Frank Kingdon-Ward Biography

A brief interruption

Part 4, 1914 - 1918
"...anyone old enough to remember that war - the wholesale slaughter, the gradual blackenning of the London streets, as mothers, wives, daughters, sweethearts went into mourning, the long daily lists in the Times - will undestand..."
Winifred Kingdon Ward, on why she and her mother hoped that Frank would not, despite several requests, be sent to the Western Front.
The 1914 expedition to Kachin state, Burma

The year 1914 is indelibly etched on most schoolboy's minds as the start of the first world war, but this had not started yet, and in the spring of that year Frank's concerns were more focused on the trouble between a post Xinhai revolutionary Chinese republic and it's neighbour, and longtime foe, Tibet. Their enmity prevented Frank from exploring across the border from the former to the latter leaving him frustrated in his efforts to chart new territory. As has been stated before, plant collecting was simply a means to an end. He needed finance to mount an expedition and backers would pay him to collect plants but not to make maps or write about tribal custom and dress.

Meanwhile the British empire had pushed back its boundaries at this time further into Burma, establishing a permanent base at Fort Hertz,*1 and Frank decided that he would now focus his attention on this newly opened up region of northern Burma. So towards the end of April only a month after departing from Myitkyina by train to Rangoon he was back on the return journey. This time his objective was an area known as the "triangle" bounded by the two main tributaries of the Irawaddy,*2 namely the N'mai hka and the Mali hka.*2

Rhododendron dendricola flowers.
Rhododendron dendricola flowers. For more info and high resolution images see

The route took him first up the N'mai hka, the eastern of the two main tributaries and then onto a tributary of that called Ngawchang hka, where on 11th May at an altitude of around 7,000 - 8,000 feet he discovered an epiphytic rhododendron Rhododendron dendricola KW 01538

The following day 12th May he reached Htawgaw fort and almost a week later Hpimaw fort, where he became the guest of Captain J.E. Cruickshank.

The expedition is described in Frank's book In Farthest Burma which was not published until 1921 and encompasses expeditions on either side of the Great War. As is common with Frank's writing, a great deal of space is given over to descriptions of the landscape, plants, and people, encountered. You could let the book fall open at almost any page and discover beautiful prose such as this.

Grey granite, knotted and corrugated, pleated and crumpled into bewildering tangles, and again hacked through and through by destructive storm waters; stark cliffs of limestone overshadowing the valleys; slopes here clad with rain-drenched forest, elsewhere so steep and rocky that nothing but rank grass and desperate grapple-rooted trees find foothold in the short soil; and on a bleak, windy shoulder where a spur, sweeping down from the crest of the range, has broken its back and tumbled away in agony to the deep valley of the brawling Ngawchang hka, blocking the path to China, stands Hpimaw fort.

... or this ...

Tearing our way through thickets of silver-leafed and waxen-stemmed raspberries, which cover the mountains in astonishing variety, we soon plunged into a forest of rhododendron, laden with heavy trusses of crimson, scarlet, pink, white, and yellow flowers, like huge coloured balls. Here in the depth of the jungle massive-stemmed conifers shoot upwards in all the pride of their great strength and, outstripping every rival, spread protecting arms over all the forest.

Frank spent some time exploring from this base and learning much about the local tribes and flora, as well as learning Burmese from the fort interpreter "A wizened, but agile, old Chinaman". He worked tirelessly towards any goal that might make him a better explorer; learning local languages, learning how to make maps and charts, although he could be quite modest and self critical at times. As if to underline his relative mastery of languages, however, there is a passage in the book in which Cruickshank (the fort commandant who is based there permanently) has to ask Frank to negotiate on a purchase. The negotiations take two pages to relate, as the Chinese way of bargaining owes more to small talk than ordinary haggling. Frank exchanges pleasantries with the lady that encompass a wide variety of topics, including the price of other items that he has no interest in buying, the lady's home town, and all sorts of other subjects, before they finally alight on a price of three rupees and eight annas, (16 annas to a rupee)

First ascent of Imaw bum

On 22nd June, Frank set out with his two Chinese servants, eight Lashi porters and a Yawyin guide that they picked up en route, with the purpose of reaching the summit of Imaw Bum (given as 13,371' in WKW's biography : A little over 4,020 metres based on Google maps)

Imaw Bum, Kachin State, Burma (myanmar) July 1916, view from somewhere near Hpimaw fort.
Imaw Bum, Kachin State, Burma (myanmar) July 1916, view from somewhere near Hpimaw fort

During this part of the expedition Frank had a relapse of malarial fever and had to be carried by some of his porters to the next camp. These fits of fever would come and go throughout his life, and yet never stopped his work for long. The weather also conspired against him and one particular storm came close to claiming his life. It had been a warm sunny day and they pitched camp on a spur of the mountain they were climbing. However, the evening brought a terrific storm. Here is Frank's own description of events.

At Dusk there came a mutter of thunder, and the clear sunset sky clouded over rapidly. Louder and louder grew the thunder, and with it the wind rose.
Within five minutes of the first warning a terrific storm rushed upon us, with brilliant flashes of lightning and drenching rain. The wind tore madly at the tent, and it looked as if it might be lifted bodily up at any moment. I was grovelling inside the little bathroom annexe at the back of the tent, tightening ropes, when there came a sudden crash, followed by a rending sound; at the same moment a shower of branches rattled down and half the tent collapsed! A forty foot tree had fallen across it.
I crawled out from the wreckage into the main part of the tent. The centre pole, bent like a bow, still held, and one of the support poles leaned at a drunken angle - indeed the tent might collapse bodily if I did not look sharp.

It may seem amazing to the modern reader that a forty foot tree could fall onto a tent and not crush it completely but it held for two reasons, firstly it was a typical tent of the era, with two thick upright poles and a ridge pole similarly stout, lashed with numerous thick guy ropes to surrounding trees or thick wooden tent pegs where space allowed.
Secondly the tree itself was so tangled up with other trees, and with all the other creepers that festooned the canopy, that its fall onto the ridge pole was very much broken.
Along with several porters, Frank was able to cut the tree free from the tent and repitch the tent before crawling back inside for the night.

Blarinella wardii species of shrew discovered by Frank Kingdon-Ward.
Blarinella wardii For more info see

However on 29th June, a week after setting out, with Frank having been laid low with fever for most of the time, they retreated down the mountain, Frank being borne in a makeshift bamboo chair, and returned to the fort on the following day, 30th June.
A second attempt on the peak was made, starting out about a week later, and on the 16th of July the party reached the summit; the first recorded ascent of the peak. He was also rewarded with two possibly new plants Primula coryphaea (given as a new species but now an unresolved name) and Rhododendron nmaiense (which I can't find at all)
Fairly often Frank's new species have subsequently been reclassified or have turned out to be the same as previously collected specimens, and while this is probably not surprising it did cause him considerable distress when so many of his best finds were revealed to belong to earlier collectors) At least a little later he was able to collect a new species of shrew Blarinella wardii

Starting for home

It was now August and the First World War had already begun on 28th July, but any news that reached this far outpost of the British empire was already six weeks old. Frank decided to make a return to civilisation but he decided to return via Assam, heading first north and then eastwards, via Fort Hertz, instead of taking the direct route south via Myitkina.
As had been the case throughout, the party was plagued by creatures trying to feast on their blood; leeches, horse-flies, and sand-flies being the main culprits.
At least once Frank slipped and fell, and almost went over a substantial cliff. In the darkness he had to wait until a porter arrived with a burning torch to reveal that he had only been saved by a tree growing on the edge of the drop.
They were also almost constantly wet, or at least damp, the rain holding off only long enough to get moderately dry before closing in again. One storm in particular on the 12th of September was described thus.

Quite suddenly it burst upon us with awful fury, the wind blowing with hurricane force. Now the lightning blazed incessantly, flash following flash with such rapidity that we could see everything - bending trees, whirling leaves, and the dark outline of brooding mountains; and to the continuous roll of thunder, like heavy artillery, was added the shriller rattle of drenching rain as it beat viciously on the stiff palm leaves.
The storm simply crashed down on to the village from the mountains, as though someone was tipping barrels full of water and compressed air on top of us.
Water poured through the thatched roof of our hut, bringing with it dirt and leaves which it splashed everywhere, quenching the fires and soaking our belongings.

The hut next to Frank's had been completely flattened by the wind. Informed that there were still people inside he crawled through the wreckage in search of survivors but it turned out that all the occupants had already got out.

Frank finally hears news of the war

On September the 22nd the party finally reached a far flung outpost of the empire and Frank laid eyes on another Englishman for the first time in months. After a hot bath and a shave he set about drinking innumerable cups of tea, and demolishing considerable quantities of ham and eggs before getting down to discovering what news there was of home.
His host, Captain Conry, said,
"You know about the war, I suppose?"
"The war? Not China? Or do you mean civil war in Ireland at last?"
"No," he said, staring; "England, France, and Russia against Germany and Austria!"

News of the war was still scant and unreliable, but at the time it was generally believed that is would "all be over by Christmas" Frank wondered if he had left it too late, and cursed himself for taking a longer route home than was necessary. Nevertheless he undertook to return as quickly as possible and on 23rd September set out for Fort Hertz, arriving on the 28th having cut the march from six to five days. On the following day he succumbed once again to fever and was unable to depart for a further two months.

View FKW 1914 expedition in a larger map
On "Active" Service

Finally, in December 1914 he reached Rangoon and was able to apply for a commission in the Indian Army reserves, joining as a second Lieutenant. However he was unable to see any active service, despite straining at the leash to get to the front. He was posted to Victoria Point, right at the most southerly tip of Burma, and given censorship duties in Burma, and promoted to 1st Lieutenant on December 31st 1915. He was enormously frustrated by the lack of anything productive to do for the war effort, but at least he was able to keep himself busy with furthering his chosen career. Drawing plans for future expeditions, continuing with learning languages, and much more. He also wrote copiously as always; letters, diary entries, and a large part of "In Farthest Burma".

Since Frank's own books concentrate purely on matters of exploration and or horticulture it is necessary to refer copiously to Winifred's unpublished biography to guide oneself through the war years. She makes it clear that, although his military duties were ridiculously light, he was at least able to keep active, participating in sports, and having an active social life.
Despite a frustrating lack of enemy soldiers with whom to exchange fire, he did still see a certain amount of adventure. There was a foray against a crocodile which resulted in him almost drowning in a mangrove swamp; a daring rescue of a native who had been attacked by four men, who he chased on horseback and handed over to the authorities; and a successful hunt of a rogue elephant.
He was attacked by a huge army, numbering in millions, of red ants, and in saving himself from them he was bitten on the finger by a large chameleon. He describes mosquitoes like a London fog, falling headlong into prickly palms, and several close encounters with deadly snakes. All in all, he seems to have been scarcely safer than if he had been at The Somme or Paschendale.
The Gurkhas, who were not under his direct command, were not, seemingly, representative of the breed as we have come to know it today. These men were apparently lazy and disinterested. On one occasion Frank went with a small group in a boat across the straits to Ranong, which is in Thailand, for some R&R. On their return the men were somewhat drunk and the boat was found to have sunk to the bottom of the harbour. As a result they were forced to sleep where they were, as recovering the boat in darkness was proving impossible.

Posting to Mesopotamia

Throughout 1915 and most of 1916, he remained in Burma, hoping that he might get a posting to the front. Then towards the end of 1916 he was finally posted but only as far as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) where he was made acting Captain. Many of his letters home refer to requests to be sent to the front line, and bemoaning the fact that so many of his friends were achieving glory fighting for King and country, and having that glorious epitaph "Killed in action" carved on their gravestones. It is truly beyond my imagining to conceive of how anybody could be champing at the bit to participate in such a wholesale slaughter, Winifred writes from the perspective of someone of that era and says this.

It is not surprising, to anyone who knew Frank, that he was always hoping to get into the fighting line. But anyone old enough to remember that war - the wholesale slaughter, the gradual blackening of the London streets, as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, sweethearts went into mourning, the long daily lists of the killed in 'The Times' - will understand that the one thing we at home hoped was that this particular wish of his should remain unfulfilled. We had lost friend after friend and we dreaded to see the papers. Those who went to the front had a much less than fifty-fifty chance of survival, and a 'Blighty one' came to be for most of them the one hope...

Now in Mesopotamia, the possibility of a front line engagement with the Turks gave him hope but in fact he was to be denied even this. He wrote as always frequent and lengthy letters to his sister, who quotes them at length in her biography. In one, dated 16th November 1917 he writes,

... you are seeing much more of the war than I am with aeroplanes dropping bombs on your heads every day. I have been nearly a year in Mesopotamia and I haven't yet seen a shot fired in anger. Of course I am lucky not to have done so, but it makes one feel a fraud nevertheless...

Ironically, as it turns out, Frank could not have spoken truer words, since Winifred did in fact spend some time, towards the end of the war, in France "on active service" serving teas, and playing the piano for the British Expeditionary Force. She remained there until the spring of 1919, when she fell victim to the influenza epidemic that swept the world at that time, and was invalided home.
Frank, for his part, was promoted to full captain in December 1918; and shortly thereafter demobilised. However, instead of returning home, which his sister had fully expected, he returned almost immediately to exploration. Heading straight back to the "triangle" where he had been at the outbreak of war, again based at Hpimaw. Some of this expedition found its way into 'The Romance of Plant Hunting' 1924.

Frank Kingdon-Ward Biography