Waziristan Campaign 1917
'From my point of view.'
The Diary of Private H. Parker
The first time we ever took an interest in frontier affairs, was at Burhan. In January 1917 we started on our Divisional Manouvres which were to last a fortnight. We only completed two days when several battalions of the Division were hastily despatched by train, to an unknown destination, which afterwards turned out to be Tank, a f station on the Waziristan Frontier. These troops were sent to support the garrison at Tank, who were having troubles with the Mahsuds, the inhabitants of Warizistan. Of course the manoeuvres were abandoned and we returned to camp. During the remainder of our stay at Burhan several lectures were given by some of the staff of our brigade on Warizistan also we underwent a test called Kitchener's Test. It was very severe consisting of a 22 mile route march over rough country and an attack with ball ammunition. The Londons went through well and I believe that fact effected our future movements considerably.
In March we left Burhan for Jullundur and forgot all about the forgoing. "A" Company only stayed there a week or two and were then sent to Dalohousie in the hills. In the meantime the troops sent to Tank had returned to their stations without having carried out any punitive measures.
After a pleasant 3 weeks at Dalhousie orders arrived for us to be prepared to move at a minutes notice and everything, except absolute necessary had to be packed. We existed in this state for a further week and then had orders to move on the 22nd of May. Of course everyone was surmising what was happening and frontier trouble was the general idea. On the 22nd we started our 50 mile route march to the railhead at Pathancote, and from there by rail to Jullundur to join the battalion. The march was forced and very arduous, we completed the distance in 48 hours arriving in an exhausted condition. At Pathancote orders awaited us to proceed to Tank at once. Of course we got no rest, all our kit had to be sorted out, superfluous kit packed in kit bags to be left behind, also overcoats, bedding etc. Our kit consisted of one blanket, 1 groundsheet, change of clothes, shaving and washing materials. This was rolled and tied with rope.
On the evening of the 24th May we entrained for Tank. On the following afternoon we arrived at Mari Indus, which is on the Indus as the name indicates. This is the terminus of the N.W.R (North West Railway) on that branch, another railway however meets it here, the Kalabagh Bannu Railway which is a narrow gauge. Here we had to transfer the Company stores & kit to the K.B. Railway. We marched down to the Indus which was a 1/4 mile away. The river is very wide here, and not at all picturesque. We embarked on the ferry-steamer, a very large one, capable of holding a battalion, and propelled by a stern paddle, our kit was taken across by a truck carrying barge. We arrived on the other side of the river at dusk, and the station here was called Kalabagh Ghat. It was impossible for us to entrain that night, and we had to sleep between the rails.
Early the following morning we entrained, and had a hot journey for a hundred miles through dull and monotonous country. We arrived at Tank at 5 o'clock on the evening of the 26th May. I should have mentioned that on the train journey we were supplied with, ice, mineral water and fans, these were very necessary as summertime on the plains is no joke. The battalion was encamped about three miles from Tank station under double roofed tents and of course we had to sleep on the ground. Tank is not a very attractive place and no European lives there unless obliged to. It is a flat, dusty, country dotted about with palm trees and the heat is terrible, naturally it is very unhealthy. The worst experience we had there, in my opinion was dust storms. When these came on it turned day into night and looked like a thick London fog. It was a struggle to breathe, and impossible to see. After one of these it was impossible to get oneself or ones kit clean again for days.
Like all camps in this region ours had to be protected and for this purpose a shallow trench was dug all the way round, and barbed wire fixed outside. At night time one company had to line the perimeter and sleep in the trench ready to repel any attack at once, of course numerous sentrys were posted. In this country one sentry is never posted alone, there is always two men on one post at night-time. These hillsmen are very clever at creeping up and stabbing a man, without him being aware of his approach, however diligent that man may be, naturally two men is a different proposition.
There was plenty of work for us to do. We put up a camp for the 2/6 Sussex Regiment, also worked very hard on building fortifications round the aerodrome, and other vital places. We always knocked off work at 10 am. and then layed in our tents all day scarcely daring to move, the heat was so bad. in the evening we had to carry on with the work.
At this time we began to learn a good deal of the country we were in. Waziristan is a very hilly tract of country situated between India (now in Pakistan) & Afganistan, it is therefore called a buffer state. It is inhabited by a turbulent ? of tribesmen called Mahsuds. These hillsmen are armed with all kinds of old rifles, some German, some British, also all kinds of sporting guns. They make their own ammunition a lot, but they have a good deal of own, which they use when they manage to steal a rifle, most of their bullets are dum-dum. They are always fighting amongst themselves or anyone else who comes along, so they make a good protection for the frontier of India. At times when they have gathered in their crops they make raids into villages over the frontier for loot. This conduct is not tolerated by the Indian Government, indeed, if it was British prestige would suffer throughout India. Therefore a punitive force is sent to punish them. We do not mind what they do in their own country, but they must not carry their fighting and looting over our side of the frontier.
Whilst at Tank we never had any idea as to what we were to do, or what part we were to take in any possible punitive expedition. We were issued with British warms, Spine Pads, neck Protectors & goggles, evidently we were to have a "place in the sun". We had several bathing parades at Tank. There was a narrow shallow, stream 90% mud, we were marched to this but never went in, and they very wisely refrained from forcing us.
We were at Tank for 11 days & then had orders to move on the 7th June. We packed up that day & in the evening had to load up all our stores, kit, etc. on camels & mules. Loading camels is an art we all have to be proficient in, and is not exactly easy. We had a glorious dust storm during the day, which rendered our food uneatable, so when we paraded to start at 12 o'clock that night we were not feeling lively. Two battalions of us moved together that night, ourselves, and the 1/4th Gurkhas we were leading, & my company was the first company. The road was a camel track, which really consists of a couple of marks on the ground which you walk between to show you the way. Night marching is one long agony, you actually go to sleep on the march, & nearly fall down, & then of course wake up. It is impossible at times to keep ones eyes open however much you exert your will power.
After a slow fatiguing march we saw a fort in the distance at dawn, and at the same time heard some heavy firing in the hills in front of us. We approached the fort and had visions of a good long rest and some brakfast, so our spirits began to rise, but, alas for our hopes. We just got there when we saw figures stumbling towards us from the open country, these were brought in and proved to be Gurkhas wounded, and in a terrible state having knive slashes all over. Then we learnt that a party of 100 Gurkhas had gone out, along our route to be, to picket the first heights. We never got a minutes rest, but were issued with another 50 rounds (we already carried 50) and pushed on in attack formation across country. The ground was very rough & stony and covered with low scrub. Although everyone was whacked with the night march we felt quite fresh with the prospect of a scrap. In this we were disappointed. We pushed on for a mile or so over this ground, which was littered with dead and wounded Mahsuds and Gurkhas, eventually we arrived at a river called Zam, and took up a position on it's bank building up cover with stones. We lay here until the main body of troops came, and then as there was nothing doing, pushed on up the river bed into the hills.
The Zam River consists more of bed than river. The bed was very stony and flat and the river when normal is about 6 yards wide and just above knee deep, on average. This stream winds its way along the bed, and when marching it is impossible to avoid crossing it continually.
By the time we entered the hills the sun was well up and it began to get mighty hot. At about 12 o'clock we arrived at a plateau on the left of the river, there was a fort there called Kirgu, and we camped close to this, fortunately a perimeter was already prepared for us, and although we never had this fatiguing job to do, we were too exhausted to put up tents. If you sat on the ground you were burnt, and too tired to stand up. A lot of chaps needed medical attention and a good lot fainted. Unfortunately Sergt. James died from the effects the following morning. We felt a bit better during the cool of the evening and at night 75% of the battalion slept, whilst the rest lined the perimeter and kept sharp lookout.
Before going any further I will explain on or two terms.
A Perimeter is a wall of stones built around a camp. The wall is about three feet high, and bullet resisting. Barbed wire is fixing around the outside to prevent it being rushed.
A Sangar is a similar wall only circular in shape, & built to accommodate a picket.
A Picket is a party of men from 10 to 40 strong sent up to a hill to hold the top & cover surrounding ground.
A Lhaskar is a concerntration of Hillsmen for fighting purposes.
A Ghirga is a conference.
On the morning of the 8th we left Kirgu and matched to Jandola, we did this fairly easily as the distance was only about 7 miles. At Jandola, where there was a large fort, we found that a perimeter had already been built for the whole force by the sappers. Jandola was the point of concentration for the whole force. There were two Brigades in the force the 43rd and 45th. The London's 54th Sikhs & Nepalese composed the 43rd, the Sussex & two Black Regiments the 45th. There were the mountain batteries also the divisional signallers, sappers and miners, Supply and Transport Corps & Camel Corps. Then there were troops on the lines of communication, this was done by several black battalions.
We spent a few days at Jandola putting our things in order. On the 12th the troops were ordered out on a strafe. We marched out on to a range of hills without a shot being fired and began to think it was in vain until we began to return. then the Mahsuds came to life and started opening fire, and we had to retire line through line, of course we returned it but the range was too much to do any good, although the mountain batteries who were behind us did some good work. We only had two casualties in our battalion, & I think that if the Mahsuds a little braver, and come closer they could have inflicted a lot more, as when we crossed the river back where there was some cover, we were all more or less bunched together and had stopped to get some water. We arrived in camp quite safely, and the same night the Mahsuds in revenge fired into us, but the men in the perimeter were quite able to deal with their attack and the resting troops were not called out. After this we did several reconnaissance up the river bed without opposition.
On the 14th the 45th Brigade packed up and moved up the river bed to a new camp. On the 15th our Brigade followed and passing their camp went through a narrow gorge. Here we experienced considerable difficulties in getting through the transport through there being scarcely room to get a camel through in places, the gorge was about two miles long, it was cut through by the river, and we had to wade practically the whole way. We arrived at our new camp in the afternoon, and of course immediately begun to fortify it in the usual manner. This place was called Haidra, and we waited there for the 45th Brigade to join us. They arrived on the 17th and the three following days we spent in making a road, this consisted of putting large stones in two lines, thus making an avenue of stones, whilst some of the troops were doing this job others were of course picketing the heights for their protection, whilst others were busy burning and sacking villages. Some of these villages were very peculiar affairs being mostly holes scraped out of the side of the hills and surrounded by breastworks of stones, for protection from each other.
On the 19th we packed up and got on the move again in the early morning, to our dismay we left the river and proceeded up a river bed which was quite dry, my company being advance guard, we were very pleased at this, as it usually meant first into the next camp. Unfortunately the Mahsuds decided to make us fight every inch of the way, and it was not long before our picketing troops ahead were well engaged, during the morning we emerged into a small plain about three miles across both ways, running parallel to our route was a ridge about eight hundred yards away this my company had to take to protect the rest of the troops and convoy coming through. We took the ridge and lay there all the rest of the day whilst miles and miles of camels went by. No-one can imagine what it is like to lay with the June Indian sun on our backs and no water available, the stones even blistered our legs and arms. We could hear a tremendous rattle of rifles and machine guns in the distance, and the batteries were very busy too. At last, late in the afternoon the very welcome red? flag of the rear guard commander appeared and we were called in, we had started out as advance and we were now rear guard. Then we started that most wearisome and trying operation in war, a rear guard action, we had to lay down stop? the enemy from the rear whilst pickets on the surrounding heights were called in, when they had taken their places in the column we retired line through line and then took up another position whilst another picket came in.
Whilst still about three miles from camp, I had the biggest disappointment of my life, suddenly in the distance we saw a delightfully silvery stream approaching in the dry river bed. To men who had had no water for hours and had worked hard in a boiling sun, to see the one thing in the world, we would have given everything we had to posses, made us delirious with joy; however when we approached it, it was nothing but thick mud, the sun shining on its surface had a silvery effect in the distance.
We eventually arrived at our camping ground, at dusk, and found a heavy battle going on all round, we had some bully and biscuits, and no water, myself and nine others had to go out and picket a hill outside the camp for the night. They sniped us heavily on our way out but we managed to get there and lay low without casualties, whilst they still continued knocking lumps off our cover till dark. We then began to fortify ourselves for the night, it was then I must admit I was in the biggest funk of my life, for it seemed to me, they could not do otherwise than attack us, for they were in thousands, and could swamp us easily, however beyond sniping they left us alone.
The picket on a hill above us however on a much higher hill were not so lucky, and the hillsmen tried hard to rush them. This picket, a Sikh one was absolutely ?, all night long we could see an unbroken ring of hillsmen firing at them and drawing closer, and closer. The searchlight from the camp played around them all night, enabling the artillery to cover the ground with shrapnel. When this picket came off in the morning, there was only two unwounded men out of 40 who went up.
In the morning we had to move up the river bed about two miles owing to lack of water. My Platoon started off as advance guard and soon had orders to cross the river and take the opposite bank, this we did with no opposition except long range sniping, the Gurkhas then advanced up the river bed and we went along the right bank to cover that flank. We soon reached the village of Hispana Razza (Ispana Raghza) our new camping place, the Gurkhas went right through without opposition and began to attack the hills beyond, they met with strong opposition, and we were ordered to support them on their right flank. We advanced with barely a shot being fired at us, as we got within two hundred yards of the ridge, all of a sudden a tremendous hail of bullets met us, but in spite of the close range, they did not hit one of my platoon. The bullets made the air whistle and moan, and knocked the stones about us. Of course we got down at once and opened fire, and it developed into individual duels. Having reduced their fire we fixed bayonets and took the hill, finding no-one there. They are most difficult people to see, being extraordinarily skillful in the art of taking cover. We lay there until all the troops and baggage were in and then retired to camp. Pickets were of course left on the dominating heights. we then spent the rest of the day in heaving heavy stones to build the perimeter, but the great thing w as we got some water.
We were doomed to another restless night. I was sound asleep when someone woke me up and told me to stand to. There was a tremendous rattle, I should think every machine gun and rifle they could get on the perimeter were firing and the Mahsuds "Dixie lids" were whining overhead. We stood to for about an hour, and the attack was beaten off, when we got back to our blankets we found the mules had stamped over them. We got straight and went to sleep again, only to wake up an hour or two later, with the same din going on, we did not turn out this time however.
For three days we were out every day destroying villages etc., and some very lively fighting ensued. I was very lucky, for, every picket I was detailed to go on we carried out easily and overcame any opposition without trouble, but some of the picquets had some very hard fighting before they took their objective, at this place we sustained most of our casualties. On the 23rd we moved further along to a place called Narai Raghza and on our way had to pass through another narrow gorge about two miles long. The enemy resisted us fairly strongly, but without avail. When we reached our new camp the Mahsuds began to worry us very badly, and our picquets, which had been sent out had to be reinforced before they could capture their hills. The mountain batteries also had to support them. There were very few stones here and we had a long and arduous time in making our camp defendable. During the night we were sniped a bit and some of the picquets had a lively time. We had left all our main supplies and kit at Hispana Raghza under guard, and only took enough food for about three days, and a blanket each.
On the following day my brigade found the picquets around the camp, and on the route? of the 43rd who went out strafing in the Khaisara valley. I was on a picquet all day and had a pretty rotten time of it, not being able to get water. The following day 25th we moved back again to Hispana Raghza with a little opposition, and this was practically the last we received, for the Mahsuds had had enough and were asking for our peace terms.
Two days later owing to reasons of water supply , we moved to Bozi Khel, where Jirgas were held, (that is Peace Conference) and the terms of peace discussed, these included the handing over of several hundred rifles, a good many of these came in whilst we were there. During this time, although we were at peace we were not allowed to relax vigilance, and everything went on the same as usual, with regards to pickets, armed guards etc.
On or about the 12th July we began our first move towards home, marching about 15 miles down to a place called Manzel. Here we fortified ourselves in perimeter, and settled down to a long weary month of unutterable monotony. I think this month did more to break the troops up than the whole of the time we were fighting and marching. Huge convoys of camels were constantly coming in, and it was our duty to march miles to meet them, and picket the heights along their route. Then there was the usual perimeter guards, and outlying pickets on the surrounding hills all night.
In the meantime the heads were still holding conferences with the Hillsmens heads. The Mahsuds came around our camp trying to see their old guns and knives, and many of them displayed medals they had won during some time they were in the British Army. About this time, it must have rained very heavily higher up in the hills, for the spates which came down the river bed were terrific in force and washed everything away before them. We lost a good many men, camels & mules in the gorge at Hidrai Kach. At this time the river was very hard to cross, when normal, the only way was to hold hands and make chains to get across.
By this time the Battalion were very much reduced in strength, about 70% of them having gone back through the hospitals with disease.
At last on the 12 August we packed up camp, and marched towards Tank which was now our idea of paradise, whilst at other times, in better places we considered Hell to be the hill station for Tank. We marched to Jandola, about 13 miles and "rested" there one night.
On the 13th we marched to Zam, a distance of about 15 miles, we could not go along the river bed because of the flood, so had to march across the hills, stony, treeless, tracks of desert, it took us all day and we arrived on our hands and knees. We were now within six miles of Tank and fairly happy. The following morning we completed the six miles and congratulated ourselves we were at the end of our troubles.
Opposite page 34 was a shorthand note, transcribed it read :-
When will the war end.
When the war started in 1914 everyone thought it would be a very short affair and ever since prophets have been telling us that it would end in some month of the following year we have passed through three years of war and the end seems as far off as ever. No doubt some were justified in saying that the end would be in spring 1917, as Great Britain certainly seemed to be at the height of her power and could crush Germans at her will. This would no doubt have been the case had not the Russians chosen a time for their revolution. The Germans were able to bring their armies from the Russian front to the Western front.
Original Diary 37 pages in a school type lined book.