Flares on the Frontier. Afghanistan, 2013.

All along the north and north-west frontiers of India lie the Himalayas, the greatest disturbance of the earth’s surface that the convulsions of chaotic periods have produced. Nearly four hundred miles in breadth and more than sixteen hundred in length, this mountainous region divides the great plains of the south from those of Central Asia, and parts as a channel separates opposing shores, the Eastern Empire of Great Britain from that of Russia.

The western end of this tumult of ground is formed by the peaks of the Hindu Kush, to the south of which is the scene of the story these pages contain. The Himalayas are not a line, but a great country of mountains. By one who stands on some lofty pass or commanding point in Dir, Swat or Bajaur, range after range is seen as the long surges of an Atlantic swell, and in the distance some glittering snow peak suggests a white-crested roller, higher than the rest. […] Over all is a bright blue sky and powerful sun. Such is the scenery of the theatre of war.

The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. The abundant crops which a warm sun and copious rains raise from a fertile soil, support a numerous population in a state of warlike leisure. Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next.

To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.

Nor are these struggles conducted with the weapons which usually belong to the races of such development. To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer. The world is presented with that grim spectacle, “the strength of civilisation without its mercy.” At a thousand yards the traveller falls wounded by the well-aimed bullet of a breech-loading rifle. His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.

Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherit in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour.

That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword–the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men–stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder, always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

In such a state of society, all property is held directly by main force. Every man is a soldier. Either he is the retainer of some khan—the man-at-arms of some feudal baron as it were–or he is a unit in the armed force of his village–the burgher of medieval history. In such surroundings we may without difficulty trace the rise and fall of an ambitious Pathan. […]

Many, perhaps all, states have been founded in a [barbarous] way, and it is by such steps that civilisation painfully stumbles through her earlier stages. But in these valleys the warlike nature of the people and their hatred of control, arrest the further progress of development. We have watched a man, able, thrifty, brave, fighting his way to power, absorbing, amalgamating, laying the foundations of a more complex and interdependent state of society. He has so far succeeded. But his success is now his ruin. A combination is formed against him. The surrounding chiefs and their adherents are assisted by the village populations. The ambitious Pathan, oppressed by numbers, is destroyed. The victors quarrel over the spoil, and the story closes, as it began, in bloodshed and strife.

The conditions of existence, that have been thus indicated, have naturally led to the dwelling-places of these tribes being fortified. If they are in the valley, they are protected by towers and walls loopholed for musketry. If in the hollows of the hills, they are strong by their natural position. In either case they are guarded by a hardy and martial people, well armed, brave, and trained by constant war.

This state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which thinks little of injuries, holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity, and the tribesmen of the Afghan border afford the spectacle of a people, who fight without passion, and kill one another without loss of temper. Such a disposition, combined with an absolute lack of reverence for all forms of law and authority, and a complete assurance of equality, is the cause of their frequent quarrels with the British power. […]

A civilised European is as little able to accomplish this, as to appreciate the feelings of those strange creatures, which, when a drop of water is examined under a microscope, are revealed amiably gobbling each other up, and being themselves complacently devoured. […] I remark with pleasure, as an agreeable trait in the character of the Pathans, the immunity, dictated by a rude spirit of chivalry, which in their ceaseless brawling, their women enjoy.

All are held in the grip of miserable superstition. […] Their superstition exposes them to the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood–“Mullahs,” “Sahibzadas,” “Akhundzadas,””Fakirs,”–and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the people. More than this, they enjoy a sort of “droit du seigneur,” and no man’s wife or daughter is safe from them. Of some of their manners and morals it is impossible to write. […]

The general aspect of the country and character of its inhabitants have thus been briefly described. At this stage it is not necessary or desirable to descend to detail. As the account proceeds the reader may derive a more lively impression of the sombre mountains, and of the peoples who dwell beneath their shadow.

The tale that I have to tell is one of frontier war. Neither the importance of the issues, nor the numbers of the combatants, are on an European scale. The fate of empires does not hang on the result. Yet the narrative may not be without interest, or material for reflection. […]

But on the frontier, in the clear light of morning, when the mountain side is dotted with smoke puffs, and every ridge sparkles with bright sword blades, the spectator may observe and accurately appreciate all grades of human courage—the wild fanaticism of the Ghazi, the composed fatalism of the Sikh, the stubbornness of the British soldier, and the jaunty daring of his officers.

He may remark occasions of devotion and self-sacrifice, of cool cynicism and stern resolve. He may participate in moments of wild enthusiasm, or of savage anger and dismay. The skill of the general, the quality of the troops, the eternal principles of the art of war, will be as clearly displayed as on historic fields. Only the scale of the statistics is reduced.

A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become more nimble. A bottle produces a contrary effect. Excess causes a comatose insensibility. So it is with war, and the quality of both is best discovered by sipping.

I propose to chronicle the military operations of the Malakand Field Force, to trace their political results, and to give, if possible, some picture of the scenery and people of the Indian Highlands. These pages may serve to record the actions of brave and skillful men. They may throw a sidelight on the great drama of frontier war. They may describe an episode in that ceaseless struggle for Empire which seems to be the perpetual inheritance of our race. They may amuse an idle hour.

But the ambition I shall associate with them is, that in some measure, however small, they may stimulate that growing interest which the Imperial Democracy of England is beginning to take, in their great estates that lie beyond the seas.

Photograph courtesy of Royal Navy Media Archive. Excerpt of The Story of the Malakand Field Force courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Published under a Creative Commons License.