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The EK1

The East Persia Cordon and the Sarhad Operations : 1915 - 1917

Before the Great War commenced Britain had involved itself in Persia in an attempt to create a compliant and neutral buffer-state that would help to protect India’s western borders, and Indian Army troops were stationed in Persia at posts along the telegraph lines that ran beside the Gulf coast.  However Britain’s most public political gesture towards Persia had been made in 1907 when a convention was agreed with Imperial Russia that delineated respective spheres of interest in Persia.  Although Persia was a weakly-governed state its people were proud of their heritage and identity and many Persians felt deeply affronted by the Anglo-Russian Convention.

Also there was an important reason why Britain had an interest specifically in South-Eastern Persia, and that involved the weapons trade between Arab towns across the Gulf, such as Muscat in Oman, and India’s North-West Frontier.  On the Frontier British and Indian Army units were discovering that their tribal opponents now possessed rifles that were as accurate as they themselves used.  Whereas previously picqueting had only involved temporarily holding flanking high ground within musket or jezail-range of a marching column, now picquets had to be deployed at much greater distances from the column.  Consequently picqueting took more time to perform, more troops had to be used and the planning and execution could be intricate; modern rifles in the hands of tribal dissidents were dramatically changing the nature of frontier warfare.

Above: the East Persia Cordon

In attempts to stop the flow of arms from across the Gulf being landed on Indian or Persian coastlines before being transported on camels into Afghanistan and onwards to the Frontier, the Indian Army had made some deployments.  Along the coastline battalions had operated both in Baluchistan and across the border in Persia, and other battalions had operated further inland near the Baluchistan-Afghanistan border.  Regiments at Quetta took it in turn to send detachments to Robat, a desolate post near the point where the border-lines of Persia, Afghanistan and Baluchistan met.  In pre-Great War days the railway from Quetta terminated at Nushki which was 600 kilometres east of Robat, and troops bound for Robat had to then march by night for a month across a hot desert.  Few good water holes existed on this route and large camel trains carrying water had to accompany the troops. In July 1915 the 19th Punjabis was providing the Robat detachment that was billeted at Kacha, 67 kilometres east of Robat.  The 19th Punjabis was a Class Company Regiment with 4 companies of Jat Sikhs, 2 companies of Punjabi Mussalmans and 2 companies of Pathans (1).  Lieutenant-Colonel G.A. Dale commanded at Kacha, and his detachment consisted of two Sikh companies, one Punjabi Mussulman company and the Afridi company.  Also at Kacha were the 19th Punjabis’ machine gun section (two guns) and the machine gun section of the 12th Pioneers (The Khelat-i-Ghilzal Regiment).  Meanwhile back in Quetta the other half of the 19th Punjabis was busily recruiting and providing trained drafts of men for overseas theatres. Germany had placed several agents in Persia before the war, disguising their activities by appointing them as consuls or setting them up as traders.  Once war started these agents operated openly and often successfully against British interests, and both local tribesmen and elements of the Persian Gendarmerie were exhorted and paid to attack Indian Army posts.  When Turkey allied itself with Germany direct routes into Persia from across the Turkish and Mesopotamian borders were opened, and Germany used these routes to send missions to Afghanistan.  Germany’s hope was that both Persia and Afghanistan would join the Central Powers and attack India across its western borders, tying-up hundreds of thousands of Indian troops in India and fomenting revolt against British rule on the sub-continent.  By July 1915 Britain and Russia had heard of five different German parties moving across Persia towards Afghanistan.  Colonel Dale was ordered to intercept and capture or destroy any German parties that he could apprehend in the Sistan region of Persia, which lay north of Robat.  Cavalry support was to be provided by headquarters and two squadrons of the 28th Light Cavalry, plus that regiment’s machine gun section.

The 28th Light Cavalry was a Class Squadron Regiment stationed in Quetta, consisting of 1 squadron Madras and Dekhani Mussalmans, 1 squadron Punjabi Mussalmans (Awans), 1 squadron Rathore Rajputs and 1 squadron Jats from Hoshiarpur District. Colonel J.M. Wikeley, the Commandant, led the two squadrons (2) going to Robat and his orders were to proceed by train to Nushki without horses, and there to take over both riding and baggage camels.  After marching for five weeks the sowars met up with the jawans at Kacha, and the whole force moved across the Persian border into Sistan.  The British section of the East Persia Cordon had commenced its duties.  In the north the Russians were assuming responsibility for cordoning their section of the Afghan-Persian border.

Sistan, Birjand and death in the desert

Sistan was a very fertile region that had been claimed by both Afghanistan and Persia, but Britain acting as an international arbiter had awarded most of the region to Persia.  Because of its water courses and crops Sistan offered a useful route into Afghanistan for the Germans, as the desert routes to the north or south involved many hardships and dangers.  The Punjabis left detachments at Kacha and Robat and marched 140 kilometres to Nasratabad, the capital of Sistan Province.  After leaving another detachment there Colonel Dale made a long march north of 350 kilometres to Birjand where he established his headquarters.  A short distance further north at Sedeh Village contact was made with Cossack cavalry at the southern end of the Russian cordon.  A telegraph line ran northwards from Robat up to Meshed near the Russian border, and this provided an efficient means of communications between military posts.

Right: 106th Hazara Pioneers in marching order.

By mid-1915 the upper echelons of the Indian Army regarded Trans-Frontier Pathans with distrust.  The homes of these Pathans were in Afghanistan and once there they were beyond the control of the Indian Army.  The Central Powers, through Turkey, used religious propaganda to urge Muslims in Indian Army units not to wage war against the Caliphate.  Some Pathan sepoys, recruited from a prisoner of war camp in Germany, were escorting Germans through Persia to Afghanistan.  Also Afridi sepoys had deserted to the enemy both in France and Mesopotamia, so it was decided in Delhi to muster-out Afridis for the duration of the war.  Delhi ordered the return of the 19th Punjabis’ Afridi company to Quetta although that company had performed well on operations so far; Colonel Dale wished to disarm the men first to remove temptation, but Delhi ordered the retention of weapons.

The Afridi company was ordered to escort convoys from Kacha to Nushki and then to entrain for Quetta.  The first of these convoy escorts was 39 men strong under a Colour Havildar, and doubtless he and his jawans discussed the respective merits of going home immediately with a modern rifle and ammunition or being discharged perhaps ungenerously at Quetta.   Avarice won and on the third march from Kacha the 39 Afridis broke away from the convoy near Amalaf and marched towards the Helmand River, 100 kilometres to the north.  But before reaching the river a harsh, sun-scorched waterless salt-pan, the Gaud-i-Zirreh, had to be crossed.  Local Chagai Camel Levies were sent to track the deserters down, and eventually 37 bodies and all the rifles were found.  The Afridis had exhausted themselves and died in the old bed of the Helmand River.  The corpses were contorted and hands were thrust into holes that had been scooped out in failed attempts to find drinkable water.

The bodies of the Colour Havildar and the bugler were missing, as they had staggered onwards for a few kilometres to find the fresh water in the Helmand River; years later these two men were recognised in their native Tirah, perhaps living with vivid memories of their narrow escape from death.  After this incident the remainder of the Afridis were disarmed and they marched back loyally with the next convoy to Quetta where they were discharged from military service.  In September a double-company of Sikhs and Punjabi Mussulmans from the Punjabis’ Depot joined Colonel Dale’s command and was deployed to Dehan-i-Baghi, a small telegraph station 140 kilometres west of Robat on the desert trade route from Kirman in central Persia.

The 28th Light Cavalry enters Persia

After a rest halt at Kacha, Headquarters and ‘C’ Squadron, 28th Light Cavalry, garrisoned Nasratabad whilst ‘D’ Squadron joined Colonel Dale at Birjand.  In November ‘A’ Squadron (Punjabi Mussulmans) arrived at Nasratabad with 400 horses, which permitted all three squadrons and the Machine Gun Section to be mounted on horses again.  One interesting mission that ‘D’ Squadron completed was to escort 300 Shia Hazara tribesmen from Quain, north of Birjand, down to Seistan.  The Hazaras had been recruited by the British Consul-General in Meshed (3), and they were destined for service in the Seistan Levy Corps.  Also in November ‘B’ Squadron (Dekhani Mussulmans) came out from Quetta escorting a section (2 guns) of 10-pounder screw-guns of the 25th Mountain Battery; later another section of guns from the battery arrived in Seistan.  At the end of 1915 ‘A’ Squadron was at Birjand with a detachment at Seddeh; ‘D’ Squadron had 2 troops at Neh, 1 troop at Bandan and 1 troop at Nasratabad; ‘C’ Squadron was at Nasratabad alongside Regimental Headquarters; and ‘B’ Squadron was also at Nasratabad with a detachment at Kacha.

In early January 1916 ‘D’ Squadron at Neh received information from a local intelligence agent that three Germans with a group of hostile Bakhtiari tribesmen were at Deh Salim to the west.  Water pools near Deh Salim were picquetted and the village was occupied, the enemy having already moved out.  However the villagers volunteered the information that a second enemy group containing Austrian machine gunners was believed to be approaching from the west; ‘D’ Squadron prepared a defensive position at Deh Salim.  Patrols searched for the three Germans and found them in a good defensive position in nearby foothills, and fire was exchanged until dusk.  After dark the sentries on the southern edge of the village saw a man approaching and Acting Lance Daffadar Munshi leapt out and captured him.  The prisoner was a German named Winkleman who was looking for water; his group had first tried but failed to penetrate the Russian cordon to the north, and had then tried again against the British cordon.  Winkleman had stayed behind to cover the withdrawal of his comrades who managed to reach Kirman, further west in Persia.  Acting Lance Daffadar Munshi received a Mention in Despatches.

Above: Sketch of Seistan operations

Fighting the Sarhad Baluchis

Running down the Persian side of the border with Baluchistan was a hilly desert area inhabited by fierce Baluchi tribes, known as the Dahmanis, who supplemented an agricultural existence by regularly raiding westwards into Persia, seizing herds of livestock and female villagers, whom they enslaved.  This area was known as the Sarhad and it was targeted by the Germans who incited and paid the tribesmen to attack the British camel supply convoys marching westwards from the Nushki railhead.  The British had to rapidly solve this problem as without regular supply convoys the East Persia Cordon could not be maintained.  The railway was extended westwards from Nushki and a road suitable for motor vehicles was made alongside it, units from Quetta sent detachments to guard the road and railheads as they progressed.

A Colonel was sent from Rawalpindi to deal with the raiding problem, and in a few years’ time – because of a notorious shooting incident in Amritsar - his name would be widely known throughout the British Empire; he was Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer.  In early March 1916 Colonel Dyer drove in a car, the first one seen in the area, to Robat and with the help of his chief intelligence officer, Major C.R.H. Landon, 35th Scinde Horse, he quickly assessed the situation.  In the Sarhad there was one friendly tribe - the Rekis, and three hostile ones - the Gamshadzais in the east, the Yarmuhammadzais in the centre and the Ismailzais on the west.  To produce a fighting force Dyer could only thin-out the various detachments of Punjabis and Light Cavalry in their chain of posts running up to Birjand, as the East Persia Cordon had to continue patrolling against German infiltrators whilst he dealt with the Sarhad Baluchis.

For the next eight months Dyer, assisted by his Brigade Major Captain M. Saunders, 36th Sikhs, energetically marched his small force against his opponents, often bluffing them as to his exact strength.  He preferred to negotiate but sometimes combat was unavoidable.  In April a fight occurred against a strong Ismailzai lashkar (fighting force) near Dahan-i-Bagh.  Captain A.D. Bennett, 19th Punjabis, with 80 Sikhs and Punjabi Mussulmans suddenly saw the Izmailzais and engaged them.  After fighting all day under a very hot sun the tribesmen made a sword charge which was interrupted by a sandstorm that allowed both sides to withdraw.  The Punjabis lost 10 men and 2nd Lieutenant W.H. Chalmers killed, and 20 more wounded.  The Izmailzais had captured the Punjabi transport camels but they did not get far with them, as next day a mounted force of Seistan Levies and Light Cavalry surprised the enemy who were cooking a meal.  As the fight developed Subadar Mehdi Khan brought up the Punjabis and closed-off the enemy escape route.  As the Izmailis broke out across the plain in front of them the cavalry charged, killing over 30 tribesmen and recovering the lost transport camels plus 2,000 of the tribesmens’ sheep.  Captain Bennett later received a Military Cross.

But Dyers’ men did not always win their fights and once when the cavalry and the Punjabis were escorting bound Yarmuhammadzai prisoners most of the prisoners managed to escape at night after releasing their bindings.  The fugitives then ran the 100 kilometres to and from their homes to collect weapons, positioned themselves in the Laramba Pass ahead of the escort party and ambushed it, releasing the two remaining important prisoners.  The escort party lost several men killed and others badly wounded including two British cavalry officers.  Duffadar Sheikh Haidar, 28th Light Cavalry, was a tower of strength during this fight and he was afterwards promoted to Jemadar.  Reinforcements arrived when 300 men of the 106th Hazara Pioneers joined Dyer in July; these men had been working on the road from Dushki but they came to fight in their infantry role.

The fight for the Gusht defile

In late July Dyer led a moveable column out from Khwash with the aim of isolating Baluchi flocks, herds and families that were reported to be concentrated in the Morpeish Hills; the families and livestock were the raiders’ Achilles heel, and by isolating them Dyer could force the tribes to come to terms.  The column consisted of the 300 Hazara Pioneers, two troops of cavalry, two mountain guns and two machine guns.  When in the foothills Dyer used a troop of cavalry to simulate the march of the column in a false direction, whilst he marched towards his target.  Seeing the many camp fires that the sowars had lit the enemy was deceived and moved out to attack the supposed British force.  Dyer got his column into the hills, seized Gusht Fort which surrendered to him, and picqueted Gusht Pass. The enemy were now on the wrong side of the pass and they soon responded fiercely.  A renowned Gamadshai chief, Halil Khan, arrived to take command of the attack on the British.  Interestingly Halil Khan did not deploy his own Gamshadzais but only used the Yarmuhammadzais that were already surrounding Dyer.

Three days of heavy fighting for the mouth of the Gusht Pass followed, during which the Hazaras were heavily involved.  Captain L.E. Lane of the Pioneers was later awarded the Military Cross.  Dyer’s column was forced back, carrying its wounded, and every man was involved in holding the perimeter against ever-bolder enemy attacks. The section of mountain guns under Captain J.W. English, Royal Artillery, provided invaluable fire support at critical times.  This involuntary withdrawal allowed the Baluchis to dig up and hideously mutilate several Pioneer bodies that had been buried after the first day’s fighting.  But then a Pioneer fired at a tribesman looking over a sangar wall, the shot deflected off the sangar and blew the back of the tribesman’s head off, and Halil Khan was dead.  The death demoralised the Baluchis, as they had also lost 80 other men killed for no material gain; within an hour the Baluchis had withdrawn. Over the next two days and despite the severe water problems, Dyer’s cavalry located and rounded up the enemy flocks of sheep, meeting with only long-range sniping from the herdsmen.  The climate was the real enemy now as three of the sowars’ horses died of heat-stroke.  Dyer now had only the Gamshadzais to subdue and he quickly marched eastwards and seized the two strong forts at Jalk; without Halil Khan to stiffen their resolve the Gamshadzais declined to fight.

As the Gusht fighting commenced an isolated group of around 30 raiders were reported to be at a waterhole near Khwash.  On 29th July 2nd Lieutenant A.B. Duncan, 28th Light Cavalry, was sent out with 6 sowars and 15 Punjabis.  At the sight of the cavalry the Baluchis scattered and took cover in clumps of bush; Duncan made three charges through the area, being badly wounded on the second charge, along with three of his men.  When the Punjabis came up the area was secured but Duncan and two of his men died of wounds before they could receive medical attention.

After the intense fighting at Gusht the Baluchis considered their situation and requested from Dyer that they be offered terms to submit to British authority, and this was mutually agreed.  In order to keep the Baluchis out of German hands a new British irregular unit, the Sarhadi Levies, was formed and former raiders were recruited into it.  Although the Sarhad was Persian territory the exigencies of war and a weak Persian central government permitted Britain to act in the Sarhad as though it was British territory.

Gun-running continued because of the massive profits associated with it, and in September 1916 news was received of a party of gun-runners making for the Afghan border. Lieutenant B.W. Wahl, 28th Light Cavalry, took out a party of sowars and Punjabis and met up with the gun-runners at the Shorab waterhole.  The cavalry charged and although Wahl and Lance Daffadar Mohammed Abdulla were killed, the enemy was quickly dispersed, leaving behind on the ground 5 men dead and 400 rifles and 60,000 rounds.  In March 1917 at the same water hole a party of sowars and Punjabis under Captain J.A.C. Kreyer, 28th Light Cavalry, was to have a similar success, capturing 447 rifles, 23,600 rounds of ammunition and 20 pack camels.

By October 1916 Dyer, now a Brigadier-General, had contracted medical problems after several months of hard but successful campaigning in one of the harshest theatres of the war, and he returned to India.  Brigadier-General C.O.O. Tanner relieved Dyer.  With the Baluchis now subdued half of the 28th Light Cavalry moved back to Quetta.  The 19th Punjabis was reorganized with the jawans being Punjabi Mussulmans and Jat Sikhs, with the exception of one platoon that was recruited from the Pathan Yousafzai tribe.  The attached machine gun section from the 12th Pioneers (The Khelat-i-Ghilzal Regiment) was incorporated into the battalion, giving the Punjabis 4 machine guns for future operations.  Drafts arrived from the Punjabis’ Depot that was now at Hyderabad, Sind, and Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel D.E. Knollys arrived to take command of the Battalion.  Duties on the East Persia Cordon continued into 1917 as did operations against gun-runners.  After one engagement the Quartermaster of the 19th Punjabis, Lieutenant F.W. Stewart, Indian Army Reserve of Officers, was awarded a Military Cross with the citation: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when the enemy got round the flank and rear of camp. He collected all available odd men, and by prompt dispositions and gallant leading held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived, thereby averting complete disaster. Although wounded he continued fighting, and throughout showed great pluck and tenacity.

  But soon the effect of the Russian Revolution was to lead to a collapse in Russian participation on the Cordon whilst a new German threat appeared in the Caucasus.  Although they could not have guessed it in early 1917, both the 28th Light Cavalry and the 19th Punjabis were destined to be eventually fighting Bolshevik forces across the Russian border in Transcaspia.

  Awards for operations in Sistan

Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB)

Temporary Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Henry Dyer, Indian Army.

  Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG)

Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur Dale, 19th Punjabis.

  Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

Captain (Temporary Major) Macan Saunders, 36th Sikhs.

  Military Cross (MC)

Captain Alexander Dumaresque Bennet, 19th Punjabis.

Captain Lionel Edward Lang, 106th Hazara Pioneers.

Lieutenant Francis William Stewart, Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 19th Punjabis.

  Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM)

Jemadar Haider Khan, 25th Mountain Battery. (He appears to have been attached to the 25th Mountain Battery from the 34th (Reserve) Mountain Battery.)

Subadar Muhammad Hassan; 774 Colour Havildar Kalbi Hassan; and 862 Lance-Naik Abdul Hakim, all of the 2nd Battalion the 12th Pioneers (The Kelat-i-Ghilzai Regiment).  (These three men were probably in the machine gun section that was attached to the 19th Punjabis, and later absorbed into it.)

Subadars Rulla Singh and Ghulam Muhammad; 372 Havildar Sher Ahmed Khan; and 1455 Bugler Kishen Singh, all of the 19th Punjabis.

Subadars Ali Dost and Ali Juma; and 1533 Naik Ali Nazar, all of the 106th Hazara Pioneers.

Jemadar Radho, Chagai Levy Corps; Risaldar Edoo Khan, Sarhadi Levy Corps; Jemadars Bairat Ali and Juma Jalal, both of the Sistan Levy Corps.

  Indian Meritorious Service Medal

Dafadars 1830 Shaitan Singh, 1961 Nur Khan, 2101 Ujagar Khan; Lance-Dafadars 2210 Boor Singh, 1892 Sultan Singh and 2354 Tek Chand, all of the 28th Light Cavalry.

Driver Havildars 1056 Sikander Khan, 1180 Ghulab Khan and Gunner Havildars 2622 Karam Dad and 113 Khan Bahadur, all of the 25th Mountain Battery.

Colour Havildars 4673 Rajwali, 4151 Gopal Singh; Havildars 4969 Narinjan Singh, 4751 Santa Singh; Naiks 4404 Nur Ahmad, 1159 Nadir Khan; Naik (Ward Orderly) 1312 Ujagar Singh; Sepoys 552 Dul Singh and 1487 Ganga Singh, all of the 19th Punjabis.

Havildars 808 Gharib Dad, 541 Saiyid Raza; Naiks 1302 Khuda Baksh, 237 Ghulam Ali; Lance Naik 116 Ali Akbar; Sepoys 2166 Mausam and 2686 Najaf, all of the 106th Hazara Pioneers.

1st Class Sub-Assistant Surgeons 884 Jawal Singh, 1072 Saiyed Ahmad, and 3rd Grade Civil Sub-Assistant Surgeon 491 Shrikrishna Raghunath Ingle, all of the Indian Subordinate Medical Department.

3rd Class Veterinary Assistant Inder Singh of the Indian Veterinary Department.

1395 Naik Shakar Khan and 2922 Sowar Hussain Gulmir, both of the Sistan Levy Corps.

1)      One Pathan company was all-Afridi and the other was partly Muhammadazi and partly Yusufzai including trans-border Dush Khel from Southern Dir.  
2)      C’ Squadron of Rajputs and ‘D’ Squadron of Jats.    
3)       Hazaras in Afghanistan tended to be discriminated against, but many lived in Persia where they could practice their Shia Islamic religion alongside fellow-Shia Persians.

SOURCES: (most economical listed)

Colvin, Ian: The Life of General Dyer. (William Blackwood & Sons Ltd, Edinburgh and London 1929).
Dickson, Brigadier-General W.E.R.: East Persia. A Backwater of the Great War. (Edward Arnold & Co., London 1924).
Dyer, Brigadier-General R.E.H.: The Raiders of the Sarhad. (Witherby, London 1921 and online: ).
Graham, Brigadier-General C.A.L.: The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery. (Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1957 and online: ).
Head, Richard and McClenaghan, Tony: The Maharajas’ Paltans. A History of the Indian State Forces (1888-1948). (Manohar, Delhi 2013).
Hopkirk, Peter: Like Hidden Fire. The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire, first published as On Secret Service East of Constantinople. (Kodansha International paperback 1994).
James, F.: Faraway Campaign.  Experiences of an Indian Army Cavalry Officer in Persia and Russia during the Great War. (Leonaur paperback 2007).
Kreyer, Major J.A.C. and Uloth, Captain G.: The 28th Light Cavalry in Persia and Russian Turkistan. (Slatter & Rose Ltd., Oxford 1926).
London Gazette Supplement dated 31 October 1917, page 11270 and online: ).
Moberly, Brigadier-General F.J.: Operations in Persia 1914-1919. (Imperial War Museum 1987.)
Pigot, G. compiler: History of the 1st Battalion 14th Punjab Regiment, Sherdil-Ki-Paltan, (Late XIX Punjabis). (Naval & Military Press reprint).
Sabahi, Houshang: British Policy in Persia 1918-1925. (Frank Cass 1990).
Sandes, Lieutenant-Colonel E.W.C.: The Indian Sappers and Miners. (The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham 1948).
Tugwell, Lieutenant-Colonel W.B.P.: History of the Bombay Pioneers 1777-1933. (Naval & Military Press reprint).