'Mountain Gunners' - A Brief History of the Indian Mountain Artillery 1840-1914

Introduction

The Indian Mountain Artillery, despite Kipling's famous poem Screw Guns is probably one of the lesser known branches of the old Indian Army. It was however very much an elite force and with a life of over 100 years during which it was involved in every frontier war or expedition as well as overseas expeditions. It undoubtedly saw as much, if not more active service than any other formation in the Indian Army.

With its guns and ancillary equipment carried by mules a mountain battery could move at the same pace or faster than light infantry and a battery could be unloaded, assembled and brought into action within a few minutes of arriving on its position and conversely taken out of action and moved to a new location equally rapidly. It could also reach positions which would be considered impossible for normal artillery thus being able to give close support to infantry in the most arduous and difficult conditions, particularly on the frontier though the 'world record' is probably from the Tibet Expedition of 1904 when a section of one battery brought its guns into action at a height of 17,200 feet.

This article is intended as a short introduction to the history of the mountain gunners up to 1914 covering the main details of its origins and subsequent expansion, the campaigns in which it was involved and its guns, transport and personnel. It will, I hope, generate further interest and research into this slightly neglected branch and also serve as a small tribute to an elite force.

Origins & Expansion

Many forms of transport were tried in the early days for moving artillery over difficult ground: camels, elephants, bullocks and coolie labour all proved for one reason or another to be less than satisfactory. The origin of the mule as the ideal form of transport was Spain and they were used there by Wellington in the Pyrenees in 1813/14 and again by the British Legion during the Carlist War of 1836/40. The last of these batteries was disbanded at Woolwich in 1840 but an officer of Bengal Artillery, Lt. Y.B. Backhouse, who had served with it whilst on leave from India was required on his return in 1840 to form a native mountain train of six 3pdr guns for service in Afghanistan.

This train was disbanded in 1843 but had so impressed Bengal Army HQ that in 1844 they formed a committee to go into the entire question of the formation and use of mountain artillery. The result, after what must have been very lengthy debate and consideration, was the formation, in 1853 of a native mountain train at Peshawar. However, steps had already been taken in other parts of India which predated this event.

In September 1850 the Hazara Mountain Train was officially formed from a nucleus raised by Capt. J. Abbott, Bengal Artillery, during the Hazara rebellion of 1848 and thus became the first Indian Mountain Battery. In addition between 1849/51 the Frontier Brigade had formed No's 1, 2 & 3 Punjab Horse Light Field Batteries from personnel recruited from the artillery of the Sikh Durbar. The 1st Battery was disbanded in 1870 but as will be seen the other two became mountain batteries in 1876/7.

In 1856 the Hazara Train, now stationed at Abbottabad was taken from local district control into the Punjab Irregular Force to be followed in 1858 by the Peshawar Train and in the same year the Sind Force (later Jacobabad) Mountain Train was formed in Baluchistan being manned by personnel from 2nd Jacob's Rifles.

After the post Mutiny reorganisation, when nearly all Indian artillery was taken over by the Crown and absorbed in the British Army or disbanded, the only units left were the Mountain Trains, the Horse Light Field Batteries, three Companies of Madras Native Foot Artillrey (disbanded in 1870), three Companies of Bombay Native Foot Artillery (one disbanded in 1870) and some garrison and local units which were soon disbanded.

In 1865 the Hazara and Peshawar Trains became mountain batteries and in 1876 were numbered 3 Peshawar and 4 Hazara Mountain Batteries (Punjab Frontier Force). In the same year No. 3 Punjab Horse Light Field Bty. became No. 2 Mountain Bty (PFF) followed in early 1877 by No. 2 which became No. 1 Mountain Bty (PFF); both titles were further changed in 1879 to No. 1 Kohat and No. 2 Derajat Mountain Btys (PFF). The two remaining companies of Bombay Native Foot Artillery became No's 1 and 2 Bombay Mountain Btys in 1876 being renumbered 5 and 6 in 1890 and in 1886 No's 1 and 2 Bengal Mountain Btys were formed and renumbered 7 and 8 in 1899. Also in 1899 a 9th Native Mountain Bty was raised at Rawalpindi followed by a 10th in 1900 at Abbottabad.

The position at the end of 1900 after this series of changes was therefore in summary - No's 1 -4 Batteries (Kohat, Derajat, Peshawar & Hazara); No's 5 and 6 (Bombay); No's 7 and 8 (Bengal) and No's 9 and 10 (Native). In 1901 and again in 1903 there were further changes which are best shown in the following table but in simplistic terms meant all batteries losing their numbers in 1901 and having names only and in 1903 some losing their names and all have the number restored with 'twenty' added. It must have cost a small fortune in both administration and changes to equipment such as badges and would seem to be entirely 'change for change sake'.
Battery title changes 1901 & 1903

1900 Title 1901 Title 1903 Title
No 1 Kohat Mtn Bty Kohat Mtn Bty 21st Kohat Mtn Bty (FF)
No 2 Derajat Mtn Bty Derajat Mtn Bty 22nd Derajat Mtn Bty (FF)
No 3 Peshawar Mtn Bty Peshawar Mtn Bty 23rd Peshawar Mtn Bty (FF)
No 4 Hazara Mtn Bty Hazara Mtn Bty 24th Hazara Mtn Bty (FF)
No 5 Bombay Mtn Bty Quetta Mtn Bty 25th Mountain Bty
No 6 Bombay Mtn Bty Jullundur Mtn Bty 26th Jacob's Mtn Bty
No 7 Bengal Mtn Bty Gujarat Mtn Bty 27th Mountain Bty
No 8 Bengal Mtn Bty Lahore Mtn Bty 28th Mountain Bty
No 9 Native Mtn Bty Murree Mtn Bty 29th Mountain Bty
No 10 Native Mtn Bty Abbottabad Mtn Bty 30th Mountain Bty

Two more batteries, No's 31 and 32 were added in 1907 thus giving at the outbreak of WWI a total of 12 batteries. In 1911 batteries were brigaded for the first time, largely for administrative purposes as they normally operated independently in frontier conditions, and the disposition in August 1914 was as follows:
1st Brigade, Abbottabad - 27th and 30th Batteries

5th Brigade, Abbottabad - 23rd (Peshawar) and 28th Batteries

7th Brigade, Dehra Dun - 21st (Kohat) and 26th (Jacob's) Batteries

Burma (Maymyo) - 22nd (Derajat) Bty

Hong Kong (Unbrigaded) - 24th (Hazara) Ety

NW Frontier (Unbrigaded) - 25th Bty (at Nowshera); 29th Bty (at Bannu); 31st Bty (at Kohat) and 32nd Bty (at D I Khan)

Note that the reason for the unsequential numbering of Brigades was to fit them in with the numbers of the Royal Garrison Artillery Brigades RA. For anyone trying to follow the path of these batteries after 1914 it may be useful to note that there were yet further changes of a possibly unnecessary and confusing nature and these were, in summary:-

1920 - All batteries retitled 'Pack' not 'Mountain

1921 - Names placed in () and restored to No's 25 (now Bombay), 27, 28, 29 and 30; No's 31 and 32 given names (Dehra Dun and Poonch).

1922 - '80' added to numbers (eg 21st became 101st etc); 107th (ex 27th renamed (Bengal).

1927 - '100' deducted from number (eg. 101st became 1st) so No's 1-10 reverted to their original 1900 numbers! 11st (ex 31st) became 11th and 112th (ex 32nd) became 12th. All retitled Indian Mountain Batteries RA

1928 - 'Indian' dropped from title.

1942 - Retitled Indian Mountain Batteries IA (RIA 1945) Campaigns

The purpose of this section is not to go into the details of the campaigns and expeditions in which the Mountain Artillery took part; as such an exercise would require several articles in its own right, but to list the actions by battery in order to indicate the extent of the involvement of these units throughout the period. To try and slightly simplify identification each battery is listed by its original title with the 1900 title in () if appropriate.

Bengal Native Mountain Train

1st Afghan War - 3 guns at Kagdallak Pass, siege of Jalalabad and capture of Kabul. 3 guns part of Kabul garrison and lost in the retreat.

No1. Punjab Horse Light Field Bty

Miranzai 1855; Bozdars 1857; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1859, Orakzais (Ublan Pass) 1868/9

Hazara Mountain Train (No.4 Hazara Mtn Bty)

Black Mountains 1852; Sitana 1858; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1859; Waziristan 1860; Ambela 1863; Daphla Expedition 1875; Jowaki Afridis 1877; accommpanied Guides on two punitive expeditions in 1878 to Razani and Tuman Khel territory on the second occasion marching 75 miles in 48 hours; 2nd Afghan War (Khyber Column), Landikotal Garrison, Ali Masjid, Kabul; 3rd Burma War 1885/87; 3rd Black Mountain expedition 1888; Hunza-Nagar Expedition 1891; 1st Miranzai 1891; relief of Chitral 1895 (L of C); Mekran 1898.

Peshawar Mountain Train (No. 3 Peshswar Mtn Bty)

Bori Afridis 1853; MOhmands 1854; Aka Khel Afridis & Orakzais 1855; Miranzai 1855; Sitana 1858; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1859; Waziristan 1860; Ambela 1863; 2nd Black Mountain Expedition 1868; Lushai 1871/2/ 2nd Afghan War (Quetta Division) Kandahar; 1st/2nd Miranzai 1891; Tochi Wazirs 1897; Mohmands 1908

No. 2 Punjab Horse LIght Field Bty (No. 1 Kohat Mtn Bty)

Bozdars 1857; Indian Mutiny, Kapli & Bundelcund 1858; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1859; Waziristan 1860; Jowaki Afridis 1877; 2nd Afghan War (Durram Field Force) Peiwar Kotal, Shutargardan Pass; Zaimukhts 1878; Zhob Valley 1884; Akha Expedition 1883/4/ Zhob Valley 1890; Waziristan 1894/5; Tirah Expedition 1897/8; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1902.

No. 3 Punjab Horse Light Field Bty (No. 2 Derajat Mtn Bty)

Orakzais 1855; Miranzai 1855; Bozdars 1857; Indian Mutiny, Kalpi & Bundelcund 1858; (in November 1859 the commandant, Capt Mecham, was murdered between Dannu and Kohat giving rise to the Kabul Khel Wazir Expedition); Waziristan 1860 (with elephant mounted howitzers); Ambela 1863; JOwaki Afridias 1877; 2nd Afghan War (Kurram Field Force) Shutargardan Pass, Charasia, Asmai Heights, Kabul to Kandahar, Battle of Kandahar; 3rd Black Mountain Expedition 1888; 2nd Miranzai 1891; Relief of Chitral 1895; Orakzais & Afridis (Samana) 1897; Tirah Expedition 1897/8; Waziristan 1901/2; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1802; Zakha Khels & Mohmands 1903.

No. 1 Bombay Mountain Bty (No. 5 Bombay Mtn Bty)

Burma 1887; Zhob Valley 1890; Chin-Lushai 1889/90; Waziristan 1901/2; Kabul Khel Wazirs 1902; Tibet 1904 (L of C)

No. 2 Bengal Mountain Bty (No. 8 Bengal Mtn Bty)

Burma 1887/89/ Manipur 1891; Waziristan 1894/5/ Swat Valley (Malakand) 1897; Malakand/ Buner Field Forces 1897/8/ Mohmands 1908.

No. 9 Native Mountain Bty Nubaland

1901; Somaliland 1903

No. 10 Native Mountain Bty Aden 1903; Tibet 1904

31st Mountain Bty Persian Gulf 1910

32nd Mountain Bty Persian Gulf 1911

The Guns

Mountain Batteries were first formed towards the end of the era of smooth bore muzzle loading artillery and the only guns of this type suitable for carriage by mule were the brass 3pdr and brass 4 2/5" howitzer. These were used in various combinations until standardised as 3 guns and 3 howitzers per battery carried in three loads (piece, carriage, wheels) with the very short howitzer normally mounted transversely on the saddle. The maximum range for both pieces was around 800 yards which meant that the enemy had to be engaged at very close quarters to achieve any effect and this was particularly so with case shot which reduced the range to about 250 yards but was the most effective form of deterrent against the Pathan close range massed charge.

In 1865 the first major change in artillery occurred with the introduction of rifled equipment which for mountain artillery meant the 7pdr RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) Gun of which there were three marks. The first was obtained by rifling the 3 pdr smooth bore followed by a stell version weighing 150 lbs which was finally replaced by a more powerful 200 lb version. A wrought iron carriage replaced the old wooden one and the range was increased to 3000 yards.

This very efficient gun served on 20 campaigns and expeditions on the frontier, in the 2nd Afghan and 3rd Burma Wars and was still in use during the Hunza-Nagar Expedition of 1892. Its greatly increased range meant that very close support of infantry was no longer necessary and gun positions could be sited with more regard to their security and overall effectiveness whilst still being able to cover ground impossible for normal artillery.

In the 1870's improvements in gunpowder initiated an increase in the length of artillery in general and the effect on mountain artillery was a theoretical requirement for a single piece with a weight of 400 lbs which would have been too heavy for carriage by mule. The solution was to divide the piece into two parts thus creating the 2.5" RML Jointed (or Screw) Gun with an increased range of 4000 yards which first came into service with a British battery in the 2nd Afghan War. The gun travelled in five loads in order of march: axle, wheels, carriage, breech and chase though up to 1897 the breech and chase had been first presumably in orde to ensure that the rather complicated process of screwing up the junction nut could start a quickly as possible.

The replacement of the old 7pdr RML was completed by 1899 but the introduction of smokeless propellant required a further change as the screw guns, still firing black powder charges, produced dense clouds of white smoke and were an embarrassment to their converted horse and field artillery neighbours. The result was the rather hurried introduction of the 10 pdr breech loading gun in 1901 with a range of 6000 yards which was again carried on five mules and was later modified to carry a shiled and also had a much improved junction nut. A new version known as the 2.75" BL Gun was introduced as early as 1911 but very few were in service by 1914 and it was the 10pdr BL which was serving most batteries at the outbreak of WWI.

The Transport

Though country bred or Chinese mules were used for ammunition and loads up to 80 lbs the battery mules were the much larger Argentine or American animals of around 14 hands who could carry a top load of up to 21 stone in the most difficult and trying conditions. Their reputation for being vicious and difficult would not in fact seem to be the case, with occasional exceptions, and the battery mule was clearly regarded with great affection and respect by its handlers. The consensus of opinion was that apart from having greater endurance and strength than a horse they were also far more intelligent and there are documented cases where the mules lined up in their documented cases where the mules lined up in their correct unloading positions without any assistance from their handlers on the command 'Halt Action Front'.

There is a record of service of a mule in a British mountain battery foaled in 1876 who served in the 2nd Afghan War, the Zhob Valley, Burma, Sikkim, Miranzai, Isazai, relief of Chitral and the Tirah Field Force. At the age of 35 it took part in the 1911 Delhi Durbar, marching from Ambala to Delhi and back and died the following year at the age of 36.

The Personnel

All British officers of Indian mountain artillery came from the artillery of the presidencies, mainly Bengal, up to the Mutiny and thereafter from the Royal Artillery. Appointment to the IMA was much sought after as it was considered to be an elite and officers frequently served for their entire careers and took great pride in maintaining the highest standards of skill and efficiency. Field Marshall Earl Roberts VC spent 13 months in the Peshawar Mountain Train in 1853/4 before transferring to horse artillery and a number of other mountain gunners achieved general rank.

Native officers, NCO's and other ranks came initially from the Presidency Native Foot Artillery or on the case of the light field batteries the pick of the former artillery of the Sikh Durbar. All were of a high standard and after the Mutiny, with mountain artillery being the only opening for aspiring Native Artillerymen; it was possible by selective recruitment to maintain these very high standards for many years. Up to 1914 the class composition of mountain batteries was half Punjabi Musalmans and half Sikhs and other Hindus.

In general uniform for all ranks followed Royal Artillery pattern with drab jackets in certain orders of dress. Up to 1886 turbans were drab with red ends and a narrow gold fringe for native officers and NCO's but from that year No. 1 Kohat adopted drab with red and blue ends for undress.

By 1901 all turbans seem to have been regularised as red with gold fringe and three gold stripes for native officers.; plain ends and gold fringe for Havildars and all plain for other ranks. Footwear was brown native shoes with curled ends worn on bare feet for other ranks though by about 1901 this had changed to standard puttees and boots.

The above is intended as a very brief resume of uniform and anyone seeking more details is advised to consult 'Indian Army Uniforms (Infantry)' by W. Y. Carman which goes into the subject in great depth.

Postscript

During WWI Indian Mountain Batteries fought at Gallipoli, in East Africa, the Middle East (Mesopotamia, Persia and Iraq), Palestine and on the NW Frontire. Between 1917 and 1920 17 additional (reserve) batteries were raised of which 8 were retained in service after 1920.

In 1937 a further six batteries were raised by converting existing RA light batteries, some of which had come from the old Presidency Artillery in 1860, and in 1939 there were two new raisings.

In WWII the Indian Mountain Artillery fought in East Africa & Abyssinia, Malaya (four batteries: 4, 7, 10 & 21 were captured), Burma from 1941 to 1945 and Java 1945/6. Ten new batteries were raised in 1942/3 including the two regularised Jammu & Kashmir States Forces mountain batteries and the states of Bahawalpur, Bikanir, Gwalior and Patiala also provided batteries. In 1944 Havildar Umrao Singh of 35 Battery won the only Indian Mountain Artillery VC, in the Kaladan Valley, Burma.

At independence in August 1947, 16 mountain batteries were transferred to the armies of India and Pakistan.

References

History of the Indian Mountain Artillery, C Graham, 1957

Tales of the Mountain Gunners, C MacFretridge/ J Warren, 1973

Indian Army Uniforms (Infantry), W Y Carman, 1969

 

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