It is curious how the very phrase “North West Frontier” continues to resonate, even in these post-imperial times. That particular frontier, which ran for 1000 miles in between what is now Pakistan & Afghanistan was to Britain & India what the Wild West was to the USA, a place in the mind as much as a place on the map. However, in the 1970s, when the Indian Empire stopped being generally regarded as something vaguely embarrassing, connected with heavily moustachioed bores, elephant foot umbrella stands, & photographs of Granny being carried in a doolie, and became fashionable as a theme for books & films, it was not the Frontier that aroused affection & nostalgia, but the Raj – a very different kettle of fish. One of the key sourcebooks of the Raj revival came out in 1975 “Plain tales from the Raj”, based on many hours of interviews conducted by Charles Allen for radio. He himself was something of an old Indian hand, having been born in Cawnpore in the twilight of British rule into a family with a long record of Indian service. He came out with several more books & then a superbly expert, dramatically thoughtful account of one of his forebears John Nicholson – & others of the band known as “Henry Lawrence’s young men” – who as a tough generation of Anglo Indians annexed & then administered the North West Frontier Area in the 1840s & 1850s.
It’s a bewilderingly complicated story, but basically Nicholson & his Soldier Sahib contemporaries – like Harry Lumsden of The Guides & Hodson (of Hodson’s Horse) arrived in India to fight in what was then The East India Company’s Bengal Army. Usually the younger sons of the landed gentry & invariably of Scottish or Irish extraction, they thought of themselves as Englishmen (ED: Well who wouldn’t?). Drawn to India in search of profit, reputation & adventure, but also out of feelings of fervent evangelical Christianity & confident moral purpose, they believed it was a glorious fate to die in the service of their country, & many of them duly did.
Their opponents in the mountains & valleys of the North-West, along the Afghan border, were firstly the Afghans themselves, then the Sikhs & also the many different tribal groups known collectively as the Pakhtun. These people were famously proud & bloodthirsty, fiercely loyal to their friends & leaders & appallingly cruel & treacherous to their enemies. Given that friends, leaders, & enemies were interchangeable at the drop of a pagri or exchange of gold coin, it was indeed a different world. The many battles, uprisings, ambushes & massacres of the Frontier during this period, as the young Englishmen struggled to bring the area under control, tell of remarkable courage & stamina on both sides, but would be completely familiar to those who have served in the general area more recently.
Not long after arriving in India & on patrol, John Nicholson found the body of his 18-year-old brother, Alexander, lying among the rocks of the Khyber Pass: he was naked, & his genitals had been cut off & stuffed in his mouth. John was then 20, & this ghastly event helped turn him into a war-hardened adult with a clear sense of destiny. He certainly became a soldier & administrator of legendary prowess, but also a man renowned for the floggings, forcing an Indian who had spat in his presence to lick the spittle off the ground, & who once displayed the severed head of an enemy in his office for several days. Grown-up Boys Own Adventure stuff, but singularly significant that hardly any background material survives as to the personal lives of the Soldier Sahibs.
The memoirs they wrote later in life did not reveal much, nor did such letters written home as have survived. Certainly women played little or no part in their lives. Nicholson never married, those of his group that did, married late in life & with rare exceptions rarely involved their wives in their exploits. Their emotional energies were channelled into their patriotism, their religion, & to some extent into their intense (but rarely platonic) friendships with each other……in many respects they were akin to the modern-day Taliban. There was certainly a striking affinity & mutual respect existing between the mostly English public schoolboys & their mountain warrior opponents. For both, physical courage was everything, & women were a race apart.
Most of those who served & survived on the North West Frontier were also drawn into the events of the Indian Mutiny. In the siege & re-capture of Delhi in 1857, Nicholson – then a General – lost his life whilst leading from the front. Sir Henry Lawrence, his old patron, had already been killed defending the Residency in Lucknow. These two events, which saved & established the Raj, soon passed into Imperial legend. Undoubtedly moral confusion still colours our attitudes to men like Nicholson (& to British rule in India in general) but whilst the history books tend to dull the patina of the period, if a Puffin was seeking a taste of exploits on the North West Frontier & Indian Mutiny, they could do worse than read two books of the Flashman Papers – Flashman & Flashman in the Great Game. Written by the incomparable George Macdonald Fraser, they combine a fictional storyline with astonishingly well-researched background material on the characters of this article, unreservedly recommended.
© 2021 DJM
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file