In the footsteps of Sir Francis Younghusband’s 1903 invasion of Tibet

In 1903, a British military expedition crossed into the long-isolated and inhospitable land of Tibet - but the pseudo-diplomatic mission became a bloody assault. Robert Twigger describes the story of Sir Francis Younghusband's invasion for BBC World Histories magazine

The Tibetan plateau lies at an altitude averaging over 4,500 metres above sea level

Late in 1903, a handful of Nepalese yak herders strayed across the (unmarked) northern border. Unfortunately that incursion was into Tibet. They were met by a party of armed men who promptly dispersed their yaks. Not very friendly – but hardly a just precursor to what followed: the invasion of Tibet by a British force.

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Tibet was – and still is – a land famed for its remote location and harsh terrain. Much of it occupies a high plateau from 3,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level; travellers arriving across the high passes of the Himalaya are liable to suffer altitude sickness, and for centuries could expect a welcome as chilly as the climate. At the start of the 20th century Tibet was a theocratic state ruled by lamas (highly venerated religious leaders), and almost all foreigners were forbidden. Only Buddhists could expect to be permitted to visit this isolated land.

For decades Britain and Russia had been involved in the political tussle in central Asia known as the Great Game. Tibet acted as a buffer between India and Russia, but Britain had become concerned that the Chinese – who had considerable influence in Tibet, and considered it part of their empire – might allow Russia to gain control there. Despite British requests, it had become clear that China was unable to make Tibet comply with demands for negotiations.

By 1903 the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, had determined that only an armed invasion would make Tibet bow to British imperialism. The euphemistically named Tibet Frontier Commission was formed with the aim of forcing the Tibetans to sign an accord. De facto leader of the mission was the political officer, Colonel Francis Younghusband, who arrived in the state of Sikkim, in north-east India, in July and formed an expedition force with Brigadier-General James Macdonald as military commander. But they needed a casus belli – and the aggression met by those Nepalese yak herders was enough.

In December 1903, Younghusband and Macdonald mustered a force of around 1,000 fighting troops – European officers plus Gurkhas, Punjabis and Pathans as well as Sikh Pioneers and Indian Army engineers – along with 2,000 support soldiers, 7,000 ‘coolies’, or porters, and 2,953 yaks and 7,000 mules to carry baggage (Younghusband alone took 67 shirts and 18 pairs of boots and shoes). Crossing the border, the expedition ascended to the Tibetan Plateau en route to the capital, Lhasa.

Who was Sir Francis Younghusband?

Francis Younghusband (1863–1942) was born in Murree, British India, son of a general in the Indian army. Taken to England at a very young age, he was schooled at Clifton College, Bristol.

By nature inclined towards cavalry patrol work – ahead of the main force, on reconnaissance – in 1882 he joined the King’s Dragoon Guards in Meerut. In 1886 he received six months’ leave to travel to Manchuria, making his remarkable return journey alone through Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang (now Xinjiang) in western China, crossing the Mustagh Pass to reach Kashmir. After news of his journey spread, he became famous, aged just 25.

In the 1890s Younghusband travelled widely in Chinese Turkestan, pursuing the ‘Great Game’ – spying on Russia to thwart its ambitions of securing a warm-water port south of Afghanistan. In 1903 he was appointed head of the Tibet Frontier Commission by Lord Curzon.

Leading the invasion of Tibet in 1903–4 was the highpoint of his career; after that he was largely sidelined, serving in Kashmir and running the First World War ‘Fight for Right’ campaign (which commissioned the song ‘Jerusalem’ in 1916). In 1919 he was made president of the Royal Geographical Society and founded the Mount Everest Committee. His interest in the Himalayas was the key force behind the 1924 Mallory and Irvine summit attempt.

A committed mystic who had several spiritual experiences in the Himalayas, in 1936 Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths, dedicated to quelling antagonism between religions. He died in Dorset in 1942 after suffering a stroke.

Portrait of Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, British explorer, soldier, spy and mystic in June 1895:
British explorer Sir Francis Edward Younghusband. (Image by London Stereoscopic Company / Getty Images)

Brutal conditions

The invasion force continued unopposed for some 50 miles to the Tuna plain, where they decided to overwinter. Unsurprisingly, conditions were tough: at night, temperatures plummeted so low that oil froze in rifle bolts. Some soldiers had ‘Gilgit’ boots – quilted, wool-lined affairs – but many, under the arcane rules of the army, ‘did not qualify’. Some suffered severe frostbite, and 11 died of pneumonia. The men slept in tents and hastily constructed huts, and food was cooked on fires made of yak dung. Food supplies were transported from Darjeeling or bought locally – salted meat, flour and ghee (clarified butter) being staples.

At night, temperatures plummeted so low that oil froze in rifle bolts, and 11 died of pneumonia

Tibetan delegates visited and repeatedly delivered the same message: before any negotiations could take place, Younghusband’s mission must retreat to Yatung at the Sikkim border.

The viceroy, of course, refused. So the Tibetans built a 1.5-metre-high wall at Guru pass, some 10 miles beyond Tuna, and waited for their enemy to arrive. The road to Lhasa was effectively blocked.

In March, Younghusband ordered an advance, but stipulated that the troops should hold their fire unless fired upon. The morning of 31 March 1904 was cold and grey, and the mounted infantry were breathless from the effects of altitude, Tuna being 4,400 metres above sea level. But the British troops marched forward towards the wall behind which the massed Tibetan troops were ready to fan out and overwhelm the British.

Massacre at Guru pass

Inch by inch the troops marched closer. Flanking movements by the British positioned Maxim guns and infantry, which bore down on the Tibetans. On the escarpments to either side, grey-clad Tibetan musketeers hiding in hastily built sangars (stone-built fortifications) were hustled out in silence by the 8th Gurkhas and 23rd Sikh Pioneers.

The British began disarming Tibetans “with the good humoured severity that London policemen display on Boat Race night”, as a later commentator noted. But disarming men without some kind of prior agreement is always difficult. And Younghusband, for all his experience, missed a vital point: the Tibetans’ weapons were not army issue but individually owned broadswords that had been in the same families for generations. One general, about to be relieved of his ancestral sword, reached inside his voluminous belted overcoat, pulled out a revolver and shot a Sikh soldier through the jaw.

Map illustration of the route take by Francis Younghusband into Tibet, that turned into a bloody assult
Route taken by the British military expedition that crossed into the long-isolated and inhospitable land of Tibet – but the pseudo-diplomatic mission became a bloody assault. (Illustration by Theresa Gribben)

In an instant, firing broke out everywhere. Maxims were lazily emptied into the crowd. It was a massacre. Of the Tibetan army – around 1,500 men – possibly 700 lay dead. The British, in contrast, suffered no fatalities and just 12 casualties in total. That pattern was repeated during further skirmishes as the expedition marched towards Lhasa; hundreds of Tibetans were killed in encounters, with few British losses.

On 11 April the expedition reached Gyantse, some 75 miles north of Guru, where the fort presented the last major barrier before Lhasa. After numerous official meetings no progress was made towards an agreement, and the decision was made to move on to Lhasa. In July Younghusband sent an ultimatum to the Tibetans in Gyantse fort: surrender, or suffer a siege. There was no reply.

The men attempted to cross the Tsangpo river in supposedly unsinkable boats - which capsized drowning three

At 4 o’clock on the morning of 6 July, three columns of infantry crawled through the dark and, under sporadic fire, set charges below the bastion’s walls. ‘Bubble’, an elderly seven-pounder gun, was fired but the fort still stood inviolate.

At 3pm, 10-pounders armed with exploding shells breached the stonework, revealing a tiny black hole. A Gurkha commander, Lieutenant Grant, was first at the breach, closely followed by his havildar (sergeant). Both were hit by bullets and fell 9 metres back down the slope but, despite their wounds, climbed straight back up – and this time made it through the hole, followed by a stream of riflemen. The game was up. Ropes unfurled from the fort as Tibetans sought to escape, and resistance evaporated.

The road was now open to the heart of Tibet. There was, however, one last obstacle: the Tsangpo river at Chaksam, dashing along at 7 knots, wide and deep. At first the expedition attempted to cross in collapsible boats claimed to be unsinkable – but that didn’t stop them capsizing, drowning an officer and two Gurkhas. After negotiation, the local system of leather coracles was co-opted, carrying 3,500 men, 3,500 animals and 350 tons of equipment across the torrent in five days.

By now the Tibetans realised that their hand had been forced. When the expedition arrived in Lhasa on 3 August, they discovered that Tibet’s leader, the 13th Dalai Lama, had fled to Mongolia. Under pressure, remaining officials reluctantly agreed to sign a convention in his absence in the great audience hall of the Potala Palace – symbolic heart of Lhasa and home of the Dalai Lama.

The hobnailed boots of the British officers found no purchase on the steps to the Audience Hall, worn smooth by centuries of bare human feet. They reportedly had to climb crabwise up the steep steps, as if “negotiating some device at a funfair”. But climb they did, and the convention was signed, permitting the British to trade in Yatung, Gyantse and Gartok, and to lodge a permanent British resident in Gyantse. The Tibetans were required to pay a 7,500,000-rupee indemnity, and the Chumbi valley on the Sikkim border was ceded to British India until payment had been received. Younghusband had achieved his goal – though the results were not as he’d hoped.

In fact, no real evidence of a Tibetan-Russian pact was uncovered. After the British left Lhasa, Chinese influence soared, planting the seeds of the 1950 invasion. The diplomat Sir Charles Bell said at the time: “The Tibetans were abandoned to Chinese aggression, an aggression for which the British Military Expedition to Lhasa and subsequent retreat were primarily responsible.”

Unlike the tough trek to Lhasa, the march back to Sikkim was a straightforward affair. The British installed a telegraph line, allowing faster communication with Lhasa. The last forbidden country had been stormed and found to be… still a mystery, but not quite the kind they had been expecting.

Robert Twigger is the author of White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016)

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This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017