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Frontier Force - British Raj

The significant conquests of the British in North-Western India, following the conquest of Sindh, were to include the Punjab, after taking on the Sikhs and finally the North-West Frontier of India facing Afghanistan -- the British part in the Great Game being played against the Russian Empire, that was rapidly expanding southwards through Central Asia. When the British in India set out to conquer Punjab under the Sikhs, and defeated the Khalsa Army at Sobraon in 1846, they faced two problems: firstly, they inherited the responsibility of governing and policing the newly won area and its prickly North-West frontier inhabited by Pathans, whom the British learned to treat with great respect. Secondly, they had to tackle a large number of Sikh and Muslim ex-soldiers, lawlessly roaming the land after the Khalsa Army was disbanded. The British killed two birds with one stone by raising a military force for the purpose, by recruiting those very ex-soldiers. This clever move brought into existence the nucleus of the force that has since then evolved into and thrives even today as the FRONTIER FORCE.

The first Frontier Force unit ever was the Scinde (Sindh) Camel Corps raised at Karachi in 1843 by Lieutenant Robert FitzGerald, on the orders of Sir Charles Napier after the British conquest of Sindh. Its purpose was to pacify the lawless tribes in interior Sindh. The next was the Corps of Guides raised by Lieutenant Harry Lumsden at Peshawar in 1846, to meet the requirement of guides and interpreters while operating among the tribes of the North-West Frontier. The birth of these two corps' actually preceded the raising of the Frontier Force proper, which they subsequently joined.

The Frontier Brigade was raised in 1846 by order of Sir Henry Lawrence, Agent to the Governor-General in the Frontier. The Frontier Brigade, consisted of the newly raised 1st to 4th Sikh Infantry. In 1847 the title "Frontier Brigade" was dropped and the units were re-designated 1st, 2nd (or Hill Corps), 3rd and 4th Regiments of Sikh Local Infantry. The successful employment of this force so encouraged Lawrence that the raising of another Trans Frontier Brigade in addition to the one mentioned above, was authorized on 18 May 1849 -- the official birthday of the Frontier Force.

This force was independent of the regular army, and belonged to the Punjab Government. This irregular background was distinguished by several elements as no parade ground drill, swift tactical movement in small groups, initiative and unconcern toward routine orders, rules and regulations governing regiments of the line. These elements explain the elan and flair for which the Frontier Force is known till this day.

In 1851 the Trans-Frontier Brigade was redesignated the Punjab Irregular Force, or PIF. This acronym forms the first three letters of the name by which all members of the Frontier Force are so proudly known the world over "PIFFERs". (It would be pertinent to mention that the nickname PIFFER is derived from PIF, while "FER" is added as a linguistic requirement, as Dig becomes Digger. The acronym is not derived, as popularly thought, from PIFF or "Punjab Irregular Frontier Force". The force has never been known by this name). The same year the Corps of Guides (consisting of Cavalry and Infantry) and four Sikh Infantry units of the Frontier Brigade joined the PIF, along with one garrison artillery battery (raised as No 4 Garrison Company in 1851, converted into the Frontier Garrison Artillery and disbanded in 1925), Peshawar Horse Light Field Battery (raised 1849, became 3rd Peshawar Mountain Battery Hazara Mountain Battery (raised 1851, later 4th Hazara Mountain Battery, went to India at Partition in 1947), and the former Scinde Camel Corps, re-designated the 6th Punjab Infantry.

The composition of the Punjab Irregular Force was Punjabi Musalmans, Pathans, Sikhs, Dogras and Gurkhas -- the best soldiers, the Subcontinent had to offer. Interestingly, the class composition was maintained on a company basis. Although the composition changed from time to time and even varied between units, a PIFFER unit would typically consist a company each of Punjabi Musalmans, Pathans, Sikhs and Dogras. This force was deployed all along the North-West Frontier, maintaining constant vigilance on various marches, and enforcing law and order.

In 1852, the 4th Sikh was the first PIFFER unit to go overseas and fight a successful campaign in Burma. Eight PIFFER units participated in the so-called Indian Mutiny in 1857, winning three Victoria Crosses (British gallantry award, equivalent of the Nishan-e-Haider). The Guides wear red piping on the collar, and 9 Frontier Force blue piping on collar and cuffs, distinctions won during 1857. In 1858, Gurkha troops from PIFFER units were formed into the Hazara Gurkha Battalion later re-designated 5th Gurkhas in 1861, transferred to India at Partition in 1947.

In 1865 the force was renamed the Punjab Frontier Force (PFF). It is interesting that Sir Robert Sandeman was escorted into Balochistan by 4th Sikhs and troops of 1st Punjab Cavalry. This escort formed the first ever garrison to be stationed at Quetta. In 1886, the PFF was placed under the Commander-in-Chief,India, having joined the regular army, a major transition for the PIFFERs. The same year 2/5th Gurkha Rifles was raised, but later absorbed into the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles.

Till the period leading up to World War I, several PIFFER units remained busy on the North-West Frontier, while some PIFFER units also went overseas to fight. These included seventeen units in the Second Afghan War 1878-80, the Guides at the defence of the Residency at Kabul, Lord Roberts famous march from Kabul to Kandahar, 1880, the Boxer Rebellion in China, 1900 and Somaliland, 1902-04. The force won twelve VCs in this period. In 1899, the 42nd Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force) was raised, but disbanded in 1903. In 1903 Lord Kitchener abolished the three Presidency armies (Bengal, Madras and Bombay) and in the bargain PIFFER units were re-numbered. The new numbers, each with Frontier Force in brackets afterwards, were 51st to 54th Sikhs, 55th to 59th Rifles, 5th Gurkhas, the Corps of Guides, 21st to 24th Mountain Batteries, the Garrison Artillery, 21st to 23rd and 25th Punjab Cavalry. It was based on these numbers that the oldest PIFFER units earned affectionate nicknames that live to this day -- Ekwanja, Tunpur Bawanja, Royal Tirwanja, Churwanja, Chattak Pachwanja, Bhaiband Chhewanja, Susti Satwanja, Dasturi Athwanja and Garbar Unath.

Once the British Indian Army was called upon to contribute to the war effort in 1914, PIFFER units fought in most major campaigns, including France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa, winning three VCs. The Kohat Mountain Battery, 59th Scinde Rifles and 5th Gurkhas were awarded the title of "Royal" for services during the war, an honour bestowed upon very few Indian units, distinguished by a red lanyard. Lord Kitchener was so impressed by the fighting qualities of the PIFFERs that he directed that a purely PIFFER brigade be raised. Accordingly, 28 (Frontier Force) Brigade was raised (consisting of 51st and 53rd Sikhs, 56th Rifles and 5th Gurkhas), of which 1/5th Gurkhas (Frontier Force) fought well at Gallipoli. 1st Kohat Mountain Battery (Frontier Force) was the first to land their guns ashore in support of the Australians. A number of battalions were raised during the war including the 2nd Battalion Guides Infantry (raised in 1917, converted into 10/12th Frontier Force Regiment in 1922), 3rd Battalion Guides Infantry (raised in 1917, disbanded in 1921) and 2/56th Rifles (raised in 1917, redesignated 10/13th Frontier Force Rifles in 1922). 10/12th Frontier Force Regiment and 10/13th Frontier Force Rifles were formed into regimental training centres in 1922.

After World War I, the Indian Army saw a major re-organisation including regrouping, amalgamation, establishment of training centres for each regiment and units as part of the Indian Territorial Force and posting of native Indians as King's Commissioned Officers. The PIFFERs remained committed to their traditional calling, manning the North West Frontier of the British Empire, where, in 1935, the 53rd Sikhs were granted the title of "Royal" for services rendered, and permitted to wear a blue lanyard in recognition. One VC was added to the PIFFER list of awards in this period. The first batch of Indian officers commissioned from the Military Academy at Dehra Dun, included the future General Muhammad Musa, Commander-in-Chief Pakistan Army.

With the entry of Japan in World War II, the Indian Dominion was called upon to provide troops. As in World War I, the PIFFER units fought in all theatres except North Western Europe, facing all three Axis powers that included Germans, Italians and Japanese. This included a large number of war-raised units. 11 PAVO Cavalry (Frontier Force) have the unique distinction of being the only armoured regiment to have fought against forces of the three Axis powers. 4/12th Frontier Force Regiment was the only unit in the British Indian Army to have served in a formation of another dominion, the 6th South African Division in Italy, who were reluctant to let them go when required by their parent formation. It would take volumes to narrate the exploits of PIFFER units during the War butit would be suffice to say that seven VCs were added to their proud record. The battle honours won by PIFFER units during World War II are read like a history of the war itself. It is interesting to mention here, that the 11/13 Territorial Battalion, later renamed 15th/13th Frontier Force Rifles, volunteered collectively in 1943, to join the Royal Indian Navy (R.I.N), as its landing Craft Wing, the first ever naval PIFFERs.



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