By Paul H. Courtenay
Churchill’s First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taliban, by Con Coughlin. Macmillan, 456 pp., £25, Kindle £9.59. Thomas Dunne U.S. edition subtitled At War with the Afghans, 320 pp., $26.99, Kindle $12.99, member price $21.59.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence editor, who well understands the current conflict in Afghanistan. His book is a well-informed study of the turbulent North West Frontier of the former Indian empire, now part of Muslim Pakistan, and how Churchill came to become involved there in 1897.
The first chapter has Churchill commissioned in 4th Queen’s Own Hussars (valuable for those new to his youth); four more chapters marry his early years as a cavalry officer with the background of the Frontier’s instability and turmoil. We then reach the nub of the story and learn in detail about his first direct experience of active military operations (not counting two weeks in Cuba in 1895—more like an occasionally dangerous holiday).
While this book has gleaned praise, let us set out a few complaints. The individual observations are all petty, but there are so many solecisms that they cannot entirely be ignored. A few examples: Lord Randolph Churchill was not a peer, and he and his wife were not Lord and Lady Churchill; until September 1939 Sandhurst was the Royal Military College (not the Royal Military Academy, which was at Woolwich); Churchill was not heir to the Marlborough dukedom from birth—only from the death of his father in 1895 and until his cousin the Ninth Duke had a son in 1897; the “4th Dragoons” were actually the 4th Dragoon Guards; Churchill was appointed Colonel, 4th Hussars (not Colonel-in-Chief, a royal apppointment); Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, was not involved in Churchill’s choice of regiment—that was Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, Connaught’s mother’s cousin, not his brother; Duchess Lily’s 1895 wedding was to Lord William Beresford (not Lord Beresford, which was a peerage awarded in 1916 to his eldest brother, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford); Edward Lawson was a hereditary, not a life peer; Kincaid-Smith did not command 4th Hussars until 1901—in 1897 he commanded one of the regiment’s squadrons.
I won’t prolong the agony, but such errors dent one’s confidence in the author’s ability to write accurate history. There! Having got that off my chest, I shall concede that these errors are peripheral to the theme of the work, which quickly restores one’s trust in what Coughlin has to tell us.
The Frontier is a wild place, both in terrain and the character of the population. Coughlin skilfully steers the reader through the mountainous region and the confusing medley of tribes—each distinctive, though from the same stock, united as Pashtuns and Pushto-speakers. An international frontier means nothing to them: many live in Afghanistan, adjacent to their cousins across the border.
The British, concerned over possible Russian infiltration into India, had adopted a “forward policy,” by which they aimed to intercept and deter such activity; their presence in tribal areas was thus considered necessary, even though it might conflict with tribal sensitivities. The forward policy meant that a permanent frontier between British India and Afghanistan must be imposed, but this created a serious problem in that some tribes were split, their villages being on one side of the border, their fields on the other. Created in 1893, this same line causes instability today.
Coughlin considers Churchill’s Malakand Field Force (1898) and My Early Life (1930), with books by other participants, so that a balanced view is achieved. He has even succeeded in exploring the region himself, which adds to the first-hand authenticity.
When Churchill arrived in August 1897, the war was fully in its stride. Confessing that he wanted to be noticed, he wrote: “I rode my grey pony all along the skirmish lines where everyone else was lying down in cover.” Exposed to very close-quarter fighting, Churchill concluded that the tribes were united by two bonds, Muslim faith and opposition to British control. He had no respect for the mullahs, who exploited the superstitious tribesmen; great respect for the tribes’ fighting prowess; and outrage over their habit of trading their womenfolk to buy rifles. He wrote of their “degradation of mind…unrelieved by a single elevated sentiment….It is impossible to imagine a lower type of beings or a more dreadful state of barbarism.”
The Malakand Field Force commander, General Sir Bindon Blood, wrote that the brigade commander to whom he had been attached praised Churchill’s courage and resolution, noting that “he made himself useful at a critical moment.” (It is interesting that after Churchill left India in 1899, he never returned.)
Coughlin appears to have broken new ground in comparing the 1897 tribesmen with the modern Taliban on both sides of the border. He notes that in 1897 British political officers would talk to the tribes, hoping to pre-empt rebellious activity. Contemporary NATO commanders, he writes, find that no matter how many Taliban fighters are killed, peace remains elusive so long as Coalition forces put more emphasis on fighting them than talking to them. Time will tell whether this is a fair judgment.
I was pleased to read in Coughlin’s conclusion one of Churchill’s most thought-provoking remarks, which deserves to be better known. It was not made in India in 1897, but in a newspaper article sent from South Africa in January 1900, after Churchill had encountered the site of a recent ambush with dead bodies strewn around: “Ah, horrible war, amazing medley of the glorious and the squalid, the pitiful and the sublime, if modern men of light and leading saw your face closer, simple folk would see it hardly ever.”
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