The British Expedition in Tibet
In 1903 the British used the British Indian Army to invade Tibet, then ruled by China, to enforce their demands regarding the border between Sikkim and Tibet and to receive assurances from the Dalai Lama and Chinese government that Tibet would not be placed under the influence of the Russian Empire. The reasons for the invasion were based on rumors that the Chinese intended to allow the Russians to occupy Tibet, which had no basis in fact. The British had recently acquired Burma and Sikkim (which bordered Tibet) through military conquest and wanted to ensure that the Russian Empire’s interests in East Asia were held at bay.
In the summer of 1903, the Russian government informed the British Empire that it had no interest in Tibet, but the British preparations for the invasion were well underway, and they saw no reason to call it off. This was in part a response to the decision of the Dalai Lama not to negotiate the border with Sikkim with British officials in India. British army officer Francis Younghusband was placed in command of the expedition. In December 1903 the Tibetans discovered some Nepalese yaks that had strayed over the border into Tibet, and they sent the animals and their drovers back to Nepal. To the British, this was a sufficient provocation to invade.
The expedition was undertaken by units of the British Indian Army, which carried modern machine guns and repeating rifles. They were opposed by Tibetan militia, armed with muzzle loading matchlock muskets of ancient vintage, and amulets which their priests had assured them would protect them from harm. When the advancing British encountered about 3,000 of the Tibetans who were blocking the road but refused to either move or open fire, they used a feint to induce a shot from the Tibetans and then opened fire, continuing to fire and advance as the Tibetans fled, following the urging of one British officer who told his men to “…bag as many as possible.” Over 700 Tibetans were killed, the British had twelve wounded.
When word of the massacre reached England the public reaction was dismay, and the government remained as quiet as possible over the event, which had been witnessed by several reporters. The Expedition reached Chang Lo and went into garrison to await representatives from the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans attacked the garrison and were repulsed. This was received in London with alarm and additional troops were dispatched to support the expedition. As the British Indian Army moved through Tibet its troops looted and pillaged, which though banned by the rules of warfare under the Hague Convention was largely ignored by the Expedition’s officers.
The Expedition came to an end when the representatives of the Dalai Lama (who had fled to China) were forced to sign the terms dictated by Younghusband, which included the Tibetans paying an indemnity for the privilege of being invaded by the British, and a proviso that Tibet could not establish diplomatic relations with any other foreign power, making Tibet a protectorate of the British Empire. The treaty was later amended through a treaty between Britain and China in which the British agreed not to annex Tibetan territory in exchange for cash from the Chinese Qing Dynasty. Despite the receipt of the payment, British Indian Army troops continued to occupy parts of Tibet until 1908.