Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Crag Piquet October-December 1863

Not Napoleonic's (obviously) but something a came across a while back, actually of all places on an auction site (no not that one!) in the background to some medals that were up for sale, the NorthWest Frontier! It is an interesting story worth telling and if we want a Napoleonic slant I think with a bit of imagination this would adapt into a few Sharp Practice scenarios, say French vs Spanish. You never know maybe the Perrys' will tire of the Sudan and decide to cover the Afghan wars.

The Umbeyla Campaign
In the autumn of 1863 Brigadier-General Sir Neville Chamberlain, K.C.B., formed the 5,600 strong Yusafzai Field Force, with the aim of putting an end to the raiding of the Malka Pathans, and to drive them out into the plains beyond the Chamla Valley. The Force comprised the 71st Highlanders, the 101st Royal Bengal Fusiliers, the Corps of Guides, Native Cavalry, Infantry, and Guns, and which included Lieutenant Pitcher as Adjutant of the 1st Punjab Infantry, marched on the 18th October 1863, intending to advance into the Chalma Valley via the Umbeyla Pass, but great difficulty was experienced in getting the elephants of the baggage train through the defile, and after three days the entire expedition came to a stop. The Bunerwal tribe, who inhabited the area, were afraid that the British had come to annex their territory, and rallying support from neighbouring tribes, attacked the Column. Penned in, with little prospect of being able to advance directly into the Chalma Valley, Chamberlain decided to adopt a defensive position and wait for reinforcements, hoping that the passage of time and the discouragement that repeated unsuccessful attacks were likely to produce upon the enemy would weaken their numbers and break up their unnatural alliance.

The position occupied by British troops was enclosed on the left (west) by the Guru Mountain, which separates Umbeyla from Buner, and on the right (east) by a range of hills, not quite so high. The main piquet on the Guru occupied a position upon some precipitous cliffs known as the Eagle's Nest, while that on the right was designated the 'Crag piquet'. Although there was only about 800 yards between them, the valley floor lay some 1500 feet below which gives some indication of the steepness of the ascent. From below, the ridges immediately commanding the camp were plainly visible, and on these it was proposed at first to establish out-posts, but on reaching these points, it was discovered that they in their turn were dominated by strong positions further up in the hills, and it thus became necessary to push post after post, into the mountains on either hand until the process was only stopped at the Eagle’s Nest, on the left flank, and the Crag picket on the right by the impossibility of adequately relieving or supporting the troops at greater distances.

The Eagle's Nest was only large enough to accommodate 110 men, so 120 more were placed under the shelter of some rocks at its base, and the remainder of the troops told off for the defence of the left piquet were drawn up on and about a rocky knoll, 400 feet west of the Eagle's Nest.
As it was, no relief from below could reach the Crag picket in less than 45 minutes, nor the Eagle’s Nest in less than one hour from the time of leaving the camp below, and as these posts were invisible from thence, assistance when required must be sent for, which practically doubled the distance.

The Eagles Nest, 26th October
Some 2,000 of the Bunerwals occupied a breastwork on the crest of a spur of the Guru Mountain; and about noon on the 26th they moved down, and with loud shouts attacked the Eagle's Nest. Their matchlock men posted themselves to the greatest advantage in a wood, and opened a galling fire upon our defences, while their swordsmen made a determined advance. The nature of the ground prevented our guns from being brought to bear upon the assailants, and they were thus able to get across the open space in front of the piquet, and plant their standards close under its parapet. For some considerable time they remained in this position, all our efforts to dislodge them proving of no avail. Eventually, however, they were forced to give way, and were driven up the hill, leaving the ground covered with their dead, and a great many wounded, who were taken into our hospitals and carefully treated, while a still greater number were carried off by their friends. Our losses were, 2 British officers, 1 Native officer, and 26 men killed; and 2 British officers, 7 Native officers, and 86 men wounded.

First Assault on Crag Piquet, 30th October
Due to the broken nature of the ground, the key to the British defensive position on the right was a high rock hill commanding all the lower defences. The ascent to this was ‘most precipitous, the path leading to its top narrow and difficult, and where the summit is reached there is but little level ground to stand upon.’ It was known simply as “The Crag”.

On the morning of the 30th October, 1863, an attack was made by the Bunerwals, upon the advance piquets of the Right Defence, the whole of which was held by the 1st Punjab Infantry and a Company of the Guide Corps under the command of Major C.P.Keyes. Above the main piquets was the Crag. As it was necessary to occupy it, in order to command the lower piquets, Major Keyes placed a small party of 12 men in it, as many as it could hold.
About half an hour before daylight on the morning of the 30th, heavy firing commenced on the Crag, and it soon appeared that the piquet was hard pressed by the enemy. Keyes immediately detached all the men he could spare from the lower piquets in support, before he and Lieutenant Pitcher advanced with about 20 picked men to their assistance, but before they could reach the top of the Crag the small party there had been overpowered and driven off the hill. Finding the important position lost, Keyes ordered his men to take cover from the enemy’s fire beneath the overhanging rocks, about 20 paces from the summit, determined to wait until daylight should enable him to distinguish friend from foe, and for reinforcements to arrive. As the day broke, Keyes observed the 20th Punjab Native Infantry entering the main piquet below, and convinced of the danger of allowing the Crag Piquet to remain for even a short time in the enemy’s hands, he directed his men to fix bayonets and charge. Due to the nature of the approach to the top of the Crag, the attack had to be made in almost singlefile and while Keyes ascended one path, he directed Lieutenant G.V. Fosbury, late 4th European Regiment, and Lieutenant Pitcher to advance up others. Fosbury led his men ‘with the greatest coolness and intrepidity, and was the first man to gain the top of the Crag on his side of the attack.’ Meanwhile Pitcher, ‘equally cool and daring’, led his men almost to the summit, until, in the moment of victory, he was wounded by a boulder hurled by the enemy from the top. After ‘a most exciting and hand-to-hand fight’, the Crag Piquet was recovered, with the enemy driven out at the point of the bayonet, and three standards captured. With the Crag Piquet taken, the remainder of the enemy quickly disappeared down the mountain, leaving behind 54 killed and 7 wounded.
In his report of the action, Major Keyes wrote: ‘If the Victoria Cross be the award for coolness and daring courage in the presence of great danger, these two officers [Lieutenants Fosbury and Pitcher] have well earned that distinction. This is the second time within the last few days that it has been my duty to report upon the high soldier-like qualities possessed by Lieutenant H.W. Pitcher, Adjutant 1st Punjab Infantry.’ Fosbury and Pitcher did both receive the Victoria Cross, the only two given for the Umbeyla Campaign.

Second Assault on Crag Piquet, 13th November
Following the action on the 30th October, the enemy had retreated, and, apart from some minor skirmishing, there had been little subsequent fighting. The Crag Piquet had been significantly enlarged and strengthened, and was now capable of containing a garrison of 160 men. On the morning of the 13th November, Lieutenant J.P. Davidson, 1st Punjab Infantry, who was commanding the piquet, had 90 men with him, which he did not consider sufficient. Major Keyes immediately sent him up a reinforcement of 30 rifles under a Native Officer, which was all that could be spared, as a serious attack was expected on the Centre and Cliff Piquets.
Shortly after this reinforcement had arrived the men of the Crag Piquet rushed down the hill in confusion - this panic was communicated to the camp-followers, who took to flight and increased the confusion. The retreating men had a visible effect upon all, both friend and foe, and Major Keyes immediately ordered an advance to re-assure those that were wavering, and to further check the enemy until reinforcements should arrive.
Considering that his presence in the main camp was absolutely necessary to keep the men together, the cry of “Charge” was headed by Lieutenant Pitcher, accompanied by Lieutenant H.R.Young, also of the 1st Punjab Infantry. A small detachment of the Guides that were in charge of the rear defence of the main camp was brought up by Lieutenant W.J. Forlong in support; in spite of the ‘great coolness and daring’ with which they attempted the assault, they were too weak to regain the Crag Piquet, and had to fall back on the rocks below it. Lieutenant Pitcher was severely wounded in the charge, and it was not until the 101st Fusiliers were brought up into the attack that the Crag Piquet was retaken, with the enemy driven back over the hills.
In his report of the action, Major Keyes wrote: ‘I beg to bring to the special notice of the Brigadier-General Commanding the admirable manner in which he [Lieutenant Pitcher] performed this important duty; he was by many yards the foremost of his party, and the gallant bearing of this excellent young officer was the admiration of all spectators. It is impossible to say too much or to over-rate his services on this occasion. Lieutenant Pitcher was severely wounded, and was obliged to be carried back.’

The final phase, 15th December
After a month of costly defensive fighting, Lieutenant-General Sir Huge Rose, G.C.B., K.S.I., Commander-in-Chief in India, sent up from Simla two staff officers, Colonel G. Adey and Major F.S.Roberts, V.C., to assess the situation as it existed on the ground. Fortunately they agreed with Chamberlain that the tribesmen had been severely weakened in the fighting, and at length reinforcements arrived under General Gavrock, to relieve the wounded Chamberlain, who had received the last wound of his military career, whilst personally leading a later assault on Crag Piquet. An attack on the 15th December finally broke the opposition (I might cover that in a later post). Originally intended as no more than a ‘three week military promenade’, the Umbeyla Expedition had lasted three months, and cost nearly a thousand casualties.

Forty-one years in India, from subaltern to commander-in-chief - F.S.Roberts
The Umbeyla Campaign - A Lecture By Captain Fosbery, V.C. April 12th, 1867

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