Small Wars Journal

Cutting Their Teeth or Tying Their Hands?: Northwest Frontier Tactics and World War, 1897 – 1945

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 12:56am

Cutting Their Teeth or Tying Their Hands?: Northwest Frontier Tactics and World War, 1897 – 1945

Gil Barndollar

Perhaps no army in history has ever juggled as wide and challenging an array of campaigns and conditions as the British Army did from 1897 to 1945. Battling enemies from Burma to Belgium, the British Army rapidly transformed itself from a small imperial constabulary to a war-winning conscript mass army, shrank back almost overnight, and then repeated the trick barely twenty years later. Through it all, from the height of empire to the Pyrrhic victory of the Second World War, one of the army’s few constants was ceaseless mountain warfare on the Northwest Frontier of India.

The Northwest Frontier, now the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, is a mountainous region that sits above the fertile plain of the Indus valley. Today the FATA is known as a sanctuary for the Taliban, a lawless region rife with insurgents, arms manufacturers, and drone strikes. But the Frontier, and especially its heartland of Waziristan, has always been a source of trouble for its neighbors. Living in poor, rocky land with little opportunity for more than subsistence farming, the Pathan (or Pashtun) tribesmen of the Frontier raided and stole from the rich Indian lands to the south for millennia. The Frontier also provided a route for more serious invaders. Indeed, in the entire recorded history of India the British had been the lone conquerors not to come from the northwest. 

Admired and feared by his enemies, the Pathan of the Northwest Frontier was a fierce and shrewd fighter. The words of one British officer, writing in 1943, sum up the general sentiment of his peers: “The Pathan is, in short, a guerrilla fighter par excellence, physically strong, brave even to recklessness, a born tactician in minor tactics in his own particular type of country, and a good shot.”[1] The Frontier became a crucible for British officers, as the cunning enemy quickly exposed and exploited even the smallest tactical error. Inadequate defenses at night, a failure to recognize key terrain, or a blunder during a withdrawal could rapidly lead to the annihilation of a section or platoon. It is no surprise that many of the British Army’s most successful World War II commanders cut their teeth on the Frontier.[2]

However, success in small wars does not always translate to an army’s ability to fight major conventional wars. Israel’s difficulties in Lebanon in 2006 are only the latest proof of this.[3] Did Britain’s longest colonial war, the pacification of the Northwest Frontier of India, improve or retard her army’s ability to fight major wars?

There were those, even in the Indian Army, who felt that endemic Frontier fighting was a major impediment to preparation for modern mechanized war. Mountain warfare was slow and methodical, with the requirement to deliberately picket a force’s flanks on the high ground while the main body marched down a road or valley. The inescapable need for long columns of pack animals also lent Frontier campaigns an archaic air as military mechanization progressed after World War I. Some advocated the re-creation of a permanent Frontier Force, which would be highly specialized and unable to fight effectively in modern wars.[4]

However, in both world wars there was ample evidence that despite the peculiarities of Frontier campaigns, service in Waziristan had done much to prepare British and Indian troops for modern warfare.

World War I

Northwest Frontier fighting was markedly different from the numerous other punitive expeditions and small wars conducted by the British Army after 1850. Despite being illiterate irregulars, the Pathans more closely approximated a European enemy than they did the Zulus or the dervishes of Sudan. Only the Boers, a unique case, would give the British Army a greater challenge than the tribesmen of Waziristan.

The improved armament of the tribesmen was the key development of Frontier fighting in the early twentieth century. While it had been relatively low-risk warfare in the past, the lethality of Frontier combat rose dramatically due to the increased use by the tribesmen of modern magazine rifles using smokeless powder. The Pathans of Kipling and Harry Flashman had carried ancient jezails, erratic flintlocks that by the mid-nineteenth century couldn’t match British weapons, and that provided clouds of black smoke to identify their firers’ locations. But after fifty years, this small arms imbalance began to change. Captain Alexander Mason noted in 1892 that the arrival of Snider and Martini-Henry rifles, with triple the range of the tribesmen’s old muzzle loaders, had fundamentally changed the tactical calculus of the Pathans.[5]

A burgeoning traffic in rifles, imported from the Persian Gulf via Afghanistan, was eventually shut down by a blockade imposed by the Royal Navy and the Royal Indian Marine, but by that point much of the damage had been done.[6] The Pathans continued to receive rifles stolen from laxer British garrisons further south, or supplied by the Russians. Cunning Pathans in British service could also sell their coveted Lee-Enfields to their cousins in the mountains, buy an imitation rifle crafted in a tribal factory (nearly identical until the rifling started to wear out after 300 rounds), and pocket a tidy profit.[7] In spite of British and Indian measures the tribes’ arsenal grew exponentially: in 1902 it was estimated that there were over 2,000 breech-loading rifles in Waziristan; by 1919 this number was nearly 140,000, and twenty years after that it was thought that the tribesmen possessed over 232,000 modern rifles.[8] The Pathan’s appetite for magazine rifles was insatiable, and greatly increased the risk of attack for smaller British detachments.

Once the genie of the modern rifle was out of the bottle, the tactical situation changed dramatically for British and Indian troops in Waziristan. The Pathans were often very skilled with their new weapons; Army Headquarters India’s 1935-36 training memorandum noted that ‘the accuracy of the enemy rifle fire at long ranges, over 1,000 yards, was described as remarkable’.[9] This increase in enemy engagement range meant mountain pickets had to be set out three times as far away from friendly columns as before, with an attendant slowing of movement and greatly increased difficulty of withdrawal.[10] The word “sniper” originated on the Frontier, though its exact etymology is unknown.

The flood of modern rifles into the Frontier, combined with the Pathan’s natural talent for concealment, gave the British a rude wake up during the Tirah Expedition of 1897. In his final report on the campaign, dated 24 February 1898, Major-General Sir William Lockhart wrote, “No campaign on the frontiers of India has been conducted under more trying and arduous circumstances than those encountered by the Tirah expeditionary force.”[11] Frontier campaigns could no longer be won by talented amateurs, and a professionalization of mountain warfare training rapidly ensued.

The legendary combat shooting of the small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 1914 is usually credited to the shock of the Boer War. After facing highly mobile sharpshooters who were often invisible at a few hundred meters, the British revolutionized their marksmanship training.[12] However, as Edward Spiers has written of the Boer War, these tactical precepts, including careful reconnaissance before an attack, more use of cover and extended formations, avoiding artillery positions within range of an enemy’s infantry, the use of continuous rather than sporadic bombardments, more marching and better care of horses by cavalry, and the delegation of responsibility to battalion and company commanders in the field, bore all the hallmarks of lengthy service on the Northwest Frontier.[13]

The Indian Army was institutionalizing the new tactical lessons of the Frontier years before “Boer tactics” came into fashion in the British Army. The manual Frontier Warfare 1901 condemned volley fire as a waste of ammunition and directed troops to attain a high level of proficiency at individual fire.[14] Highly realistic long range marksmanship training resulted, with an emphasis on individual soldiers engaging fleeting enemy exposures and shooting moving targets. The lessons of Waziristan, and their dramatic confirmation in South Africa, helped ensure that the BEF was largely ready to fight a modern European war in 1914.

The Interwar Period

The British practice of recruiting both irregular and regular soldiers from among the tribes of the Frontier added greatly to the Pathans’ collective military skill after the First World War. T. R. Moreman has described 1919 as a turning point in Frontier warfare:

Mahsud lashkars [tribal war bands] had demonstrated a degree of military skill and tactical effectiveness never before encountered. Their carefully organised attacks were unprecedented, with well-concealed marksmen providing sufficient covering rifle fire to pin down imperial troops, enabling swordsmen to close and engage in hand-to-hand combat. It was strikingly apparent that the character of frontier warfare had altered considerably, primarily as a result of tribal rearmament with high velocity rifles and by their skilful combination of fire and movement. This new-found tactical effectiveness was primarily attributable to the presence of large numbers of deserters and pensioners from the militia and Indian Army in their ranks. Ex-servicemen formed one-fifth to one-sixth of the Mahsud fighting strength – approximately 2,000 men – encountered during the initial phase of the campaign, providing lashkars with leadership, discipline and tactical training that they had always lacked before in Waziristan.[15]

Major-General Skipton Climo, commander of the force sent into Waziristan in 1919, concurred. In his Waziristan Force Weekly Appreciation of 13 January 1920, he wrote,

I doubt if it is understood how desperate the fighting has been during these operations. It is, perhaps, to be expected that those who do not know India and the frontier, and even some who have fought on the frontier, in pre-war days but lack the knowledge and imagination to realise to what extent conditions have altered with the great improvement in the armament of the tribesmen, cannot understand or believe the standard of training that is required for the Infantry in the conditions that prevail on the Frontier to-day.[16]

The pace of Pathan tactical improvement was swift. As early as 1919, the tribesmen were using parties of bombers armed with hand grenades to attack pickets, a trench warfare tactic of the Western Front that had migrated more than three thousand miles east.[17] Colonel F.S. Keen would write in the same year, ‘Their tactics have improved in a most disconcerting manner….we find the Mahsuds carrying out attacks with considerable bodies, the advance and assault scientifically supported by covering fire and executed with great dash and boldness.’[18] In 1930, Afridi tribesmen on the Frontier were observed using signal flags in the manner of a regular army.[19]

Though mountain warfare put a premium on the infantry, as it still does today, it was not insulated from mechanization. The Royal Air Force was an integral piece of the interwar fighting on the Frontier, despite being restrained by political considerations and rules of engagement. Armored cars were critical to line of communications security on the Frontier, and light tanks fought in Waziristan for the first time in 1935. The Pathans, lacking a word for tanks in their language, dubbed them “snakes that spit.”[20]

World War II

The British Army ended the First World War as the finest army in the world. It had solved the riddle of the trenches, albeit at great cost, and developed effective combined arms tactics that broke the German army at the Battle of Amiens. Yet the British failed to retain these lessons in the interwar period, yielding a force that was tactically unprepared for a second war with the Germans. By 1944, the American newcomers were generally out-performing British troops, despite the latter’s two year head start in fighting and learning from the enemy.[21]

Imperial commitments, and thus the Northwest Frontier, are often blamed for the British Army’s failure to retain the lessons of the Great War. The Liddell Hart school of history, with its contempt for the chimeras of Colonel Blimp and antediluvian cavalrymen, is largely responsible for this myth. In reality, government parsimony, the refusal to commit to a Continental war, and an overweening faith in the tank were far more responsible for British struggles in the Second World War.[22] In one important but oft-neglected area, small unit battle drill, the colonial Indian Army was in fact far better prepared for major war than its British cousin.

Battle drill is best described as a set of simple rehearsed tactical responses to common situations, in the manner of a pre-planned play in American football or basketball. One of the students of the battle drill movement sums up its philosophy as “Simple things done very well beats skill, creativity and imagination – things you don’t have in real combat.”[23] Battle drill was not meant to be a tactical straight jacket, but merely basic common procedures to get platoons and sections moving on the right track in the chaos of combat. However, interwar British Army doctrine put a premium on not being prescriptive, implicitly endorsing a supposed British cultural trait of “muddling through.” Without battle drill or something like it, many of the tactical lessons of the trenches were lost, especially at the platoon level. Units muddled through, with predictable results in France in 1940 and in the Western Desert thereafter. It took Lionel Wigram, an unconventional Territorial Army captain who had never seen combat, to resurrect battle drill in the British Army in 1942.[24]

The interwar Indian Army, unlike the British, embraced a de facto battle drill doctrine in order to succeed in the increasingly dangerous fighting on the Frontier. The occupation of pickets, line of communication security, reactions to ambush, and setting in fortified camps were all drilled rigorously in hill stations before assuming duties on the Frontier.[25] Though this was derided by some British officers as a stereotyped if not ritualized form of fighting, it resulted in units trained to a high standard and confident in their tactical responses to common battlefield problems.

The Indian Army Training Memorandum No. 9 of 1941 stated

This apprenticeship on the Frontier has stood our troops in good stead in Africa….Battalions with great reputations in mountain warfare were given the toughest jobs to tackle. We all know the results. They may not have learnt all about modern war, but they had learnt the basic lessons, leadership, discipline, endurance, speed, fieldcraft; all these against a critical teacher – the Pathan.[26]

While it might be easy to dismiss this as a sop to the battalions stuck with the thankless task of securing the Frontier while the war raged elsewhere, it was borne out by the facts. The performance of Indian troops stood out in both Africa and Italy.[27] In the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions, which excelled in North Africa early in World War II, every single Indian and Gurkha battalion had served in the difficult Waziristan campaign of 1936 to 1939.[28] Major-General F. A. M. B. Jenkins, writing in the Journal of the United Service Institution of India in 1944, concluded that “the lessons of the N. W. F. P. apply 100 per cent. to the campaign in Italy.”[29]


John Masters, a Gurkha officer of distinction on both the Frontier and in Burma, wrote after the war that

Many Aldershot-type officers maintained that we learned only bad habits in this tribal warfare against what they termed ‘ragged-arsed barnshoots.’ It was not true. From the Frontier itself we learned un-winking, unsleeping alertness. From the Pathans we learned more about the tactical value of ground than any of our competitors or future enemies knew.[30]

Despite the unique nature of both the terrain and the enemy, fighting on the Northwest Frontier was a net positive for the British and Indian Armies’ preparation for major war. The Pathans could not ameliorate Britain’s strategic liabilities in 1914 or 1939, nor could they fix a British Exchequer that would not fund a mass army until the eve of war. Waziristan was of course a drain on manpower as well, requiring 70,000 Indian Army soldiers to “watch and ward” on the Frontier in 1942.[31] But as exacting tactical teachers, the Pathans ensured that their British and Indian pupils were well prepared for small unit combat in both world wars.

The Northwest Frontier and the British and Indian troops that defended it have something to teach America’s ground forces. We, too, have spent a generation conducting low-intensity, non-existential combat operations, from Kosovo to the Hindu Kush. Civilian and military leaders are now reorienting the US military on major combat operations, though deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East continue. We should strive to be brutally honest in identifying and rooting out the many bad habits our small wars have bred, while also recognizing the ways in which our post-9/11 campaigns have honed our edge.

End Notes

[1] Lieutenant-Colonel F. C. Simpson, ‘Frontier Warfare in Retrospect and Prospect,’ Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. 73, No. 313, October 1943, p. 378

[2] Field Marshals Slim and Auchinleck are the two most prominent examples among many.

[3] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2011)

[4] ‘Borderer,’ ‘Essay,’ Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. 64, January – October 1934, pp. 9 - 26

[5] Moreman, The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, 1849-1947, (New York: Palgrave, 1998), p. 44

[6] Moreman, The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, p. 98

[7] Charles Chenevix Trench, The Frontier Scouts, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 46

[8] Tim Moreman, ‘“Watch and Ward”: the Army in India and the North-West Frontier, 1920-1939,’ in David Killingray and David Omissi (eds.), Guardians of Empire: The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers c. 1700-1964, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 139

[9] British Library L/MIL/17/5/2199, AHQ India Training Memorandum No. 12 Collective Training Period 1935-1936 (Delhi, 1936), p. 5

[10] Trench, The Frontier Scouts, p. 27

[11] Moreman, The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, p. 68

[12] Spencer Jones, From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army, 1902 – 1914, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012)

[13] Edward M. Spiers, ‘Between the South African War and the First World War, 1902 – 1914, in Hew Strachan (ed.), Big Wars and Small Wars: The British Army and the Lessons of War in the Twentieth Century, (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 24

[14] Moreman, The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, p. 87

[15] Moreman, The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, pp. 109 - 111

[16]  National Archives WO 106/56 Waziristan Force Weekly Appreciation for Week Ending 13th January 1920, p. 51

[17] “W”, ‘Mahsud Waziristan 1919-20,’ Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. 60, No. 259, April 1930, p. 194; Imperial War Museum Frontier Warfare – India (Army and Royal Air Force), p. 11

[18] Colonel F.S. Keen, ‘Gold Medal Prize Essay, 1922-23,’ Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Volume 53, No. 233, November 1923, p. 396

[19] ‘Report on the Afridi Attack on “K” Supply Depot, August 9th, 1930,’ Royal Tank Corps Journal, Vol. 12, No. 140, December 1930, p. 252

[20] John Connell, Auchinleck, (London: Cassell, 1959), p. 60

[21] National Archives CAB 106/1060 Reports from Normandy June 6 – July 10 1944 by Brigadier James Hargest, New Zealand Army. See also Carlo D’Este, Decision in Normandy, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983)

[22] See David French, Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War Against Germany 1919-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), J. Paul Harris, ‘Obstacles to Innovation and Readiness: the British Army’s Experience 1918-1939’, in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Williamson Murray, ‘British Military Effectiveness in the Second World War’, in Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray (eds.), Military Effectiveness, Vol. III: The Second World War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

[23] Email to the author from William F. Owen, 23 November 2016

[24] William F. Owen, ‘Lionel Wigram, The Forgotten Apostle of Battle Drill,’ British Army Review, Number 136, Spring 2005; Timothy Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940 – 1944, (London: Frank Cass, 2000), pp. 40 - 62

[25] David French, Raising Churchill’s Army, p. 21. See also Imperial War Museum Manual of Operations on the North-West Frontier of India 1925, and General Sir Andrew Skeen, Passing It On: Short Talks on Tribal Fighting on the North-West Frontier of India, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2010)

[26] British Library L/MIL/17/5/2240, AHQ India Training Memorandum No. 9 War Series July 1941 (Delhi, 1941), p. 10

[27] Kaushik Roy, India and World War II, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 190 - 233

[28] Major the Reverend John Croft, ‘North West Frontier – Training Ground Supreme,’ Army Quarterly and Defence Journal, Vol. 122, No. 1, January 1992, p. 51)

[29] Major-General F. A. M. B. Jenkins, ‘Some Lessons from the Italian Campaign,’ Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. 74, No. 314, January 2944, p. 16

[30] John Masters, Bugles and a Tiger, (London: Cassell & Co, 1956), p. 252

[31] Roy, India and World War II, p. 171

Categories: Pakistan

About the Author(s)

Gil Barndollar is Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He served as a US Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016, deploying to Afghanistan twice, and to the Republic of Georgia, Guantanamo Bay, and the Persian Gulf. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, where he studied British cavalry mechanization and interwar imperial policing.