1860-1899 | Burning crops | Burning villages | Churchill's crimes | Collective punishments | Punitive operations | Starvation campaigns

Winston Churchill participates in a punitive operation, destroying an entire valley of villages

Sir Bindon Blood (Public domain via Wikimedia) and Winston Churchill c. 1896. (NPG x194365 – CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

15 September 1897

On 15 September 1897, Lieutenant Winston S. Churchill, who was temporarily freelancing as a war correspondent, joined a punitive British military expedition, under Major General Sir Bindon Blood, as it began to move against the Mamunds of the Watelai Valley on India’s North West Frontier. The provocation had been an attack the previous night against an invading British force encamped at the village of Markhani. Some token armed resistance had been expected. It was understood that the occupation of the village would threaten and anger the local population, but the trespassing troops were humiliated when, despite their advanced preparations and far superior firepower, three of their officers as well as twelve soldiers were killed. The British assumed that most of the attacking force were local Mamunds and therefore Blood ordered part of his army north to ‘thoroughly chastise the tribesmen.’1

Major General Patrick Jeffreys, who had been assigned to lead the assault on the valley, split his force into three columns which swept north burning every village.  Churchill, writing an exclusive report for the Daily Telegraph, recalled how, as he joined one of the advancing battalions, he was struck by the sight of ‘the blazing thatch of three or four fortified villages (which) sent a high column of smoke into the air, blue against the mountains, brown against the sky.’2 Describing the operation in his first book ‘The Story of the Malakand Field Force,’ he confessed that the ‘tall column’ of smoke he had seen was actually from five villages that had been set aflame in accordance with Sir Bindon’s intentions ‘to chastise the tribesmen by burning and blowing up all defensible villages within reach of the troops,’ although Churchill himself thought the villages ‘looked insignificant and defenceless.’

Thirty years later, writing in ‘My Early Life,’ he remembered how ‘Sir Bindon sent orders that we were to stay in the Mamund (Watelai) valley and lay it waste with fire and sword in vengeance. This accordingly we did, but with great precautions. We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.’3 Grain and other food supplies were also seized and Hugh L Nevill, author of Campaigns on the North West Frontier notes that supplies were ‘found in such abundance that the whole of the transport animals of the 2nd Brigade, numbering 1,265, were able to live free of cost for nearly a month.’4

By the time the military operation was completed two weeks later, ‘the valley,’ Churchill claimed proudly, ‘was a desert and honour satisfied.’5  A brief report in the London Standard noted that ‘the punishment inflicted upon them ( the Mamunds ) is considered ample. No fewer than 26 fortified villages have been destroyed, with heavy loss of men on their side.’6  It was indeed ample. Almost every settlement had been annihilated, along with anything which might allow the inhabitants to survive the coming winter.


  1. Lieutenant General Sir Bindon Blood cited in Con Coughlin, Churchill’s First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taliban, Macmillan, London 2013, p. 181. The number of fatalaties given in Winston Churchill ‘War in the Indian Highlands,’ The Daily Telegraph, 14 October 1897, p. 6. A lower figure of 3 British officers, 1 ‘native’ officer and 3 British soldiers was given by Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier Life, Longmans, 1898
  2. A Young Officer, ‘War in the Indian Highlands,’ Camp Inayat Kili, 17 September, The Daily Telegraph, 14 October 1897, p. 6.
  3. Winston S. Churchill, Chapters X and XI, The Story of the Malakand Field Force accessed online at url https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9404/9404-h/9404-h.htm#link2HCH0011 and Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1931 p. 162.
  4. Captain H. L Nevill, Campaigns on the North West Frontier, John Murray, London, 1912, p. 236.
  5. Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1931 p. 162.
  6. ‘The Indian Rising – Surrender of the Mamunds,’ The London Standard, 13 October 1897, p. 7.

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