Being a treatise on the activities of the Indian Army Special Operations Force on the North-West Frontier, delivered to officer-cadets at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, February 21st 1895.
I have kindly been asked to attend this college to recount the lessons we have learned while fighting the tribes of the North-West Frontier. To receive such an invitation was an unlooked for surprise, and in some ways is a compliment the officers, men and native troops of the Special Operations Force.
As you may know I am currently back in our homeland recovering from injuries received clearing the Khyber Pass. As you can see I am almost fully recovered, though I may need my cane for a few weeks more. Please excuse me if I have to sit down occasionally.
Gentlemen, what I have to talk to you about today is of no use to you here in the Royal Military College, no damned use at all. It will not help you pass your final examinations, nor succeed in your field exercises. However, if you are assigned, as many of you shall be, to the command of men or native troops in some far flung spot in the Empire it may make the difference between life and death.
I know that you, like many others before you, including myself, have been schooled in warfare ancient and modern. You have stood at the elbow of Crassus and Caesar, watched as Marlborough arranged his men against the French, listened to the briefings given by Napoleon and Wellington before their final meeting, and even read first hand reports of the terrible American Civil War and our more recent glories in Africa. You have learned about the movements of divisions and corps, the duties of Junior Officers at home and in the field, how to calculate fall of shot and the laying out of a sanitary camp. I need not repeat any of this for far better men than I have instructed you.
What I bring before you today has nothing to do with the direction of divisions, corps, brigades, regiments or even companies. It is to do with how you lead men to victory when you are reduced to a dozen effectives, are under fire from all points of the compass and the enemy seem to number in the hundreds. How you make your men stand up and charge when they are knee deep in the blood and bodies of their comrades. So do I have your attention? Good.
This lithograph I hold is of a young man called Mohammed Khan. He is fifteen years old and already a Pashtun warrior. He is five foot and three inches tall and weighs about nine stone. He is carrying a British rifled musket his grandfather captured in the first Afghan War. He can trot barefoot along mountain trails for fifteen hours in a single day with only occasional stops for water, covering fifty miles as he does so, then do it again tomorrow. Alongside him will be his grandfather who is seventy years old and even smaller. His father and six brothers have already died fighting their neighbours and us.
We captured this boy in a sortie into the hills after he shot five of my men and beat a Ghurkha Sergeant to death with just his rifle butt. He shot them at ranges between seventy-five and two-hundred and fifty yards and only expended six rounds to do so. If he had been British we would be giving him the Military Cross. Shortly after this photograph was taken he escaped taking three mules worth of supplies with him. We believe he may have allowed himself to be captured for precisely this purpose.
He was brought up in a society where boys become warriors as soon as they can learn to load and fire a musket. The tribes he comes from have been fighting each other, tooth and nail since Alexander the Great marched through on his way to India. The only time they unite is when they have an invader to resist.
The Pashtun and other tribes do not fight in platoons, companies and regiments. They do not form lines, do not stand their ground to face artillery and volley fire, and they do not respect rigid chains of command.
They fight in small family groups as part of clans who are, in their turn, part of tribes. The find good positions and inflict accurate and heavy fire on an advancing enemy then surrender the position and move to another. Each group of warriors knows what is expected of him and then does it without need for reference to higher authority.
The only time they stand their ground is if we reach their villages. These are sprawling compounds of stone and tough mud brick which they hold just long enough to evacuate their families and livestock or until we are drawn deep enough into the trap they have set. Then they melt away into the mountains.
They are not cowardly. As young Khan showed us they are fanatically brave, all being fervent mohameddans and believing that to die fighting the infidels earns them a place in paradise.
They are not stupid. They are simply educated differently to us. They study their holy book, the Koran, as a parson would study the bible. Many know several languages or dialects, can perform arithmetical calculations in their head that would puzzle a Quartermaster’s subaltern, and they love poetry.
Most of all they know their land. What we see as barren mountains they make a living from and they know the position of every boulder and the course of every stream and goat track in it.
Before you ask, I do admire them in a way. They have endured in the most hostile circumstance for millennia and come out smiling. There again I have seen what they do to captured white men and women. It is a savagery I hope none of you ever have to witness. You cannot reason with a Pashtun, you cannot expect mercy and you will never see them keep their word to an infidel.
We learned all these lessons the hard way over the course of decades. Many a brash colonel has blunted his regiment upon the crags of the Himalayas, expending officers, men and native troops faster than bullets to gain but temporary lordship over a godforsaken valley.
The current Indian policy is to patrol the foothills, maintain fortified camps back from the patrol zone and use the Special Operations Force to scout the tribal areas, and to cause alarm and distress amongst the enemy. Any incursion in force by the enemy is to be met with mounted reserve forces who try to cut the incursion off while other companies establish a cordon, which works, sometimes.
Recently it seems that the Russians have upped their involvement in the Great Game and are supplying the tribes with modern weapons including rifles and machine guns. Another role of the Special Operations Force is to track down and deny these weapons to the enemy.
What our command has been perfecting is the use of irregular forces and tactics against the enemy. What I shall go through now are some of these that we have found effective.
Let me explain to you how your first few days would go if you were to join us at our base in the Punjab.
Upon your arrival you will be taken to the Quartermaster’s Hut and be issued with all the kit of a private soldier. You will turn in all your officer’s uniform and equipment. I see shocked faces in front of me, well better that than you be the first man to die. The Pashtun warrior is familiar with the ranks and uniforms of our Officers and NCO’s. We have actually found dead warriors with cigarette cards showing these. I had one young lieutenant who refused to comply with this and led his men from the front. In his first engagement he was hit by five bullets before he hit the ground and died a noble idiot.
You will fight in amongst your men, with rifle and bayonet. You can keep your pistol as all officers, men and native troops are issued with these for use at close quarters. Your sabre will be useless for the simple reason is any Pashtun you find wielding a sword will be better with it than you. Shoot the dastard and move on. It is worth noting that they do not fight with bayonet, just with rifle butts and knives.
If you have the luck to draw command with the Ghurkhas they will issue you with a Kukri and drill you in how to use it.
Your shaving kit will also be handed in. A clean chin is a clear an indication of officer status as pips on your shoulder. All men are required wear full beards, which is also practical given the cold at higher altitudes.
If you have brought a horse this shall be sent to the rear. We ride surefooted mountain ponies and mules which are shod in the Pashtun manner. A cavalry horse will not only mark you out but shall probably go lame within a day.
You will be billeted with your men. It is vital that you get to know each of them well and that they get to know you. In the field Pashtun scouts will often watch our camps and may even take pot-shots at a man who stands out from the others.
The men will not salute you and will not call you sir. They will treat you with the respect due your rank and will follow your orders, but they do have a standing order that allows them to challenge this if your inexperience is allowing you to make a mistake. Under fire they shall be steady and brave.
You shall respect your native troops. Remember that while you are defending the Empire they are defending their homes and families. The native troops selected to be part of the Special Operations Force are the most steadfast and skilled men we could find. They will fight to the death for you and will drag you back dead or wounded rather than let you fall into enemy hands. They shall look to you for clear, cool leadership under fire. It is worth learning most common commands in their native tongues and giving them in these in the field.
An aside. There are many of you in this audience that are listening to my rambling account with growing alarm. This is not what you joined the Army for. I agree, neither did I. For those of you are considering my account with interest be warned, a man taking a commission in the Special Operations Force shall forever have a mark upon his docket that will be greeted with suspicion at best and, as often as not, outright hostility at Horseguards. It is not a step to be taken by a man who aspires to high office. That said there is no corps in which you shall have greater opportunity to actually do what all good soldiers aspire to, fight against an implacable foe and protect all we hold dear.
So back to the topic at hand. Once you are settled into your company you will be deployed upon patrol during which time you will be watched carefully by your Captain and accompanied by an experienced NCO whose job is to stop you or your men getting killed unnecessarily.
Our patrols are about spending days or even weeks up in the foothills, checking trails, observing enemy movements, hunting and ambushing enemy commanders and supply trains, capturing and interrogating enemy soldiers, sabotaging wells, bridges and fortifications. All the time we are alone, in the midst of our enemy’s lands, with absolutely no hope of rescue. It is dirty and dangerous work where all the manners and behaviours of polite society and the mess are left behind.
The work we do and the information we obtain, keeps the Pashtun on their toes, and our commanders alert to their activities. In the last twelve months alone we have prevented eleven major incursions, set two tribes against one another, killed one hundred a sixty-three leaders, elders, mullahs and other warriors, captured seven tons of Russian rifles and ammunition, recovered the bodies of a Colonel of the Hussars and his wife and avenged their deaths.
We have lost seven officers, fifteen NCOs, fifty-four men and thirty-three native troops. The Force has, in that time, been awarded sixty-one commendations and three Military Crosses, two posthumously, the other being on my dress uniform.
We have formulated a few hard and fast rules we apply in the field and these may be of use to you:
- Never take the easy trail for it is the one the enemy watch and are prepared to ambush you on. Cut your own trails if you can.
- Never camp in the same place twice.
- If you are to engage the enemy take the high ground.
- Do not fire bullets at bushes. You will only have the ammunition you carry or can loot so wasting it is a crime.
- A wounded Pashtun is a cornered tiger.
- Never leave a man, or his body, behind.
- Keep the last bullet in your revolver for yourself. Better a quick death than one taking days at the hands of the Pashtun.
- Never go into a place unless you know at least two ways out.
- If the odds are against you, run. You can always come back with more men later. As you can imagine this rule is the most disregarded. More men die from ignoring it than from any other cause.
- Ambushes should be L-shaped. Your initial fire should come from one direction and force the enemy into cover you can then enfilade.
- Always guard your ponies.
- Better a cold camp than a hot welcome.
- The Pashtun regard frontal assaults as we would a pheasant shoot.
- If you get a break in battle reload, drink, tend to wounds and eat in that order.
- Never carry what you would discard if you had to run a mile.
- No orders or plan survives contact with the enemy. In the Special Operations Force we give the men objectives not orders and let them determine how they can best achieve it when they get there.
- Do not expect the enemy to think as you do. Imagine the worst they could do and then plan for that.
- Once a course of action is agreed be bold.
- Allow your men their say on a plan. They may have knowledge, experience and wisdom you lack. And give them credit for it if it works.
- Any engagement you can walk away from is a good one.
So any questions?
(The session lasted three more hours, caused several officer-cadets to walk out in disgust and ended in a short fist fight between a Captain of the Coldstream Guards and the Colonel).