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This article examines how British and Indian units of the Army in India trained for and conducted military operations on the North-West Frontier against the trans-border Pathan tribes .
Between 1849 and 1947 the inhabitants of the mountainous no-man's-land located between the administered areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Afghanistan posed an insistent threat to the security of British India. In many respects this local and immediate problem of tribal control overshadowed the more distant threat of war with Afghanistan or the USSR on this most sensitive strategic frontier of the British Empire, tying down large numbers of British and Indian troops in a long series of inconclusive skirmishes and major campaigns. What was known to generations of imperial soldiers as alternatively hill warfare, tribal warfare, mountain warfare or most commonly frontier warfare had distinctive characteristics and was the most prevalent form of actual fighting carried out by British and Indian troops.
This article will chart the changing nature of military operations on the Frontier between 1914-1939, which were altered by improvements in tribal military effectiveness and changes in the organisation, equipment and training of imperial troops. In particular, this article will demonstrate how the lessons learnt by the British armed forces during these operations were passed on to successive generations of officers and men in the form of official specialised training manuals and systems of instruction.
The basic characteristics of Frontier fighting had long been known to imperial troops. Following the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 they were first brought into direct contact with the heavily-armed trans-border Pathan tribes, who repeatedly raided areas now under direct British administration, and attacked trading caravans. The localised armed forces raised specifically to protect the trans-Indus areas - the Punjab Irregular Force (PIF) - quickly learnt, during a long series of 'butcher and bolt' punitive military expeditions, that fighting in mountainous terrain against tribal lashkars (war parties) posed a range of difficulties very different from those encountered in conventional warfare. When operating in tribal territory Indian troops were tied to protecting of long, vulnerable and cumbersome columns of pack transport, carrying food, water and ammunition, on which they depended in the barren hills. Freedom of movement was restricted to the valley floors while lightly-equipped opposing tribesmen operated with comparative freedom on the hill sides. A lack of reliable intelligence and maps made it difficult to select suitable objectives, while the difficult climate and endemic diseases in tribal territory often inflicted heavier casualties than the opposing tribesmen. On the other hand tribesmen were well acquainted with fighting in their native mountains, matching their relative strengths of mobility, flexibility and superior marksmanship, in elusive guerrilla warfare against cumbrous British columns.
By trial and error the PIF evolved a series of specialised principles and minor tactics tailored to local conditions in tribal territory. To meet the tribesmen on the equal terms, its infantry regiments developed light infantry skills - skirmishing, skill-at-arms, marksmanship, self-reliance and fieldcraft - modeled on those of their opponents. Mountain artillery batteries were also raised equipped with light ordnance capable of being transported in the hills on pack mules.
When operating in tribal territory the heart of the tactical problem for the British and Indian troops lay in successfully bringing the tribesmen to battle and preventing their harassment of the cumbrous self-contained main body of imperial columns. Offensive tactics were emphasised at all stages of a campaign to bring the enemy to battle and to demoralise tribal opposition. Yet this often proved impossible forcing recourse to the destruction of villages and crops.
It was quickly discovered that the key to success lay in controlling the flanking high ground and dominating the surrounding terrain by fire. Outlying piquets would shield vulnerable British columns as they moved by 'crowning the heights' on either side of the route of march, withdrawing to rejoin the main body only when it had passed by. Initially, the short range of Pathan firearms (300 yards) meant that piquets were seldom overlooked by other positions within effective range and were secure except from direct assault. The evacuation of a piquet was often, however, the point of greatest danger when tribesmen normally seized the vacant position and attacked its retreating garrison. To prevent successful tribal attacks the posting and withdrawal of piquets involved considerable skill and led to the development of elaborate codes and drills by the PIF.
At night, encampments located on the valley floors would be surrounded in a similar manner by piquets intended to keep the tribesmen at arms length. Elaborate field defences, consisting of a perimeter wall constructed from rocks, stores or bales of fodder, encompassed each camp to stop rushes by swordsmen, provide cover from sniping, shelter for sleeping troops and to prevent infiltration by rifle thieves.
The withdrawal of the British and Indian columns represented the biggest tactical difficulty for any expedition. Tribal attacks on rearguards normally intensified making their extraction under fire the greatest problem for commanders and which necessitated the development of further tactical drills. The brutal treatment frequently meted out to British or Hindu dead and wounded by tribesmen exerted a powerful influence on hill warfare, necessitating rapid counter-attacks to recover them as they could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands.
Those principles and minor tactics developed by the PIF (renamed the Punjab Frontier Force (PFF) in 1865) were a comparatively simple and pragmatic response to hill warfare. A combination of repeated practical experience and specialised training directed solely towards hill warfare made its units highly effective as guardians of the administrative border of the Punjab (later the NWFP) which they monopolised. Yet as the PFF was a localised force retained under the control of the Punjab Government rather than the military authorities until 1886, these methods were not passed on to the regular army in a coherent manner. Until regular troops were deployed in the Punjab for the first time in large numbers during the 1880s and 1890s mountain warfare remained the prerogative of the frontier regiments and batteries. Following the 1897-98 Tirah campaign, when British and Indian regulars suffered comparatively heavy casualties at tribal hands, a range of official specialised manuals for frontier warfare were produced and appropriate training introduced during the early 1900s . This was of particular importance when the PFF was finally de-localised in 1903 (greatly simplifying organisational problems caused by maintaining a specialised force) and made liable for service throughout India.
In 1908 this new approach to training for colonial warfare on the frontiers of India was thoroughly vindicated during the Zakka Khel and Mohmand punitive expeditions, when small, lightly equipped and highly trained columns of regular troops inflicted heavy casualties on the opposing tribesmen. Nevertheless, in 1909 the specialised manuals promulgated following the 1897-98 campaigns were abandoned by the Indian military authorities when, in accordance with a decision made at the Imperial Defence Conference, it was decided to adopt Field Service Regulations (FSR) as the basis of training for all the imperial armies. Henceforth British and Indian troops relied for guidance in frontier fighting on the general principles of war and six condensed paragraphs that only provided a bare outline of the specialised tactics required in tribal territory . This important change in providing guidance, however, had no significant impact on the efficiency of the Army in India which, by 1914, contained large numbers of officers and men who had considerable experience and a long tradition of frontier fighting.
The First World War quickly exposed the shortcomings of this approach to training for frontier fighting when most highly experienced pre-war regular regiments were sent overseas. Their under-officered and poorly equipped replacements had far less training and experience in mountain warfare, and this caused serious concern to the military authorities as unrest spread in the hills during 1915. When British Territorial Army (TA) regiments were deployed in the NWFP, whose officers lacked any real military knowledge or training, the inherent limitations of relying solely on the principles of war and limited information contained in FSR to govern training were exposed.
As a stop-gap measure, a Mountain Warfare School was opened in May 1916 using innovative teaching methods specifically to train cadres of TA officers and NCOs in frontier fighting, who in turn would instruct their own units . Despite this development a serious lack of uniformity was evident in applying the principles and minor tactics of mountain warfare during operations conducted by 1st (Peshawar) and 2nd (Rawalpindi) divisions in November 1916. This was highlighted at a conference at Dehli between 22nd-24th February 1917 when Major-General William Bunbury called for definite rules to be laid down as he believed lack of uniformity was a source of serious danger in the field. Other senior officers, however, openly opposed publication of a special manual or any additions to FSR. Lt.-General Sir Arthur Barrett, GOC Northern Command, closed this discussion by observing:
I think there is no doubt that mountain warfare is a science. I have always regarded it as a thing very much like a game of chess which wants a great deal of skill to avoid mistakes, but that the same time it is not a science that can be said at any one time to have reached its finality. We are always gong on evolving new things and a great many of these points that have been raised have been evolved gradually from experience. We must not assume that the stage we have reached now is the last stage of the process We must remember that the increased armament of these tribes that we fight against will go on modifying our rules and systems .
A series of disastrous skirmishes in Waziristan during the Spring further underlined the need for specialised training. On 2nd May 1917 the GOC Northern Command warned: 'If we employ troops inexperienced in hill warfare, it appears to me that incidents in the Gomal are likely to be repeated.'  Despite further efforts by the Mountain Warfare School during 1917 and 1918 to improve training, however, by the end of the First World War the efficiency of the border garrisons had plummeted far below pre-war standards.
The short-lived Afghan invasion of British India in May 1919 was quickly repulsed by the Army in India, but the ensuing tribal rising in Waziristan (where various militias raised to police tribal territory had mutinied) was a far more difficult proposition . Heavy casualties were inflicted on the raw, ill-trained Indian troops comprising the Derajat Column when punitive operations were carried out in the winter of 1919-20. In the heaviest fighting ever witnessed in tribal territory, imperial troops were nearly defeated at Palosina between 19th-21st December 1919 by well-armed and trained Mahsud and Wazir lashkars, whose ranks included a significant number of ex-servicemen. A skilful combination of fire and movement was employed with deadly effect against demoralised Indian troops by tribesmen who engaged in hand-to-hand combat whenever an opportunity offered . Writing on 13th January 1920, Major General Skipton Climo, GOC Waziristan Field Force, observed:
It is, perhaps, to be expected that those who do not know India and the frontier, and even some who have fought on the frontier in pre-war days, but lack the knowledge and imagination to realise that conditions have altered with the great improvement of the armament of the tribesmen, cannot understand or believe the standard of training that is required for the Infantry in the conditions that now prevail on the Frontier to-day. To such, the belief is natural that the mere frontier tribes cannot be formidable opponents to modern troops nor can they believe that the standard of training or method of tactics that succeeded in the great war can, in former cases, be insufficient for and, in the latter cases, be inapplicable to a Frontier campaign .
The possession of large numbers of modern .303 Lee Enfield service rifles transformed the fighting effectiveness of Pathan lashkars. It altered the characteristics of frontier warfare by slowing down every phase of operations and dramatically increased imperial casualties. In response a slow, deliberate and heavily contested advance, only 2-4 miles a day, was adopted as the Derajat Column advanced deeper into Waziristan. This heavy fighting taught British officers that existing methods had to be adapted and new tactics developed to ensure victory. The latter included the widespread use of permanent piquets on all commanding positions within effective rifles range (1,000 - 1,500 yards) of a column, a fixed line of communications to service spiraling logistical requirements, and the widespread use of night operations to nullify the effect of tribal riflemen. Despite deploying large numbers of men, modern aircraft, 3.7" pack howitzers, and Lewis light machine guns, by the end of the hostilities Waziristan Force had lost 366 dead, 1,683 wounded and a further 237 men missing. This unprecedented 'butchers bill' indicated that a new era had begun in frontier warfare. Henceforth all operations in tribal territory clearly had to be deliberate, governed by a fixed line of communication and carried out by large numbers of troops except where very light opposition was encountered.
The near disasters in Waziristan and the fact that large numbers of regular troops were deployed on the frontier following the Third Afghan War as part of the newly-designated Covering Troops, convinced the Indian General Staff that it had to act quickly to restore the efficiency of the Army in India in mountain warfare. On 1st February 1920 the Mountain Warfare School was re-opened at Abbottabad to provide sufficient qualified trained instructors for imperial units. Under the command of Colonel William Villiers-Stuart, it ran a series of courses during the spring, summer and autumn of 1920 beginning with an explanation of the basic principles of war - a deliberate attempt to avoid over specialisation - before introducing the modifications required in their application to 'trans-border' warfare. Members of the Directing Staff emphasised the importance of individual skills - skill-at-arms, self-reliance, vigilance and personal judgment - to overcome 'trans-border loneliness'. Particular attention was directed towards the various modifications in tactics and the lessons derived about the employment of modern equipment in mountain warfare during the recent fighting in Waziristan as confusion existed in the minds of many officers . Although the Mountain Warfare School proved highly successful expedient it was not retained by Army in India as a permanent training establishment, when at the end of the year unit COs were responsible for training under the direction of the staff of the formations to which they belonged.
It was realised by the military authorities that it take some time before the efficiency of regular British and Indian units was restored to pre-war standards. Indeed, the intrinsic difficulties were such that the re-establishment of the PFF was briefly considered by the high command on several occasions during the early 1920s, as it was widely accepted that specialised troops would be more effective in tribal territory . Following the closure of the Mountain Warfare School the provision of an authoritative source of guidance to units periodically serving tours of duty in the Covering Troops was of considerable importance. It was clear that something more was needed than FSR as the 1920 provisional edition still referred to 'savage warfare' solely in terms of fighting against opponents reliant on shock tactics and its small section on mountain warfare lacked the detail required by inexperienced junior officers and NCOs.
As a temporary measure a small pamphlet was hurriedly prepared during 1920 for units garrisoned in the NWFP and Baluchistan. A revised edition was published in January 1921 and 15,000 copies were issued that laid down general rules to conduct the conduct of 'uncivilized' warfare, as well as the general principles governing military operations against the trans-border Pathan tribes for all three arms of service. It covered piqueting, protection on the march, protection of the lines of communication, camps and bivouacs and night operations and, moreover, provided tentative guidance regarding the use of new equipment such as Lewis guns . For units in action in Waziristan the HQ of Wazirforce also produced and distributed its own tactical notes tailored to conditions in that area . Several unofficial text books discussing frontier fighting also appeared during the early 1920s written by experienced Indian Army officers which complemented official sources .
The low-intensity fighting in Waziristan between 1920-24 allowed many British and Indian units to gain practical experience of mountain warfare which, when combined with specialised instruction, meant that by 1924 most had reached a semblance of their pre-war war standard of training . It also supplied further valuable practical experience about the capabilities and limitations of new equipment hitherto utilised only in small quantities on the North-West Frontier (aircraft, machine guns, motor transport and modern mountain artillery).
Many officers were eager to employ other military technology originally developed on the Western Front. For example, gas warfare was considered in 1919-20, and tanks were given trials in tribal territory with mixed success during the early 1920s. Due to the terrain most heavy weapons and equipment, however, could not be employed except on or near the growing network of roads built in accordance with government policy in Waziristan and the NWFP. Other factors militated against the use of more destructive types of military equipment. As Colonel Frederick Keen reminded readers of the Journal of the United Service Institution of India (JUSII) in 1923: 'We should realise, as we have perhaps not done in the past, that in fighting the Pathans we are engaging in civil war and that it is to our advantage that enemies of to-day should be turned into our friends of to-morrow In a word, our coercive measures should always be directed with a view to eventual pacification and control.' .
A combination of drastic cutbacks in the military budget and lack of skilled Indian personnel, however, decided the issue by preventing the acquisition of large quantities of new arms and equipment. The infantryman and pack mule still reigned supreme in frontier warfare. As Captain Mervyn Gompertz concluded in the Army Quarterly in 1925:
One cardinal fact remains. The use of the Lewis gun enables a reduction in the strength of piquets and to increase fire effect: the motor vehicle and the tractor may speed up operations: wireless telegraphy may add the personal touch: the glider may become the infantry of the air to assist the infantry of the ground: yet the age long principle remains that it is the soldier who will win or lose the frontier .
The need for authoritative up-to-date guidance in frontier fighting for the large numbers of imperial troops deployed in close contact with the trans-border Pathan tribes had been clearly demonstrated between 1919-24. Although the revised 1924 edition of FSR incorporated a chapter dealing with warfare in 'undeveloped' and 'semi-civilized countries', it was clearly accepted by the military authorities in India that the general principles of war and small section on mountain warfare that it contained was an insufficient basis for training. In response the lessons learnt in Waziristan since 1919 were compiled at AHQ that year and incorporated in a new manual intended to complement FSR and the training manuals for the various arms of service .
The Manual of Operations on the North-West Frontier of India, published in 1925, reflected the important changes that had occurred in frontier warfare since the First World War. No fewer than 35,000 copies were printed and by October 1925 had been issued to units serving throughout India. Its pages reflected the Indian Army's extensive experience of frontier operations and brought up-to-date the existing doctrine and system of training caused by improved tribal tactics, leadership and equipment as well as changes in the organisation, training and equipment of imperial troops. It represented a significant improvement over solely relying on FSR as the basis of all training, although it still discussed the conduct of mountain warfare with close reference to the principles of war. This manual included chapters describing the trans-border Pathans and tribal territory; fighting troops and their characteristics; protection on the march and when halted; the organisation and protection of the lines of communication; the conduct of the attack and withdrawal for all three arms; foraging and demolitions as well as administrative routine in camp and on the line of march. It emphasised the importance of appropriate training for all three arms of service, especially with regard to the development of individual skills of self-reliance, vigilance and initiative to overcome the peculiar difficulties encountered when fighting in tribal territory. The use of the RAF in co-operation with troops was discussed and it even went on to cover the employment of tanks in hill warfare, although they were still unavailable in India. Finally, imperial troops on duty in tribal territory were specifically warned to stay alert despite prolonged periods without contact with hostile tribesmen and officers were encouraged to read histories of past campaigns to prevent the repetition of mistakes previously committed by imperial troops .
The Army in India quickly settled down into the normal routine of peacetime service. Throughout the remainder of the inter-war period Indian regiments served a two year tour of duty out of every six in the Covering Troops' Districts, allowing them to steadily accumulate a cadre of trained and experienced officers and men. By comparison, British infantry battalions served only an infrequent one year tour of duty in the area . While stationed in the border cantonments, imperial units trained intensively in mountain warfare based on the Manual of Operations on the North-West Frontier of India, supervised by the staff and senior officers of the formations to which they belonged. Standing Orders periodically issued by the formations permanently stationed in the NWFP provided further source of guidance for both peacetime training and active service, amplifying points laid down in the official manual and taking into account local conditions and requirements at each station . Those British and Indian units serving in the Field Army concentrated on conventional 'open' warfare against a 'second class enemy', during individual and collective training into which each year was divided.
The priority attached by the Army in India to training in mountain and open warfare was a subject of considerable professional controversy between officers, whose attention focused on a likely conventional conflict, and those concerned with the day-to-day requirements of Indian defence. Many British service officers were highly critical of the specialised doctrine for 'savage warfare' employed on the frontier, believing that the lesser was by default contained in the greater . Most Indian Army officers for whom frontier service formed such a large part of normal military experience, however, more readily appreciated its importance. As one pointed out in the JUSII in July 1930:
There are two forms of warfare to be taught in India, viz, open warfare and mountain warfare. Except for those stationed on the frontier the former of course requires the most attention, but mountain warfare should never be entirely neglected in view of the fact that wherever the Army in India fights in the future it is almost certain to be in mountainous country. In addition, about a third of our Army in India is presently stationed on the frontier and practically every unit takes a turn of duty there sooner or later .
The criticism leveled at the methods employed by British and Indian units on the North-West Frontier redoubled during the summer of 1930 when civil disturbances in the NWFP sparked widespread unrest in tribal territory . During the ensuing operations it appeared to many outside observers that army units had grown ponderous, over-cautious and their tactics too stereotyped, especially after large Afridi lashkars raided Peshawar District and then escaped largely unscathed. In comparison, the high mobility of the lightly equipped Scouts and Frontier Constabulary (elements of the Civil Armed Forces) enabled them to deal successfully with elusive tribal raiders, prompting accusations that the military was incapable of performing its allotted role in the watch and ward of tribal territory. The very fact that the garrison in Peshawar District had had to be reinforced with irregulars from elsewhere in the NWFP appeared to indicate that its effectiveness had declined, prompting several suggestions in the press for the re-establishment of a localised force organised, trained and equipped exclusively for operations against the trans-border Pathans .
Most of the lessons the Indian Army learnt from the 1930 operations were mixed and contradictory. The mobility conferred by the road network in Waziristan and within the NWFP, together with the provision of armoured cars and MT, had clearly altered the strategic, tactical and administrative conduct of frontier warfare, enabling reinforcements to be rushed to threatened points along the border. For example, two and a half infantry battalions and a company of sappers were transported 42 miles by lorry between 7th-9th July 1930 from Bannu to reinforce Razmak. The speed of MT convoys also eased piqueting and lightened the task of the road protection troops in areas where light opposition was encountered. Perhaps more significantly, MT greatly simplified the logistical and administrative problems encountered by troops operating in tribal territory. Indian columns utilising MT were tied, however, to advancing along predictable routes, enabling hostile tribesmen to anticipate their lines of approach, to concentrate and prepare defences .
The off-road mobility and tactical effectiveness of imperial columns in Waziristan, however, had sharply declined due to the large numbers of troops deployed and changes in their organisation, equipment and training. As a result the pace of an advance and the distance a column could march in a single day were lower than fifty years earlier as the number of mules on which they depended had dramatically increased due to the higher scales of arms, equipment, supplies and maintenance services now required in the field. This growing 'tail' of pack animals compounded the administrative and tactical problem faced by Indian commanders and acted as a brake on mobility, reducing the circuit of action of columns and slowing down every stage of operations, lengthening the line of march and exacerbating the already difficult problem of ensuring all-round protection .
To complicate matters a company of Vickers medium machine guns formed in each British and Indian infantry battalion in 1929 (in accordance with a new imperial establishment adopted throughout the Empire) meant additional mules were now needed to carry these heavy weapons. This considerably reduced the rifle strength of Indian battalions despite restrictions being initially placed on the number of weapons to maintain mobility in the hills . An infantry battalion could not provide the same number of piquets as before, lowering the distance it could protect from three to two miles which in turn effectively limited the distance a column could march in a single day . The extra firepower conferred by the additional machine guns dramatically increased the expenditure of ammunition, making lashkars wary of engaging Indian columns or following up rearguards, thereby limiting opportunities to inflict heavy casualties . Further problems were caused by an obsession with security which overrode other operational requirements, slowed movement to a crawl and tied Indian columns to cautious and unimaginative advances along the valley floors. It now took longer to piquet a route as periodic halts were necessary while covering machine gun and artillery fire was carefully arranged to support the placement and withdrawal of piquets. Fear of casualties, the recovery of dead and wounded and efforts to prevent the theft of arms and ammunition also stultified efforts to bring hostile lashkars to battle or to achieve surprise. An inability to differentiate between the tactical requirements of conventional warfare and those on the frontier compounded the problem. On many occasions Indian commanders mounted deliberate set-piece attacks backed with a full panoply of supporting arms, despite the fact that the lashkars seldom awaited the results .
During the spring of 1931 the Army in India's performance on the North-West Frontier was carefully examined by members of the Tribal Control and Defence Committee. Its final report echoed earlier press criticisms and suggested that the military authorities should consider various measures to lighten the arms and equipment of regular units and the merits of forming a new PFF . The latter view was dismissed out of hand by the General Staff in India, however, which strongly opposed the idea given the inherent organisational difficulties involved and the fact it ignored the other important roles the Covering Troops performed. Instead, senior officers argued that an organisation, equipment and training designed to fight Afghanistan, supported by foreign troops and the frontier tribes, was by default automatically suited to fighting the tribesmen alone. Moreover, as long as the North-West Frontier remained the most likely theatre of operations of the Indian Army, it strongly believed that all imperial troops required experience of the terrain and tactics similar to those required in Afghanistan . This view was also supported in the service press. Writing in response to calls for radical changes in the army's current organisation, training and equipment to make it more effective in operations in tribal territory one anonymous officer observed in 1932:
Surely no one wants an army trained on North-West Frontier mountain warfare lines only. This would be truly retrograde. Then indeed would it become a second rate army. All the cost of higher military education, Staff College and modern equipment could be economised if we are to limit our horizon to the hills of the Frontier. Any tendency for specialization for mountain warfare operations on the North-West Frontier must be resisted. The thinking soldier, if he is to be any value to his profession, must avoid parochialism. The "khaki" of the Frontier is undoubtedly fascinating, but it is not the only topic of thought for the British officer .
Rather than fundamentally changing current organisation, the General Staff directed particular thought towards increasing the circuit of action of mechanised Indian columns and the cross-country mobility of India soldiers in the hills.
The strategic mobility and circuit of action of columns in the Covering Troops Districts was comparatively easily increased by the General Staff during the 1930s by further road building in the NWFP. Most work was carried out in Waziristan but to pacify new areas construction began on a further series of roads elsewhere in tribal territory in 1934, although it proved an expensive, time-consuming process and frequently provoked opposition . Henceforth punitive operations in tribal territory were normally combined with road construction to allow small, lightly-equipped columns to be supplied and operate in the hills as well as extending political control . Hand-in-hand with road building went the slow introduction into service in India of MT, tractors, half-tracks and fully tracked vehicles - Carden Lloyd Mark VI Armoured Machine Gun Carriers and Mk 1A Light Tanks - with much improved cross-country performance .
It proved far more difficult to improve the off-road mobility of imperial troops in mountainous terrain, although this was addressed by reducing or lightening personal clothing, arms and equipment, decreasing the scale of supporting weapons and changes in training. Many Indian battalions replaced their heavy ammunition boots with chaplis and substituted light weight clothing in place of the normal issue. Amounts of ammunition and equipment carried by each soldier were also reduced and from 1934 a considerably lighter and more reliable replacement for the cumbersome Lewis Gun, with its attendant mule, began issue . Yet despite continued criticism of the new machine gun company the number of Vickers MMGs in each battalion was increased during 1931 by two weapons, to maintain a uniformity with the rest of the British Army .
Since it represented the main brake on the mobility of columns operating in tribal territory the reduction or complete replacement of the large quantity of pack transport was carefully considered. This administrative tail was successfully 'docked' by cutting down superfluous animals and the number of troops required for their care and protection. However, despite being regarded as anachronistic by many officers, pack mules and camels still remained essential in all operations mounted beyond a road head in tribal territory . Air supply was also carefully examined as an alternative means of maintaining troops and reinforcing isolated posts now that two Bomber Transport aircraft were in India . Despite the potential demonstrated by air supply on two occasions in 1930, the General Staff remained skeptical because of the limited number of aircraft available, the expense and their inability to evacuate casualties .
No radical changes were made by the General Staff in the system of periodic relief of units stationed in the NWFP or the training methods used by the Army in India apart from greater emphasis on light infantry training. By the mid 1930s Indian Army regiments were highly proficient in frontier warfare. Most now contained a large cadre of officers, NCOs and other ranks with both practical experience and training in frontier warfare enabling them to quickly achieve a high standard of efficiency when they returned to a border station. In comparison, British regiments were the 'natural prey' of the tribesmen as most of their training was predicated on conventional 'open warfare' or Internal Security duties. An intermittent one year tour of duty in the NWFP prevented them accumulating a cadre of 'frontier hands', placing even greater reliance on theoretical instruction and 'on the job' training. To a large extent the performance of British units depended upon their willingness to adapt. As Colonel Hugh Pettigrew later noted:
How good or bad these regiments were on the frontier depended on just one thing, and that was how ready they were to learn If a British regiment arrived at Razmak, or better still at Bannu prior to its march up to Razmak, and said: "We are new to this. You are not. Please teach us!" then it would soon be a regiment well able to look after itself and take a share of responsibility in mobile columns, piquetting and so on. But let a regiment think that it knew, and that it was too famous to have to learn, to think that the Highlands of Scotland bore any real resemblance to the mountains of Waziristan, and that regiment might have trouble. And during its year in Waziristan it would be of little use to anyone, and often a liability .
A combination of cap-badge rivalry between regiments, rapid changeovers in personnel, the comparative 'amateurism' of British officers, professional arrogance, and racism often militated against the assimilation of military skills required on the frontier from experienced Indian units .
Training of British officers, NCOs and men was facilitated by the publication of an unofficial textbook in 1932 written by General Sir Andrew Skeen specifically directed at junior British Army officers 'as he is less likely in his wider range of service to be trained for the local problem which all officer in India have to keep in mind.' Passing it On: Short Talks on Tribal Fighting on the North-West Frontier of India provided a detailed source of clear and comprehensive information in an easily readable form regarding the trans-border Pathan tribes, tactics and administration in hill warfare, based on the author's extensive experience . It assumed an authoritative position, running to three editions, and was widely read in Britain and India. Two copies were specially issued to British Army officers' and sergeants' messes and one copy to other British and Indian combatant units in India at the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Philip Chetwode, to allow British soldiers to benefit from the tactical and administrative guidance provided by perhaps the Indian Army's most experienced frontier soldier .
The tactical handling of frontier operations remained a subject of controversy in the service press during the early 1930s . For example, in the question set for the 1933 JUSII prize-essay competition the growing complexity of modern weapons, mechanisation and the increasing dependence of Indian columns on maintenance services in the field was explicitly linked to the declining effectiveness and relative mobility of the Indian Army. 'Borderer' argued in the winning essay that military organisation, equipment and training devised for 'civilised' European warfare were inappropriate for operations against lightly armed tribesmen. In a telling critique, he identified a fundamental conflict between the requirements of tribal control and European warfare that had been made explicit with the initial hesitant attempts of the Indian Army to modernise during the early 1930s. 'Borderer' believed that the growing divergence, in terms of training, organisation and equipment, between the military requirements of 'savage' and 'civilised' warfare could no longer be reconciled, and presented such an insuperable problem that he presented a controversial scheme for the formation of a localised frontier force for service on the North-West Frontier .Writing in 1934, Major-General Henry Rowan-Robinson summed up an opinion shared by a growing number of British officers:
The normal methods employed in such operations are elaborately described in the training manuals and elsewhere. A considerable literature has in fact grown up around them. They are, however, recognized to be thoroughly unsatisfactory; and, with the multiplication of weapons, vast requirements in ammunition and insistence on luxuries, they are daily becoming more so .
The Mohmand operations provided a practical test of the various changes introduced during the early 1930s. A combination of lightened personal equipment and light infantry training speeded up piqueting and improved cross-country mobility, but the Vickers machine gun company in each battalion remained a serious brake on mobility. Perhaps the most striking feature of the campaign was the willingness of Indian commanders to undertake large operations at night, enabling them to seize the initiative, upset tribal plans, and avoid the delay inherent in mounting deliberate attacks. As a result columns penetrated deeper into tribal territory before they had to return to the security of a perimeter camp each night .
New equipment also made its debut. A single tractor-drawn battery of 18lb supplemented the mountain artillery, whose longer ranged and more powerful guns were able to support several widely separated Indian columns. Perhaps of greater significance was the successful deployment of a single company of Mk II light tanks. Their invulnerability to rifle fire and cross-country mobility quickened the pace of operations as tanks could easily advance through tribal positions. Although cavalry was needed to reconnoitre the ground and engineers had to construct tank crossings over nullahs and improve the track across the Nahakki Pass, the terrain in Mohmand country did not present an appreciable obstacle nor did an attempt by the tribesmen to impede movement by digging pits and strewing the roads with rocks and boulders .
'Mohforce' was heavily dependent on large quantities of ancillary units throughout the fighting which had both tactical and administrative implications for frontier warfare. A large number of non-combatant signallers, field ambulances, engineer parks, ordnance depots and motor vehicles accompanied 'Mohforce' and each day MT carried ammunition, supplies and water to a roadhead from where pack transport carried it to the forward troops. To encompass the large number of vulnerable vehicles and non-combatant troops, perimeter camps grew in size and complexity. It often proved difficult to find a flat space large enough for all troops and equipment and their construction was both time consuming and required considerable labour. The amount of manpower required for their defence, moreover, was considerable but as the proportion of infantry to other arms had fallen it was often difficult to provide sufficient troops . A heavy consumption of ammunition made it vital to maintain and protect a permanent line of communication along the Gandab Road to service growing logistical requirements, facilitate the movement of reinforcements and evacuate casualties . Armoured cars regularly patrolled the Gandab road, but the burden of protection, as always, fell on the infantry. Permanent piquets were constructed in the Karappa Pass, but the intricate and relatively low-lying land between Kialgai and Karappa lacked terrain features that afforded a field of vision and fire. Nowshera Brigade and 3rd (Jhelum) Brigade adopted a new system based on mobility and offensive defence employing lightly equipped fighting patrols who operated between strong posts constructed on either side of the road to deny tribal marksmen good positions .
The lessons learnt in Mohmand country had clearly convinced the General Staff in India and many other British officers that both the tactical and administrative conduct of hill warfare had undergone major changes. A detailed section discussing this campaign in the A.H.Q. India Training Memorandum for the 1935-36 collective training season began:
The recent Mohmand operations showed marked advance in the conduct of operations of this nature and the methods employed. Apart from the advantages of a L. of C. with a road for M.T., which was effectively maintained, and of efficient administrative arrangements, the rapid and complete success obtained in this campaign may be attributed to enterprising leadership, development of existing methods, and the introduction of innovations.
Units throughout India were ordered by the Commander-in-Chief to follow guidelines laid down in this publication during the forthcoming training season which incorporated various lessons learnt regarding the employment of night operations, light tanks, armoured cars and the protection of the lines of communication. Sufficient practical experience of the impact of changes in the tactics, training, organisation and equipment on the conduct of hill warfare had now been gained to prompt the military authorities to begin preparation of a long awaited replacement for The Manual of Operations on the North-West Frontier of India .
The improving relations between the Air Staff and the General Staff, following the appointment of Air Marshal Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt as AOC in India, meant the RAF also took a greater interest in tactical co-operation with the army in mountain warfare during 1936 . Under his command in April 1935 the Air Staff in India had already issued instructions that RAF training in the subcontinent should henceforth be directed solely towards efficiency in tribal warfare, although primarily employing independent bombing operations . This decision had strengthened Wing Commander John Slessor's - CO of No. 3 (Indian Wing) - growing conviction that a radical change should be made in the system of army co-operation used in India, as the existing 'Aldershot model'- devised for conventional European warfare - was largely ineffective in mountainous terrain . Writing on 10th April 1936 he urged:
The great cry now-a-days seems to be co-operation - the balanced use of all arms and Services in Frontier warfare I should have thought there could be no better way of ensuring that good co-operation than by having a combined manual on which we all work, containing the description of all methods of Frontier warfare .
During the summer 'Tactical Exercises Without Troops' were held near Rawalpindi to demonstrate the effectiveness of close air support and study the inherent problems from the viewpoint of ground troops, while the Vickers-Bomb-Lewis (VBL) ground attack method was developed at Peshawar. 2nd (Rawalpindi) Brigade and aircraft from No. 3 (Indian) Wing took part in a large combined exercise at Khanpur between 17th and 25th November 1936, to both develop and test close air support tactics in mountain warfare, based on a provisional close-support manual written by Slessor and a draft of the new frontier warfare manual . These manoeuvres, (simulating tribal opposition to an Indian column engaged in road construction) conclusively demonstrated the practicalities of close-support and indicated the importance of RAF liaison officers at column HQs to direct operations, as well as an effective means of inter-communication between the aircraft and forward troops and between columns and airfields .
The Waziristan Military District provided the RAF and Army in India with an immediate opportunity to test the effectiveness of their new fighting methods when hostilities broke out in the Khaisora Valley in November 1936. This fighting, ultimately involving 61,056 regular and irregular troops, dragged on during 1937 as imperial forces endeavoured to bring to battle an estimated 4,000 hostile tribesmen. Most of the lessons learnt during the Mohmand operations were confirmed, indicating that there was no need for a major change in imperial tactics. It also provided further important practical experience regarding the use of light tanks, medium artillery and aircraft in frontier warfare, although infantry remained the predominant arm during frontier fighting now divided into two main categories: operations by columns operating in rugged, mountainous areas and those associated with road protection along Wazirforce's extended lines of communication.
The infantryman and the pack mule still remained the key to all operations in mountainous terrain impassable to wheeled transport and where limited scope existed for tracked vehicles. In November 1936 the Khaisora operations graphically demonstrated that the maximum distance a fully equipped Indian column could march, taking full precautions and allowing sufficient time to establish a perimeter camp before nightfall, was limited to 8-10 miles. Despite reductions in their number, the factor which above all dictated the speed of movement and circuit of action of a column remained the protection of the masses of pack transport still required to carry supplies. It was only possible to move further or faster by reducing piqueting below an acceptable margin of safety, or by neglecting to provide sufficient supporting artillery and machine gun fire.
To provide security all commanding features up to 1,500 yards with a full platoon, to protect Indian columns on the move or troops halted at night, from sniping. Perimeter camps were also justified when a massed assault was made on 2nd (Rawalpindi) Brigade on the night of 27th April 1937. Night operations were once again thoroughly vindicated, reducing tribal resistance and increasing mobility in the border hills, but they needed surprise and careful planning to prevent confusion. Two companies of Mk II and Mk IIb Light Tanks were employed when ground permitted in sections or sub-sections to carry out reconnaissance, protect flanks, cover withdrawals and directly attack lashkars, adding to the strength and quickening the pace of movement . Yet while the weight of firepower provided by machine guns, artillery, light tanks and aircraft proved highly effective against large concentrated lashkars in the opening phases of the operations, it conversely exacerbated the problem of bringing the elusive tribesmen to battle. Moreover, the unrestricted employment of superior firepower was now a thing of the past, as the political restrictions associated with the 'hearts and minds' campaign in Waziristan exerted a powerful influence on the fighting.
It was clear that the Army in India was now more than ever dependent on roads which increased the mobility of units in Waziristan and facilitated the supply of imperial columns. Lorries were employed on an unprecedented scale allowing a considerable reduction in the number of pack animals and non-combatants. The circular road allowed lightly equipped imperial troops to quickly concentrate and operate off a secure line of communication, greatly simplifying the whole problem of transport and supply as well as reducing the size and unwieldiness of columns. MT delivered troops, pack animals and supplies to the point where columns left the roads, refilled supply echelons and dumped stores at roadheads and were, to that extent, able to increase the radius of action of accordingly lightly equipped Indian troops. Roads also allowed heavy weapons to be deployed in Waziristan. Five batteries of mechanised field artillery, as well as a section of the 20/21st Medium Battery, equipped with a mixture of 18lb, 4.5" and 6" guns firing a heavier weight of shell than normally used in frontier warfare, supported columns within range and road protection troops .
Road protection was the main task carried out by imperial troops deployed in Waziristan as reliance on MT increased . A full infantry brigade was normally required to piquet 10-12 miles of road with mobile reserves held in each sector ready to respond to tribal raids. The stereotyped tactics most units employed for 'Road Open Days' - normally held three days a week - allowed little opportunity for personal initiative or any variation in minor tactics when positions of tactical importance had to be repeatedly occupied. Most road protection schemes employed in Waziristan also surrendered the initiative and provided hostile tribesmen with an idea of the time, direction, method and destination of each detachment as they piqueted a road each day making them vulnerable to attack. Armoured cars and on occasion Light Tanks proved an effective and economical means of patrolling roads, escorting convoys and providing fire support to road protection troops. A clear lesson of the campaign following the ambush of a convoy in the Shahur Tangi, however, was that MT was still highly vulnerable to sniping and ambushes in hilly areas outside the security provided by static protective piquets .
Perhaps the outstanding feature of the Waziristan operations was the close co-operation between the RAF and the Army in India at the tactical level, although independent bombing operations were also carried out. Six squadrons - equipped with Westland Wapiti, Hawker Audax and Hawker Hart aircraft - were used in the largest air operation ever undertaken in India operating under detailed restrictions imposed by the Government of India intended to prevent the death of non-combatants and attacks on friendly tribal sections. Daily reconnaissance sorties located hostile lashkars and enabled column commanders to, determine the number and location of piquets and perimeter camps in advance, and to direct long-range artillery fire. Bomber Transport Aircraft frequently dropped supplies to imperial columns, maintained isolated posts and evacuated casualties.
This increased the administrative and hence the tactical mobility of columns to the extent that following the Khaisora operations it was proposed that supply drops of food, fodder and ammunition should form a normal component of military operations in tribal territory to reduce the amount of pack transport required, remove the need for a permanent line of communication, extend the circuit of action of ground columns and to increase both their speed and mobility .
Throughout 1937 the close-support tactics developed at Khanpur formed an integral part of most operations in Waziristan with aircraft engaging hostile tribesmen in contact with imperial troops and those advancing or retiring in 'proscribed' areas in advance or along the flanks of columns . Writing in March 1937 General Sir John Coleridge, GOC Northern Command, acknowledged: 'These operations have definitely proved the great value which close support by aircraft in mountain warfare can afford. ' As had been anticipated, close communication between pilots and the forward troops was essential. R/T between aircraft and mule-pack sets accompanying column HQs formed the basis of communication, while a simple 'XVT' 'Close Support Intercommunication Code' enabled forward troops to indicate their position and targets to supporting aircraft .
The 1936-37 Waziristan campaign demonstrated once again the necessity of a high standard of specialised training in frontier warfare for units in the Covering Troops and elements of the Field Army detailed as immediate reinforcements. During 1937 the recent lessons learnt in tribal territory were included in reports issued by Northern Command and the annual report on collective training distributed throughout India . Training in frontier warfare was extended to form part of the individual and collective training period of every unit and brigade in India. Units of 1st (Rawalpindi) Division and those stationed in Lahore District were also temporarily attached to columns operating in tribal territory. The Manual of Operations on the North-West Frontier's planned replacement was not immediately available to these troops, however, despite agreement between the General Staff, Air Staff in India and the Foreign and Political Department regarding its contents. When the first draft was submitted for approval in February 1936, General Sir William Bartholomew, the CGS, observed:
It is most comprehensive and much larger than the old manual, but I think that it is right that this should be so. It is intended primarily for the use of officers of both services at Home and in India who have no knowledge of the Frontier or of Frontier fighting .
Controversy over the politically sensitive sections dealing with aircraft, however, prevented publication when the Secretary of State for India decided they should be issued separately . This decision bitterly disappointed Major-General Claude Auchinleck, who had drafted the manual and secured agreement between the RAF, army and political authorities in India. General Sir Robert Cassels, the Commander-in-Chief in India, personally intervened in May 1937 to prevent the 'emasculation' of the manual, which he believed presented a comprehensive picture of frontier warfare under modern conditions . As a result the entire manual was finally reclassified as 'For Official Use Only', although further differences over air operations meant it was not until November 1938 that it was approved for publication . During this period a small section on frontier fighting was included in the A.H.Q. India Training Memorandum issued in July 1938, although the information it contained was deliberately kept limited pending the arrival of a new training manual . Perhaps the most important means of disseminating information regarding the recent fighting was the service press. Many officers were eager to record their experiences and discern lessons from the recent operations, although not all expressed satisfaction with the current tactics or system of training employed in India .
Frontier Warfare (Army and Royal Air Force) 1939 was issued to British and Indian units and RAF squadrons during March 1939, providing them with a detailed and up-to-date formal written doctrine of frontier warfare. 20,000 copies were printed which it formed the basis of training for companies and higher formations for the remainder of British rule. This manual was considerably larger than its predecessor and codified the existing doctrine of frontier warfare currently in use in India modernised to the extent of discussing the use of aircraft, light tanks, and heavy artillery in tribal territory.
Its contents reflected the greater understanding and co-operation between the Indian Army and the RAF that emphasised the need for co-operation of land and air forces and their dependence on each other. It described, in considerable detail, how aircraft could perform air blockades, proscriptive air action, destructive air action and ground/air co-operation in mountain warfare. Despite growing criticism, the manual still emphasised the continued importance of the established orthodox methods of frontier warfare, columns, protective piquets and perimeter camps, but did It warn officer against the dangers of operations becoming too stereotyped,. Officers were encouraged to read histories of military operations and it also included a bibliography of books dealing with both the frontier and frontier warfare . Other sources of unofficial guidance complemented the new manual during 1939. Perhaps the most significant addition to this literature was a 4th revised edition of Passing it On: Short Talks on Tribal Fighting on the North-West Frontier of India of India, which contained a new chapter written by several Indian Army officers discussing the 1936-37 Waziristan operations .
The constant 'threat' posed by the trans-border Pathan tribes prompted perhaps the most detailed official military response to the demands of colonial warfare in the British Empire. As the General Staff in India faced a definite, long term military problem it adopted a far more pragmatic approach than the War Office (which directed military training elsewhere in the British Empire) that recognised the paramount importance of an officially sanctioned specialised doctrine and a system of training for frontier fighting.
Following the 1919-20 Waziristan Campaign the General Staff again acknowledged that the inherent difficulties of frontier fighting - exacerbated by improving tribal military effectiveness - meant imperial troops could not be left to 'make it up as they went along' or rely on 'on the job training' without running the risk of incurring significant casualties. As a result it devoted considerable time and effort to collating, analysing and disseminating lessons learnt by imperial troops fighting in tribal territory. These were passed on in new training manuals, annual training memoranda and Standing Orders that incorporated new developments. Outside official channels, the service press, textbooks written by serving or retired officers and a large cadre of experienced men within units also provided an important means of 'passing on' information. This was an important reflection of military professionalism directed towards colonial military requirements rather than in imitation of European practice. The recurrence of so-called 'regrettable incidents' in tribal territory underscored the need for training and this need was further emphasised by the fact that imperial troops never really enjoyed a decisive technological advantage in weaponry over their Pathan opponents.
The effectiveness of the Army in India on the North-West Frontier is open to question. Much criticism was directed by British officers at the so-called anachronistic methods employed in tribal warfare which has since been echoed by several historians. Yet Indian Army officers were not dyed-in-the-wool conservatives clinging to long outdated methods. The traditional approach to frontier warfare still remained remarkably effective as it was determined more by the unchanging factors of the mountainous terrain and tribal military characteristics than any other reasons.
It must also be remembered that frontier warfare was not the sole task performed by the Army in India and the training, organisation and equipment for its other roles directly affected both its tactical effectiveness during operations in tribal territory and its training approach. Both British and Indian units serving in India were always primarily organised, trained, and equipped for conventional military operations against a second class opponent, either in Asia or as part of an imperial expedition. Their Second function was frontier warfare and their final function was Internal Security duties. As a result of these disparate tasks it often proved difficult to achieve the correct balance between time devoted to training for conventional operations and that for frontier warfare or Internal Security duties, especially during peacetime when local day-to-day military requirements always loomed larger in the minds of Indian Army officers.
Following the First World War, the conflicting and often contradictory requirements of frontier fighting and conventional warfare became explicit as modern weapons and equipment, intended for 'civilised warfare', were adopted and dependence on supporting arms and services increased. As a result, the relative mobility of Indian columns operating in the hills progressively declined and they were tied to fixed lines of communication. While the construction of roads in tribal territory considerably eased supply and administrative difficulties, and allowed heavy weapons and higher scales of equipment to be used, they did not remove the essential problem encountered by imperial troops when they moved off-road. Apart from light tanks, the mountainous terrain afforded little scope for mechanisation or heavy weapons, and pack mules and infantry remained essential when columns operated in the hills.
As it was simply impossible to reconcile the heavy scale of equipment carried by regular troops with rapid cross-country movement through tribal territory, the tactical flexibility and mobility evident in prior frontier campaigns progressively declined.
The army's commitment to both frontier warfare and conventional military operations were largely mutually exclusive. While the commitment to frontier warfare reduced the army's effectiveness in conventional military operations, the army's pre-occupation with conventional war made it less fit for its frontier warfare. The various discussions regarding the relative merits of resuscitating the PFF in the 1920s and 1930s reflected widespread recognition that specially trained and lightly equipped localised troops would be much more efficient and mobile than regulars on periodic tours of duty.
However, such proposals were unacceptable to the military authorities as long as Afghanistan remained the most likely theatre of operations for the Army in India, as tribal territory provided invaluable practical experience of the terrain and tactics likely to be encountered across the Durand Line. In any event, the Scouts and various militias now performed the policing and, to a lesser degree, many of the military tasks previously carried out by the frontier force when it had been under civil control.
* Official History of Operations on the N.W.Frontier of India 1936-37 (Delhi, 1943)