How the Corps of Guides came to be

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the origins of a legendary force in a global empire

How the Corps of Guides came to be
It was among the best known – if not the most famous – corps in the British India Army. So famous that Col. G.J. Younghusband (a prolific writer and brother of the great explorer Francis Younghusband), wrote The Story of the Guides. Many of us would have read M.M. Kay’s epic bestseller novel that inspired a television adaptation and musical play The Far Pavilions whose hero served in the Guides and some of the episodes are from the history of the corps. Her husband was Major General Godfrey John Hamilton of the Guides who was awarded a DSO in 1935. The corps is also recognized for introducing the khaki uniform which was subsequently adopted by its parent army and many others.

On the orders of Sir Henry Lawrence, the British Resident at Lahore, the Guides was raised in 1846 by Lt. Lumsden, one of his assistant political agents. Unfortunately, when I visited the small museum of the Punjab Archives in Anarkali’s Tomb, I was told that the original raising order had been pilfered!

Mounted Sowar of the Corps of Guides in full dress, circa 1902

The genesis of the corps was in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Corps des Guides raised during the Italian Campaign of 1796-97 for conducting special reconnaissance. It was replicated by Wellington who witnessed it in operation during the Peninsula War (1812-14). Napoleon’s Corps des Guides ultimately transformed into the world-famed ten-thousand-strong Imperial Guard and though the Guides could never muster that large a number, like the Guards, it built up a “reputation for bravery and efficiency that was the envy of all other units,” and its fame spread throughout the British Empire.

It was an irregular corps of cavalry and infantry recruited from Afridis, Khattaks, Yusufzais, Sikhs, Punjabi Mussalmans, Punjabi Hindus, Farsiwans (Persians), Dogras, Gurkhas, Kabulis, Turkomans and others who the Empire found trustworthy and were paid a special rate. They were capable of acting as guides and collecting cis- and trans-Frontier intelligence.
Fasting during the day (they left on the 18th day of Ramzan) and marching at night because of the heat, they covered the 934 km to Delhi in 22 days. They would have arrived sooner if they hadn’t stopped on the way for five days to subdue rebels. Within three hours of arriving, they went into action

The corps could also take to the field at very short notice. On the morning of 13 May 1857, the Guides was relieved by a Native Regiment at 11 a.m. and within seven hours it marched out of Mardan with five officers, 153 sabers and 349 rifles. Fasting during the day (they left on the 18th day of Ramzan) and marching at night because of the heat, they covered the 934 km to Delhi in 22 days. They would have arrived sooner if they hadn’t stopped on the way for five days to subdue rebels. Within three hours of arriving, they went into action.

The corps was raised in Peshawar and Lumsden chose the tomb of a governor as his headquarters and residence. The dome-shaped structure which still stands within the premises of the Mission Hospital has some relics of the Guides, including its crest with the motto “Honi soit qui mal y pense” which translated from French means “May he be shamed who thinks badly of it.” This maxim also appears on the royal coat of arms of Great Britain. In its early years, the corps was constantly on the move and the inscription under its crest embedded in the tomb reads “Astra Castra” meaning “The stars my camp”. However, after three years, it was decided to construct a permanent home “to give shelter to 876 wild men and 300 wild horses.” In 1854, Colonel Hodson (of Hodson Horse fame), constructed the “Hoti-Mardan Fort [that] became not only the home of the Guides, but also the symbol of British power on the wild borders of Yaghistan, the land of everlasting conflict and of unending vendettas.” It was from here that the Guides would march to Delhi in 1857 and also take part in numerous operations on the Frontier.

Some famous officers of the Guides (Clockwise L-R): Lumsden, who raised the Corps; Hodson, his adjutant; Wigram, one of the 3 Battaye brothers who was killed while serving in the corps; and Hamilton, VC, who was killed at the Residency in Kabul, 1879

At its inception the corps had only one troop of cavalry and two companies of infantry, about 300 men in all. In its first five years it participated in over 16 operations including the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-49 and its legend started to grow with acts of bravery mixed with guile. Subedar Rasul Khan managed to bluff his way into Govindgarh Fort held by a Sikh regiment by tying up three of his soldiers and pretending that he had brought prisoners. In the early hours of the morning, his small band overpowered the Sikh guards and let the rest of the Guides in, thus forcing a surrender.

Fighting on the Frontier often required a bold and instant response. When a punitive force led by Sir Colin Campbell besieged Nawadand in 1852, the Uthman Khels caught the besiegers unaware with a stealthy attack.  However, a young subaltern in an outlying picket led his 20 men in a desperate but successful charge that shocked the attackers and gave enough time for the Force to form. In another punitive operation, when a picket of 30 was pinned down, Lt. Lyell, a doctor, led the Gurkha company of the Guides with another Gurkha company in a charge that overran the tribesmen – and then went back to tending the injured!

The River Panjkora, where Col Fred Battaye of the Guides was killed while withdrawing across the fields visible in the near distance, during the relief of Chitral

It was after the siege of Delhi that the Guides became a household name. Among the 23 recipients of the Indian Order of Merit (IOM) from the corps was Jumma the Bhishti as a result of a vote by the troops. He was subsequently enlisted as a sepoy – an unparalleled honour for a “low-caste ‘follower’”. He rose to be an Indian officer and won a clasp to his IOM at Kabul during the Second Afghan War. He was the original inspiration for Gunga Din in Kipling’s poem whose last stanza reads, “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

All the officers of the corps were killed or injured at Delhi. Lt. Quintin Battye was one of four Battye Brothers who served in the Guides and the first of three to be killed in battle. As he lay dying, he murmured the words of a Roman poet, “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland”. The casualties that the corps incurred at Delhi prove the intensity of the fighting there. It arrived with 646 (all ranks) and the casualties were over 50 percent. The infantry of the corps, which was constantly engaged, was almost annihilated and had to be renovated.

Five years later, the corps was battling at the Ambela Pass, the scene of one of the bloodiest contests between the British India Army and a mixed force of Pakhtun tribes and “Hindustani Wahabis”. The Ambela Campaign of 1863 was an expensive victory for the British Force with 238 killed and 670 wounded and the key positions like the Eagles Nest, Conical Hill and Crag Picquet became part of the lore of the army. “Four time the picquet was fiercely attacked with overwhelming numbers by a brave and fanatical foe, thrice captured, and thrice by sterling grit and stout endeavour bravely recaptured”. This British force contained some eminent personalities like Neville Chamberlain, the major general who commanded the PIFFERS, Digby Probyn of Probyn’s Horse, Robert Sandeman who handled the tribes of Balochistan and Frederick (Bob) Roberts of “Kabul to Kandahar” fame and later C-in-C India. The Guides, which fought during all four attempts to recapture Crag Picquet, was commanded by yet another famous officer,  Col. Wildes, who raised and commanded the 4th Punjab Infantry (later 9th FF Battalion of the Pakistan Army), that marched from Bannu to Delhi in 1857 and subsequently onwards to lift the siege of Lucknow.
While inspecting the Corps, Sir John Lawrence, Governor of the Punjab, lost his temper and made some disparaging remarks. As Lumsden stood relaxing after the parade he was approached by one of his men who offered to ambush and kill Lawrence as he traveled home

Three years before the advent of the Second Afghan War, Edward Prince of Wales toured India and during his visit to Lahore in 1876, the Guides cavalry arrived from Mardan to provide his escort. Subsequently Queen Victoria was pleased to appoint the Prince as Honourary Colonel of the corps and conferred on it the distinction of being styled the “Queen’s Own”. Shortly after becoming King Emperor, George V approved the title of the corps being changed to “Queen Victoria’s Own Corps Guides (Lumsden)”.

During the Second Afghan War of 1878-80, the Guides was in action from the outset at the fort of Ali Masjid which guards the narrowest point on the Khyber Pass. A few months before the war while they were shielding the mouth of the pass, an incident occurred that M.M. Kay has included in her novel and in the history of the Guides. It is recalled as the “Tale of Two Rifles”. The tribe inhabiting the pass are Afridis and a young soldier of the corps from the same tribe found an opportunity while on night guard to disappear with two rifles. In Frontier warfare, two things were absolute taboo – to leave an injured officer or soldier behind to be hacked to death and to lose a weapon. The CO was furious and ordered all the 17 Afridis in the force to be paraded up and stripped of their uniform and equipment. “Now,” said Jenkins the CO, “You can go, and don’t let me see your faces again till you bring back those two rifles.” The soldiers left and as days turned into weeks and months, it was obvious that all of them must have deserted. Their places were filled by new recruits and they were forgotten. Until, that is, two years later, all 17 turned up at Mardan – with the two rifles. They were ragged and dirty and had spent all that time waging their own mini tribal war against fellow Afridis until they had at last found the precious rifles!

One of the most dramatic charges by the Guides Cavalry was at Fattehabad, on the road from Jallalabad to Kabul in April 1879. A large force from the tribe of Khugianis numbering over 5,000 were entrenched behind an extensive “sangar” wall at the top of a long sloping escarpment. A feint by the cavalry and artillery, followed by a withdrawal, drew the tribesmen out of their sangars [entrenchments] and the two squadrons of the Guides commanded by Major Wigram Battye turned around and charged. However, Battye was shot in the hip early on and walked his horse as the rest charged on, now led by a young Irishman called Lt. Walter Hamilton. As they gathered momentum over difficult stony ground, they encountered a 9ft-deep dry gulley but the Guides were going too fast to avoid it and plunged down the steep drop and on towards the tribesmen. The Khugianis were unnerved and fell back as Hamilton and his sowars stormed up the slope and cut through them. In the fight Hamilton rescued a fallen sowar who was trapped under his horse and being set upon by three tribesmen. Afghan losses were put at 400 and the Guides lost 20 men and 37 horses. It also lost its commander who had been shot again this time fatally. He was the second of the Battye brothers to be killed in the service of the Corps. He had been in the Corps of Guides in the Second China War, the Ambela Campaign and the Jowaki Expedition. Battye’s Pashtun and Sikh sowars did not allow the ambulance staff to touch his body, and themselves carried it back to camp.

Fattehabad was an iconic battle for the Guides, commencing with the death of Maj. Battye and culminating in the winning of the VC by Lt. Hamilton during the mounted charge. Unfortunately, five months later he was dead, killed while defending the Residency at Kabul. Hamilton was commanding an escort of 25 Sowars and 50 Sepoys of the Guides that accompanied Cavagnari, the British resident appointed to Kabul. To avoid provoking the Afghans, the size of the escort was small. Three months later the Residency was attacked by 5,000 mutinous Afghan troops who had not been paid by the Amir and believed that the Residency had gold. Hamilton and his soldiers were massacred during an 8-hour siege. Unable to break-in due to the resolute defence, the mutineers brought up cannons and Hamilton was killed in the last of three forays to capture the guns. The mutineers called on the dozen left alive to surrender but the loyalty to the Corps was fierce and to uphold the honor of Lumsden’s Guide, they chose to die in one final rush. A commission that investigated the events expressed the opinion that, “the annals of no army and no regiment can show a brighter record of bravery than has been achieved by this small band of Guides.” The Guides was in Afghanistan for most of the Afghan campaign and fought both the battles of Sherpur Cantonment and Charasiab. When Roberts and his ten thousand marched to relieve Kandahar, they were sent back to their hard-earned rest, after two years of incessant warfare, with a casualty roll of 248 of all ranks and 142 horses.

In 1892, with contributions from its officers, the corps erected The Kabul Memorial to honor its officers, and men who sacrificed their lives in defence of the Queen’s Residency in Kabul. It is a three-storied structure, whose design merged the architecture of mosques, temples as well as churches. On both sides of the building, there are marble captions in Persian, English, and Pashto. Also still standing in Mardan is the Guides Chapel next to the graveyard. Some of the graves bear famous names associated with the Guides who died in battle, like two of the heroic Battye brothers – Wigram and Fred. Those who died too far away to find a resting place here are remembered by the tablets erected in their memory in the Church; including General Sir Harry Lumsden, the officer who raised the Corps of Guides.

Col. Fred Battye was the third brother to be killed. He was commanding the Guides during the 1895 campaign for the relief of Chitral. A small British force was laid siege to inside the Chitral Fort and two columns were dispatched to lift the siege – one from Gilgit in the north and another from Mardan. The first hurdle was the Malakand Pass, and it fell to the Guides’ infantry to turn the right flank of the enemy. Supported by the 4th Sikhs (renumbered as 54 Sikhs / 6 FF Battalion), after five hours of hard fighting it captured a commanding mountain which to this day is marked on maps as Guides’ Hill. The next day, a weak squadron of the Guides’ cavalry of 50 horsemen was awaiting orders ahead of the pass. The neighbouring hills were covered with a dense mass of tribesmen, firing heavily on a Dogra battalion and about 2,000 of them swept into the open with the intentions of enveloping its flank. The squadron commander had ridden back to take the General’s orders and sensing that the moment to strike had arrived, Lt. Baldwin boldly took the initiative and launched an attack. The moment the little squadron appeared round the corner of a spur, the mass of tribesmen paused and then the whole body broke and fled, fiercely pursued by the cavalry.

As the Relief Force pushed ahead, the action by the Guides’ infantry at the crossing of the River Panjkora ahead of Chakdara provides an excellent example of the delicate and dangerous operation of fighting a withdrawal in the face of determined tribesmen. Five companies of the Guides infantry had crossed the river in the evening to cover the passage of the main force. However, during the night the river rose 14 feet and swept the bridge away, leaving them cut off. Aware that inactivity would invite trouble, next morning their commander, Col. Fred Battye, led the companies in an attack on the neighboring hostile villages. However, a little later, from the home bank the main force saw dense masses of tribesmen, subsequently estimated at 7,000 to 10,000, rapidly approaching the Guides right flank. The CO was ordered to retire and consolidate his five companies within the bridgehead. It is on an occasion like this that the true fighting value of a regiment shows itself. Adhering to the time tested maxim of Frontier warfare, “Be fiery quick in attack, but deadly slow in retirement,” and much to the anxiety of the entire brigade watching from the home bank, distant figures in khaki slowly withdrew while holding the tribesmen at bay with volleys of fire. The mass of tribesmen split in two with one body heading to cut off the retreat. Two companies of the Guides that were holding the base, sallied forth to check their advance and extend a helping hand to the rest of the regiment. As the Guides pulled back, a mountain battery on the other bank gave covering fire when the tribesmen were within its range of 600 meters and some reinforcements trickled across on a makeshift raft. The last part of the withdrawal was the most treacherous across a stream three feet deep through several hundred yards of barley standing waist high. While executing it, Col. Fred Battye fell mortally wounded. The fighting continued into the night, at which point the mountain battery sent up star shells, the forerunners of flares. This was the turning point of the battle because the tribesmen were terrified (“What new devilment is this?”) and fled.

A year later, the Guides was back in Swat during the “Pathan Revolt” of 1897 which was a result of the division of Pashtun tribes by the demarcation of the Durand Line. British and Indian units based at Malakand were laid siege and within 12 hours, an advance force of Guides infantry arrived from Mardan to reinforce the Garrison against repeated attacks. The Guides cavalry also arrived later as well as large reinforcements from Nowshera. After the Siege of Malakand was raised, a relief force that included two squadrons and four companies of the Guides and lifted the month-long siege of the Chakdara Fort which had been held for a month by a small force of 200.

As stated earlier, the corps bred fierce loyalty. While inspecting the Corps, Sir John Lawrence, Governor of the Punjab, lost his temper and made some disparaging remarks. As Lumsden stood relaxing after the parade he was approached by one of his men who offered to ambush and kill Lawrence as he traveled home. Loyalty to one’s comrades even at the price of death was expected on the battlefield. After the siege of Malakand and Chakdara Fort had been lifted, during an advanced up the Swat Valley, the cavalry was chasing the tribesmen along a narrow causeway. However, two officers far in the lead got into trouble and were unhorsed and injured. Col. Adam the CO, with another officer and two sowars charged forward to fend off sword blows and rescue their comrades. Yet another detachment led by Lt. Maclean arrived but he was killed as he attempted to lift an injured officer onto his horse. Both the CO and Maclean were awarded VCs and a third was awarded to Lord Fincastle (16th Lancers), who was attached to the Guides, thus establishing a record three VCs won by a regiment in one day. In its first 50 years, the corps had won seven VCs (including the one awarded to Lord Fincastle).

For the next 50 years till Independence, the Guides remained on active service on the Frontier as well as overseas. The operations varied in magnitude from “weekend wars” to battling full-scale insurrections and finally the ultimate test of two World Wars. The Guides was the last of the composite corps in the British India Army. With modernization during the inter war years, the Corps was broken up into its cavalry and infantry components and they vacated Mardan which had been their home for 90 years. However, the bond that had been cemented over years of living and fighting together continues to remain firm as also its fighting spirit.