And furthermore ...

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Friday, 5 February 2010


Two soldiers on the Khyber Pass, 1925 – 26

“It’s punishment – not war.”
Rudyard Kipling, Kim.

The Great Game had ended in a stalemate, as such conflicts always do, and the two broken empires, Britain and Russia, retreated to consolidate their meagre gains. Between May and August 1919 Britain and Afghanistan fought the Third Afghan War. In November the same year, Waziri tribes led an uprising against the British that lasted just over a year. In both conflicts the British suffered the heavier casualties. Not coincidentally, 1919 was also the year Britain began extending the railway line from Jamrud (now in Pakistan) to Landi Kotal on the Afghan border, snaking along the Khyber Pass. Two British soldiers posted along the railway brought cameras with them. They have left us a glimpse into a situation that has ramifications today.

All of the photographs bar one have inscriptions on the back, written in two distinct hands. The first seven, ‘George’s’ photographs, were taken around Jullundur, in the Punjab province between Amritsar and Lahore. The other photographer took his at the camp at Landi Kotal. The photographs were bought loose from an antiquarian bookshop in Perth, Australia in 2008.  They could have been part of a larger collection previously accumulated by someone with an interest in the area, in which case neither man may have known each other.

On the back of his photograph of the Hindu temple, George refers to the 17th Dogra Regiment, the Dogra being hill people from the Punjab.  A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals the regiment was founded in 1922 by combining four battalions. As George conveniently dated his photos, this information doesn’t add much except to help an expert more precisely locate him and possibly identify his regiment.

George’s photos give us the soldier. You may have met him before, in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy or in his later years in Dad’s Army. Maybe George hated India, the crowds, the squalor, the heat, but it was an adventure and he saw things he knew he never would back home. The photographs of the cattle and the temples show an interest in the culture.

The second photographer gives us the situation. A soldier posted to Landi Kotal might wonder what he’d done to deserve it. The camp is as desolate as the Pass. The barbed wire surrounds it because army regulations say it must but no one could seriously believe it kept anyone out. The corrugated tin sentry box is a place no one would want to venture into, especially around midday. It looks like it was knocked together in a couple of hours, but then the entire camp does. At first glance, the photo of the boxing match looks like it was taken by someone who had never held a camera before but on closer look it’s full of information. The shadows of the spectators, the figures in the background, the poorly constructed buildings and sparse landscape are details a writer might have missed.

The Third Afghan war and the Waziri uprising became notorious for the RAF’s use of aerial bombing. In the 1980s it emerged that some of the bombing raids were not strategic but used purely for training purposes. Afghan tribespeople were killed to satisfy British curiosity. They were relatively minor incidents cast against the long history of the British presence in Afghanistan but they are reasons why, eighty years later, Britain is still at war with the Afghan tribes. George and the other photographer probably never imagined their great grandchildren would come back to try and clean up the mess they had left.  


1 comment:

  1. Glib ignorance of the culture, the implications, the environment, the people... That was then, and nothing's changed, has it? Surprisingly runty physiques, too - maybe that's just the individuals, but could be there's a reflection of early 20th Century diet hidden in here.


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