Much Sounding of Bugles:
The Siege of Chitral, 1895

John Harris

Hutchinson 1975
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
In early 1895, following the death of a chieftain and conflict over the succession, a British force ended up besieged in Chitral fort, in the shadow of the Hindu Kush in what is now north-west Pakistan. Much Sounding of Bugles is a lively account of that siege and the surrounding events.

The intervention of a neighbouring Pathan ruler brought unexpectedly large hostile forces on the scene. The British force at Chitral fought a disastrous engagement outside before holing up in the fort, while other forces coming to the rescue from Mastuj were trapped and destroyed. The survivors then spent a month and a half defending an aging and poorly-sited fort vulnerable to fire and mining as well as to assault.

Two forces raced each other to relieve the siege. An army of some 15,000 set out from near Peshawar, fought a major battle crossing the Malakand Pass, and then pushed a rescue column across the Lowari Pass. Meanwhile a much smaller column from Gilgit managed to cross the Shandur Pass, bringing two mountain guns through the snow, and fought its way downriver, through a series of defiles.

This is a tale of derring-do, of skirmishes and sorties and stratagems, of hostile landscapes, individual feats, and striking incidents. Harris switches between the different fronts to maintain suspense and generally tells a good story.

As history, however, Much Sounding of Bugles is rather limited. It has only a few endnotes referencing sources and only a brief note discussing their use:

"Unless otherwise stated, the story of what happened inside the fort at Chitral is based on Robertson's own account and on the Townshend diaries as quoted by Sherson. Kelly's story is based on Beynon; and what happened in the south on Younghusband or on the dispatches of newspaper correspondents."

And there is not much background information, either about the region or about the siege's brief prominence in the news and significance for broader British foreign policy. Harris offers little more than glimpses of the Great Game, an old-fashioned defense of British imperialism, and repetition of contemporary cliches about Sikhs, Pathans, Kashmiris, Chitralis, and other peoples. The epilogue follows the later lives of the leading participants.

This was ultimately, as one of the key participants acknowledged in titling his memoirs, a very minor siege. Fans of British military history should enjoy Much Sounding of Bugles, however, especially if they have an interest in the Afghan frontier. It may also appeal to travellers visiting the region: I wish I had read it before visiting Chitral in 1999, as it would have provided historical colour to crossings of the Lowari and Shandur passes, visits to Chitral and Mastuj forts, and the negotiation of perilous roads and narrow gorges.

November 2008

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%T Much Sounding of Bugles
%S The Siege of Chitral, 1895
%A Harris, John
%I Hutchinson
%D 1975
%O hardcover, photographs, index
%G ISBN 0091245907
%P 248pp