British Empire Books

North-West Frontier

British and Indian Army Campaigns on the North-West Frontier of India, 1849-1908

Contributed by John Baxter

AuthorCaptain H.L. Nevill DSO, RFA
Originally Published1912
This Edition1992
PublisherWar & Peace Books
ISBN No.0953518108

Articles of War have launched the reprint of this very worthy title by Captain Nevill. Originally published in 1912 and reprinted in 1992 by Tom Donovan, this is a chronological account of the campaigns fought against the various tribes of the NWF from Chitral and Hunza in the north to Waziristan in the south. My copy is the 1992 reprint, but lacks only some additional maps and photos.

Nevill's intention was to "offer a description of the operations in question, which will satisfy all ordinary requirements and prepare the way for a more detailed study of the literature of any special campaign". Each campaign is covered according to its importance from the Tirah FF in 1897 (50 pages) to the period 1863-78 which is covered in only 18 pages. The book is split into two sections 1849-1890 and post-1890. This watershed is due to the response of the tribes to changes in arms possessed by their opponents. When Martini-Henry, and later Lee Metfords, were used by the Imperial forces, the tribes were forced to change tactics (favoring skirmishing with only occasional rushes by swordsmen) and obtain more modern rifles from any source available.

Chapters usually contain a brief summary of the cause of the campaign, the Imperial response and the course of the campaign. Detailed OBs are included and are one of the strengths of the book. Each campaign is summarised by a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the Imperial response and tactics. Do not expect a book full of anecdote and frontier derring-do. Nevill writes in a dry, academic style, but it is still the content that counts. For those interested in the NWF, it gives an excellent summary of sixty years hard fighting. Note that it is neither single campaign-specific (as most original works were) or broad (as most recent publications eg. Barthorp's The North West Frontier) that try to cover the three Afghan wars and the NWF in one work, therefore omitting much important detail.

My library of NWF books is reasonably small (fewer than 10) compared to other conflicts, but this is only due to a lack of material. There have been very few reprints and the original works are hard to find and very expensive. This book stands along Barthorp's "Frontier Ablaze" (a sumptuous feast) and Churchill's "Story of the Malakand FF" (an excellent account of frontier fighting) as must-haves for any interested reader. Readers might be interested to know that Tim Moreman, author of two excellent articles on the NWF ("The Arms Trade and the NWF Pathan Tribes 1890-1914" and "The British and Indian Armies and NWF Warfare 1849-1914", both published in JICH), has written a comprehensive analysis of the NWF in "The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, 1849-1947". I have not seen it yet, but the publisher's summary is as follows:

For generations of British and Indian officers and men, the North-West Frontier was the scene of repeated skirmishes and major campaigns against the trans-border Pathan tribes who inhabited the mountainous no man's land between India and Afghanistan. This scholarly study explains how units of the army in India adapted to the particular requirements of this distinctive form of colonial warfare which represented an enduring military problem for these guardians of the Raj. This book traces how specialised principles and minor tactics were refined and passed on to later generations of soldiers between 1849 and 1947, in the form of a specialised written doctrine and system of training. It also shows how the insistent demands of 'small wars' in tribal territory exerted a powerful influence on the organisation, equipment, training and ethos of the army in India until Independence in August 1947.

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by Stephen Luscombe