but it gave time for the rebels to win over the loyalties of the other Yousafzai sub-groups. The language and understated style of the British military in those days camouflages the fact that this was a fiasco caused by bad planning and poor intelligence. By the 29th October the 6,000 British troops were facing 15,000 adequately armed rebels in unfamiliar country and with unreliable and long lines of supply. Chamberlain made the best of a bad job and decided to go onto the defensive and create two strong positions, one on each side of the valley: the Eagle's Nest on the west and Crag Picket to the east. He placed his camp on the east side of the Pass under the protective rifles of his troops on Crag Picket. Possibly it was pride which prevented him from either withdrawing or calling urgently for reinforcements. However he calculated that the Yousafzai morale would crack after a few days.

Although there was to be some fighting around the Eagle's Nest, Crag Picket became the key to the whole campaign. When one visits it today and discovers it to be somewhat smaller than the average living-room, it is difficult to believe that several hundred men on each side died there in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Twice the British lost control of it and exposed the camp below to rifle fire from above. Counter attacks were launched up the slope and, given the difficulty of climbing to the top even today, it is extraordinary that men were able to do so carrying their heavy rifles and ammunition pouches. There was reckless courage on both sides. Two VCs were won but there were also occasions, largely ignored by the regimental histories, when positions were abandoned in dubious circumstances.

After some three weeks of stalemate Chamberlain could hardly conceal the gravity of the situation from his superiors any longer. He explained his predicament and asked for reinforcements. This was easier said than done since there were only three British regiments in the area between Lahore and Umbeyla. But Chamberlain was lucky. His immediate superior, General Sir Hugh Rose, sent the three regiments and assembled an impressive array of transport animals, 4200 camels and 2100 mules at Nowshera. By now Chamberlain had been badly wounded personally leading one of the counter-attacks on Crag Picket. Rose therefore sent Major-General Garvock to replace him with strict orders to take no offensive action until he, Rose, had personally arrived to take up command. He also sent young Frederick Roberts VC, the future Field Marshal, to report.

If personal glory was Rose's intention he was to be sorely disappointed by Garvock. Once the three new British battalions had arrived Garvock realised that to delay taking action would be foolish. The rebels had also suffered heavily in the fighting around Crag Picket (losing on average double the casualties of the British) and loyalties were beginning to waver. Garvock therefore ordered the breakout from their defensive positions on the 15th December and thereafter victory followed quickly. The Conical Hill (the last position commanding the road to Umbeyla itself) was taken after another desperate fight. Umbeyla village was entered by the British on the 16th and an agreement reached with local tribesmen that the latter would destroy the rebel stronghold at Malka. This was (partially) done on the 22nd December and the Umbeyla Field Force withdrew to Hasan Abdul on the 23rd making this one of the very few wars in history which finished by Christmas!

Left: Graves in the old cemetery at Mardan. Right: John Paton Davidson's memorial. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The British losses in the campaign were 238 killed and 670 wounded. The rebels probably lost 3000 men. Now Crag Picket betrays little of its violent past except for some of the stone breastworks, which have survived. Local Pathan tribesmen renamed it katlgar or 'the place of slaughter'. Local people today have little knowledge of the events of the campaign other than a general pride in their resistance to British rule; and the detail of Umbeyla is confused with the later battles in the Malakand area in 1895 and 1897. As for the British, the memorials still survive. The most moving of these are the well-preserved graves in the old cemetery at Mardan near the chapel of the Corps of Guides. There are also memorials to individual officers in churches elsewhere in India and Pakistan.

Left to right: Henry Howard Chapman's memorial. (b) Chapel of the Corps of Guides. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the Umbeyla campaign was the courage shown by the Yousafzai warriors, fighting on both sides, and even occasionally members of the same families. It is remarkable that, 150 years later, Pakistani army units with a similar tribal composition should be fighting Pashtun jihadists, devoted to the same strict interpretation of Islam, in the same region. One small glimmer of hope is that the most famous Yousafzai today is spreading a message of peace.

Related material

Further reading

Nevill, Captain H.L. Campaigns on the North-West Frontier. London: John Murray, 1912.

Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India volume 1. Calcutta: Intelligence Branch Army Headquarters India, 1907.

Last modified 5 October 2014