The Duki Column of the Marri Field Force, Baluchistan.
February to April 1918
Baluchistan in 1918
The Baluchistan Province of British India was a large but thinly inhabited territory that bordered southern Aghanistan, south-east Persia and the approaches to the Straits of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf. The Province was administered directly by the Indian Political Service, as was the North-West Frontier Province immediately to the north. During the Great War both of these Provinces were targeted by German agents positioned in neutral Persia who used gold and intrigue to spread disaffection against British rule.
The Marri tribe of eastern Baluchistan had a history of resistance to the British. The tribesmen were long-bearded and long-haired and lived in a remote, barren area that was relatively untouched by economic progress or the war. In 1917 Marri chiefs had travelled to Quetta for a visit by the British Viceroy and there probably they had been led to believe by other more devious chiefs that there were no British soldiers left in India as all had gone to the war. Then the British Political Agent asked for Marri recruits for a tribal levy, this caused anger and the Marris swore to refuse this British request. In February 1918 this anger was translated into action and an attack was mounted on Gumbaz Fort.
The attack on Gumbaz Fort
Thirty men from the 3rd Skinner’s Horse were garrisoning Gumbaz Fort when news of trouble brewing in the Marri region was received at regimental headquarters in Lorelai. On 17th February 1918 Major J.R. Gaussen CMG, DSO was despatched with 50 more men to reinforce Gumbaz, and this group arrived at the fort the following day. The fort and surrounding area appeared quiet and the resident Political Officer, Lieutenant Colonel F. McConaghey, was living in his bungalow some distance away. However towards evening Gaussen sensed impending violence and he persuaded the Political Officer to move into the fort.
Gaussen’s appreciation for the defence of the fort with just 80 men had decided him not to attempt a perimeter defence but to concentrate his men in the two flanking towers; he commanded one tower and Lieutenant H.B. Watson (Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 3rd Skinner’s Horse) commanded the other. At 2300 hours on 19th December several hundreds of mainly sword-wielding Marris suddenly attacked, scaled the fort walls, and then hurled themselves against the towers. Mullahs had promised the tribesmen immunity from infidel bullets and the Marris were fearless. The intensity of the fighting can be gauged from the citations for the two Indian Orders of Merit (2nd Class) that were later awarded:
No 786 Dafadar Lal Singh, 3rd Skinner’s Horse
This non-commissioned officer showed the greatest gallantry and power of command in action on the night of 19th-20th February 1918. He exposed himself continually to fire, directing fire and rallying his men, till severely wounded. When the non-commissioned officer who had charge of the key of the magazine had been cut down, and the key lost, he at once volunteered to go down and force open the magazine, ammunition being needed. When wounded, he was placed under the little cover available but a second bullet inside the post struck him in the brain and killed him.
No 1334 Lance Dafadar Khem Singh, 3rd Skinner’s Horse
When his post was attacked from the rear, he at once rushed out to the head of the ladder and resolutely defended it from a mob of Marris, shooting down several and holding the ladder unaided until the attack was beaten off.
The first assault was halted but minutes later fresh waves of Marris vigorously attacked again until they too were driven out of the fort by rifle fire. A third and final attack was mounted at 0200 hours 20th February but this also eventually withered under the intensive rifle fire of the defenders. As they departed the Marris showered curses on their infidel foes and carried away some of their own casualties, but even so 200 dead or wounded tribesmen were found lying in and around the fort as dawn broke. The regimental history does not record the casualties sustained by 3rd Skinner’s Horse.
This had been a very savage action and it was later included in the Official List of Battles and Actions of the Great War. For gallantry displayed in commanding the towers James Robert Gaussen received a Companionship of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire (CIE), as did Frank McConaghey who had been fighting alongside him, and Harold Boyes Watson was awarded a Military Cross.
The Marri Field Force
The Marris continued attacking government buildings and induced the Khetran tribe to join them; the Khetranis joined in wholeheartedly and burned down buildings at Barkhan on 7th March. But on 28th February the government had sanctioned punitive measures. Lieutenant General R. Wapshare CB, CSI ordered a Field Force to concentrate at two locations: Duki for operations against the Marris and Dera Gazi Khan for operations against the Khetrans. Brigadier General T.H. Hardy commanded at Duki and Brigadier General P.J. Miles commanded at Dera Gazi Khan. Details of the major units that were most active in the two columns can be extracted from the list of recipients of the Battle Honour shown at the end of the article.
The Deri Ghazi Khan (or Rakhni) Column
The 1st Battalion of the 55th Coke’s Rifles (Frontier Force), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel H.E. Herdon, de-trained at Deri Ghazi Khan on 4th March 1918. The four rifle companies were class-composed of: Dogras, Sikhs, Punjabi Mussulmans and Pathans; the Pathan company was half Yusufzais and half Khattacks. Colonel Herdon was ordered to move to Fort Munro, 90 kilometres away and on top of a 1,800 metre-high escarpment; the battalion departed on 5th March. The following day news was received of an impending attack on Fort Bhar Khan, 100 kilometres distant. Colonel Herdon marched towards Fort Bhar Khan with half of his battalion but after travelling 16 kilometres further news was received that the Fort Bhar Khan garrison had escaped to Kher. Colonel Herdon now set his compass towards Kher, and by marching through a pitch-black night accompanied by heavy rain and mist his half-battalion reached Kher at 0130 hours on 7th March. The men had no greatcoats or blankets and no food was available, whilst the only huts there were fire-damaged. On the next day the other half of Coke’s Rifles reached Kher, and a rudimentary supply line was established. Over the next few days the battalion picqueted the roads to Girdo and Rakhni.
On 15th March around 3,000 Marris and Khetranis, mostly swordsmen, attacked Fort Munro. Coke’s Rifles marched hard to get there in time, accompanied by Centre Section (2 guns) of 23rd (Peshawar) Mountain Battery. The tribesmen got into some bungalows near the fort and occupied an adjacent hill. Centre Section was commanded by Captain T.F. Hennessy and he provided fire support, firing 32 rounds at 1550 metres range whilst two companies of Coke’s Rifles attacked and dispersed the enemy. Coke’s Rifles had four men wounded, one mortally, by sword cuts.
The next day more troops arrived and the Force moved to Rakhni from where punitive columns destroyed villages, cut crops, seized cattle and took many prisoners. The 12th Pioneers, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J.S. Hooker, supported the infantry by road and camel-track construction, and often by accompanying columns to use pioneer expertise in demolishing villages. The region was dry and very hot by day, but the temperature dropped to freezing conditions by night.
Sapper engineering support
As well as the pioneer support both the Bengal and the Bombay Sappers & Miners provided sub-units for heavier military engineering tasks. Captain H.E. Roome, Royal Engineers, commanded the 52nd Company, Bengal Sappers & Miners, whilst Captain M.G.G. Campbell, Royal Engineers, commanded the 72nd Company, Bombay Sappers & Miners. The sappers improved water supplies and communications generally, bridging ravines, destroying enemy fortified towers and erecting camp defences.
The Duki Column
Units in the column de-trained at Harnai and concentrated at Duki by 18th March, when the order of battle was:
· Column Headquarters
· One Squadron 3rd Skinner’s Horse
· One section of 23rd (Peshawar) Mountain Battery
· One section of Sappers & Miners
· 1st Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment
· 107th Pioneers
· 2nd Battalion 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkhas, with one platoon from 3rd Battalion 5th Gurkha Rifles attached
· Detachments from the 71st Punjabis, the only Christian battalion in the Indian Army.
· A Machine Gun Company, motor cycle mounted.
· Two sections of a Field Ambulance.
· A detachment of Mule Corps.
· A detachment of Bikaner Camel Corps, an Imperial Service unit provided by the Princely State of Bikaner.
Rain fell heavily on Duki and there was little shelter. The South Lancashires, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A. De Vere Willoughby-Osborne, was an all-British unit on the peace-time ration scale. The battalion suffered because it was impossible to make local purchases as there were no local suppliers in sight. The British soldiers were each issued with half a kilogram of atta flour (milled from semi-hard wheats) with which to make chapatis, but they needed friendly help from the Indian units before anything resembling a chapati appeared. At Duki it was decided to forget about the motor cycles as there were no roads ahead of the column, so the machine gun sections were converted to pack-animal transport and the ammunition belts were carried in packing cases by mules and camels. The former motor cyclist riders had worn the soles off their boots cornering on their bikes, and being in no condition to march a long distance they persevered as far as Kohlu where they stayed as a garrison. The 107th Pioneers, commanded by Major W.P.M.D. McLaughlin initially picqueted the road by day between Harnai and Ashgara, garrisoning posts along them. One night a company camp at Torkhan was surrounded by hostile Marris, but the pioneers’ rifle fire drove off the tribesmen at a loss of one Pioneer wounded. The 107th then marched with the Duki column.
The column advanced on 18th March to Gumbaz, the scene of the February attack, where mules were allocated to carry greatcoats. Meat was driven ‘on the hoof’ and the herdsmen had to be constantly chivvied to keep up with the column. Next morning Nurhan, the entrance to the Marri country, was reached and a reconnaissance party observed many stone-built sangars (protective firing positions) on the crests of hills controlling the valley that had to be used as a route; however the sangars were not manned. That night heavy rain soaked the greatcoats and blankets which resulted in unstable mule-loads that constantly slipped during the following day; the wet blankets froze stiff during the following night.
Air co-operation planes had appeared overhead. These were BE2c aircraft from Nos 31 and 114 Squadrons, Royal Air Force; two planes were based at Sibi, two more at Duki and a further five at Deri Ghazi Khan. The first sortie, on 1st March, was a plane armed with a Lewis gun and four small bombs that went looking for a reported 3,000-strong lashkar (fighting group) of Marris approaching from Chandia. The plane made no contact, and this was fortunate as the reported lashkar was in fact the audience dispersing after a sports meeting at Chandia. However operationally the planes could look for enemy groups and drop messages on the columns with details of enemy locations or directions of travel, and they could bomb villages and camps. On 24th March Kahan, capital of the Marri district, was bombed and 14 armed tribesmen were killed. The threat offered by the aeroplanes was a significant deterrent and helped in eventually subduing the inadequately armed belligerents.
Securing Watwangi Pass
On 22nd March the column secured and marched through the very steep-sided Watwangi Pass, leaving half the Gurkhas there to secure the route and operate punitive columns. Lieutenant Colonel A.B. Tillard, the Gurkhas’ commanding officer, stayed with his headquarters at Zrind at the top of the pass. The two companies of Gurkhas that marched onwards with the column were commanded by Captain E.J. Corse Scott. Kohlu was reached where the revenue and levy posts had been burned out. Here the column halted for a few days, the motor cyclists in their by-now imitations of boots were left as a Line of Communication garrison whilst infantry columns destroyed local villages and crops and collected any weapons seen.
Confiscated herds of livestock were attached to the column and moved on with it to Bor, where torrential rain all night prevented cooking and allowed the livestock to escape. To recover the stock 40 South Lancashire volunteers who claimed equestrian status were mounted on transport mules, with pack-saddles and rope stirrups, and sent back towards Kohlu. However as soon as the mules decided to move up a gear from walking to trotting the countryside was littered with dismounted soldiers and riderless mules; it took two hours to reform the detachment. The mules were then walked to Kohlu where the herds had faithfully returned, and a sheep or two or three were requisitioned to provide grilled lamb chops with the chapatis that evening.
It took all of the next day to return to Bor as the herds were very hungry and stampeded towards grazing whenever they saw it; by now few of the equestrian volunteers wanted to ever ride again. Bor was totally fly-infested and when eating, speed and dexterity with spoon and fork were essential to prevent the swallowing of swarms of flies. Also the water was brackish and purgative, keeping all ranks on the run. Everyone kept on good terms with the re-supply convoy commander who always brought a barrel of sweet water up with him.
The action at Hadb
As 4th April dawned news came in of a strong lashkar (fighting group) of around 1,500 Marris positioned at Hadb to bar the route to Mamand. The lashkar was occupying sangars on the crest of a long upward-running spur. A reconnaissance was made resulting in a decision to attack directly with two companies of Gurkhas and one company of South Lancashires, supported by the mountain gunners.
A Gurkha company and a South Lancashire platoon climbed the spur and the steep ground at its head whilst two other South Lancashire companies manoeuvred to be able to fire into the Marris’ flank as they retired.
As the British assault troops crested the ridge and engaged the sangars the Marris broke and retreated, leaving up to 100 dead on the ground; many wounded were carried away. Shells from the mountain guns and the kukhris and bayonets of the assaulting troops had all done deadly work in and around the sangars. This was the only stand made by the primitively-armed Marris against the Duki Column. Five British soldiers had been wounded. Subadar Gamer Sing Gurung and 2403 Lance Naik Dhanraj Gurung, both of 2/2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkhas, were later Mentioned in Despatches
The Duki Column moved on to the Marri capital of Kahan without further opposition, arriving on 18th April. During the following day the Political staff got to work and on 2nd May accepted the formal submission of the Marri Nawab and tribal headmen. A similar acceptance from the Khetrans was accepted at Barkhan on 7th May. By now hot weather had arrived, with temperatures reading 110 degrees in the shade.
Whilst at Kahan the gunners came across two British 12-pounder howitzers that had been spiked and abandoned after a disastrous encounter with the Marris in 1840. The guns were hauled back to Quetta where one of them adorned the Royal Artillery mess there for several years.
As hostilities had ended the Duki Column marched back towards Duki. The 55th Coke’s Rifles was met at Chappi Kach, complete with tents, a proper scale of rations, and beer; the 55th was generous towards its companions-in-arms. At Harnai station a Munro Canteen had been set up, manned by ladies from Quetta; after appreciating the canteen contents and the kindness of the staff the column entrained for Quetta. Uniforms were torn and patched, and boots were disintegrating, but after three months of marching across the unforgiving Baluchistan terrain all ranks were fit, slim, and content.
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur De Vere Willoughby-Osborne, The South Lancashire Regiment, was later Mentioned in Despatches and also received a Companionship of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire (CIE).
These twelve regiments and units were awarded the Battle Honour Baluchistan 1918, but those underlined did not elect to carry the honour; the units and sub-units from these twelve that were employed in the 1918 Marri Field Force are shown bracketed:
§ The South Lancashire Regiment (1st Bn);
§ The Kent Cyclist Battalion (1st/1st Bn);
§ Skinner’s Horse (3rd Skinner’s Horse);
§ The Peshawar Mountain Battery (23rd (Peshawar) Battery);
§ The Bengal Sappers & Miners; (52nd Company);
§ The Bombay Sappers & Miners; (72nd Company);
§ Madras Pioneers (81st Pioneers);
§ Bombay Pioneers (12th Pioneers and 107th Pioneers);
§ The Frontier Force Rifles (1st/55th Coke’s Rifles);
§ The 2nd Gurkha Rifles (2nd Bn);
§ The 4th Gurkha Rifles (1st Bn).
Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, Volume III, Baluchistan and the First Afghan War (http://archive.org/details/frontieroverseas03indi )
The History of Skinner’s Horse by Major A.M. Daniels.
History of the 2nd King Edward’s Own Goorkhas (The Sirmoor Rifle Regiment), Volume II, 1911-1921. By Colonel L.W. Shakespear.
History of the Bombay Pioneers by Lieutenant Colonel W.B.P. Tugwell.
The Frontier Force Rifles, 1849-1946 by Brigadier W.H. Condon OBE.
Official History. The War in the Air, Volume Six by H.A. Jones.
(The above six titles are available as re-prints from The Naval & Military Press Ltd.)
Unattributed Article in the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment Museum Archives, The Marri Field Force 1918.
Ich Dien: The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment) 1914-1934 by Captain H. Whalley-Kelly. Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1935.
Regimental Journal Article: The Defence of Fort Gumbaz February 1918 by Lieutenant Colonel K.C. Cradock-Watson, Skinner’s Horse.
Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918 by Peter Duckers. Jade Publishing Limited, 1999.
The Indian Political Service . A Study in Indirect Rule by Terence Creagh Coen KBE, CIE. Chatto & Windus, London, 1971.
The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery by Brigadier General C.A.L. Graham DSO, OBE, DL, psc. Gale & Polden Ltd, Aldershot, 1957. (http://archive.org/details/IndianMountainArtillery)
The Indian Sappers & Miners by Lieutenant Colonel E.W.C. Sandes DSO, MC.
The Battle Honours of the British and Indian Armies 1662-1982 by H.C.B. Cook. Leo Cooper, London, 1987.
Indian Army List, January 1919.
London Gazettes Nos 31235 (pages 3586-87) of 17 March 1919, and 31903 (pages 5581-83) of 18 May 1920.
(An edited version of this article appeared in a recent issue of Durbar, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society http://imhs.org.uk/ . Gratitude is expressed to the Royal Geographical Society for the use of their photographs, and to Matthew Broadbridge for drawing attention to the Cradock-Watson article.)