Third Afghan War - 1919
So that the reader can form an opinion as to the importance of the Relief of Thal, it is proposed to give an outline of the events which preceded the participation of the battalion in the 3rd Afghan War.
The Amir Habibullah (Siraj-ul-millat-Wad-Din)
* "Confronted with
this position, it appears that Amanulla's general plan of campaign was to
operate in three areas :
* Extracted from review of
"Military On-Looker" in "Pioneer," Sunday, June 8th,
"The command of the first of these
was entrusted to General Saleh Mohammed, who concentrated his main force
on our frontier near Landi Kotal early in May, only to be severely
defeated at Dakka on the 17th after tasting smaller doses of the same
medicine on the 9th and 11th. A smaller column of the same command,
operating from Asmar, invaded Chitral territory, but was repulsed and
forced to retreat on to its base. A
third section, consisting of about
1,000 regulars with a few
guns, advanced to within 15 miles
of Shabkadr, in an attempt to raise the Mohmands but, failing, fell back
within its own borders.
"In the Southern Area the British
troops successfully took the offensive and by capturing Spin Baldak Fort,
dominated the situation on this line."
The course of events in the centre
area-so far as the Afghan side was concerned-was obscure for some time
after the commencement of hostilities, and in the opinion of a
semi-official chronicler, writing contemporaneously, the earlier actions
of General Nadir Khan, who commanded the Afghan troops and irregulars
operating from Gardez, lacked decision.
"At the beginning of May, there
were rumours of Afghan troops moving to Khost and Nadir Khan was reported
to have visited the Afghan cantonments of Ali Khel-West of the Paiwar
Kotal and Gardez. Some Afghan troops and tribesmen were also sent to
picquet the hills South of the Kurram, just within the Khost border. On
the 13th May, Afghan regulars with a few guns occupied the crest of Paiwar
ridge, but did not encroach into our territory....
"Finally, on the 21st May, Nadir
Khan arrived with reinforcements at Matun, the capital of Khost, bringing
the force at that place up to about nine battalions, two cavalry regiments
and some artillery.
was issued to the
Khostwala, and lashkars from
the tribes of Southern Khost approached our border in the
"It appears that on the 24th May a
combined advance of Afghan troops and lashkars commenced towards our
border and, in accordance with the arrangements previously
made in view of such a
contingency, our exposed militia posts in the Upper Tochi and on the
"The action to be taken with regard
to these small isolated frontier posts always presents a difficult problem
in time of war. When hostilities begin, they are unable to hold out for
any length of time and so, as they cannot be abandoned to their fate, it
becomes a question of withdrawing them or sending a comparatively large
force to relieve them. The latter course is so obviously unsound from the
military point of view that withdrawal is the only solution, although the
disturbing effect which such withdrawal has on the independent tribes,
cannot be ignored."
Nadir Khan's next effort was directed
against Thal, where he appeared on the 27th May. He occupied the hills
west and south of that place and started shelling it. Here, as in the
north, the Afghan's commander's intention appears to have been to incite a
general rising of the tribes, without which he could hardly hope for
He wasted little time in developing his
attack and, posting his artillery (which consisted of seven 75s. and two
10cm. howitzers), at various detached points, he com menced a desultory
shelling of the Fort and the piles of stores, fodder, etc., which were in
the open spaces round about. Thal Fort is, or at any rate was in those
days, one of the usual pattern, consisting chiefly of a smooth-faced,
fairly high, thick mud wall with semi-armoured machine gun turrets at the
corners. One face is well protected by dropping almost sheer into the
this period the garrison was a mixed one, more especially in view of the
fact that it was largely used as a stopping place for lorries between
Kohat and Parachinar. At the time it was invested, Captain Hambly, who was
seconded from the Londons and attached to the Mechanical Transport, was in
the Fort, as were also other ex-members of the battalion who were acting
as lorry drivers and, according to them, matters were decidedly
It is now necessary to go back a few
days to trace the battalion's movements to Thal. Although
is conflict on this point. Ian
Colvin, in his " General Dyer " (p. 219),
speaking of the
**On this same day the
remainder of the draft of 200 ex-Londons attached to the 1/9th
Middlesex, set out on a punitive expedition in
In addition to the Londons, many native
troops and details were also quartered in the vicinity but, although there
was running water on one side of the camp, no bathing or washing was
allowed in it and everyone had to use a single stand pipe, with two taps
attached, for all washing and culinary purposes. As can be imagined,
congestion at certain times of the day was not unknown at this spot.
On the 7th May, the day after war had
been declared, information was received that the Afghan postmaster, who
had not been interned, had, in conjunction with the Indian Revolutionary
At the best of times the population of
Peshawar is a conglomerate one, shifting and changing in its very nature
week by week and season by season, owing to the fact that it is the first
city touched on by the caravans coming southward through the Khyber Pass
and the last port of call of those travelling northward to the various
parts of Central Asia.
In this mixture of Pathans, Punjabis,
Moslems, Afghans, Persians, Sikhs and Hindus, it was an impossible task to
attempt combing out the malcontents from the genuine traders, and it was
therefore decided to hold them all within the confines of the city by
posting substantial picquets at all the gates. This did not prevent free
movement by individuals, but was calculated to stop anything in the
nature of a mob movement. These picquets were augmented at 6 o'clock each
evening by every available white soldier. So far as the
After having carried on this monotonous
task for about forty-eight hours, the Londons were relieved by that most
unlucky of all battalions, the 1/1st Kents, which, having marched many
weary miles and carried out very arduous duties in Waziristan in 1917
without firing a single shot, had, on this occasion, only just returned
from a long forced march in the Shabkdr direction after an enemy which had
proved too elusive. Thus once
more they had done a lot of work without tangible recompense in the shape
On this day, the 28th
The scene which followed beggars
description. The mules were in the usual strings of six or eight, each led
by a half-witted drabi [Native
driver or muleteer.] The camels
(the beloved "oonts" of Kipling's poem) were likewise in
strings, each with its customary semi-mutinous Pathan. The only
illumination available consisted of a few doubtful hurricane lamps, and it
is safe to say that the racecourse had never witnessed weirder sights than
it saw that evening. In the
darkness it was impossible to tell whether it was the first, third or last
animal of a string which was being loaded, so that frequently a preceding
animal would be finished and given a kick as an intimation that it could
proceed on its way, with the result that those following it would also
start. Races there may have been round that course, but few as interesting
or exciting as those which occurred that night when camels and mules
rushed around like mad, with loads festooned about them.
One casualty, only, was reported and
that was to a lance-corporal whose fore-arm got into juxtaposition with a
camel's mouth. He was taken to hospital and lacked interest in the
remainder of the battalion's frontier activities.
The final move to the station was made
soon after midnight and the
Shortly after arrival, Col. Hynes,
following his invariable practice of taking the men into his confidence so
far as was wise, outlined the position. It was only then that the
battalion first learned its objective. Definite orders had not, at that
time, been received for the advance but, before Col. Hynes had completed
his talk, a Staff Officer handed him his instructions, as a result of
which entrainment was carried out, on the 30th May, on the Kohat-Thal
narrow guage railway as far as Togh, 26 miles from
H.Qrs. 45th Infantry Brigade. Infantry
1 Squadron, 37th Lancers.
Four I5-pounders, Frontier Garrison
1 Section, No. 23 Mountain
Section, No. 57 Coy., 1st Sappers and Miners.
1 Section Pack Wireless.
1 Armoured Motor
250 Rifles, 57th Rifles, F.F.
1 Company 2/4th Border Regiment.
The 100 men who had been left at
The country traversed was imposing in
geographical character but unfriendly in political tone. Some of the
escort reported sniping but, at the time of writing this history, .no
confirmation of this is obtainable. The lorries were tiltless and the day
hot, with the result that some heat stroke cases had to be admitted to
hospital on arrival at Kohat, where the rest of the escort slept the night
on the ground outside the barrack buildings.
In the morning the escort proceeded by
lorries as far as Hangu, which is about 26 miles along the road to Thal,
where numerous details destined for the Thal Relief Force were picked up.
With a view to joining the main column, which was forming at Togh, 8 miles
further on, these details marched, starting at 5.30 in the afternoon, so
as to be ready for the forward movement in the morning. The London's
detachment formed the rearguard of this column, and in consequence did not
get in until 1 o'clock in the morning and was not then pleased to hear
that reveille was to be at 2.30 a.m., and that it would have to be content
with one mug of tea per man (without milk or sugar) for supper and,
failing a miracle, with the same for breakfast. Subsequently, reveille was
ordered for 3.20 a.m., but even this concession did not appear over
generous to the sluggards.
It should be mentioned that, at Hangu, a
weak company of the 2/4th Border Regiment (T.F.), with 2 Lewis guns, under
Capt. Anderson, was met and, for the remainder of the campaign, this very
welcome addition acted with, and as an extra company to, the Londons.
Notice must also be taken
of an addition to the gun-power of the column. General Dyer, who was
responsible for the formation of the Force and the conduct of the
operations, had realised the importance of artillery and decided to
augment the 89th Battery, R.F.A., and one section (2
guns) of the 23rd Mountain
Battery at his disposal, by four old South African War period 15-pounders
which, with two others, comprised the artillery at Kohat Fort. These guns,
manned by the Frontier Garrison Artillery, having no limbers or horses, he
utilised seven of his motor lorries for dragging them and to carry the
gunners and ammunition. It is not out of place to say that the sight of
these lorries, winding along the road to Thai, followed by over fifty
others, which they believed also pulled guns, materially helped to
intimidate the Afghans and their allies, a few days later.
The whole force consisted of; certainly, not more than 2,000 effective rifles,* although with 62 3-ton lorries, numerous non-effectives and hordes of camp followers, it was made to look quite imposing.
* This estimate is
confirmed by Ian Colvin who, in his "General Dyer," p. 2x8,
states : "The strength of the infantry was about 2,000 men."
At Togh, on the morning of the 31st,
while still dark, an unusual condition was noticed. Whereas the day shade
temperatures were in the region of 120
degrees, there was a ground frost
on this night which, not unnaturally, caught the troops unprepared, but
too surprised to be resentful. (It may be taken for granted that their
grumble would have been directed against the Higher Command-not the still
more elevated Authority which controls the weather.)
On the forced march of seventeen miles
which was commenced at 4 a.m., it would be incorrect to say that the
Turning to a description appearing in
"General Dyer," by Ian Colvin, we find the following :
"At Togh, the General addressed his
troops, exhorting them to make a great effort to rescue their comrades at
Thal. His words touched the hearts of that strangely assorted force of
veterans and war levies, Punjabi peasants, and
** Major W. S. Stafford.
The Captain Briggs referred to was, of
course, Captain F. C. Briggs, D.S.O., whom the battalion had known so long
as Brigade-Major. He died but a short time later, though after the
battalion had left
After a short rest, the perimeter was
built round the camp, picquets were posted and the signallers spoke to
Thal from a visual station at
On the morning of June 1st, General Dyer
decided to attempt the relief of Thal, which was believed to be invested
by 23,000 men* and, as if to
emphasise the smallness of his force, he decided to take only 100 of the
white infantry with all the Lewis guns, leaving the remainder of the
Londons and Borders in camp as Force Reserve. A distance of nine miles had
to be covered but, when six of these had been completed, the action proper
commenced. The column had moved off at 5 o'clock with the Londons acting
as a rearguard, thus relieving them, to a large extent, of the onerous
duty of picquetting the hills to cover the advance, but directly the
action commenced, with the artillery shelling the valley in front of the
Fort followed by a "searching and sweeping" fire on to a high
* Definite information as
to the enemy's numbers cannot be expected. At the time, General Dyer gave
them as 23,000, but he may have been including the Orakzais and Zaimukhts
(the first of whom, alone, were
estimated to be capable of mustering 20,000 fighting men.-
See Ian Colvin's "General Dyer," p. 214).
By four o'clock the heights were taken
by the Punjabis, with the loss of only four men wounded.
There is one incident
which stands out very prominently in the minds of those who had the good
fortune to witness it. The R.F.A.
Battery was concentrating its fire to cover the attack on the Wazir Hills,
when news was brought to the
Officer Commanding that an enemy gun, situated on a hill a little to the
left of Khapianga, by its frequent shrapnel, was annoying the
long-suffering infantry which was, at that time, lying out in extended
order a little in advance of the plateau from which General Dyer was
directing operations. The O.C. immediately gave orders for one of the guns
to detach and go round the spur of the hill to see whether it could locate
and silence the offender. A very young subaltern was sent in charge. The
presumed position being pointed out to him, he gave the order to unlimber,
decided on the range and fired once. Even without glasses it was apparent
that it was one of those lucky flukes which happen so seldom, for it was
obvious that he had scored a direct hit with this, his only shot.
Without giving a second glance, he
issued the order to limber up and galloped back to the battery, trying to
give the impression that he was in the habit of doing things of this
nature every day of the week.
At about this time,
contact with the Fort was established by a small party of "A"
Company of the
The following account, culled from the
"Civil and Military Gazette" of June 8th, amplifies the
foregoing narrative in certain particulars :
"The latest information available
from Thal shows that the enemy fell back immediately on the approach of
our relief force, whose appearance apparently came as a surprise. This was
undoubtedly due to the rapidity with which the column advanced.
"The operation was in the hands of
a well-known thruster, who got his advance guard, consisting of two
regiments, well past Doaba before the enemy was aware of his proximity.
Animal transport being too slow for this affair, motor transport was
employed to fetch up rations and kit.
Meanwhile, the main body came rapidly along behind marching through
a fertile valley, where the villagers were gathering crops and following
their regular pursuits regardless of the fact that there was a war on.
When our guns opened fire, the enemy retired in two directions:
some going South and South-west in the direction of Spinwam, while those
who had been firing into Thal from the high hills to the North retreated
in the direction of Maduri.
Our guns gave them a good peppering and their flight was
accelerated by the activity of our aeroplanes, which put in some very
effective work with bombs and machine guns, particularly on Maduri and on
the reverse slopes of Khadimaka.
"A Gurkha regiment got round an
enemy column inflicting heavy
casualties and capturing the Afghan standard, which was carried
triumphantly into Thal. When the enemy had been dispersed, the troops of
the invested garrison were given another and unexpected thrill by a race
between an armoured car and an aeroplane for the privilege of being first
to enter Thal. The armoured car driver let out at top speed, making
straight for the landing ground. The aeroplane led slightly but lost time
in the descent with the result that both appeared to arrive
simultaneously. While they were arguing the point, the enemy, who had got
the range of the landing ground to a nicety, dropped a shell which fell
immediately between the contestants, stopping all further argument. The
car dashed off in one direction while the aeroplane ascended and went in
search of the Afghans.
It was generally noted that the armoured car was first in.
"Later in the day, an aeroplane
discovered the enemy concentrating near Spinwam and promptly bombed them,
on which the Afghans retreated further South."
On the next morning-June 2nd-activities
were directed against the enemy who still held the hills which stretched
in a semi-circle to the north of the Fort and to the right of the plateau.
The heat on this day was scarcely
bearable, and by 2 o'clock in the afternoon over thirty cases of heat
stroke had occurred among the already decimated
The enemy, by this time, had retreated
across the river and Thal was finally and completely relieved. It is
apparent, from subsequent accounts, that some time during this day Nadir
Khan received information of the Amir's appeal for a cessation of
hostilities. He pitched his camp at Yusuf Khel and received a visit,
either on the ist or 2nd June, from one of our aeroplanes, which
successfully bombed him. On the evening of the 2nd, orders were circulated
that the G.O.C., General Dyer, was going to inspect the column the next
morning, but this was cancelled at the last moment and instead he took
*100 white ranks-73 of the Borders and 27 of the Londons with 4 Lewis
guns-in motor lorries to act, apparently, as artillery escort and
proceeded on the main road towards Parachinar. About a mile past the Fort,
at a point on the opposite bank of the river to Pir Kasta, a small
village, the enemy had trenched the road, presumably with a view to
preventing any sudden forays by the armoured cars. While repairs were
being executed, a member of the frontier militia brought certain information
to the General which caused him to change his plans. The battery and
lorries were left where they stood while the G.U.C., his staff with an
escort of six native cavalry and the white troops forded the Kurram river,
the left bank of which, at this point, flanks the road. The only way of
crossing was for parties of twelve or more to link arms and trust to some
few at a time keeping their feet, so that all were not washed away by the
very rapid current. The water was only a little over waist high at the
deepest points, but keeping all rifles and Lewis guns-to say nothing of
heads and shoulders-above water so far as possible, taxed the strength and
balancing powers of the men to the utmost.
* The Official Account,
dealing with this minor operation, incorrectly gives the infantry employed
as: "60 rifles, 1/25th
On the opposite bank, the troops were
advanced in extended order for about three miles until, rounding a spur,
they came suddenly upon the deserted Afghan headquarters camp, which
showed every sign of having been very recently and rapidly vacated. A few
wounded and dead had been left behind, but the former were so near joining
the latter that little or no information could be gained from them
although, since the departure of the Afghans, looting by some party had
Gun-carriages, complete except for the
actual barrels, boxes of unused and expended shell ammunition and even the
complete medical stores were left. The despatch panniers yielded useful
information and until these had received a cursory examination, together
with other papers found in the tents, the troops were not allowed to start
All the tents were struck and, together
with the stores, were collected ready for transport back to the Fort
before the column returned towards the
Arrived back at Pir Kasta, the G.O.C.
halted under some large trees outside the village and, calling on the
inhabitants, demanded that they should produce all drinking water which
they had. When this was produced the troops, discerning its nature-it was
nearly as thick as treacle were very pleased to note that the M.O. was
still with the rearguard, which had not yet arrived, as they felt sure
that, once he saw it, their chances of even mouth-swilling would be
remote. General Dyer, with a somewhat dubious smile, had a drink, and the
rank and file were not slow in following his example. The smile of the
medical officer, when he arrived, was still more dubious, but thirst
appeared to get the better of even his trained cautiousness and he also
In the meantime the General had sent for
the lambadar (headman) of the village and carried on a conversation with
him in the local dialect. The G.O.C. was noted as being one of the finest
The next day, the Battery with the
The next two days were noteworthy only
because the white troops received their first and second doses of cholera
inoculation, the complaint itself having broken out rather seriously among
the native troops quartered in, and near the Fort. The following was
posted on the 8th June :
OF THE DAY.
"The following copy of a telegram
from Hd.-Qrs. North-West Frontier Force,
'Please transmit the following to Genl. Dyer :
The Force Commander congratulates Genl. Dyer and all ranks which formed the THAL RELIEF COLUMN under his command on the success of their operations.
The march of the Column to Thal was
carried out-with the greatest celerity and under the most trying conditions,
and its success redounds to the credit of the Column.
The Force Commander has only recently
received details of the fine manner in which the march was carried out.'
"The General Officer commanding the
late THAL_ RELIEF COLUMN wishes
this message to be conveyed to every man in the late RELIEF
It was here that, for the first and only
time during the battalion's stay in
Towards the end of July a
move was made by train to
Peace negotiations opened on the 26th July with Sir A. Hamilton Grant, K.C.S.I., representing the Government, and Sardar Ali Ahmed Khan, as President of the Afghan delegation. The Treaty was finally signed on the morning of August 8th, 1919, which corresponded to the 11th Ziqada 1337 Hijra in the Mohammedan Calendar. By the terms of this treaty, the British Government, to mark its displeasure, withdrew from Amanulla the privilege enjoyed by former Amirs of importing arms, ammunition or other war-like materials through India to Afghanistan. In addition, the arrears of the late Amir's subsidy were confiscated and no subsidy whatever granted to his successor.
The Afghan Government was also forced to accept the frontier line which had been recognised by the late Amir and agreed to accept such boundary, as the British Commission should lay down, regarding the undemarcated portion of the line west of the Khyber, where the recent Afghan aggression had taken place. As a guarantee of this, the British troops were to remain in their positions until this line had been defined. To show its conciliatory attitude, however, the British Government agreed to receive an Afghan mission at any time, after a period of six months had elapsed, to discuss and settle matters of common interest to the two Governments, with a view to the re-establishment of the old friendship on a satisfactory basis.
From 'The London Cycle Battalion'
Read more on the British conflict on the North West Frontier :- The Army in India & Frontier Warfare 1914-1939.
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