Storming the Dargai Heights.
Darkness put an end to the fighting. In addition to the casualties mentioned above, the Gordons had sustained another man killed and seven wounded. Dead and wounded alike were carried down the rough two-mile track to the road, on reaching which the battalion formed up and marched the six miles back to the camp at Shinawari.
The reasons given by Palmer for abandoning Dargai include the following:
- The 2nd Division was not strong enough to hold the position, guard Shinawari camp and maintain communications between the two.
- There was no water supply between Dargai and Shinawari, and no supply of firewood at Dargai.
- The continued occupation of Dargai would have revealed the proposed axis of advance into tribal territory, which was not desirable.
- The 1st Division was still a day’s march short of Shinawari.
The reader might agree that some of these look extremely thin, while others might be regarded as excellent reasons for not having mounted the operation in the first place. As it was, the Orakzais could claim to have repulsed a British attempt to capture the position, and at this stage of the revolt the mere suggestion of a tribal victory was the last thing that was wanted. Nevertheless, for the better part of the next day Lockhart, lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of the 1st Division, refused to accept the reality of the situation, expressing the opinion that the continued work of improvement on the road, protected as it was by strong covering parties, would in itself deter the enemy from re-occupying Dargai. However, when he was informed that evening that Dargai Heights were now held by an estimated 12,000 Afridi and Orakzai, he reacted with commendable speed. Because it knew the ground, the 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 1st Division, would again clear the spur. This time, there would be no subtlety of manoeuvre against the enemy’s flank and rear; what he intended was a straightforward frontal attack in strength, supported by the fire of the divisional artillery, supplemented by an additional battery. At this point personalities began to have a bearing on subsequent events. Lockhart detested Westmacott, and decided that Kempster, whom he merely disliked, would deliver the assault, under the control of Yeatman-Biggs, who had returned to duty.
When the troops, having been briefed on the operation, marched out of camp at 04:30 on 20 October, their muttered opinion of the generals was ripe, to say the least. No doubt Kempster,1 whom they loathed, received the lion’s share of the blame, which in this case was a little unfair as the decisions had not been his.
By 10:00 the guns were pounding the summit, which the Gordons also brought under long range rifle fire. The enemy, secure in their sangars and rocky clefts, were little affected by this; they had, moreover, strengthened their defences and from one point they were also able to direct a crossfire across the all-important open slope below the cliff. Thus, when the lst/2nd Gurkhas rose to attack, the entire summit erupted in a wild storm of fire. Under the impact of thousands of bullets the dusty surface of the slope was churned into a dust cloud in which it seemed nothing could live. Gurkhas could be seen falling and their casualties strewed the ground. Despite this, three companies reached the cover of a rocky shelf approximately halfway across, but further progress was impossible. Worse still, every attempt by their comrades to reach them resulted in more men shot down. Jubilant, the tribesmen began waving their flags, beating drums and shouting defiance.
Kempster ordered the 1st Dorsets to make the attempt. A few managed to sprint across the fatal 150 yards to the safety of the ledge, but as a whole the battalion was stopped in its tracks. It was then the turn of the 2nd Derbyshire Regiment,2 but they fared no better. As each attack failed the frenzy of the tribesmen reached higher levels of exultation.
It was now mid-afternoon and, despite the carpet of dead, dying and wounded covering the lower half of the slope, Dargai Heights still remained firmly in enemy hands. The crisis of the battle having been reached, Yeatman-Biggs ordered Kempster to commit the Gordons and the 3rd Sikhs, his last reserves. The latter were providing an escort for the guns on a lower spur and had to await relief by a Jhind state infantry battalion, but the Gordons moved off at once.
As they clambered up the narrow path they were not encouraged by the steady stream of dead and wounded being carried past in the opposite direction. At length they formed up in dead ground screened by some low scrub at the lower edge of the slope. Nearby, grim-faced Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas lay firing at the enemy, now capering among the rocks and yelling derisive insults.
It is a matter of record that Highland infantry, heirs to a long and violent history in which the carrying of arms and settlement of disputes by force was usual, have always launched their attacks with a unique speed and a berserk ferocity that was very difficult and often impossible to stop. Colonel Mathias knew how best to awaken these qualities in his men and, having been told that his assault would be preceded by three minutes’
concentrated artillery fire on the summit, he used the interval to address them very briefly, his voice cutting like a whiplash through the sounds of gunfire, musketry, savage drumming and yells:
The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it!’
There was a moment’s silence. The men knew the terrible risks involved, but the Colonel had given his word on their behalf and not one of them would let him down.
‘Aye!’ It was a spontaneous roar from 600 throats.
‘Officers and pipers to the fore!’
It was now, as the sun glinted on the officers’ drawn broadswords and the Pipe Major took his place, throwing his plaid and drones across his shoulder with infinite swagger, that the inherited instincts of countless bloody if long-forgotten clan battles began to surface, causing the scalp to crawl and the hackles to rise. Like their forebears of old, they, led by their chief men and pipers, were going out to meet the enemy, steel to steel. Suddenly, the supporting gunfire ceased.
‘Bugler – sound Advance!’
Like a tidal wave the Gordons poured out of cover and onto the deadly open slopes. The pipers struck up the regimental march, The Cock o’ the North,3 a fine ranting tune that skirled across the hillside, evoking a response from every man present. Yelling, the entire battalion swept upwards. Mathias, still up with the leaders, had unleashed the full fury of his Gordons and knew that they would give the shortest shrift to anyone who got in their way.
Perhaps the sudden appearance of the battalion caught the enemy unawares. If so, the respite was only of seconds’ duration. Once again, the crest blazed with fire and, once again, the dust was stirred into a fine mist by the pelting hail of bullets. And now the Gordons began to go down. Lieutenant Lamont was killed outright at the head of his men. Major Macbean, shot through the thigh, crawled to a boulder and continued to cheer on the assault. Lieutenant Dingwall, hit in four places and unable to move, was carried to safety by Private Lawson, who then returned to bring in the wounded Private Macmillan, being hit twice while doing so. The pipers, who could neither run nor take cover and still play, continued to walk upright and thus became a special target for the enemy. Lance-Corporal Milne, among the first to set foot on the slope, continued to march upwards until shot through the chest. Piper George Findlater suddenly felt his feet knocked from under him by a sharp blow. Sitting up, he discovered that he had been shot through both ankles but, disregarding alike the enemy’s fire, the pain and the fear that he might never walk normally again, he continued to play his comrades into action. Mathias was hit but kept moving. Major Downman got a bullet through his helmet. Other men felt rounds twitching at their kilts and tunics. Major Macbean, reaching for his water bottle after the assault had passed by, found it empty save for the bullet responsible for draining the contents.
It took less than two minutes for the leading companies to reach the ledge where the Gurkhas were sheltering, although it seemed far longer. There they paused briefly to get their breath back while the others closed up. Then, with a wave of the broadsword and a sharp shout of ‘Come!’ the officers led a second rush across the ledge to the foot of the escarpment. This time the Gordons were accompanied by kukri-wielding Gurkhas, keen to exact payment for the long hours they had spent pinned down. Another pause, and then the Gordons were scrambling up the goat paths towards the summit. Already the enemy’s triumphant drumming had stopped and his firing become ragged. Instinctively the tribesmen understood that the green-kilted soldiers could not be stopped and, recognising the murder in their attackers’ eyes, they began shredding away. Those with a mind to stay quickly changed it when, far below, they saw the 3rd Sikhs crossing the open slope, big, bearded, turbaned men coming steadily on behind a line of levelled bayonets. There were, too, large numbers of Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas who, inspired by the Gordons’ assault, were rushing forward to join in the attack.
Thus, when the Gordons finally reached the summit, they found the sangars contained only a handful of dead and wounded. The reverse slopes of the spur, however, were black with the running figures of thousands of tribesmen, into whom a rapid fire was opened, sending many tumbling among the rocks.
Mathias, out of breath and bleeding, reached the summit alongside Colour Sergeant Mackie.
‘Stiff climb, eh, Mackie?’ he remarked. ‘I’m not quite so young as I was, you know.’
‘Och, never you mind, sir,’ replied the colour sergeant, slapping his commanding officer on the back with a familiarity justified by events, ‘Ye were goin’ verra strong for an auld man!’ If the compliment was unintentionally back-handed, the admiration was genuine, as Mathias found when his Gordons, now laughing and joking, gathered round to give him three cheers.
Yeatman-Biggs was determined that the tribesmen would not be given a second chance to reoccupy the heights and detailed the Gurkhas and the Dorsets to hold them. The Gordons volunteered to carry down their wounded, an act of kindness that was greatly appreciated. Afterwards, as they marched to their own bivouac, each regiment they passed broke into spontaneous cheering, officers and men pressing forward to shake their hands and offer their water bottles, a small gesture but a very generous one considering that no further supplies could be obtained until the following day.
As the Widow of Windsor’s parties went, the second capture of Dargai Heights was small in scale but it was as bitterly contested as any. The cost was three officers and 33 other ranks killed and twelve officers and 147 other ranks wounded, the majority of these casualties being incurred on the lowest 150 yards of the open slope. The Gordons’ share amounted to one officer and six other ranks killed and six officers and 31 other ranks wounded. In the circumstances this was little short of astonishing but can be attributed to the speed with which the attack was delivered across the most exposed portion of the open slope, this being cited in later tactical manuals.
Mathias was to receive many congratulatory telegrams on behalf of his battalion; from the Queen and from the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, from the Gordons’ 2nd Battalion, from the regiment’s friendly rivals the Black Watch, and from Caledonian societies all over the world, including the United States.
Yeatman-Biggs recommended that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, Piper Findlater and Private Lawson. In Mathias’ case the supreme award was denied, thanks to an incredibly priggish decision by the War Office that neither general officers nor battalion commanders were eligible for the Cross, presumably because they were doing nothing less than their duty.4 Queen Victoria made her own feelings known in no uncertain manner by promptly appointing him as one of her aides de camp with the rank of colonel, although he continued to command the battalion until its return to Scotland the following year. Piper Findlater5 and Private Lawson received the award in the field. In addition, Colour Sergeants J. Mackie and T. Craib, Sergeants F. Ritchie, D. Mathers, J. Donaldson and J. Mackay, and Lance-Corporal (Piper) G. Milne were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the last mentioned being decorated personally by the Queen when he was invalided home.6
The Tirah Field Force fought many more battles as it penetrated deeper into tribal territory, but none was as fiercely contested or as critical as Dargai. Early in November it reached its objective, the Tirah Maidan, a beautiful, fertile valley one hundred square miles in extent, flanked by pine-clad slopes and dotted with copses. There were numerous houses, each of which, significantly, was fortified against its neighbours. In the storerooms were piled high the fruits of the recent harvest – Indian corn, beans, barley, honey, potatoes, walnuts and onions. The entire valley was deserted, the inhabitants having taken their families with them into the hills. Lockhart despatched columns into every corner of the Tirah, where the resistance encountered clearly indicated that the tribes had no intention of submitting. Reluctantly, he decided that if they would not talk he would begin laying waste the valley. The troops, many of whom came from farming stock, did not enjoy the work, but the sight of groves being felled and columns of smoke rising from burning buildings produced the desired result. With the exception of the ungovernable Zakha Khel, who did not submit until the following April, the tribes sent in their leaders to a jirga where they accepted their punishment: they would give up 800 serviceable rifles, pay a fine of 50,000 rupees and return all the property they had stolen during the rising. On 7 December, with the worst of the winter snows approaching, the evacuation of the Tirah Maidan began. The withdrawal of the 1st Division was comparatively uneventful, but that of the 2nd Division was subject to constant ambushes and attacks that inflicted 164 casualties and were obviously not the work of the Zakha Khel alone. Nevertheless, so thoroughly had the rising been put down that during the next twenty years only five major punitive expeditions were required to police troublesome areas, and never again was fighting so widespread along the Frontier.
It would be absurd to suggest that any love was lost between the British and the tribes, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and during both World Wars thousands of the latter volunteered for service with the Crown. There was even a sense of loss when the British left India, for now no one remained for their young men to prove themselves against, even their hereditary Hindu enemies having been removed far to the south of them by the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Yet the world was to hear of them again, for when the Soviet Union launched its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 the Frontier again became an arsenal and huge numbers crossed to fight alongside their co-religious kindred in the Mujahideen. For all its size, the Soviet Army was unable to cope. In the end, therefore, the mullahs’ promise of a successful jihad had been fulfilled, albeit a century after it was made and against a very different kind of infidel.
- Kempster had an unfortunate personality and was so unpopular throughout the Tirah Field Force that its members coined the verb ‘to be kempstered,’ that is, generally mucked about. For all that, he was a capable enough officer in action.
- Later the Sherwoood Foresters.
- The Cock o’ the North was the nickname of the Duke of Gordon who had raised the regiment 104 years earlier.
- At the time the Victoria Cross warrant also incorporated a clause to the effect that in the event of subsequent ‘scandalous conduct’ the award would be forfeit. This rarely happened but when it did there was an understandable public outcry in protest. King Edward VII put an end to this sort of sanctimonious humbug.
- To quote from a footnote in Chapter 26 of the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental history, The Life of a Regiment: The incident of the wounded piper continuing to play, being telegraphed home, took the British public by storm, and when Findlater arrived in England he found himself famous. Reporters rushed to interview him; managers offered him fabulous sums to play at their theatres; the streets of London and all the country towns were placarded with his portrait; when, after his discharge, he was brought to play at the Military Tournament, royal personages and distinguished generals shook him by the hand; his photograph was sold by thousands; the Scotsmen in London would have let him swim in champagne, and the daily cheers of the multitude were enough to turn an older head than that of this young soldier. A handsome pension enabled Findlater to rest on his laurels and turn his sword into a ploughshare on a farm near Turriff. He re-enlisted for the Great War, though not fit for foreign service.’
- Throughout their subsequent history the Gordon Highlanders celebrated the anniversary of Dargai wherever they were stationed. Thanks to government economies that have reduced the Army’s strength to the lowest level for 300 years, the regiment no longer has an independent existence, having merged with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form a new regiment, The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons). This will, however, continue to celebrate the anniversary of the action.