Sometime back, I chanced upon a painting in the archives of the National Army Museum in the UK with the title: “7th (Bengal) Mountain Battery going into Action at Kaniguram, Waziristan, 1920”. The guns of mountain batteries were light in caliber and designed to be disassembled and transported by mules. Therefore they could operate far inside the rugged terrain of mountains and jungles that would otherwise be impossible to traverse by larger and more conventional artillery.
I have always had a fascination for mules – those uncomplaining, hardworking beasts of burden that for centuries have carried or pulled the ordnance of war. I was so enamoured by the painting that I decided to sketch it in pencil – my first serious attempt at this form of art.
Within the British Indian Army, few could rival the status and fighting reputation of the mountain batteries. Following the revolt of 1857, almost all artillery units manned by “natives” were either disbanded or absorbed into the Royal Artillery. However, the five “mountain trains” (as the batteries were then called) were retained. Throughout their existence, hardly an expedition on the North-West Frontier went by without at least one or more batteries being attached for much needed artillery support. Their fighting reputation, status and number grew and by 1920 there were 19 Indian Mountain Batteries. They were officered by the very best from the Royal Artillery and only the highest quality of Indian recruits was accepted.
When the Punjab Irregular Force was renamed as the Punjab Frontier Force in 1865, the mountain trains were gradually re-designated as batteries. In 1876, the Peshawar and Hazara Mountain Batteries were numbered 3 and 4 and three years later the names of “Kohat” and “Derajat” were added to the No 1 and 2 Mountain Batteries. Two others mountain trains were numbered and reequipped to form the No 1 and No 2 Bombay Mountain Batteries. In 1890 they were renamed as the No 5 (Bombay) and No 6 (Jacob) Mountain Batteries. Meanwhile in 1886 two more mountain batteries were raised: No 1 (Bengal) at Rawalpindi and the No 2 (Bengal) at Mian Mir Cantonment in Lahore.
The mountain batteries were employed far and wide. The 4th (Hazara) Battery operated in Burma and in 1887 it was relieved by the No 1 (Bengal) Mountain Battery. The battery supported units in the Chin Hills and elsewhere and in 1889 it returned to India with the privilege of adding BURMA 1885-87 to its colours. Around this time the battery was renumbered as the 7th (Bengal) Mountain Battery while the No 2 became the 8th (Lahore) Mountain Battery. Thus all eight mountain batteries were now sequentially numbered and rearmed with the 2.5-inch Rifle Muzzle Loading (RML) Gun. This was one of the early first generation rifled guns with a longer range and bigger charge but because the barrel was too heavy to be carried by one mule, it was in two parts that had to be screwed together. It was initially known as the 7-pounder because its shell weighed 7 pounds 6 ounces and it had a range of 4,000 yards.
The firing produced a lot of smoke and the shell often did not burst. But for the next 20 years it supported all the operations on the Frontier. The gun was made famous through a barrack room ballad that Kipling wrote in 1890 called Screw Gun which was sung to the tune of the Eton Boating Song. Its refrain was:
For you all love the screw-guns — the screw-guns they all love you!
So when we call round with a few guns, o’ course you will know what to do.
Jest send in your Chief an’ surrender — it’s worse if you fights or you runs:
You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you don’t get away from the guns.
The “Mules Mountain Artillery” (MA) were well-built and much taller in comparison to “Mules General Service” (GS) which were used for pack and draught. The screw-gun was broken down into 5 mule loads which were, in the order in which the mules were trained to march: axle (the cross member that fitted under the carriage to take the wheels), wheels (two iron-rimmed wooden wheels, 3 feet in diameter), carriage (2 steel plates with three cross members and a “shoe” which rested on the ground), and finally the two parts of the gun, breech and chase. The gun was manned by a sergeant and 8 men who assembled it in less than half a minute.
A 6-gun mountain battery had to be self-contained, so in addition to the 30 gun mules, it had another 30 carrying ammunition; 30 more for spare parts, tools for the artificer and the collar-maker and tools and a forge for the farrier; 30 to relieve the gun mules on long marches and 65 mules carrying rations, water and baggage and to provide additional relief
Almost as many men as were manning the guns worked to support them by preparing and taking forward ammunition, repairing equipment, tending mules (including shoeing), preparing and cooking food, and providing guards and reliefs. A 6-gun mountain battery had to be self-contained, so in addition to the 30 gun mules, it had another 30 carrying ammunition, 30 more for spare parts, tools for artificer and collar-maker and tools and forge for the farrier, 30 to relieve the gun mules on long marches and 65 mules carrying rations, water and baggage and provide additional relief. To look after these 185 mules there were 94 Indian muleteers, or “drivers”.
Equipped with the RML gun, the Mountain Batteries participated in many punitive expeditions e.g. in the records of the History of the Indian Mountain Artillery, the 7th (Bengal) Mountain Battery is mentioned in 1890 when the Zhob Field Force moved out to subdue the Khizadaris, leaving one section to garrison Fort Sandeman. From 1900 onwards for the next four years, it was in action with various columns sent to retaliate against the Mahsuds and Wazirs who were supporting Mullah Powinda. During the Tibet Operations of 1903-04, one section was sent to Chumbi to protect the lines of communication. Similarly, the 3rd (Peshawar) Mountain Battery, Frontier Force, which was raised in Peshawar in 1853 as the Peshawar Mountain Train, took part in numerous Frontier campaigns, the most important of which was the Ambala Campaign of 1863. In 1871-72, it took part in the Looshai Campaign far across in Assam. During the Second Afghan War, the Third saw service around Kandahar in 1878.
The introduction of the 10-pounder Breach Loading (BL) gun came as great shock to the Frontier tribesmen. For years they had been having a good laugh at the smoke and discharge of the 2.5-inch gun, taking cover before the shell arrived. It was an unpleasant change to have the first indication of fire with the actual burst of the shell. The batteries were delighted with this new gun, whose accuracy encouraged shooting at fleeting opportunities that often occurred in frontier warfare.
On the eve of the Great War, four more mountain batteries – Murree, Abbottabad, Poonch and Dehradun – were added to the previous eight. In addition, there were eight or nine British mountain batteries of the Royal Artillery and four with the State Forces, some with an impressive service record. Nearly all of them as well as the 17 new mountain batteries that were raised during the Great War, participated in four theaters of operation: Palestine, East Africa, Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, for varying periods of time. In the Mediterranean Theatre at the Gallipoli, the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade comprising of the 21st (Kohat) Mountain Battery and 26th (Jacob) Mountain Battery, supported the British 29 Division which landed on the southern tip at Helles. Along with an ammunition column, they were the first Indian units to land at Gallipoli. The conditions in East Africa were the worst for the mules. The 7th (Bengal) Mountain Battery was part of the Indian Expeditionary Force that sailed to East Africa and remained there in continuous operations till it embarked for India in January 1918. Their mules suffered badly as well as those of the 2nd (Derajat) Mountain Battery which lost 948 mules to sickness and disease and only 11 were killed in action.
The introduction of the 10-pounder Breach Loading (BL) gun came as great shock to the Frontier tribesmen. For years they had been having a good laugh at the smoke and discharge of the 2.5-inch gun, taking cover before the shell arrived
In the last stages of the Great War, many of the mountain batteries were reequipped with the Quick Firing (QF) 3.7-inch Mountain Howitzer. The 3.7-inch was vastly superior to all previous models, and would remain in service throughout the Second World War and in the Pakistan Artillery for ten years after Independenc. The weapon was designed to be broken into eight mule loads to transport over difficult terrain. The heaviest single section was the interrupted screw breech, which weighed 112 kg. At an open gun position, a practiced crew could have the guns unloaded, assembled and ready for action in under two minutes. It took three minutes to load it back onto the mules. During the hard-fought Frontier Operations after the First World War, the QF’s performance was remarkable. With an adjustable suspension, it could be deployed on almost any position, even those too uneven or with too steep a gradient to allow field artillery to be sited. The howitzer was the first British weapon to have a split trail and could fire at very high angles – a useful feature in mountainous terrain.
The author Kipling admired the mountain artillery and was of the opinion that “There is really nothing more complex than a mule-battery.” In his well-researched article on the Indian Artillery in the First World War, Major General Rajendra Prakash of the Indian Army says:
“The mountain gunners’ boast was that they could go anywhere, where a man and a mule could put a foot. It was a remarkable sight to see a good mountain battery coming into ‘crash’ action. What would appear to the uninitiated eye to be a disorderly assembly of mules and soldiers would suddenly stream into position, there would be a brief pause with much exertion and the heaving of lumps of metal and in a minute or two, the animals would be led off at a run leaving six or four sturdy guns with their detachments kneeling smartly round them. On the line of march, Mountain Gunners always out-marched the Infantry, keeping up a steady clip of up to four and a half mile per hour, mile after mile and day after day.”
After the Great War, mountain batteries were again mobilized for the Third Afghan War and also supported a number of frontier operations including the hard fought 1936-39 Waziristan Operation. On the eve of the Second World War, the Indian Mountain Artillery Batteries were transferred from the Royal Regiment of Artillery to the newly established Indian Regiment of Artillery and were grouped into regiments. There was a huge increase in the number of mountain regiments during the war and by the end of the conflict there were 14, all of whom fought in the jungles of Burma including some non-regimented batteries that initially served in East Africa till 1941. Many of the regiments were issued motor transport which replaced the mules for carriage of all the ammunition except 48 rounds per gun carried by pack mules. The mountain regiments operating with the mechanized divisions in Burma were converted entirely to motor transport but still operated the QF.
After the war nearly all the mountain batteries were disbanded except ten and some were converted to field artillery. At Independence the share of the Pakistan Army was four mountain batteries that formed the 21st Mountain Regiment re-designated as 1st Mountain Regiment of the Royal Pakistan Artillery – the 1st (Jacob’s) Mountain Battery, Baluch, the 2nd Royal (Kohat) Mountain Battery, Frontier Force, the 3rd (Peshawar) Mountain Battery and the 4th (Lahore) Mountain Battery. For three years it was commanded by Lieutenant Millne who could be called the last of the British Mountain Gunners. The 3rd had soldiered in Waziristan during the early 1920’s and again in the late 1930’s. After operating in Burma it served in Malaya and French Indochina in 1946 and in-between it became an exclusively Punjabi Muslim unit. In 1953, it celebrated its centenary of at Campbellpur and had the distinct honour of being reviewed by General Ayub Khan, C-in-C Pakistan Army, on horseback.
In 1957, the regiment was equipped with the American 105 mm Self Propelled Field Guns and re-designated as the 1st (SP) Field Regiment, Artillery. In the fighting traditions of the Mountain Artillery, the regiment excelled in the Battle of Chawinda during the 1965 Pakistan-India War.
Long may the memory of the mountain gunners live.
Author’s Note: Information for this article has been extracted from Indian Mountain Artillery by Christopher Trevelyan, The History of the Indian Mountain Artillery by Brigadier General CAL Graham and Indian Artillery in World War I by Major General Rajendra Prakash.