Not all the events of the First World War were mud-stained or waterlogged. On the fringes of the great conflict, campaigns were fought that better belonged in spirit to the freebooting days of tribal raiding and the imperial punitive expedition, than to the grim business of bombardment and trench-to-trench offensive.
One such campaign was conducted by the British in Southern Persia which, although nominally an independent kingdom, had been divided by them and the Russians into ‘spheres of influence’. It was, however, also used by the Germans, Austrians and Turks as an area of special operations, in which they tried to raise anti-Allied resistance and through which they infiltrated agents to foment rebellion inside India and on its borders with Afghanistan.
In an effort to control hostile activity in the region, Britain recruited a local regiment, the South Persian Rifles, and organized the Eastern Persian Cordon, an unofficial frontier garrisoned by regiments from the (British) Indian Army. One of these was the 28th Light Cavalry, in which Gerald Uloth was then serving. His account of duty on the cordon has a timeless quality. The characters he describes might have skirmished against Alexander the Great on the campaign of conquest two thousand years earlier; their bad habits - raiding, looting and kidnapping, particularly kidnapping their enemies’ women - were even older than that. (The Brigadier-General Dyer described here was later to be responsible for the killing or wounding of some 1,500 unarmed Indians at Amritsar in the Punjab in April 1919, for which he was removed from his command.) Uloth felt at home in these lawless circumstances and describes them brilliantly. He belonged to almost the last generation of British officers who were able to enjoy the cut-throat but curiously honourable war of the Indian frontiers that had occupied warriors since the beginning of recorded history.
The convoys carrying supplies to our troops in Eastern Persia travelled along the Seistan Trade Route from Nushki. Before crossing into Persia they passed through that narrow triangle of British India bordered on the north by Afghanistan and on the south by Persian Baluchistan. The convoys entered Persia at Kuh-e-Malek Siah, the point where the frontiers of Persia, Baluchistan (in India) and Afghanistan all meet. For many years in times of peace merchant caravans had passed safely along the Seistan Trade Route unescorted. The sight of our enormous military convoys of a thousand camels and more laden with all manner of delectable goods - clothing, food and, above all, arms and ammunition - offered a great temptation to the wild Baluch, the Damanis, whose name translates so picturesquely into ‘The Dwellers in the Skirts of the Hills’, who inhabited the mountainous country to the south of this British triangle. Their black tents could be found in all the country surrounding the great volcano, the Kuh-e-Taftan, and in the adjacent country, all of which was known as the Sirhadd. These tribesmen had owed allegiance to no government for years; they had resisted all efforts by the Persian Government to levy taxes. From their mountain fastnesses they aided gun-running parties to reach Afghanistan and made raids into the Persian plain.
In early 1916, as the result of Turco-German propaganda, they began to show unrest. Two Germans actually visited tribes to the south of the Sirhadd in 1915. The Damanis started to raid British convoys, at first only in a small way. They were very mobile. On their small fast-trotting camels they could cover great distances at speed and subsist for two or three days on a bag of dates, a little atta (coarse flour) and what water they could carry in a goat skin mashak or find in water holes and desert wells. It was only too easy for them to find a vulnerable spot in a convoy some three miles long, with an escort of only fifteen or twenty men, who were probably concentrated round some valuable part of the convoy such as treasure or arms. Their tactics were for a small party to lie in ambush and by firing a few shots to cause alarm and disorder amongst the unarmed camel drivers and, from amongst the resultant confusion, drag off a few loaded camels. They then hurried off into the heat haze and the hills, were lost to view and made for their mountain homes. Pursuit was impossible: there were no troops with which to pursue.
Success made them bolder; they soon started more extensive raids, more shooting into convoys, the killing of drivers and the carrying off of more camels. In an attack on one convoy they killed the Force Commander’s new charger which had been sent out from India and looted the saddlery and blankets. Our Force Commander, Brigadier-General Dyer, was an Indian Army General of the old type, an infantryman, tough, courageous and strict. He decided that the time had now come to teach the rascals a lesson. Perhaps the loss of his charger was the deciding factor.
He collected from his small command a force of one squadron of Indian cavalry, a machine-gun section from the Indian infantry, a company of Indian infantry and two mountain guns. He augmented this force with some friendly tribesmen from the Reki tribe, some of whom lived on both sides of the border.
The force was first concentrated at Mirjawa, a British Frontier Levy Post. The General then sent friendly tribesmen into the Sirhadd with exaggerated reports of his strength. After allowing time to elapse for these reports to sink in he advanced boldly across the border from Mirjawa. His bluff was successful. Except for one small skirmish, in which the Baluch lost a few men and our force none, he reached Khash without opposition. Khash is the very heart of the Sirhadd, and the tribal centre of the Gomshadzais, who under their Chief, Jiand Khan, were the most numerous and powerful tribe in the Sirhadd. Jiand Khan and his lieutenants came in to make submission.
Shortly after this the squadron of which I was second-in-command was ordered to Khash as reinforcements. My squadron commander was a major, some ten years senior to me — in those days quite a gulf. We marched from Mirjawa to Ladis, seventeen miles. This was a lovely camping ground, so different to the arid halting places along the Seistan Trade Route. It lay where the plain met the foothills and where the hills, which had been converging on us all day on either hand, finally closed in. The Kuh-e-Taftan rose high into the blue sky ahead; the twin domes of its craters were snow-capped. From one a wisp of smoke was rising. From out of the mountains ran a broad crystal clear stream, in which darted tiny fish. The black tents of the nomad Bekis dotted the plain near the stream, camels were being brought in from grazing and children came to gaze at us as they drove their flocks of goats back to their encampments. All was peaceful and pastoral.
The next three marches were through barren hills, in places sparsely covered with scrub and an aromatic herb, the smell of which I always associate with the hills of Baluchistan. All the marches were dominated on the right by the Kuh-e-Taftan. On the fourth day we entered the Khash valley. This is a flat camel-thorn covered plain, some twenty miles in length and three to four miles wide. The northern end is blocked by the Kuh-e-Taftan. Down both sides run ranges of rocky brown hills, which converge at the southern end. Khash itself lies a little north of the centre of the plain and consisted of a crumbling fort of sun-dried brick with a crenellated circular watch tower, about a dozen mulberry trees, and some evidence of cultivation. After life in posts on the Eastern Persian Cordon, either alone or with one other British officer, we found Khash a perfect metropolis. Including my squadron commander and myself there were ten British officers.
We gathered that the Gomshadzais had submitted to the General’s terms and that all was now fun and friendship. By some superhuman effort the General had got his car up there, driven by a British corporal all the way from Nushki along the Seistan Trade Route, the first motor vehicle to come that way. In the evenings he took the Chiefs for a drive round the camp. It was a most extraordinary spectacle to see Jiand Khan, the Chief of the Robbers, festooned with well-filled bandoliers and holding his rifle between his knees, sitting in the back of this open tourer as they bumped over the uneven surface of the plain.
Many minor Chiefs had come in and hundreds of long-haired Baluch were camped in their black tents nearby. Durbars (formal meetings) were a daily occurrence. These wild-looking men with hair down to their shoulders in soiled loosely wound white turbans, dirty white shirts hanging outside equally dirty voluminous white pyjamas, wearing sleeveless waistcoats of black or blue cloth, trimmed in some cases with an addition of gold or silver tinsel, were all armed to their teeth. They all carried firearms of sorts, Belgian, French or British and wore one or two full bandoliers. Some also had a cartridge belt round the waist. This often held a dagger or a curved sword hung from a belt. They wandered round the camp at will.
The door of my tent faced the great volcano. Every morning I was filled with wonder and pleasure at its beauty in the clear light of the new day, as the sun started to tint the snow on its twin domes. The Khash valley lies at five thousand feet, the same altitude as Quetta. The Kuh-e-Taftan rises another eight thousand feet above it and dominates the country for a hundred miles around. The silhouette was so clear against the blue sky and so symmetrical. Through the ages the two craters had ejected their streams of lava to cascade down and form two identical domes.
However, on one morning it was not the mountain which first caught my eye as I emerged from my tent. To my astonishment nine little female figures squatted in a row on the ground facing me. They were all dressed in shabby, dusty, black or dark blue. Their head-dresses were drawn modestly across the lower part of their faces. Perhaps two or three were old, that is to say over thirty — women age quickly in the hard life of the Oriental peasant. I was embarrassed. I was not dressed to receive ladies; in fact I was stripped to the waist, as I was about to wash in my camp basin which stood on its ‘X’ stand outside my tent. I hastily withdrew and donned a shirt. Although they remained for the most part with the lower part of the face covered; some of the younger ones, on the pretext of adjusting a head-dress, would reveal a shapely almond-coloured forearm, adorned with a cheap glass bangle or two, and a pair of dark eyes ringed with kohl, and a comely though obviously unwashed face.
Why they chose to visit me I never discovered. Perhaps because my tent was on the outside of the two in that part of the camp, or possibly they had been told that I spoke some Persian. One of the elder women acted as spokesman. She declared in a shrill, high-pitched voice, that they were Persians and had been carried off from their villages in a recent raid by Juma Khan. No doubt that villain would have described the younger ones as good booty. Juma Khan was Chief of the Ismaelzais, a tribe second only to the Gomshadzais in numbers. He had not long ago made a raid on a grand scale into the Seistan plain, had clashed with our troops and been forced to retreat in haste into the mountains, leaving behind him a large portion of his loot, in the shape of goats and camels. Whereas Jiand Khan was a patriarchal, dignified figure, fair in complexion, with a flowing white beard, Juma Khan was dark, squat and repulsive looking. I had seen him in the camp, swaggering around loaded with weapons.
I asked how far they had come in their escape. I do not think they knew. The woman answered, ‘Besiarfarsakh(many farsakh).’ The farsakh is roughly four miles, or the distance a laden mule can do on the flat in an hour. The Persian idea of distance is not ours. They live in a land of vast distances: we live in a tiny island. If you ask a passing traveller how far it is to the next stage or well, he will often reply, ‘Nazdik (near),’ when in your opinion this proves to be far from the case. He may say this from a weakness some Orientals have of saying what they think you wish to hear, or because to him nazdik dofarsakh(near two farsakh) really does imply near, whereas to me eight miles and possibly two more hours’ travel seems far.
I went to the major’s tent next door. He was in the same state as I was, but on hearing of our visitors put on a shirt and came out to meet them. They were still there looking like a row of rather shabby crows. He sent for his orderly to take them to the brigade major, who was more in a position to deal with a problem of this nature. They padded off behind the orderly in single file. No doubt he had his leg pulled in the Lines [soldiers’ quarters]. I learnt later that these women were all safely returned to their homes.