Himalayan Journal vol.02
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (PAUL BAUER.*)
    (DR. A. M. HERON.)
    (L. R. FAWCUS)
  5. THE SHYOK FLOOD, 1929
    (J. P. GUNN)
    (LIEUT. J. B. P. ANGWIN.)
    (DR. E. F. NEVE.)
    (LIEUT. D. M. BURN.)
    (W. E. BUCHANAN)
    (H. M. GLOVER.)
    (Captain J. BARRON.)
    (Captain A. A. RUSSELL.)
  16. NOTES


Colonel Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich,

k.c.m.g., k.c.i.e., c.b.


SIR THOMAS HOLDICH, who died on 2nd November 1929, at the age of 86, was one of our greatest authorities on the North- West Frontier of India, having spent twenty strenuous years from 1878 to 1898 on surveys connected with military expeditions, and on boundary commissions, on every part of the borderland from Makran to the Pamirs.

Holdich probably had the most distinguished public career of any officer of the Survey of India, though his work fell in an entirely different sphere to that of the many well-known geodesists of the department. He was essentially an outdoor man, small and spare of body, and of great energy ; he was a very able topographical surveyor, had the greatest judgment and tact in dealing with frontiersmen, and was a " thruster " all the time. He was a marked man after his brilliant work as a survey officer during the Second Afghan War, and was called from one important task to another, until he had accumulated an extensive experience of military and political adventures, and a profound knowledge of the geography and peoples of the North-West Frontier of India. When he left India he was the supreme authority on all matters connected with boundary delimitation and demarcation, and he was shortly afterwards selected for the charge of the very important Chile-Argentine Boundary Commission.

Born in 1843, Holdich was commissioned in the Royal Engineers on 17th December 1862, came out to India early in 1865, and was posted to the Survey of India almost at once. He got his first opportunity of active service with the Bhutan Field Force as assistant surveyor, during the cold weather of 1865-66, and was soon on service again, for after about a year in Rajputana, he was selected in December 1867 as one of the survey officers with the Abyssinian campaign. Sir Robert Napier's force was sent into this little-known country to rescue the Europeans imprisoned by King Theodore and the campaign culminated successfully in his capture of Magdala. In 1869 Holdich returned to India and joined a survey party in Central India, and was employed on the normal duties of the department till he took furlough in 1877. From this furlough he was recalled to join the Southern Afghan Field Force in December 1878, and thus began his twenty years' work on the frontier.

When the second Afghan war broke out, our geographical knowledge of tribal country was appallingly scanty, and our columns marched out with the vaguest ideas of what was before them. The maps showed nothing but the general line of a few main routes, and the war gave our surveyors their first opportunity of mapping the country. Officers from the Survey of India were posted to every column, and carried proper surveys, based on triangulation, from India into the heart of Afghanistan. Much of their work remains to this day.

Holdich was one of several Survey of India officers attached to the Kandahar column, which suffered terrible hardships marching up the Bolan pass, losing thousands of camels on the way. An accurate chain of triangles was carried up to Kandahar by Maxwell Campbell, Heaviside and Rogers ; Holdich himself had charge of the surveyors who followed close behind, and mapped the -country up to Kandahar and beyond.

At the conclusion of peace, in the spring of 1879, Holdich accompanied General Biddulph's column which returned to India through totally unexplored country, marching from Pishin eastwards, through the Bori valley, where Loralai now stands, over the Sulaiman range and out into the Dera Ghazi plain past Fort Munro.

The peace was of short duration ; the fate of Cavagnari's mission at Kabul restarted the war in the autumn and Holdich joined the Khyber force. The survey officers who had accompanied the Kurram and Khyber columns during the first phase of the war were nearly all out of action. Samuells and Charles Strahan were down with typhoid; Edward Leach, who had won the V. C., Tanner and Wood- thorpe had all been wounded. G. B. Scott alone, who had combined some remarkable fighting with the first survey of the Kabul river gorges, was left whole. Woodthorpe, however, was able to join the Kurram column under Roberts, while Holdich, with Blight's force, carried triangulation up the Khyber, and the two made their first junction on the hills overlooking Bala Hissar. Surveys and rapid reconnaissances were now pushed out in all directions from Kabul, Holdich himself working northwards to the Paghman range. Work was interrupted by the siege of Sherpur, in the defence of which Holdich and his surveyors took an active part. Subsequently he accompanied Roberts on the famous march to Kandahar, but, as might be expected, the pace was too hot for much survey work. For his services during the two Afghan campaigns, Holdich was mentioned in despatches, and promoted brevet-major in 1881.

Just as in 1919, war with Afghanistan was immediately followed by trouble in Waziristan, and early in 1881 a force was organized at Dera Ismail Khan to deal with Mahsuds who had been raiding Tank. Holdich went as survey officer with the northern column, and in the course of his work climbed with his escort to the top of Shuidar, whilst Gerald Martin, attached to the southern column, climbed Pre-Ghal, the higher of these two peaks, which are such prominent landmarks from Razmak.

This was probably the first occasion on which either peak had been climbed by a European, although a claim to be the first up Pre- Ghal was made as recently as 1927. The Survey of India cannot publish accounts of all the climbs carried out by its officers in the course of their work, and is particularly reticent about any work carried out on the frontier. In this instance Holdich has himself told the story of these particular climbs in his book, The Indian Borderland.

After a short period in charge of survey at Kohat, Holdich was, in 1883, placed in charge of the Baluchistan survey party, and he held this charge, on paper, till his retirement.

An opportunity for further exploration came at once in the wild country of north-east Baluchistan. The Shiranis had been blockaded without effect for some two years, and it was decided to send a small " survey promenade " into the heart of their country. The only opposition came from the Khidarzai clan in the neighbourhood of the Takht-i-Sulaiman. The Takht is a mighty mountain 11,300 feet high, north-west of Dera Ghazi Khan. Its slopes are a series of horrible precipices, and its approaches lie through tortuous defiles, a most formidable citadel to carry against determined opposition. The actual capture of the enemy position was due to Holdich, who, whilst out planetabling, discovered an unguarded but difficult route to the summit. Guided by Holdich in the night, a column turned the Khidarzai position and captured it without a single casualty ; Colonel Maclean won the subsequent race to the summit, Holdich having to content himself with arriving third. From this glorious viewpoint he sketched a large extent of new country, and cut in many valuable points by theodolite.

The steady advance of Russia's influence into Turkistan was causing great uneasiness in England as well as India, and in 1884 the Russo-Afghan Boundary Commission was appointed to settle the southern limits of the Russian Empire along the Afghan border. Holdich was posted as chief survey officer of the Indian section, and he travelled up through Afghanistan from Quetta, by way of Kandahar, the Helmand and Herat. The old boundary between Turkistan and Afghanistan was extremely vague, and though the Russians had done a good deal of reconnaissance, our maps of the country were a complete blank.

The Commission spent long weary months over protracted negotiations, and there was very nearly a split between Britain and Russia over the famous Pandjeh incident ; it was not until a very strong line was taken by the British Government that a peaceful solution was found to a situation fraught with danger. The survey work accomplished by Holdich and his small party was astounding, both as to its rapidity and accuracy. Triangulation was taken from the neighbourhood of Kandahar, through western Afghanistan to the Hindu Kush near Herat, and thence from Sarrakhs eastward along the frontier, back over the Hindu Kush and connected to old work near Kabul. On this triangulation was based all the British and Russian surveys carried out for the Commission, and British and Russian surveyors had the greatest respect for each other even when the relations between the political camps were strained.

The chart of this triangulation is still reproduced in textbooks as an illustration of how such work may be carried out. For his services on this Commission Holdich was promoted brevet-lieutenant - colonel in 1887, and awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

For the next few years Holdich was fully occupied with surveys in Baluchistan at the time that Sir Robert Sandeman was establishing the " Pax Britannica " by his unobtrusive methods. At the end of 1889 he accompanied Sandeman on the " political promenade," known as the Zhob-Gomal expedition, during which the whole of the Zhob valley and much of the Kundar were surveyed, and the site of Fort Sandeman was selected.

Holdich was promoted brevet-colonel in 1891 j he became Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in 1892, and was awarded both the C. B. and the C. I. E. early in 1894.

Holdich was now called on to take a prominent part in the settlement of the Durand Line, along the boundary between Afghanistan and India, of which the general terms were agreed to at Kabul between the Amir Abdur Rahman, and Sir Mortimer Durand. Holdich would very much have liked to have had a say in this agreement, but he was only called in afterwards to organize the survey parties that were to delimit and demarcate the various sections of the boundary, whilst he himself accompanied Udny to fix the boundary on the northern section between Kafiristan and Chitral.

In December 1894 a small party including Holdich and Coldstream as survey officers, marched up the Khyber along the Kabul road, crossed the Kabul river at Jalalabad, and ascended the Kunar which is the river of Chitral. They passed Asmar, the headquarters of a large Afghan army, and reached Arnawai on the disputed border, where they were to have met Captain Gurdon, the representative of Chitral. But Gurdon never came, as he was held up at Chitral by the troubles instigated by the famous Omra Khan, and the Boundary Commission had to carry on without him, whilst the plucky little garrison at Chitral was enduring its historic siege only sixty miles away. Under the definite orders of the Government of India, Udny and Holdich continued the work of demarcation and survey, and the Afghans held aloof from the fight. The boundary was settled up to the Dorah pass by April 1895. The actual survey completed was disappointing for the Afghans refused to allow any work that was not absolutely necessary for the delimitation.

Hardly was Holdich back from this work than he found himself appointed, in June 1895, chief survey officer on the Pamir Boundary Commission with Wahab as his assistant.

This Commission was a sequel to the meeting of Younghusband and the Bussian outpost in 1891, since when the Pamirs had been much in the public eye and had attracted the well-known visit of Lord Curzon in 1894. The Commission was to fix a line putting a limit on the Russian approach to India ; and in order to provide a buffer between British and Russian territories, the Amir was given the narrow strip of Wakhan, which is only eight miles wide at one point, and forms a belt of Afghan territory separating the Pamirs from Chitral; it was the northern edge of this strip that was demarcated.

The Russian mission under General Shveikovsky met the British mission under General Gerard on the banks of,Lake Victoria, and worked eastwards to the Chinese frontier without a hitch. The Great and the Little Pamirs were surveyed in detail, and a great addition was made to geographical knowledge. The Russians and British parted on the Pamirs on 12th September finishing up with a most cheerful night. Cossacks and Khirgiz, Kashmiris, English, one Frenchman, and Afghans all making merry together with dances, music and liquid refreshment.

On his return Holdich was immediately appointed Chief Commissioner of the Perso-Baluch Boundary Commission with Wahab as his chief survey officer to demarcate the frontier between Persia and Baluchistan. Holdich was now for the first time in charge himself ; he already knew much of the ground; surveys under his own control had already been carried right up to the frontier and he knew how to deal with the Persians with whom he had to negotiate. With these advantages he was able to complete demarcation before the hot weather of 1896. He was rewarded by a K. C. I. E., granted in 1897.

The year 1897 saw the Frontier ablaze from Waziristan to Swat, and once more Holdich had to find officers and surveyors to accompany each column of soldiers into the heart of tribal territory. He took personal charge of the surveys in Tirah ; but in 1898 before the campaign was closed he had to hand over to his old friend Colonel Wahab for no other reason than the arrival of the fifty-fifth anniversary of his birth. Thus he ended his Indian career whilst still in the full swing of work ; and a very fine career it was. One might almost say that the days of such opportunities are past and gone for ever.

Sir Thomas Holdich was not the man to live a life of comfortable idleness just because the Government of India had no further use for him. He had a clear head and a ready pen and he has left us many instructive papers and interesting books ; but soon after the publication of his first book The Indian Borderland he was called upon to direct the settlement of the Chile-Argentine Boundary dispute, and once more enjoyed an active life on the hills.

He went out to South America early in 1902, taking with him two officers of the Survey of India, Robertson and Crosthwait, and returned after eight months' work in the field. The difficulty of determining the true watershed had been very great, but the result was eminently successful. The award of King Edward VII was based on the report of the Commission and signed in November 1902 to the satisfaction of both disputants.

Sir Thomas published his experiences on this Commission in a book entitled Countries of the King's Award, and followed this with India (1904), Tibet (1906), The Gates of India (1909), and Political Frontiers and Boundary Making (1918).

He was a very keen councillor of the Royal Geographical Society for many years, and was President from 1916-18. He was a prolific writer for various geographical magazines, and contributed a large number of articles on Indian and geographical subjects to the 11th edition of the Eneyclopcedia Britannica. He held and expressed freely very decided views on the policy followed in our dealings with Afghanistan and the frontier tribes, from the days he first started his career on the frontier till the most recent events connected with the fall of King Amanullah. He even wrote a letter to the Times explaining the origin of Queen Souriya's family.

He was keenly interested in the formation of the Himalayan Club, and as a founder member made most generous contributions to the foundation fund and library.

R. H. Phillimore.

H. H. Maharaja Sir Chandra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana,

g.c.b., g.c.s.i., g.c.m.g., g.c.v.o.

Prime Minister and Marshal of Nepal.


Sir Chandra Shamsher died at his home in Kathmandu on the 25th of November last. His Highness was 66 years of age and had ruled over the kingdom of Nepal since the year 1901. It is perhaps too early yet fully to appreciate all the benefits accruing to Nepal by reason of Sir Chandra's foresight and energy, but it can be said witho'ut fear of contradiction that the late Maharaja was easily first amongst the many distinguished sons of Nepal. His conduct throughout the course of the Great War alone would entitle him to a high place in history : during those four eventful years the Maharaja placed the entire resources of his country at the disposal of the British cause. What this meant to the man-power of Nepal only those who have been privileged to serve in Gurkha regiments can fully appreciate. The late Maharaja was keenly interested in Himalayan travel and exploration. He had been for many years a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and had lately been elected to the select body of Honorary Members. It is characteristic of his ever generous nature that whilst the policy of his Government was such that he was unable to permit the Everest Expeditions to enter his territory, he did not consider that this precluded him from subscribing handsomely to the funds which made them possible. One of his last public works was to cause a complete survey to be made of the whole area of Nepal, and this important work was completed in 1928.

Nepal is, to all intents and purposes, a country completely closed " to strangers : but once the rare and much coveted invitation to visit the country had been extended, Sir Chandra would spare'no effort to further his guests' desires.

The Prime Minister, had he lived, would certainly have become a member of the Himalayan Club ; he was keenly interested in many of the ideals for which the club stands and would, I know, have done all in his power to further our interests. Sir Chandra leaves a large family, but in accordance with Nepalese tradition he is succeeded by his brother, General Bhim Shamsher, who, it is gratifying to note, has already made known his intention not in any way to alter the wise and statesmanlike policy initiated by the late Maharaja.

C. J. Mokkis.

Thomas Hungerford Holdich 1843-1929

Thomas Hungerford Holdich 1843-1929