Waziristan Campaign 1917
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
The 1/25th London's route from their 1917 Christmas card
on the 4th July, 1917, from the
pen of a well-informed correspondent, will serve this end :
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 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
"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
"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.
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
The battalion, something over 8oo
strong, entrained at
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°.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Here, for the first time, the
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
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.
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
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
The next day the 45th Brigade was
dispatched to destroy the
The next day, the 43rd Brigade, which
was commanded by Lt.-Col. C. O. O. Tanner, destroyed the large
On the 24th, the 43rd Brigade was
directed to capture the
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
The unit was scattered in groups over
the length and breadth of North-western
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.
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.