Churchill’s First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taliban, by Con Coughlin

“Morally it is wicked . . . politically it is a blunder”: does Churchill’s verdict on making war in Afghanistan still hold true?

Churchill's First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taliban
Author: Con Coughlin
ISBN-13: 978-0230758513
Publisher: Macmillan
Guideline Price: Sterling25

Mark Twain once allegedly stated that "history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme". For historians, politicians and military commanders it is very tempting to make comparisons between historical military campaigns and modern conflicts. This can be an inherently dangerous practice but perhaps nowhere offers more potential for such comparison than the former North-West Frontier region of British India, which now forms the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Since 2001 we have seen the conflict in Afghanistan develop in ways that bear startling similarities to previous conflicts in that troubled land. A key factor for successful campaigning in this region is establishing control of the North-West Frontier, an objective that remains as elusive for modern armies as it did for the forces of the British Empire in the late 19th century.

Con Coughlin, a distinguished defence editor with the Daily Telegraph, has made the experiences of the young Winston Churchill on the North-West Frontier the focus of this book. By the end of the 19th century, the British army had fought two very difficult wars in Afghanistan. The border between British India and Afghanistan was formalised in 1893 with the creation of the "Durand Line", which finally demarcated the boundaries of both territories. It also allowed Britain to create a buffer zone to defend its Indian possessions against the imaginary threat of a Russian advance through Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Durand Line also cut through the tribal Pashtun territories and created as many problems as it solved, if not more. The North-West Frontier soon became synonymous with difficult punitive campaigns against the ferocious Pashtun tribesmen. Soldiering in this area was the epitome of military hardship and, by 1897, the British army had already undertaken several punitive operations against rebellious tribesmen. Churchill would later refer to such campaigns as "butcher and bolt" operations.

Perhaps surprisingly, the young Churchill could not wait to get into the thick of just such a campaign. At this stage of his career, Churchill was a young officer with the 4th Hussars but he already had both journalistic and political ambitions. He shamelessly used his mother's connections to engineer a posting for himself to the Malakand Field Force during a punitive expedition in 1897. Commanded by the aptly named general Sir Bindon Blood, this force undertook a campaign to end tribal unrest in the Lower Swat Valley and in the vicinity of Malakand. Churchill used the expedition as an opportunity to raise his public profile by writing a series of newspaper articles. While he later emerged as one of the great war leaders of the 20th century, it was during the Malakand campaign of 1897 that Churchill had his first experiences of war.

Coughlin points out, however, that Churchill spent relatively little time on the frontier and, as a result, it would be easy to dismiss this episode in Churchill’s life as a publicity stunt by an overambitious young officer. Yet Churchill was also not a typical officer of this period. Many of his contemporaries referred to him as being “bumptious” and he was viewed as being overly pushy among an officer class who preferred to project a studied nonchalance. However, as Coughlin points out, Churchill saw some serious fighting action during this campaign, coming under fire on several occasions and, during one action, helping to evacuate a wounded soldier. By the end of the campaign he had been mentioned in dispatches and he also entertained hopes of a further gallantry award – hopes that were ultimately dashed. Gen Blood wrote that Churchill had seen “more fighting than I expected, and very hard fighting too”. One can only hope that Churchill was being tongue-in-cheek when he dismissed the dangers of battle, commenting: “Bullets are not worth considering. I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”

In the course of his long career as a defence journalist, Coughlin has covered many modern conflicts, including the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. During his research for this book, he travelled to both Afghanistan and Pakistan to visit some of the locations associated with Churchill’s story. He has, therefore, an invaluable insight into the current conflict and he makes useful comparisons between the modern situation and late 19th-century “problems on the frontier.” Such comparisons occur too frequently in some places in this book and, on occasion, they could be qualified to some degree. In recent years, much effort has been spent in trying to gain a greater understanding of the means, methods and purpose of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is perhaps too simplistic to refer to the adversaries faced by Churchill as the “great-grandfathers of the Taliban”. Nevertheless, a disturbing pattern of historical analogies develops in the course of this treatment of Churchill’s early military career. For example, Coughlin points out that some of the areas in which Churchill campaigned in 1897 have recently been the targets of US drone attacks.

Churchill later summed up British policy in the area, stating: “Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question and politically it is a blunder.” It could be argued that this remains largely true. For anyone with even the most casual interest in military history, the term “North-West Frontier” holds ominous resonances. In the modern conflict, we can see patterns of continuity that refer back to earlier conflicts in this region.

Ultimately, Coughlin has shown that Churchill's memoir of the campaign, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War (1898), is yet another of the many books that western leaders should have read before becoming embroiled in this latest adventure on the North-West Frontier.

David Murphy lectures at the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies in the department of history at NUI Maynooth