The spectacular pre-dawn attack on the British Indian Army camp at Wana in Waziristan by two thousand Mahsud tribesmen led by the notorious Mullah Powindah and the short campaign that followed
War: Waziristan 1894
Date: 3rd November 1894 to March 1895
Place: The independent tribal region of Waziristan to the south of the Kurram River on the border with Afghanistan.
Generals: Brigadier-General Turner commanded the Indian Army force surprised in the camp at Wana. Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart commanded the Waziristan Field Force that inflicted reprisals on the Mahsud Tribe following the Wana attack. The Mahsud tribesmen that attacked the Wana camp were led by the Mullah Powindah. There was no identifiable Mahsud leadership during the British incursion into Mahsud country.
Size of the armies: The Indian Army force attacked at the camp at Wana numbered around 2,500 men. The 3 brigades that formed the Waziristan Field Force numbered in all around 8,000 men. Probably around 2,000 tribesmen attacked the camp at Wana on 3rd November 1894.
The 20th Punjab Infantry: a picture painted by Walter Fane in 1868
Combatants: Regiments of the British Indian Army against the Mahsud tribe of Waziristan.
Winner: The reputation of the Indian Army took a severe knock by being surprised at Wana. The result of the subsequent campaign was the capitulation of the Mahsuds.
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British military forces in India fell into these categories:
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 of which a battalion would have 5 or 6.
Junior officers were Indian.
In 1894 British and Indian infantry regiments were issued with the single shot drop action Martini-Henry breech loading rifle. The 2nd Border Regiment had just received the new Lee Metford magazine rifle.
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 Mountain Batteries used the more modern 2.3 inch rifled muzzle loaders.
British and Indian troops in 1895 wore khaki field dress when campaigning with a leather harness to carry equipment and ammunition. British troops wore a pith helmet. Indian troops were largely turbaned. Gurkha troops wore a pill box hat.
The Indian cavalry regiments were armed with lance, sabre and carbine.
The standard tactic used by the British and Indian armies on the North West Frontier of India as with other so-called ‘semi-civilised enemies’ (tribesmen armed with swords and lances and with limited access to modern firearms) was to deliver a frontal attack, discharging controlled volleys of rifle fire and attacking with the bayonet. When under fire and not moving, cover was taken behind sangars. Supporting fire would be provided by artillery. Cavalry conducted scouting duties and in favourable circumstances delivered mounted charges.
When a military column moved through hostile country great care had to be taken to ensure that flanking high ground was occupied in strength until the column was clear of the area.
The tribesmen were in possession of muskets, jezails, some Sniders and a few Martini-Henry rifles. They possessed no artillery or machine guns. The tribesmen were on foot.
A feature of warfare on the North West Frontier of India was the ability of tribesmen to assemble in large numbers with little warning and to move at disconcerting speed across mountainous terrain even at night.
The Mahsuds were notorious for preferring to fight by ambush rather than in open battle.
Waziristan, an arid and inhospitable mountainous region, hot in summer and snow bound in winter, lies along the Afghanistan border to the south of the Kurram River. It is inhabited by 2 main Pathan tribes, the Darwesh Khels in the northern part, known as ‘Wazirs’, and the Mahsuds in the south and east, both Wazir tribes. The 2 other tribes in the area are the Dawaris and the Bhittanis, both less significant and neither Wazir.
The mountains of Waziristan increase in height to the west providing the watershed between the Indus basin of eastern India and the Helmond River in Afghanistan.
The principal rivers of Waziristan are the Kurram, Kaitu, Tochi and Gumal Rivers, all flowing from west to east. Many smaller rivers and streams intersect the mountains finally flowing into one of these 4 large rivers.
Communications throughout Waziristan lie along the valleys formed by rivers and nullahs. While many might be dry for much of the year they could prove dangerous if a storm occurred in the mountains and caused a spate to surge down the valley.
The inhabitants of Waziristan considered themselves to be without a ruler. The Amir of Afghanistan at times claimed suzerainty over the region but mostly the Amir acknowledged the independence of the area.
In 1893 the British persuaded the Amir to agree to a commission comprising officers from Afghanistan and British India to establish the border between Afghanistan and the independent tribal areas. The Amir agreed with considerable reluctance. The border, known to the British as the ‘Durand Line’ after their commissioner Sir Mortimer Durand, was to be marked along its length with white posts. Correctly assuming the marking of the border in this way to be a sign of a British intention in due course to annex all the tribal areas the putting up of border posts was highly objectionable to the Pathan population of Waziristan.
The Government of India appointed a Boundary Commission and Survey party under the leadership of Mr. R.I. Bruce CIE. The Border Commission established a camp at Wana in the south of Waziristan from where it proposed to carry out the work of marking the agreed border.
On 10th October 1894 a jirga from the Ahmadzai of Wana presented a petition from its tribal members asking the British Government to take over Wana and to make the members of the Ahmadzai British subjects.
The attack on the camp at Wana:
A strong military escort was allocated to the Border Commission at Wana. This force, denominated the ‘Waziristan Delimitation Escort’, under the command of Brigadier-General Turner, comprised 1 squadron of the 1st Punjab Cavalry, 1st/1st Gurkha Rifles, 3rd Sikh Infantry, 20th Punjab Infantry, No. 3 Punjab Mountain Battery, No. 2 Company Sappers and Miners and 2 Native Field Hospitals. Further units were earmarked for a reserve brigade; 2nd Border Regiment at Mooltan and the remainder of 1st Punjab Cavalry, No. 8 Mountain Battery, 4th Punjab Infantry and 38th Dogras at Dera Ismail Khan.
In order to join the Border Commission at Wana General Turner’s force marched from Dera Ismail Khan to Khajuri Kach arriving on 18th October 1894. After investigating water supplies on the various routes General Turner decided to march to Wana via the area of Spin and Karab Kot. The force marched out on 22nd October 1894, less 20th Punjab Infantry which remained to bring up supplies, via the Karkana Kot and the head of Spin Tangi, arriving at Karab Kot on 23rd October 1894. On 24th October 1894 General Turner reconnoitered the road to Wana and a post was built at Karab Khot. Shots were fired into the camp that night.
On 25th October 1894 the force marched to Wana leaving a company of 1st/1st Gurkhas in the new post with some sappers and miners. At Wana a jirga of Ahmadzais expressed pleasure at the arrival of the British force. However shots were again fired into the camp during the night.
The Wana plain is around 13 miles long and 11 miles wide. Wana itself lies at the eastern end of the plain. The official record states that the camp was pitched at this place ‘for political reasons’ without giving those reasons and that the camp was larger than could conveniently be defended because no trouble was expected. This view was confirmed by the arrival at the camp on 27th October 1894 of jirgas from the Nana Khel and the Machi Khel, both Mahsud clans.
Nevill in his book comments that the camp was not fortified in the way usual for a British camp on the North West Frontier and as required by the British Field Service Regulations. In addition the camp was positioned near to a number of dry nullahs which would give an attacking force a means of approaching the camp in strength without being seen. Nevill also comments that the Mahsud preference for surprise attack over combat in open battle was known to the British military hierarchy. The nature of the camp made the force vulnerable to such an attack.
On 28th October 1894 information was received that a Mullah Powindah was leading a group of Mahsuds attempting to stir up resistance to the British incursion into Waziristan and trying to prevent the jirgas from going in to negotiate with the British. Mullah Powindah was a cleric of the Shabi Khel clan and had set himself in opposition to the lay maliks of the Mashuds. The information was that Mullah Powindah was approaching Kaniguram to the north-east of Wana with some 800 Mahsuds of various clans with the intention of recruiting more members of the tribe and carrying out hostile action against the British.
On receipt of this information General Turner withdrew the Gurkhas and sappers and miners from Karab Kot and telegraphed for a battalion and 2 guns from the designated reserve to move to Jandola in the foothills on the Tank River.
On 30th October 1894 a reconnaissance was conducted up the Tiarza Nala, the direction from which Mullah Powindah was said to be approaching. On the party’s return they were fired on.
On 1st November 1894 information came in to the British that the Mullah Powindah was at Torwam on the upper reaches of the Tank River near to the Tiarza Nala with around 1,000 tribesmen. The Government of India record states that the camp’s picquets were doubled and all ranks ordered to be under arms in their tents by 4am. This precaution in the event was far from sufficient.
On 2nd November 1894 a further reconnaissance was conducted in the mountains directly to the north of the camp in the direction of the Inzar Narai peak. Some shots were fired but nothing significant encountered. On the same day messages came in from the Mullah Powindah and he was given the answer that all negotiations had to be through tribal jirgas and that he should disperse his lashkar and return home.
It is recorded that the same precautions were maintained in the camp as on the previous night. The camp was not suitable for defence due to its size and position and had not been fortified. Outside the perimeter was a system of support positions and beyond them 12 picquets. To the north-east of the camp was a breastwork held by 40 men. In the event of attack the picquets were to fall back on the support positions and all the outlying troops were to retire to the main perimeter. The one exception was Picquet Hill to the south-west of the camp where the support position with its 2 picquets were ordered in the event of attack to hold and defend their posts. The reason for this order was that Picquet Hill overlooked the camp. Nevill comments that the orders for the picquets were contrary to usage on the frontier and the requirements of the regulations. Picquets should have been strong enough to maintain their posts when under attack and not to withdraw.
A deserted fort lay 500 yards to the north-east of the camp. This position was held by 100 Gurkhas. Their role in the event of an attack on the camp was to take the attackers in the rear and to cut off their retreat.
At 5.30am on 3rd November 1894 in the pitch dark the camp at Wana was attacked by around 2,000 tribesmen in one of the most dramatic episodes on the North West Frontier. 3 rifle shots rang out (some authorities claim that these shots were a signal for the tribesmen and some a signal from a picquet. Perhaps they were just the first shots). These shots were immediately followed by wild yells and frenzied drum beating as tribesmen poured out of the nullahs concealing their approach to the camp perimeter. Many of the picquets and support posts raced back to the perimeter as instructed and the wave of tribesmen struck the camp just 3 minutes after the first warning shots.
The attack fell on the west face of the camp, the encampment of the 1st Gurkhas. The battalion had 4 ½ companies in camp, the remainder being disposed: 1 ½ companies dispersed in the picquets and supports, ¾ company guarding the hospital and 1 ¼ companies in the old fort at the north-eastern approach.
In view of the information received about Mullah Powindah’s group the expectation was that any hostile approach would be from the north-east. The suggestions in the authorities are that the British force had begun to build a breastwork at the north-eastern corner of the camp. Even if this is so the work was inadequate, too late and in the wrong place.
That night the Mahsuds demonstrated the extraordinary ability of the Pathans to move across mountainous terrain at night and at speed without being detected. The lashkar on reaching the area circled round to the west of the camp and approached it in the pitch dark by way of 2 dry nullahs. The assault appears to have been headed by a group of particularly fanatical tribesmen, around 800 in number.
A report in the Pioneer Magazine of 9th November 1894 claims to have identified 3 separate attacks. It seems more likely that the rate of the charge was dictated by the geography of the nullahs, the enthusiasm of individual tribesmen for battle and their capabilities, rather than any intention to form separate attacks. There seems to have been the initial attack against the western face of the camp, a secondary flow of tribesmen around to the south face of the camp and into the area of the hospital, commissariat and cavalry lines and another flow around the north face that did not lead to a direct assault but confined itself to shooting into the camp.
The order that the soldiers be under arms in their tents, if this was the order that was given, was inadequate. Few soldiers of the 1st Gurkhas were able to reach the perimeter to meet the attack.
Many encountered the charging tribesmen as they came out of their tents, fighting in the dark, bayonet against sword and shield. 2 companies of 1st Gurkhas, B and E, formed up in the middle of the regiment’s lines under Major Robinson and fought to hold back the rush of tribesmen as they passed through the Gurkha camp into the hospital, commissariat and cavalry lines, slaughtering camp followers and baggage animals. Several horses of 1st Punjab Cavalry were injured or killed by the tribesmen.
F Company, 2nd/1st Gurkhas, attached to the 1st Battalion, reached the perimeter at the north-west corner. A Company, 1st Gurkhas, extended out from the north-west corner of the camp and fired in enfilade into the attacking tribesmen.
A following wave of tribesmen encountered Gurkhas who had fallen back from the support positions on the left and the Regimental Police, some 50 soldiers. Much of this wave lapped around the south face of the camp and entered the lines of the hospital and commisariat.
On hearing the burst of firing the other Indian regiments turned out and manned their sections of the perimeter. It was quickly apparent that the attack was on the 1st Gurkhas and that many tribesmen were on the loose within the camp.
Lieutenant Colonel Meiklejohn, the commandant of the 20th Punjab Infantry, and Lieutenant Thompson with 2 companies of the 20th and a company of 3rd Sikhs under Lieutenant Finnis moved through the camp to reinforce the Gurkhas bayoneting any tribesmen they encountered.
It would seem that the tribesmen intended a further attack at the north-east corner of the camp where a group gathered, firing into the perimeter. The mountain guns came into action and fired star shells lighting up the area. This illumination with the arrival of dawn brought the attack to an end and the tribesmen made off to the north-west. The assault on the camp appears to have been over by 6am.
With full daylight the general ordered out the squadron of 1st Punjab Cavalry. Led by Major O’Mealy 61 troopers of the squadron headed north towards the Inzar Kotal in pursuit of the tribesmen. Immediately after the cavalry Colonel Meiklejohn marched out at speed with infantry from 3rd Sikhs and 20th Punjab Infantry. The pursuit followed the tribesmen to the Inzari Pass, leading into Mahsud country. The cavalry were able to catch and kill some 50 tribesmen over a distance of around 11 miles. The pursuit was abandoned once it was clear that the Mahsud lashkar had dispersed leaving no worthwhile force to pursue.
British and Indian losses in the attack on Wana Camp were 2 British officers killed, 2 Indian officers and 19 men killed and 5 British officers and 38 soldiers wounded. These casualties were mainly in 1st/1st Gurkhas. Lieutenant Thompson, 26th Punjab Infantry, attached to the 20th Punjab Infantry was wounded. 43 followers were killed or wounded. The attackers made off with a large number of rifles and a substantial sum in cash. More than 100 baggage animals were killed or injured.
The estimate of the numbers of attackers was around 2,000 although only half actually pressed the attack on the camp while the rest provided covering fire or were part of the attack on the north-east of the camp which was abandoned. The tribesmen’s casualties were estimated at around 100 killed in the attack with a further 50 killed by the cavalry in the pursuit.
3rd Sikh Infantry
The campaign following the Wana Camp attack:
The Indian Government was presented with a considerable problem by the Wana incident. It was apparent that the attack was planned and executed by the Mullah Powendah over whom the mainstream Mahsud tribal leaders had no control. On the other hand the attack was a spectacular success for the tribesmen and left a significant dent in British prestige. Some form of retribution against the Mahsuds was considered essential. The Mahsud maliks were offered terms which involved the supply of hostages, the expulsion of the Mullah Powindah from Waziristan until the boundary marking was complete and the return of the loot taken in the attack on 3rd November 1894. The period for compliance was given and extended to 12th December 1894. In the meantime a Waziristan Field Force was formed to conduct punitive incursions against the Mahsuds in case the terms were not complied with. The Force, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, comprised 1st Brigade: the Delimitation Escort under this new denomination with the addition of 2nd Border Regiment; 2nd Brigade at Tank commanded by Brigadier-General W. Penn Symons comprising 1 squadron each of 1st and 2nd Punjab Cavalry, 33rd Punjab Infantry, 38th Dogras, 4th Punjab Infantry, 1st/5th Gurkhas, No. 8(B) Mountain Battery, No. 5 Company Bengal Sappers and Miners and 1 Maxim Gun; 3rd Brigade at Mirian commanded by Colonel C. C. Egerton comprising 3rd Punjab Cavalry, 1st Sikh Infantry, 2nd Punjab Infantry, 6th Punjab Infantry and No. 1 Kohat Mountain Battery.
By 11th December 1894 it was apparent that the Mahsud maliks could not comply with the terms offered, mainly because they had no hold over the Mullah Powindah and could not recover the captured rifles and money.
On 16th December 1894 General Lockhart, after taking over command of the area, received orders for his 3 brigades to advance into Mahsud country.
The 1st Brigade was joined by 1st/4th Gurkhas, left a fortified post at Wana in a village rented from the locals and marched to Kaniguram, conducting reconnaissance and survey work as was the practice in such marches.
General Lockhart accompanied the 2nd Brigade to the Mahsud town of Makin, on the way destroying the village of the Mullah Powindah, Marobi. There was random shooting but no significant resistance.
The 3rd Brigade marched from Bannu to Razmak. All 3 brigades combined at Makin on 22nd December 1894 where plans were put in place to attack the Mullah Powindah in the area of Pir Ghal with 6 columns. This operation was carried out on Christmas Day 25th December 1894 with little opposition and a trawl of cattle seized and villages burnt. Thereafter the 3 brigades made their way back to Jandola by various routes, burning villages considered to belong to hostile Mahsud elements. Reports were received that the Mullah Powindah was across the border in Afghanistan unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the Kabul Khel to attack the British forces.
On 19th January 1895 General Lockhart issued a final demand for surrender on terms to the Mahsuds and directed the jirgas to assemble at Kundiwam. The 3 brigades again marched through Mahsud country, the 1st Brigade returning to Wana, the 2nd Brigade with the general marching to Kaniguram and the 3rd Brigade returning to Mirian. Each force conducted reconnaissance, survey work and established telegraph lines and some armed posts, all regular practices in British incursions into independent tribal country in the 1890s and marking the new ‘Forward Policy’ of the Indian Government.
The jirgas arrived as directed and a settlement was negotiated. The Border Commission resumed the work interrupted by the attack on the Wana Camp with the assistance of tribal representatives. A permanent post was established at Wana. General Sir William Lockhart carried out a reconnaissance in the Tochi Valley which he assessed as being of greater significance than the Wana area. The operation was deemed complete by the end of March 1895 and the Waziristan Field Force dispersed leaving a significant British presence in the area.
Incidents of violence against British officials, officers and Indian troops continued until the outbreak of war in 1897.
The casualties in the attack on Wana Camp are given in the text above. The casualties in the remaining operations were not significant.
Battle Honour and decorations:
There was no battle honour for this campaign.
All ranks received the Indian General Service Medal with the clasp ‘Waziristan 1894’. As was the practice the civilians in the Force received the same medal and clasp in bronze rather than silver.
Lieutenant Colonel Meiklejohn was appointed Commander of the Bath.
8 members of 1st/1st Gurkha Rifles were awarded the Indian Order of Merit 3rd Class for the action at Wana.
20th Punjab Infantry
The surprise attack on the camp at Wana was a substantial embarrassment to the Indian Army.
It is far from clear to what extent the Wana Camp was fortified in time for the assault on 3rd November 1894. The Historical Records of the 20th Punjab Infantry describe the regiment’s soldiers as manning the ‘breastwork’. The Government of India record refers to a ‘breastwork’. Nevill’s commentary on the battle makes it clear that there was inadequate compliance with the Field Service Regulations in terms of fortifying the camp. Nevill also criticizes the positioning of the camp near to the nullahs. There appears to have been a concern on the part of contemporary recorders of events to limit criticism of the authorities.
It would seem that the following criticisms are appropriate:
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
Historical Records of the 20th (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Infantry, Brownlow’s Punjabis.