The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War
London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1898. First edition, only printing. Hardcover. “… the indiscriminating bullet settles everything.” This remarkable association copy of the first edition of Winston Churchill’s first published book belonged to the bereaved family of Lieutenant-Colonel James Loughnan O’Bryen, whose death Churchill eloquently mourns at pages 245-7. Noteworthy for condition alone, this book is not only enriched by association with O’Bryen’s family, but is also accompanied by a small archive including an original drawing of the Malakand Pass and five contemporary photographs depicting Colonel O’Bryen, his Regiment, and a native militia.
Lieutenant-Colonel James Loughnan O’Bryen (1858-1897) was born in Delhi and educated in England. His father was a decorated Colonel with the Indian Staff Corps. O’Bryen entered the Army in 1874 (the year Churchill was born), joining the Indian Staff Corps himself in 1876. O’Bryen was second in command of the 30th Punjabis when he was given command of the Bengal Infantry’s 31st Punjab Regiment on 5 August 1897. Less than two months later he was killed in action.
Churchill dedicated 465 words to describing O’Bryen’s courageous death and philosophically speculating on the peculiar role of chance in warfare – which had claimed O’Bryen on the same battlefields that spared Churchill: “…the 31st Punjaub infantry… advanced under Colonel O’Bryen… he directed the fire and animated the spirit of the men… At last, he was… carried mortally wounded from the action… a military career differs from all others… All his fortunes… must be staked afresh each time he goes into action… the indiscriminating bullet settles everything… though the death in action of a colonel at the head of his regiment is as fine an end as a soldier can desire, it is mournful to record…” Churchill’s words apparently found O’Bryen’s wife and daughter. The sole ownership name in the book is “O’Bryen | 29 Ellerker Gardens | Richmond-Surrey” in three lines inked on the half-title. The upper corner of the p.245-6 leaf is folded and there are faint pencil lines in the margins beside Churchill’s account of O’Bryen.
The book is a beautifully clean, near-fine copy. A tipped-in errata slip and rear catalogue dated “12/97” identify an early second state of the first edition, only printing. The green cloth binding is square, tight, clean, and bright with no discernible color shift between spine and covers and only trivial wear to hinges and corners and minor wrinkling at spine ends. The contents are atypically bright with incidental spotting confined to the otherwise clean page edges. All maps are intact, including folding maps at pages 1 and 146, as are the frontispiece and tissue guard and the original black endpapers. The mull is nominally exposed in the gutter following the half-title, but this is strictly a cosmetic issue, not affecting binding integrity.
The unsigned ink drawing of a mountain pass and military encampment accompanying the O’Bryen Malakand is on a folded and spotted 4.5 x 7 inch piece of laid paper. Triangles at the lower left, presumably tents, are captioned “Dargai Camp” and the lower right is captioned “Dotted line shows Malakand Pass”. Of five accompanying photographs, two depict Colonel O’Bryen and two the men he commanded. Four photographs are silver gelatin. Two of these – group portraits measuring 4.75 x 6.75 and 6.5 x 8.125 inches – are captioned “30th PUNJABI INFANTRY”. The sole non-military image is 6.25 x 8.125 inches, showing O’Bryen in a suit seated on porch stairs flanked by a child and two women. An 8.5 x 11.25 portrait of un-uniformed men and boys, some armed, is captioned “Central Group Young [illegible]”. The final word may be “Militia”. The sole albumen portrait is arguably the standout of the collection, depicting four rows of native soldiers with their British Officers, O’Bryen prominent among them and identified by name in the caption. The lower right is signed “F. Winter”, a photographer in Muree, Punjab.
Reference: Cohen A1.1.b. Item #005086