25th County of London Cyclist Battalion
The London Regiment

Back to Diaries

Diary of B. E. HUGHES

(TAVR - Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve)

Fighting the Mahsuds : Waziristan Expedition 1917
From the MS by Pte. B. E. Hughes 25th Cyclist Bn. The London Regt. Written, says the author, " to pass the time away and to relieve the boredom of barrack life in India."
As the result of a conversation between Mr. B. E. Hughes, the author, and Lt.-Col. J. C. T. Peddle, Deputy Secretary of the Greater London TAVR Association we have been fortunate enough to obtain this interesting vignette of history.
The author's manuscript, written as the events took place more than 50 years ago, is remarkably well done. The writing though small, and now faded, is easily legible, as the illustration on page 13 shows. It is well illustrated with photographs and some beautifully drawn maps. The story itself is well worth reading, not for heroics but for the vivid picture of day to day life of a Private soldier, which Mr. Hughes describes.


THE FOLLOWING ACCOUNT is from my point of view as a private who went through the expedition, of what I saw, took part in, and information gained from fairly good sources on Waziristan and the Mahsuds. It is a bare statement of facts just as they happened, giving the reasons for the campaign, the measures taken against the tribesmen, and the results as far as a person in my position could ascertain them. I make them as correct as possible and without exaggeration.
AMONG the many tribes living in the hills on the north-west frontier of India, the Mahsuds are one of the most troublesome. The first expedition against them was in 1852 under Nicholson, then a Major in the Indian army.
Since then there have been 15 others, the last as late as 1915. But in spite of all these measures these hill men still remain uncontrolled and continue their raids on peaceful neighbouring tribes under British rule, for which the Government have to send forces against them to punish and quieten them, although they recommence their forays again within a few months. So the cycle of events revolves.
They are Mohammedans, but very lax in their religion. They have not many mosques, and very few shrines, none of either we saw when we were in their country; or did not recognise them as such. The spiritual leaders, called Mullahem hold a certain amount of control over them, but not absolute.
The dress of the tusnan (commoner) is generally both dirty and ragged. Those we saw wore a pugri, loose smock, and pyjamas, once white, but then in want of a wash, and matting sandals.
Their habitations vary. The best we saw were houses of stone and mud, with only one room, and a roof of rough beams on which was laid matting, which was covered with earth. These houses, if they may be called such, often had a small piece of ground outside enclosed by a low mud and stone wall. There was nothing artistic about them, they were small and dirty, and the only furniture of any sort we found in them were charpoys, beds of rough wood and string, or plaited straw.
In one place we found an encampment of matting tents, apparently belonging to a party of "kuchi", or nomads, with several charpoys placed under a group of trees, too large to go into the tiny tents. Their villages were small . . . Caves were numerous, both around the villages and amongst the hills. They are used as dwelling places, accommodation for their animals or storages for their grain.
The Mahsud is one of the finest fighters in the world. Lightly clad, he moves from one spot to another with marvellous rapidity. Quick to punish any mistake made by his opponents, being under little or no discipline, he is difficult to catch. Guerilla warfare is the only kind they know, but they know it well, and amongst the mountains of Waziristan they have golden opportunities to practise it.
They are nearly always fighting someone; the Afghans are their deadly enemies, and the Darwaskels and Mahsuds, though they inter-marry, still have a bitter feeling towards each other. This is their great weakness from a military point of view. At one time there were about 1,000 in our Indian army, but they had to be demobilised on account of their lack of discipline.
They are rifle thieves of the first order, their one object in life seems to be to obtain a rifle by fair means or foul, and is one of the main reasons for their raids, which are carried out systematically . . . Every man carries a knife, and as many as can obtain them, a rifle, but when he is unable to fight he hides his rifle and appears amongst men as a peaceful citizen.
There is hardly a square mile of flat ground in the Mahsud portion of the country; it is nothing but mountains and hills. The Gomal river runs through the South and the Takhi have the centre districts, while the Tochi river flows farther north through the Darwaskels' and Daurs' country.

* * * *
The Campaigns
AFTER the last expedition in 1915 the Mahsuds remained quiet for some time, but later again commenced their raids on the peaceful portion of the Waziris and over the borders reaching Tank and raiding the town. They also attacked convoys supplying our forts with ammunition etc. The official Simla report says:-
"Since the end of March the Mahsuds tribesmen have given some trouble on the north west frontier. On May 1st they attacked a convoy between Nilikach and Khajurikach, but were beaten of.
"The British casualties were Captain Everett, 67th Punjabis, Second Lieutenant Savage, Indian Army Reserve, two Indian officers and 56 Sepoys killed, and Lieutenant Frost, 67th Punjabis, two Indian officers and 52 Sepoys wounded.
"The force in the Dara Jat has been strengthened. A party of militia and Gurkhas dispersed a body of raiders with loss on May 2nd."
Such raids as these-this was not the only one-became various. During a raid on a blockhouse a Major Hughes was killed, and on another occasion a party of Gurkhas was cut up and their rifles stolen. Convoys were stopped, telegraph wires cut and rifles stolen, until to again quote an official despatch,
"the continued hostilities on the part of the Mahsuds left the Government no alternative but punitive measures."
Reveille next morning (May 27th) was at five. We woke up feeling washed out and had to wash-for a wash obtaining water from large cisterns near the camp. We had to parade from 5.30 until 8 o'clock on fatigues, putting up a camp for the Sussex who were expected, putting barbed wire round the stores, (Tank was becoming a large base), and the 101 fatigues that are always necessary. At eight o'clock all work ceased and men had to keep to their tents until five o'clock unless in case of necessity. We were allowed to go to the canteen only, but not to wander about in the sun. We had English tents, double ones, but even then had to keep on our helmets from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. inside and out.
The heat got worse until it reached 127 in the tents. At midday it was awful, and it became too much to do anything, reading, writing, or card playing. It was a relief to get out at 5 o'clock when it was a little cooler. We then continued fatigues until about 6.30 and were then finished, but were not allowed out of camp. When fatigues finished in the morning, rifles that had been piled at reveille, had to be brought into the tents because of the heat. Stand-to was held every evening, when battalion orders were read out and we were dismissed. These were the general times of parades and duties. Picquets were posted round the camp each night.*
[* Until 1941 soldiers living in India were confined to their quarters from about 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., lot fear of the effects of the sun and heat. No training or other outside activities took place during these hours. Soldiers wore topis and spine pads (a double thickness of material sewn onto the jacket covering the spine), and Thursdays were a whole holiday (this had nothing to do with the heat!)
In 1941 these silly and unnecessary orders were cancelled as a result of the change in Medical opinion. Thursday whole holidays disappeared too.-ED.]
Cha was issued four or five times a day, and the canteen did a roaring trade in drinks. After Stand-to there was always a terrible rush that continued until it closed. Nights were hardly a relief from the heat of the day-a good night's sleep was almost unknown, and they were never refreshing. Heat and drink were all we could think about, the former we could not dismiss from our minds and our thirst was insatiable.
From May 27th to June 5th we had to endure this. For the first few mornings it was only fatigues, but as these diminished we had short route marches instead, never going more than six or seven miles. We nearly always passed long lines of convoys, miles and miles of camels tied head to tail, loaded with stores for the frontier forts. These marches were a "snip " but we always returned soaked through with perspiration to the tents, to remain there all day. Close to our camp every morning, hundreds of camels came to be loaded ready for the convoy, and the din was terrific, the "drabis" (drivers) shouting all the while the work was going on.
The glare from the sand was blinding, so dark glasses were issued, which made it difficult to recognise one another in them. Spinepads (cloth-covered canvas tied to the back) were also issued. These were to protect the back from the sun's rays. We also went about in shirtsleeves, jackets were unbearable. We pitied the poor cooks out in the sun, all the shelter they had was a matting covering over the open-air cookhouses. The heat rising from the ground was unpleasant, and often spoiled the little shade there was. From reveille until lights out we were in a bath of perspiration, it was simply awful, all the energy was taken out of us. We were in the grip of inertia, until we became unfit and out of form.
The bathing arrangements were poor, and in such heat a bath was a necessity every day. The difficulty was water, a small bathhouse was erected, but it was insufficient for a whole battalion, because it could only be used in early mornings and evenings, the sun was too hot middle day. The only stream in the district was a shallow dirty one where the camels were watered. It was fairly swift, about 4 ft. wide and 18 in. deep with a muddy bed, not exactly an ideal swimming pool, but it had to suffice, and every evening we were marched down and enjoyed the pleasure of feeling cool, and disposed of the sand for a while.
Drinking water was plentiful, obtained from tanks close to the camp, there was generally a line waiting at the taps with water bottles and chagals-the latter are canvas water bags that we had issued for carrying water on the march, attaching them to mules or camels whichever happened to be handiest.
We had followers with us, the dirzi, dhobi, mochi, and nappi, and they continued with us when we moved up the line. They were a blessing, and though they charged their own prices they were worth it. It was nice to be able to slip into their tent for any little repair instead of having to do it oneself.
Topis (helmets) always an important item in India were easily procurable, a damaged one was always immediately replaced, not without a few words from the "quarter-bloke" though.

* * * *
At midnight on June 6th-7th we left Tank, marched through clouds of dust to the station, en route picking up a battalion of Gurkhas, who formed the chief part of the escort to the transport. Continuing we crossed the stony plain that lies between Tank and the mountains of Waziristan. It was a hot unpleasant night with a little moon, just enough to see the objects in the immediate vicinity. A track led past the station, and continued alongside a palm grove, but when this was passed we were in the midst of a plain covered with low bushes and loose stones.
We saw few trees and less signs of habitation, it was as dreary and uninteresting as it could be. The only point of interest during the whole night's march was a waterfall, that in the sultry heat made one feel cool. We just continued on half asleep, what seemed to be for an endless distance. We were making for Zam Fort, which from Tank station is only about 6 miles, and 7 from our camp. Though we were continually marching for four and a half hours with only occasional short rests, it was daylight before we caught sight of it.
As we were approaching the fort we heard heavy firing away ahead at the foot of the hills. This was the first signs of warfare we had seen or heard. Zam Fort was reached about 5 o'clock, and according to orders we were to have stopped there and had something to eat. Just outside the fort we halted, but a minute or so later had the order to advance again. The firing had ceased by this time.
We were about to move when the wounded Gurkhas who had been attacked on a picquet, began to come in. Some were just able to hobble along on their own, some supported by their comrades, others being carried, the wounds in some cases were horrible. What had happened was that a large party of Gurkhas had left Zam to picquet the hills that we were to pass through, but a large number of Mahsuds had met them, and driven them back after some pretty heavy fighting. The official account reads as follows:
"During the concentration (of the Waziristan Field Force at Jandola) on June 7th, a lashkar of 300 Mahsuds encountered and tried to rush a picquetting party of 90 Gurkhas, under two British officers, at the mouth of the Takki Zam river. The ensuing fight which was of a close and heavy nature, lasting 20 minutes, resulted in the flight of the Mahsuds, who besides carrying off their dead and wounded, left 18 dead bodies on the ground. Our casualties were heavy, amounting to 35 Indian rank and file killed, and one British officer, and 17 Indian rank and file wounded."

* * * *
On reaching our new camp outside one of the forts at Jandola, we found a perimeter wall already built, so we only had to unload and pitch tents which was soon done. We then rested during the afternoon until the heat had decreased, then tidied up the stores which as before had been dumped down previously. There wasn't much to do but a nice bath was obtainable from pipes fed by an artificial stream, and drinking water was plentiful. The bath was extremely welcome, the day had been cooler than those at Tank, but only slightly so. We had the usual stand-to at 7 o'clock, after which we prepared our beds, the tents were left standing, some slept in the open, others under cover. We turned in about 9 o'clock. Soon afterwards firing commenced, but it was only firing on one of the outer forts and no notice was taken of it. It continued on and off until the early hours of the morning, but it didn't disturb our sleep.

* * * *
We were up at 5.30 next morning (June 9th), but there was very little doing. All I did in the way of duty was to lay a telephone line from our, the Londons', headquarters to that of the brigade only a short distance away. We had another bathe in the morning, and during our stay at this camp, made the most of this luxury.
Jandola was to be our advanced base, stores were accumulating there and troops concentrating. It is said that this is as far as white troops had previously been, but I would not vouch for the truth of this, in fact I am rather inclined to disbelieve it.
Various troops were coming in daily until three brigades met, two to form the striking force and one to be on lines of communication. The 43rd Signals arrived during our second day here, including two men who had left our section at Burhan, Jack Lane and Fisher. This brigade had left Tank some days before we arrived and had been strengthening the southern forts of Waziristan in the Gorval Valley, the main route through the country. Nilikach, Kajhurikach, etc. also provisioning them.
The Sussex arrived on the same day as the 43rd brigade. This regiment and our own were the only two white ones in the force. The Indian battalions consisted of Gurkhas (two), Sikhs, Nepalese, Cokes Rifles and Mahewaradals. These formed the two brigades of the striking force. To them were a attached two mountain batteries, a squadron Indian lancers, Ambulance batteries, a squadron Indian lancers, Ambulance bearers, and Supply Transport Corps (Indian ASC), also two company, of Sappers and Miners (Indian REs). Four planes of the RFC were stationed at Tank and came daily. The lines of communication troops consist, of Baluchis, Punjabis, one mountain battery, squadron of lancers, a company of pioneers, and Wireless section, one of which was also attached to us.
We were fortunate in having no perimeter to build. On each occasion so far we had found them already erected. These are an absolute necessity to prevent a rush at night. In the 1860 expedition a camp was pitched without one. The Mahsuds took advantage of it, and in the attack we lost 83 killed and 166 wounded. Although the enemy had been driven off, a lesson had been taught.
In this camp the perimeter was a natural wall, a long low narrow ridge ran along the outside of our boundary, with standing room about 5 feet below it. The wall varied from about 2 to 6 feet. If very low a trench was dug inside and barbed trip wires laid outside. The Indians were always able to build better walls than we could, and quicker. I could never make out how.

* * * *
Baptism of Fire
ORDERS came that night that 1500 Mahsuds were reported in the hills north-west of Jandola, and that we were to move out against them next morning. As a sort of "preliminary canter", they gave us another rousing that night by sniping into the camp, but no damage was done, and we were not turned out, leaving them to tire of their little game which they soon did, while we lay down wondering what was in store for us the following day.
We were up at 4.30 again, not having light enough to see to eat our breakfast. Having disposed of that minor detail and cleared up, we fell in at 6.30 and moved out of camp. Both brigades were out and we made for a high ridge about three miles from the camp. Two aeroplanes were up and soon after we had crossed the river, one dropped a message to the effect that enemy were reported over the ridge.
Our advance was slow owing to the nature of the ground which was intersected by deep nullahs down one side of which we had to slide only to clamber up the other. Like most of the country we passed through, it was covered with stones. The ground gradually rose to a low ridge, then dropped slightly to rise to a high rocky range beyond which the Mahsuds were reported. This second line of hills was occupied by the Nepalese and Sikhs, while we remained at the first.
No shots had been fired and no enemy seen except by aeroplane; this is what was expected. The Mahsuds always retire before an advance, and will very seldom make a stand-up fight. Guerilla warfare is their method, one they know well. Whenever we retired, returning to camp, they pressed hard on our heels, worrying our rearguard.
We remained on these ridges until 12 o'clock. Still no shots were fired, but we kept busy sending and receiving messages from the different units. One message from the Nepalese gave Pat and I, who were working together, rather a surprise.
It was addressed as usual to "Londons", but the text was in Hindustani. I forget the wording now, but we wondered what was coming. Fortunately the CO understood its meaning and replied in the same Ianguage. We knew very little Hindustani, so we were at a disadvantage. Another amusing incident was when the CO gave his opinion of one of our warrant officers, an expression best left unwritten.
At midday the order came through to retire, and we commenced our return to camp, then the fun, what little there was of it, started. Until now still no signs of a Mahsud had been seen, but no sooner was the main ridge vacated than they swarmed along it. The mountain battery then became useful and covered the retirement. The enemy were at their old pressing tactics, but they were kept at a distance by the battery and machine guns. They could move about very quickly being lightly clad and under practically no discipline.
Just before we began to move tom-toms were reported to have been heard in the valley. It was the first signs of the enemy that had been obtained. It is a custom of theirs to play these drums when on the warpath, the women often do it.
They also often follow the men into the firing line, supplying them with ammunition, and looking after the wounded. These and the dead are very seldom left behind. The only time either were found during the expedition, was at Zam, which makes it practically certain that they were severely punished on that occasion.
As we neared camp bullets began to whiz overhead, striking the ground all round, but even then we were unable to see any enemy, as they were so skilful at taking cover and their dirty clothing is difficult to distinguish against the ground.
The retirement continued, and as we approached the river, shots began coming from our left flank, from the camp side of the river, but they came from a long range and our troops were over there keeping them from approaching us. When we were in the bed of the river the firing increased, especially on the road, the only way up to the camp. We, the Londons, had two men slightly wounded only. The official report says:-
"The force Jandola moved out on the 12th instant against a large Mahsud lashkar which had collected in the hills immediately to the north-west, and which was reported as intending to attack us. The Mahsuds however fell back without fighting. Although they followed up our move to camp, they were kept off without difficulty and our casualties were slight, being one Nepalese officer slightly wounded and two British and one Indian rank and file wounded". Nothing very serious. We were back in camp by 2.30, it was at times exciting and all the while interesting, and so ended our baptism of fire.
On the march again
I WAS with the mules that carried our signalling equipment but had native drabis (drivers) that led them. We experienced great difficulty in some places, and had not these animals the sure-footedness of goats, very little equipment would have reached camp that night. They were with the columns in advance of the transport, so hadn't the advantage of the tracks made for the latter.
It was no easy job either getting the animals through the river that was flowing swiftly waist deep-again their surefootedness saved them. I do not know how the camels fared, they were well behind us by this time, but in places the drabis had ticklish jobs . . . It was in such places as these that the uselessness of any other kind of transport was very apparent. We seemed to be in the river half of the time, crossing and recrossing it continually the whole day. We were allowed to drink the river water so were all right in this way, although it was hot in an enclosed space like the tangi. Several good springs were made use of and from these we filled our water bottles and chagalls.
We had a fairly long rest close to "Bun Hill" for nearly half an hour, and just as we were moving, the head of the transport appeared at the mouth of the tangi. It was much easier going after this for a distance of two miles until we came to our new camp at Haidra Kach. Like our previous camps it was on a raghya, level ground high above the river and covered with stones. A roadway had to be made for the camels up the side of the hill before they could get up to the camp.
Close to "Bun Hill" was another hill of most peculiar colours, red and green and absolutely devoid of tree or bush.
We had only advanced 9 miles but had covered some nasty ground and waded the river 63 times. This sounds an exaggeration but it is not. We were soaked nearly up to our waists for several hours.
Our planes were up, and of course the batteries were with us but neither were wanted as no enemy were about. As soon as the spot on which our tents were to be pitched was detailed to us, we had to commence building our first perimeter wall. This was always one of the worst jobs we had to do as it was always after a long march. The Signals on this occasion had to build a small wall of their own in the middle of our part of the camp just for head cover at night. The wall was built all round the camp-each regiment had its portion to build and man.
The transport arrived some time after us, and the rear guard three or four hours later. Cha was issued some time after our arrival, as the kitchen utensils were on camels and therefore came up late. "Stand-to" was at 7.30 after which we turned in, bivouacking in the open. The night passed quietly.
The strength of the Signal Section when we left Jullundur was 31, three men were left behind at Tank, and one besides "Dolly" (who had died of heat stroke) at Jandola, so we were 26 strong on arrival at Haidra Kach.

* * * *
I was up early next morning (June 18th) . . .We went up the Danawat river that day and had to wade it several times, but as it was dirty water owing to rain we had had overnight, it was not pleasant. The 45th brigade had arrived at Haidrakach from Chagmalai the previous day and both brigades were out. We met with a little opposition but it was easily dealt with, with the aid of the RFC and batteries.
While we were strafing a village we had to leave our brigade, cross the numerous hills, during which we passed several caves hidden in a dip in the ground. We did not stop to examine them as apparently we had orders to hurry and we continued our rapid march over hill and dale until we struck a tangi in the Shahur riverbed, and remained there until the afternoon.
There were small parties of Mahsuds about but the batteries kept them off and they did not come within rifle shot. The villages were scattered, but six were destroyed that day and much grain and fodder found. Camels were taken out in case of such an emergency and returned loaded.
The Mahsuds played their usual guerilla game, worrying our flanks and advanced parties, but it was difficult to catch them owing to their quick movements and the difficulty of distinguishing them against the hillsides. Many of the rifles they used were those stolen from us at different times and for which we were fighting them. We never found any dead or wounded, as they always carry them away with them when they retire. It often fell to the women to remove them.
A treat awaited us that evening, we had milk in our tea for the first time for three weeks, a convoy had come in from Jandola bringing in boxes of condensed milk.

* * * *
On June 19th we were up extra early again, before four. We were to advance still further into Waziristan and therefore had the usual loading to do and preparations to make and were ready to move by six. Both brigades advanced together.
Leaving Haidra Kach we crossed to the junction of the two rivers, but the Shahur bed was dry, an unpleasant discovery as our route was along its course. Water was of course carried in our water bottles, but I had put tea in mine, not a wise act as I found when I wanted a drink; it had turned sour, having milk in it. Again I did a foolish thing by throwing it away, later if I could not have drunk it I could have moistened my mouth with it. Well, I learnt a lesson!


Copyright Simon Parker-Galbreath - Please acknowledge these web pages, and/or the original source.