The shooting started late on a Sunday afternoon as the patrol returned to their remote frontier fortress from a mission in the hills. The hidden enemy, similar to that encountered every day by Nato troops stationed along the Afghan-Pakistan border, were Pashtun tribesmen, firing down upon the soldiers from a distant crest.
But as the bullets pinged on the rocks around the troops, the reaction of the British patrol commander was rather different to today's textbook Nato response.
“Into line!” Captain John Girling barked to his men. The soldiers wheeled into extended formation and, on Captain Girling's order, commenced their charge, a company of men, mounted on horses, in what was probably the last cavalry charge to be led by a British officer.
“I tried to draw my pistol,” recalled Mr Girling, now an 82-year-old retired major, speaking to The Times in Dorset. “But I couldn't, as my pony was so excited. It thought it was a polo match. We got to the top, dismounted and started firing. We saw the men running away. I don't know if we got any. Maybe we winged a couple.”
The clash, one of many skirmishes in which Mr Girling fought, occurred 61 years ago in the Pakistani tribal agency that is now a familiar name to military commanders of many nationalities — South Waziristan.
Today it is a sanctuary for insurgents, home to Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's most wanted militant leader, and the regular target of US Predators firing Hellfire missiles against al-Qaeda cells.
In 1945 Mr Girling, a bored teenage lieutenant at a training depot in India, saw a notice asking for volunteers to join the Frontier Corps. He already had family history in the North West Frontier Province where the unit served. His father, wounded at the Somme, had later fought there, being wounded again in the Khyber tribal agency of Jamrud in 1919 during the Third Anglo-Afghan War.
Formed in 1907 from a number of different units, the Frontier Corps was made up of Pashtun tribal militias commanded by British and native officers. It had seen extensive action in a number of campaigns against unruly frontier tribes.
Mr Girling joined his Frontier Corps unit, the South Waziristan Scouts, at a time when the British were still involved in a campaign against the Faqir of Ipi.
This elusive character, in his day sponsored by both the Russians and the Nazis, kept the British embroiled from 1936 to the Partition of India in 1947 in their most troop-intensive counter-insurgency of the 20th century. “The Faqir was still a problem,” Mr Girling recalled. “He was a stirrer. He could raise various tribes among the 40 or 50 different Mehsud tribes.”
Today, British soldiers in Afghanistan may count themselves as seasoned veterans after a single six-month tour of duty. But for Mr Girling, possibly the most experienced British veteran of frontier warfare alive, six months' service merely represented his probationary period with the South Waziristan Scouts, with whom he was to serve for six years.
Moreover, there were commonly only 15 British officers scattered among the 4,000 Pashtun troops in the South Waziristan Scouts. Often Mr Girling would spend months at a time in a hilltop fort alongside his Pashtun sepoys without ever seeing another British face.
“As soldiers they were somewhat ill-disciplined among themselves, quarrelling a great deal,” he remarked of both his own troops and the enemy. “But they were brave, fast-moving, and understood the ground - damn good soldiers.”
The advice he was given by his commanding officer when he joined the scouts was simple: learn fluent Pashtu as quickly as possible, do not try to be too clever, and always listen to the advice of native Pashtun officers. “Don't interfere with the tribal customs and, if you have to use force, use it quickly and effectively,” is Mr Girling's advice to today's Nato soldiers.
In an era long before the roadside bomb, Mr Girling's sepoys and their Pashtun adversaries skirmished armed with little more than Lee Enfield and Martini rifles. Patrolling — “gashting” as the scouts called it — was the backbone of operations.
Usually on foot, the scouts nevertheless had a mounted infantry company that Mr Girling commanded for a time, and lightly armoured Albion lorries were used to keep key road links free of raiders. “The usual crime was shooting up a lorry in one of the convoys between the brigade HQ at Wana and Jandola,” he said. “They'd do it just for the hell of it.”
Then, as now, there was one golden rule on every patrol. “One made bloody sure a wounded man was never, ever left behind,” Mr Girling noted. “The Mehsuds were the wiliest, cruellest, least trustworthy of all [the Pashtuns]. Equally you could like them — they were charming.”
As an example of this ambivalent relationship he recounted leading a large patrol one day that was engaged by tribesmen from a local village. In the mêlée Mr Girling ordered one platoon to ascend the heights and another to flank down a valley.
The engagement finished inconclusively and a few days later the malik (leader) from the village responsible invited Mr Girling to a meal. He attended, armed and with a big escort.
His host, under the impression that all British liked marmalade, had heaped a pile of neat marmalade before him. Then, as they ate together, the malik began to debrief Mr Girling over his tactics. “You know, Sahib,” the malik observed, “when we mistakenly fired upon you that day, you shouldn't have used that particular route to send a platoon up the hill. If I'd felt like it, I could have made a bad ambush for you there.”
Mr Girling and his fellow officers spent their leave in Peshawar, then the Casablanca of Central Asia, a very different place to the uneasy city of today where Westerners are few and far between. Dean's Hotel and the Peshawar Club, which in their time had been the haunt of the young Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling but today no longer exist in recognisable form, were the scene of regular drinks parties and dances.
An avid follower of today's news, Mr Girling described attempts to bring democracy to Afghanistan as “bollocks” and said that there would be no end to the region's problems until the Kashmir dispute was resolved.
However, he admitted that there were few remaining comparisons between the current style of frontier warfare and his own “gashting” days.
“Up to ten years ago there were similarities,” he said, “but since the coming of the Taleban I can't see any similarities. It seems to have lapsed into a form of anarchy that wasn't even there before we came in the 1880s.”
Continuing to serve after Partition in 1947, Mr Girling found himself one of a dwindling number of British officers as their Pakistani counterparts took over. By 1951 he was the last British officer remaining. Today he is one of a tiny band of British Frontier Corps veterans still alive.
Yet while many of today's British veterans return disillusioned by the Sisyphean nature of the modern Afghan war and embittered toward their Pashtun enemy, Mr Girling recalled his days on the North West Frontier with the glimmering eyes of an old soldier well rewarded by adventure.
“We liked and respected them - at the same time as being frightened of them,” he said of the Pashtuns, seated in his armchair in the drawing shadows of the winter afternoon, drinking John Smith's from a tankard engraved with the names of Britain's former colonies and dominions, cigarette in hand. “As a young man it was terribly romantic. One was living Kipling. It was fun.”
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