The East Persia Cordon and the Sarhad Operations: 1915 - 1917
Before the Great War commenced Britain had
involved itself in Persia in an attempt to create a compliant and neutral buffer-state
that would help to protect India’s western borders, and Indian Army troops were
stationed in Persia at posts along the telegraph lines that ran beside the Gulf
coast. However Britain’s most public
political gesture towards Persia had been made in 1907 when a convention was
agreed with Imperial Russia that delineated respective spheres of interest in
Persia. Although Persia was a
weakly-governed state its people were proud of their heritage and identity and
many Persians felt deeply affronted by the Anglo-Russian Convention.
Also there was an important reason why
Britain had an interest specifically in South-Eastern Persia, and that involved
the weapons trade between Arab towns across the Gulf, such as Muscat in Oman,
and India’s North-West Frontier. On the
Frontier British and Indian Army units were discovering that their tribal
opponents now possessed rifles that were as accurate as they themselves used. Whereas previously picqueting had only
involved temporarily holding flanking high ground within musket or jezail-range
of a marching column, now picquets had to be deployed at much greater distances
from the column. Consequently picqueting
took more time to perform, more troops had to be used and the planning and
execution could be intricate; modern rifles in the hands of tribal dissidents
were dramatically changing the nature of frontier warfare.
Above: the East Persia Cordon
In attempts to stop the flow of arms from
across the Gulf being landed on Indian or Persian coastlines before being
transported on camels into Afghanistan and onwards to the Frontier, the Indian
Army had made some deployments. Along
the coastline battalions had operated both in Baluchistan and across the border
in Persia, and other battalions had operated further inland near the
Regiments at Quetta took it in turn to send detachments to Robat, a
desolate post near the point where the border-lines of Persia, Afghanistan and
Baluchistan met. In pre-Great War days
the railway from Quetta terminated at Nushki which was 600 kilometres east of
Robat, and troops bound for Robat had to then march by night for a month across
a hot desert. Few good water holes
existed on this route and large camel trains carrying water had to accompany
In July 1915 the 19th Punjabis
was providing the Robat detachment that was billeted at Kacha, 67 kilometres
east of Robat. The 19th
Punjabis was a Class Company Regiment with 4 companies of Jat Sikhs, 2
companies of Punjabi Mussalmans and 2 companies of Pathans (1). Lieutenant-Colonel G.A. Dale commanded at
Kacha, and his detachment consisted of two Sikh companies, one Punjabi
Mussulman company and the Afridi company.
Also at Kacha were the 19th Punjabis’ machine gun section
(two guns) and the machine gun section of the 12th Pioneers (The
Khelat-i-Ghilzal Regiment). Meanwhile
back in Quetta the other half of the 19th Punjabis was busily
recruiting and providing trained drafts of men for overseas theatres.
Germany had placed several agents in Persia
before the war, disguising their activities by appointing them as consuls or
setting them up as traders. Once war
started these agents operated openly and often successfully against British
interests, and both local tribesmen and elements of the Persian Gendarmerie were
exhorted and paid to attack Indian Army posts.
When Turkey allied itself with Germany direct routes into Persia from
across the Turkish and Mesopotamian borders were opened, and Germany used these
routes to send missions to Afghanistan.
Germany’s hope was that both Persia and Afghanistan would join the
Central Powers and attack India across its western borders, tying-up hundreds
of thousands of Indian troops in India and fomenting revolt against British
rule on the sub-continent. By July 1915
Britain and Russia had heard of five different German parties moving across
Persia towards Afghanistan. Colonel Dale
was ordered to intercept and capture or destroy any German parties that he
could apprehend in the Sistan region of Persia, which lay north of Robat. Cavalry support was to be provided by
headquarters and two squadrons of the 28th Light Cavalry, plus that
regiment’s machine gun section.
The 28th Light Cavalry was a
Class Squadron Regiment stationed in Quetta, consisting of 1 squadron Madras
and Dekhani Mussalmans, 1 squadron Punjabi Mussalmans (Awans), 1 squadron Rathore
Rajputs and 1 squadron Jats from Hoshiarpur District. Colonel J.M. Wikeley, the
Commandant, led the two squadrons (2)
going to Robat and his orders were to proceed by train to Nushki without
horses, and there to take over both riding and baggage camels. After marching for five weeks the sowars met
up with the jawans at Kacha, and the whole force moved across the Persian
border into Sistan. The British section
of the East Persia Cordon had commenced its duties. In the north the Russians were assuming
responsibility for cordoning their section of the Afghan-Persian border.
Birjand and death in the desert
Sistan was a very fertile region that had
been claimed by both Afghanistan and Persia, but Britain acting as an
international arbiter had awarded most of the region to Persia. Because of its water courses and crops Sistan
offered a useful route into Afghanistan for the Germans, as the desert routes
to the north or south involved many hardships and dangers. The Punjabis left detachments at Kacha and
Robat and marched 140 kilometres to Nasratabad, the capital of Sistan
Province. After leaving another
detachment there Colonel Dale made a long march north of 350 kilometres to
Birjand where he established his headquarters.
A short distance further north at Sedeh Village contact was made with
Cossack cavalry at the southern end of the Russian cordon. A telegraph line ran northwards from Robat up
to Meshed near the Russian border, and this provided an efficient means of
communications between military posts.
Right: 106th Hazara Pioneers in marching order.
By mid-1915 the upper echelons of the
Indian Army regarded Trans-Frontier Pathans with distrust. The homes of these Pathans were in
Afghanistan and once there they were beyond the control of the Indian
Army. The Central Powers, through
Turkey, used religious propaganda to urge Muslims in Indian Army units not to
wage war against the Caliphate. Some
Pathan sepoys, recruited from a prisoner of war camp in Germany, were escorting
Germans through Persia to Afghanistan.
Also Afridi sepoys had deserted to the enemy both in France and
Mesopotamia, so it was decided in Delhi to muster-out Afridis for the duration
of the war. Delhi ordered the return of
the 19th Punjabis’ Afridi company to Quetta although that company
had performed well on operations so far; Colonel Dale wished to disarm the men
first to remove temptation, but Delhi ordered the retention of weapons.
The Afridi company was ordered to escort
convoys from Kacha to Nushki and then to entrain for Quetta. The first of these convoy escorts was 39 men
strong under a Colour Havildar, and doubtless he and his jawans discussed the
respective merits of going home immediately with a modern rifle and ammunition
or being discharged perhaps ungenerously at Quetta. Avarice won and on the third march from
Kacha the 39 Afridis broke away from the convoy near Amalaf and marched towards
the Helmand River, 100 kilometres to the north.
But before reaching the river a harsh, sun-scorched waterless salt-pan,
the Gaud-i-Zirreh, had to be crossed.
Local Chagai Camel Levies were sent to track the deserters down, and
eventually 37 bodies and all the rifles were found. The Afridis had exhausted themselves and died
in the old bed of the Helmand River. The
corpses were contorted and hands were thrust into holes that had been scooped
out in failed attempts to find drinkable water.
The bodies of the Colour Havildar and the
bugler were missing, as they had staggered onwards for a few kilometres to find
the fresh water in the Helmand River; years later these two men were recognised
in their native Tirah, perhaps living with vivid memories of their narrow
escape from death. After this incident
the remainder of the Afridis were disarmed and they marched back loyally with
the next convoy to Quetta where they were discharged from military service. In September a double-company of Sikhs and
Punjabi Mussulmans from the Punjabis’ Depot joined Colonel Dale’s command and
was deployed to Dehan-i-Baghi, a small telegraph station 140 kilometres west of
Robat on the desert trade route from Kirman in central Persia.
28th Light Cavalry enters Persia
After a rest halt at Kacha, Headquarters
and ‘C’ Squadron, 28th Light Cavalry, garrisoned Nasratabad whilst
‘D’ Squadron joined Colonel Dale at Birjand.
In November ‘A’ Squadron (Punjabi Mussulmans) arrived at Nasratabad with
400 horses, which permitted all three squadrons and the Machine Gun Section to
be mounted on horses again. One
interesting mission that ‘D’ Squadron completed was to escort 300 Shia Hazara
tribesmen from Quain, north of Birjand, down to Seistan. The Hazaras had been recruited by the British
Consul-General in Meshed (3),
and they were destined for service in the Seistan Levy Corps. Also in November ‘B’ Squadron (Dekhani
Mussulmans) came out from Quetta escorting a section (2 guns) of 10-pounder
screw-guns of the 25th Mountain Battery; later another section of
guns from the battery arrived in Seistan.
At the end of 1915 ‘A’ Squadron was at Birjand with a detachment at
Seddeh; ‘D’ Squadron had 2 troops at Neh, 1 troop at Bandan and 1 troop at
Nasratabad; ‘C’ Squadron was at Nasratabad alongside Regimental Headquarters;
and ‘B’ Squadron was also at Nasratabad with a detachment at Kacha.
In early January 1916 ‘D’ Squadron at Neh
received information from a local intelligence agent that three Germans with a group
of hostile Bakhtiari tribesmen were at Deh Salim to the west. Water pools near Deh Salim were picquetted
and the village was occupied, the enemy having already moved out. However the villagers volunteered the
information that a second enemy group containing Austrian machine gunners was
believed to be approaching from the west; ‘D’ Squadron prepared a defensive
position at Deh Salim. Patrols searched
for the three Germans and found them in a good defensive position in nearby
foothills, and fire was exchanged until dusk.
After dark the sentries on the southern edge of the village saw a man
approaching and Acting Lance Daffadar Munshi leapt out and captured him. The prisoner was a German named Winkleman who
was looking for water; his group had first tried but failed to penetrate the
Russian cordon to the north, and had then tried again against the British
cordon. Winkleman had stayed behind to
cover the withdrawal of his comrades who managed to reach Kirman, further west
in Persia. Acting Lance Daffadar Munshi received
a Mention in Despatches.
Above: Sketch of Seistan operations
the Sarhad Baluchis
Running down the Persian side of the border
with Baluchistan was a hilly desert area inhabited by fierce Baluchi tribes,
known as the Dahmanis, who supplemented an agricultural existence by regularly
raiding westwards into Persia, seizing herds of livestock and female villagers,
whom they enslaved. This area was known
as the Sarhad and it was targeted by the Germans who incited and paid the
tribesmen to attack the British camel supply convoys marching westwards from the
Nushki railhead. The British had to
rapidly solve this problem as without regular supply convoys the East Persia
Cordon could not be maintained. The
railway was extended westwards from Nushki and a road suitable for motor vehicles
was made alongside it, units from Quetta sent detachments to guard the road and
railheads as they progressed.
A Colonel was sent from Rawalpindi to deal
with the raiding problem, and in a few years’ time – because of a notorious shooting
incident in Amritsar - his name would be widely known throughout the British
Empire; he was Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. In early March 1916 Colonel Dyer drove in a
car, the first one seen in the area, to Robat and with the help of his chief
intelligence officer, Major C.R.H. Landon, 35th Scinde Horse, he
quickly assessed the situation. In the
Sarhad there was one friendly tribe - the Rekis, and three hostile ones - the
Gamshadzais in the east, the Yarmuhammadzais in the centre and the Ismailzais
on the west. To produce a fighting force
Dyer could only thin-out the various detachments of Punjabis and Light Cavalry
in their chain of posts running up to Birjand, as the East Persia Cordon had to
continue patrolling against German infiltrators whilst he dealt with the Sarhad
For the next eight months Dyer, assisted by
his Brigade Major Captain M. Saunders, 36th Sikhs, energetically
marched his small force against his opponents, often bluffing them as to his
exact strength. He preferred to
negotiate but sometimes combat was unavoidable.
In April a fight occurred against a strong Ismailzai lashkar (fighting
force) near Dahan-i-Bagh. Captain A.D.
Bennett, 19th Punjabis, with 80 Sikhs and Punjabi Mussulmans
suddenly saw the Izmailzais and engaged them.
After fighting all day under a very hot sun the tribesmen made a sword
charge which was interrupted by a sandstorm that allowed both sides to
withdraw. The Punjabis lost 10 men and 2nd
Lieutenant W.H. Chalmers killed, and 20 more wounded. The Izmailzais had captured the Punjabi
transport camels but they did not get far with them, as next day a mounted
force of Seistan Levies and Light Cavalry surprised the enemy who were cooking
a meal. As the fight developed Subadar
Mehdi Khan brought up the Punjabis and closed-off the enemy escape route. As the Izmailis broke out across the plain in
front of them the cavalry charged, killing over 30 tribesmen and recovering the
lost transport camels plus 2,000 of the tribesmens’ sheep. Captain Bennett later received a Military Cross.
But Dyers’ men did not always win their
fights and once when the cavalry and the Punjabis were escorting bound Yarmuhammadzai
prisoners most of the prisoners managed to escape at night after releasing
their bindings. The fugitives then ran
the 100 kilometres to and from their homes to collect weapons, positioned
themselves in the Laramba Pass ahead of the escort party and ambushed it,
releasing the two remaining important prisoners. The escort party lost several men killed and
others badly wounded including two British cavalry officers. Duffadar Sheikh Haidar, 28th Light
Cavalry, was a tower of strength during this fight and he was afterwards
promoted to Jemadar. Reinforcements
arrived when 300 men of the 106th Hazara Pioneers joined Dyer in July;
these men had been working on the road from Dushki but they came to fight in
their infantry role.
fight for the Gusht defile
In late July Dyer led a moveable column out
from Khwash with the aim of isolating Baluchi flocks, herds and families that
were reported to be concentrated in the Morpeish Hills; the families and
livestock were the raiders’ Achilles heel, and by isolating them Dyer could
force the tribes to come to terms. The
column consisted of the 300 Hazara Pioneers, two troops of cavalry, two
mountain guns and two machine guns. When
in the foothills Dyer used a troop of cavalry to simulate the march of the
column in a false direction, whilst he marched towards his target. Seeing the many camp fires that the sowars
had lit the enemy was deceived and moved out to attack the supposed British
force. Dyer got his column into the
hills, seized Gusht Fort which surrendered to him, and picqueted Gusht Pass. The
enemy were now on the wrong side of the pass and they soon responded
fiercely. A renowned Gamadshai chief,
Halil Khan, arrived to take command of the attack on the British. Interestingly Halil Khan did not deploy his
own Gamshadzais but only used the Yarmuhammadzais that were already surrounding
Three days of heavy fighting for the mouth
of the Gusht Pass followed, during which the Hazaras were heavily involved. Captain L.E. Lane of the Pioneers was later
awarded the Military Cross. Dyer’s column was forced back, carrying its
wounded, and every man was involved in holding the perimeter against
ever-bolder enemy attacks. The section of mountain guns under Captain J.W.
English, Royal Artillery, provided invaluable fire support at critical
times. This involuntary withdrawal
allowed the Baluchis to dig up and hideously mutilate several Pioneer bodies
that had been buried after the first day’s fighting. But then a Pioneer fired at a tribesman
looking over a sangar wall, the shot deflected off the sangar and blew the back
of the tribesman’s head off, and Halil Khan was dead. The death demoralised the Baluchis, as they
had also lost 80 other men killed for no material gain; within an hour the
Baluchis had withdrawn. Over the next two days and despite the severe water
problems, Dyer’s cavalry located and rounded up the enemy flocks of sheep,
meeting with only long-range sniping from the herdsmen. The climate was the real enemy now as three
of the sowars’ horses died of heat-stroke. Dyer now had only the Gamshadzais to subdue
and he quickly marched eastwards and seized the two strong forts at Jalk;
without Halil Khan to stiffen their resolve the Gamshadzais declined to fight.
As the Gusht fighting commenced an isolated
group of around 30 raiders were reported to be at a waterhole near Khwash. On 29th July 2nd Lieutenant A.B.
Duncan, 28th Light Cavalry, was sent out with 6 sowars and 15
Punjabis. At the sight of the cavalry
the Baluchis scattered and took cover in clumps of bush; Duncan made three
charges through the area, being badly wounded on the second charge, along with
three of his men. When the Punjabis came
up the area was secured but Duncan and two of his men died of wounds before
they could receive medical attention.
After the intense fighting at Gusht the
Baluchis considered their situation and requested from Dyer that they be
offered terms to submit to British authority, and this was mutually
agreed. In order to keep the Baluchis
out of German hands a new British irregular unit, the Sarhadi Levies, was
formed and former raiders were recruited into it. Although the Sarhad was Persian territory the
exigencies of war and a weak Persian central government permitted Britain to
act in the Sarhad as though it was British territory.
Gun-running continued because of the
massive profits associated with it, and in September 1916 news was received of
a party of gun-runners making for the Afghan border. Lieutenant B.W. Wahl, 28th
Light Cavalry, took out a party of sowars and Punjabis and met up with the
gun-runners at the Shorab waterhole. The
cavalry charged and although Wahl and Lance Daffadar Mohammed Abdulla were
killed, the enemy was quickly dispersed, leaving behind on the ground 5 men
dead and 400 rifles and 60,000 rounds.
In March 1917 at the same water hole a party of sowars and Punjabis
under Captain J.A.C. Kreyer, 28th Light Cavalry, was to have a
similar success, capturing 447 rifles, 23,600 rounds of ammunition and 20 pack
By October 1916
Dyer, now a Brigadier-General, had contracted medical problems after several
months of hard but successful campaigning in one of the harshest theatres of
the war, and he returned to India. Brigadier-General
C.O.O. Tanner relieved Dyer. With the
Baluchis now subdued half of the 28th Light Cavalry moved back to
Quetta. The 19th Punjabis was
reorganized with the jawans being Punjabi Mussulmans and Jat Sikhs, with the
exception of one platoon that was recruited from the Pathan Yousafzai tribe. The attached machine gun section from the 12th
Pioneers (The Khelat-i-Ghilzal Regiment) was incorporated into the battalion,
giving the Punjabis 4 machine guns for future operations. Drafts arrived from the Punjabis’ Depot that
was now at Hyderabad, Sind, and Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel D.E. Knollys
arrived to take command of the Battalion.
Duties on the East Persia Cordon continued into 1917 as did operations
against gun-runners. After one
engagement the Quartermaster of the 19th Punjabis, Lieutenant F.W.
Stewart, Indian Army Reserve of Officers, was awarded a Military Cross with the citation: For conspicuous
gallantry and devotion to duty when the enemy got round the flank and rear of
camp. He collected all available odd men, and by prompt dispositions and
gallant leading held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived, thereby
averting complete disaster. Although wounded he continued fighting, and
throughout showed great pluck and tenacity.
But soon the effect of the Russian
Revolution was to lead to a collapse in Russian participation on the Cordon
whilst a new German threat appeared in the Caucasus. Although they could not have guessed it in
early 1917, both the 28th Light Cavalry and the 19th
Punjabis were destined to be eventually fighting Bolshevik forces across the
Russian border in Transcaspia.
for operations in Sistan Companion of the Order of the Bath
Temporary Brigadier-General Reginald Edward
Henry Dyer, Indian Army.
Companion of the Order of Saint
Michael and Saint George (CMG)
Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur Dale, 19th
Companion of the Distinguished Service
Captain Alexander Dumaresque Bennet, 19th
Captain Lionel Edward Lang, 106th
Lieutenant Francis William Stewart, Indian
Army Reserve of Officers attached to 19th Punjabis.
Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM)
Jemadar Haider Khan, 25th
Mountain Battery. (He appears to have been attached to the 25th
Mountain Battery from the 34th (Reserve) Mountain Battery.)
Subadar Muhammad Hassan; 774 Colour
Havildar Kalbi Hassan; and 862 Lance-Naik Abdul Hakim, all of the 2nd
Battalion the 12th Pioneers (The Kelat-i-Ghilzai Regiment). (These three men were probably in the machine
gun section that was attached to the 19th Punjabis, and later
absorbed into it.)
Subadars Rulla Singh and Ghulam Muhammad;
372 Havildar Sher Ahmed Khan; and 1455 Bugler Kishen Singh, all of the 19th
Subadars Ali Dost and Ali Juma; and 1533
Naik Ali Nazar, all of the 106th Hazara Pioneers.
Jemadar Radho, Chagai Levy Corps; Risaldar
Edoo Khan, Sarhadi Levy Corps; Jemadars Bairat Ali and Juma Jalal, both of the
Sistan Levy Corps.
Indian Meritorious Service Medal
Dafadars 1830 Shaitan Singh, 1961 Nur Khan,
2101 Ujagar Khan; Lance-Dafadars 2210 Boor Singh, 1892 Sultan Singh and 2354
Tek Chand, all of the 28th Light Cavalry.
Driver Havildars 1056 Sikander Khan, 1180
Ghulab Khan and Gunner Havildars 2622 Karam Dad and 113 Khan Bahadur, all of
the 25th Mountain Battery.
Colour Havildars 4673 Rajwali, 4151 Gopal
Singh; Havildars 4969 Narinjan Singh, 4751 Santa Singh; Naiks 4404 Nur Ahmad,
1159 Nadir Khan; Naik (Ward Orderly) 1312 Ujagar Singh; Sepoys 552 Dul Singh
and 1487 Ganga Singh, all of the 19th Punjabis.
Havildars 808 Gharib Dad, 541 Saiyid Raza;
Naiks 1302 Khuda Baksh, 237 Ghulam Ali; Lance Naik 116 Ali Akbar; Sepoys 2166
Mausam and 2686 Najaf, all of the 106th Hazara Pioneers.
1st Class Sub-Assistant Surgeons
884 Jawal Singh, 1072 Saiyed Ahmad, and 3rd Grade Civil
Sub-Assistant Surgeon 491 Shrikrishna Raghunath Ingle, all of the Indian
Subordinate Medical Department.
3rd Class Veterinary Assistant
Inder Singh of the Indian Veterinary Department.
1395 Naik Shakar Khan and 2922 Sowar
Hussain Gulmir, both of the Sistan Levy Corps.
1) One Pathan company was all-Afridi
and the other was partly Muhammadazi and partly Yusufzai including trans-border
Dush Khel from Southern Dir.
2) C’ Squadron of Rajputs and ‘D’
Squadron of Jats.
3) Hazaras in Afghanistan tended to
be discriminated against, but many lived in Persia where they could practice
their Shia Islamic religion alongside fellow-Shia Persians.
SOURCES: (most economical listed)
Colvin, Ian: The Life of General Dyer. (William Blackwood & Sons Ltd,
Edinburgh and London 1929). Dickson, Brigadier-General W.E.R.: East Persia. A Backwater of the Great War. (Edward
Arnold & Co., London 1924). Dyer, Brigadier-General R.E.H.: The Raiders of the Sarhad. (Witherby,
London 1921 and online: https://archive.org/details/raidersofsarhadb00dyerrich
). Graham, Brigadier-General C.A.L.: The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery.
(Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1957 and online: https://archive.org/details/IndianMountainArtillery
). Head, Richard and McClenaghan, Tony: The Maharajas’ Paltans. A History of the
Indian State Forces (1888-1948). (Manohar, Delhi 2013). Hopkirk, Peter: Like Hidden Fire. The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire, first
published as On Secret Service East of
Constantinople. (Kodansha International paperback 1994). James, F.: Faraway Campaign. Experiences of
an Indian Army Cavalry Officer in Persia and Russia during the Great War. (Leonaur
paperback 2007). Kreyer, Major J.A.C. and Uloth, Captain G.:
The 28th Light Cavalry in
Persia and Russian Turkistan. (Slatter & Rose Ltd., Oxford 1926). London Gazette Supplement dated 31 October
1917, page 11270 and online: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30360/supplement/11270
). Moberly, Brigadier-General F.J.: Operations in Persia 1914-1919. (Imperial
War Museum 1987.) Pigot, G. compiler: History of the 1st Battalion 14th Punjab
Regiment, Sherdil-Ki-Paltan, (Late XIX Punjabis). (Naval & Military
Press reprint). Sabahi, Houshang: British Policy in Persia 1918-1925. (Frank Cass 1990). Sandes, Lieutenant-Colonel E.W.C.: The Indian Sappers and Miners. (The
Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham 1948). Tugwell, Lieutenant-Colonel W.B.P.: History of the Bombay Pioneers 1777-1933.
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