The following is an extract from a paper I have recently written which has been published in the Victoria Cross Association Magazine. I thought it might be of interest to those interested in the Chitral Campaign of 1885.
GENERAL Sir Alexander Cobbe VC, GCB, KCSI, DSO, ADC General.
Without being outstanding in a class of 41 Alex was commissioned into the South Wales Borderers on the twenty-first of September1889. That year the Maxim machine gun had been introduced into the Army as an infantry weapon and Cobbe and his brother subalterns were no doubt educated in its use. It was to play a considerable part in his life a decade or so later in one of the furthest parts of the Empire. He was initially posted to the 2nd Battalion the South Wales Borderers and after leave he sailed for Bombay to join his unit then stationed at Bareilly. The second in command of his Battalion was none other than Major Gonville Bromhead VC of Rourke’s Drift fame . Two years were then spent learning Hindustani and attending courses on transport, riding, and man management, as well as moving with his unit to Allahabad. Now a Lieutenant, his application to transfer to the Indian Staff Corps was accepted and he was posted as a Wing Officer to the 6th Bengal Light Infantry, on probation. They were at Cawnpore but about to move on to Umballa. Life seemed to be one of perpetual motion at this time and having spent only two months with the 6th Bengal LI he was posted to the 32nd Sikh Pioneers on the 24th October 1892. The Sikh Pioneers were in effect a fighting engineer Regiment much used for road construction on the North West Frontier which was noted for its tribal unrest. Cobbe was sent on a three month course to the Pioneer Centre at Rurki in April 1894 which, having passed, he followed with the advanced course at Pachmarhi, a hill station, in July. He also passed his higher standard Hindustani language examination
Cobbe was not a great keeper of diaries but the earliest to survive in the family archive is that for 1895. The 32nd Sikh Pioneers were stationed in Kashmir and working at Chilas on the road from Muzafferabad to Gilgit. The early part of the year was mostly taken up with the daily domestic round, when the news was received of the murder of Nizam al Mulk the Mehtar (ruler) of Chitral. He was killed by order of his brother Amir whilst out on a hunting expedition and Chitral descended into anarchy. Lt Colonel Kelly the CO of the 32nd Sikhs was ordered to Gilgit with two companies on the 20th March to command a force to relieve the small British Garrison at Chitral. At the same time a much larger force of 14,000 under the command of General Lloyd was warned for duty to march into Chitral from the south.
The force gathered at Gilgit, in addition to the 32nd Sikhs, included a party of the 10th Bombay Infantry and 2 guns of the Kashmir Mountain Battery. Lt Beynon who had been carrying out an Intelligence survey of the Gilgit area and knew the route over the Shandur Pass to Chitral was appointed as Staff Officer to Lt. Col. Kelly. He was later to write an account of the expedition . The need for speed was paramount as the Chitralis had risen at a number of locations and had killed and run down the various detachments of troops that had held open the lines of communication between Lahore and Chitral, and also destroyed two supply convoys bound for the garrison at Chitral.
Gilgit Force set out in pouring rain on the morning of 22nd March. They were travelling light but equipped, according to Lt. Beynon, with protective clothing against the snow expected at such an altitude.
‘We were not troubled with much baggage, bedding, greatcoats, and a change of clothing; the men had poshteens (sheepskin coats), and everybody pleased themselves in the matter of boots, most of us preferring chuplies - a native kind of sandal with a leather sock, a very good article in snow, as you can put on any number of socks without stopping the circulation of blood in your feet. Officers and men were all provided with goggles, and very necessary they were .’
Lessons on fighting on the North West Frontier had been learnt by the last decade of the 19th century and travelling in hill country required close piqueting of high ground and a good all round watch. The first two days of the march were without incident but in continuous rain which only cleared on the third day as they neared Gupti. Cobbe was commanding the rearguard on the fourth day, a long stretch from Gupti to Dahimal and did not get in to the bivouac area until late in the evening. The next day was a short stretch to Pingal where they were met by Mirhan Shah the local Governor of Upper Chitral, described by Beynon as the Chief Murderer for the late Mehtar, Nizam al Mulk. The following day the weather grew much colder and it was taken up with piquets and other duties on the road to Cheshi.
They were now at the upper end of the Gilgit river valley and on the 29th reached the snow line, which covered the dried up Lake Pandur, on their way in to Ghizr where they were met by Gough and his 2nd Gurkhas and a party of Kashmiri troops. He confirmed that the enemy were holding the area between Laspur and Mestuj. The next day was a halt to await the second party of 32nd Sikhs to join them and also the Hunza and Naga Levies who had been called out. It was here at Ghizr that the coolies downed their loads and left, only to be brought back by threats of force. It quickly became apparent that laden pack animals could not negotiate the Shandur Pass and that the mountain guns, the ammunition and all the other equipment would have to be manhandled. It was also understood that the dissident Chitralis believed that the Shandur Pass would be impassable to any force until June that year.
At 11,000 feet the Shandur Pass was regularly closed by deep snow and a Canadian Surveyor, Lt Lotbinnier in the Karakorams some years before the Chitral troubles had recommended to the authorities in Calcutta the purchase and use of snow shoes as employed in the Canadian arctic. Major General T. Bland- Strange writing later on the Gilgit Force’s march commented wryly that the request must have been lost somewhere in the Finance Department in Calcutta .
Kelly planned to take his force over the Shandur on 1st April starting at 7 am but trouble with the porters created a three hour delay and it was not until 10am that the column led off in deep snow. The route was obliterated and the average depth was between three and four foot. Progress was so slow that a decision was taken in the mid afternoon for Borrodaile together with Cobbe and 200 of the 32nd Sikhs, 40 Kashmiri Sappers and Miners and the Hunza and Naga Levies to halt where they were for the night and continue the next day. The Mountain Guns were dismounted and broken down into man-packable loads and Kelly and the remainder of the Force returned to Ghizr.
The next day it snowed all day and the following morning and in the afternoon Stewart with the 2 mountain guns returned to Teeru.
“It was impossible to carry these guns over on mules but the Pioneers, unwilling to leave them behind had themselves volunteered to carry them over on their backs. They had gone to their officers and said that in addition to their own rifles, ammunition and pioneer equipment, and kit they would guarantee themselves to transport the guns with the gun carriages and ammunition, &c., over the pass. ”
On the 3rd of April the advance party of Gilgit Force made it to the very threshold of the pass and there rested overnight at the single hut of Langur. Most of the force wrapped in their poshteens spent the night in the open without other shelter. The 4th April was to provide Cobbe and his soldiers with the greatest test of physical endurance, a 12 hour climb and descent to the village of Laspur the guns being carried by the men in relays. So surprised were the villagers to see them that there was no opposition and they made their peace with the men who had succeeded in what they had considered was an impossible effort. After a short night to rest a patrol was sent forward into the valley where they observed a party of about a hundred dissidents but did not engage them. The 6th was spent at rest with some 30 of the force recovering from snow blindness and twenty five from the effects of frost- bite.
The next day Capt Borrodaile with a large party made a reconnaissance in force towards Gasht some 12 miles on the road to Chitral. On his return he found Colonel Kelly and Capt Beynon with a party of 50 Sikhs and Levies had arrived at Laspur. Capt Beynon having described the second party’s traverse of the pass describes their reunion.
“We were a merry party, but what a set of ruffians we looked! Stewart and Gough were both suffering from snow blindness, owing to their generous action in giving their goggles to sepoys, and passed most of their spare time with their heads over a basin of hot water, dabbing their aching eyes; none of us had much skin on our faces, and what little remained was of a patchwork description; none of us had shaved for days - we couldn’t have stood the torture; and our clothes, too, were showing signs of wear and tear. We all now slept in our clothes, partly for the sake of warmth, and also to be in readiness in case of emergency. ”
Gilgit Force moved on to Gasht on the 8th April and a recce showed that the dissidents were in sangars (protective stone breastworks) covering the trail at Chokalwat. From those who had fought the Hunza rebels earlier the position was described as impregnable. Kelly however determined that an assault would be made the following morning. The guns, for which horses had been commandeered from the village, were to be used against the sangars and now the Force were delighted as in any operation that included the firing of artillery there was a campaign medal or bar awarded and additional money paid.
The Chokalwat position was strung across the valley with steep sometimes vertical slopes on either side of the river into which a glacier emptied from the north western side. The sangars were as formidable as those that had held up the British troops for nearly a fortnight during the Hunza campaign of 1890.
The Gilgit Force, consisting of 190 men of the 32nd Sikh Pioneers, two guns of the Kashmiri Mountain Battery and 40 Kashmir Sappers and Miners, with 50 of the Hunza and Punyal Levies, left Gasht at 10.30am on 10th April and quickly covered the four miles to the enemies position. Lt Beynon and the Levies climbed the hillside on the left bank of the river to points at which they could give covering fire to the rest of the force formed up on the valley floor. The vanguard, a half company of the 32nd Sikhs under Cobbe, was on the left with the guns to their right, with the rest of the force deployed in half company units and with the Kashmiri Sappers in the rear. The guns opened fire at a range of 625 yards and their accurate fire and the volleys from the Sikhs caused great damage to the enemy sangar on the Chitrali’s right. The sangar was abandoned and the Gilgit force, manhandling the guns forward with Cobbe’s party leading, succeeded in evicting the enemy from the other sangars in the valley. Soon the enemy on the hillsides were streaming down and the whole party disappeared toward Mastuj. The action lasted approximately one hour and the chitralis who had been armed with Martini Henry and Snider rifles lost about fifty killed. The casualties to Gilgit Force amounted to one soldier of 32nd Sikhs seriously wounded and 3 Kashmir Sappers slightly wounded.
Thus ended the first major action in which Alexander Cobbe took part. Gilgit Force immediately formed up and moved on to relieve the beleaguered garrison of Mastuj which had held out against their Chitrali aggressors for 18 days. The garrison consisting of 180 Kashmiris and Punyali Levies under Lt Moberley was drawn up outside the Mastuj Fort as Gilgit Force marched in.
The next two days were spent at Mastuj reorganising as the second detachment of the Gilgit Force arrived together with the Field Hospital. Lt Beynon occupied his time carrying out a reconnaissance of the road toward Chitral and established that a large band of dissidents reported to be about 1,500 strong under their leader Mohamed Isa were holding another well defended position covering the ravine that cut the valley at Nisa Gol. Because the ravine was some 200 foot deep with almost vertical faces, with only a path crossing in two places, time was spent by the pioneers in the construction of scaling ladders.
With the inclusion of the Mastuj Garrison, Colonel Kelly’s force now consisted of about 600 rifles and the two mountain guns. At 7.00am on the 24th April the Gilgit Force set out for Nisa Gol.
“It was a perfect morning, nice bright sunshine and a jolly fresh feeling in the air, sort of day that makes you want to take a gun and go shooting; in fact, just the very day for a fight. The Levies were across ‘Oldhams Bridge’ ( leading out of Mastuj) in no time, but the Pioneers had to cross it slowly as it was very jumpy and only four could be allowed on it at a time. The guns were sent to a ford some three hundred yards upstream… this gave the Levies time to get ahead and send some scouts up the hills to the right. ”
On reaching Nisa Gol the Gilgit Force formed into line, with two companies up, two in support and the Kashmir Company in reserve and advanced on the sangars covering the ravine. The guns came into action and their rounds started dismantling sangars. Close observation discovered a path on the enemy side leading down to the river in the ravine. Opposite a vacated sangar a descent point was found, out of sight of the enemy, and the Kashmir Company was called forward. With ropes and ladders the Sappers started on a descent to a ledge and which would gain the valley floor but the Company following was pulled back when an enemy bullet hit a gun cotton charge placed on the ravine edge by the Sappers. This resulted in only a small party scaling the opposite cliff path.
The Mountain Battery under Lt Stewart whilst supporting the others came under attack and had one or two casualties to both men and horses. The fire fight lasted about two hours at the end of which the Chitralis were in full flight. Cobbe, in command of one of the companies, followed the first party across the ravine and took up the chase but to no avail as the enemy were out of sight. The casualties to Gilgit Force were six killed, sixteen wounded, and three battery horses killed.
Gilgit Force reformed and it was hoped to camp that night at Sanoghat but the bridge on the main path across the Ravine was so rickety Kelly decided to camp the night on the near side. Parties were sent out to recover arms and ammunition left by the dissidents and the dead were buried or burnt and the injured treated. A delegation from Songhat visited the camp and swore that they had been forced to join the dissidents and whilst their oaths of loyalty were accepted they were instructed to provide coolies to assist the Force on its onward march. There were also a number of prisoners who were impressed into service as coolies. On their arrival at Chitral they were met on the maidan by the Commander Captain Townshend and his depleted garrison.
A week later the main relief force arrived from the south and at a parade attended by all, General Lowe acknowledged the bold action of the Gilgit force and their intrepid conquest of the Shandur Pass and passage of two difficult obstacles. Colonel Kelly in his despatch to the Commander in Chief on Gilgit Force stated that “Lt Cobbe att 32nd Pioneers accompanied the first party over the Shandur Pass, led the advance guard and attack in the action of Chokalwat and showed great spirit and energy at the action of Nisa Gol and I recommend him for a mark of distinction.” From Chitral Cobbe moved to Lahore prior to taking his first UK leave for 4 years but before leaving Lahore he passed his examination in Punjabi. He embarked for the UK at Bombay on 26th October 1895. His father, a Lieutenant General, a widower and now in his late seventies had retired and was living in Bedford Park, Chiswick. Cobbe spent nine months in the UK much of it in London no doubt haunting the War Office, Foreign Office and India Office in the hope of seeking an interesting appointment.