Thursday 15 March 2012

The Roghan Valley, North West Frontier, 1895....Part 1

Setting the Scene....The North West Frontier, 1895

The Roghan Valley - note the entrance to the Dhansak Pass with the Black Mountains in the distance 

Some fifty miles due east of Peshawar and twenty miles from the railway to India lies the Roghan Valley, the traditional homeland of the Basmatis. This peace-loving and deeply spiritual tribe have farmed the Roghan Valley for generations; its fertile land watered by the Tandoo River and warmed by the tropical sun. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds grow in abundance and rice is harvested in the lowlands near to the river. Of course such a treasure in a hostile and harsh environment would never be left to its own devices and so the Basmatis have been conquered innumerable times over the centuries as their bounteous land attracted successions of invaders. In spite of this the peaceful farmers live on, regularly exchanging one set of overlords for another as the years roll ever onward, in time with the waters of the mighty Tandoo River.

Lurking high up in the hostile peaks a typical group of fearless Jalfrezi warriors prepare to spring yet another ambush

By far the most persistent raiders of the Roghan Valley are the fearsome Jalfrezis. Over the years the Jalfrezis have ruled over the Roghan Valley, exacting tribute from the peaceful farmers but have always periodically been distracted by inter-tribal warfare North of the Dhansak Pass - usually against the Bhunawalis but occasionally against the Yuzahankis. Although the Jalfrezis are redoubtable warriors they are relatively few in number and so such distractions usually mean that they abandon the Roghan Valley to pursue their activities elsewhere, and usually at the expense of the Bhunawalis or the Yuzahankis.

Up until the outbreak of the Second Afghan War the British were happy to pay a subsidy to the Jalfrezis in order to ensure that peace reigned in the valley but when the tribesmen threw in their lot with the losing side during the war the payment was promptly suspended. In the aftermath of the events of the Second Afghan War the British decided to take a more direct line in respect of control of the valley and so a small fort was erected at the village of Dovecot to guard the Dhansak Pass and a garrison installed. The fort was some distance from the Governor's Residence at Disimla - roughly thirty miles away - and so the garrison regularly rotated between the two locations.

The Governor's Residence at Disimla - the foreground is used for the annual cricket match between the Governor's Eleven and a side from the garrison at Dovecot.

For a number of years peace and tranquillity reigned over the valley and so the usual activities of a British garrison town came once again to the fore; cricket matches, hunts and innumerable cocktail parties, balls and receptions of every kind quickly filled the social calender for the officers and senior officials of the outpost. It was a time of golden days and exotic nights with not a cloud on the horizon to spoil things. That would soon change though, and in the most dramatic of fashion.

The Jalfrezis

All the while up in the hills, the Jalfrezis plotted. When not engaged in exacting revenge for a slur against their honour (whether imagined or real) and usually involving much bloodshed; the Jalfrezis where inveterate plotters of the highest order. Much of this stemmed from the generations of having to play one tribe off against the other  merely in order to survive but the current round of continual scheming was centred around one man. The one man in question was none other than the renowned 'Tiger of the Hills', Sher Khanaj. For some thirty years Khanaj had ruled over the Jalfrezis with a rod of iron. He was ruthless in the extreme, brutal and cruel and had terrorised the Basmatis incessantly. Extortion, torture, desecration of holy places, fire and sword were his stock in trade right up until the moment he chose the wrong side in the Second Afghan War. With the humiliation of defeat his reputation was in tatters and so he took to the hills and aside from the occasional nuisance raid on the Roghan Valley has been quiet ever since. Despite his diabolical reputation defeat had mellowed Khanaj over the years and so much of his public bellicose persona was purely for effect. He lived off of his former notoriety and since this was sufficient for a number of lifetimes it meant that is was very easy for him to stir up the tribesman with visions of plunder and glory. He was no fool though and so periodically the sword was unsheathed and fire and bloodshed would result - enough to stoke up the embers of his reputation but seldom enough to cause a response. He shared with his adopted son a passionate loathing of all things British and although in private he no longer believed that anything was to be gained by going to war with them was content to plot, scheme and intrigue against them through the person of his son. In truth, as he grew older his interests moved into more aesthetic pleasures and he became a passionate and enthusiastic poet in the style of (so he liked to think) Omar Khyyam. This love of poetry, coupled with the sensual pleasures of the harem, and served to soften the edges of the old tyrant but all the while, the terrible beast within continues to watch and wait and bide its time.

Shere Khanaj studying poetry - from a ceramic currently in the regimental museum of the Malabar Horse

The fearsome visage of Ram Ditin, the adopted son of Shere Khanaj - his identical twin brother was taken to England where in later life he took to the stage as a comedy actor of some repute 

His second in command and adopted son was a different story altogether and was much like Khanaj in his early days only far worse. Where Khanaj had mellowed in his later years his son, Ram Ditin,  had only grown more explosively violent. He was deadly with a scimitar, a crack shot with a Jezzail and shared with his father a fanatical hatred of all things British. He was secretly plotting (at least he believed so - Khanaj was well aware of this apparent duplicity) with both the Bhunawalis and Yuzahankis to launch a massed attack against the British with a view to driving them from the frontier. Ordinarily this would not have been a major problem as plots like this were usually a rupee to the dozen on the frontier but for two very significant factors. Firstly, Ram Ditin, without the knowledge of his father (and this was absolutely correct), was in contact with the Russians (more importantly Russian gold) and secondly, there was the prophecy of a chosen one appearing on the frontier heralding a brave new infidel free world (under Jalfrezi rule naturally). Ram Ditin was salting the hill tribes with mention of this chosen one in an effort to drum up the support required for a massed uprising. If the spiritual dimension was deemed to be insufficient persuasion for the more undecided of the hill tribes then the prospect of vast sums of gold, courtesy of the Russians, would provide a compelling additional incentive.  Khanaj himself was unconcerned by this latest rumour of a 'chosen one' for the simple reason he already had his own 'chosen one' acting as his own personal spiritual advisor. The self-styled 'Prophet' Abul was as devout and pious as Ram Ditin was mercurial and brutal. His role was to ensure that the spiritual well being of the Jalfrezies was above reproach and that generous donations to the coffers of Shere Khanaj (minus his own commission of course) were regular and forthcoming. Shere Khanaj was astute enough not to enquire as to the level of Abul's commission as the benefits of having a revered holy man in his personal retinue far outweighed any monetary considerations. For his own part Abul played the part of the dutiful and humble cleric in public whilst maintaining a private lifestyle of opulent decadence (his commissions were extremely generous) and with many investments overseas - in case of every eventuality, good or bad.

The self-styled 'Prophet' Abul - the mercenary cleric in the employ of Shere Khanaj

Shere Khanaj was aware of the intrigues of his son but chose to ignore them in the main as he would not dare raise the Jalfrezi banner in anger without his say so and so long as this state of affairs continued then peace, albeit an uneasy one, would prevail.

The Jalfrezis themselves are of Pathan stock and are skilled and deadly adversaries. Their preferred weapon is the long barreled Jezzail and a fearsome array of edged weapons. Most warriors are usually festooned with daggers and scimitars of various kinds and they use them at every opportunity. Their usual mode of warfare is typical of the region; ambushes and raids or long distance sniping. Added to this is the customary charge into contact whilst screaming hideous war cries that is guaranteed to strike fear into even the hardiest of opponents. They are a proud and haughty race and can be by turns the most faithful of friends or the most implacable of foes. As Harry Flashman observed you needed to know to the second when one mood became the other because very often your life depended on it. Aside from the usual weapons of the frontier tribesman Khanaj was extremely proud of his artillery. He had acquired a brace of ex American Civil War 12 pounder Napoleon field pieces (a persistent rumour in the hills was that the Prophet Abul had engineered a deal for the weapons, subject of course to his usual consideration....) which he had used on a number of occasions but thus far not against the British.

Honour and reputation amongst the Jalfrezis is of paramount importance. Any slur against the family or tribal name could never be left unpunished and many a poor soldier has lived to regret abusing a Jalfrezi whilst in his cups for as sure as the sun will rise the following day so he will feel the burning flame of vengeance being meted out on his person.

The Roghan Upland Field Force

The garrison operating in the Roghan valley when in the field goes under the title of the Roghan Upland Field Force as it usually comprises elements drawn from both the fort at Dovecot and the Governor's residence at Disimla. The whole force is equivalent to a slightly reinforced brigade and unusually contains a larger proportion of British troops than usual. The full order of battle comprises the following units:

  • 1st Battalion The Isle of Sheppey Light Infantry 
  • 1st Battalion The Queen's Own Medway Fusiliers 
  • 4th Peshwari Rifles
  • 6th Kashmiri Rifles
  • C Squadron, 13th Malabar Horse
  • F Battery, City of London Artillery Regiment - the Bishopsgate battery
  • One company, Royal Engineers
The whole force is under the command of Brigadier General Sir Charles Vere Cramp - whom, with his wife,  the Lady Isabella Victoria Cramp, also act as the Governor for the valley. The two roles are difficult enough to manage individually but combined are nigh on impossible and so Sir Charles normally leaves the military responsibilities to his second in command - Colonel Bindon Oliver Goff V.C.

Brigadier General Sir Charles Vere Cramp

The Brigadier, whilst still a game old chap, is really past his prime in terms of commanding troops in battle as years of hard riding, drinking, fighting and a couple of bouts of malaria have dimmed his enthusiasm for frontier soldiering somewhat (he struggles to mount a horse even for a parade, in part due to the jezzail bullet through his right leg) and so leaving the martial responsibilities of the region to his second in command, the gallant, suave, much decorated Colonel Bindon Oliver Goff V.C. was the obvious choice to make. Acting in a largely civil capacity has given Sir Charles plenty of first hand experience with which he is hoping to make use of with a nice governership back in India - as far from the frontier as he can get if possible. Certainly Lady Cramp is keen for this to happen and so watches like a hawk over both her husband, the ambitious Colonel Goff and the Jalfrezis with equal attention. She is a most formidable woman and is living proof of the old adage of 'behind every great man, there is a great woman.' Sir Charles is convinced that he is in fact in charge when in actual fact it is the Mem Sahib who is the driving force behind the civil administration of the valley. Possessed of a razor sharp intellect she has the measure of Colonel Goff and his unbridled ambition but is able to contain the worst of his excesses by a combination of charm, practical good sense, diplomacy and downright cunning when necessary.

Colonel Bindon Oliver Goff V.C. - depicted in later life 

Colonel Goff is a regular fire eater and sees the crushing of the Jalfrezis as something of a personal crusade - at least the credit for such an undertaking should see his promotion - and so is provocative at every turn when left to his own devices (and out of sight of the Brigadier and more importantly, his wife). He is largely dismissive of Sir Charles but cannot ignore the influence of his wife and so waits patiently for the chance to demonstrate his martial prowess when, inevitably, the frontier bursts into flames once again.

Of the troops forming the garrison of the Roghan valley little need be said. The British infantry units are both Kent regiments although the rivalry between Sheppey and the Medway is renowned. Both units are near to full strength and are largely old hands of frontier warfare. A peculiarity of the command structure within the Roghan valley though is that the British battalions do not have any command higher than company level due to the fact that it is seldom operating as a whole formation. Each garrison - Fort Dovecot and Disimla - is made up of a number of companies with the garrison commander effectively a brevet colonel as the need arises. The Sheppey and Medway battalions are usually split in two between the garrisons whereas the native infantry are only ever used in complete units. 

The native troops consist of a battalion of the 4th Peshwari Rifles and one of the 6th Kashmiri Rifles. These are supported by C squadron the 13th Malabar Horse. Whereas the native infantry are only ever used in complete units the cavalry are routinely broken down to troop level and are deployed in both locations. 

The Peshwari Rifles at drill

The Malabar Horse in action

Similarly, the artillery and engineers are usually split between Fort Dovecot and Disimla. Whilst the artillery consists of modern weaponry the machine gun complement still consists of Gatling Guns as the newer Maxims have yet to reach the frontier.

Taken as a whole, the troops tasked with guarding the Roghan Valley from the depredations of the Jalfrezis (among others) are perfectly suitable for the role envisaged. They are a well trained and equipped body of men and should, all things being equal, be more than sufficient to cope with pretty much anything short of a full scale invasion. Such confidence is not misplaced - at least not in the opinion of Colonel Goff - and so the officers and men stand ready and vigilant, all the while scanning the distant highlands for any signs of trouble.

In Conclusion

While the sun is busy never setting on the British Empire; the endless round of the social whirl continues to spin and all the while the hills chuckle with the sounds of furtive plotting. Sir Charles hopes for continuing peace, Colonel Goff for war and all the associated glory and all the while the Jalfrezis are veering first one way towards war and paradise and then the other towards peace and sullen subservience. Intrigue and duplicity, skulduggery and double-dealing are all fermenting and bubbling away in the hills whilst the peaceful Basmatis continue to tend their crops and observe their spiritual  devotions and the waters of the Tandoo River continue to flow unhurried, untroubled and ever onwards....


The Ferrymen said...

That is a splendid back story, and entirely believable.
Do you plan to keep a Campaign Diary?


David Crook said...

Hi John,

When the fun starts I shall certainly do so! In the meantime though I have the small matter of umpteen 54mm figures to paint before the fighting gets underway.

I shall add to the background over time and flesh out the story and characters some more as the armies take shape.

I will also have the side issues of the British force in Aden under assault from the Turks and of the Russians but I think that one set of combatants at a time is more than sufficient to be going on with!

All the best,


Paul O'G said...

Splendid work Sir - a Campaign Diary is a must I would say!

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...


A very informative and extensive amount of background information that will serve you well once your campaign is under way.

Having a good back-story helps to set the scene and to give and battles a relevance that is otherwise missing.

I look forward to reading more as this develops a life of its own.

All the best,


David Crook said...

Hi Paul,

Many thanks old chap! It will a 'a tale that grew in the telling' and no mistake!

All the best,


David Crook said...

Hi Bob,

Absolutely agree with the 'relevance factor. The background thus far will be very much the tip of the iceberg but it serves as good scene setter for the start of the adventure. All I need to do now is to tackle the painting...;-)

All the best,


Bluebear Jeff said...

An excellent setting, sir. I appreciate it very much.

One question does arise for me however . . . who commands the two native battalions? British officers or Native? And who are they? More characters of import perhaps?

Because of my illness, I've had (for the time being) to suspend my Afristan campaign so I do need a good Colonial "fix" and your backstory and continuing tale will certainly help to fill that need.

-- Jeff

David Crook said...

Hi Jeff,

I hope you are improving apace on the health front!

I suspect that the two Native infantry units may well have British officers but as yet I am undecided. The same for the cavalry as well.

It is important for me to churn out this kind of material as it serves to give me the momentum for the painting side of the project. It is a long term affair though - especially given the other dimensions I want to explore - and with the Turks and Russians due to make an appearance at some point (which also gives rise to the naval side of things)there is more than enough raw material to last me several lifetimes if need be!

There will be more to follow for sure.

All the best,


The Angry Lurker said...

What a great background and taste of things to come, excellent David.

David Crook said...

Hi Angry,

Many thanks old chap! There will be a lot more to come in time but this is just to stoke the enthusiasm a little for the painting and such like.

All the best,


Steve-the-Wargamer said...

First blog post I've read that actually had me salivating... must get down to the curry house for a takeaway tonight...!

I look forward to part 2 where I feel sure Sir Sydney Rough-Diamond will make an appearance... :o)

David Crook said...

Hi Steve,

The tone of the piece is very much a nod to Carry On with a dash of Flashman and elements of (I hope) Madasahatta. The fighting will be deadly serious though.

I am very fond of Indian cuisine so I am pleased to have given your taste buds a work out!

All the best and easy on the lime pickle!


Ross Mac said...

A splendid start! Are you going to go for a toy soldier look for the figures? If so have you thought about trying to capture the look of plastic toy soldiers like Crescent and Heralds where the main colour of plastic was left along with just a few details added?
I'm looking forward to following this, I can;t believe how much stuff AIP put out after I got out of 54mm plastic colonials!


David Crook said...

Hi Ross,

Many thanks indeed Ross! I am torn between painting styles at present - either a toy soldier look or flat colours and Army Painter. The Crescent approach would probably not work with these though as the base plastic is probably the wrong colour.

The range is very good for AIP - they even now have the Camel Brigade for the Sudan and a Mountain Gun!

My problem at the moment though is acquiring a good selection of acrylic paints as I have very few of these. I am a bit of a painting dinosaur and am still knee deep in Humbrol Enamels!

All the best,