25th County of London Cyclist Battalion
The London Regiment

Waziristan Campaign 1917

IT has been shown that the projected divisional manoeuvres from Burhan terminated very abruptly, owing to the fact that the 44th Brigade, in which the 1/1st Kents and 2/6th Sussex furnished the white element, had been withdrawn to proceed on service to Tank. It was proposed to institute serious punitive measures to avenge the deaths of Major Hughes, of the South Waziristan Militia, and a number of his men who had been ambushed, and cut up, just previously, near Wana. As a result of negotiations, however, it was thought that a satisfactory conclusion had been reached. The troops who had been mustered were in process of dispersing, when news was received that the tribesmen were again concentrating and, with greater boldness and determination than ever before, had started again their tactics of intercepting convoys and, where possible, cutting out and attacking isolated bodies of troops. Although the very worst period of the year for an expedition was approaching, it was decided to form the South Waziristan Field Force-later known as the Waziristan Field Force-which was mobilised without delay at Tank.

The 1/25th London's route from their 1917 Christmas card

  It would be well at this stage to give some idea of the men who comprised the enemy with which the Force was to be engaged, and the following extract taken from an article which appeared in the "Civil and Military Gazette",  on the 4th July, 1917, from the pen of a well-informed correspondent, will serve this end :­

"Soft and slippery is their tongue and soft and slippery are their ways. Indeed there are very few persons who will trust a Mahsud further than they can see him, and that is perhaps saying too much for a race, or rather a tribe, of whose treachery and evil-doings a thousand and one instances could be related.

"I well remember a certain occasion when an officer who had had dealings with them for many years, and who was really fond of them, argued through a full hour of one long winter evening, in an attempt to condone their past misdeeds.

"Within three days he had met his death at their hands.

"Many are the attempts which have been made to civilize them and to make them see the error of their ways, but all have been of no avail and so the Mahsud still remains a wild treacherous being over whom the only power of persuasion is the rifle and the sword.

"The old regiments of the Frontier Force were well versed in their tricks and stratagems, and very often got their own back in the many border affrays that took place. But it was a different story when some down-country regiments came in contact with them for the first time.

"One of their favourite tricks was to place a couple of men on one side of a nullah through which they expected a party of our troops to pass, while among the rocks and scrub on the opposite side they posted a dozen or more of their picked shots. Proceedings opened by the two men firing on the troops, on which, of course, the latter at once turned in the direction of the shots and were then promptly shot in the back by the remainder of the ambush.  

"Another strategem, which was invented for the benefit of young and inexperienced out-post commanders, was to lay an ambush about four or five hundred yards from the post and then, shortly after dusk, to fire some shots in the same direction but at a greater distance and raise a hue and cry for help, as if some party of travellers had been attacked. This very often led to the cutting up of the party from the post who went out to assist the supposed travellers.

"But perhaps best of all was the coffin ruse; one man was placed in a large sized coffin with a number of loaded rifles and the lid of the coffin was loosely fastened down and carried by half-a-dozen or so of the remaining members of the gang to the nearest thana.* On arrival, one man was sent to the gate to report that a murder had been committed and the body of the murdered man had been brought for inspection. On this the gate would, perhaps, be opened and the moharrir of the thana would come out to ask questions. While these were being answered, the coffin would be edged nearer and nearer to the gate and then, seizing an opportune moment, the man inside the coffin would spring out, the rifles would be snatched up and the whole party would be through the gateway in a very short space of time, have the few constables at their mercy and carry off everything of any value, including the rifles and ammunition.

"During the last blockade, they managed to obtain a large quantity of the khaki uniforms and equipment of our own troops and by this means were successful in a number of enterprises. On one occasion, a large party arrayed in these uniforms marched, in column of fours, up to a friendly village who were on their guard against an attack by the Mahsuds but were, of course, completely taken in by what they thought to be a force of Indian troops and fell an easy prey to the marauders.

"Their love for our service rifle is well known, but in the last fifteen years or so they have found it very hard to get a proper supply of the ammunition, although their attempts in this direction have been most ingenious.

"To attack a mule train of ammunition, well guarded as it always was, gave very little chance of capturing the much prized cartridges and they resorted to an attempt to bribe the drabis, or mule-drivers, who at a certain time and place where the road ran along a steep khud* side were to stampede the mules and so arrange matters that a number of the animals went over the edge with their valuable loads. At the bottom of the khud, among the rocks and trees, men had been posted to receive and carry off as much as they could gather in the time.

"Luckily, however, this plan was given away by the mule-drivers themselves, who saw in it a very short shrift for themselves, if they were suspected.

"Together with their cunning and treachery,the Mahsuds are fanatical to a degree, and many are the lives of European officers which have been taken by young men of the tribe, at the bidding of their Mullahs, who hold out to them hopes of a certain entrance into paradise as a reward for their actions.

"Among these murders by the tribe may be quoted :

"The shooting of Captain Bowring, at Sarwakai, by the Mahsud sentry who was guarding him as he lay asleep on the roof of the Militia post.

"Colonel Harman's death in the Militia Mess at Wana, when he fell on the fanatic who was about to shoot down all he could in the room.

"The killing of Captain Donaldson at Bannu, when marching into the cantonment at the head of some troops. " The attack made on Captain Brown on the Bannu golf links, on which occasion, thanks to a good strong putter, the assailant was beaten off, without doing any serious damage, and captured.

"The above events took place many years ago, but since then there have been others, among which the affair in the bungalow at Tank was perhaps the worst, for in this case the assassin accounted for no less than three officers before he was finally laid low himself.

"The Mahsud, therefore, deserves anything but clemency at our hands, and he has now added to his sins by creating trouble on the Frontier at a time when there is plenty to do elsewhere."

The battalion, something over 8oo strong, entrained at Jullundur for Tank on May 23rd, 1917, and proceeded by rail to the point of concentration, which was reached after crossing the Indus at Mari, and proceeding from Kalabagh, by narrow guage railway, the last 80 miles or so, on the 26th. For a fortnight, while arrangements were being completed, the Force was under canvas and this period, on account of the intense heat and uncomfortable con­ditions, was as trying, in many ways, as any which the battalion experienced. Heat stroke cases were daily occur­rences, while sand-fly fever took a very heavy toll-so heavy in fact that the battalion of the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, which was to have proceeded with the striking force, had to be invalided en bloc back to civilisa­tion. The Londons were to have been held in reserve on the Lines of Communication with the 2/6th Sussex and Queen's as the two British battalions of the main force. Owing to the sickness of the latter battalion, however, the Londons were promoted to the position of honour.

Feeding is an interesting topic with all, and the meat ration, while at Tank, is perhaps worth describing. The animals were driven to the abattoir (a hastily and very roughly constructed place among some trees half-a-mile from the camp) at daybreak and killed. The orderlies, meanwhile, generally had to wait for the still warm joints to be cut up. They were then taken to the cookhouse, put in the pot at once and eaten by mid-day-some six hours after killing. This procedure was necessary on account of the great heat and, incidentally, guarantees the toughest meat one can attempt to eat.

Tank will be remembered for its odours, dust, heat, mosquitos and, in fact, most of the unpleasant things in life and death except chilblains and fog.

Nothing can be said of the smells because they beggared description, but much could be written of the dust with which each man fed, slept and had his being. Tank is dust and, to prevent the visitor forgetting this for one moment, it frequently rears on its hind legs in the vortex of a whirl­wind or keeping low, sweeps over and round him in a storm.

It is recorded that the stretch of country from Tank to Lakki (pronounced "Lucky"-ironically enough!) is the hottest in the world. Who, having been there, would dispute it ? 130° in the shade was the average daily maximum during the end of May and beginning of June, 1917, exceeded, on at least one occasion, by 3°.

Pause for a moment to realise that not one person in twenty can get into a bath at 110˚ and then, if you were not there, try to imagine the effect of another 23°.

The evening readings were deceptive. The atmosphere cooled to the region of zoo' but the ground radiated its day-stored heat; and it was on the ground that the troops had to lie, after returning worn out, from "hill fighting" practice.

Continuous satisfying sleep was unknown. The various forms of fly-sand, horse and ordinary common or garden­ having, after fourteen hours or so, driven the troops to the verge of suicide, retired to well earned slumber to allow undisputed sovereignty to the mosquitos - who right royally carried on the task of inducing insanity.

If the "fly swatters", issued for use by day, can be compared with the broom with which the old lady attempted to stem the tide, what comparison should be applied to the mosquito head-nets which a beneficient authority doled out? To use one was to stifle; to discard it was to lose already thinned blood, by innumerable mosquito suctions and to gain malaria. It mattered little; some preferred prickly heat on the face-everyone had it on the body, anyway - and the increased chances of heat stroke, while others affected contempt for bites and their results. Which­ever the choice, all suffered from disturbed sleep.

The advance into Waziristan commenced on the night of the 6th-7th June. Although the brigade formed up during the late evening, it was not until well after midnight that the column finally got on the move, leaving the Sussex and the Indian battalions, which made up the second brigade, to follow the next night. There is a certain amount of flattery in describing the ill-defined and broken track as a road, and some delay occurred at a junction of ways East of Zam Post owing to a very serious difference of opinion with the local militia man who was acting as a guide. The O.C. column decided to follow the track past the Fort at Zain and the advance had just recommenced when scattered rifle fire, which quickly developed into rapid, could be heard and seen about a mile ahead. This was just before dawn broke, when in fact, as well as in proverb, the hour is darkest. It transpired that a screen of the 1/4th Gurkhas, under the command of a subaltern, had advanced from the Fort to picquet the heights to allow the force to pass through. When only a few hundred yards from the walls, they had been ambushed and, in the few minutes fierce fighting which ensued, had suffered 34 casualties-a large number being fatal. Although the surprised party, and at a dis­advantage through being in extended order, they had accounted for 17 Mahsuds. Within a few moments the day broke to find "A" Company of the Londons , which was acting as the vanguard to the force, pushing through the Fort enclosure and picking up extra ammunition on its way to the scene of action. By the time it arrived, however, there was little to do except to attempt to patch up the wounded, although had the guide been trustworthy, it could have cut off the enemy's retreat.

A short halt to reorganise preceded the most terrible march undertaken, either before or after, by the Battalion. It must be remembered that this had virtually started before midnight on the previous day and it was 3 o'clock the next afternoon before the first move was made to erect the bivouac camp at Kot Khirgi. The entire distance was probably not more than sixteen or seventeen miles, but at Zam the track gave way to the valley of the Tank River and from there, to within half-a-mile of Khirgi, the route lay along the stony, boulder-strewn river bed.   The stream itself-for it was nothing more at that time of the year-meandered from side to side of the main banks making it necessary to wade through the water every few minutes; on some occasions a little more than ankle deep, on others, well above the knee.

Orders having been given by the medical officers that the river water was not to be drunk, the men were forced to rely on their bottles, which, by that time in many cases, were empty. Where a few heavily chlorinated drops remained, they were well over 100° in temperature, and thereby rendered practically useless for thirst quenching. Except for oddments hastily stuffed into haversacks before leaving Tank, no one had eaten anything since tea-time the previous day, and sleep and the troops had been strangers for over thirty hours. Small wonder that, by mid-day, many, though they would not subsequently admit it, were in various stages of delirium and that men, realising ­probably only subconsciously-that the order regarding drinking had to be obeyed, laid down full length in the water-rifles, equipment and all, in the vague hope that the water would percolate through their burning skin. The effect of alternately soaking boots in water and then kicking them on scorching boulders was to make the sodden soles curl up. This and the shrinking of puttees added to the tortures of the march. Many dropped and could move no further. These were helped on to the backs of riding ponies or mules, which were only a little less fatigued than their riders. Some men, unfortunately, dropped out and were not immediately noticed. It was from this cause that the battalion lost one of its most popular members, Sergt. H. C. James ("B" Company), the officers' mess caterer, who had volunteered for service although not strictly fit to undertake it.  He, with four others at different parts of the route, was picked up and brought in unconscious by the rearguard.      It will give some idea of the heat on that day, and during the whole period of the campaign, to state that wherever the hot stones on which they sank had touched them, these men had blisters varying in size up to 3” in diameter.

A limited supply of water was available at Khirgi, and after the semblance of a meal, heroically prepared in the circumstances by the company cooks, the perimeter was dug and manned. Early next morning the column resumed its march to Jandola, leaving behind the five worst cases from the previous day, of whom four recovered. The other, Sergt. James, died at about 8 o'clock in the evening without regaining consciousness.

The march to the advanced base, Jandola, was under­taken the next morning. The conditions were similar and the men were stiff and footsore, but the distance was less and there was no opposition.

The battalion was able to rest for three days after its arrival at Jandola while the remainder of the force, of which it had been the advance guard, moved up from Tank. On the 12th, however, Major-General Sir William Beynon, the G.O.C., decided to conduct a reconnaissance in force over the hills on the North, or opposite, bank of the Shahur river from Jandola. No opposition was encountered during the advance, and it was not until the necessary information had been obtained and the movement back to camp com menced that any excitement occurred. It is a very usual practice on the Frontier, and a very sound one from the tribesmen's point of view, to harry any body of retreating troops, as in this way they can inflict casualties, frequently of a very serious nature, at little risk to themselves. They can move up and down a hill and up the next, during the time it takes a British soldier to climb the first and, although on this occasion not a soul could be seen at the moment when the word to retire was given, yet within a few moments firing commenced from many points along the surrounding ridges. It was a comparatively simple matter for the retirement to be covered until it came to the point of recrossing the river bed, which at this point is 300 or 400 yards wide, with the attenuated stream running approximately down the centre. The Londons had been covering the left flank and were the last to retire on this sector, "B" Coy., on the right, coming into action against the enemy who were working down a nullah with astonishing rapidity. It was a case of holding the last ridge on the North side and then of a rapid retirement in extended order over the open spaces to get under cover of the ridge which protected the camp on the South side. It is to the credit of the Londons ' morale, if not to their spirit of discipline, that on this occasion they refused to be hurried. Almost without exception each man on reaching the stream stopped, unstrapped his mug from his haver­sack and drank his full from the stream-the same which had been crossed so many times five days' previously but which had since been passed as perfectly fit for drinking purposes.

On the South side, everyone had to cross a narrow rough plank bridge, which spanned an irrigation duct,to gain the path which led up the khud side to the camp. The enemy, realising this, concentrated their fire on this point. The Londons did not appreciate this fact until two casualties had been suffered (Feldon and Tomlin, both in "D" Coy.). The agility displayed by everyone, after this, in clearing the bridge, in many cases without actually touching it, was most commendable after a hard day's work.

Since the arrival of the force at Jandola, the Mahsuds had tried another old trick but without success. This was to keep up desultory sniping into the camp for a long period on two or three nights. The object of this, particularly where troops new to frontier work are being employed, is to create a feeling of uncertainty calculated to unnerve and rob of sleep, but the attempt was a dismal failure and on no occasion did even the in-lying picquets stand-to. In fact many of the troops did not even wake up.

After two more days spent in preparing the route so far as possible, the Londons , with the rest of the 43rd Brigade, left Jandola and marched to Haidari Kach. This, a distance of approximately seven miles, entailed the passage of the Shahur Tangi-a narrow gorge the high rock walls of which rise many hundreds of feet. It is less a gorge than a jagged split through a mountain ridge with room for only one laden pack animal to pass at a time, for quite a distance. Had the Mahsuds chosen to defend this Pass it might well have taken the whole force many days to clear the way but, for some reason, the advance at this point was unopposed, although parties of the enemy were reported by the picquets. Haidari Kach itself is a plateau a little above the river, on one bank of which a fair amount of lush grass provided the transport animals with the first green food they had enjoyed for a very long time.

Here, for the first time, the Londons took part in the erection of a perimeter wall under active service conditions. Experience has shown that the frontier tribesmen are capable of very dangerous night rushes, and it is therefore the invariable rule, and the first duty on arrival, for all available men to build a protective wall round the whole of the camp. There is little soil which can be dug up for the purpose, but boulders and large stones are abundant, and these are piled up to form a barrier about three feet high and two feet thick. A shallow trench, about a foot deep and six feet wide is, if possible, scraped out on the near side of the wall, and in this the in-lying picquet sleeps. As the individual distances between men is usually one pace, it will be seen that a large proportion of the troops are on duty, in this manner, every night, quite apart from the outlying picquets which are holding all the com­manding heights in the vicinity.

On the 16th, the 2/6th Sussex with the rest of the 45th Brigade arrived, and two or three days were occupied by parties from the camp in destroying neighbouring villages and standing crops with explosives, fire and crowbars, to the accompaniment of sniping which seemed to indicate that the owners objected. Meanwhile the staff prospected, so far as possible, the route for the next advance, which was undertaken on the 19th. Reports had been received that the enemy intended strongly to oppose any further incursion and some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign occurred during the nine miles march to Barwand. The Londons were in the main body and therefore came in for none of the actual fighting en route, but on reaching the spot selected for the camp they were called upon to furnish some of the outlying picquets on the surrounding hills. These parties had to fight to secure their allotted positions and were fortunate in sustaining only one casualty.

The Mahsuds, who had striven so hard to stop the advance, determined to allow the force as little sleep or rest as possible during the ensuing night, and by continual sniping, interspersed with bursts of rapid fire, harassed the column during the construction of the perimeter. After darkness had fallen, several hundreds of the tribesmen made a determined effort to capture or wipe out a picquet of the 54th Sikhs (F.F.) commanded by an Indian officer.

There were only 27 rank and file in this party, which was under heavy fire at close range for the whole of the night. It is impossible, in frontier warfare, to send out any rein­forcements between dusk and dawn, but everything else which could assist the picquet was done. The searchlight played the whole time all round the actual sangar* thus enabling the mountain guns to keep up a fairly steady fire. This, however, could only have an effect on the near-side of the hill, and the picquet itself had to provide for its own defence against attacks from the far side. So close did the Mahsuds get that bombs were used against them.

The native signaller, who was subsequently decorated for his heroism, carried out his onerous duty in a wonderful manner. Very early in the proceedings the front of his lamp was shot away. He relit it but, coming to the con­clusion that he was not in full view of the camp, he crept out from the sangar, a distance of some yards down the hill-side and from there kept up constant communication with headquarters throughout the night, despite the fact that he was wounded and had his lamp shot out on two other occasions. Altogether this picquet of twenty-eight suffered four killed and eleven wounded, and was reduced in ammunition to an average of three rounds a rifle by the time daylight appeared.

It was necessary, for reasons of water supply, to advance, on the 20th, a matter of three miles to Ispana Raghza. Again strong opposition was encountered and as the Londons constituted a portion of the advance guard, they were fairly heavily engaged. It is almost certain that the enemy had received reinforcements for they made a deter­mined stand on the plateau upon which it was intended that the column should encamp. Ispana Raghza lies on the inside of a hairpin bend of the river and is, therefore, well protected against direct assault but, with artillery and machine gun fire covering them, the infantry drove the enemy from this position back to its supports on the high ground beyond, from which it was also essential that it should be cleared before nightfall. This was success­fully accomplished and according to the official account, published from Simla, "the 43rd Brigade overcame the opposition, the work of the 1/25th London Regiment and the 1/4th Gurkha Rifles being specially noticeable."

The next day the 45th Brigade was dispatched to destroy the village of Nanu at the head of the Splitoi Valley , while the 43rd Brigade dealt with the settlements in the vicinity of the camp. The Londons received orders to occupy the heights to the South, for the purpose of covering the destruction of one of the villages by other troops in the brigade. This movement was strongly opposed by the enemy and two platoons of "B" Company were subjected to very intensive fire in the course of which one man (Private Burtenshaw) was killed and several others wounded, including the company commander, Capt. Paget. "C" Company was despatched to their support and, by means of concentrated rifle and machine gun fire, the enemy was driven off and the heights secured without further loss. While these operations were taking place a detachment of the Mohendradel Regiment, Nepalese Con­tingent, on the left of the Londons, were charged by the Mahsuds, who engaged them in hand to hand fighting. Several casualties occurred before the enemy was driven off. A half-hearted rifle attack was made on the camp that night, but it was not pushed home. In answer to it, some 15,000 rounds, mostly in the form of rapid fire, were expended in a few minutes from the perimeter wall and though, so far as is known, no casualties were inflicted, the spectacle furnished the nearest approach to a "Brock's Benefit" which the battalion ever experienced in India .

The next day, the 43rd Brigade, which was commanded by Lt.-Col. C. O. O. Tanner, destroyed the large village of Shah Salim Mela , in the Waspis Valley . According to the official report, the enemy had made careful preparations for opposing the advance, but owing to the good dispositions made by the Brigade Commander the whole of the enemy's defence was turned and the casualties of the force, in con­sequence, were slight. Sufficient supplies having now been collected, a force was left behind to hold the camp while a Striking Column, comprising the remainder of the two brigades, moved out in light order, on the 23rd, to Narai Raghza, which is at the entrance to the Khaisara Valley . A very difficult defile had to be negotiated in the face of opposition, but this was cleared by the 45th Brigade. A picquet of "B" Company, which was detailed to occupy a hilltop about 800 yards from the camp, came under heavy rifle fire before it could sangar the position. It had been reported that the surrounding ground had been cleared by the Gurkhas, but it transpired later that this was not the case. The men, however, advanced in proper formation, as for uncleared ground, and well for them that they did, because the leaders were barely at the top when they were subjected to a sudden volley from three parts of the circle round the hill. The hill was high and cone shaped, the top being almost pointed and devoid of cover, and it was necessary to lie out below the summit, to avoid providing an open target. Attempts to get up and build a sangar were met with further volleys and, as the snipers worked closer in, the position became difficult. Gunfire assistance was given, but the Mahsuds were heard massing on the other side of the crest for a rush, covered by the fire of their snipers. Fortunately, hand grenades were forthcoming and effectively broke up any attempt at a rush. While the sniping continued, a rock wall was built by those nearest the top, the men from below passing up boulders, there being no material higher up and then, by means of pushing the wall over and rolling it forward and upward, it was eventually pushed to the top. The sides of the sangar were then added and the position consolidated. The Lewis guns were able to get into action, and the well-concealed tormenting snipers eagerly sought out, but, despite the assistance of supports, it was considered essential to occupy the high ground in the vicinity before the position could be regarded as tenable.   Even then this picquet was under fire for practically 48 hours and numerous casualties were sustained, including H. H. Gayler, the holder of the world's unpaced 12 hours amateur cycling record and many others, who was killed.    Signaller S. P. Chapman ("B" Coy.) was later awarded the Military Medal for bringing in a wounded comrade from this picquet under fire.

On the 24th, the 43rd Brigade was directed to capture the Shrawani Pass to cover the passage through it of the 45th Brigade, which had orders to carry out punitive measures in the Khaisara in the direction of Kaniguram­the capital of the country. The retirement of this brigade, after it had destroyed numerous villages, was very hotly followed up and once again the enemy engaged in hand to hand fighting-a picquet of the 55th Coke's Rifles (F.F.) being charged. It was Major-General Beynon's intention to visit the same area on the following day, but the Chief Political Officer, Sir John Donald, considered that the damage already inflicted was sufficient and, accordingly, on the 25th, after completely destroying a village in the vicinity of the camp by H.E. artillery fire, the force returned, suffering only slight molestation, to Ispana Raghza, where messengers arrived, from the enemy, asking for terms of peace. While these were being formulated, the Column moved to a point about three miles up the valley and camped at Boji Khel, a higher and more suit­able camp than the previous one. This plateau was reached from the river bed by a narrow winding path up the khud side.

Any account of these operations would be incomplete without reference to Ginger, the most recalcitrant mule in the Lewis gun teams. Though a female by birth, she was no lady by nature and it therefore seemed curious that she, of all the hundreds of pack mules in the camp, should have been chosen to carry a load of hand grenades up to the camp. She whole-heartedly objected to camels and seeing, or smelling, one while being led up this path she jumped, bucked, kicked, twisted, turned and performed all the evolutions common to her race-most of them at one and the same time. She successfully broke away, cleared herself of her load, and then, to the horror of the onlookers-who hastily placed as great a distance between themselves and her as they could-proceeded to kick one box of grenades to pieces and then jump on the strewn contents. If there is a Providence which looks after sailors and drunken men, there must be a very special one which cares for barbary quadrupeds. When finally she was driven off, or, as is more likely, when she elected to move, it was found that a number of detonators had been pounded flush into the hard rocky soil-yet not one had exploded.

After some delay a Jirgah* of Mahsud leaders assembled for the purpose of accepting the peace terms dictated by the G.O.C. One of the conditions was that all stolen Government rifles, together with a certain number of other fire arms, had to be delivered into the camp. Naturally there was some delay on the part of the tribesmen in com­plying with this demand but, after one or two postpone­ments, the goods were forthcoming and, on the 12th July, the force returned down the valley as far as Manzal, where a semi-permanent camp was erected.

The next month was trying, chiefly owing to constant picquetting work. The wet weather having set in, the men were often soaked to the skin. The column was still in enemy country, and picquets had to be found for all the normal outlying duties as well as camp guards. In addition, it was necessary to provide protection for the bi-weekly convoys evacuating the sick to, and bringing stores from, Jandola. These convoys had to traverse the Shahur Tangi, necessitating substantial picquets being provided by the Manzal force to cover the route up to half way. The other half was covered by the Jandola garrison. No. 10 picquet, over the centre of the tangi, was on a very high ridge, and it was no uncommon event for the picquet to look down at the clouds between itself and the convoy below.

The passage through the tangi became more difficult and, at times, dangerous owing to the effect of the rains. It has been explained that the tangi constituted a narrow bottle neck. Sometimes, without warning, an accumulation of water from higher up the hills would come racing down and pile up to a wave several feet high through this gap.

On one occasion, a particularly bad " spate "-the water rising to about 25 feet at the entrance-caught "A" Company's Lewis gun team as it was passing through the tangi with the result that one mule, from which the driver at the last moment retrieved the gun, was drowned and many "collar boxes" of loaded drums were lost.

The humid atmosphere was oppressive and, if possible, caused an increase in the number of flies. It was considered advisable to find employment for such men as were daily left in camp whose health would have degenerated, even more rapidly than it was doing, had they been allowed long spells of idleness. The perimeter camp was a large one, and fatigue parties were given work of shifting stones and boulders, making roads and by-paths, cutting down all signs of vegetation-of which there was a fair quantity ­over a large radius round the outside of the wall, while, in addition, sports and tournaments were organised.

Nevertheless the reaction from the previous extra strenuous period showed itself in both the British and Indian units, and the convoys of sick which left for the base increased in size. The difficulties engendered by the nature of the country, and the distance from the railhead, made the question of transporting sick and wounded a very serious one, during this campaign. Men who were wounded, or became casualties from any other cause, when the column was at its furthest point, could not possibly reach a permanent Hospital in less than about five days, and the first of such hospitals was only the mud casualty wards at Tank. Most of the wounded and sick were sent through to Rawalpindi Hospital , which necessitated another two day's rail travel. In point of fact, it was impossible for any sick man to do the whole journey continuously,as one, day's travelling rendered him, as a rule, totally unfit to be moved again for another two or three days. The casualties at Narai Raghza returned with the column to Ispana Raghza and, after delays varying with the seriousness of their respective cases and their ability to be moved, proceeded in stages to Haidari Kach, Jandola, Khirgi and Tank. The first three of these stages had to be undertaken either by "dhoolie" or "camel khajava." The latter is an appliance consisting of a pair of wood and webbing stretchers with hoods, fitted one on either side of a camel saddle. The patients are placed one on each side, with their feet towards the animal's head.    If one man is two stone lighter than his opposite number, a boulder of approximately that weight is placed in his stretcher with him. The camel moves one leg at a time, and, as a result, the rolling movement imparted to these stretchers is most pronounced; the sufferings of the patients being thereby enormously increased. As far as possible, men suffering from fractures were taken in dhoolies, which are ordinary hand stretchers totally enclosed by hoods supported on cane or iron hoops. Straps from a long centre pole, which is carried on the shoulders of native ambulance bearers, are slipped round the four handles, but during this campaign, owing to the frequent river crossings, this pole was, for the most part, dispensed with and the stretchers carried shoulder high by relays of bearers, recruited from the uneducated agricultural classes. Dis­cipline among them was far from good, but from this it must not be inferred that they were unruly, but simply that they lacked the intelligence to obey any but the most simple orders. In squads, on parade, it was virtually impos­sible to make them keep step but, when carrying a stretcher which calls for a "broken" step on the part of the bearers, their foot work was as regular as Guards on the barrack square. The number of these dhoolies was limited and it was therefore necessary, at times, to send bad cases by camel khajava, with the result that when the patients were unloaded-if the camels had not unloaded them already during the course of the march, an incident which frequently happened many were found to be semi or wholly delirious. There is no criticism of the medical authorities in this statement since, apart from aeroplanes, there was no other possible means of transporting casualties.

Field hospitals had been erected at all the stopping places, and a road sufficiently good for motor ambulances constructed from Tank as far as Khirgi, but three days by camel, one by motor and two by train, with a number of days interspersed at various points while convoys were being made up, would have tried the endurance of the stoutest, while for the wounded and sick it was hellish.

When, finally, all the peace conditions had been complied with by the Mahsuds, so far as they were likely to be, the column withdrew, by stages. Arrived at Tank, the battalion settled down for the night in a rest camp beside the railway station. It had arrived a few months previously over 800 strong, but had returned with less than half that number owing more to the ravages of sickness than to enemy bullets. This remnant, however, could not be allowed to leave that benighted country without one final kick from the elements.

When the Last Post was sounding, a few drops of rain commenced to fall and these, with a few which followed, caused the bursting of a dam in the early hours of the morning. The camp lay right in the path of the flood and the first intimation to the troops was water first creeping, and then pouring, through the tents. In a matter of seconds the water had reached waist high even in the highest corner of the camp. The obvious place of refuge was the station platform, which could be reached by a path running down one side of the camp and, fortunately, raised above the level of the surrounding land. Hundreds of shrieking natives were already hurrying along this path, which was itself over ankle deep, and most of the troops succeeded in making it, while some waded or swam, as the case demanded, by the more direct route. It is safe to say that the majority of those who made for the path forgot a deep, wide ditch which intervened, and it was consequently a very lucky man who arrived on the platform not soaked through from head to foot. "Soaked through" is perhaps an exaggerated and flattering term, for many men stood up in a shirt only, although others had clapped their topees on their heads from force of habit, although the sun was not due to rise for some hours. Most of the kit was under water until salvaged in the morning.

Some men were fortunate in that they had been entrained the previous evening, but when day broke the spectacle of those who had suffered the inundation would have been worth a journey of many miles to see. The Commanding Officer alone, in his topee and boots, wrapped in an army blanket and as much dignity as he could muster, provided one of the most humorous interludes associated with the campaign.

Jaundiced and ague-stricken, the Battalion finally reached Jullundur, and a large number of all ranks, who had previously managed to carry on, took the opportunity of going straight into hospital, from whence all those who were in a fit state to travel at all, journeyed a few days later with the rest of the Battalion to Gharial Barracks, Murree Hills, on the borders of Kashmir.

It is interesting at this stage to note that an examina­tion of Sick Reports revealed that less than a score of the 800 odd men who arrived at Tank in May had not, at some period during the succeeding few months, been on the sick list. Four had been killed or had died of wounds, one had been drowned while crossing the Indus , five had succumbed to disease and eleven been wounded.

The unit was scattered in groups over the length and breadth of North-western India , in hospitals and con­valescent depots. Rawalpindi , Dagshai, Upper Topa, and Jullundur each had its quota, while Gharial itself, the battalion headquarters, was hardly a step removed from being one big sick bay.

Almost without exception, all ranks who could stand were marked D III., signifying that they were unfit for any duty but were likely to become fit within six months.

Jullundur had been handed over, for the time being, to a Regular unit, but a few Londons remained there throughout the summer. The rest, from this and the other stations, were drafted to Gharial as they became fit enough to stand the journey until, on the 4th December, the Battalion, again approaching full strength, returned to Jullundur. For the first time since leaving England , it was possible to make real festive arrangements for Christmas. Bungalow vied with bungalow in decorations and in the matter of setting out tables, in which, it must be recorded in a whisper, bed sheets played a prominent part.

From 'The London Cycle Battalion'

See also the Civil & Military Gazette articles :-

See also diaries of the campaign, from the point of view of the soldiers.

Read more on the British conflict on the North West Frontier :- The Army in India & Frontier Warfare 1914-1939.


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