Mission to Forbidden City
Parshotam Mehra

Duel in the Snows: the true story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa.
by Charles Allen.
John Murray.
Pages 350. £ 20.

Duel in the Snows: the true story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa
A delegation of monks from the Drepung monastery confer with General Macdonald (centre) under a flag of truce, on August 8, 1904. — Photo courtesy: Director of the National Army Museum, London.

Almost towards the fag end of the Great Game, a century and more (circa 1800-1907) of intense rivalry between the great White Tsar and John Bull for mastery over Central Asia, the British mounted an armed expedition to Lhasa. The objective was to nip in the bud mounting suspicions of St Petersburg coming to an understanding with Manchu China over Tibet. Seemingly up for grabs, the Tsar had hastened to conclude, dame rumour had it, a secret deal with the Dalai Lama and promised him help in munitions and men.

At the high noon of the Empire, India’s then Governor General, the irascible Lord Curzon, was not amused. Sadly, the Viceroy’s bullying and bluster notwithstanding, the Tibetan ruler spurned all efforts at communication. This was grist to Curzon’s mill, who despite the Tsarist government’s categorical assurances that there were no clandestine deals with China, much less Tibet, feared for the worst. While a weak and invertebrate Tory administration in Whitehall slowly but surely yielded ground to its overzealous proconsul’s mounting, irresistible pressures.

For the leader of expedition, Curzon’s choice fell on Francis Younghusband, who, not unlike him, was a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist and a Russophobe to boot. Initially, in July 1903, the expedition with an armed escort had marched into Tibet to "negotiate" some minor irritants: damaged boundary pillars and alleged trade barriers. The Tibetans refused to oblige, insisting that the British had no right to violate their territory even as their Chinese masters looked on as supine, if helpless spectators. To force the pace, Curzon persuaded his unwilling political masters to mount an armed expedition which in its progress through the country faced little resistance from the rabble of an "army" of ill-equipped if hapless Lamas.

To no one’s surprise, the expedition found no Cossacks in battle array, much less dumps of Russian arms and ammunition. After an unending facade of failed "negotiations", the expedition reached Lhasa and early in September (1904) dictated terms of peace to a headless Tibetan administration, for the Dalai Lama had, hot on the heels of British arrival, made good his escape.

A number of books have appeared on the Younghusband expedition, among others by Peter Fleming, Alastair Lamb and this reviewer. All well researched and resting squarely on a close scrutiny of archival records and private papers.

Allen’s study is distinguished by the fact that he has drawn heavily on diaries, letters and hitherto unpublished firsthand accounts culled from a rich variety of sources. More, he has covered as much of the invading army’s route to Lhasa as "political constraints" set by the Chinese would allow.

While there are no earth-shaking revelations, the author does set the record straight on the stand off between the leader of the expedition and the commander of his escort, Brigadier Macdonald. Much maligned as a little less than efficient commander and a drag on the progress of the mission, Allen insists that the reverse was true; that Macdonald was, in fact, more sinned against than sinning. His real bane was that, in sharp contrast to Younghusband, he had few if any friends, closely followed the rulebook, wrote little and talked even less.

Author of a number of books on British India, Allen is best known for his Plain Tales from the Raj. Not unlike his earlier works, the Duel in the Snows, too, is profusely illustrated and despite its many pages makes for compulsive reading.