Letter of 20 Aug 1917
Waziristan Campaign 1917
Private H. Parker
20th August 1917
My Dear Mother and Grannie,
We have at last arrived back at Jullundur safely on the 18th August. I am glad to say I am well after a very hard and vigorous campaign, although all of us feel the effects of it; we are going up to the hills at Murru at the end of this week, to recuperate. The letters I received from you dear mother & sisters were very welcome & comforting indeed, & if I haven't answers all letters you must please forgive me as the conditions were very trying. I hope dear Grannie is a little better, and you dear mother & sisters quite well. I think the best thing I can do is to tell you all about it from the beginning till now, & as it is a long story I hope this letter will reach you safely.
As you know we were at Dalhousie in May, and on the 22nd we had to leave, and marched to the railhead at Pathancote, a distance of 50 miles in about 46 hours, this march knocked us all up especially the last 18 miles which was done in a blazing sun. When we arrived on the afternoon of the 24th we had to sort out our kit and do up in a bundle. 1 blanket & necessaries the remainder was to stay behind. After working pretty hard we entrained that evening and arrived at Mari Indus on the afternoon of the 25th here we unloaded our stuff on the train and got on a large ferry-steamer to cross the river Indus. The Indus is very wide here & the steamers are very large. On the other side is a narrow gauge railway called the Kalabagh & Bannu railway. That night we slept on the railway track. On the morning of the 26th we entrained on this narrow gauge railway and arrived at TANK in the evening. Here we joined the battalion and lived in large tents on the ground. Tank is one of the unhealthy places going and was terribly hot. The time we were there of course being the hot season. We worked very hard in the morning & evening putting up tents for the 2/6 Sussex & building fortifications & putting up barbed wire etc. During the heat of the day we did nothing but lay about & sweat. The worst thing I experienced at Tank was dust storms which were awful. You could hardly breath & almost cut the dust with a knife. Tank was the base and is on the borders of Waziristan & India.
On June 7, we started on the campaign in Waziristan against the Mahsuds, at 12 o'clock at night, with our long camel convoy behind us, also with a battalion of Gurkhas. we marched all night half asleep, and felt pretty rotten. At day break we saw a fort in the distance & also heard some very heavy firing, we pushed on to the fort looking forward to some breakfast & a good long rest. I was in advance guard and halted just by the fort, just then we saw a man come staggering to us absolutely stripped and fell at our feet. He was a Gurkhar and was slashed with a knife all over his body. Following him came a lot more wounded either walking or being carried by their unwounded comrades. we got no rest but were given 50 rounds of ammunition making 100 and my company had to push forward in attack formation. We passed over a battle-field which was covered with dead & wounded Gurkhas, it was a horrible sight as the Mahsuds had used their knives a lot. There were a lot of Mahsud dead laying about & these were burning as the Gurkhas set light to them, in retaliation for the mutilation of wounded with the knife. We went over this ground for a mile or so and came to a river, here we took up a position but the Mahsuds had cleared right away and never fired a shot at us. I will explain what happened. A party of about 100 Gurkhas went out ahead of us to picket the hills; a party of 300 Mahsuds ambushed them, surrounded them and cut them up. The Gurkhas lost 35 killed and 48 (18?) wounded and the Mahsuds 18 killed. It was a pity we did not arrive a little earlier, we may been able to save them, but the Mahsuds did not wait for us, they went off with as many rifles as they could lay hands on. We did not stay at the river bed but pushed on up the river which here entered or rather emerged from the hills. By now it was getting mighty hot and most of the chaps were in a very bad state the river bed was all stones & we had to keep on wading the river as it was all twists and we could not avoid it. At last we arrived at Kirgu in the heat of the day, in a terrible exhausted condition as we had nothing to eat and had drunk no end of river water. Kirgu was a fort and we entered a perimeter camp on some high ground near it, and the few who were fit tryed to put up some tents for protection from the sun. Before going any further I must tell you what a perimeter camp is. When you arrive at a place where you are to camp for the night the first thing to do is to build a wall of stones, about waist high, and bullet proof all round the camp & put up barbed wire entanglements outside this. The hills of Waziristan are covered with stones, and rocks of all sizes. After a few days march it is the most heart breaking job I have ever struck, as it is absolutely the first job to be done before you get any rest.
On the morning of the 8th after loading up our stores on camels & mules, (another rotten job) we moved further up the river. Unfortunately we had to leave several men in hospital & one sergeant died from the heatstroke. We had a fairly easy march that day to Jandola, the advanced base. Here we met the rest of our brigade, which consisted of ourselves, 1/4 Gurghas, the Nepalese Contingent & 54th Sikhs. The next day another brigade joined ours consisting of the 2/6 Royal Sussex and 3 native regiment, of course there (these?) were Divisional Signallers, Lancers, Supply & Transport Corps, Post Office etc. & these made up the South Waziristan Field Force, under the command of Major-General Benyon. I forgot to say that our brigade was the 43rd and the other the 45th. By the way we have a new colonel now Lieut. Col Hyne from the 2/6 Royal Sussex Reg.
On the 12th both brigades went out against a gathering of Mahsuds in the hills. We advanced towards them but they avoided action. On our return to camp they followed us and kept up a fire which was quite ineffective only managing to slightly wound two of our chaps. This is when we received our baptism of fire. We had to cross the river bed which was some 500 yards wide and although under fire our chaps stopped to fill their water-bottles and have a drink, & thought the marksmanship of the Mahsuds contemptible. During the same night I was suddenly wakened up by firing & bullets whizzing but did not have to turn out as the attack on the camp was easily kept off y troops lining the perimeter.
On the 15th we moved up the river again leaving behind all kit that was not absolutely indispensable, we went & camped at a place called Hydra Kutch staying here 3 or 4 days we went out every day burning & looting all villages in the vicinity, which had of course been abandoned. There was no opposition.
On the 19th we again moved 12 miles up another & dry river bed to Burwan we met with strong opposition & although we started early in the morning my company did not get in camp till evening. There was still fighting going on the hills around & sniping into the camp. Myself & 9 other chaps were packed off on an outlying picket for the night. An outlying picket is a party sent out of the camp to hold a hill, a position that overlooks the camp. They have to build a sungar which is a circular wall of stones for protection. We got into a surgar & laid low till dark as the Mahsuds were sniping us a(nd) seemed to have the range pretty well. At dusk the General came up and told us we were in a death-trap, so he sent for a party of Gurkhas to cut down thorn bushes and fix up barbed wire, to stop them rushing us. They did not attack our picket that night but a picket on a higher hill were surrounded & fired at all night long. The search-lights & artillery from the camp assisted them, & this picket came off safely in the morning with several killed and wounded. It was really a pretty sight that night to see the shells bursting all round the hill.
This morning the 20th we had to move 2 miles owing to lack of water. We were well to the front with the Gurkhas & had to advance across a plateau & take a ridge. My platoon were advancing against a ? & going all right, when all of a sudden, we had a heavy fire open on us at close range, the bullets hitting the ground all round & whizzing past us, of course we laid down, & I looked round expecting to see half our chaps knocked out, but not one was touched and we consider ourselves a most lucky platoon, & the Mahsuds rotten shots. We returned their fire for a little while & I am sure accounted for some, and then advanced again but they didn't wait for us. Although we were so lucky some chaps of another company were unlucky & unfortunately had 1 killed & 3 wounded by snipers. Whilst we were holding this ridge the camp was being marked out & the surrounding hills picketed, then we retired to camp & started building the perimeter. However then no rest that night, as twice the Mahsuds attacked us, and we had to turn out. I think every rifle & machine gun was firing round the perimeter & there was a terrific din but the attack was entirely unsuccessful & a nuisance.
On the 21st we went about picketing the hills for other troops to go out strafing. Our B Company met strong opposition on their hill & had to be reinforced before it was taken. They lost 1 killed & 3 wounded. 22nd we did the same as the 21st and we received slight opposition on my hill.
On the 23rd we moved 6 miles up river leaving all tents and stores behind in camp with sufficient troops to protect them. There was strong opposition & the Nepalese earned themselves some praise for taking the heights round a very narrow gorge. We arrived at Hisu? Valley and of course sent pickets to the hills, one picket lost 2 killed & two wounded & we had to go out & help them up.
The next day the 24th the 45th brigade went out & inflicted heavy punishment on enemy & strafed villages the 43rd brigade staying in the camp. This point is as far as we got & the following day (25th) moved back to an old camp at Hispana Rahza. On arriving we found a draft of 100 men waiting for us, as the battalion was very weak indeed owing to the chaps going into hospital, we also found the mail & t'was here I received a parcel of socks from you, for which I was very thankful. I also managed to get a pair of boots from our Q.M. as I was walking on my socks almost. The river played havoc with our boots.
Hostilities had now ceased as the Mahsuds were asking for peace and on the 27th we moved 2 miles owing to lack of water to a place called Bozi Khel. & from here the General used to go out with his staff & escort of lancers to hold a conference with the Mahsuds in the river bed. Part of the terms were that the Mahsuds handed in so many rifles they had stolen & some of these came in whilst we were there . At this place I had to attend the doctor with diarrhea, and was put on a diet which cured me in a day or two. We stayed at this camp a fortnight and on the 12 July made the first stage of our journey towards home and camped at a place called Mansell. Here we stayed a whole month & it nearly broke our hearts. We did perimeter guard main guards, drill, & picqueted the heights for our food convoys to come through from the base.
We got a good deal of rain and the river became flooded a good lot & was bad enough on one occasion to wash a lot of camels & their drivers away. Our company lost 2 mules whilst going through a narrow gorge. The flood suddenly came on them and the drivers only escaped by the skin of their teeth. During this month there were a lot more conferences & it seemed to take that time to make terms & have them complied with. However on the 11th of August we started back & marched to Jandola & picked up the kit we left behind there.
The following morning we marched to Zam Post by a ? route of 15 miles or more over rough roads as the river was too high to wade through. On the morning of the 13th we moved to Tank & entered a rest camp for the day, & in the evening A Company entrained on the narrow gauge but we were not to go as it rained hard and flooded the line which got broken. It rained hard all that night & I was on guard on the station without a shelter. The rest of the battalion who were in the rest camp got washed out by a flood in the camp & came trooping over the station to the trains. A lot of them had had a lot of kit washed away & all the kit was wet through & more or less ruined. It was a sight the next morning to see them all over the small station in various states of undress with all their kits laid out to dry.
We stayed at Tank 2 days in a sweltering heat and then moved on the 16th arriving at Kalabagh on the morning of the 17th. We crossed the Indus at once and entrained at Mari Indus on the broad gauge in military coaches, the same evening. On the 18th at 2 o'clock we arrived at Jullundur, that is the beginning of this week, & have done very little since.
On the whole campaign we had 4 killed & 13 wounded, 6 have so far died of disease & half the battalion went into hospital & were sent out of the country. There is hardly a man but what was sick at some time or the other. One chap in my platoon has died , & the other day we sold his kit between ourselves & realized R400 (400 Rupees) a fine sum which will of course go to his people. Another chap has just died of the same of Frith, was that the name of the chap you mentioned to me some time ago. I don't know him personally.
I must tell you a little bit about camels & picketing. Whilst we were fighting we had to get up at about 4 in the morning & have breakfast which consisted of a small piece of salt bacon & dry biscuit. Then you loaded camels with everything you had, (very hard work). If you were to picket the heights you went out before the rest of the force, and took possession of the heights on either side of the route, the idea of course is that whilst you are there the Mahsuds cannot be there & cannot molest the column, you would probably be on picket all day till the whole column camels and all had passed & then you are withdrawn by the rearguard & follow the column. It is very tiring job especially if the hills are high. When you get into camp at night you have to build a perimeter & perhaps guard it all night & then move off at the same time the following morning. Our food consisted of bacon bully & biscuits & you could buy nothing. We have had a pretty rough time on the whole & are thankful to be back.
Tomorrow we shift to Munce, & although the climate is better we do not want to shift. We are very busy now packing up our stores. Please let me know very particularly whether you receive this letter safely. I am glad to say I am pretty well, but everyone is feeling the effects still & a lot are even now going down with fever.
I shall have to write to Maggie & Elsie when I settle down at Munce, I hope they are both doing well.
With fondest love & kisses to you all. I am Your loving son & grandson
Original letter 17 pages.