Under Pelican Wings: the Bahawalpur State Forces

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the experience of the Bahawalpur State’s own military force during the 19th and 20th centuries

Under Pelican Wings: the Bahawalpur State Forces
During my tenure in Bahawalpur in the mid-1990s, I frequently visited the desert forts in Cholistan, of which Derawar is the largest. Within its ruins was a line of rooms that contained the decaying remains of saddlery – reins and bits, saddles, stirrups, etc. that were probably last used by the Bahawalpur Mounted Rifles and Camel Transport Corps. This corps was part of the forces that were earmarked by the ruler to serve with the British India Army under an Imperial Service Troop scheme. The scheme formalized the military assistance provided by the Sates which could afford to maintain troops and send them into battle alongside the British India Army.

The small principality of Bahawalpur first assisted the British East India Company at the start of the Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42. When Ranjit Singh refused to let the main British forces pass through his territory, Nawab Bahawal Khan III prepared a military road down to Sukkur and provided provisions, boats and camels. The British rewarded him by restoring the territory he had lost to the Mirs of Sind in 1827. The Nawab had a small force of cavalry and infantry as his escort and for guarding the palace, treasury, towns, etc. However he could call on a militia of over 10,000 from the Raises and Tumandars who held jagirs granted by the state. The larger part of this militia marched in support of the British during the Multan uprising of 1848. When Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, the British Political Agent in Bannu, crossed the Chenab with a small force of levies from Derajat and doubtful Sikh Durbar troops of two battalions, he was reinforced by 200 cavalry, 5,000 infantry, 9 guns and 100 ammunition wagons of the Daudputras – nominally under Futteh Mohammed Khan, but actually under Lt. Edward Lake of the Bengal Engineers. Lake was a seasoned administrator and campaigner who had fought against the Sikhs in the Battle of Moodkee and was severely wounded in the hand.

Gen Sir Douglas Gracey, C-in-C Royal Pakistan Army, reviewing the 1st Bahawalpur Infantry at Dera Nawab, 1948

In the first battle, 8,000 Sikhs repulsed an assault by the Daudputras at Kineyri but with the arrival of the guns, a second attempt succeeded in capturing the Sikh entrenchments. In a second battle a week later at Suddusain, a force of 12,000 Sikhs was defeated. For the next seven months and right through the siege till the fall of Multan, the troops from Bahawalpur played a critical role, particularly in holding the territories between the Rivers Chenab and Sutlej and denying reinforcements to the city. At its height, the total strength of the Bahawalpur force supporting the British was over 7,000 infantry, 2,500 cavalry, 14 guns of horse artillery and 18 swivel guns on camels. Since its establishment as a State, until it ceded to Pakistan, this was the largest body of troops that Bahawalpur ever fielded. For his services, the Nawab was bestowed a life pension of Rs. 100,000 a year, in addition to Rs. 800,000 for the services of his troops. Officers of the State’s Forces were also presented rewards but neither were any medals awarded nor any Battle Honours granted.

During the rebellion of 1857, the State played a small part by placing a force of 3,000 men in Sirsa District and a detachment of 1,000 was requisitioned by the Punjab Administration. After the death of Nawab Bahawal Khan IV in 1866, the law and order situation of the State was stabilized by the British. With no external threat to speak of, by 1873 the Bahawalpur State Army fielded a little over 1,900 regular troops, 1,950 irregular troops and 31 field guns. Of this entire force only the escort of 500 cavalry and infantry was disciplined and trained. Prior to the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the irregular cavalry was disbanded and there was a major reduction in the irregular infantry, with the leftovers converted into military police. However the artillery was improved by replacing the old locally made guns with 6-pounder brass muzzle loaders drawn from the arsenal at Ferozepur. During the subsequent British campaign in Afghanistan, the entire cavalry of 100 sowars and 350 infantry were stationed at Dera Ghazi Khan to man the frontier posts vacated by regular regiments.

Soldier of the Bahawalpur State Forces painted by Hal Bevan Petman, 1950

The small principality of Bahawalpur first assisted the British East India Company at the start of the Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42

In 1885, the British decided to formalize the military assistance from various States by establishing the scheme of Imperial Service Troops (IST). Under this scheme those States which could afford it maintained and trained units earmarked to fight alongside the British India Army. They were provided equipment and weapons generally at the same scale as the army, commanded by British officers and overseen by an Inspector General. In addition to these units, the larger princely states continued to maintain traditional units for ceremonial purposes, though much reduced in numbers. In 1889, Bahawalpur State Forces were accepted into the scheme, and provided a small regular force of cavalry and infantry. The majority of personnel were Punjabi Muslims but there were also a sizable number of Pakhtuns and Sikhs. When conflict in China began in 1900, the British declined the offer of troops by Nawab Bahawal Muhammad Khan Abassi V because his IST units were not large enough. The Inspector General of the IST felt that a Camel Transport Corps would have greater utility and his proposal was accepted. It was given the grand title of Bahawalpur Imperial Service Mounted Rifles and Camel Transport Corps, but was actually a baggage train of 970 camels with 370 handlers, and an escort of 170 infantry mounted on camels. The units of the IST had elaborate parade uniforms that were designed and changed on the whim of the Nawab. However when mobilized for active service, the plain khaki drill service dress of the regular Indian Army was worn, but with green facings. The State also had a body of irregular troops of cavalry, infantry, gunners and armed police totaling 561 men.

During the First World War, 1,181 men and 2,161 camels served in various theatres in varying strength and for varying periods. A small detachment of 73 men of the Mounted Rifles was sent to Egypt as reinforcements for the Alwar State Infantry Battalion and served with it throughout the war till the capture of Palestine. The Mounted Rifles (which was later converted to the 1st Bahawalpur Sadiq Infantry), was awarded nine theatre and battle honours including Gaza, Megiddo and Nablus. The rest of the Camel Corps was dispatched to the Persian Gulf in November 1914 to support the Expeditionary Force. However, it arrived too late to be of use and returned. Three months later, 100 camels with handlers were dispatched to East Africa but most of the animals perished and the handlers returned in November 1915. The transport corps was reformed but remained in India for the rest of the war. It supported operations against the Mehsuds in South Waziristan, and Marri and Khetran tribes in Baluchistan. The greater percentage of the soldiers both of the Mounted Rifles and the Camel Corps were Punjabi Muslims but initially there was also a relatively small percentage of Pakhtuns. During the war, Lieutenant Colonel Afzal Khan Qizilbash (1880-1964), the commandant of the Mounted Rifles and Camel Corps, distinguished himself on an intelligence mission in Mesopotamia and was awarded the CIE. He was a classfellow and friend of Nawab Bahawal Khan at Aitchison, who granted him a commission in the State Force in 1903. He attended the 1911 Coronation in London as part of the contingent of the IST, for which he was appointed an OBI 2nd Class and awarded the title of Bahadur.

A soldier of the Bahawalpur State Forces in Field Service Marching Order, circa 1940

In the period between the two World Wars, the Bahawalpur State Forces were enlarged and the emphasis shifted from transport to combat units. During the Third Afghan War of 1919, the Camel Transport Corps operated in the Zhob Valley in Baluchistan. It suffered heavy losses in camels due to disease and overwork - and on return it was disbanded. In 1924, its remnants were formed into the 1st Bahawalpur Sadiq Battalion with two companies. In 1922, a Double Company that had been raised during the First World War was designated as 2nd Bahawalpur Household Infantry and a year later, re-designated as 2nd Bahawalpur Haroon Infantry.

By now, Bahawalpur had become a participant in the Indian State Forces (ISF) Scheme, which replaced the IST. The ISF was split between Field Service Units which were organized, trained and armed to the standard of the Indian Army, and General Service Units which were in reserve. Bahawalpur’s two battalions were part of the ISF but grossly deficient in manpower and it took ten years to bring them closer to strength. They were mostly composed of Punjabi Muslims and their uniforms were grey with a distinctive Fez headdress (Turki Topi), unique to the Bahawalpur State Forces and also worn by its civil servants. Like the uniforms, the badges also underwent numerous changes but retained the pelican as their central theme.
The increase in the size of the army more than tripled the burden on the State exchequer between 1938-9 and 1942-3

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Bahawalpur Army had a strength of 1,122, with 36 in the Body Guard, 730 in the 1st Infantry and 356 in the 2nd Infantry battalions. In March 1941, the 1st Bahawalpur Infantry (Sadiq Battalion) was shipped to Malaya to protect airfields in the north. Following the Japanese invasion in December, the battalion was forced to retreat while fighting many rear-guard actions. In February 1942 it was taken captive in Singapore and many of its soldiers joined the Indian National Army (INA) formed by the Japanese. The loss of its senior active battalion must have been a shock to the State but did not deter the Nawab’s resolve. During the War, the 2nd Infantry was brought to full strength with the bulk recruited from outside the State, including a full company of Gurkhas. One more battalion, the 4th Infantry (re-designated as 3rd Infantry in 1946) was raised in 1944. Apart from this, Bahawalpur raised a mountain battery, two independent infantry companies, a training company as well as a number of logistics and support units including a mechanical transport company of over 100 vehicles. By the end of the war, the strength of the State Forces had risen to 2,911 and in addition, 10,000 had been recruited into the British India Army from the State.

The increase in the size of the army more than tripled the burden on the State exchequer from Rs. 440,000 in 1938-39 to Rs. 1.42 million in 1942-43, and reached nearly Rs. 1.6 million by the close of the war.

However, the State was able to sustain the increased expenses because Nawab Sadiq was a visionary. With his focus on irrigation projects, in 19 years he had enhanced the combined land and irrigation revenue of the State by approximately Rs. 7 million or 82%.

At the end of the Second World War, the 1st Infantry was reformed on its repatriation. The most significant award that the battalion earned was the George Cross to Captain Mahmood Khan Durrani who had been brutally treated by the Japanese. It ranks next to the Victoria Cross and is awarded for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger outside of combat. Durrani was one of the nine Indians recipients of this award.

Field Marshal Wavell, Viceroy of India, inspecting a guard of honour of the Bahawalpur State Forces with Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi, circa 1946

The State Forces were rapidly reorganized into a neat brigade-sized structure with supporting elements.

By 1946, it consisted of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Infantry, a garrison company, military transport company, an infantry training center, a provost unit and a military hospital. At Independence, the strength had risen to 4,044, consisting entirely of Punjabi Muslims. The State Forces were designated as the 6 Bahawalpur Division and in deference to the wishes of the Amir, retained the Pelican as their emblem.

On the insistence of General Gracey, C-in-C Pakistan Army, Lieutenant General Marden, the GOC of the State Forces was replaced by Major General Sir Sam Greaves as the commander of the new division around the end of 1948. The Amir was reluctant to replace him (or any other officer) but Marden had very limited military knowledge or experience in command. On the other hand, Greaves was a highly decorated officer who had been awarded an MC and Bar during the First World War and a DSO and Bar while commanding a brigade in Burma during the Second World War. In 1948, 5th Bahawalpur Light Infantry was raised at the regimental center at Dera Nawab, with officers and men of 2nd Patiala Infantry, who had opted for Pakistan. By January 1949, the State Forces were fully absorbed by the 6 Bahawalpur Division which now consisted of one brigade of three battalions, a second of two battalions, a mountain battery which was converted into a field artillery regiment, a reinforced mechanical transport company as well as an animal transport company and provost.

Greaves had an uphill task in integrating the State Forces into the Pakistan Army. The issue was less with the troops, whom he considered very good, and more with the officer corps – who were commissioned either from Indian States Forces Training School at Indore or locally during the war. A year and a half after having been in command, in an informal letter to an incoming brigade commander, he confided that the command will be “[...] difficult as the officers are great intriguers”. However, he conceded that “the officers have improved out of all recognition, but they require constant urging to keep them at it”.

When the Pakistan Army was reorganized in 1955-56, the Bahawalpur Division was disbanded and the infantry battalions were integrated into the Baloch Regiment. The Bahawalpur State was also abolished in 1955 but the Nawab was allowed to retain his title and received a privy purse. He continued to maintain a Body Guard Brigade for ceremonial purposes consisting of an infantry battalion, a cavalry squadron, a camel-mounted infantry company, a 4-gun troop of artillery and a band. These ceremonial troops are seen in pictures of guards of honour presented to dignitaries like King Faisal of Iraq, Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan. When Nawab Sadiq passed away in 1966, the Privy Purse was halved and the Body Guard was slowly disbanded. Thus the last vestiges of the forces of the Bahawalpur State were swallowed up by the sands of time. Their memory lives in some of the designations of the units who trace their history back to the State Forces like the 14 (Abbasia) Field Regiment Artillery. It also lives in the emblem of a division which was raised in Bahawalpur many years later and which chose to honour the soil it was defending by adopting the symbol of the Pelican.

The author is grateful to Salahuddin Abbasi for permission to use pictures from his archive and Tony McClenaghan for permission to quote from his monumental work State Forces of India: The Maharaja’s Paltans. The author is also indebted to Sushil Talwar for his ready support with information/pictures.