Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich was born at the rectory in Dingley, a small village in Northamptonshire, on 13th February 1843. His father was Thomas Peach Holdich, the rector of the parish, and his mother was Susan, daughter of William Atherton Garrard of Carisbroke, Isle of Wight and Olney Buckinghamshire. Thomas was their eldest son and the elder of twins. As he says in the short personal record of his life that he wrote for his grandchildren “because I possibly was heir apparent to the properties (Dingley Hall, Maidwell Hall, Orton etc) of my uncle Henry Hungerford Holdich Hungerford (who took the name and arms of Hungerford when he succeeded to the property) considerable fuss was made over me, church bells being rung. When a cousin was born who cut me out, I had to make my own way in life and be educated for a career.”
About the time of the Crimean War, which he claimed to remember well, the family left for London where his father had been appointed rector of the parish of St James’s Notting Hill. In London Thomas went to Godolphin Grammar School at Hammersmith and from there to the Indian Military College at Addiscombe, where he gained the sword of honour in 1860. He was keen to become a Royal Engineer and so went on to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and after further training at Chatham, where he records that he did little but play cricket, he was sent to India on attachment to the Survey Department.
His first campaign was in Bhutan in 1865, a hard country to map in his estimation but one that was for him to be the first of many such. This led to his permanent appointment to the Survey Department from which he was lent to the Abyssinian expedition from 1867-68, one of three RE officers on survey duty, working in extremely difficult and exhausting circumstances and one in which he himself came under enemy fire on several occasions.
A year at home working on the Abyssinian maps at the India Office was followed by eight years in what he describes as “the survey business” in India, passing the cold weather in the field and the hot weather at Mussoorie in the Himalayas completing the computations and making fair copies of the maps for reproduction in Calcutta. He clearly enjoyed the work enormously despite all the difficulties. He loved sports, particularly shooting, he was fascinated by the country, especially by the then largely unknown parts of India to which his work took him. He was a keen observer of Indian life and had a marked awareness of landscape and natural beauty. All his working life he sketched and painted in watercolours the scenery around him, indeed an artistic ability was an essential skill in a military surveyor of nineteenth century India, where photography was impossible but it was frequently necessary to make a visual record of the typography.
While working in Central India he contracted malarial rheumatism and returned to Harrogate to recuperate. In Harrogate he first made the acquaintance of Hubert Kitchener who had been at Woolwich a few years later than him. Both young officers applied for a job on the survey of Cyprus, a country newly mandated to Britain, but the post went to Kitchener. Holdich wrote that “he came round to me dancing and exulting. He little knew what it would lead to”. When recovered Holdich returned to India and in 1878 began his long connection with the North West Frontier and with the Southern Afghanistan field force. He served with distinction in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-8) serving with Sir Frank Robert’s forces. Roberts was keen to get a map of the hostile country and amongst others Holdich was out in the wilds all over Northern Afghanistan venturing as far as the Hindu Kush, returning just in time to Kabul, where he was under attack at the siege of Sherpur.
At the end of the war he remained on the Frontier serving in the Mahsud Waziri Expedition of 1881 engaged in the tough work, as he described it, of mapping the rugged and dangerous mountains of Waziristan during active fighting.
After this fairly strenuous work he was appointed for duty as Surveyor to the historical Boundary Commission which was to settle the boundary between Russia and Afghanistan. A task that was considered to be urgent as the British Government in India took the view that Russia was extending her influence unacceptably far south into Afghanistan and perceived this as a threat to British interests in the area. He describes these two years as the time of his life, his party worked their way, escorted by 500 cavalry and infantry, from Baluchistan to the Helmund River, coming into confrontation with a Russian force of 40,000 (or so, in his words, they claimed) and being forced to retire rapidly into Persian territory during an extremely cold winter. As the possibility of conflict with Russia increased Holdich was ordered by the Government in London to enter Herat and make the best defence he could until assistance could reach him from India. In the event the Russians, as he puts it, “came to their senses” and a serious situation was avoided. He went on to survey the boundaries of Baluchistan with the Zhob Field Force, moving into the Makran, on the border with Persia, going as far as Basra; where he used a period of leave to explore north into the area that is now Iraq.
His next assignment was to an area he described as “the roof of the world”, from the head of the Oxus River extending across the Pamirs to the Chinese borders, the concept being to establish a buffer zone, in places only eight miles wide, of Afghan territory between the Khanates under Russian domination and the princely states of India, in the hope of avoiding confrontations in future. The success of this extraordinarily difficult project, in one of the highest and least hospitable places on earth and working often in intense cold and a ferocious wind, was a credit to Holdich’s professional competence as well as his ability to handle a politically sensitive situation with diplomatic skill. By now he had been promoted to Colonel and for this work he was awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
In recognition of his success in the Pamirs Holdich was next appointed Chief Commissioner to settle the boundary between Persia and Baluchistan, a very different but equally difficult job for which he was rewarded by being made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. In 1898 he again became involved in frontier conflict, this time with the Afridis, the most ancient of all the tribes of the North West Frontier. This was his last campaign, as he had reached the age of 55, the age at which officers of his rank had to retire from Indian service.
1902 took Holdich to a different, and for him a new, part of the World when he was asked to serve on the tribunal created by the British Government at the invitation of Chile and Argentina, both of whom had appealed to Great Britain for arbitration of a treaty of 1881, which had fixed their boundary in the South of the Andes in such a way that although appearing satisfactory on paper was, in practical geographic terms virtually impossible to interpret. He insisted on investigating the area personally and as the two countries prepared for war he speedily set about establishing the boundary, with such competence and diplomacy that both nations accepted his solution and then promptly invited him to return to the region to set up the markstones. He finally returned to England by way of Mexico and Honduras and was subsequently appointed KCMG in 1902.
Back in London Holdich turned his energies towards becoming an active member of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was President from 1916 to 1918, guiding the Society through the difficult years of the War, until his increasing hearing difficulties led to his resignation.. He spent his retirement at his house, Parklands, in Merrow, near Guildford, where he died on 2nd November 1929.
LIST OF PUBLICATIONS BY SIR THOMAS HUNGERFORD HOLDICH ( as listed in the British Library Catalogue)
- Boundaries in Europe and the Near East 1918
- Countries of the King’s Award 1904
- England’s Strength in Asia: proceedings of the Central Asian Society 1904
- Gates of India 1910
- Indian Borderland 1880-1900 1901
- Notes on the Antiquities, Ethnography and History of Las Bela and Makran 1894
- Frontiers and Boundary Making 1916
- Tibet the Mysterious 1906
- Ed. Peru-Bolivia Boundary Commission Report 1911-1913 1918