Battle of Guru: British Forces Win Battle at the "Roof of the World"

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Battle of Guru: British Forces Win Battle at the "Roof of the World"

Today in Military History: March 31, 1904


In the late 19th and early 20th century, Great Britain was most concerned with holding onto the crown jewel of its empire, India (often referred to as "the Raj"). Their greatest concern was that the Russian Empire would find some way to invade and occupy India. This is why Britain became involved in Afghanistan and Persia (modern-day Iran) throughout the 1800's. The continued diplomatic – with occasional small-scale military – thrusts between Britain and Russia became a part of what came to be called "The Great Game," a game played in deadly earnest by both nations.

Looming to the north of India, like a rotting corpse of a once-thriving empire, was China. The ruling Manchu dynasty sought to quell various rebellions throughout the 19th century, including the Taiping Uprising of 1851-1866. The British were somewhat disdainful of the Chinese Empire, viewing them more as a nuisance than with the deadly seriousness that they regarded Russia. A series of small mountain kingdoms, fully under the thumb of the British, acted as buffer states between China and the Raj. These included the tiny kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan.

British Indian Empire c. 1893

Just to the north of these three nations was Tibet, then a dependency of the Chinese Empire. This area was only loosely ruled by the Chinese. The recognized ruler of Tibet was the 13th Dalai Lama, a greatly revered religious figure at the center of one of the branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is thought of as the latest reincarnation of a series of spiritual leaders who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others. He also exercises some temporal power, through control of the monasteries of Tibet, usually only after the Dalai Lama has assumed adulthood.

Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama

The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), assumed political power over Tibetan affairs in 1895. One of his closest advisors was a Russian-born monk named Agvan Dorzhiev. Though characterized as a sincere monk by Tibetans, Dorzhiev persuaded the Dalai Lama that it was to Tibet's advantage to form a closer relationship with Tsarist Russia. As a result of this, British officials in the Raj began to hear rumors of secret treaties binding Tibet to Russia.

Taking these rumors for fact, the British Viceroy in India, Lord George Curzon, during 1903 sent a request to the governments of China and Tibet for negotiations to be held at Khampa Dzong, a small Tibetan village north of Sikkim to establish trade agreements. The Chinese were willing, and ordered the Dalai Lama to attend. However, the Dalai Lama refused, and also refused to provide transport to enable the main Chinese official based in Tibet's capital Lhasa to attend. Curzon concluded that China did not have any authority to compel the Tibetan government. Curzon decide send a group of British diplomats anyway. The expedition was initially commanded by Major Francis Younghusband with an escort of 200 Punjab soldiers and 300 porters and other followers.

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942)

Born in British India, raised in England and India, Younghusband was an explorer and writer. After joining the British army, he fully participated in "The Great Game." Once while exploring what is today northern Pakistan, Captain Younghusband and his small escort of Gurkhas was contacted by a Russian agent in a nearby valley and invited to dinner. The two rivals displayed the martial prowess of their escorts – the precision rifle drill of Younghusband's Gurkhas, the exceptional horsemanship of the Russian's Cossacks. After spending all night talking and drinking brandy and vodka, as well as discussing the possibility of a Russian invasion of India, the two rivals departed and resumed their respective duties.

A year later, Younghusband transferred to the Indian Political Service, where he was much freer to pursue British aims in "the Game." By 1903, he had been promoted to major and was placed in charge of the Tibet mission. His experiences in exploring western China and northern India gave him extensive knowledge of the rigors the British force would face. Arriving in the capital of Sikkim in June of 1903, Younghusband began preparations for the diplomatic expedition. He arrived at Khampa Dzong on July 18, but found no Tibetan or Chinese representatives. After waiting three months, Younghusband returned to India to await further instructions. Finally, the home government of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour granted the Younghusband's request to proceed on to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Khampa Dzong (photograph taken in 1938)


Knowing the rugged, unyielding landscape his force would be facing, Younghusband carefully gathered units he knew would be experienced in such terrain. He trained these men extensively for several months before undertaking the expedition into Tibet. The bulk of his command was composed of elements of the 8th Gurkhas, the 40th Pathans, the 23rd and 32nd Sikh Pioneers, and the 19th Punjab Infantry. There was one unit of British army troops, the Royal Fusilers, as well as 8 pieces of mountain artillery (4-10 pounders and 4-7 pounders), engineers, 2 Maxim machine gun detachments from two regiments, and a unit of mounted infantry. All together, the force totaled some 3000 men. Accompanying the expedition was 10,000 transport drivers, 8000 supply and transport coolies, 10,500 mules and ponies, 400 donkeys, and 9,225 bullocks and yaks.

Despite appearances the Tibetans were aware of the British expedition. To avoid bloodshed a nearby Tibetan commander pledged that if the British made no attack upon the Tibetans, he would not attack the British. Colonel Younghusband replied, on 6 December 1903, that "we are not at war with Tibet and that, unless we are ourselves attacked, we shall not attack the Tibetans". The force crossed in Tibet on December 12, 1903 by the Jelep La, "the lovely level pass," as it was the easiest way to enter eastern Tibet (the pass is at 14,300 feet above sea level).

Younghusband and some of his officers, 1904

The force advanced another 50 miles into Tibet, hoping to provoke some response from the recalcitrant Tibetans. They arrived at the town of Tuna on January 8, 1904, then likely made camp to await developments. The expedition began it descent on Lhasa in mid- to late March. On March 31, they reach the vicinity of Lake Bhan Tso, near the village of Guru.

Facing the vanguard of Macdonald's army and blocking the road was a Tibetan force of 3,000 men, many armed with primitive matchlock muskets and crouching behind a 5-foot-high (1.5 m) rock wall, ready to shoot at advancing British forces. On the slope above they had placed seven or eight "sangars" (stony emplacements) on the eastern side of the pass, while more Tibetans on the western side were standing exposed in plain view of their opponents.

Most of the Tibetans were local peasants, impressed into service by their priests to protect their land and their leader, the Dalai Lama. They lacked any real organization, training, discipline or motivation. There were some units of monks armed with swords and jingals (large light guns resembling huge matchlock muskets), but they were too few in number to make a difference.

The Battle

The Tibetan commander rode to meet Younghusband and Brigadier General James Macdonald, the military commander of the expedition. The Tibetan officer apparently hoped to prevent bloodshed, as the conflict was not yet a shooting war, and perhaps as a gesture of goodwill appears to have ordered his men to extinguish the fuses of their muskets, the relighting of which is a lengthy and difficult process. Macdonald refused to accept the warnings of the Tibetan commander and dispatched Sikh and Gurkha soldiers to disarm the Tibetan forces, who were unable to resist the advance due to their extinguished fuses. However, the natives still refused to surrender their arms, resulting in a brawl amidst the sangars which while violent, was not yet deadly.

It was at this stage that war was declared irreparably, although the cause of it has never been established and probably never will be. British accounts insist that the Tibetan commander became angry at the sight of the brawl developing and shot a Sikh soldier in the face rather than surrender his modern pistol, prompting a violent response from the soldier's comrades which rapidly escalated the situation. The Tibetan accounts differ by claiming that the British tricked the general into extinguishing his troops fuses and that once this was done the British began shooting first anyway, the fatal shot from the general's pistol only occurring once battle had been joined.

Maxim gun

Whatever the truth, the actual fighting did not last long. Once disarmed, the Tibetan forces attempted to retreat, but became entangled with each other and the steep landscape, opening them to disciplined rifle volleys from the Sikh and Gurkha regiments as well as attack by the deadly British machine guns. Despite this withering attack, the Tibetan forces fell back in good order, refusing to turn their backs or run. Some of the Tibetan force, armed with more modern weapons, even managed to hold off cavalry pursuit at bayonet point. Half a mile from the battlefield the Tibetan forces reached shelter and were allowed to withdraw by General Macdonald. After no more than half an hour, the battle of Guru was over.


In the Guru Pass and on the slopes, the British force left between 600 and 700 Tibetan fatalities and 168 wounded, 148 of whom survived in British field hospitals as prisoners. Amongst the dead was the commander whose impetuous and inexperienced decision to extinguish his men's fuses had helped cause disaster. British losses were reckoned at twelve dead or wounded.

During this battle, the Tibetans wore amulets which their priests had promised would protect them magically from any harm. Afterwards, surviving Tibetans showed profound confusion over the ineffectiveness of these amulets.

Lieutenant Arthur Hadow, commander of one of the Maxim guns detachments, later wrote, "I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the general's order was to make as big a bag as possible. I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away."

In a telegraph to his superior in India, the day after the massacre, Younghusband stated: "I trust the tremendous punishment they have received will prevent further fighting, and induce them to at last to negotiate."

Footnote #1: After several more battles, the Younghusband expedition eventually reached Lhasa in August. A treaty was signed which neither side really intended to keep; in fact the British government rejected it outright. A later British-Chinese treaty in 1906 was ratified which changed nothing.

Footnote #2: During his return from Lhasa, Major Younghusband had some manner of mystical experience. Consequently, he adopted many "New Age" philosophies, including telepathy, pantheism and free love. One biographer even termed him "the first hippie." He died of a cardiac arrest on July 31, 1942. 

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I enjoyed reading the nice article, thank you

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.