Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend

The name Charles Townshend will be familiar to readers of this blog and here our Mesopotamian investigator takes a look into the man’s career.  Parts 2 and 3 will follow in 2016.

Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend

Part 1 of 3 : 1861 – February 1896

In his now famous letter, dated August 8, 1915, and written at Simla in India whilst recovering from relapsing fever, Major-General Townshend wrote:

The question is where are we going to stop in Mesopotamia? I stayed with the Viceroy last month, but could not get anything out of him as regards our policy in Mesopotamia.

We have certainly not good enough troops to make certain of taking Baghdad. … We can take no risks of a defeat in the East.

But, who was Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend (CVFT) and why is he important to Norfolk in the First World War?

Firstly, he was the field commander of the 6th Indian (Poona) Division in Mesopotamia, under the overall command of Sir John Nixon – the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment was therefore under his direction. He led his force to success after success: at the battles of Kurna, Amara, Kut al Amara, and at Ctesiphon close to Baghdad. However, he was unable to put the Turkish forces to flight after the Battle of Ctesiphon and had to retreat to Kut, where he and his British and Indian soldiers endured the longest siege in British military history. Then, on April 29, 1916, there being no relief in view, he had to surrender and send his troops into captivity, during which many of them died from brutality, disease and starvation.

Secondly, in 1915, whilst engaged on the Tigris, he was cousin and heir presumptive to the Marquess Townshend of Raynham Hall, near Fakenham. He was not born in Norfolk nor did he inherit the title, but he regarded himself as a Norfolk man and retired from military life to Vere Lodge at East Raynham, where he is buried in St. Mary’s churchyard.

CVFT was born on February 21, 1861 to an impoverished branch of the Townshend family. His mother was Australian, from Melbourne, with family connections to Christchurch, New Zealand. The Townshends had long-held high office in government and the military. He was the great great grandson of the 1st Marquess (1724-1807) who had accepted the French surrender at Quebec following the death of General Wolfe. Perhaps the best known is the 2nd Viscount Townshend (1674 – 1738), who was a major figure in the Agricultural Revolution in England, and earned the sobriquet ‘Turnip Townshend’ from his experiments with a four-course field rotation at Raynham, including the cultivation of turnips.

Raynham Hall, Norfolk: seat of the Townshend Family source:

Raynham Hall, Norfolk: seat of the Townshend Family

Three biographies of CVFT have been published – the first two are out of print, but are available from Norfolk Libraries:

  • Townshend of Chitral and Kut, Erroll Sherson, 1928
  • Townshend of Kut, A.J. Barker, 1967
  • Chitral Charlie, N.S. Nash, 2010

Biographers have been helped by the diaries that CVFT kept from the time that he was a lieutenant in the Royal Marines in 1884 until the day before his death. Indeed, the first biography, written by a cousin, comprises selections from the diaries with some explanation and interpretation. Later commentators have suggested that Erroll Sherson tried to show his relative in the most favourable light.

A Townshend coat-of-arms taken from the cover of Townshend of Chitral and Kut

A Townshend coat-of-arms taken from the cover of Townshend of Chitral and Kut

CVFT is a hard man to understand; there are many apparent contradictions in his personality. He was physically courageous, and yet did not stand up to senior officers face to face even when he knew them to be critically in the wrong. He had a late Victorian view of ‘natives’ and the natural superiority of the British, yet he was immensely proud of the native troops whom he trained and they were intensely loyal to him. He could be acerbic and disloyal in his written complaints about other officers, and yet was a genial host who entertained guests with his beloved banjo. He was a student of military strategy and tactics, yet enjoyed the theatre and relished the ‘bohemian’ company of theatricals.

However, the criticism that seems to have stuck is that he was overly ambitious for promotion, an officer who was willing to transfer in and out of regiments in order to be where the action was, who sang his own praises to all who would listen, and used his family and his high-level contacts to promote his career. In this, he seems remarkably modern, but it did not win him friends among the stiff-upper-lipped of his own day. Erroll Sherson puts it this way:

He would from time to time come to a conclusion that he was not getting on fast enough, and would seek for a change, regardless of the old proverb that a rolling stone gathers no moss.

He was not regarded as a handsome man, but he certainly had an eye for the ladies:

March 10, 1884 : Ramleh, Egypt

Saw Hassim Pasha’s twelve wives out for a walk… Altogether, they were not a bad looking lot. Two very pretty girls on donkeys. One showed a lot of a very well-shaped leg.

March 27, 1884 : Cairo, Egypt

Am awfully mashed [in love]: dreamed last night of a fair mademoiselle with golden hair, such eyes, and such a figure.

He ‘married well’, as they said in those days, to Alice, daughter of the French Count Cahen d’Anvers. They had met in Cairo in 1897. It was a love match, and Alice proved to be an ideal companion, hostess and Army wife. Her father was rich, and he was later to help the Townshends, who had fallen on hard times, to retain Raynham Hall for the family.

Alice Townshend in 1918 © National Portrait Gallery

Alice Townshend in 1918
© National Portrait Gallery

Because of his restlessness CVFT was engaged in some of the most celebrated actions of the British Empire at its apogee: the Sudan 1884-85, Suakin and Wolseley’s attempt to relieve Khartoum; the North West Frontier of India 1891-95, the Hunza-Nagar campaign and the siege of Chitral; the Sudan 1896-98, Atbara and Kitchener’s march to Omdurman; 1915-16 Mesopotamia, the siege of Kut al Amara.

CVFT in 1892 in the uniform of a Captain, Central India Horse from: Sherson, Townshend of Chitral and Kut

CVFT in 1892 in the uniform of a Captain, Central India Horse
from: Sherson, Townshend of Chitral and Kut

He became a naval cadet at the age of 14, but never a sailor, entering the Royal Marines in 1881. He first saw active service as a lieutenant with the Sudan Expedition of 1884-5. Despatched by the British Government to rescue General Gordon who was besieged by Mahdist forces at Khartoum on the Nile, CVFT could hardly have foreseen that he, too, some 30 years later, would find himself besieged in a desert town on a great river awaiting a relief expedition that did not arrive in time.

He took part in the operations at Suakin on the Red Sea opposing Osman Digna, the Mahdi’s ally in eastern Sudan, where he saw action for the first time and was mentioned in despatches. In search of more action, he transferred out of the Marines and into the Army with the Guards Camel Corps. He was with Brigadier Sir Herbert Stewart’s Desert Column at the Battle of Abu Klea when the Dervishes briefly broke the British square.

The desert crossing was intended to speed up an advance relief column for Khartoum, while the bulk of the Wolseley’s force took the long route by river around the great north-easterly loop of the Nile. The crossing from Korti to Metemmeh was from one set of brackish water wells to another, there being no water available to the troops or the camels between them. Access to the wells was critical.

Stewart's Desert Route from Korti to Metemmeh via Howeitat Wells, Gagdul Wells and Abu Klea Wells from: Charles Royle, The Egyptian Campaigns 1882-1885, 1889

Stewart’s Desert Route from Korti to Metemmeh via Howeitat Wells, Gagdul Wells and Abu Klea Wells
from: Charles Royle, The Egyptian Campaigns 1882-1885, 1889

 January 2, 1885 : Gakdul Wells, Sudan

The whole of the Camel Force – about 2,000 – were watered today, and as only one or two could be got to the pool at a time, it was a tedious business. The Guards Camel Regiment, in which I was serving, was left to guard the wells and construct two forts covering them… We made ourselves as comfortable as we could at Gakdul. The mess was very jolly and my banjo proved useful! … We heard later that the army of the Mahdi occupied the wells at Abu Klea 50 miles away…

January 17, 1885 : Battle of Abu Klea

By nine o’clock in the morning, Sir Herbert Stewart had formed his plans. We marched out of the zareeba [a defensive enclosure usually comprised of thorn bushes], in square, towards the wells with fixed bayonets, all the camels except those required for ammunition being left behind… Directly we left the zareeba, the enemy got our range, keeping up a ceaseless fire with deadly effect. …a movement in square is necessarily a slow one in order to preserve formation. … Every now and then, the square would halt, lie down and fire volleys.

…we saw on our left front, about 800 yards away, a host of red, green and white banners, marking the masses of the enemy’s sword and spearmen, who were advancing slowly towards us in two long lines. … They tried to get into the square and an immense confusion ensued. The square became a mob, huddled back to back retreating from the Arabs, who were now among us, cutting and slashing with their long straight swords and stabbing the men with their long spears like so many sheep.

At a moment when all seemed lost, the Arabs began to retire… This was due, I think to the Mounted Infantry, under Pigott, whose right flank was thrown forward thereby enfilading the Arabs. … Although it was afterwards said that no camel should have been in the square, that they impeded us, etc., I personally believe that they were our salvation on that hard-fought day for, being in the centre, they held the square, as it were, together.

The British Square under attack at Abu Klea © National Army Museum

The British Square under attack at Abu Klea
© National Army Museum

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

from Vitaï Lampada, by Sir Henry Newbolt

(For an online account of the Battle of Abu Klea:

Abu Klea was won, but a further bloody battle at Abu Kru (Gubat) had to be fought before the column could reach the Nile. Arriving at Metemmeh, CVFT would have seen Gordon’s crudely armoured paddle steamers which had come down river from Khartoum, similar to those (indeed, two such Nile steamers were dismantled and transported to Mesopotamia) that would later transport his troops up and down the Tigris.

General Gordon's steamers at Metemmeh, January 21, 1885

General Gordon’s steamers at Metemmeh, January 21, 1885

But, CVFT writes in his diary:

Feb. 1, Sunday

The awful news that Gordon was dead and that Khartoum had fallen was whispered around

Gordon had indeed been killed on January 26, and the public outcry in England threatened to bring down Gladstone’s administration. It was widely believed, not least by Queen Victoria, that Gordon had been betrayed due to the procrastination of Her government.Gordon_Mahdi

CVFT had acquitted himself well in three battles, and was again mentioned in despatches. After recuperation in England from enteric fever and dysentery contracted in the Sudan, and never at ease with routine soldiering, he achieved his ambition of going to India at the beginning of 1886, attached to a cavalry regiment that did not ride camels, the Central Indian Horse.

In India, he began learning Hindustani, being already fluent in French, and would in due course pass the army intermediate examination in Arabic.

In 1891, he found himself in Gilgit on the North West Frontier at the invitation of the British Agent, Colonel Algernon Durand (not to be confused with his brother, Sir Mortimer Durand, who delineated the frontier between British India (now Pakistan) and the Amirate of Afghanistan – the Durand Line – following the Second Afghan War). ‘Algy’ Durand is best remembered today for his engaging book, The Making of a Frontier: Five Years Experiences and Adventures in Gilgit, Hunza Nagar, Chitral, and the Eastern Hindu-Kush. (It is online at:

Colonel Algernon Durand from: The Making of a Frontier

Colonel Algernon Durand
from: The Making of a Frontier

June 25, 1891 : Agra

Telegram this evening from Acting Governor General, Central India: ‘Colonel Durand applies urgently for services of Lieutenant Townshend at Gilgit, and Viceroy wishes him to go at once.

July 3, 1891 : Agra

Start for Srinagar [Kashmir] tomorrow…

Crossed in July several passes : Tragbal, 11,000 feet; the Dorikun, 13,500 feet.

July 25, 1891 : Gilgit

The Gilgit Valley is a desert. The road along the river is very bad in places, and very precipitous. On approaching Gilgit, the valley broadens out into a plain; the desert becomes a pleasant land, much wooded, orchards and cultivation in abundance and many hamlets, and then one arrives at the Fort, which is of considerable size for this pat of the world.

September 10, 1891 : Gilgit

The Rajah of Hunza, Safdar Ali Khan has refused to forward letters through his country… It is plain we must occupy Saffy’s country and disarm them.

This simple statement by CVFT, is an expression of what was a complex and protracted problem for the British. For much of the 19th Century and until 1917, Britain and Russia were engaged in a strategic struggle for dominance in the lonely passes and deserts of Central Asia. British and Russian explorers charted the land. Their spies, often hill men, carried out daring missions in hostile terrain – with messages encoded in Hindustani written with Latin characters sewn into the lining of their sheepskin coats. Their diplomats engaged in political intrigues and military expeditions to include small states in their respective spheres of influence. This was the ‘Great Game’.

‘Lurgan Sahib has a shop among the European shops. All Simla knows it. Ask there … and, Friend of all the World, he is one to be obeyed to the last wink of his eyelashes. Men say he does magic, but that should not touch thee. Go up the hill and ask. Here begins the Great Game.’

‘They are Russians, and highly unscrupulous people. I—I do not want to consort with them without a witness.’   Rudyard Kipling, Kim, 1901

The Second Afghan War, 1878-80, regarded as the high point of the Great Game, began with the refusal of the Amir of Afghanistan to accept a British mission to Kabul, even though Russian envoys had already arrived there. The outcome of the war favoured Britain, but this cartoon in the satirical magazine, Punch, alerts the British to be vigilant of the Russian Shadow on the Hills: the British lion and an Indian sepoy together look north into Afghanistan and see the shadow of a cossack heading south through the pass. The pass leads to India.

Punch, October 5, 1878

Punch, October 5, 1878

Peter Hopkirk, in has authoritative account, The Great Game (1990), puts it this way:  The ultimate prize, or so it was feared in London and Calcutta, and fervently hoped by ambitious Russian officers serving in Asia, was British India.

Adventurous British officers used their leave to travel to the North West Frontier, often alone with just a guide, and sometimes making sketches of the terrain with a soldierly eye. One such was Captain (later Colonel) Benjamin Burton of the Royal Horse Artillery, who painted this watercolour of the site of a bridge on the Jhelum River in 1891:

The Jhelum River at Domel, near Muzzafarabad, Kashmir, 1891

The Jhelum River at Domel, near Muzzafarabad, Kashmir, 1891

CVFT was given charge of the Raja Pertab Regiment of Kashmiris by Durand, and saw some hard fighting in the small but ferociously warring mountain states of Hunza and Nagar on the northern border of Kashmir.  Durand later praised his training of the naturally unsoldierly Kashmiris:

The two best Kashmir regiments under the careful instruction of my staff officer, Captain Twigg, and of Captain Townshend, now Lieutenant-Colonel Townshend, C.B., D.S.O., of Chitral fame, had made rapid strides, and were in fairly efficient condition.

The people of Hunza and Nagar had more in common with Chinese Turkestan than with Kashmir or the Punjab. With little fertile land for farming, they were traders along the Silk Route, slave dealers, and frequent raiders of the more prosperous lands to the south. For some years, the Hunza-Nagaris had received small subsidies from the Government of India and the Maharajah of Kashmir in exchange for halting their raids. The Maharajah acknowledged Queen Victoria as his suzerain, and Durand, as the political agent in the most northerly outpost of British India, endeavoured to maintain the peace in this strategically sensitive region.

However, in May 1891 the Thum (or Rajah or Mir) of Hunza, Safdar Ali Khan, began raiding again, and joined with the Thum of Nagar to threaten the key fortress of Chalt on the Hunza River. Safdar Ali Khan was a wild fellow and not easily cowed, having become Rajah by murdering his father, poisoning his mother, and throwing two of his brothers down a precipice. It was rumoured that Safdar preferred the assertive, fighting Russians to the ‘womanly’ British who preferred negotiation, treaty and subsidy. Durand writes:  No one on the frontier believed in the possibility of a peaceful settlement of our differences with Hunza.  Having secured the route from Gilgit to Chalt, by November Durand had put together an expeditionary force of 2000 men, including Sikhs and Gurkhas, to bring the Thums to heel.

The Graphic, December 12, 1891

The Graphic, December 12, 1891

On November 7, CVFT advance to Chalt with the Raga Pertabs. He continues:

Went down to the ford over the Hunza river where the Nagar road goes over, and sketched the Khotal Pass…

November 14, 1891 : Chalt

Went down to see the site of the temporary bridge over the Hunza River which I had recommended to Colonel Durand. Captain Aylmer, R.E. [Royal Engineers] arrived.

November 15, 1891 : Chalt

Messenger In from the Rajah of Hunza. Aylmer and I opened the letter and read that he hears we are going to make war and wants to know what day we are coming!

(Fenton Aylmer, later Lieutenant-General Sir Fenton Aylmer, was destined to command the relief expedition to Kut al Amara, where CVFT was besieged on the Tigris in 1916.)

On 1 December, Durand’s ‘Hunza-Nagar Field Force’ marched out of Chalt, crossed the frontier and started out up the river valley. Ten miles beyond the frontier, the advance guard ran up against a formidable fortified barrier. Two ravines, each the channel of a mountain torrent, ran into the bed of the Hunza River from either side and close to this natural ditch was a group of forts, the main one, lying west of the ravines, being the fortified village of Nilt. … There was no way round; further progress into Hunza territory was blocked by this position. Nilt would have to be captured first and then the forts of Thol and Mairn on the east side of the ravine would have to be stormed.  Barker, Townshend of Kut, 1967

Map showing the locations of Hunza-Nagar and Chitral (from Robertson, Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1898)

Map showing the locations of Hunza-Nagar and Chitral
(from Robertson, Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1898)

December 2 and 3, 1891 : Hunza Valley

In front of Nilt Fort about 1 fur. and attacked – fort only approachable by a narrow strip of cultivated land. …the 5th Gurkhas supported by my battalion crept forward under shelter of rocks and close under cliff. We got a very warm fire and one or two Gurkhas were hit and one man of my battalion was killed. …we lay for a long time among the rocks – and then suddenly we got news that [the] 5th Gurkhas had got into the ditch and thence into the fort. We then pushed up, receiving a few shots from loopholes, got through the abatis, and down into a water course, and into the fort door, which had been blown in by Aylmer with gun cotton.

Captain Fenton Aylmer was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role at Nilt, recorded here in the London Gazette:Fenton Aylmer_VC_London Gazette

Two other officers, Lieutenant Guy Boisragon and Lieutenant John Manners-Smith, also received the VC in the same action. A number of Orders of Merit (equivalent to the VC in the Indian regiments) were awarded to the rank and file.

Captain Fenton Aylmer

Captain Fenton Aylmer

(NB: There does not appear to be a biography of this remarkable officer of engineers, whose career and reputation, like that of CVFT, went into eclipse after the disaster of Kut al Amara.)

CVFT records the storming of the forts of Thol and Maiun:

There is no doubt that our position here is as nasty as it can well be. To storm Fort Thol in front of us will necessitate heavy loss from the numbers of sangars [a fortified position constructed of stones in rocky terrain where trenches cannot be dug] in front of us.

The Nilt, Thol and Maiun Forts from: E.F. Knight, Where Three Empires Meet, 1893 (Knight, a renowned newspaper correspondent, was with CVFT in a sangar at Fort Thol)

The Nilt, Thol and Maiun Forts
from: E.F. Knight, Where Three Empires Meet, 1893 (Knight, a renowned newspaper correspondent, was with CVFT in a sangar at Fort Thol)

There were three unpleasant options for dealing with Thol, but a Dogra soldier of the Kashmiri Regiment named Nagdu discovered a way up the 1200 feet cliffs above the fort. CVFT was engaged in sorties under cover of darkness to build forward sangars to protect a British advance. Then, on

December 20, he makes this entry in his diary:

I write this at Thol. It has been a real day of success. Thirty shots from each corps paraded on the ridge this morning and we fired on the sangars so accurately that they could hardly get a shot back. Manners-Smith and Taylor and 100 of the [Kashmiri] Body Guard then scaled the cliff (they had been hidden all night in the ravine) and rushed the sangars one after another in a most gallant and skilful manner as they only had 2 men wounded. … As their party swept along the heights, the enemy bolted out of the sangars. Then the whole garrison of Maiun bolted. We saw streams of men leaving the Ziarat and going into Thol. … We advanced about 2 p.m. to take the Ziarat, Thol and Gulmet. My regiment was the advance guard. … I then went on in skirmishing order, occupying the Ziarat and carried one sangar with the bayonet. We took a very fine flag at the Ziarat, kept advancing on Thol fort by rushes, and having fixed bayonets we rushed in to find no one in it!

(NB: a ziarat is the staged tower at the centre of a fort.)

Within two days, Nagar was occupied and the Thums of Hunza and Nagar had fled.

Christmas 1891 : Hunza Castle

Crossed the river and entered Hunza. The fort was occupied by the Gurkhas under Boisragon when I arrived and Mr Knight was with them. We dined together in the Rajah’s apartments and inspected the loot – nothing much of value! Several Russian things. He loot is to be auctioned at Gilgit.

Issued a proclamation that Hunza “now belongs to the British Government and that as long as the inhabitants obey the British officer at Hunza all will go well with them.

Colonel Durand expressed the outcome rather less bombastically than CVFT:

The result of the little war may best be summed up in the words of a well-known Russian statesman, who said when he heard of our occupation of Hunza: “Ils nous ont fermés la porte au nez” (They have slammed the door in our faces).

CVFT was made briefly Military Governor of Hunza before returning to his Raja Pertab Regiment. On February 1, 1892, he got his captaincy at 640 rupees per month including allowances, and thence to Poona (Pune) to study at the Army Staff College. On May 4, 1893 he departed Poona to take up command of Fort Gupis, in the Gilgit Valley between Gilgit, the Shandur Pass, Mastuj and Chitral – a small outpost of the British Empire and a remote location, but important for monitoring the movements of the tribes and the activities of the Russians along the border. CVFT described it thus in a letter to a lady friend in London:

My dear M___. This is a most awful place. You never saw such a desert. Just see if you can find it on the map. It is north of Gilgit. However, I know you will never find it, and it don’t much matter, but here I am stuck down with a few troops.

The journey to Gupis from Poona took 14 days – probably by train as far as Rawalpindi in the Punjab, then horseback via Murree to Bandipur (Bandipora), then on foot with a guide over the passes to Gilgit, and then horseback to Gupis. (Following the mountain stage from Bandipora on Google Earth gives some measure of the difficulty of journey – there were no roads much better than tracks in 1893. Here is the route: the places in brackets aren’t mentioned by CVFT but assist way finding: Bandipora – (Chhandaji) – Tragbal Pass – (Kazalwan) – (Nayle) – (Dawar) – (Achoora) – (Sandiyal Chorwan) – Minimarg – Burzil Pass – (Gorikot) – Astore – (Harcho) – Bunji – (Parri) – Gilgit – Gupis). Amidst much complaining about the coolies, CVFT describes the journey over the Burzil Pass:

May 9, 1893 : Boorzil Pass

Reached the Boorzil hut at 10 a.m. in a snow storm. 10,000 feet. No chance of our crossing tonight, as we had intended.

May 10, 1893 : Boorzil Pass

Cleared up about 10 a.m. Davison and I started over the Pass about 2 p.m. Reached the top at 4.15. Much snow but not bad going. Height 13,500 feet. We got down to Sirdar Koti, a miserable little hut, at 6 p.m.. It snowed hard the last two hours. The hut was crowded with coolies and travellers, and bitterly cold. I determined to go on as soon as light about 1 a.m. and reach the Chilam hut. No moon and the guide was very much against our going, but I insisted, and we floundered out into the deep snow about 2 a.m. I have never had such a night.

In the spring of 1895 CVFT was one of the officers escorting a political mission to the small mountain valley town of Chitral, west of Hunza and Nagar, where the Mehtar (ruler), Aman-ul-Mulk, had died on August 1, 1893, possibly murdered. He was heartily detested by his people, but he had been largely faithful to his agreements with the Government of India. The succession was in dispute and the Government in Simla had decided to put matters right.  (For an illustrated account of the Chitral incident, refer to:

Chitral’s northern border ran close to Russian Tajikistan in an area known as the ‘Roof of the World’, separated from Russian territory only by a thin tongue of Afghanistan. It was on the main line of communication between the Punjab and the Russian Oxus via two passes across the Hindu Kush: the Kotal-e Rah Darah in Afghanistan, and the Baroghil.

The dominant note of Chitrál is bigness combined with desolation; vast silent mountains cloaked in eternal snow, wild glacier-born torrents, cruel precipices and pastureless hillsides where the ibex and the makhor find a precarious subsistence. … Life is represented by great eagles and vultures, circling slowly or poised aloft, and by the straight business-like flight of the hawk. Human life… consists of tiny fan-shaped oases of cultivation on soil deposited by mountain streams… Such fertile patches, completely dwarfed by the limitless expanse of rock, glacier, and crumbling hillside are beautiful to the eye of the traveller… After the fierce light and dust of the hillside there is something restful in the friendly willows, the hollowed-out plane trees… the homely fields… the pretty orchards carpeted with soft grass… Sir George S. Robertson,  Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1898

Tirich Mir across the Chitral valley creative commons :

Tirich Mir across the Chitral valley
creative commons :

By January 1, 1895, through assassination and flight, Chitral had its fourth Mehtar since the death of Aman-ul-Mulk. In 1893, the British Resident at Gilgit, Surgeon-Major George Robertson, had reluctantly supported Nizam-ul-Mulk who had just been murdered by his half-brother Amir-ul-Mulk. To complicate matters further, Sher Afzul, brother of Aman-ul-Mulk and briefly Mehtar, had entered into an ill-defined alliance with Umra Khan, the powerful and ambitious Pathan ruler of Jandol to the south of  Chitral. Sher Afzul, supported by most Chitralis, wanted the throne, and Umra Khan wanted Chitrál. Exploiting the confusion, Umra Khan had marched north up the Chitral Valley to take the important fort of Kala Drosh, despite being warned by the Government of India not to interfere in Chitral.

In a further twist, Sher Afzul had spent his recent exile in Kabul with the Amir of Afghanistan. The tribes along the Afghanistan border were in state of unrest as the British and the Afghans began to define the Durand Line on the ground. The marker posts insensitively failed to take full account of tribal loyalties, and it was feared that the British might annex some smaller states as they had in the Indian plains. In fact, annexation was a last resort, the British having learned the folly of that enterprise from the circumstances that preceded to the Indian Mutiny less than 40 years previously.

Consequently, at the beginning of 1895 Robertson faced the dilemma of an unstable Chitrali state with a number of competitors for control. There was also a small British presence in Chitral, comprising a political officer, Lieutenant B.E.M. Gurdon, and six Sikhs. Gurdon, although young, was an officer renowned for thoughtfulness, sound judgement, and composure under pressure: but even he, detecting a strong anti-British sentiment at Chitral, requested reinforcements, whilst declining to recognize the new Mehtar without confirmation from the Government of India.

Reinforcements did arrive, from Mastuj to the north and from Gupis and Gilgit. CVFT accompanied Robertson with 150 men of the 4th Kashmir Rifles, reaching Chitral on 31 January. During February, Robertson moved the entire Anglo-Indian troops into the Chitral Fort, as Umra Khan and Sher Afzul gathered their forces to the south.

February 10, Sunday : Chitral

The B.A. [British Agent – Robertson] received some news this morning which caused him to order us all into the fort to-day.

March 2 : Chitral

The day has been an interesting one. The B.A. sent for Amir-ul-Mulk… All the men of importance attended the Durbar [a public audience held by an Indian prince or a British governor]. Little Shujah-ul-Mulk was present and sat on the left of the B.A. and Amir-ul-Mulk on the B.A.’s right… The British Agent said he was sorry that Amir-ul-Mulk could not carry out the work as Mehtar [it was strongly rumoured that he was in league with Umra Khan or Sher Afzul, or both], and he therefore declared that Amir-ul-Mulk was Mehtar no longer. Subject to the sanction of the Government of India, he said that Shujah was declared Mehtar. He led the little boy forward by the hand and placed him in the large chair to his right… All the Durbar kissed the hand of Shuja-ul-Mulk. It would be impossible to surpass the grace and dignity of the little fellow, on being suddenly made King…

It was a shrewd move by Robertson, since Shuja-ul-Mulk proved to be a long-lived, moderate and progressive ruler, who remained loyal to the British.

Sher Afzul and his advisers & the young Shuja-ul-Mulk from Robertson, Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1898

Sher Afzul and his advisers & the young Shuja-ul-Mulk
from Robertson, Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1898

By March 3, Sher Afzul was rumoured to be just two miles from Chitral Fort, and Robertson ordered a reconnaissance to discover his whereabouts. Robertson was ill with dysentery, so Captain Campbell – the most senior officer after Robertson – took command. Three other officers: CVFT, and Lieutenants Baird and Gurdon were sent out late in the afternoon with 200 men. It was a disaster. Space does not permit a detailed account of the engagement: CVFT with 100 men of the Kashmir Rifles was ordered by Campbell to search for a house where Sher Afzul was thought to be:

March 3, 1895 : Chitral

He indicated the house on the plain about a mile ahead. I had thrown out the men in extended order, and on reaching the house I saw a hamlet, with walls and trees about 500 yards to my front, and I could see a lot of men among the trees and about the houses. …and giving them a section volley, I advanced. The enemy returned the fire at once and briskly.

CVFT expected support from Baird, but he was engaged elsewhere.

It was now 6.30, and would soon be dark, so I sent off a note to say that the enemy was overlapping me by small parties on both flanks. Captain Campbell shortly after this arrived, and said we must “rush” the village, so I gave the order to “reinforce” preparatory to making the assault, fixing bayonets and keeping up a heavy independent fire. The support did not come up. They were among some low walls 150 yards to my rear. I repeated the order several times and Captain Campbell went himself to bring them up. He was wounded just as he brought up about half a dozen men and fell, shot through the leg just above the knee. I do not think more than 16 men came up. … I told Campbell I would rush the place with the men I had with me.

General Baj Singh [14th Sikhs] had come up and joined me… I sounded the charge and we cheered as we made our rush over the bank into the open. General Baj Singh and Major Bhikam Singh both fell, shot at my side.

I could not get the men [4th Kashmir Rifles] to charge home more than 30 yards. …they would not move for the fire was too hot. … Seeing it was hopeless, I ordered a retirement back to our former position. I found Campbell lying wounded there. I told him that we must retire… Then I retired the men by half companies… I remained with the rear party that went off last, and when we went the show was particularly warm. Their swordsmen came running out and their riflemen ran round our flanks, firing into us on all sides.

We had a long way to go; and from all the hamlets as we approached Chitral we were fired into from orchards and houses right and left, front and rear! It was now very dark. I saw there was nothing for it but to double or else none of us would reach the fort alive, and this we did. We reached the Serai all right, and here I found [Lieutenant] Harley and 50 men of the 14th Sikhs, come to cover our retreat.

As soon as I reached the fort, I found Gurdon, who had been with Baird (who had been badly wounded and had been sent to the rear with Surgeon-Captain Whitchurch). … We all went to our alarm posts in the fort, and I took command as Campbell was wounded. … It was gallant of Whitchurch to bring Baird in, and he ought to get the V.C. The enemy were computed at 1,000 to 1,200 strong, of whom 500 had Martinis and many had Sniders. 500 of them were Umra Khan’s men.

Locations for the Action of March 3, 1895 The Chitral River loops through the view; Chitral Fort is in the middle foreground from Robertson, Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1895

Locations for the Action of March 3, 1895
The Chitral River loops through the view; Chitral Fort is in the middle foreground
from Robertson, Chitrál: The Story of a Minor Siege, 1895

Robertson has been criticized for sending out a reconnaissance, particularly so late in the day, and Campbell for not standing up to him more robustly. CVFT was, perhaps, foolhardy to rush the hamlet with so few men. However, now as the senior military officer, as distinct from political or medical officer, CVFT wisely declined any future sorties from the fort except in dire circumstances.

It was a bad decision to leave the protection of the fort for such an un-necessary purpose. However, its one significant effect was that the bullet, which disabled Campbell, now placed Townshend in command at Chitral and started him of on the ladder to the fame and fortune that is the right of a public hero. His nickname ‘Chitral Charlie’ can be traced back to this unsatisfactory and inconclusive action…  N. S. Nash, Chitral Charlie: The Life and Times of a Victorian Soldier: The Rise and Fall of Major General Charles Townshend, 2010

From March 4, Chitral Fort was besieged. Surgeon-Major Robertson was in command, and CVFT deferred to him as the nominal senior officer. Campbell, although wounded, also gave military advice to Robertson. However, CVFT had studied fortification theoretically, and had been responsible for reconstructing the fort at Gupis: his was the organizing presence that enabled the troops and the Chitrali civilians within to survive for 47 days.

Reinforcements with rifles and ammunition were despatched from Mastuj, but met with disaster in the Koragh Defile and at Reshun. Two relief expeditions were despatched by the Government of India as news of the siege reached London and a public outcry ensued, just ten years after the death of Gordon in the siege of Khartoum. Major-General Sir Robert Low led a large-scale expedition of 15,000 men north from Peshawar. Colonel James Kelly commanded a column of 400 Sikh Pioneers – mostly road makers, Kashmiri Sappers, and 900 irregulars, from Gilgit over the Shandur Pass. Their stories were to become the stuff of military legend.

Map showing the routes taken by the relief expeditions from Gilgit and Peshawar from G.A. Henty, Through Three Campaigns, 1904

Map showing the routes taken by the relief expeditions from Gilgit and Peshawar
from G.A. Henty, Through Three Campaigns, 1904

Extracts from CVFT’s diary give an impression of the conditions with which he had to contend and the preparations he had to make, and which would leave him well prepared for the siege of Kut.

March 4, 1895 : Chitral Fort

We were engaged in demolitions in the garden of the fort, and strengthening the defences. The enemy are sniping at the fort all day from sangars on the hillside. The fort is commanded on all sides. I am taking every precaution I can think of. Poor Baird died this morning.

March 5

We have two and a half month’s supplies, putting everyone on half rations.

March 10

Harley came to me and offered to take six of his Sikhs to-night, swim the river and surprise the enemy’s water sangar, on the opposite bank. I would not let him go. … I will not have any sallying parties, unless I am obliged to, as long as I am in command. The risk is too great. This I have pointed out to the B.A., who agrees I am in the right. I am strengthening the fort every night and I mean to sit tight until we are relieved, and I am sure this is the soundest thing to do.

March 16

A truce of three days has been agreed on both sides.

March 21

I am sad to say that the men of the [Kashmir] Rifles are now pretty well useless. The fact is that they are utterly dazed, I think, with the dusting they got on March 3rd (This was a sad admission from CVFT, since he had trained many of them.)

March 22

It is rumoured today that the Gilgit force has reached Mastuj… An envoy from Umra Khan visited the B.A. They desire that we should retire via Jandol and Peshawur.

March 24

Incessant rain. There is nothing for the horses to eat, so we eat the horses.

March 29

We made a Union Jack and hoisted it on the big tower.

March 31

The B.A. went on to say… that he thought it was our duty to do something to help those coming to help us. I said we might sally out, of course, when we saw the relieving column, but that we only had 170 men available. He said we must think what others would think of us! I told him straight that we had done our duty and would continue to do it: that I did my duty, and what I thought to be sound, and did not care what anybody said.

April 3

The rations and food in the fort are getting very low. The officers have been living on horseflesh since March 22nd. Ghee has given out, which is serious for the sepoys; ghee being to a native soldier of India what meat is to a European. … I have ordered a dram of rum for the Sikhs per man every fourth day, and a quarter of an ounce of tea per man for the Kashmir rifles every other day, and I hope to try and keep the sick list from getting any longer… What will happen in the way of sickness when it gets hot I do not know, or care to reflect upon: the stenches in this awful fort are simply appalling already. … There is no tobacco left.

April 7

About 5.20 a m. the enemy managed to set fire to the Gun Tower… I sent up most of the inlying picquet to the fire, utilising their greatcoats to put earth in: sent in all the bheesties*… and eventually the fire was got under with great difficulty. I do not think it would be possible for me to take more precautionary measures than I do. Heaps of earth and water in each tower, top room and base: some along parapets, mackintosh sheets of the 14th Sikhs utilised to hold water… fire picquet and heaps of earth and water in the courtyard.

(* A bheestie, or bhisti, was a member of a Muslim tribe who were the traditional water carriers of India. They are depicted with a goatskin (mussock or musq) slung across their backs to contain the water. Gunga Din, the eponymous hero of Kipling’s famous poem, was a bhisti. The poem is online at: Fort_1895

April 10

They shot my poor dog “Ghazi” through the body this morning as he strayed below the stables and in front of their lower sangar. If no bones are broken I hope he will live.

April 17

About 11 a.m. the officer in the Gun Tower sent down to me to say that he heard knocking as of a mine. I went into the lower storey of the Tower, and could distinctly hear the sound of a man picking under the ground close to the Tower. I asked the B.A. to come up and listen, and we both agreed it was a mine from the summer-house, and quite close, so no time was to be lost. I decided to make a sally and capture the summer-house, where the shaft of the mine would be, and destroy it.

Lieutenant Harley and 40 men of the 14th Sikhs, and Major Bhagwan Singh, and a subadar (an English-speaking Indian officer, equivalent to a lieutenant) and 60 men of the 4th Kashmir Rifles were sent off with three powder bags, powder fuse, and matches, to blow up the mine which threatened to collapse the tower. Their instructions included no firing, bayonets only.

Soon after 5 p.m. I heard the noise of an explosion and Harley’s men came running in at the gate under a very sharp fire from the enemy. Several men were hit at this time, but the party got in all right. Total casualties 8 men killed, and 13 wounded out of a total of 100 men. … I found on going up to the Gun Tower that the explosion of the powder gas in the mine had burst out the whole mine, and there it is like a ditch, all open from the summer-house up to within eight or nine feet of the tower wall.

April 19

Last night at about 3 a.m.. Gurdon reported to me… that a man was calling out outside the fort that he had important news to tell us. … He called out that Sher Afzul had bolted and that the Gilgit relieving force had reached Pret, this side of Bamas. … I let the man into the fort and told the B.A. In the morning we found Chitral deserted: sent a reconnoitring party out under Gurdon up to Sher Afzul’s house, who reported no one in sight. Rumours also of a force approaching from Peshawur.

It was a very dramatic situation in the night when we heard that we were at last relieved. Gurdon and I went and acquainted the little Mehtar Shujah-Mulk and I shook hands with the little boy and felt very glad, as I am very fond of him. … delight on all sides. The sepoys are awfully glad. I put them all on full rations, and we got in sheep and goats, and ghee and eggs.

The Pathan merchants told us that our force from Peshawur had taken Dir, and even crossed the Lowari pass. Imagine our relief now! The Siege had lasted 46 days.

April 20

Colonel Kelly’s column arrived at 2 to-day.

With the retreat of the Khans and Sher Afzul on the night of the April 18, and the arrival of Kelly’s column on the 20th, the siege ended.

Surgeon-Major Robertson (seated) with, from left to right, Lieutenant Harley, Lieutenant Gurdon and Captain Townshend. from Robertson, Chitrál, the Story of a Minor Siege, 1898

Surgeon-Major Robertson (seated) with, from left to right, Lieutenant Harley, Lieutenant Gurdon and Captain Townshend.
from Robertson, Chitrál, the Story of a Minor Siege, 1898

The siege of Chitral held a coincidence for CVFT; a certain Lieutenant Moberly was the political officer at Mastuj during the siege, and as Brigadier-General F J Moberly he would write the official history of the Mesopotamian Campaign.

CVFT was mentioned in despatches for the third time, and made Brevet Major, as was Campbell. Gurdon and Harley were decorated with the DSO (Companion of the Distinguished Service Order). Robertson was made KCSI (Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India), and CVFT was made a CB (Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath). N.S. Nash writes: for a junior captain a CB was unprecedented. CVFT was just thirty-four years old.

Surgeon-Captain H.F. Whitchurch was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Townshend returned to England a celebrity. He was feted everywhere he went and basked in public and official approval. It was heady wine for a young man and Townshend’s already well-developed ego was boosted by unabashed public adulation. N.S. Nash, Chitral Charlie, 2010

I was also sent for by the Queen at Osborne to lunch, and Her Majesty pinned on my C.B. … After she pinned it on, I held my left arm across my body, and the Queen placed her hand on my arm and I kissed it. She then talked to me for a few minutes, and said she hoped my health was all right now, and asked after the wounded. CVFT

He was invited to dine with the great and the good, and of course, he attended lots of theatricals in London. On November 30 he went to stay at Balls Park near Hertford to visit the family to whom the Townshends had rented this, their second home. He laments:

The Phillips were very kind to me, and I spent all Sunday going about the house and grounds. It is most awfully sad to think of it all. A splendid old family like ours, and Lord Townshend cannot now afford to live at Raynham Hall in Norfolk, which is let to Sir Edmund Lacon, or at Balls Park, let to Mr Phillips; and from what I heard from Lord St. Levan the other day, Balls Park will have to be sold and most of the land at Raynham as well. To think of it all, and the last century there was no family more powerful than ours. …I wonder if ever I shall be the means of restoring some of the old prestige to the family.

When in audience with Queen Victoria, she had asked him if he did not think the Highland regiments were the finest soldiers in the world. He apparently murmured that he was a Norfolk man and had a great appreciation of English soldiers. So, the story goes, Her Majesty was silent and uttered not a word more.

But in the midst of all this gaiety his heart was still wrapped up in his own profession, and his delight may be imagined when he received on January 7th [1896] the following telegram from General Sir Herbert Kitchener, commanding the Egyptian Army:-

Can offer command battalion if you come to Egypt February 23rd

This is exactly what he had been hoping for. Kitchener’s long prepared campaign against the Khalifa was at hand, and he was to be in the midst of it.  Sherson, Townshend of Chitral and Kut, 1928

To be continued…


One thought on “Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend

  1. Pingback: Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend – pt 2 – Norfolk in World War One

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