Following the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, the British inherited the problem of the North West Frontier of India. For many years prior to the defeat of the Sikhs, the Pathan (or Pashtun) tribesmen had proved to be a persistent headache, raiding into Punjab territory or robbing local merchants. For decades after, the British would conduct punitive operations against the various tribes in response to transgressions they were perceived to have committed. Most such campaigns were minor, and casualty rates were low. However, in 1897 many of the frontier tribes rose up against the British in what was the most significant challenge to British authority in the region since the Indian Mutiny. Although the causes of the risings are complex, the spark that perhaps lit the fire took place at a little known village called Maizar in the Tochi Valley.
Although referred to as a village, Maizar was in fact the name given to a collection of small settlements within close proximity. These homesteads were inhabited by members of the Ger Madda Khel, a sub-clan of the Madda Khel, who in turn were a sub-tribe of the Darwesh Khel Waziris. Maizar was situated two miles south of the larger settlement at Sheranni, and eleven miles from the British military camp at Datta Khel. It was a somewhat unremarkable location, but one that was about to take on considerable significance.
The British wanted a levy post established at a point between Maizar and Sheranni, from where the collection of revenues would be made from the local tribes. This, therefore, was the chief reason why Mr. Herbert Gee, a senior political officer for the Tochi Valley, decided to visit Maizar. Another issue also needed resolving. A Hindu clerk by the name of Honda Ram had been murdered by tribesmen at the levy post at Sheranni. The chief suspect had escaped to Afghanistan, but the subsequent investigation found members of the Madda Khel were complicit in the crime. In response, the British imposed a fine on the tribe, but payment had not been forthcoming; Gee now wanted to collect.
Gee’s visit was planned for 9 June 1897, but due to heavy rains it was delayed until the following day. Travelling along with the political officer was his escort under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Bunny. The escort consisted of 200 sepoys of the 1st Sikh Infantry, 100 of the 1st Punjab Infantry, two guns of No. 6 (Bombay) Mountain Battery and twelve sowars of the 1st Punjab Cavalry. Gee, however, was not expecting trouble, a belief that is possibly reflected in the fact the Indian infantrymen were carrying only twenty-two rounds of cartridges in their pouches, while the guns had only sixteen rounds each.
Leaving Datta Khel at 05:00 hours, Gee and his escort arrived at Maizar four and a half hours later. Upon their arrival, Sadda Khan, the malik of the Ger Madda Khel, suggested an area where the sepoys could rest under the shade of some trees. The guns of the mountain battery, however, were placed in a nearby field so as to give them an unobstructed field of fire should they need to be brought into action. Gee then left with the sowars to inspect nearby Datoi, but returned by 11:30, after which the officers and men breakfasted. The atmosphere at Maizar was friendly, and Pathan hospitality seemed at its best.
Just after 14:00 hours, the local maliks asked the British officers if the pipers of the 1st Sikhs would play for the amusement of the villagers, who appeared to listen intently to the first tune. As the pipers began the second, the villagers suddenly got up and made off towards the village of Drepilari, from where a man could be seen on a tower waving a sword. It was clear that something was very wrong.
Almost immediately, the British officers shouted out orders for the sepoys to fall-in, but as they did so two shots rang out from the direction of Drepilari, following which irregular volleys were directed at the officers sitting under the trees. A number of the officers were hit, including Bunny who received a bullet to his stomach. Around 500 tribesmen were now attacking Gee’s little force.
The Indian gunners were quick to react, opening fire on their attackers at a mere 100 yards range. Their ammunition, however, quickly ran out and a mortally wounded Bunny gave the order to withdraw. During the initial moments of the retirement, the baggage animals stampeded, and the escort lost much of its supplies of reserve ammunition and other equipment.
What followed was a painfully slow fighting withdrawal, much of it fought hand-to-hand as the escort passed through a nearby garden before having to traverse a total of six ridges situated at intervals between Maizar and the Tsirai plains above Sheranni. As each ridge was reached, a party of sepoys would provide covering fire to others carrying the mounting number of wounded. As the withdrawal progressed, an increasing number of local tribesmen joined in the attack of the British escort.
After a number of hours of frenzied combat, a relief force under the command of Lieutenant Harry Simonds de Brett of the Royal Artillery arrived, which included several companies of infantry and some cavalry. The action, however, continued, and at one point de Brett was seen furiously loading an artillery piece, ramming home the charge with the butt of a Martini-Henry rifle after the ramrod had been lost. Eventually, the attack fizzled out and the battered escort arrived at Datta Khel around 00:30 hours.
Gee survived the ambush, but most of the British officers were killed, as were twenty-two Indian soldiers; a further thirty were wounded. Pathan casualties were estimated to have numbered 100 killed and a similar number wounded. So ferocious was the fighting that a total of twenty-three sepoys were awarded the prestigious Indian Order of Merit.
Events at Maizar came as a shock to the Indian authorities. Pathan hospitality was seen as sacred, and to conduct an ambush in such a way went against their beliefs. Within weeks, elsewhere along the North West Frontier, numerous other tribes rose up in unprecedented numbers against the British. The great Pathan Rising of 1897 had begun, and it would not be until early the following year, after a number of sizeable expeditions, that order was restored to the region. Maizar had been a small affair, but it lit the conflagration that followed.