Custom Search

The Black Mountain Expedition of 1891; the follow up to the operation in 1888

Battle: The Black Mountain Expedition 1891.

War: Operations on the North West Frontier of India.

No.2 Dejarat Mountain Battery shelling Diliari village
No.2 Dejarat Mountain Battery shelling Diliari village on 23rd March 1891
in support of 4th Sikh Infantry, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

Date: 1st March 1891 to 29th May 1891.

Place: The Black Mountain area on the banks of the Indus River in the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Combatants: British and Indian troops against the Hassanzai and Akazai tribes of Pathans.

Generals: Major-General W.K. Elles, CB commanded the Black Mountain Expeditionary Force. There does not appear to have been any central tribal leadership. Hashim Ali appeared as a leader of the Akazai but left the region during the fighting.

Size of the armies: 7,300 British and Indian troops with 15 guns against probably around 8,000 tribesmen.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:

The British military forces in India fell into these categories:

1) Regiments of the British Army in garrison in India. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 India became a Crown Colony. The ratio of British to Indian troops in India was increased from 1:10 to 1:3 by stationing more British regiments in India. Brigade formations were a mixture of British and Indian regiments. The artillery was put into the control of the Royal Artillery other than some Indian Army mountain gun batteries. While British cavalry regiments were stationed in India it was rare for them to take part in North West Frontier operations.

2) The Indian Army comprised the 3 armies of the Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal. The Bengal Army, the largest, supplied many of the units for service on the North West Frontier. The senior regimental officers were British. Soldiers were recruited from across the Indian sub-continent with regiments recruiting particular nationalities. Many Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, Pathans and Gurkhas were recruited. The Indian Mutiny caused the British authorities to view the populations of the East and South of India as unreliable for military service.

3) The Punjab Frontier Force: known as ‘Piffers’ these were regiments formed specifically for service on the North West Frontier and were controlled by the Punjab State Government.

4) Imperial Service Troops of the various Indian states, nominally independent but under the protection and de facto control of the Government of India. The most important for the purposes of the North West Frontier was Kashmir.

A British infantry battalion comprised 10 companies with around 700 men and some 30 officers. A battalion had a maxim machine gun detachment of 2 guns and some 20 men.
Indian infantry battalions had much the same establishment without the Maxim gun detachment. Senior officers were British holding Queen’s Commissions. Junior officers were Indian.

In 1891 British and Indian infantry regiments were issued with the single shot drop action Martini-Henry breech loading rifle. Imperial Service troops and the Khyber Rifles were issued with the Snyder rifle, a clumsy adaptation of the muzzle loading Enfield rifle to a breech loader.

The Indian Mountain Batteries used 7 pounder rifled muzzle loading guns that were dismantled and carried on mules. These guns were unreliable and difficult to use effectively. The British batteries used the more modern 2.3 inch rifled muzzle loaders.

Winner: The British and Indian troops of the Black Mountain Expeditionary Force.

In 1891 the north western border of British India was the boundary of the old Sikh state of the Punjab. The border followed the Indus River north to a point short of the Black Mountain where the border diverged and followed a mountain crest to the north east while the Indus River continued roughly north.

The tribes involved in this campaign lived in the area of the Black Mountain and were the Pathan tribes of Hassanzais and Akazais (both sub-clans of the Yusufzai, being descended from sons of Yusuf said to be the ancestor of the tribal group). The Hassanzais lived on both sides of the Indus River and comprised 10 sub clans with a fighting strength of around 2,000 men.

The Akazais occupied the section of the Black Mountain to the north of the Hassanzais on the east side of the Indus River. The Akazais comprised 4 sub-clans and could put around 1,500 fighting men into the field.

Once fighting began many Pathans from other tribes and non-Pathans from the north were drawn into the conflict from a variety of motives including fear of British encroachment on their own area.
The main weapons of the tribesmen were traditionally long jezails or muskets, swords and shields and knives. Increasingly in the 1880s and 1890s as the North West Frontier become more violent due to the threat from the British modern rifles came into the area and were widely used by the tribes.

A force of tribal fighting men would receive direction from headmen or religious leaders but no Pathan felt compelled to do what he was told. Movement around the battlefield was guided by common enterprise and fighting experience rather than command.

Khyber Rifles
Khyber Rifles

Pathans were agile swift and experienced mountain fighters. The Pathan code readily gave rise to blood feuds between individuals, villages and tribes. In the face of an external enemy the Pathans would put their feuds to one side while the invader was resisted. Many of the tribes raided across the border into British territory. There were close links between the inhabitants of the Agror Valley who lived under British rule and their kin living across the border which increased the tribal resentment at the existence of the border, in itself an alien and incomprehensible concept.

The British authorities found the lawlessness of many of the tribes unacceptable and felt bound to protect their Indian subjects who were required to give up their weapons and consequently fell easy prey to raiding Pathans from outside British jurisdiction. In the 1880s the British adopted a policy that was designed to extend British India up to the Afghan border and consequently incorporate the whole of the independent tribal country.

Officers of the Khyber Rifles, Black Mountain Expedition 1891
Officers of the Khyber Rifles, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

An important aim of a British North West Frontier incursion was to improve communications by building tracks or roads and bridges and to establish garrisons in key places to facilitate a subsequent incursion.

The operation in 1891 followed as a direct result of the previous operation in 1888 (see Black Mountain 1888). An important obligation imposed on the Hassanzais and Akazais as border tribes in 1888 was to permit British forces to move freely along the border running north east of the Indus through the mountains. The border followed a mountain crest.

As part of the development of the region and to improve accessibility for their forces the British built roads up to the border from the Agror Valley on the Indian side and it was proposed to build a road along the border. It was clear that this was not acceptable to the Pathans living on the far side of the border who, perhaps unsurprisingly, felt that their continued independence was under threat.

The Hassanzais, Akazais and Pariari Sayids were ordered to send in jirgas to agree to the construction of the border road and to accompany a military force along the route. The Hassanzais and Akazais refused and expressed their objection to the road. They were threatened with punishment. The Pariari Sayids did send in their jirga.

The Shal Nala (Shah Nullah), Black Mountain Expedition 1891
The Shal Nala (Shah Nullah), Black Mountain Expedition 1891

A military force was sent to the area to march along the border to test the tribes’ reaction. The force was commanded by Brigadier-General Sir John McQueen who had commanded the Hazara Field Force in 1888, now commanding the Punjab Field Force, and comprised the 4th Sikh Infantry, 1st and 2nd Battalions 5th Gurkhas and No 2 Derajat Mountain Battery, an ‘All Piffer’ contingent. The force marched from Abbottabad to Oghi Fort arriving on 19th October 1890. McQueen’s instructions were to ‘test the water’ but not to be involved in heavy fighting and to withdraw if it was clear that his march was to be seriously opposed.

There were reports that the tribesmen were gathering at Nimal, Kain Gali and elsewhere under the leadership of Hashim Ali the Khan of the Isazais the superior tribe of which both the Hassanzais and the Akazais were part.

Rain and snow delayed the departure of McQueen’s force until 23rd October 1890 when he marched with a force of 1,000 men and 4 guns up the Barchar Spur and bivouacked above Barchar village near the border. There was heavy firing towards the bivouac from the tribesmen during the night but little damage was done due to the camp being on the reverse slope of the mountain. Reports came in that Hashim Ali was leading both Hassanzai and Akazai in a mass of tribesmen that was assembling on the border crest. McQueen obeyed his instructions and withdrew his force.


In view of the opposition presented to Brigadier-General McQueen’s force the Governor General of India determined to send a force into the Hassanzai and Akazai country to enforce the British right to march its forces along the border and to inflict punishment on the 2 tribes for their hostile actions against McQueen’s force.

The Government of the Punjab was instructed to inform the 2 tribes that the incursion would take place whether they submitted or not, but that if they did submit all previous penalties would be remitted and discussions could take place on how to implement the British requirements with the minimum of difficulty.

The ‘Political Camp’ at Seri, Black Mountain Expedition 1891
The ‘Political Camp’ at Seri, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

The experience of the incursion into the Black Mountain country in 1888 now became of great importance. It is interesting to see that the same survey officer, Captain Wahab Royal Engineers, accompanied both expeditions. It was decided that the 1892 incursion should follow the Indus River (the route taken in 1888 by the 4th Column) with one subsidiary incursion into the hills running parallel to the river route to occupy Pabal Gali and Tilli. It was acknowledged that the 1888 incursion into the hinterland of the Black Mountain country (the routes taken in 1888 by the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th Columns) had been too difficult and time consuming and that most of the villages it was intended to destroy lay along or near to the Indus. A small force was to be stationed at Oghi Fort for defensive purposes only.

The force was designated the ‘Black Mountain Expedition 1891’ and placed under the command of Major-General W.K. Elles, CB (an officer from the British Service). Mr Cunningham CIE CS was appointed Chief Political Officer under the GOC.

The Indus River column commanded by Brigadier-General RF Williamson of the Royal Welch Fusiliers comprised 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, a wing of 32nd Pioneers, 37th Bengal Infantry (Dogras), the Guides Infantry, 4th Sikh Infantry, No 1 Mountain Battery Royal Artillery (3 guns) and No 2 (Derajat) Mountain Battery (3 guns).

Jemadar Jangia Thapa of the 5th Gurkha Regiment
Jemadar Jangia Thapa of the 5th Gurkha Regiment.  Jemadar Thapa was one of Field Marshal Sir Frederick Roberts’ Gurkha orderlies during the Second Afghan War. picture by Frederick Swynnerton

The Tilli column commanded by Brigadier AG Hammond VC ADC of the 3rd Sikh Infantry comprised 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, 11th Bengal Infantry, a wing of 32nd Pioneers, 2nd/5th Gurkhas, Khyber Rifles and No 9 Mountain Battery Royal Artillery (6 guns).

Divisional Troops at Darband: 1 squadron of 11th Bengal Lancers and No 4 Company Bengal Sappers and Miners.

The Oghi column commanded by Colonel GS Hills of 28th Bengal Infantry comprised 1 squadron of 11th Bengal Lancers, 28th Bengal Infantry and No 2 (Derajat) Mountain Battery (3 guns).
The Reserve Brigade at Rawalpindi comprised 1 squadron of 11th Bengal Lancers, 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 19th Bengal Infantry and 27th Bengal Infantry.

Lieutenant HCI Birdwood RE commanded the Cooly Corps (200 men).

The force was ordered to concentrate at its 2 bases, the River Column and the Tilli Column at Darband and the Oghi Column at Oghi, by 1st March 1891 and begin operations as soon as practicable.

Delays were caused by bad weather but the force was ready by 11th March 1891 when the 2 active columns advanced to Bela on the Indus and to Phaldar in the mountains. During the delay work had been completed on the roads, on the Indus River route to Bela and on the upland route to a point short of the border. Telegraph lines had been laid to Bela and to Phalder.

On the 11th March 1891 boats were brought up to Bela to form a bridge across the Indus River and 4 days supplies were conveyed to Bela and to Phalder.

Shots were fired across the Indus River at the River Column. Otherwise there was little sign of resistance. Reports indicated that both the Hassanzais and the Akazai were pressing Hashim Ali not to resist the British advance and to send in a jirga to the British. Taking advantage of this information the tribes were notified that if they remained in their villages and did not resist the troops no injury would come to them or their villages.

Punjab Frontier Force regiment, Black Mountain Expedition 1891
Punjab Frontier Force regiment, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

On 11th March 1891 a jirga arrived in Amb, a village across the Indus from Darband, from the Bunerwal tribe expressing concern at the British operations. A second jirga arrived from the Mada Khel. The Mada Khel country lay along the west bank of the Indus River and the Bunerwal country lay further to the west. General Elles informed both tribes that he did not intend to interfere with them provided they took no part in resisting his troops.

Major-General Elles’s plan was for the River Column to advance up the Indus River by the east bank to Kanar. At that place the Mada Khel country on the west bank gave way to the Hassanzai country. A detached force would cross by a bridge of boats and occupy the Hassanzai country on the west bank.

The River Column would then move into the Dillarai peninsula that lay directly to the north of the Hassanzais on the east bank and occupy the Akazai country. The River Column would then work its way up the Shal Nala, a mountain stream which flowed through the Akazai country and joined the Indus River at the southern point of the Dillarai peninsula, to meet the Tilli Column. As it was now clear that little resistance would be expected from the Hassanzais a quarter of their crops would be taken unless there was active fighting in which case further punishment would be inflicted. The Tilli Column would advance across the mountainous route to Tilli and then to Ril and Kungar where it would occupy the eastern areas of the Akazai country. The Tilli Column would then work its way down the Shal Nala stream and meet the River Column. Major-General Elles and his headquarters would accompany the River Column.

The River Column marched from Darband at 8.30am on 12th March 1891. The tribesmen began firing on the troops from across the Indus River at the point where Mada Khel country gave way to Hassanzai country and at the boats being brought up the Indus for the bridge. A company of the Guides crossed the Indus River and worked its way up the west bank in conjunction with the boats. All the villages on the west bank the Guides passed through were found to be abandoned. The River Column bivouacked at Towara, the scene of the major action in 1888. At Towara a second company of Guides crossed the Indus to the west bank.

Guides and Seaforth Highlanders crossing the Indus at Marer on 13th March 1891
Guides and Seaforth Highlanders crossing the Indus at Marer
on 13th March 1891, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

On 13th March 1891 the 2 companies of the Guides on the west bank moved up into the hills to the village of Nadrai. The troops came under fire but rushed the village without casualty. The tribesmen suffered 3 dead and 3 wounded. The Guides burnt Nadrai as a reprisal for the resistance shown before moving on.

On the morning of 13th March 1891 a further detachment from the River Column comprising a half battalion of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and a half battalion of the Guides crossed to the west bank by the Marer ferry. This detachment moved up the hill behind Nadrai to the village of Doshkand which was deserted and back to the river bank where the villages of Garhi, Nawekili and Palosi were visited and found to be deserted. None of these villages was damaged. The Hindustani settlement at Maidan was found to be still in ruins after its destruction in 1888. The 2 companies of Guides that had stormed Nadrai joined the detachment at Garhi.

The main part of the River Column stayed a further night at Towara as the east bank track from Kotkai to Kanar was found to be in need of work for passage of baggage animals.

On 15th March 1891 the River Column conducted a reconnaissance across the Indus River in the area of Palosi in order to find a suitable site for an encampment and to investigate a reported gathering of tribesmen further to the west. The reconnaissance party came under fire from both sides of the river and it became clear that although the Hassanzai were no longer resisting the British advance other tribes were being drawn into the fighting. The reconnaissance party advanced beyond Maidan, the old Hindustani settlement, and saw large gatherings of armed tribesmen on the hills on both sides of the Indus River. The party withdrew to the main encampment at Towara on the east bank.

A detachment from the 4th Sikhs advanced from Kanar through Ghazikot and surprised a party of armed tribesmen, inflicting casualties.

The Shal Nala (Shah Nullah), Black Mountain Expedition 1891
The Shal Nala (Shah Nullah), Black Mountain Expedition 1891

On 14th and 15th March 1891 the Chief Political Officer received reports that parties of armed tribesmen carrying flags had been seen crossing the Baio Range of Mountains from the west and approaching the villages of Karnar and Kamach on the west bank of the Indus River. The leader of the ‘Hindustani Fanatics’ Maulvi Abdulla was reported to be with them. The presence of hostile tribesmen from other areas showed that the scale of the fighting was escalating in spite of the submission of the Hassanzai. As the main lever against tribesmen available to the British was the threat to destroy their villages and crops the gathering of hostile outsiders presented considerable problems for the British.
The Tilli Column:

Meanwhile the activities of the Tilli Column were showing that the assessment of the difficulties of operating in the mountainous areas at that time of the year was entirely justified.

The Tilli Column marched out from Darband on 12th March 1891 to Pailam. No opposition was encountered. The Column crossed the border on 13th March 1891 and moved on to Tilli where the Column halted. On 15th March 1891 Brigadier-General Hammond reported to the GOC that the Tilli Column was experiencing difficulty in finding enough forage in that area. The location was high and the crops were insufficiently far advanced. The village of Seri was reported to be still under snow.
Major-General Elles issued orders for a change of plan. The track from Tilli to Kanar was to be opened up and the Tilli Column brought down to join the River Column at Palosi on the west side of the Indus. Outposts would be established at 3 villages in the mountains above the east bank track; Tilli, Ril and Makranai. Before moving his column to the Indus River Brigadier Hammond was ordered to take a flying column to raid Seri and destroy that village’s defences.

On 16th March 1891 a wing of the 4th Sikhs moved to Kanar to assist in building the road to Tilli and the bridge of boats was completed at Kotkai spanning 110 yards of the Indus River with a camel road on the west side leading to the camp at Palosi.

At this time reports were coming in to the Chief Political Officer that the Hassanzai and the Akazai were anxious to submit to the British. Directions were sent out that they should return to their villages and that only a quarter of their crops would be sequestered. A further requirement was that the leader Hashim Ali and his family be surrendered.

However it was clear that hostilities were far from finished. On 16th March 1891 reports came in that the Hindustanis under Maulvi Abdulla were collecting at Didal and numbers of Chagarzai tribesmen at Kamach, both villages on the west bank of the Indus River to the north of the Dillarai peninsula. In addition Hashim Ali after attempting to rouse his own followers in the area of Seri in the mountains to the east of the Indus River was in Swat attempting to persuade its ruler Mian Gul to lead a jihad against the British.

The village of Ghazikot with the Indus in view
The village of Ghazikot with the Indus in view, Black Mountain Expedition 1891:
scene of the action involving 4th Sikhs on 18th March 1891

The action at Ghazikot:

The Dogra Company of the 4th Sikhs, 2 Indian officers and 67 soldiers commanded by Subadar Dheru, held the village of Ghazikot, the most northerly village on the east bank of the Indus River reached by the River Column. The village comprised a narrow street with a mosque at the south east corner.

Nullas or dry watercourses ran across the track to the north and south of the village. A picquet of Dogras was in position behind a wall to the north of the village while the rest of the company was bivouacked behind the mosque. The picquet came under fire during the evening of 18th March 1891 and at 3am on 19th the havildar of the picquet reported to Subadar Dheru that tribesmen were collecting in force in the nulla in front of his position. The tribesmen emerged from the nulla and rushed forwards yelling and banging drums. The picquet fired 4 volleys at the tribesmen who charged around them and into the village where they occupied buildings including the mosque that overlooked the bivouac and opened fire. The picquet rejoined the rest of the company and a heavy fire fight developed during which tribesmen armed with swords and shields repeatedly attempted to charge the Dogras, many emerging from the mosque.

Within half an hour of the commencement of the attack 2 further companies of the 4th Sikhs commanded by Lieutenants Maconchy and Manning arrived from Kanar in support of the Dogra company, followed by 2 companies of the 32nd Pioneers commanded by Colonel Sir R Bromhead CB. By this time the tribesmen were well established in the mosque and on the roofs of the houses throughout the village and there was heavy firing. Lieutenant Maconchy and a half company of 4th Sikhs rushed up the village street while Colonel Bromhead took his pioneer companies around the right flank of the village and Lieutenant Manning took his company around the left flank. At dawn Colonel Bromhead took his troops through the village clearing it of hostile tribesmen. Most of the tribesmen had already left through the jungle on either side of the village during the night, leaving only some fanatical ‘ghazis’.

Captain DeBrath led a further company of 4th Sikhs for a mile up the east bank track following the tribesmen’s line of retreat. 4 tribesmen were seen crossing the Indus River on a raft and a party of about 80 were seen crossing the Shal Nala and into the village of Barkai. The area around Ghazikot was searched for any hiding tribesmen but none were found.

The tribesmen were reported to have been almost entirely ‘Hindustani Fanatics’. 25 bodies were found in the village of which 22 were identified as Hindustanis and 2 as Pathans. 1 was a Hindu hostage. British and Indian casualties were 4 dead and 21 wounded including Lieutenant Maconchy.

Seaforth Highlanders standing on a crag
Black Mountain campaign 1891: Seaforth Highlanders standing on a crag

That night, 19th March 1891, tribesmen fired at the troops in Kanar. The next morning reinforcements of 2 companies of Guides Infantry moved up from Towara to Kanar and 2 companies of Seaforth Highlanders moved up to the bridgehead at Kotkai to reinforce the wing of the 37th Dogras, the regiment given the task of defending the bridge of boats. In the course of the day’s fighting the tribesmen suffered 3 dead and 3 soldiers of the 32nd Pioneers were wounded. A mule driver was found dead in the nulla to the south of Ghazikot.

On 20th March 1891 the River Column with the divisional headquarters moved out from Towara, crossed the bridge of boats at Kotkai to the west bank and moved up the Indus River to the village of Pirzada Bela. Tribesmen were seen in considerable numbers in the hills on the east side of the Indus River and the guns shelled the villages of Bakrai and Makranai.

The next day the River Column marched to its intended base in the village of Palosi, which it fortified.

The Tilli Column:
On 21st March the Tilli Column moved from Tilli to Ril. On 22nd March the column marched to Seri, destroyed the village and returned to Tilli.

The action at Diliari:
On 23rd March 1891 the River Column built a flying bridge across the Indus River to the east bank at Bakrai at the mouth of the Shal Nala. A covering force for the building of the bridge of 3 companies from 4th Sikhs crossed to the east bank and occupied Bakrai. In response a large assembly of tribesmen gathered around Diliari, a village on a high spur overlooking Bakrai, and began to advance down the spur towards Bakrai. The 4th Sikh picquet was ordered to advance from Bakrai up the spur to meet the tribesmen. A wing of the Guides Infantry crossed the Indus River to support the Sikhs. The Sikhs drove the tribesmen back and occupied the crest of the hill where Diliari stood at 5.30pm. They were joined by the Guides in Diliari.

The detachment of Sikhs and Guides were then ordered to withdraw from Diliari to a breastwork which stood half-way down the slope between Diliari and Bakrai. As this was where the detachment would have to spend the night the order went contrary to the well established principle of Frontier Warfare that troops should always occupy the highest ground when in a static position. The detachment withdrew down the spur covered by a rearguard of 4th Sikhs. As soon as it was apparent that the troops were withdrawing the tribesmen returned and attacked the rearguard, their numbers increasing by the minute. By mid-evening it became clear that the 4th Sikhs rearguard could not easily extricate itself from the running battle that had developed on the slope back to Bakrai, even though there were terraces that provided defensive positions. The position of the 4th Sikhs and the Guides in Bakrai itself was under threat and the detachment was in danger of being overwhelmed.

No.2 Derajat Mountain Battery at Diliari
No.2 Derajat Mountain Battery at Diliari, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

The commanding officer of the 4th Sikhs, Lieutenant-Colonel Gaselee, decided to re-occupy the crest at Diliari. 1 company of 4th Sikhs moved out to the right flank to provide covering fire directed at the tribesmen coming down from the crest while Gaselee led the other 2 companies in an attack back up the spur. The tribesmen’s resistance collapsed and they were driven over the crest. Diliari was occupied for the night by 1 company of 4th Sikhs and the wing of the Guides. The other 2 companies of 4th Sikhs returned to Palosi as their ammunition was exhausted. No further fighting took place overnight as the tribesmen appeared to have withdrawn from the area.

Once the action was over it was established that the tribesmen had been Chagarzais and Hindustanis. The tribesmen owned to suffering 12 dead and 16 wounded, although their true casualties were probably much greater. The British had 1 officer, Lieutenant Harman of 4th Sikhs, and 4 soldiers wounded mainly in the hand to hand fighting.

On 24th March 1891 Major-General Elles reported that the Hassanzai other than the Khan Khel had submitted; that the Akazai would submit but that they were intimidated by mullahs and Chagarzai tribesmen. The GOC reported that the Chagarzai country was overrun by mullahs, talibs and other Muslim figures from the other areas. Some Bunerwal tribesmen were in Baio to the west of the Indus River led by Mulla Faizi of Bajkatta and Akhund Khel of Kuria but appeared only to be maintaining a watch on the situation. There did not seem to be a general gathering of the Bunerwal tribe.

The action at Darbanai:

On 25th March 1891 the whole of the 4th Sikhs were in position on the Diliari crest with 3 guns of No 2 Derajat Mountain Battery. This force provided cover for Brigadier-General Hammond to advance up the Shal Nala with a force comprising 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, 2 companies of 11th Bengal Infantry, a wing of 2nd/5th Gurkhas, the Khyber Rifles and 4 guns of No 9 Mountain Battery Royal Artillery. Hammond’s target was Darbanai, a village on a 1,500 foot spur with a commanding view overlooking the Indus River. The track along the Shal Nala was extremely difficult. By 1pm Hammond had occupied a peak near to Darbanai where he awaited the guns which were making slow progress up a track along the bed of the Shal Nala. Once the guns joined the infantry the advance on Darbanai began. The Khyber Rifles advanced on the right of Darbanai, the Gurkhas on the left while the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 11th Bengal Infantry attacked in the centre. The tribesmen did not await the assault but made off down the hillside towards the village of Surmal. The Royal Welch Fusiliers followed them up while the Khyber Rifles cleared the hills on the right of for a considerable distance.

British losses in the day were Second Lieutenant Doughty of the RWF killed and one soldier wounded. The tribesmen were estimated to have suffered around 40 casualties.

Water was supplied to Darbanai was by an 800 foot channel from a source further up the mountain.

The tribesmen cut this supply and continued to fire into the British camp in the village. Brigadier-General Hammond sent word to Surmal where a number of armed tribesmen were gathered that if the firing was not discontinued and the water supply not reconnected Surmal would be destroyed.

Black Mountain 1891: Seaforth Highlanders, Sikhs and other soldiers
Black Mountain 1891: Seaforth Highlanders, Sikhs and other soldiers

On 27th March 1891 the water to Darbanai remained cut and the firing continued. No 9 Mountain Battery took a position covering Surmal. Between Darbanai the ground fell away to a nulla with Surmal on a hill on the other side of the valley. The Khyber Rifles advanced on the right with 2nd/5th Gurkhas while the RWF supported by 11th Bengal Infantry mounted a direct attack on Surmal, descending the hillside, crossing the nulla and climbing the far hill to the village. The Mountain Battery opened fire on the tribesmen. Some 500 armed tribesmen occupied the area of the village taking cover from the gunfire behind the crest of the hill.

The RWF and the Gurkhas reached Surmal at much the same time. The tribesmen did not wait to contest the village. The Khyber Rifles with 1 company of the Gurkhas encountered a second group of tribesmen of the same size on the hill to the right of the village which they dispersed with rifle fire.

Brigadier-General Hammond’s orders were not to go further into Chagarzai country. 2 houses in Surmal were burnt. British losses were 3 wounded. It was estimated that the tribesmen, mostly Chagarzais, suffered around 120 casualties.

The village of Palosi
The village of Palosi, headquarters for the Black Mountain Expedition in 1891

Tribal activity at Baio:

On 29th March 1891 the focus of concern moved back to Baio to the west of the Indus River where there continued to be a buildup of tribesmen from the Buner, Chamla, Amazai and Gadun areas. The presence of the British force in tribal territory to the west of the Indus River was the cause of the increase in tension. The British authorities moved 9th Bengal Lancers and 22nd Bengal Infantry from the Nowshera garrison to join the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and the Guides Cavalry at Mardan to the south-west of Buner country in case fighting broke out with the Bunerwals. From the force at Oghi 3 guns of No 2 Derajat Mountain Battery moved to Darband and a wing of 28th Bengal Infantry marched to Parbal Gali on the border in the direction of Tilli. Orders were given for a road to be built in place of the track from Parbal Gali to Tilli as a matter of urgency. The access of the Black Mountain Expedition was being shifted from the Indus River to the Oghi to Tilli route, to reduce the threat perceived by the Bunerwals.

On 31st March 1891 the reserve brigade concentrated at Darband under Brigadier-General Sir William Lockhart. The designation of the 3 forces was changed from River Column, Right Column and Reserve Column to 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades. The Chief Political Officer reported that the tribesmen concentrated at Baio were from all the clans from the Peshawar border in the south-west up to Thakot in the north. The GOC requested permission from the Indian Government to attack the lashkar at Baio if it failed to disperse. In that event the war could be significantly extended to cover the whole region.

On 1st April 1891 Brigadiers-General Hammond and Lockhart met the GOC at Palosi. No steps were to be taken until instructions were received from the Indian Government.

Kain Gali on the Indian border in 1891
Kain Gali on the Indian border in 1891, Black Mountain Expedition 1891

Mian Gul, the rule of Swat, was reported to have arrived at Baio. But there appeared to be no display of tribal standards the usual indication of impending hostile action. The Commissioner for Peshawar wrote to Mian Gul and the Bunerwal jirga stating that there was no intention of entering Chagarzai country or fighting with the Bunerwals but that if the lascar at Baio did not disperse it would be attacked. On 4th April 1891 an elderly Bunerwal sepoy in the 5th Punjab Infantry informed his officers that the lashkar at Baio was dispersing. Some standards were seen on a hill between Hassanzai and Chagarzai country. These were shelled by the mountain artillery and withdrew on the approach of troops.

On 4th April 1891 the Akazai village of Bimbal was burnt to encourage the tribe to hurry its submission.

On 7th April 1891 the 3rd Brigade was withdrawn from the force and marched from Darband for Kohat to deal with an outbreak by the Miranzai. As Baio was now reported completely deserted the British force began its withdrawal to the east bank of the Indus River. It was also reported that Mian Gul was advising Hashim Ali to surrender to the British but that he had refused and left for Teri a Makki Khel village on the Buner border.

Early on 8th April 1891 the divisional headquarters escorted by the Guides Infantry left Palosi, crossed the Indus River by the flying bridge at Bakrai and took the road through Makranai to Ril. The road was steep and difficult particularly for the baggage animals. The rearguard arrived at around 7.30pm. The Seaforth Highlanders with the 3 guns of No 1 Mountain Gun Battery and the HQ of 1st Brigade marched via the bridge of boats at Kotkai to Tilli and then to Seri. The inhabitants of Palosi were enabled to return to their village. The only British troops west of the Indus River were the 37th Dogras guarding the Kotkai bridgehead.

The base for the Expeditionary Force was moved from Darband to Oghi, the move being completed by 24th April 1891. All posts on the Indus River in the area were abandoned except for the post at Bakrai. The bridges were dismantled and the boats moved south. The 1st Brigade was now based at Seri and the 2nd Brigade at Darbanai. Each brigade maintained a number of outposts. A road linking the 2 brigade HQs was quickly built.

During the latter part of April and May 1891 several incursions were made into Akazai country with villages being burnt. On 26th May 1891 the jirgas of the Hassanzai and the Akazai came into the camp at Seri and by 29th May terms of capitulation were agreed. The most important term was that in view of the inability of the tribes to surrender Hashim Ali as he had left the area they undertook to exclude him from their territory. The Hassanzais, Akazais and Pariariwals undertook to escort any military force moving on the border to ensure it was not attacked.

On 9th June 1891 the units of the force were ordered to return to their garrisons other than a small force that was to remain at Seri and Oghi commanded by Brigadier-General Hammond and comprising the RWF, 1st/1st Gurkhas, 4th Sikh Infantry, 28th Bengal Infantry and No 9 Mountain Battery RA. By the end of November 1891 with further arrangements complete including the establishment of a 200 strong Border Police Force recruited from the tribes the remaining troops withdrew from the Black Mountains.

Grenadier of the 39th Foot
Indian General Service Medal with clasp
for ‘Hazara 1891’, the clasp for the
Black Mountain Expedition 1891


British casualties in the campaign were 9 killed and 39 wounded including 3 officers, Second-Lieutenant Doughty of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and Lieutenants Maconchy and Harman of 4th Sikhs.

To the extent that they were known tribal casualties are set out in the text.

Battle Honour and Campaign Medal:

No battle honour was awarded for this campaign.

Soldiers who served in the campaign received the Indian General Service Medal with the clasp ‘Black Mountain 1891’.

For the action at Ghazikot Lieutenant Maconchy of 4th Sikhs received the DSO. The Indian Order of Merit 3rd Class was awarded to Subadar Dheru, Havildar Waziru, Naik Ganesha Singh, and Lance-Naik Alam Khan, all of 4th Sikhs or 32nd Pioneers and Hospital Assistant Ahmadulla Khan.

British 7 Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) Mountain Gun
British 7 Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) Mountain Gun, Firepower Museum, used by the Indian Army Mountain Batteries in the Black Mountain Expedition 1891

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:


Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India Volume 1 published by the Government of India
North West Frontier by Captain H.L. Nevill DSO, RFA