At the turn of the 19th Century, the Mekran area of northwest India (now Pakistan) and adjacent southeast Persia was a remote dry strip of land running along the northern coastline of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. This was, and remains today, one of the most hostile and inaccessible regions in the world. Mountains rising to over 10,000 feet formed a backdrop to the coastal desert. Habitation inland followed watercourses that ran through gorges in the hills where date gardens could be irrigated. Coastal communities existed on fishing and smuggling, with Muscat, in Oman across the Straits of Hormuz, being a major source of illegally-imported weapons. The camel provided a transport resource, as well as milk and meat. The standard of living was very low, bordering on wretched, for many inhabitants. The people were hardy and lawless Muslim Baluch tribesmen who resisted outside interference and who constantly intrigued and fought amongst themselves.
In the British-administered portion of Mekran government of a sort was achieved by tribal treaty supervised by British Political Agents. The British presence was most evident on the coast where a telegraph line ran from Persia to Karachi. However, by 1898, British survey parties were working inland.
Deployment for operations in 1898
In January 1898, conflict broke out in Kej, where the Hindu Nazim Diwan Udho Das (a district administrator who reported to the ruler of the region, the Khan of Kalat) was disliked and disrespected by the Baluch sardars (leaders) Baluch Khan and Mehrab Khan Gichki. The latter, with the complicity of Baluch Khan, attacked Diwan Udho Das on 6th January, imprisoned him in Kalatuk Fort and looted his treasury. Meantime, the unsuspecting British had deployed four surveyors, with Punjabi civilian support staff, into the Kolwa and Kej valleys, depending on the Baluch sardars’ levies for security.
On 9th January, the camp of one of the surveyors, Captain J.M. Burn, Royal Engineers, was attacked by local tribesmen. The fifteen-man levy escort team, commanded by Rhustam Khan, brother of Mehrab Khan Gichki, stood aside as sixteen support staff were slaughtered. The attackers and the escort party then seized thirty-five rifles and 15,000 Rupees. Captain Burn had been sleeping on a hill three miles away, and he was alerted by one of his men who had escaped from the camp. Burn started off on foot to Balor, thirty-five miles away. At Balor he sent messengers to alert the other surveyors, and he obtained a camel to ride to Urmara, whence on 11th January he telegraphed a report to Brigadier-General T.A. Cooke, the Officer Commanding Sind District, at Karachi.
Within two hours of the report’s arrival, a military response was initiated. Lieutenant-Colonel R.G.C. Mayne, commanding 30th Bombay Infantry (3rd Baluch Battalion), was ordered to proceed with 250 men to Urmara, seventy-five miles east of Pasni. Transportation was provided by the tug Richmond Crawford, with a local boat in tow carrying followers, baggage, 400 rounds per rifle, and rations for one month. Three British officers and one medical officer accompanied Mayne. Parties from the 21st Bombay Infantry were despatched to Chabbar and Jask in Persian Mekran to protect British telegraph facilities in those locations. Meanwhile those sardars wishing to avoid direct conflict with the British escorted the three remaining surveyors and their men into Urmara. At Urmara, Colonel Mayne landed his men, horses and supplies by using local bunder boats (ship-to-shore coastal boats). More troops were being organised to join Colonel Mayne, and Pasni was chosen as the operational base. From Pasni, a direct route led north to Mehrab Khan’s fort at Turbat and the nearby fort at Kalatuk where Nazim Diwan Udho Das was jailed. Colonel Mayne marched on 19th January with his men along the 100 miles of telegraph line to Pasni, repairing the line as he went.
The hostile sardars had sent instructions that the British were not to be offered camels to assist with transportation, but the British Political Agent for South-East Baluchistan, Major M.A. Tighe, quickly found camels for Colonel Mayne. None of the beasts were strong due to recent droughts in the region and many died under the pressure of work. By 27th January 1898, Colonel Mayne had under his command at Pasni the 30th Bombay Infantry (400 rifles), a section of No 4 Hazara Mountain Battery (two 7-pndr guns), and eighty-eight transport mules. Two days later the following troops left Karachi to join Colonel Mayne: 6th Bombay Cavalry (half-squadron); 30th Bombay Infantry (eighty rifles, tasked with guarding telegraph facilities at Urmara, Pasni and Gwadur); Bombay Sappers and Miners (one British and one Indian officer with twelve other ranks); No 42 Field Hospital (‘C’ and ‘D’ Sections); an additional twelve transport mules.
The advance on Turbat
Colonel Mayne left Pasni with his men and the two mountain guns on 27th January, knowing that Baluch Khan intended to block his advance to Turbat. Four dry and dusty days later at 08.00 hours, the column came across the hostile Sardars and 1,500 of their men on hills 300 feet (ninety-one metres) above the mouth of a narrow six-mile long defile. When the advance guard under Lieutenant N.R. Anderson got within 850 yards of the enemy, it came under breech-loading rifle fire. Captain A. LeG. Jacob, with fifty rifles, was deployed onto a hill on the enemy’s left flank where he met stiff opposition.
Lieutenant J.H. Paine and his gunners now delivered destructive blows by blasting the sardars’ forces with shells. Colonel Mayne sent Captain R. Southey with fifty rifles to drive the enemy off low hills to the left (west) of the defile. At that moment Lieutenant H.T. Naylor appeared with thirty-two sabres from the 6th Bombay Cavalry. He had double-marched up from Pasni towards the sound of the guns. He and his men were deployed dismounted to support Southey. Colonel Mayne now moved his main body forward to seize the mouth of the defile whilst Captains Southey and Jacob got behind the enemy on their respective flanks. The guns moved forward to support the assault and fired case shot (exploding cannisters containing metal fragments) into all the enemy positions. This was a demoralising blow as the sardars’ men had not previously faced effective artillery fire, and after taking hundreds of casualties the enemy ranks quickly thinned out as men fled. However some of the sardars were made of sterner stuff, as suddenly Baluch Khan and a group of his ghazis (warriors who fought for Islam) jumped out of cover, discarded their rifles, drew their swords, and shouted ‘Allah! Allah!’ as they charged at Captain Jacob’s group. Some got to within twenty paces of Captain Jacob before they were all shot down. Captain Jacob himself killed Baluch Khan with a revolver shot. The action was over by 11.45 hours and Colonel Mayne’s men moved tactically through the defile. The enemy had lost up to 250 tribesmen killed and about the same number wounded. Baluch Khan and four other Khans were dead. The cavalry had lost one man wounded, the gunners had lost one man killed and one man wounded, and the 30th Bombay Infantry had lost two men killed and ten wounded, one of whom later died. Lieutenant Naylor and his cavalry re-mounted and pushed on to the River Kej where they skirmished, killing four and wounding five of the enemy. Colonel Mayne and his main body approached Turbat Fort at about 16.30 hours, fired a few shells into the fort, and camped for the night. During the hours of darkness the fort’s defenders, led by Mehrab Khan Gitchi, withdrew into the hills. Mayne’s column occupied the fort the next day, the 1st February.
The detachment of Bombay Sappers and Miners, under Lieutenant W. Bovet, arrived twenty-four hours later, having marched forty miles that day. There was no rest for them as they immediately marched with Colonel Mayne another thirty miles to Charbak, and blew up the towers of the fort there. On 7th February Lieutenant Bovet’s men used their gun-cotton to demolish forts at Gushtang, Kaor-i-Kalat and Kala-i-Nao, the adjacent villages having already been burnt by the infantry on 2nd February. Visits were made to the other valleys of the hostile sardars and a flying column under Major G.E. Even was sent north to the higher Bolida valley where the forts at Chib and Koshk were demolished, whilst the Bet fort was occupied. Major Even then seized Kalatak fort and released Diwan Udho Das.
Colonel Mayne marched to Tump, where the fort was surrendered by the defenders, and then on towards Mand near the Persian border. Here Lieutenant S.G. Knox, Political Assistant at Kalat, interviewed the headmen and chiefs of the area, obtaining their signatures on an agreement acknowledging their loyalty to the Khan and their willingness to remit revenue to him. On the return journey, Phulabad fort was demolished. At Turbat Lieutenant Knox held a durbar which was attended by the headmen of Kej and Mekran. Fines totalling 50,000 rupees were inflicted, which had to be paid within three years. As part of the punishment, none of the local crops that the sepoys and sowars had consumed during their marches around the region were to be paid for.
The withdrawal from Mekran
Having acted in a decisive and energetic manner, demonstrating how lethal artillery fire can be and how damaging gun-cotton can be (a total of thirteen forts were demolished), Colonel Mayne split his force into three groups.A small detachment of the 30th Bombay Infantry remained in Mekran to support the Kalat State troops who garrisoned the forts at Turbat, Kalatak, Tumo and Bet. A column under Captain Jacob composed of the cavalry, mountain gunners, sappers, and ninety rifles marched back to Quetta via Kalat, demolishing forts at Sharak, Nag, Ser and Hor Kalat on the way. Colonel Mayne and the remainder of his command marched to Urmara and then sailed to Karachi aboard I.M.S. Canning.
Awards for the 1898 operations
Order of the Bath (Companion, Military Division)
Lieutenant-Colonel R.C.G. Mayne, 30th Bombay Infantry
Distinguished Service Order
Captain A.LeG.Jacob, 30th Bombay Infantry
Lieutenant J.H. Paine, Royal Artillery
Indian Order of Merit (3rd Class)
Subedar Ahmed Khan, 30th Baluch Infantry: For conspicuous gallantry in action at Gok Parosh, in Mekran [sic], on the 31st January 1898. The Subedar was with the left flank attack, with Captain A.LeG. Jacob, and showed conspicuous gallantry and courage in leading a small party of his men, in the face of heavy odds, against superior numbers of the enemy, and dislodging them from strong positions.
Brevet rank of Major
Captain Robert Southey, 30th Bombay Infantry
Mentioned in despatches
Lieutenant H.T. Naylor, 6th Bombay Cavalry
Lieutenant J.H. Paine, R.A. No 4 (Hazara) Mountain Battery
Jemadar Shaikh Khuda Baksh, No 4 (Hazara) Mountain Battery
Lieutenant H.H. Turner, Royal Engineers (Transport Officer)
Major G.E. Even, 30th Bombay Infantry
Captain R. Southey, 30th Bombay Infantry
Captain A. Le G. Jacob, 30th Bombay Infantry
Subadar Ahmad Khan, 30th Bombay Infantry
Jemadar Fazl Shah, 30th Bombay Infantry.
Lieutenant S.G. Knox, Political Agent.
The 1901-1902 operations – the situation in Mekran
In an attempt to control banditry along their common border during the cold weather of 1901-1902, the Persian government agreed to co-operate with British forces. Local Lieutenant-Colonel H.L. Showers, Political Agent at Kalat, and his escort party moved to meet the Persians on the border. The escort commander was Major M.J. Tighe, D.S.O., 27th Baluchis. The troops in the escort were: 27th Baluch Light Infantry (300 rifles); 5th Bombay Cavalry (Scinde Horse) (fifty sabres); a section of the 9th (Murree) Mountain Battery (two 7-pounder guns); a detachment of Bombay Sappers and Miners (twenty-one all ranks from No. 4 Company).
On 16th December 1901, Captain Showers’ party arrived in Turbat and met Colonel C.E. Yate, the Agent to the Governor-General Baluchistan. Colonel Yate stated that cross-border outlaws had seized Nodiz Fort which was located about eight miles west of Kalatak.
The Nazim of Kej and his forces had been besieging the fort for over fifty days, but without artillery they could not assault it. Major Tighe was requested to assist the Nazim’s forces.
The following day Major Tighe went to reconnoitre Nodiz Fort, accompanied by Lieutenant J.B. Corry, Royal Engineers, commanding the Bombay Sappers and Miners detachment. The Nazim showed them the fort which was a substantial one, and Major Tighe decided that he needed the guns to be brought up before an assault commenced. On 19th December, reconnaissances were made by all the infantry officers, and the next day at 09.00 hours the guns arrived under the command of Lieutenant E.G. Hart, Royal Artillery. The gunners were given an hour to rest before the assault began.
Camp Orders regarding Attack on Nodiz Fort
Major M.J. Tighe, Nodiz, the 20th December, 1901
The attack on Nodiz fort will take place this morning, immediately after the arrival of the mountain guns from Turbat. The orders for the attack are as under.
i. A guard of forty rifles will be detailed to guard the camp. Particular attention should be paid to the karezes (underground water channels) west of the camp.
ii. The Nazim’s levies will be directed to occupy their present sangars round the fort, and on no account to leave them.
iii. The guns, with an escort of ten rifles, will take up a position to the south-east of the fort, and will have as their objectives:
(a) The loop-holed tops of the west flank towers;
(b) The top of the main tower; when the tops of the west flank towers have been demolished, the Officer Commanding the guns will sound his battery call. This will be the signal to the infantry that the gun fire has been turned from the west flank tower to the main tower.
(c) Captain Hulseberg, 27th Baluch Light Infantry, will guide the guns to the position selected, and will rejoin the infantry.
iv. The infantry will be disposed as follows:
(a) Forty rifles, covering party—Lieutenant Grant (27th Baluch Light Infantry)
Sappers and Miners—Lieutenant Corry
Fifty rifles, supports
The whole under Captain Hulseberg
Eighty rifles reserve, at disposal of Officer Commanding. This will form the main infantry attack, which will be directed on the south-west bastion of the fort, through the date groves.
(b) Fifty rifles under Lieutenant Orton will push their way to the east side of the fort and occupy the mosque which is outside the fort, or take up such a position as will prevent the enemy escaping.
(c) The cavalry will take up a position in rear of the guns, ready for pursuit.
(d) Hospital and reserve ammunition with the reserves.
(e) The position of the Officer Commanding will be with the supports.
v. The battery call will be the signal for the gun-cotton party to advance.
vi. No bugles will be sounded except by order of the Officer Commanding.
vii. Sketch of position will be given to all British Officers.
Lieutenants Grant and Corry raced to be the first through the narrow breach, which only allowed one man at a time to pass through. Naik Baryam Singh and Sapper Noor Din, both Grant’s men, followed them through and this quartet killed eight of the enemy before the defenders organised a response. By this time, Subedar Hamid Khan, 27th Baluchis, with about thirty of his men, had also entered the fort. An enemy sniper in the tower above put down effective fire onto the attackers, and enemy groups wielding swords counter-attacked both flanks. This resulted in Grant and Corry and three sepoys being shot and wounded. Unable to hold their position, the storming party dragged their wounded and the loose rifles back through the breach. The first assault had been repulsed.
Major Tighe then ordered his infantry up to the fort walls, and the sepoys used their bayonets to rive loop-holes through which they could shoot. The guns were ordered forward into a date grove only 100 yards from the fort. Here they had line-of-sight to the forts’ roofs – the weak points. The roofs were shelled until they were set on fire, causing them to collapse onto the defenders. Major Tighe’s bugler sounded ‘Cease Fire’ and then ‘Attack,’ and Captain Hulseberg and his Baluch infanteers swarmed into the fort again, quickly overcoming opposition. The surviving sixty-three defenders surrendered inside the fort or to Lieutenant Orton on the east side. Fourteen enemy dead and seventeen wounded lay on the floor of the fort. Thirty-three of the captured enemy were Persian.
During the assault, Major Tighe’s force expended 154 artillery shells, 1,830 rifle rounds and thirty-six pistol rounds. The action was over at 13.25 hours. The force had lost three sepoys killed, two British officers and six sepoys severely wounded, with a few more men slightly wounded. The fort was now knocked down with gun-cotton.
Awards for the attack on Nodiz Fort
Distinguished Service Order
Lieutenant J.B. Corry, Royal Engineers
Lieutenant G.P. Grant, 27th Baluch Light Infantry
Brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel
Major M.J. Tighe, D.S.O., 27th Baluch Light Infantry
Indian Order of Merit 3rd Class
Subedar Hamid Khan, 27th Baluch Light Infantry
1991 Naik Baryam Singh, No. 4 Coy, Bombay Sappers and Miners
1967 Sapper Noor Din, No. 4 Coy, Bombay Sappers and Miners
For conspicuous gallantry in action on the occasion of the capture of Nodiz Fort in Mekran, on the 20th December 1901, when they accompanied Lieutenant J.B. Corry, R.E., and Lieutenant W.O. [sic] Grant, 27th Baluch Light Infantry, in the fore of the storming party, and engaged the enemy’s swordsmen.
A heavy fire was opened on them from the towers, and both the British officers and several men fell wounded. The subedar and the two sappers [sic] named above stood their ground, and by their gallant conduct saved the lives of both officers and men.
Mentioned in despatches
Lieutenant E.F. Orton, 7th Bombay Lancers
Lieutenant J.B. Corry, Royal Engineers
Lieutenant E.G. Hart, Royal Artillery (Murree Mountain Battery)
Captain H. Hulseberg, 27th Baluch Light Infantry
Lieutenant G.P Grant, 27th Baluch Light Infantry
The next stage in operations was for Colonel Showers to make contact with a Persian delegation at Bampur on the Indo-Persian border in order to agree upon joint measures to limit lawlessness in Mekran. In effect, the Political Agent’s Escort became a flying column of all arms, with a total strength of close to 600 officers, other ranks and followers. Hampered by a train of more than four thousand camels required to carry the requisite ammunition and provisions for man and beast, it stretched back over ten miles. As it progressed through the harsh Baluchistan landscape, it carried out a number of diversions to survey the territory. It was fortunate that the country was generally quiet, the fall of Nodiz having made a deep impression on the local tribesmen. They were plentifully armed with magazine rifles acquired via Muscat, mostly manufactured by B.S.A. in Birmingham, and it would have been difficult to protect the column’s lengthy tail from well prepared ambush.
Forts linked with known bandits were destroyed en route, and there was only one place that threatened to put up any resistance. Near to the meeting point with the Persians was the fort of Magas, still in outlaw hands. The Persians had been unable to negotiate the surrender of the fort, but when the British troops approached the defenders melted away into the surrounding hills. From their supposedly safe retreats, the bandits continued to menace the loyal sirdars, and Colonel Showers took the time to send the sirdars help. One of the more dangerous episodes in this process took place near Magas on the 9th February 1902.
Havildar Subhay Khan, 27th Buluch Light Infantry, with a party of thirteen men, had been sent by Colonel Showers from Magas to assist the sirdars. Taking with him three days’ food, he boldly proceeded into the hills and coming across a party of the enemy who fired at him, promptly attacked and dispersed them, killing five and wounding four. Continuing his advance, he captured over 300 head of animals, all of which he brought in safely to Magas. It was a swift and bold raid against an enemy, who imagined himself secure in his mountain fastness, and it had a most salutary effect. For his gallantry and leadership, the havildar was advanced to the 2nd Class Indian Order of Merit. By the time the Escort returned to its depots, the infantry had marched distances varying from 1,200 to 2,000 miles. In their turn, the cavalry was proud to report that they had covered eighteen hundred miles in six months and had not lost a single horse or mule.
Although Mekran remained relatively quiet after the final departure of the British troops, the events at Nodiz had persuaded the British government that the Khan’s troops were unfit to keep order in the country, and the Mekran Levy Corps was formed. The strength of the Levy Corps was 137 cavalry and 203 infantry. The Headquarters was at Panjgur (180 men) with detachments at Diz, Parom, Mand, Suntzar and Jiwani. The commander of the Corps was the Assistant Political Agent. The expenses of the Corps were met from Imperial funds.
When the Great War started German agents in Persia encouraged insurgency over the border in India and across the Straits of Hormuz in Oman. This resulted in disaffection in the Mekran Levy Corps and resulted in attacks on British positions in Mekran and Oman. Later in the war, in the Spring of 1918, the British had to send a Field Force to subdue rebellious Marri tribesmen in Baluchistan.
The author dedicates this article to his Baluch comrades, particularly those killed or wounded in action, who served with him in the war in Dhofar Province, Sultanate of Oman, between 1973 and 1975 Baluch men flocked in their thousands to the Sultanate’s recruiting office in Gwadur, Mekran, seeking enlistment in the Sultan’s Armed Forces. They provided an effective temporary pool of military manpower during critical times. Nowadays their contribution is sadly fading from military memory. As A.E. Housman wrote:
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.