25th County of London Cyclist Battalion
The London Regiment

  
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WAZIRISTAN 1917

AN ACCOUNT OF A PUNITIVE EXPEDITION ON
THE N.W. FRONTIER OF INDIA.

By
W.E.Mount.

The spectacular episode of the storming of the heights at Dargai, by the Gordon Highlanders, in the Chitral campaign of 1895 is recalled by the death of Piper John Kidd, as reported in a recent issue of the "Advertiser" [Adelaide, South Australia]. With the recollection one is made conscious of the fact that much of the glamour that hangs about the half forgotten battles of the past, is lacking in the conflicts of today. The tossing plumes and the sabres flash, play a rapidly diminishing part of modern warfare. Even on the outskirts of the Empire where war cries still sound and the old robust hand to hand encounters are to be met with, the armoured car is gaining ground and the savage tribes are subdued with the utmost efficiency – war is no longer picturesque,

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the N.W. Frontier of India, where, in the past a Punitive Expedition into the hills meant the assembling of horse, foot, guns and all the pageantry of war, with months of hard fighting and millions of rupees to foot the bill.

            Nowadays, should the tribesmen become fractious, a squadron of aeroplanes is sent over their villages and a gigantic voice warns them through a megaphone, of the consequence of their misdeeds, a few bombs are dropped, and the war is finished before they have time to even, put a good edge on their knives.

            For this reason the story of what was probably one of the last of the expeditions to be conducted under the old methods, may be of some interest.

            On the N.W. border of India is an area of wild mountainous country occupied by numerous warlike tribes, living under conditions that are somewhat akin to those prevailing in the Highlands  of Scotland centuries ago,  The land is unproductive and life is hard – so hard that the prosperous villages on the Indian plains nearby are a constant temptation and it has been the hillsman's way to take what he wanted by force. Wild forays across the Border  and a swift return to his inaccessible mountains with cattle, women and loot. In between while they till such fertile land as can be found in their valleys and fight between themselves. Blood feuds of which the origin is lost in time are waged bitterly between clan and clan. Every village is strongly fortified and no tribesman would dream of leaving the security of his own walls without being fully armed with rifle and knife.

These conditions have evolved a race of fierce warriors, treacherous, cunning and brave. Born thieves and outlaws by nature, with a code of ethics reduced to the simplest form – loyalty to the salt. For centuries they have exercised a reign of terror in the N.W. until the advent of the British, who defined a border line over which they were forbidden to cross . After many years of sanguinary warfare the Frontier was established and the tribesmen found that their activities were curtailed to a great extent. But the maintenance of law and order is still a full time job and punitive measures have to be taken occasionally, which in the past necessitated the employment of a large force to garrison the area.

A state of tension existed all the time and unimportant happenings often had far reaching results.

            In 1917 a Hindu money lender living in one of the villages on the Indian side of the Border was killed in a raid by Mahsud tribesmen and his wife and two children were carried into Waziristan and held for ransom. Under ordinary circumstances the unfortunate happening would have been regarded as the result of the result of a legitimate business risk undertaken by the moneylender, and the affair may not have come under the notice of the Authority, but the woman had influential friends and the native press became interested. In the course of which the obscure village "bunia" figured as a prominent Hindu banker, and bankers may not be assassinated with impunity.

A small detachment of Ghurkas was sent out to the locality which harboured the raiders, but on the way they were ambushed by an over whelming force of Mahsuds. The few survivors struggled back with the story and the "Stand To" was sounded in every garrison along the frontier.

The N.W. is hot during the summer months and to keep the troops in good condition it is the custom for each regiment to send a detachment, usually one company at a time, to one of the healthier stations in the Himalayas for a months rest, and it happened that when the Mahsuds commenced hurling defiance across the Border I was attached to A Company of the London regiment then stationed high up in the mountains.

             From an artistic point of view our call to arms was well staged. We were half way through an exciting game of hockey, played against a neighbouring detachment of Sikhs, big hairy men who play with bare feet and wear their beards in nets. Suddenly there was a shout from the hillside and we saw the Company bugler galloping madly down the narrow track from the camp. He was followed by the panting sergeant-major, red faced and on foot. The bugler reined up his mountain pony in the best Hollywood manner and sounded the “Fall In" at the double, after which we received our marching orders. In two hours we were on the road, marching down through the clouds to the plains below.

In three days we reached the rail head, and crowded onto a train which was to carry us to the point nearest to the action. We crossed the River Indus on the fourth day.

At sunset near the old battlefield of Chillianwalla the train jolted suddenly to a stop. We grasped our rifles and two hundred heads met in a vain endeavour to poke out of twenty windows.

The successful few were rewarded by the sight of the driver of the train and his fire man, both devout Mohammedans, saying their evening prayers, oblivious for the moment to the whole world.

Having completed their devotions they shook the dust from their prayer mats and with a pious toot on the whistle we proceeded on our way to war. Eventually detraining at the fortified Frontier town of Tank, which was to be the base for the coming operations.

Here we rejoined our regiment and waited for the rest of the Expedition to assemble. Day after day men and horses, guns and baggage poured into the camp, with strings of camels urged on by savage looking Powindah drivers. Mules in mobs, squealing, kicking and snapping, arriving from all directions. Tank resounded to the tramp of marching feet, and the bazaars were crowded by many different races. Wild looking Baluchis and bank clerks from Streatham. Little brown men from the borders of Tibet and Jews from Whitechapel: tall stately Rajputs, Sussex lads and Pathans, Sikhs, and Untouchables. All jostling, shouting and cursing the heat and flies.

Eventually the last stragglers were in, and under the command of Maj.Gen. Sir G.W.L.Beynon.

Out of the confusion emerged the Waziristan Field Force, consisting of two Brigades of Infantry, the 43rd and the 45th Mountain batteries and cavalry, with three thousand camels for transport purposes. Mules by the hundred and all the other adjuncts necessary to an expedition of this kind, including a few aeroplanes which were to be used for the first time in the history of Frontier Warfare.

We marched out one night in a cloud of dust, with a band to start us on our way. At dawn, just as the black outline of the mountains of Waziristan was beginning to show against the sky, we heard distant rifle fire. By daylight we had reached the fortress of Zam Post, the walls of which were dotted with excited cut-throats belonging to the tribe of friendly natives acting as garrison. They were dancing about shaking their rifles belligerently and pointing to the country ahead, which was covered with dense clumps of tall cane grass. It was impossible to tell what was happening and the column was halted to await the reports of the scouts

Presently a Ghurka staggered in bleeding from a wound in the head and reported a band of Mahsuds had come down to in ambush for us and had itself been ambushed by a British detachment of Ghurkas and Rajputs from the neighbouring post of Sarwekai. Severe hand to hand fighting had taken place with heavy losses on both sides, but the tribesmen were thought to be in retreat.

So the column moved on. Flank guards were doubled and scouting parties sent out and everyone was on qui vive. The country was ideal for the setting of an ambush, and the business of tracking through the cane grass with expectation of running into a party of armed tribesmen at any moment, was trying work for the scouts.

Soon we came upon the first signs of action, The dead body of a Mahsud lying on his back with his beard pointing to the sky. Then, in small groups here and there, lying where they had fallen, the bodies of Ghurka, Mahsud and Rajput. There appeared to be no wounded, they died as they had fought, with their weapons in their hands, Further on in a circle around a slight hollow in the ground littered with empty ammunition boxes and discarded equipment, the bodies were lying thickly and a few wounded Ghurkas were tying up their wounds. Sitting on the ground with his back against an ammunition box was a young white officer, coughing up blood, who waved feebly to the pass into the Mountains and everything suspicious had to be investigated. On our right flank, about half a mile distant a column of smoke was rising where no smoke should have been, so with two scouts I was sent out to discover the reason and on a small clearing we made a gruesome find. Three Mahsuds had evidently fallen into the hands of a party of Ghurkas, who, remembering the death of their comrades in a previous engagement, had avenged themselves very thoroughly.

            The Mohammedan Paradise is an abode of beautiful women where the delights of Earth are enjoyed for ever and when a warrior dies in battle he is welcomed there with true hospitality.

The simple minded tribesman argues, that this being the case, if he can send his enemies there in such a condition that they will appear ridiculous to the Houris he has scored a final point. So, if a wounded enemy falls into his hands he is carved up rather nastily before being finally despatched. These tribesmen had been payed back in their own coin and doubtless the Houris had a quiet laugh on their arrival in Paradise. To make a really decent job of it kerosene had been poured over the bodies and set fire to. It was an unpleasant sight to face before breakfast.

By now the column had reached the foot hills and was marching up the bed of the Taki Zam, which is one of the few points of entry into the hill country. At this time of the year, what becomes during the rainy season, a raging torrent, is only a small stream which meanders from side to side across its stony bed in the valley, and often it has to be waded through several times in the course of a days march.

            No further opposition was encountered and later, a brief halt was called at the post of Kot Khirgi. The troops had been on the move since the previous evening and were nearly exhausted.

The heat was terrific, the season being mid summer, which is the worst time of the year to conduct Frontier operations and we suffered our first casualty. The Officers Mess sergeant, an elderly man, collapsed and later was found dead, the boulder upon which his head had fallen being so hot that the skin on his face was blistered.

After a rest we moved on a few miles further to Jandola where there was a fortified camp, the fortifications consisting of loose stones about three feet in height around the perimeter of the camp, and a watch tower. We were to have considerable experience later on building these "perimeter camps" as where ever we happened to be camping the wall had to be built before anything else was done. The baggage, camels, horses, and mules occupying the centre of the encampment, with the various regiments placed around like the spokes of a wheel. Each unit being responsible for its own sector of wall.

            After a sketchy meal we bivouacked under the stars and the lucky ones who were not on perimeter guard or in the first line reserve went to sleep, with their legs through the slings of their rifles. This being the uncomfortable custom of the Frontier, where rifles are more valuable than men.

In the early hours of the morning we were awakened by the clatter of rifle and machine gun fire, followed by the ear splitting crack of a mountain gun. Men were shouting, whistles were being blown and the mules squealed and stamped, while the camels made those repulsive bubbling noises for which they are noted. — The Mahsuds had made a night attack. It was all over in a few minutes, but we had no more sleep.

Word had come that a "lashkar" of tribesmen were massing in a valley not far distant and before dawn the 45th Brigade moved out to engage them. We crossed the river bed and part of the force took up a position along the edge of a deep nullah. Meanwhile a detachment of Ghurkas occupied the heights commanding the valley where the Mahsuds were sheltering. As the tribesmen advanced to drive off the intruders, the Ghurka s retreated and we had the enemy in full view as they rushed down the mountain side in pursuit. Immediately they were in range every rifle, machine gun and mountain battery opened fire and soon they were in full retreat their dead dotting the hillside in little white heaps.

            In Frontier warfare the difficulty lies on getting to grips with the enemy. A hill man on his native rocks is an elusive individual; armed with a rifle, bandolier and knife, with rope sandals on his feet, he can keep going for days on a handful of dates, and the actual fighting is usually a matter of ambush, skirmish, sortie and outpost work, with continuous sniping to keep things lively and success depends on superior strategy. The hillman finds it hard to resist the temptation of harrying a retreating foe, and we fought a rearguard action back to camp.

The next day we advanced through the Shahur Tungi, a narrow pass about two miles long which in places is merely a crack on the mountains. The Pass was strongly held by the enemy until the precipitous heights on either side were captured and then, except for the sniping and the occasional rock being dropped on us, we passed through without too much trouble.

We then occupied Haidari Kach, a small plateau with a deep nullah running around it, surrounded on all sides by steep, craggy hills. While the piquets were out clearing these heights we built our "perimeter" under a heavy sniping fire, which continued until the following morning.

That night the piquets were strongly assailed. One in particular being attacked repeatedly but was saved by the effective use of their supply of bombs. Subsequently a Sikh signaller was awarded the V.C. for his part in the action.

The hillmen use black powder in their cartridges and at night their position is betrayed by a flash, in the daytime by a puff of smoke and all that night we lay along the edge of the Nullah trying to snipe the snipers. The next three days were occupied in carrying out the punitive measures in the vicinity. All the villages within a radius of five miles were visited, their towers blown up and the houses destroyed, their crops confiscated and any cattle or sheep found were driven back to camp for our own use.

            The actual destruction work was carried out by the Sappers and Miners, while we did the looting and the task of locating their store houses was no easy one. All the villages possess caves, some of them running a considerable distance into the hillside, in which the inhabitants live during part of the year, and store their grain. The entrance to a cave of this kind is hidden with great ingenuity. Often a clump of box thorn will mask a crack in the rock leading into a large chamber.

             Usually we found the villages empty although, in some instance they were held until the last minute. On one occasion, at the end of a long dark tunnel, we found an old greybeard who had not been able to get away in time. He spat at us and reviled our ancestors in guttural Pushtu and when one of our number patted him kindly on the back, he positively danced with anger.

            At another village we were investigating a series of caves one of which had evidently been used as a living room by a more enlightened member of the community. In one corner was the horn of an old fashioned phonograph and attached to the wall was a front page from an illustrated English paper, the "Daily Mirror" and a leaf from a book on anthropology depicting the facial characteristics of a dozen different races. There were also the usual furnishings, a charpoy to sleep on, a few mats and in this case, a beautifully bound copy of the Koran.

             Our work completed we moved on to Ispana Raghza a well fortified village with a tower, built on a small plateau similar to that of Naidari Kach. Our advance was strongly opposed, but the village was eventually surrounded and we lay through the heat of the day, in extended order around the place, each man with a little pile of stones heaped up before him for head cover, until a breach had been made in the walls by the Sappers and Miners. The village was then occupied but we were not quick enough, the defenders disappeared through a passage leading into the Nullah as we entered and so escaped.

            After Ispana Raghza had been destroyed we made our camp nearby. The sniping continued all night and there were several casualties. A Ghurka, sitting by his cooking fire making Chupattis for the evening meal was shot through the back. A man shaving in his tent had his fingers smashed by a dum-dum bullet. These are typical instances of long range shooting.

            The next day the village of Shah Selim Mela was destroyed and the Force moved on towards Narai Raghza. The tribesmen had determined that we should go no further and at Burwand strong opposition was encountered. A narrow defile had to be negotiated and severe hand to hand fighting took place before the passage was cleared.

It was the London's turn for piquet duty and during the day detachments of about 20 men, an N.C.O. and a signaller were sent out to occupy positions on the surrounding heights. In my own case it meant a climb for our party of over a 1000feet, laden with 24 hours supply of water, ammunition, bombs and a Lewis guns. Upon nearing the crest of the hill the orthodox method of approach, was to fix bayonet and charge up the remaining 20 or 30 yards. On attaining our objective the last hours of daylight were spent in building a "sangar" or wall of loose stones, around the position. The work was expedited by an occasional long shot from an observant Mahsud. The sniping continued after dark and some of the piquets had a bad time. One in particular held by the 1-4th Ghurkas came in for a large share of attention. All through the night we could hear the tom-toms drumming, with frequent bursts of rifle fire, the sound of exploding bombs, shouting and yells of defiance. The drone of bullets and the sharp smack as they hit the sangar wall reminded us to keep our heads well down.

            Later on it became necessary to send half of our little force out to occupy a crest of rock, high enough to overlook or sangar walls, about five hundred yards distant, which was held by a small party of enemy snipers who were causing us extreme discomfort.

To distract their attention while our fellows advanced a sergeant – one of the crack shots of the battalion – crawled out to a narrow ledge some distance from our position and proceeded to sniper the snipers from a fresh angle . The ruse succeeded and the crest was cleared but our man was not quick enough in taking cover after each shot and a piece of lead as big as an average thumb smashed his shoulder. We hauled him back and his groans all through the night were terrible.

            The day came eventually bright, clear and peaceful, with a cold nip in the air and the smell of smoke from the cooking fires. In the stillness we could hear the thud of mallet and peg, the squealing of mules anxious for their hay and all the early morning sounds of the camp stirring below. Before long too, we heard the thin wail of the bugles playing the "Last Post" – They were burying the dead.

             There is an almost Medieval touch about some of the incidents of Frontier Warfare. One day word came in from the chief Malik of the tribes offering to meet us man to man in open battle on the following day, on the condition that we did not "fly our hawks". Apparently it was not considered playing the game to use aeroplanes.

             The last part of the offer was not accepted but the next day we did move out to carry war into the Khaisara Valley, and it was felt that at last a decisive action would be fought. The troops marched out as the sun came up, a squadron of Bengal Lancers cantering in the lead, pennons flying gaily, horses jingling and clattering over the stones. Then three regiments of Nepalese swinging along chanting a weird ditty of their native hills.

They were led by the venerable figure of General Sir Baber Shumshere Jang Bahudar, riding on a white horse, like a knight of old in quest of some small deed of chivalry. Then followed the Rajputs looking incredibly fierce and warlike, shouting a war cry of their own. As the other regiments moved out the hills echoed with the sound of battle cries in many different tongues.

The 54th Sikhs, the 1-4th Ghurkas and a regiment of Nepalese carried the heights commanding the Shrawani Pass, while the 45thBrigade pushed through into the Khaisara and under cover of the right flank guard which was continuously engages with the enemy, the destruction of all villages within reach was proceeded with. Those in the Nana Khelghazi Kot area and the Machi Khel were levelled to the ground and we returned to camp hotly followed up the indignant tribesmen, who swarmed behind us like hornets. One piquet belonging to the 55th Rifles was badly cut up and rear-guard actions were continuous and exciting.

The sniping continued all night, and the next day after destroying the village of Kot Khirgi a messenger came in from the tribes, asking for a peace "Jirga" and we retired to our camp at Ispana Raghza.

            There was no more fighting and except for an occassional sniping shot from an enthusiast who found the temptation too great to resist we were left in peace. On the day appointed for the official "Jirga" we became aquatinted with hundreds of our former enemies, who crowded around at a safe distance from our perimeter wall. There appeared to be no ill feeling. We won this time, it was all part of the game, but next time perhaps —

After two months of hard campaigning there was not much left of our uniforms and the quartermaster had to appeal to the whole regiment to get enough clothes to equip, in a fitting manner, the few men who formed the "guard of honour" at the Jirga. The meeting was held in the shade of a tree. The G.O.C. surrounded by his Political Officers and advisers, sitting in state. The chieftains lead by a bearded old Malik came in with their body guards of wild looking ruffians. Greetings were exchanged and negotiations commenced.

            We remained in force at Ispana Raghza while the peace terms were carried out. One of the clauses insisted on the surrender of so many hundred rifles and as a rifle is as valuable to a hillman, we experienced some difficulty in collecting them all. Eventually they were gathered in and they made an interesting collection, ranging from the old fashioned muzzle loader of a hundred years ago to the latest military model.

             By this time the Summer was over and the monsoon season had commenced. Dense soaking rain fell and the nights were becoming increasingly cold. Dysentery and Malaria were playing havoc with the health of the troops and hundreds were being sent down weekly to the base at Tank.

The sick were carried, two to a camel in a sling one hanging on each side if the hump and several did not survive the long trek through the mountains.

             Eventually we received our marching orders and broke camp. Our return route lay through the Shuhur Tungi, the long narrow gorge we had encountered on the way up and although the stream running through it had not yet become a torrent, it was waist high and rising. A machine gun section and a number of camels were on their way through the Tungi, when suddenly, with a noise like the roar of an aeroplane engine, a huge spate of water about five feet high came rushing round a bend in the river bed, trapping the men and animals in the gorge. Several lives were lost and most of the animals were drowned. We had to wait a day and a night in the pouring rain, for the flood to subside and we could pass through. But in due course we arrived at Tank – and our war was over.

The Londons did not need so much transport to carry them back to India for although 850 men had marched into Waziristan, only 300 odd marched back, most of the remainder returned on camels under the care of the Medical Service and some stayed in the hills with a heap of stones to mark their place.

             The operations of the Waziristan Field Force extended over a period of three months —

A squadron of modern aeroplanes could have done the work as effectively in three days, and so, the old spectacular methods of frontier warfare became obsolete.

 

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