Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (27 & 28 February 2019)

Date of Auction: 27th & 28th February 2019

Sold for £3,600

Estimate: £2,400 - £2,800

The C.I.E. and Great War group of five awarded to Captain Frederick Williamson, Middlesex Regiment and Gurkha Rifles, later a distinguished Political Officer in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan

The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, C.I.E., Companion’s 3rd type neck badge, gold and enamels, complete with neck cravat in Garrard & Co case of issue; British War and Bilingual Victory Medals, with copy M.I.D. oak leaf (Capt. F. Williamson.); Territorial Force War Medal (Lieut. F. Williamson. Attd. Middx R.); Jubilee 1935, the last four court mounted, nearly extremely fine (5) £2,400-£2,800


C.I.E. London Gazette 3 June 1935: ‘Frederick Williamson, Esq., of the Political Department, Political Officer, Sikkim.’

M.I.D. London Gazette 5 June 1919 (Allenby).

Frederick Willamson was born in 1891 and educated at Bedford School from which he won a scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He passed the Indian Civil Service examination of 1913 and on arrival in India towards the end of the following year was posted to Bihar and Orissa.

Williamson was first commissioned in November 1913 and appeared on the Territorial Force Reserve General List. In October 1914, soon after the outbreak of the Great War, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Indian Army Reserve of Officers. He served first in India, with the 1/9 Middlesex Regiment.

On 4 October 1916 Williamson joined the 1st Battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles in Mesopotamia. In December 1916 the Battalion moved to a position east of the Turkish stronghold of Kut-al-Amarah, which it prepared to attack. In a great bend of the river there were two parallel lines of mounds about twenty feet high, and the area was known as the East Kut Mounds. The Turks held this bend of the river with two lines of trenches running from bank to bank.

On the evening of 22nd December Williamson (by then a Temporary Captain) led ‘A’ Company forward fifteen hundred yards and occupied without opposition a Turkish advanced post. This was wired and consolidated during the night. On the night of the 30th the Battalion was ordered to dig two communication trenches forward about three hundred yards to two ‘T heads’, or forward posts, about 600 yards from the Turkish main line. Williamson commanded the working party of 200 men. A vivid flash of lightning lit up the scene just as the working party was moving forward and the Turks poured in a heavy fire, killing one officer and three soldiers, and wounding Williamson and others. Nevertheless, the trenches and T heads were completed and occupied by dawn.

The attack was successful and by March 1917 both Kut and Baghdad had fallen. At the Battle of Jabal Hamrin on 25 March, the senior officers of the Battalion were severely wounded and Williamson assumed command, a post he held for a month.

In July 1917 the Battalion advanced to Falluja on the left bank of the Euphrates. Day temperatures were as high as 53 degrees C, at night they were over 40 degrees: water was in short supply. Towards the end of the month the Battalion was withdrawn to Baghdad, and spent August and September patrolling the railway line. Williamson was confirmed in the rank of Captain in October 1917.

In November 1917 the Battalion moved up by railway to Samarrah on the Tigris, and then advanced along the Tikrit road. The 1st Gurkhas remained in the Samarrah area until the end of the year. In March 1918 the Battalion marched back to Baghdad; it then proceeded by river craft and rail to Basra, and sailed for Suez, where it entrained for Palestine.

On arrival, Williamson and ‘D’ Company of the 1st Gurkhas were detached and transferred to form part of 4/11 Gurkhas, a new battalion. Williamson served for the rest of the war in Palestine and Egypt and was mentioned in dispatches for his distinguished service.

After being demobilized he returned to the Indian Civil Service and from 1919 to 1922 held various appointments in Bihar and Orissa. Shortly after his return he applied for a transfer to the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India, regarded as the elite of the Indian Civil Service, and in 1922 his application was accepted. He then held the following appointments: Secretary to the Resident, Mysore (November 1922); Undersecretary to the Resident, Hyderabad (February 1923); Secretary, Hyderabad (April, 1923); and Assistant Commissioner of the North West Frontier Province (January 1924).

Williamson found his real vocation in June 1924 when he was appointed British Trade Agent at Gyantse, Tibet and Assistant to the Political Officer in Sikkim. As The Times put it, “He quickly felt the attraction of the romance and mystery of what Lord Zetland has so well called “The Lands of the Thunderbolt” and his close study of the customs, folklore and languages of the people followed in the footsteps of Sir Charles Bell. He looked for and found the best side of Tibetan Lamaism; and his attachment to and trust in the men of Sikkim and Tibet were reciprocated.”

On arrival in Gyantse Williamson suffered a near-fatal fever, and his health remained poor during his two year term. However, he studied the Tibetan language and customs, made friends among Tibetans of all ranks, and consolidated his role as a member of the “Tibet Cadre”. Two years later he became Officiating Political Officer in Sikkim. In this capacity he was also responsible for relations with Bhutan. In 1927 he used his leave to visit China where he met the Panchen Lama, then in exile in a monastery in Manchuria following a dispute with the Dalai Lama.

Williamson penetrated deeper into the mazes of Central Asia when, in 1927, he was appointed Consul General at Kashgar. This was one of the cockpits of the “Great Game” and the old Silk Road city was still the focus of intrigues by Bolsheviks, Japanese agents, and warlords of different factions. During Williamson’s time at Kashgar the city was visited by a Swedish student who went on to become a distinguished diplomat and Central Asian scholar. ‘Coming to Kashgar in 1929 was like coming from the present to the Middle Ages,’ wrote Gunnar Jarring;

“There were no cars, no motorcycles, not even a bicycle. No electric lights illuminated the dark, narrow passages in the bazaar districts. There were no newspapers, no printed books – scribes sat cross-legged and copied manuscripts in neat Arabic characters. The water carrier walked around with his heavy load of water contained in a sheep or goat skin. Dyers hung their skeins of yarn on rods on top of the flat roofed mud houses. Their section of the bazaars was painted blue, yellow, red and mauve, and those cheerful colours were repeated in the clothes they were.”

In the spring of 1931 he returned to Sikkim as Officiating Political Officer. The following year he was deputed by the Government of India to act as their representative in a dispute over the boundary between Tibet and India, which had long been a source of friction. He travelled some hundreds of miles in the course of this investigation, much of the journey over country which had never before been traversed by Europeans.

In 1933 Williamson was confirmed in the post of Political Officer, Gangtok, and wrote the usual letter, formally advising the Dalai Lama of the change-over. The reply included an unsolicited invitation for him to visit Lhasa.

Before leaving, he had a personal matter to attend to. He married Margaret Dobie Marshall, later author of the book Memoirs of a Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. The newly-wed couple then visited Bhutan and crossed the country from west to east.

The Williamsons visited the Tibetan capital from 14 August to 4 October 1933 and Williamson was granted several audiences with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, known as the Great, the architect of independent Tibet. Williamson, a keen shooter, refrained from hunting whilst in Tibet and turned to cinema photography. His movies of the country and civilization of Tibet were of excellent quality for the day. He was a keen explorer and a founder member of the Himalayan Club. According to the Himalayan Journal (Volume 8, 1936): “It was largely owing to the influence and esteem in which he was held in Lhasa that the Tibetan authorities found themselves able to sanction the Mount Everest expeditions of 1935 and 1936.”

There was a divergence of views between Williamson and his seniors over Tibet. Tibet had enjoyed de facto independence from China since 1913 but the British Government had never recognised Tibet as a sovereign state. Williamson and most other Political Officers who served in the area wished to help Tibet preserve her independence and defend herself against China, both from sympathy with the Tibetans and because they believed this to be in the best interests of India and Great Britain. The Governments of Great Britain and India were wary of offending China and incurring unnecessary liabilities. As the chief of the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India wrote to Williamson in 1934, “the only real interest which we have in Tibet is the maintenance on the Indian frontier of a friendly Government which is unlikely to create disturbance within our borders.”

The death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama in December 1933 was followed by renewed Chinese efforts to re-assert their influence. In 1934 China sent General Huang Mu-Sung and a mission of about 80. He achieved an important success in obtaining Tibetan permission to leave behind an official in charge of a wireless station, thereby establishing an official Chinese presence in Lhasa after an absence of 22 years.

Asked for his views, Williamson reported, “The present situation in Tibet is critical. We have a government in Tibet which is not really united. Each man plays for himself and the country is not under one strong ruler as was the case while the Dalai Lama was alive. This Government is, however, most friendly to ourselves but is afraid of China. We have for years encouraged Tibet to rely on us, but we cannot give her one thing she really wants, a guarantee of protection against aggression on her Eastern frontier …… we should, I think, do what little we can. Our intentions are honest enough. We want her to be completely independent in substance even if she is merely “autonomous in name”.

At this juncture the Panchen Lama proposed to return to his seat of power, the Tashi Lhunpo monastery at Shigatse. The Chinese had exploited the dispute between Tibet’s two spiritual leaders for their own ends, and the Panchen Lama threatened to bring with him an escort of 300 or more Chinese troops. Tense negotiations between the Panchen Lama and the Tibetan Regent ensued, and the latter invited Williamson to visit Lhasa in the summer of 1935. The Williamson mission was intended to demonstrate that Britain was interested in Tibet and its problems.

Shortly before his departure for Lhasa, Williamson was found to be suffering from uraemia, a kidney disease for which there was no known cure. True to the values of his service, he insisted on proceeding. The mission included his wife, who later wrote “I too understood the needs of the service and it would never have occurred to me to try and deflect him from any course of action that he felt to be his duty.” In Lhasa Williamson’s health slowly deteriorated and on 17 November 1935 he died at the early age of 44. The mission departed from Lhasa and Williamson was buried at Gyantse, alongside the graves of the Younghusband expedition.

Award of the CIE had been gazetted in June 1935. On her return from Tibet the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, presented the insignia to his widow Margaret.

Williamson’s obituary in The Times reported, “Williamson was content to serve on the North East Frontier year after year with little regard to the fact that this greatly limited his chances of high promotion. Proposals of the Political Department to send him elsewhere, though made in his own interest, were unwelcome … It was a keen satisfaction to him to be deputed to Lhasa to negotiate a settlement between the Tibetan Government and the Tashi Lama... It may well be that if death was to claim him in the later years of his I.C.S. career he would have wished nothing better than to end his days where his heart was – amid the eternal snows of Tibet.”

Sold with detailed research including a copy of Memoirs of a Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan by Margaret D. Williamson, published 1987 and profusely illustrated. Williamson’s papers, photographs and films are held by the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Some are now accessible online (http://www.digitalhimalaya.com/collections/williamson/).