Gateway of the Fort, Patiala
CHAPTER XII. A FRONTIER ROW
The Value of the North-West Frontier—Village Warfare —Readiness and Efficiency—How an Irishman Got a Dog and a Breakfast for Nothing—Trouble in the Buner Country—The Subaltern in War-time—The Pessimistic Afridi—A Terrified Jehu—Sniping—The Morning of the Fight—Sir Bindon’s Dispositions—The Artillery Triumphs—Touching the Button—Rock-rolling—An Exciting Race—The Bravest Man I Ever Saw—The Enemy in Retreat—An Exhausting Climb—The Tribute of a Foe—The Trophies of War—Our Casualties
WE as a nation are exceptionally fortunate in having a valuable training ground for our officers in the North-West Frontier of India, with real live enemies always ready to oblige in giving us practical instruction in the field in tactics and strategy, transport and supply, sanitation and ambulance work, and general staff duties. If Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, there are many victories before us that will have been won in the more practical fields of the North-West Frontier.
Half of our good soldiers have made their names in the first instance in this arena. Critics love to disparage our "Sepoy Generals"; but though their tactics may not be suitable to European warfare, they have at any rate learnt to handle men in difficult circumstances. They have had to adapt their common-sense to the situation; they have been faced with intricate problems of organisation and supply, and above all they have learnt to know themselves under the ordeal of war, which cannot be imitated even in the best maneuvers. Those that have stood the test must ipso facto be the more valuable soldiers for any field. Scarcely a single year has passed during the last century in which there has not been some fighting on this frontier.
A peace advocate has suggested that, in order to stop the numerous little wars in which we indulge so frequently in different parts of our Empire, every officer should on joining the service be awarded half a dozen war medals, and that one should then be taken from him for every campaign in which he subsequently takes part. The idea in the promoter’s mind was that wars are brought about by officers on the hunt for medals.
This can scarcely be said to be the case in the Afridi and neighbouring countries. Why, the people there just live to fight. It is their only joy and their only business, their only relaxation. Consequently it means constant preparedness and constant efficiency on the part of our troops, ready to spring into action on the shortest notice to protect the loyal tribes. Even the most optimistic politician would hesitate to assume that, in India, there would be six months’ notice in which to train our forces. It is thanks to this readiness and efficiency on the part of our frontier forces that the frequent outbursts by the Hill men are so promptly stamped out in the spark, before they can become the blaze which they would quickly do under any "Wait and See" policy. The average British citizen scarcely realises how much he owes to the frontier forces in keeping his money market steady at home.
I remember sitting on the ramparts of Fort Jamrud, at the entrance to the Khyber Pass, on a calm and peaceful evening. Suddenly the crack of a rifle echoed round the neighbouring cliffs, followed by another and another.
"What is up?" I inquired in some excitement.
"Oh, it is only that the women from that village over there are going down to the stream to get water. The other village is firing at them: they do it almost every day. You see, there is a longstanding feud between them. They have been at it for years."
It was characteristic of the country that these villages, only about a mile or two apart, though both were under British protection, were always banging away at each other. Sunk paths had been dug by both to their respective water supplies for the protection of water-carriers, and their daily work was constantly, carried out under fire.
Fort Jamrud stood by like a policeman, watching but not interfering unless they actually broke the law. The one law that they understood and respected was that the Government road, the Great Unbroken Road, was sacred ground. It ran between the two villages, and the moment one of the villagers set foot on the road he was in sanctuary and might not be fired upon.
This incident is merely typical of the restless fighting atmosphere in which the whole of the border tribes are bred and brought up.
It might seem to many that the soldier’s life is one continual round of efforts to find sport and to enjoy himself. Few people realise that it is at the same time a profession in which there is plenty of hard work even in the piping times of peace.
Thirty years ago it was different, since the officer was then more or less an amateur, and that tradition still lives outside the Army. His men were then long-service men, trained to vigorous discipline by the adjutant and sergeant-majors. The commanding officer relied upon his adjutant, and the officers relied upon their sergeants, to know the work and to do it. In many regiments it was not good form to take an evident interest in your work; and to talk shop at mess involved a fine. But the men were smart on parade and marched past like clockwork. Things have changed since then. The officer is now a professional soldier. He has, even in the junior ranks, responsibility upon him. It is his fault if his men or his horses are not properly trained, or fail in efficiency at maneuvers; he recognises this and works in season and out, studying and instructing, and he takes a pride in his results; thus duty comes first in his programme and relaxation second. The result is an army of keen experts, accustomed to act on their own initiative in the field as well as in camp. I have to admit that the men are better horsemen, better men-at-arms, better scouts, and better behaved than their predecessors, much though I loved these and deplored their departure. (These words were in print before the present war broke out, and results to date do not encourage me to modify one of them).
A characteristic frontier row was that in the Buner country. On January 5, 1898, I left Meerut, going merely as a student to the front. It was a long and cold journey northward, past Umballa, Lahore, Rawal Pindi to Nowshera.
On my way up in the train we stopped, at about five a.m., at a small roadside station where the up and down trains crossed one another. In the hovel which stood as a refreshment room I sat down to coffee with a stranger who was travelling downcountry. He was strongly sunburnt, bearded and long-haired, dressed in a battered old helmet, poshteen (native fur-coat) and worn nether-clothes. In our hurried, scratchy meal of three minutes duration his brogue told me he was an Irishman, while he himself told me how he was just from Central Persia, and was full of enjoyment at getting back to civilisation once more. Then a whistle sounded and he rushed out to catch his train as it was moving off. "Pay my bill for me, my dear fellow, and good luck to ye," he shouted as he ran off along the platform. There a friendly dog ran up to greet him. "Begob," he cried, "but that’s a goodlooking baste," and seizing it by the scruff of the neck he bundled himself and it into the train and was gone —the richer by a breakfast and a dog, all free, gratis, and for nothing.
The first glimpse of war came at Jhelum, where the typical British subaltern on service got into the carriage, helmet, pistol, poshteen, pipe, and putties, but without a fox-terrier for once. He had his roll of blankets and a Union Jack. While I was Sherlock Holmesing the reason for the flag, whether it was for a general or for a funeral, he asked me to excuse him if he turned in to sleep, as he was tired—had brought down Hickman’s body, killed in a fight up the Khyber the day before yesterday, and was now off back to Peshawur.
It is always interesting to note the attitude of the average subaltern when there is a chance of fighting. Even the veriest youngster becomes something of a veteran in his demeanour, short of speech, with a certain underlying grimness of purpose in his bearing. On the other hand, when you encounter a group of men talking wisely of war, of strategy and tactics, but in particular of the service they have seen, you may always be sure they are non-combatants.
At Mardan I learnt that General Sir Bindon Blood and his column had marched the previous day to Katlunga en route to the Buner country and that the road was merely a track. Leaving bearer and baggage at the Dak Bungalow at Mardan, I took a tum-tum, a kind of broken-down dog-cart, to Katlunga. It was hard to find a driver to take one; they were afraid of small parties of the enemy being about, or that they would be shot at when they got near the hills. At last I got a man to go, but after trying for a mile or two found that he could not get his horse to go. Luckily at this juncture a very tattered-looking stray, with a wild-looking Afridi driver, came jogging along empty from the direction of Katlunga. On being promised double fare he agreed to take me there; but he added that nothing would tempt him to go beyond that place, not 100 Rupees ! I said nothing. At Katlunga I found, as I had expected, that Sir Bindon had gone on that morning to Sanghao, close to the pass which he was to attack at dawn next day and about eleven miles distant.
So Beatty (Transport Officer) gave me tea while his orderly gave a feed to the wretched pony of my tum-tum, and off we went again. The poor driver was now very sorry for himself and said that this night would be his last. If the enemy did not catch us en route and cut him up—he did not seem to care what became of me—the cold would at any rate make an end of him. I cheered him as well as I could by telling him that he could only die once, and this was not a bad opportunity, and that if we got into camp all right I would present him with one of my own blankets, which I afterwards did—my dear old brown rug. It was an awful drive with the half dead pony, frightened driver, rotten cart, and bumpy, bad road, and a chance of Ghazis.
The sun set and the moon rose and we toilfully bumped along: but I liked it. At last, close under the mountains, we sighted the layer of smoke from our camp, and, at the same time, the bivouac fires of the enemy twinkling all along the heights, which gave me a throb of pleasure; but the driver merely moaned hopelessly. About a mile from camp the pony gave out and I walked in, the driver carrying my bedding.
Sir Bindon was most kind. I put up in Fraser’s tent, and met Fitzgerald (of the Blues) and Bunbury (Political Officer) at dinner. In camp were two Brigades (Generals Jeffry and Meiklejohn) including the West Kents, the Buffs, the Highland Light Infantry, the 20th and 21st Punjab Infantry, the 16th Native Infantry, the 10th Field Battery, R.A., and two mountain batteries, a few native cavalry of the 10th Lancers and Guides, and a battalion of native Sappers.
While we were at dinner—bang ! bang ! bang ! The enemy were firing into camp from the neighbouring heights. Nobody seemed to take much notice.
This fun is called "sniping." Every ten minutes they would give us a dozen shots or so, which sometimes were replied to with a sharp little volley from the Lee-Metfords of one of our piquets. Some shots fell among our horses, but did no damage.
At ten we turned in, and I slept like an angel, only to half-wake once to hear the snipers still at it; but they did us no harm. One wit turned out of his tent and called to the snipers: "A little more elevation, you —!"
It was a clear, frosty, iced-champagne sort of morning. Of course our first anxiety on awaking was to see if the enemy were still intending to hold the pass. Fraser poked his nose out of the tent door, whilst I put my head out under the fly where I lay. There on the skyline we could see their standards, so all promised well for a fight.
I die not wait for reveille to wake me, nor did I take long to put on my clothes, having most of them on already. While we were at breakfast, the leading troops were already filing out of camp. Cavalry Scouts first, then the Field Artillery, Sappers to make paths, etc.; everybody cheering each other or themselves.
The Buner country which Sir Bindon was about to attack is divided from our territory by a precipitous range of mountains passable at three or four places, and then only by very difficult tracks. The General had sent small forces against each pass simultaneously to make feints and, if they found it feasible, to invade the country at several points. The Sanghao pass he had selected for his main attack, because it offered a better chance for the artillery. Though called a pass it was merely a foot-track which went through a narrow gorge about half a mile long, then turned to the right in a small basin in the hills and ascended the heights by zigzags.
The enemy were holding the heights on their side of the basin, and we proposed to make the near side our artillery position, while our infantry got through the gorge and scaled the heights, one battalion (the 20th Native Infantry) being meantime sent up the mountain to our left, to seize the peak, 2,500 feet high, and thence to enfilade the enemy.
The scene of action was only a mile from our camp, and it was so cold that we walked instead of riding. We found the mountain batteries moving just in front of us, and the Highland Light Infantry alongside us, with their pipers playing gaily and the men cheering. Enough row to dishearten the Buners before a shot was fired. Suddenly boom went the first gun, the field artillery came into action at nine o’clock exactly, and began shelling the standards grouped on the sky-line. These standards were tall narrow triangular flags about twelve feet high, with tufts of black fur at the head of the flag-pole.
Presently we climbed the stony scrub-grown hill in front of the enemy’s position, from which we got an excellent view. They were 1,200 yards from us and several hundred feet higher than we were, with a steep, open, stony slope leading up to their position, on which our men could get very little cover from their fire. The enemy had made low stone breast-works and little forts (sangars) on all the best points of their position, and we could see their heads looking over them all along the line. In fact they were all outside on the face of the ridge till the artillery opened fire.
By 9.30 the mountain batteries had clambered up our hill with their mules and come into action just above us, while the Buffs climbed higher up on the same hill to a position whence they could bring effective long-range volleys to bear on the enemy’s sangars. With all three batteries in action there was an infernal din; every discharge went booming and re-echoing all round the basin of hills, and the shells exploding at the other end doubled the row. With eighteen of these banging- off one after another the row was incessant. The practice they made too was excellent, each shot burst directly against a sangar or over a group of standards, and the enemy gradually got very chary of showing themselves. But directly there was a lull in the firing up came all their heads again. Here and there a man got up on a rock and waved his sword and harangued his pals or yelled at us, while others in the sangars stood up and reloaded their long muzzle-loading jezails.
They fired a few shots at us now and then, but the distance was too great for them: nevertheless we found it best not to stand in too much of a group near the General, as some whistled over us. It was curious to see how coolly the enemy took the artillery fire, with the shells bursting close round them: they evidently watched the guns, and directly one fired they bobbed down till the shell had burst, when up they all came again like jacks-in-the-box; I saw one or two hit while doing this.
During this preliminary artillery fire, the infantry, almost unseen by the enemy, were creeping into the basin below, through the gorge: first the 21st Punjabis, then the Highland Light Infantry, then the West Kents and finally the 16th Bombay Infantry; but it took them over two hours to do this half mile of narrow rocky defile, which had been barricaded by the enemy. Meanwhile, over a mile away to our left, the 20th Native Infantry (Afridis) had been sent to climb the mountains and make a flank attack on the enemy’s position. They started at nine; but, although they were good hill-climbers, it was past eleven before they were on the ridge ready to commence work.
There was a bit of a lull in the artillery fire at about II.30, when the General, from his post of observation, seeing that all was ready, signalled for the attack to begin. Just like "touching the button," we did the rest. The West Kents moved up out of the basin at its far right-hand end to the so-called pass on the enemy’s left. The 21st Punjab Infantry and the Highland Light Infantry commenced to clamber up the face of the centre of the position, while the 20th, upon the mountain, advanced against the peak which was held by the enemy’s right party.
The enemy at once rose to the occasion. Fresh standards began to appear at all points, coming up from the* hiding places behind the ridge, until there were twenty-nine of them fluttering and waving in the breeze. The men crowded into the sangars and began blazing away with their long guns at the troops below. Then one or two came out and prized up great rocks and sent them hurtling down the steep face of the mountain. It was fascinating to watch one of these rocks rolling over and over, faster and faster, knocking chips off other rocks as it bounded from them in its mad descent, then taking a clear leap over a cliff of a hundred feet or so and splashing down among the stones of a water-course, going faster till it was flying through the air, then plunging out of sight into a ravine, to reappear a second later, tearing on lower down, banging from one side to the other of the nullah till it disappeared out of sight in the thick bush of the basin below us.
The troops, having been warned of these rock-rolling games by experience in previous fights, always kept well out of ravines, but it served the enemy’s ends all the same because, by keeping on the spurs, the troops necessarily exposed themselves all the more to the rifle fire. But on this occasion the enemy did not get a fair chance with their rifles, as our guns and our long-distance infantry firing started with redoubled vigour, now the attack had begun, and did not leave the enemy alone for a second. They could not put their heads over a sangar without being fired at, and our troops had now got the range accurately.
It was an exciting race to see which regiment would get at the enemy first, but it was a very, very slow one. Our men crept up in thin little lines like ants, just the same colour as the rocks, the glisten of their bayonets, which were now "fixed," serving best to show us where they were. My new German field glasses were perfect beauties. I could see the enemy and their gesticulations to one another as if they were close by. I could almost understand what they were talking about.
At one point several of the enemy in one of the sangars stood up and began openly firing and hurling rocks down on the 21st without as usual bobbing down again to take cover. Some of the mountain guns turned on them accordingly, and one shell burst just on the sangar and another a moment later just in front of it. Three men jumped out of the sangar and rushed, through the smoke and dust, down the face of the hill towards our men. Presently two of them stopped, ran along the hill and then turned up again over the crest; but the third man kept on. He was a splendid sight, with his loose blue clothes flying out behind him and a big glittering sword in his hand. He sprang rapidly from point to point, still going downwards. At first it seemed as if he were making for a big rock to roll down, but he passed it. Coming to a bit of a precipice, he stopped a moment to find a way of descent; then, after carefully creeping down, once more he took up his running, leaping pace.
bravest man I ever saw.
We now realised that his intention was to come down and attack the British force single-handed. Meantime spits of dust kept jumping up near him: our men were firing at him but it did not seem to affect him in the least. Suddenly he stopped and went a bit slower. He was hit. He halted for a minute, and tearing a piece off his puggree he bound it round his wounded knee. Then picking up his weapon he came on again, shaking his sword threateningly and eager to get at us. It was a grand sight to see this one plucky chap braving certain death for his faith. Suddenly he tumbled forward, rolled over a rock, and lay in a huddled heap—dead !
Now began a great fusillade up on the peak on the enemy’s right. The 20th up near there had helio’d to us that the enemy were holding the peak, and now they were driving them out. Unfortunately we could see nothing of the fray, it was all beyond the crest: but we could hear the cheering and yells and tom-tomming of hand-drums, which the 20th carry.
Suddenly there broke out a lot of firing at the other flank of the position; the West Kents were getting close up to the top of the pass, which was barricaded and held by the enemy. The guns soon cleared the way, however, with a few well-placed shells, dropping them one after another exactly into the right spot.
Then the volleys began again, quite loud and distinct on the high peak, and soon we saw our men not only on the top but also on the enemy’s side of it. One or two of the standards in the central part of the position began to move: they disappeared below the skyline, and did not come up again. Soon the others followed suit and in a short time none remained visible. The 20th on our left and West Kents on the right, who had now crowned the pass, were firing volleys down into the valley at the back of the position. The enemy had left it. There was cheering all over the place.
The Highland Light Infantry and the 21st were still toiling up the face of the position, but they reached the crest a few minutes before two o’clock and laced in a few volleys.
The guns with one accord cocked their muzzles a bit higher and sent their shells high over the ridge to burst well on in the valley beyond, among the flying enemy.
We climbed down into the basin, where we found an orderly with sandwiches and drink; the field hospital there reported no casualties so far. Then we started up by the path of the West Kents. It was already crowded with carriers laden with the blankets and coats of the regiments in front, which they were bringing up to enable the men to bivouac for the night. Mules were trying to go up, but it was found impassable for them. The Sappers, too, were at work on the path, so there was a regular jam of us all. Scrambling over rocks, crawling under bushes, climbing, and blowing like a grampus, I got along well, and in an hour I was at the top of the pass, minus a pound or two of adipose tissue, but plus a great feeling of delight at seeing well into the Buner country.
The enemy had got away out of sight, taking their dead and wounded with them—bloodstains on the rocks showed that they had some—and the West Kents were already two miles down the valley in pursuit of them and occupying a large village, which they found full of supplies and sheep, etc.
Making my way down the face of the heights to get back to camp I found it very steep. I followed much the track of the Ghazi who had charged down; it was marvellous how he could have come so fast. At the place where he had gone slowly I had to hang on by my eye-lids, and the man coming after me said it was too "hairy" altogether, and took his boots off for it. Even then he did not succeed until he was, I believe, handed down by four sepoys.
I went to the place where my friend the Ghazi had fallen and found him there, a fine-looking chap of about thirty: he had been first wounded in the right thigh, and then in the face. He was a real hero. I quite envied him, for he was the bravest man I ever saw. Two sepoys of the regiment that shot him came down to have a look at him, and paid what I thought a very good mute act of respect to a plucky enemy, by stretching him out and laying his sheet over him. It seemed strange to me, while looking on the impressive sight of the man who had deliberately courted death for his faith, and had found it, to hear Tommy Atkins from the Boro’ Road "Wot-cheering" his pal on the next hill.
After a very warm bit of work in climbing down I at last reached the "basin," which was now crowded with the mule transport, all being turned back from the pass till the road could be made. I got into the backward stream and went with it through the entrance gorge. Though amongst mules, there was no danger of being kicked, they had not room to kick.
I turned out again to see the regiments returning to camp drumming and cheering, as happy as possible. The 20th swaggered in with three standards and a sword. This latter they had taken from a Ghazi who had charged them and whom they had captured. They did not fire at him but let him come right up to them, and then several went for him at once and disarmed him. The sepoys were pleased with themselves, but very annoyed with the artillery, who, they said, had fired too much and had driven out the enemy without giving the infantry a fair chance of going at him with the bayonet. The enemy left twenty killed and sixty wounded.
We had only one casualty, one man of the Highland Light Infantry shot through the chest, also one man and two mules fell down the cliffs and were killed. One of beer was hit on his field glasses and one sepoy was knocked over by a stone. This absence of casualties was due to the work of the artillery, who never allowed the enemy to do any straight shooting.
That night I had a hospital stretcher to sleep on, instead of the ground, as the previous night, and I looked forward to sleeping well after one of the most enjoyable days I had had for a long time, and I was not disappointed. I never turned over till reveille, and then I turned out and, after a cup of cocoa, was off homewards before the others were up. News arrived in the night that the cavalry had got over the next pass (Pirsan) all right and were well in the enemy’s country. I sent my blankets in the rickety cart in which I had come, and rode the General’s pony as far as Katlunga, having a sower orderly as escort and to take the pony back.
This was the sort of field day which is a very frequent exercise with the troops in those parts and has been so for a hundred years past. From Peshawur as a centre I attended many of them in the Sanghao Pass, the Malakand, the Bara Valley, etc. The week before I reached Peshawur the inhabitants had been disturbed by a good deal of firing in the night, the morning explanation of which was that a party of Afridis had surrounded the guardhouse of one of the regiments and had attempted to rush it in order to obtain a few rifles: but the sentry was too alert for them, he sprang into the guard room and slammed the door in their faces. The guard promptly opened fire on the marauders through the windows, to which they replied for some time, and then found it advisable to clear back to their hills before they got cut off.
Peshawur, being so central to the raids and rows of the frontier, is very little disturbed by war. I was sitting watching a tennis tournament there one afternoon with a number of ladies, nurses, and children. The booming of guns could be heard in the distant passes, and there passed along at the back of our seats a procession of dhoolies, stretchers, and ambulances, bringing in dead and wounded from the field. But it created very little excitement, and the game went on without interruption, for that to the players was an everyday incident.
|Trooper of the 5th Bengal Cavalry
Lieutenant Robert Baden-Powell
From: Baden-Powell, Memories of India, 1915.
|Forward by Sir Robert Baden-Powell|
|From Chapter III. The Sport of Kings and the King of Sports. B-P tells an amusing story of Young Winston Churchill, his devotion to the sport of polo, and early evidence of his talent for public speaking.|
|Chapter VIII. When the Tribes are Out. The Afghan War—The Great March—Ordered up to Kandahar—A Warlike Atmosphere—The Expedition of I842—The Camel and His Ways—Kandahar—A Dangerous City—Theatricals Under Difficulties—A Serious Mistake—Afghan Nerve—Attacked by Ghazis —The Crack of Doom—The Field of Maiwand—A Broken Square—A Heroic Chaplain—A Narrow Escape|
|Chapter IX. The Aftermath of War. The Image of War—Patrols and Picnics A Curious Superstition—Jock Fights a Wild Cat—Afghan Depredations—Relics of Alexander the Great—Camp Rumours —Abdurrahman Waits—The Horses Stampede—A Subaltern’s Opinion of the Government—A Study in Contrasts—Rifle Stealing—An Ingenious Plan—Further Losses—I Shoot Myself—I Hear my Death Announced —Digging for the Bullet—Convalescence—Stalked by a Leopard—A Rough and Tumble|
|Chapter XI. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright. A Possible Interrogation—I Go in Pursuit of Tigers— Smith-Dorrien at Work—The Party Meets—The Old Hands—A Native Weakness—How to Beat for Tigers— A Dead Enemy—A Native Village—Nearly a Fatality— Camp Literature—I Become Doctor—I Get a Bear— Camp Life—A Tiger’s Wings—The Mahout—The Tables Turned—Table Delicacies—Jungle Yachts— The End of the Ghost|
|Chapter XIV. The Elephant as Gentleman. Sentiment About the Elephant—His Mathematical Mind—"Dandelion’s" Idiosyncrasies—Her Courage in the Face of an Enemy—The Elephant Who Died—A Problem in Sanitation—The Jungle Ship—Sea Legs— The Genius of the Elephant—His Timidity—Jock’s Victory—The Duchess of Connaught’s Adventure— The Elephant’s Caution—He Utilises Human Material— A Malefactor Flogged by Elephants—The Elephant in War—An Elephant Fight|
|The Baden-Powell Library
A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career.
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