Tibet Expedition – 1904

The British expedition to Tibet, also known as the British invasion of Tibet or the Younghusband expedition to Tibet began in December 1903 and lasted until September 1904. The expedition was effectively a temporary invasion by British Indian forces under the auspices of the Tibet Frontier Commission, whose purported mission was to establish diplomatic relations and resolve the dispute over the border between Tibet and Sikkim.

The expedition was intended to counter Russia’s perceived ambitions in the East and was initiated largely by Lord Curzon, the head of the British India government. Curzon had long obsessed over Russia’s advance into Central Asiaand now feared a Russian invasion of British India.

The expedition fought its way to Gyantseand eventually reached Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in August 1904. The Dalai Lamahad fled to safety, first in Mongolia and later in China, but thousands of Tibetans armed with antiquated muzzle-loaders and swords had been mown down by modern rifles and Maxim machine guns while attempting to block the British advance. At Lhasa, the Commission forced remaining Tibetan officials to sign the Treaty of Lhasa (1904), before withdrawing to Sikkim in September, with the understanding the Chinese government would not permit any other country to interfere with the administration of Tibet.

 A military confrontation on 31 March 1904 became known as the Massacre of Chumik Shenko. Facing the vanguard of Macdonald’s army and blocking the road was a Tibetan force of 3,000 armed with antiquated matchlock muskets, ensconced behind a 5-foot-high (1.5 m) rock wall. On the slope above, the Tibetans had placed seven or eight sangars.[16] The Commissioner, Younghusband, was asked to stop but replied that the advance must continue, and that he could not allow any Tibetan troops to remain on the road. The Tibetans would not fight, but nor would they vacate their positions. Younghusband and Macdonald agreed that “the only thing to do was to disarm them and let them go”. This at least was the official version. The writer Charles Allen has also suggested that a dummy attack was played out in an effort to provoke the Tibetans into opening fire.

It seems then that scuffles between the Sikhs and Tibetan guards grouped around Tibetan generals sparked an action of the Lhasa general: he fired a pistol hitting a Sikh in the jaw. British accounts insist that the Tibetan general became angry at the sight of the brawl developing and shot the Sikh soldier in the face, prompting a violent response from the soldier’s comrades, which rapidly escalated the situation


Amongst the units at his disposal in his 3,000 strong force were elements of the

Royal Fusiliers, as well as mountain artillery, engineers, Maxim gun detachments from four regiments and thousands of porters recruited from Nepal and Sikkim