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GUNNER DAVID VICKERS
NO.8 MOUNTAIN BATTERY, 2ND DIVISION, TIRAH FIELD FORCE BRITISH INDIAN ARMY

David Vickers was born in 1875 in Lancashire England. In 1893 when he turned 18 he enlisted in the Royal Artillery. This would be the start of a long career which would carry him to the furthest corners of the Empire. In 1895 he would be posted to India, and for his service there he would be awarded the Tirah and Punjab 1897/98 clasps during the Northwest Frontier Campaign.

He left India in the fall of 1898 and would be posted to Aden. During his time overseas he qualified as an ambulance man and driver. Gunner Vickers would return home in 1902, where he would get married and have a son. He went back to India for a year in 1908 and again in 1912. In January 1914 after 21 years and 10 months of service he retired and lived in Devon.

The quiet respite of retirement or prospects of perhaps a new job were not to last as he would be called up in June 1918 at the age of 44 to serve once more. During WW1 he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, 3rd Training Battalion in Blackpool. As of yet I can find no record of him going overseas after this point, but with his long service record, qualifications and age, it's likely he went to the training unit and worked to help build it up and train the men.

David would return home in January 1919. He had spent 22 years and 4 months fighting for the Crown and earned himself the Silver Long Service Medal, along with the thanks of the Queen, the King, the Empire and its people. David would pass away in Manchester in 1940, just a couple months shy of the events of Dunkirk.

The Tirah Expedition 1897-1898

Arithmetic on the Frontier
A scrimmage in a Border station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!
With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.

Rudyard Kipling

During the last 10 years of the 19th century, there were more than a few uprisings and outbreaks of violence in the Northwest frontier of India. Several Afghan tribes led by the “Mad Mullah” organized and started sacking British possessions. Upon hearing reports of this, Queen Victoria telegraphed the Secretary for India stating, “These news from the Indian frontier are most distressing... am most anxious to know the names of those who have fallen. What a fearful number of officers!”

The ensuing revolt resulted in the loss of quite a lot of British territory, including the Khyber Pass itself in August 1897. Queen Victoria, worried by the loss of so many men and territories, quickly dispatched several Expeditions to crush the rebellion and secure the northern border of India. The lesser known Tirah Campaign or Expedition took place mainly against Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen who had moved south of the Khyber Pass.

During this Expedition, beginning in late Summer of 1897 and continuing until June 1898, David Vickers serving as a gunner with the 8th Mountain Battery would fight at the battles of Dargai Heights, Saran Sar, and Sampagha Pass. These battles took place in some of the most desolate and inhospitable terrain on earth, sheer cliffs with narrow paths and villages up 6,000 feet in the mountains.

The Battle of Dargai Heights.

On the 18th of October after initial scouting took the Dargai Heights from relatively light resistance, the British Commander ordered them to leave and return to the column. The thinking behind this was that holding the heights would give away his route of advance. This was of course ridiculous because the tribesmen who were pushed off the heights immediately reported back to their leaders. The Tribesmen wasted no time and reoccupied the heights with 12,000 Tribesmen and the British being stuck in the valley below, now had to retake it. It would be during this battle the British and Gurhka troops stormed the slopes twice and suffered horrible casualties, being pinned down in the open ground for hours.

Finally, after a sustained bombardment by mountain batteries, Maxims and rifle volley fire, the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders and 15th Ludiania Sikhs stormed the slopes and took it. They charged across open ground then up the sheer cliffs, fighting the formidable tribesmen with bayonets, forcing them off the heights. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded that day for extreme acts of gallantry under fire while their comrades died around them, awarded for an action that should not have happened. The Battle of Dargai Heights cost the British 28 officers and 181 enlisted men killed or wounded.

Up the Khyber!

Serving in a mountain battery during these expeditions would have been one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the British Army. Using porters, mules, wagons and ropes the men had to pull and hoist guns up mountains and cliffs. An accident on these narrow roads could be catastrophic and lead to the deaths of several men, horses, elephants and also loss of the critical weapons. The British columns would face an endless string of ambushes, sniper fire, and problems during the campaign. Mist and fog in the mountain passes cut units off, resulting in terrible losses from the well hidden and resourceful Afghans. The Tribesmen would attack and melt away into the rocky slopes, the slopes nearly impossible to climb let alone fight up. The campaigns in the Northwest Frontier saw some of the harshest and most difficult terrain to fight a war in, especially at that time. It's a wonder any survived and you need look no further than the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 to see how bad things can get. 

At Saran Sar on November 9th, British troops of the Devonshire regiment became separated in the dark while torching some houses and had to be relieved from a surprise ambush. The British lost 2 officers and 18 men dead and a further 4 officers and 44 men wounded. The British columns would suffer withering sniper fire on several occasions, as the winter wore on the narrow roads turned to mud further exacerbating the issues faced on the march. Mist and fog became even more prevalent as winter rolled on, leading units to be separated and picked apart. The 1st battalion Dorsetshire regiment lost all of its officers after an ambush at night, leaving the ranking Sergeant in command. He led his men to safety amidst the confusing hell. Once the smoke had cleared 10 officers and 63 enlisted men had been killed or wounded.

This pattern of terrible losses from ambushes was repeated several times throughout the winter campaign. It got so bad that camp followers, support troops and nearly every member of the column was used to man the defenses and perimeter. The fighting would drag on into the spring until finally the British recaptured the Khyber pass. The campaign had been high in the cost of lives and there was little gained. The casualties on the Afghan Tribesmen side are unknown as they often melted away into the mountains and the British didn’t stay around long enough to record and tally the losses.

The End of an Era.

After the completion of the campaign in June 1898, the Afridi Tribesmen agreed to hand over 800 of their modern breech-loading rifles and pay an indemnity of 50,000 rupees. This led to a long period of relative peace where the British were free to build railways and expand infrastructure while continuing to pay fees to the tribal Chieftains in the north. In a way it was like protection money, to ensure nothing happened to British interests in the area.

David would lose 2 comrades from the 8th Mountain Battery during the campaign. Gunner Aeneas McAuliffe was wounded at Shinkamar 31 January 1898 and sadly died of his wounds. Driver Wazira was killed at Arhanga Pass 31 October 1897.

The Tirah campaign was one of the last big expeditions into the region, as the British didn't have much interest in the area other than to ensure the border remained safe and secure. It was remarked at the time by Queen Victoria herself:

'As we did not wish to retain any part of the country, is the continuation and indefinite prolongation of these punitive expeditions really justifiable at the cost of many valuable lives?'

Valley in the Tirah Region. 

Staging area, Dargai Heights can be seen in background. 

Dictation of terms during the end of the campaign.

Captain Barton pictured center left, he was commandant of the Kyber Rifles.

Period map of the Campaign.

Bara Fort in the Khyber Pass.

Afridi Tribesmen circa 1897.

A few Inniskilling Fusilers posing for a photo, nice closeup of kit and the odd looking helmets.

Destruction of Villiage Defences. 

Inniskilling Fusiliers on the march 1897.

The Cliffs at Dargai the men had to take.

RAMC, No.3 Training Battalion, Blackpool 1918.


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The War Dungeon is a private collection and museum on Vancouver Island, BC. Over the past several years, with the help of friends and family, we have renovated the basement of our home into a large museum. The displays here cover from the Boer War, all the way to the Vietnam War of the 1960s.  

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