June 20, 2015

Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998

Page 41

By William R Dales


After “passing out” of Sandhurst, the Royal Military College, in June 1939, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the British Indian Army. That December, I joined the 1st Battalion of my new regiment, the 6th Gurkha Rifles, in the Malakand Fort. My paternal grandfather had played a small part in the Malakand campaign, and I was interested in seeing the ground over which he had fought and, as is typical of all soldiers, often talked about.

In terms of tribal unrest, in 1939 the Malakand had been for many years mostly quiet. Even so, it was part of a swathe of mountainous country stretching from Baluchistan in the south, north along the Afghan frontier and, just above the Khyber, where it made a “right hook” to include the Malakand and the states of Swat and Dir. All of this large area was classified as “Tribal Territory” and, throughout its length, a state of acute political and military sensitivity prevailed.

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British Indian law did not apply inside the Tribal Territories, and the Raj’s power and influence were protected and represented by Political Agents. Most if not all Agents were seconded from the British Indian Army; were fluent in the basic language, Pushtu; and were experienced in living among their tribal constituents. The PAs had on-the-spot support from British and Indian Army troops as well as local “Scouts,” or militarized corps manned by local Pathans and officered by British regular army officers. In the main, this combination of skilled political personnel and military was sufficient to maintain a reasonably peaceful state of affairs throughout the territory.

It was standard practice for Pathans to be armed, since they could, and did—often at the drop of a hat—use those arms against the “Sirkar” (government). Due to widespread blood vendettas it was politic for a Pathan to be at all times ready to fend off enemies. In fact, and throughout the territory, both the Sirkar and the local residents maintained an attitude of armed preparedness. And, let it be understood, this state of affairs has not changed under the Muslim Pakistani Sirkar.

Malakand Fort was an old-fashioned sort of fort, set atop a massif from which there was an immense and fascinating view down the steep slope on which it stood to, and beyond, the town of Nowshera, on the far bank of the Kabul River about sixty miles from the Malakand Pass. Surrounding the fort were several picquets, most of which were large enough to accommodate garrisons of twenty to thirty men.

Radio had not yet become a part of the Indian Army’s infantry equipment, and signalling “all’s well” to Chakdara, eight miles away, was carried out with flags and heliograph. The skill with which the Gurkha signallers carried out this crucial task never failed to impress me—at either end of the “flashing light” connection.

It wasn’t long before I was myself posted to command Chakdara Fort garrison. Language seemed an overwhelming problem. I could speak Urdu, the lingua franca of the Indian Army, but when ordered into the Chakdara “blue” I had as yet only just begun to get my tongue around Gurkhali, the language used within all Gurkha regiments. It was amazing how quickly I found myself conversing with my men—but, of course, with their wicked sense of humor, the Ghurkas loved hearing my linguistic errors!

Chakdara Fort had great strategic value, commanding the roads leading to the states of Dir and Swat and the bridge across the Swat River. I had frequent meetings with the local Pathans, and was surprised how seriously the “greybeards” among them dealt with this ghora (white) “childofficer”—at twenty, I had the baby face of a midteenager! Regardless, it did wonders for my sense of personal self-esteem and confidence.

The relationship between the Gurkhas and their British officers has always been based on mutual respect, but the Gurkhas wasted no time in breaking me in. My only respite from adapting myself to the Gurkhas was when the Adjutant in Malakand ordered me to a day’s “shikar” (hunting) for my fellow officers: usually snipe or duck shooting across the rice paddy fields of the river valley, going after chikor in the rocky hills, or fishing for the 40-pound “mahseer” in the river. Gurkhas get immense pleasure out of participating, mostly as “beaters” driving up to, or widening the line of guns; but, very much so when an officer loaned his shotgun so they, too, could lay a bead on a fast flying snipe.

In Malakand Fort I was given a taste of the frontier’s basic wildness, or primitiveness, when the Adjutant asked one day for the loan of my white tie evening dress. Although “our war” had started on September 3rd, we were still doing things “properly” in India, and this evening were entertaining the Malakand Political Agent and his wife at dinner in the Mess.

The need for my “tails” resulted from the unexpected arrival at the Agent’s Malakand home of Jahanzeb, the Crown Prince of Swat. The reason for his dramatic arrival was that his father, the Wali, had decided to have him killed—and when the Wali decided, such a thing was usually done!

Jehanzeb was seeking “bedraggah” (honorable protection) of the Agent, and this was willingly given. Unfortunately, Jehanzeb lacked “tails,” and I was approximately the same size. Thus I had to wear uniform at dinner, allowing the Jehanzeb to appear resplendent and properly kitted out! He was a very handsome young man, almost a twin to the young Omar Sharif.

The next day, the Political Agent set off for Sai’du Sharif, Swat’s capital, where he persuaded the Wali not to harm his son. Many years later, when I was serving in Pakistan, Jehanzeb had become the Wali (after forcing his father to abdicate in his favor). He repaid the loan of my “tails” a hundred times over through the hospitality and kindnesses he extended to my family and me.

I made frequent visits to the Malakand and Swat during 1950-54, when the former Wali, now in his 90s and bearing the title of “Badshah,” was living in a very pleasant “auxiliary” Sai’du Sharif “palace”—more an oversized bungalow with a deep verandah. On my first courtesy visit, we reminisced over such things as the annual duck shoot to which he invited dignitaries, an invitation he kindly extended to me.

Before leaving, he agreed to do us the honour of sitting for an oil portrait by my wife. For the first sitting, we found him seated and holding his favourite 12-bore shotgun, which he insisted on including. The first sitting went well, but at the second, after about two hours, the Badshah suddenly stood up, shouted for his bodyguard and, without a word to my wife (who, after all, was only a woman) said he was tired of sitting and wanted to take me to visit some of his favourite shikar spots. We were away for several hours, during which time my wife worked on her portrait and otherwise whiled away the hours.

As a result of the Malakand Field Force’s effort, there was no doubt in my mind that the local Pathans came to “suffer” the British presence with equanimity. Certainly things remained reasonably calm and under control in the area. Equally, the average man-in-the-street, Malakandi, Swati and Diri Pathan, no longer suffered the abuses of power, as had been inflicted on them by their former despotic tribal leaders. I believe that was the fact of the matter, but, certainly, I always enjoyed their company and have nary one bad memory of the time I spent among them.


Mr. Dales, a member of The Churchill Center, is a retired British Army officer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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