Almost a Medal : the Battle of Chilas, March 1893.
The ‘War Services’ of any late 19th century Army List will reveal campaigns within the Indian Empire which have more or less fallen into obscurity. Amongst such ‘forgotten’ incidents are the Sonthal Rebellion of 1855-6, the Khasia and Jyntah Hills expedition in Assam in 1862-3, the Duffla expedition on the north east frontier in 1874-5, the operations in the Zhob Valley in 1884 and 1890 and two campaigns in the coastal province of Mekran in 1898 and 1901. Some of these were lengthy affairs, involving considerable forces and some serious fighting and were obviously deemed worthy of record with an officer’s service, but none was commemorated by the award of a bar on the relevant India General Service Medal.
However, one incident perhaps came closer than some of the others to receiving official recognition – the battle at Chilas, in March 1893
The Gilgit Agency and Chilas
In 1889 the British re-established the Gilgit Agency, to bring an Imperial presence to the remote northern-western frontier where British India met the Russian and Chinese Empires amidst the Karakorum and Himalayan ranges. For many years, the area had been regarded as part of the dominions of the Maharajah of Kashmir and Kashmiri garrisons had been stationed in some of the larger villages, where they remained even after the British established the Agency. The Hunza campaign of 1891 underlined British interest in the region and confirmed Gilgit as India’s most remote and northerly garrison, necessitating the establishment of a chain of posts along the route to Kashmir and ultimately to Rawalpindi. Chilas lay along the only practicable southward route, about 120 km from Gilgit, and like other remote villages in this region, its sole importance was as a link in the long chain of communication.
The people of the town and province of Chilas were fearful of outside interference; they had never been willing to accept attempts at foreign domination or the presence of strangers. On several occasions in the past (e.g. in 1851-2), the Kashmiris had had to launch punitive expeditions against Chilas, with occasional British help, though with mixed results.
The Chilas Uprising, 1892-93.
The trouble which occurred in 1892-3 was a direct result of the resentment of a ‘foreign’ presence in Gilgit and, more particularly, of the British conquest of the Hunza region in 1891. It was reported that the Chilasis feared the loss of their independence and it proved difficult for the new Agent at Gilgit, Lt.-Col. Durand, to maintain friendly relations with the Chilasis. On 11th November 1892, a small Kashmiri force under Surgeon-Major George Robertson sent to Gor to prevent Chilasi raids and to negotiate the opening of a road through their territory, was attacked by a force of tribesmen, mainly from Chilas, who were driven off after a stiff fight. Later that month, after another clash in the same place, it was decided that since the Chilasis were in a position to block the only viable route to Kashmir or India, they should be brought into compliance by force. On November 30th, Robertson occupied Chilas fort and ordered the village to be burned to the ground as a reprisal for the hostility of its inhabitants. This drastic action seemed to have the desired effect – other local clans immediately tendered their submission.
300 men of the 2nd Kashmir Rifles under an experienced British officer, Major Averell Daniell of the 1st Punjab Infantry, were left in Chilas fort and set about establishing a series of posts along the Indus to protect the line of communication. For the next few months, there were rumours of a possible uprising, since the locals could not accept a foreign garrison in their midst. There was a hint than an attack was planned on the Muslim festival of Shab-i-Barat, but no-one on the British side seems to have had much of an idea of when that was!
Nothing untoward happened until the night of 4th March 1893, when gunshots gave away the fact that a tribal lashkar (later estimated at 1,600 men) had occupied the remains of Chilas village. It was subsequently discovered that this force was made up not only of Chilasis but also of men from other towns as far as 70 miles away. They had been able to take position without being seen because a patrol which usually covered the area was cancelled that day and the Chilasis were able to open fire at fairly close range on the fort.
Because of the demands of convoy duties, the fort’s garrison was now reduced to only 270 men but being warned by the firing, the fort was at least aroused to its danger and volley fire from the walls kept back the attackers. Just before daybreak, at 3.30a.m., Major Daniell sent out Lieut. F. J. Moberly (37th Bengal Infantry) with just 35 Kashmiri troops and ordered him to clear the enemy from the village ruins; the attempt with such a small force was doomed to failure and in the process, Moberly was wounded. In his own account of the action, he tells how he “advanced with half the number of men extended, firing volleys, and the other half in support and when within some 70 yards of the village, I ordered up the support and charged”. However bravely Moberly behaved, there was no way he could clear the well-defended ruins and breastworks with such a small force. Although his men “cleared the first line of houses”, he was shot in the scalp and when he came round, it was only to take part in a fighting retreat led by Jemadar Gan Singh.
Moberly’s troops regained the fort and for the next few hours, the Chilasis kept up a heavy fire on the walls though without doing much damage. At this point, Major Daniell himself decided to lead an attack on the village with as many troops as he could spare from the defence of the fort; he accordingly set out at 9 a.m. to attack Chilas with just 140 men. Whilst the remnant of the garrison kept up a steady fire and replied to snipers posted on the surrounding hills, Daniell led his men around the west of the village. As they neared the ruins, Daniell divided his force; a portion under Subadar Man Singh was ordered to attack the village directly and the rest under Daniell himself continued round past the village mosque to take the enemy from the rear. However, Daniell led his men into a terrible cross fire, in which he was killed and half his men killed or wounded with him. As senior Kashmiri native officers were shot down, it was again left to Jemadar Gan Singh to withdraw what was left and return to the fort, covered by a detachment sent out by Lt. Moberly. The fight lasted a full three hours and cost the garrison over 20 dead and nearly 30 wounded – almost a fifth of its entire strength.
For the rest of the day and most of the following night, Chilas fort came under fire from the ruins but it seems that however badly the Kashmiri force had been handled, the Chilasis had suffered even worse. The fort walls were kept constantly manned and three volunteers were sent out to summon help from the post at Bunji. But by dawn it was clear that the tribesmen were withdrawing. Because of the exhaustion of his troops, Moberly did not venture out of the fort all that morning, but at 1 p.m., a Chilasi was captured and he confirmed that the tribesmen had pulled out; a patrol found the village ruins and surrounding countryside deserted.
At least two of the volunteers sent for help reached their goal and reinforcements were quickly sent from Bunji, arriving at Chilas on March 9th ; shortly afterwards, a small force of Sikhs and a mountain gun arrived from Gilgit. However, the Chilasi losses on March 5th had been so severe – perhaps 350 killed and many wounded – that they showed no desire for further fighting and dispersed. By the time the 23rd Pioneers arrived in October, the area was quiet and the Pioneers were able to construct a stronger new fort, to be permanently garrisoned by two companies of Kashmiris with two mountain guns. Subsequently, during the troubles with Chitral in 1895 – which denuded the Gilgit Agency of most of its garrison – the Chilas area remained undisturbed.
Because many of the Kasmiri troops engaged at Chilas may have received the Indian General Service Medal with the bar ‘Hunza 1891’, collectors may find the following lists from the London Gazette of interest.
Casualties at Chilas. March 5th. 1893
The following were killed in action:
Major A. Daniell, 1st Punjab Infantry
Men of the 2nd Kashmir Rifles [“Bodyguard Regiment”] :
Adjutant Nain Singh.
Subadar Bir Singh.
Sepoy Guman Singh Thakur 6/Coy.
L/Naik Ujar Singh 5/Coy.
Sepoy Kamla Bandari 5/Coy.
Sepoy Hari Dal Rana 5/Coy.
Sepoy Karkhu Rana 5/Coy.
Sepoy Barbir Thappa 4/Coy.
Sepoy Hiramani Thappa 4/Coy.
Sepay Singbir Thappa 4/Coy.
Sepoy Megia Thappa 4/Coy.
Naik Rawela 3/Coy.
Sepoy Sehara Kala 3/Coy.
Sepoy Sarupa Pun 2/Coy.
Sepoy Chattru Mala 2/Coy.
Sepoy Arjan Sabmat l/Coy.
Sepoy Chiru Barund l/Coy.
Sepoy Gupalu Rajwal l/Coy.
Sepoy Kharhu Dottial l/Coy.
Sepoy Khashi Brahmin l/Coy.
Died on March 5th of wounds received that day:
Subadar Man Singh.
Sepoy Bahadur Gurung 4/Coy.
Sepoy Hari Singh Charah l/Coy.
Men of the 2nd Kashmir Rifles who were severely wounded:
Jemadar Nathu gunshot wound to the face.
Havildar Harjan 6/Coy – gunshot wound, left arm.
Naik Bazbir 4/Coy – gunshot wounds to heel, left thigh, right leg.
L/Naik Shera 4/Coy – gunshot wound, right leg.
L/Naik Charnu 1/Coy – gunshot wound, lungs. Died of wounds.
L/Baik Bisu 5/Coy. – gunshot Hound, lungs. Died of wounds.
Sepoy Sher Sing 1/Coy – gunshot wounds to knee joint, fingers
Sepoy Dargah Singh 1/Coy – gunshot wound, right thigh.
Sepoy Mian Singh 1/Coy – gunshot wound, lumbar region. Died.
Sepoy Hira Singh 1/Coy – gunshot wounds, r. shoulder, lungs, left forearm.
Sepoy Kharam Chand 2/Coy – gunshot wounds, right thigh and leg.
Sepoy Ragu 2/Coy – gunshot wound, left lung.
Sepoy Chand 2/Coy – gunshot wounds, right lung & right wrist
Sepoy Mal 3/Coy – gunshot wound right knee, sword cuts to neck, left arm and fingers.
Sepoy Sarban 3/Coy – gunshot wounds, both hands.
Sepoy Suntu 3/Coy – gunshot wound, right thig~
Sepoy Arjan 3/Coy – gunshot wound, right lung.
Sepoy Lachhman 5/Coy – gunshot wound, right lung.
Sepoy Lal Singh 5/Coy – gunshot wound, left hand a
Sepoy Balu 5/Coy – gunshot wound, neck.
Sepoy Manbir. 6/Coy – gunshot wound, right lung.
Sepoy Ball Ram 6/Coy – gunshot wound, left foot.
Returned as slightly wounded :
Naik Parsimal 6/Coy – gunshot wound, left ear.
Sepoy Labha. 1/Coy. -gunshot wound, left foot.
Sepoy Mangalu 1/Coy – gunshot wound, left leg.
Sepoy Kalu. 5/Coy – gunshot wound, left foot.
Sepoy Narbir 5/Coy – gunshot wound, little finger of right hand.
and Lieut. F.J. Moberly, 37th Bengal .Inf. – gunshot wound to scalp.
Total casualties were 52 out of a garrison of 270: 21 killed; 9 died of wounds; 22 wounded.
Honours and “Mentions”
Lieut. F.J. Moberly recommended the following soldiers for the Indian Order of Merit:
Jemadar Gan Singh, 2nd Kashmir Rifles:
“For conspicuous gallantry on two separate occasions, for the way in which he managed the general retirement after all the senior officers had been killed and also for the great assistance he has been to me ever since. He went round continually the whole night of the 5th, keeping the men up the mark, encouraging them and showed himself a most capable officer at very trying time.” He also captured a standard. [Awarded IOM.]
Havildar Partiman, Naik Parsimal, Lance Nk. Man Singh, 2nd Kashmir Rifles:
“For conspicuous gallantry in action. Naik Parsimal, though wounded, continued to do his work.” (none awarded IOM)
Sepoy Bahadur Gurung, 2nd Kashmir Rifles : “For carrying a wounded sepoy out of action.”
[Moberly’s gazette adds the following details : ‘…[he] rushed back alone some fifty yards to within a hundred yards of the enemy, under a very heavy fire and picked up and brought in on his back a wounded sepoy who was lying there”. [Awarded I.O.M.]
Sepoy Mangalu, 2nd Kashmir Rifles: “For conspicuous gallantry.”
[Moderly’s report states: “As soon as he heard that [the force attacking Chiles was] short of ammunition, he shouldered a box and rushed out, crossing a very heavy fire and getting wounded in the leg ; but nevertheless, he stuck to his box.”] [ Awarded IOM]
Sepoy Balu, 2nd Kashmir Rifles:
“For carrying Subadar Man Singh, who was wounded, out of action in doing which he was severely wounded himself”. [Not awarded IOM]
Sepoy Bahadur, Sepoy Jai Bhaddar, Sepoy Indra Lal, 2nd Kashmir Rifles :
“For conspicuous gallantry.” [Only Jai Bhaddar received the IOM]
Sepoy Mariban Tika, Sepoy Neola, Sepoy Tikaru, 2nd Kashmir Rifles:
“For carrying [the request for help] through the enemy’s picquets at imminent danger to themselves. NB up to this point, no news has been received of the two former.” [Nariban and Neole recived the IOM; why Tikaru did not is unrecorded. Perhaps the first two were deemed to have died in the attempt, but they do not figure in the casualty returns.]
Sepoy Kharkubir, 4th Kashmir Rifles :
“Now my own Orderly, he was up with me the whole time during the attack and when I was wounded helped me under cover at great personal risk” [Not awarded IOM]
The following men were ‘Mentioned” as “having distinguished themselves during the action” and being “deserving of reward” :
Naik Gokal Sing
Sepoy Didu Mala
L. Naik Peranghi
Sepoy Hira Singh
Sepoy Sher Singh
Sepoy Lal Singh
Sepoy Chetu Garthi
Drill Instr. Nathal
L. Naik Tola Ram
Sepoy Kabbi Ram
Sepoy Sher Singh.
Also “mentioned” was Hospital Assistant Bawani Das, “who has had very hard task, and has been most unrelaxing in his attention to the wounded; and also Munshi Gulab Khan who certainly deserves some reward for his courageous conduct”.
Lieutenant F. J. Moberly, the writer of the dispatch on the action and the commander at Chilas on the death of Major Daniell, was awarded the D.S.O. for his services.
Reporting the action to the Military Department of the Government of India, Lieut. Colonel A. G. A. Durand, C.B., commanding Gilgit Agency, wrote:
“I would desire to recommend Lieut. Moberly very strongly to the notice of His Excellency the Commander in Chief. Throughout a most trying day, this young officer behaved with marked gallantry and coolness. In the first attack on the village, he led his men very gallantly, killing three of the enemy with his own hand; his retirement after being wounded was cool and methodical and saved his party from destruction. His action after Major Daniell’s death showed, in my opinion, marked coolness and nerve, more especially considering the fact that he had been wounded in the head and stunned and that he was throughout the day of the 5th and the following night, suffering from the effects of his wound. The disposition made by him to cover the retirement of the remains of Major Daniell’s attacking party, the rapidity with which he seems to have re-established perfect order -no easy task when one third of the storming party were killed and wounded–his quiet and effective arrangements to hold the post, all reflect the greatest credit on him. His example had evidently an excellent effect on the men and I venture to think that his conduct is deserving of special recognition.”
This is a fine DSO citation to a young Lieutenant, but Moberly went on to interesting things later. Before Chilas, he had served in the Manipur Expedition and in Burma in 1891. During the Chitral uprising of 1895, he commanded the post at Mastuj, north of Chitral and held its earthquake-damaged fort until relieved by a force from Gilgit. He was at Jamrud during the Punjab Frontier troubles of 1897 and served during the Boer War, earning the Queen’s medal with six clasps. He took part in the frontier campaigns of 1908 and followed this with an active career during the Great War, which he ended as a Brigadier-General, with the C.S.I. and the Sacred Treasure of Japan. After serving as Director of Military Operations and Deputy Chief of Staff in India, Moberly retired in 1920, having by then received the C.B. In retirement, he joined the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence and compiled the Official History of the Mesopotamian campaign, the Togoland and Cameroons campaigns and the Persian Operations of 1914-19, which was only issued in 1987. Moberly died on April 6th 1952 aged 84.
“Almost a Medal”
The India Office records [L.Mil.7/13378-88] contain the original account of the events at Chilas, as submitted to the Government by the Agent at Gilgit. These documents formed the basis of the dispatch published in the London Gazette and Gazette of India and contain the recommendation that those present at the battle be awarded a new clasp, inscribed ‘CHILAS 1893’ to be added to the 1854 India General Service Medal. It is clear that the process of preparing such a clasp went a considerable way – the forms for nominal returns of those entitled were actually printed. However, the War Office obviously thought differently about the incident. The printed documents and replies eventually published by Henry Fowler, Secretary at the War Office, reject the claim that the battle should be commemorated by a bar, on the following grounds:
1. That the action ‘was not of such importance as to warrant the grant of a medal’.
2. That no portion of the Indian Army was engaged, since all the troops involved were subjects of
the Maharajah of Kashmir and not of the Queen.
3. That the suggestion that a medal/clasp should be awarded was made too late.
The lateness of the claim was only the result of the bureaucratic process involved and the suggestion that the clasp should not be awarded because only Kashmiri troops were engaged seems disingenuous. After all, they were under British officers and five of them received the Order of Merit – an Indian Army award if ever there was one. In addition, we might recall that the bulk of the troops employed during the Hunza campaign of 1891 were Kashmiris – and some of those at Chilas were amongst them – yet their origins did not prevent their receiving the IGS medal with ‘Hunza 1891’ clasp.
However, there is one more twist to this story. When Fowler’s objections were printed, one was omitted from the list; as well as the reasons given above, his original manuscript stated that: “The action was not very successfully carried out.” This was (tactfully?) omitted from the printed record but clearly, although the commanding officer had been killed and his second-in-command praised and rewarded, the way that Chilas village had been retaken had not commended itself to the authorities at the War Office. The counter-attacks were badly thought out – based on an ignorance of the enemy’s strength – the attacking forces had been too small for the tasks allotted to them and the casualty figures had been much too high. The Chilasis had been defeated – but not in a manner which the War Office sought to commend or commemorate with the award of a clasp.