Chitral is a town located at al elevation of around 1800 m in the Hindu Kush Mountains and its the district HQ of Chitral district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.
Because of its strategic location it was witness to many events in the Great Game as it played out between the British Empire and the Tsarist Russia. With the formation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846 and the subsequent conquest of Gilgit / Hunza the Chitral region also came under the influence of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir in 1876 with the blessings of the British. However once they leased out Gilgit from the Maharaja to keep on eye on the Russians and thus the Gilgit Agency was formed. Chitral was taken out of the Maharaja’s realm of influence and made a part of what came to be called the NWFP.
However there was an incident in Chitral which tested the resolve of the British to hold on to Chitral. Chitral had a semi-independent Ruler called the Mehtar who was subservient to the British. In 1892 the Ruler of Chitral, Aman ul Mulk expired and he had ruled since 1857. His death was followed by a brutal war of succession between his sons. And the British watched this and so did their Garrison of 400 men who were housed inside the Chitral Fort by the Chitral River. The old Ruler was succeeded by a son but his brother (the departed Mehtar’s) also appeared on the scene from exile in Kabul. And so did another son who was under British protection. And if that wasn't enough an Afghan tribal leader with his men also turned up. Without getting into details let me say it was a mess and the British Garrison which had 5 British Officers commanding the 14th Sikh and Kashmiri Infantrymen from the Maharaja’s Army were under siege.
Meanwhile the British decided to send some relief columns to the aid of the defenders of the Fort. The troops were gathered in Gilgit and they consisted of 400 Sikh Pioneers mostly Road Builders, some 50 Kashmiri Sappers and a troop of irregular Hunzais numbering around 800 men. All tough Mountain men. They needed to be tough as it was March and between Chitral and Gilgit lay the formidable Shandur Pass crossing which in Winter was never really thought of as a possibility. This is the same Shandur Pass where nowadays the Shandur Polo Match is held between the Chitralis and the Gilgitis. At 3700 m it lay where the Karakorams met the Hindu Kush. Col James Kelly didn't really have an option and this was the option he had.
And they set off on March 23rd. By March 30 they had crossed 10,000 ft and well into the snowline and the snow was deep. But they had the element of surprise and the Chitralis on the other side of the Pass had no inkling that a whole body of troop could cross the Pass in late Winter. It's said that after crossing the Snowline the porters saw what was in store for them as the snow around Shandur was waist deep. And they decided to drop their loads and go back. But the Soldiers didn't really agree with them and you can't really win an argument with Men who carry guns. They got back to their duty and Sledges were used to transport the heavy Guns over the Pass. Once they were over the Pass did the Chitralis realise that they had uninvited Guests coming over to the aid of the besieged Garrison in the Chitral Fort.
In the meanwhile a huge British Force of 15000 was assembled in Peshawar and set off. Joining them unofficially was our old friend, Lt Col Francis Edward Younghusband. This force set off a week after Kelly’s force under General Law. The serious British reaction to this incident was due to the fear of the Russians taking advantage and Ivan and Cossacks coming to the party. They also faced the formidable Malakand Pass and the eventually the Lowari Pass. The Malakand Pass defended by Umar Khan’s 12,000 Afghan fighters which they overcame as the Afghans dispersed. And they crossed the Lowari on the same day that Kelly’s force entered Chitral and the Fort. And it is said that Younghusband ran in front of the detachment and was the first from this force to enter Chitral. And apparently they had finished the last bottle of Brandy the night before. Hangover makes you do crazy things.
Anyways at the end of the day the British got the Fort and the control of Chitral. Many of the Troops got the Chitral Relief Medal. And i should mention that my fellow team Member Rijul Gill’s grandfather was also awarded a Chitral Relief Medal which he still has in his possession.
As for Chitral once they re-established control in 1895 the British installed Shuja-ul -Mulk, a 12 year old son of the late Mehtar as the Mehtar and he ruled for a period 41 years till 1936 and peace returned for good to Chitral.
And I should mention that Chitral is beautiful country. And its the home of the Kalash. It used to be called Peristan as it was said that fairies lived there. If I was a Fairy I would Chitral as home. Its just beautiful.
Pic of the Chitral Fort by the Chitral River. Phot credit Syed Imran Scach.