Monday, February 16, 2015

Indian Troops in East Africa

As usual, a post from Hamid Hussein, this time about the British Indian army in East Africa, with some comments about "all Muslim regiments' and neo-orientalist claptrap about the Pakhtoons and the British. Enjoy. 

Omar 

Major ® Agha H. Amin; an authority on history of subcontinent armies sent a reminder about 129th Baluchistan Infantry in E. Africa.  Few questions about Indian soldiers in E. Africa in Great War as well as some ancillary long forgotten aspects of military archeology came my way and following was the outcome.  Only for those interested in military history of the region.

Indian Soldiers in East Africa in Great War

“We are too much inclined to think of war as a matter of combats, demanding above all things physical courage.  It is really a matter of fasting and thirsting; of toiling and waking; of lacking and enduring; which demands above all things moral courage”.   Sir John Fortescue

East Africa is a forgotten chapter of Great War.  Several Indian battalions served in East Africa.  British East Africa is now Kenya and German East Africa is now Tanzania, Rawanda and Burundi.  German army in East Africa was calledSchutztruppe.  Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) - C commanded by Brigadier ‘Jimmie’ Stewart arrived in September 1914.  This force was predominantly from state forces with about half battalion strength each from Rampur, Kapurthala, Bharatpur and Jind state forces.  Only one regular Indian battalion 29th Punjabis was part of the force.  Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) - B under the command of Major General Aitken consisted of 27th Bangalore Brigade (2ndLancashire, 101st Grenadiers, 98th Infantry and 63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry - four companies of Madrassi Muslims, two Tamils and two Christian Madrassi companies) and Imperial Service Brigade (Gwalior Rifles, 2nd and 3rd Kashmir Rifles).  This was followed by battalions re-deployed from European and Egyptian theatres as well as.  As usual unsung heroes of the theatre are pioneers, railway volunteers and sappers and miners who were superb in the most trying conditions.


 In general, troops deployed from European theatres had performed well but suffered horrendous casualties and turnover of recruits and officers was very rapid.  The role of state forces was essentially ceremonial and they were neither armed nor trained for war.  Each state contingent was different from other and they had never even paraded together let alone trained for any significant military maneuver.  Most of the area was unmapped but Indian units didn’t get maps where they were available.  During the whole campaign, troops were on half ration.  Harsh weather, terrain, mosquitoes, flies, fleas, fever, malaria, dysentery and man eaters and alligators took more toll on all soldiers than enemy’s bullets.  Despite all these difficulties, Indian soldiers performed very well and discipline of Indian troops was exemplary.  Discipline of Indian troops was much superior to others especially South African soldiers when a number of times they were busy looting the towns. 

Most of white troops went out of action due to disease.  British political officers proved to be superior in linking up with local communities and raising African infantry.  New battalions of King’s African Rifles (KAR), Hausa Regiments and a Nigerian Brigade were now effective British force commanded by Brigadier F. H. Cunliffe in addition to Indian troops.  Germans lost about one third of their force to sickness but still had about 14,000 natives and 2000 European soldiers.  Local African soldiers called Askaris trained and led by German officers also performed very well.   

Disproportionately, large number of Pathans in different units served in E. Africa.  Having said all this, it should be remembered that Indians made only a very small part of the force operating in E. Africa and majority of troops of all arms were South African (infantry, cavalry and artillery).  South Africans had initially a very low opinion of Indian troops referring to them as ‘coolies’ but after seeing them in action had great respect for them.  Union Jack flying over Kibata belonged to 1/2 KAR and was a frequent target of German soldiers and gunners. After the battle 1/2 KAR presented this flag to 129th Baluchistan Infantry. 

129th Duke of Connaught’s Own (DCO) Baluchistan Infantry (now 11 Baloch of Pakistan army): This battalion came to East Africa from the killing fields of France.  This battalion has the distinction of being first in two aspects; first British officer casualty of Great War (Captain Vincent) and first Indian winner of Victoria Cross Sepoy Khudadad Khan). It narrowly missed being first Indian battalion to lock horns with Germans when their comrade of 57th Wilde’s Rifles became first Indians to fire at Germans. 

On the eve of Great War, infantry battalions were organized as four double companies (total 8 companies).  It was an all Muslim battalion and had six Pathan companies – all trans-frontier (three Mahsud, one Mohmand and two Afridis; Adam Khel Jowaki) and two Punjabi Muslim companies.  One double company of 127th Queen Mary’s Own Baluchistan Infantry was attached to bring up the battalion to war establishment (desertion of trans-frontier Pathans from some regiments resulted in discontinuation of their recruitment.  This is a whole separate subject and I have been working on it for some time so I may dwell on it sometime in future). Battalion suffered heavy casualties in France with repeated replenishments from sister as well as other battalions (Mahsud and Wazir Pathans from 124th Duchess of Connaught’s Own Baluchistan Infantry, Orakzai Pathans and Baluchis of 127th Baluchistan Infantry).  Only 4 British and 5 Indian officers and less than two dozen sepoys of original contingent were unhurt after a year of service in France.  It left for E. Africa under the command of Lt. Colonel H. Hulseberg DSO of 127th Baluchistan Infantry and spent one year in E. Africa (January 1916 – January 1917). 

Indian component of Ist East African Division consisted of 129th Baluchistan Infantry and 29th Punjabis (they were part of 2nd East African Brigade.  Later 40th Pathans joined the brigade).  Later, in a battle when CO of 29th Punjabis Lt. Colonel H. A. Vallings was killed and Adjutant wounded, soldiers were lost.  Later 30 soldiers of 29th Punjabis were court martialled for leaving battle with self inflicting hand wounds. 

From 1914 to 1918, four and a half thousand men of honor served the battalion’s colors with over three thousand and five hundred casualties.  Many lie buried in hallowed grounds all over the globe.  Many indomitable men of the battalion belonging to different ethnicities like Subedar Kambir Khan; a Baluch, Subedar Sarbiland; a Pathan and Jamadar Fateh Haider; a Punjabi Muslim and long list of Indian Order of Merit (IOM) winners are now just names on the forgotten pages of history.  Naik Alim Khan (127th attached) during a scouting patrol spotted a five men German picket and this superb marksman killed four of them and the fifth survived only by fleeing.  The ultimate compliment a regiment can get is what its adversary thinks about the soldiers.  German Commander Lettow-Vorbeck said about the regiment that “… the 129th Baluchis …..  Were without a doubt very good”.  A memorial in memory of contributions of all Baluchistan Infantry regiments in first world war at Frere Hall in Karachi is a tribute to sacrifices of many such men of honor.

130th King George’s Own Baluchistan Infantry (now 12 Baloch of Pakistan army): The deployment of 130thBaluchistan Infantry in E. Africa is interesting.  At the start of war, when battalion was in Calcutta getting ready to be deployed overseas, a Mahsud sepoy attacked battalion’s second-in-command Major Norman Ruthven Anderson who later died of his wounds.  Battalion was sent to Burma where two Pathan companies mutinied.  200 soldiers were court martialled and two soldiers executed.  British commander in East Africa Major General Richard Wapshare specifically requested deployment of 130th to East Africa.  I’m puzzled by why he specifically asked for the battalion. Battalion received double company of 46th Punjabis and it arrived under the command of Lt. Colonel P. H. Dyke (later Lt. Colonel C. U. Price) in February 1915 to become part of Ist East African Brigade (130th Baluchistan Infantry, 3rd Kings African Rifles, 2nd Loyal Lancashire and 2nd Rhodesia Regiment) commanded by Brigadier Wilfred Malleson of 2ndEast African Division commanded by General Michael Tighe.  Battalion participated in the battle of Latema. 

40th Pathan (now 16 Punjab of Pakistan army):  On the eve of Great War, battalion was in China and arrived in France in April 1915 and fought under Jullundur Brigade.  Battalion was decimated in the killing fields of France in the Second Battle of Ypres losing most of its officers.  It arrived in E. Africa in January 1916 under the command of Lt. Colonel Henry Tendyll.  40th Pathan was originally an all Pathan Muslim battalion (in 1901 the composition was changed with one company Orakzai, half company each of Afridis and Yusufzais, one company of Punjabi Muslims and one company of Dogras). That diluted to some extent the flavor of the original élan as well other naughtiness.  Battalion was nick named ‘Forty Thieves’ as whenever stationed at a cantonment things will mysteriously disappear and CO earned the nick name of ‘Ali Baba’.  Battalion’s marching tune was Pushtu song ‘Zakhmi Dil’ played on dhol andsurnai with strong homosexual connotations.  This song was later adopted by pipe bands of Ist and 2nd Battalions of Seaforth Highlanders.  Any officer commanding 700 young men living together in close quarters has to deal with many naughty souls but Commanding Officer of a battalion with significant number of Pathans had his hands full with many intricate issues such as how to deal with two young sepoys insisting to be put together at night for sentry duty, a young recruit putting a bullet through a randy old Subedar for undue advances or keeping a close tab on home furloughs to make sure that two soldiers with blood feud in their village are not sent home at the same time else one will not return.  

57th Wilde’s Rifles (Now 9 Frontier Force of Pakistan army): This battalion went to France in 1914 with four companies instead of eight.  Class composition was one company each of Sikh, Dogra, Pathan (Afridis) and Punjabi Muslims.  After a year in the killing fields of France, battalion went to Egypt for six months before landing in East Africa in July 1916.  Commanding officer was Lt. Colonel Thomas Willans DSO.  Battalion was part of 2nd East African Brigade.  Pathan Subedar Arsala Khan Afridi winner of MC and IOM in France (already IOM winner in 1908 Mohmand expedition) also served in E. Africa where he was wounded.  He earned an OBI for service in E. Africa and became Subedar Major of the battalion. 

57th landed in E. Africa with 11 British officers, 21 Indian officers and around 850 men.  Merely two months later, only 3 British officers and 180 men were fit for service.  An amazing incident happened here.  No: 2 Pathan company commander was Major James Buller.  During an attack on entrenched German position, he shot at German company commander Lieutenant von Ruckteschel but bullet went through the hat.  Ruckteschel fired back severely wounding Buller.  Buller was captured and sent to German hospital in Dar ul Salam where he was nursed back to health by a kind nurse who was wife of Ruckteschel.  Later, Ruckteschel’s leg was shattered by a shell.  Battalion returned to India in October 1917 leaving behind about 35 comrades buried in E. Africa but were proud owners of the German Imperial flag that flew on Governor’s House of German East Africa.  Another irony of the times is the story of Havaldar Salim Khan.  He survived the killing fields of France, German bullets and shells, malaria, snakes, alligators and man eaters in East Africa, won an IOM for a daring attack on a German machine gun position capturing it but killed by fellow Zakha Khel tribesmen when he was going on his well earned pension in 1921.

One squadron of 17th Cavalry:  This squadron reached E. Africa in February 1915.  17th Cavalry (later in 1922 amalgamated with another all Muslim cavalry regiment 37th Horse to form 15th Lancers) was another all Muslim regiment consisting of two squadrons of trans-frontier Pathans and two squadrons of Punjabi Muslims.  The squadron sent to E. Africa was a composite 120 men Pathan squadron (60 from A and 60 from B Pathan Squadrons) commanded by Major R. C. Barry-Smith.  Indian officers were Risaldar Usman Khan and Risaldar Sajid Gul.  Squadron became orphan when two of the three British officers of the contingent were killed in an ambush until replacements came from India.  Many horses were lost due to harsh climate and horse illness.  After two years, squadron returned to India leaving twenty comrades buried in E. Africa.

Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck: He was commander of German forces in E. Africa.  There is no doubt that he was head and shoulders above all his British rivals in the theatre.  He was master of planning, logistic details, tactics and almost always one step ahead of his British foes.  For four years, he fought, feigned, disappeared, re-appeared and engaged his rivals in a lengthy retreat and in the process kept a large number of troops under British command entangled.  However, inter-war German writings raised him to a mythical level which is not accurate.  His success was partly due to inept British military leadership in the theatre but then he who takes advantage of foe’s mistakes is the man who wins.  First German victory at Tanga using conventional strategy clouded Lettow-Vorbeck’s judgment and he didn’t change his strategy despite changing circumstances.  He assumed that another victory like Tanga would end the campaign in his favor despite two alternatives offered by his subordinates (Captain Max Wintgens and Captain Heinrich Naumann advised for guerrilla warfare campaign by deep raids which they had successfully applied and Captain Max Looff’s suggestion about positional strategy to take advantage of the terrain and concentrate dwindling German forces in selected areas).  Lettow-Vorbeck continued on his own path that ultimately destroyed his forces and when finally he realized it was too late.  All this however doesn’t diminish his achievements. 

He was student of Chief of German General Staff Graf Alfred von Schlieffen; master of maneuver warfare.  He was banished to remote E. Africa because he was not much liked by General Staff due to his personality as well as his dogmatic adherence to conventional warfare.  The last act of maverick Lettow-Vorbeck during his retreat was another brilliant maneuver surprising the 900 strong Portuguese contingent under Major Pinto on his heels.  He re-crossed the river, made a swift encircling march and after a brief sharp encounter, 700 Portuguese surrendered and provided Lettow-Vorbeck much needed supplies especially ammunition. Clothing his men in Portuguese uniforms and armed with foe’s arms, he captured Fort Naguri.  Lettow-Vorbeck was uncompromising to the extent of ruthlessness and expected one hundred percent effort from his subordinates.  After an encounter, he sat on judgment of one of his subordinates Major Fischer and after announcing that Fischer has not tried hard enough to block enemy’s advance handed him revolver.  Fischer dutifully took revolver from his commander went away and shot himself.  South African commander General Jan Smuts acknowledged his foe by stating that “The enemy’s stubborn defense of his last colony is a tribute to the military qualities of Von Lettow”.  (John Nesselhuf’s master’s thesis on the subject is a very good analysis looking at the alternative view of Lettow-Vorbeck).


I found Edmund Dane’s British Campaigns in Africa and the Pacific 1914-18 and Ross Anderson’s Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign 1914-1918 good comprehensive review of the E. African campaign. 

·       Above narrative clearly demolishes at least one myth prevalent in Pakistan especially among army officers that there were no all Muslim regiments in Indian army.  At different time periods there have been several all Muslim regiments and I think Major ® Agha H. Amin has given a detailed account a while ago.  A similar myth is about Pathan being anti-British where hostility of a segment of trans-frontier Pathans is generalized.  They ignore the simple fact that trans-frontier Pathans generally didn’t accept central authority whether Mughal or even their own kin i.e. Pathan rulers of Afghanistan.  They flocked in droves to serve East India Company and later British Crown all over the globe as well as acted as game keepers in their own hinterlands joining scouts.  Pathans were way over represented in Indian army compared to their population.  Numbers of Afridis and Mahsuds is simply astounding. I’m currently working on Pushtun recruitment in British Indian army during Great War.  There were whole companies of Yusfuzais, Khattaks, Mohmands, Orakzais, Mahsuds and Afridis who bravely fought under Union Jack for the pig eating Queen (later King).  Pondering over the Khyber Agency political agent’s files at Peshawar archives of that era I found long lists of many who gave up the ghost in the killing fields of Europe, Mesopotemia, Middle East and Africa.  What is the lesson from this page of history? When properly trained and led by first rate officers even alien who shared nothing with their soldiers and look at the results.  Zakha Khel Afridis of Khyber Rifles with only four years of service were steady as a rock even against their own kin in a battle.  In 1897, when whole frontier was aflame and sole British officer of Khyber Rifles was not allowed to go back to Landi Kotal to join his soldiers, one indomitable Subedar Mursil fought to his last breath in a situation where one son was with him while two sons were with the tribesmen attacking his post.  Compare it to what happened recently.  Poorly trained and horribly led scouts would not fight even for their own homes and hearths. Even in the darkest days of the Empire, a scout would risk his life despite severe wounds to bring back his rifle with his head held high let alone think about surrender.  And here you have dozens including regular troops surrendering without firing a shot or deserting.  Officers who should have been court martialled for their acts of omission and commission were promoted and given prized appointment ensuring that rot went all the way up the chain of command.  Things have improved a lot but still there is lot of room for improvement.  At Moschi in E. Africa, a Mahsud sepoy hardly out of his boyhood was hit with two bullets in his left arm.  When Company Commander ordered the company to rise and reinforce the firing line, he saw the bleeding Mahsud and telling him to report to hospital.  Cocky Mahsud refused telling his Company Commander that ‘you have two arms, you take my rifle and I have one arm, I’ll take your revolver.  We will both go to the perimeter’.  In 1930, only three resolute British and three Indian Scout officers (one Swati, one Afridi and one Khattak) lead their men to defend the Sararogha fort against a large lashkar.  Everyone knew that government was here to stay and not going to run away no matter what is the challenge and the result was that a strange combination of an outlaw, a Khassadar Subedar, a local Mahsud Malik and a retired Subedar Major Mir Badshah Khan stood as a rock against heavy odds and prevailed. (this incident is described in detail by Charles Chenevix Trench in his great work The Frontier Scouts).  In 2008, the same fort was lost to militants due to strategic myopia, pathetic indifference at all levels and due to the fact that men with lot of brass on their shoulders but with feet of clay were at the helm of affairs.  In 1888, the death of only two British officers and four soldiers of 5th Gurkha Rifles moved the whole government machinery and Black Mountain expedition was launched.  Resoluteness of government was for everyone to see and the result was that 300 Afridi volunteers of Khyber Rifles joined the fray.  Over a century later, dozens of soldiers were abducted and beheaded, two and three star officers were killed in major cities and nobody seem to be in any hurry.  No surprise that chair lift operators (Mullah Fazlullah) and bus conductors (Mangal Bagh) made a mockery of state authority.  The wages of such incompetence are the tragedies that militants are slaughtering children in schools and blowing dozens in attacks on mosques. Now Pakistan will need a lot of blood and treasure to reverse the rot. 
·       Indomitable Baluch fought for the alien sovereign with pride hundred years ago and hundred years later his alienation from the state of Pakistan is almost complete.  Wisdom of Solomon and patience of Job will be needed to bring him back into the national fold but some in high temples thought that dumping Baluch bodies will keep the nation together.  They forgot that we have seen this movie before and it ends very badly.

Hamid Hussain
February 2, 2015