The Forcing of the Kohat Pass, North-West Frontier, 1850
Ensign William Henry Sitwell, 30th Native Infantry
St. John the Baptist, Lowick, Northumberland
To find Kohat on the map you have to look at North-West Pakistan. Locate Peshawar, on the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass, then follow the road fifty miles south. There is Kohat, separated from Peshawar by the Khigana Mountains, through which wound for centuries the thirteen-mile traverse known as the Kohat Pass. The Pass is, of course, still there, although the inability of long-wheelbase lorries to negotiate its bends meant that in 1999 a tunnel began to be driven through the hills, to allow quicker and easier passage of freight along the developing Indus Highway. A similar aim led to a young British officer from another frontier region finding himself embroiled in conflict there a century and a half earlier.
William Henry Sitwell grew up at Barmoor Castle, near Lowick in north Northumberland. The main Sitwell house was, and still is, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, but in the 18th Century the family inherited Barmoor, which was to be a Sitwell house until the 1970s. It now stands derelict in a successful camping and caravan park, although there are plans for its restoration.
William Henry’s father, William Hurt Sitwell, was a Captain in the 26th Regiment of Foot when his eldest son was born, and it is not surprising that his son should follow him into the military, although it is surprising that he should join the Indian Army rather than his father’s regiment, becoming an Ensign in the 30th Native Infantry, and being posted to Peshawar in 1850.
The most influential tribe in the region were the Afridis, and around the Kohat Pass in particular a clan known as the Adam Khel. The clan derived much income and prestige from their control of the pass and from control over the Kohat salt mines. When the British began to claim and assert their authority over the area it was predictable that sooner or later they would come into conflict.
The first provocation was the imposition of a duty payable on salt produced under what the British regarded as their jurisdiction. Understandably this was not welcomed by the salt-producing tribesmen, and when the British then announced plans to drive a new road through the Kohat Pass, through land the Afridi regarded as their own, trouble started.
On February 2nd 1850 a party of sappers working on preparations for the new road were attacked at the entrance to the pass. Twelve sappers were killed, and their camp plundered, forcing a response from the authorities in Peshawar.
On the 7th a force commanded by two of Britain’s most celebrated Victorian commanders, Colin Campbell (of the Thin Red Line and the Relief of Lucknow) and Charles Napier (of the annexation of Sindh) started from Peshawar with six British Army companies, Indian Army infantry and cavalry, some native levies, and troops of the Horse Artillery with mortars and an elephant.
The pattern of the passage through was established when the force entered the pass on the 10th and confronted the village of Akhor. The villagers refused to surrender men and arms, and crowned the heights around with marksmen. Campbell cleared the heights by sending in skirmishers supported by artillery, and once they were cleared the village was destroyed.
Later that same day the same happened to the village of Zargun Khel, where the force then encamped. During the night tribesmen occupied the surrounding heights and fired on the camp, forcing Campbell to douse all fires, and compelling him to ensure the hills were cleared before leaving in the morning.
That day, the 11th, another village, Khui, was destroyed, before the column began moving through the narrowest stretch of the pass, with detachments clearing the heights on either side. Such care did not prevent the rearguard from coming under fire and committed to skirmishing all the way. Late in the day the village of Sharaki received the usual treatment before the column encamped, with the heights being occupied to prevent a repetition of the previous night.
Thus it was that Ensign Sitwell, with his two companies of the 31st Native Infantry, spent the night overlooking the camp. They must have gazed down longingly on the fires burning below, as they had had no cooked food since entering the pass. It may have been some consolation to the young man from Northumberland that at least it would probably not be freezing, definitely warmer than if he were on top of The Cheviot on a February night.
At eight in the morning Sitwell and his men were summoned down; there was no sight of the enemy, and they were to be relieved by a party of twenty men who were instructed to ascend by a flanking route as Sitwell’s men descended.
That is where things started to go wrong. The relief party did not take the route ordered. Instead they went up on the same path Sitwell’s men were using for their descent. As the two groups met, and progress slowed, tribesmen appeared on the height. Armed with their home-manufactured Martini-Henry rifles they opened fire on Sitwell’s exposed force, felling several with the first volley. They then charged down to finish off the wounded, including Sitwell, with machetes, only retreating when the British artillery opened fire, allowing the bodies of Sitwell and four of his men (Havildar Golaub Ditchet, Naik Madho Singh, and Sepoys Meerwan Opedia and Deobund Pandy) recovered. All were buried at Kohat.
Having lost men, but having destroyed the pass’ villages, thus reminding the Afridis who were in control, the column turned back, with the 1st Punjab Infantry and the native cavalry being detached to Kohat to ensure order there. The rest of the column returned to Peshawar, traversing the pass in a single day, although again the rearguard were harried all the way.
The idea was that the Afridis had been shown who was boss, but they did not seem to have got the message. By the time Campbell and Napier had reached Peshawar the force in Kohat was under siege from an estimated fifteen thousand tribesmen. Their attacks were resisted successfully, but showed that a few burnt villages were not going to deter the tribes. On the 28th of February a group of Afridis attacked a police tower that had been erected on the road to Kohat and took control of the road. On March 9th, despite three village headmen having just accepted peace terms, a native officer riding through the pass was attacked and robbed. Exasperated the British passed a law which imprisoned any Afridi found in the pass, claiming it as British territory. A draconian measure, but apparently successful, as in September another peace treaty was agreed which allowed the Afridis back, but deemed the British to be in charge of the Kohat salt mines. Peace reigned, but not for long, as trouble started again only two years later.
Indeed trouble kept on appearing. The British were never really in comfortable control of the region (the pass featured in the Tirah Campaign in the 1890s), and their successors have had similar problems. The Kohat Pass was last a major news item in 2009, when a band of pro-Taliban fighters raided a military convoy, blocking and then occupying the tunnel. For several days the tunnel was the site of pitched battles between the militants and the Pakistani army, until eventually the superior weaponry and numbers of the army prevailed. It is ironic that the Kohat road in 2009 should see tribal fighters disputing its use with the authorities, just as it had one hundred and fifty years earlier. The truism is that the Frontier tribes see everyone else as an enemy; the history of the Kohat Pass suggests that may be correct.
The Sitwell main abode is Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, named as having Britain's best garden by the Historic Houses Association in 2016. I wonder if they know that one of their own is buried in a forgotten grave on the North-West Frontier.
Photo of stained glass window from Loick, St. John the Baptist - courtesy of Dr. Peter Jones
St. John the Baptist Church, Lowick - www.achurchnearyou.com
Transport morning through the Kohat Pass, 1897 - Nick Britten, www.interest.com
www.gloster.tripod.com - a collection of memorial inscriptions to Britain's war dead
'The History of the British Empire in India from the appointment of Lord Hardinge to the Political Extinction of the East India Company, 1844-1862' (Lionel J. Trotter, London, 1866, Wm. H. Allen & Co.) - available online via archive.org
ⓒ Jonathan Dewhirst 2016