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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 January 2007, 03:02 GMT
Rare British India documents surface
By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

William Hope Meiklejohn
Colonel Meiklejohn fended off thousands of tribesmen
Documents and papers shown to the BBC by a relation of the commander of British troops during the 1897 siege of Malakand - in what is now Pakistan's North West Frontier Province - provide a fascinating new insight into the struggle for South Asia.

The papers belong to Ben Tottenham, a relation by marriage of William Hope Meiklejohn, who commanded British and Indian troops at the Malakand garrison, which was besieged by thousands of tribesmen for 10 days before it was successfully relieved.

Colonel Meiklejohn's four-year-old daughter, Meg - Mr Tottenham's mother-in-law - was in the garrison throughout the siege in the scorching heat of the high summer of 1897. She would almost certainly have been killed by the tribesmen - not renowned for taking prisoners - if it had fallen.

The tribesmen were led by Mullah Mastun, known by the British as the "Mad Mullah of Malakand". He roused them against British rule and decreed that it was their duty under Islam to remove foreigners from what was then India.

Ben Tottenham
These pictures are a historian's dream
Ben Tottenham

Among the rare mementos seen by the BBC are photos and pictures of Malakand and the surrounding area in 1897 as well as letters and telegrams sent by Col Meiklejohn to his wife.

"We are attacked by fanatics almost every night," wrote Col Meiklejohn in one of his daily letters to his wife.

But even though he was responsible for the fort and the surrounding military outposts, he still found time to reassure her that their young daughter was safe and well.

But it was Meg's nanny who was responsible for writing to Mrs Meiklejohn about their daughter's safety.

"My dear Mrs Meiklejohn, just a line in a hurry to let you know that Miss Meggie is quite well, covered in prickly heat... But do not worry a bit about your dear baby girl, you must know that we are quite safe," the letter said.

Meg Meiklejohn
Meg Meiklejohn was four at the time of the siege

"In retrospect, her nanny may have understated the seriousness of the situation," Mr Tottenham told the BBC News website.

"These papers provide a fascinating personal and first-hand insight into events on the ground at the time.

"They are a historian's dream, and show that the forefathers of the Taleban were every bit as ruthless as they are today."

'Feud and strife'

According to one history book - Frontier Ablaze by Michael Barthorp - Col Meiklejohn found himself facing "wave after wave of close-packed tribesmen who flooded out of the darkness, scrambling over defences and yelling and screaming while their war-drums thundered to encourage them".

A captured Pashtun tribesman
A captured Pashtun tribesman

The attackers were urged into action by their mullahs who promised the delights of paradise for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Among those who wrote about the siege was a young Winston Churchill, whose description of it shows that in some ways little has changed for British troops today in similar terrain not far away across the border in Afghanistan.

Then as now, British troops faced a determined enemy described by Churchill as people who "fight without passion and kill without loss of temper".

"The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. Except at times of sowing and harvest, feud and strife prevail," he wrote in an account of the siege.

"The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour."

Brave assailants

The tribesmen - who were able riflemen - attacked the garrison almost every night, but on each occasion were repelled by the "skilled musketry" of British and Indian troops.

"The Mad Mullah himself had been wounded - contrary to earlier assertions that he was invulnerable - and another influential mullah was killed," historian Michael Barthorp wrote.

"These losses, together with their own heavy casualties, caused the tribesmen to lose heart.

"Over successive nights of heavy fighting, the British army and its Indian battalions stood their ground successfully against thousands of fanatically brave assailants who did not count the cost."

Telegram from Malakand sent by Colonel Meiklejohn during the siege
Colonel Meiklejohn corresponded by telegram during the siege

Eventually the tribesmen were forced to withdraw and Malakand and "Miss Meggie" were saved.

But Col Meiklejohn's duties were not over.

Promoted to brigadier as a result of his action in Malakand, his next duty was to relieve the garrison's outposts at Chakdara - which was under sustained attack by tribesmen.

These two victories for British and Indian troops were not without cost - several officers and soldiers were killed.

"No-one knew, though many were wise after the event, that these tribesmen were as well armed as our troops, and that they proved to be brave and formidable adversaries," Churchill wrote.

"Never despise your enemy is an old lesson but it has to be learnt afresh, year after year, by every nation that is warlike and brave."

It was a principle put into practice in 1897 by Col Meiklejohn and it is a principle that is no doubt equally relevant to British troops today.

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