Halt! Action front

A Tribute to The Mountain Gunners

The Artillery Journal | Aug 4, 1985

A hurriedly designed 10 Pr gun, with the revolutionary new breech mechanism saw the First World War through and was then superseded by the 2.75 in BL gun. The mountain gunners swore by their screw guns and these guns were immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his famous ballad "Screw Guns" which still evokes nostalgic memories of a bygone era, and by "Snaffles' who beautifully illustrated Kipling's ballad in his many paintings on Mountain Artillery.

“On fame’s eternal camping ground Their silent tents are spread, And glory guards with silent round The bivouac of the dead”
— Theodore O‘Hara

The Indian Mountain Batteries were the most unusual and colourful military units ever formed in the long history of the British Empire. From the rare and perpetually snow—bound altitudes of the North West Frontier Province, Afghanistan and Tibet, to the shimmering sands of the Middle East and the steaming hot and humid jungles of Burma and Malaya, the Mountain Gunners with their screw-guns and their much loved mules and horses, served with distinction on many fronts and built an enviable reputation for themselves — second to none.

The first three Indian Mountain Batteries were raised in May 1849 (these were initially designated as ‘Horse Light Field Batteries’ ).
These early batteries were armed with four 9 Pr guns and two 24 Pr howitzers; all smoothbores.
They later acquired in addition a3 Prgun and a mountain howitzer with some mules for pack transport. In Sep 1853 the Hazara Mountain Train equipped with 3 Pr guns was formed and in 1854 the Peshawar Train followed. Later, during the second half of the Nineteenth Century, many other mountain batteries joined their illustrious predecessors. However, in view of the war of Independence in 1857 these batteries were officered by British officers only, though the VCOs were Indians. Also, there were no British NCOs in any of them.

The Prevailing Scenario

At this period of the history of British India, the Queen Empress was having trouble with the
tribals in the mountainous North West. The mountain batteries formed part of the Punjab Irregular Force stationed in the NWFP. The scene of most of the operations was the territory of the independent Tribes between the former Sikh frontier and the border of Afghanistan. The campaigning was extremely difficult with short and bloody skirmishes in all variations of temperature. Man and mule struggled alike to maintain a decent foothold on the rocky cliffs, in their untiring hunt for Pathan Tribals.

Coming Into Action

The Mountain Gunners took both politics and the enemy for granted as facts of life and spoke of neither with any venom. Campaigns — ‘Scraps’ as they called them — were eagerly antiCipated and the tribals. ensured that there was never a dull moment.

Mountain Batteries were capable of marching prodigious distances and have been known to have occupied upto ten gun positions in a day.
Written orders were unknown at the battery level. The BC having briefly consulted the infantry CO, would shout “Orders” and the officers would gallop up to be told what to do. “Guns here OP there, Zero line bearing such and such’’, was all that was usually necessary. The BC then disappeared in a cloud of dust to the OP and the GPO to the battery position, closely followed by the guns at a spanking trot. Quite frequently the guns scrambled into “Open Action’ and nad to shoot at the attacking marauders over open sights, because of the suddenness of their attack.

A mountain battery coming into action presented a magnificent spectacle which had few equals in terms of training and coordination between man and animal. The drill is best described in the words of officers who served in the mountain batteries — this account refers to the period 1914 — 18.

“Another order is rapped out ‘Halt! Action Front!.’ The mules: bunch together and separate again. They twist and turn and cross one another’s path. Little groups of men rush at individual animals and pull them in all directions at once. Other men singly dash this way and that. There is a great banging and rattling of metal against metal. To the lay observer it appears to de simply a confused hopeless jumble of men and mules; in reality. it is one of the most ordered and carefully thought out movements in the British Army, and each man and animal is performing the exact duty for which both have been trained for years. You may if you wish.
time them with your watch.
Thirty—forty fifty seconds. And then Presto! a miracle has happened. The mules, free from their loads are disappearing down the path to cover, and before YOU
there squats what appears to be a half grown 10 pounder with stores and ammunition neatly Stacked near it and gunners crouched behind its shield”……….. (“Screw guns 1914-18″ from the Daily Mail)

It was mainly this fantastic team work which contributed to the legendary efficiency of the Mountain Gunners. The Mountain Artillery was proud of its reputation of being able to march great distances, mile after mile, at a scorching pace which even the Light Infantry found difficult to match. There was never a need to deploy the guns in advance or to leap frog; whenever the guns were needed they were in action and ready long before the infantry asked for their fire support.

Adventurous, Able And Eccentric

“The Indian Moutain Artillery was one of those workable anomalies which flourish in the British armed forces……..the prospects of action attracted a collection of adventurous, able and
eccentric officers, usually with a combination of all three qualities. Some were quite dotty. All were extremely warlike’. (Journal of the Royal United Service Institute for Defence Studies).

It could not be put any better. There were of course plenty of unusual mountain gunners with a fertile brain and a keen sense of humour. Legends have been woven around the exploits of Barmy Bill Buckland with his unerring catapult, the ‘‘Great Man” Geoffrey Hill whose invective and fearful oaths could shame a mule, Bill Courtenay who had a phenomenal appetite which “would knock the starch out of a dozen present day ration books’ and Major. “Hai Sadul” who commanded his battery from a hotel he owned in Peshawar and, on one occasion, arrived for the CGRA’s (Commander Royal Artillery) annual inspection of his battery fifteen minutes after the CRA’s Most of these old mountain gunners were, nevertheless, men of great character. distinctive individualists, absolute masters of the craft of shooting their guns _ instinctive man managers, generous and kind hearted to a fault.

Rank And File

The mainstay of the Mountain Artillery were the enlisted British and Indian Mountain Gunners.
The Indian rank and file consisted mainly of Punjabi Mussalmans, Sikhs and later Ahirs. Usually the two sections of the battery were of different class compositions and this resulted in tremendous rivalry and the urge to excel in everything from gunnery to sports, in order to maintain their izzat. It is, however, to the everlasting credit of these thoroughbred soldiers that there was never an untoward incident on communal lines.
Gallantry was second nature to these warrior classes. To defend their guns was a matter of honour around which was built the solid edifice of discipline and sacrifice — a hallmark of the mountain batteries. They braved some of the worst climate in the world in what was certainly the most treacherous terrain anywhere; overcame the heaviest odds in battle; frequently survived on half and even quarter rations for months on end, always with a smile and always uncomplainingly. Deeds of valour were so common-place that the expression “courage beyond the call of duty” took on anew meaning altogether. No wonder they reaped such a rich harvest of medals, crosses) certificates and other honours. They were truly the ‘Pick of the Army’.

Screw Guns

Over the many jong decades of their coiourful existence the Mountain Batteries were successively equipped with a large number of guns and howitzers — each with its own character and peculiarity. The earliest batteries had three each of the brass smooth bore 3 pr gun and the 4 2/5in How.
Later the 7 pr RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) gun, with a maximum range of 3000 yards, came into service. This gun was in service in twenty campaigns and expeditions and was eventually replaced by the first “Screw Gun”; the 2.5 in RML jointed gun.

The barrel of the 2.5 in RML came in two parts as the piece was too heavy for a single mule to carry and had to be screwed tight by blows from a sledgehammer – hence the name “Screw Gun”. A battery armed with these guns marched with Lord Roberts from Kabul to Kandahar. A hurriedly designed 10 Pr gun, with the revolutionary new breech mechanism saw the First World War through and was then superseded by the 2.75 in BL gun. This too was a good screw gun and saw many years of successful! active service. The ultimate accolade must however be reserved for the 3.7 in How: one of the best artillery weapons ever designed.
Introduced in: 1917 this gun was still in service with us in the Regiment of Artillery fifty years later.

The mountain gunners swore by their screw guns and these guns were immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his famous ballad “Screw Guns” which still evokes nostalgic memories of a bygone era, and by “Snaffles’ (CJ Payne) who beautifully illustrated Kipling’s ballad in his many paintings on Mountain Artillery (Kipling’s “Screw Guns”: has been reproduced as a companion piece to this article — Editor)

Trusty and Tireless Servant

“The keen old head and the long cocked ear
And the nostril quivering wide,
The beamy back and quarters broad
And these are all allied,
To a temper kind tho’ oft maligned
By some untutored fool,
The finest friend that God’s designed;
The Mountain Battery Mule.

(From “The Gunner” Apr 1964 )

The Mountain Artillery mules in service comprised a curious international pot pourri. Huge North American Mules of the prairie cotton fields required tall and strong gunners to handle them. The Argentinian Mules were a bit leggy and a little less reliable. The Chinese Mules were pot-bellied and flat sided and had to be treated with extreme caution. Contrary to popular belief, hardly ever was a mule savage, ill-tempered or dangerous. Most of the mules were of a gentle nature, temperate in character, very dignified indeed and some could even be credited with a keen sense of humour. In any case, the mountain gunners loved their mules very deeply and the mules in turn never let them down.

Passing The Torch : We Will Remember Them

The curtain has been rung down on the high drama and the brave happenings of the Mountain Gunners of yore, who dominated the scene in their days by their unstinting devotion to duty, professional’ excellence and towering personalities. With their passing, has passed on a skill which is no longer required on the modern battle field, dominated by ultra-sophisticated weapons.

The Mountain Gunners were indeed a proud and happy breed of men. The officers and men; British, Indian and Pakistanis alike, were linked In the brotherhood of a common pride, common sacrifices and common achievements in battle.
What then its. their legacy to the present day Gunner? To the entire Indian Army and particularly to the Regiment of Artillery, they have left a heritage of traditional valour, sacrifice and tenaciousness in the face of the most overwhelming odds. And, they have handed an unwritten dictum; “No matter how grave the situation. no matter how pressing the danger of personal safety, come hell or high water, Artillery fire support must continue to be provided to the beleaguered comrades-in-arms in need-when required, where required”. It is a proud tradition which the Regiment of Artillery has lived upto and further enriched in the post-independence conflicts with our neighbours.

The Mountain Gunners may have passed on but they have not been forgotten. It is with them that the Regiment of Artillery had its greatest moments. It is of them that the Regiment has its greatest memories.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
— Julian Grenfell

Born in Feb 1952, Capt Gurmeet Kanwal was commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery in Mar 1972. He did his Long Gunnery Staff Course in 1977-78 and served as an Instructor at School of Artillery, Deolali. He edited Artillery Journal for nearly four years. He is nominated for Defence Services Staff College due to commence in 1985. He hasa number of published poems fo his credit and is a regular contributor to numerous magazines and journals.


-By Rudyard Kipling

Smokin’ my pipe on the mountings, sniffin’ the mornin’ cool,
I walks in my old brown gaiters along o’ my old brown mule.
With seventy gunners be’ind me, an’ never a beggar forgets
It’s only the pick of the Army that handles the dear little pets— “Tso! ‘“Tss!
For you all love the screw-guns—the screw-guns they all love you !
SO when we call round with a few guns,o’ course you will know what to do—hoo! hoo!
Jest send in your Chief an’ surrender—it’s worse if you fights or you runs;
You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you don’t get away from the guns!
They sends us along where the roads are, but mostly we goes where they ain’t:
We‘d climb up the side of a signboard an trust to the stick o’ the paint:
We’ve chivied the Naga an’ Looshai, we’ve give the Afreedeeman fits,
For we fancies ourselves at two thousand, we guns that are built in two bits-” Tss! Tss!
For you all love the screw-guns………..

If a man doesn‘t work, why, we drills‘ im an’ teaches ‘im ‘ow to behave:
lf a beggar can’t march, why, we kills’im an’ rattles ‘im into‘ is grave.
You’ve got to stand up to our business an’ spring without snatchin’ or fuss.
D‘you say that you sweat with the field-guns? By God, you must lather with us—‘Tss! Tss!
For you all love screw-guns………

The eagles is screamin’ around us, the river’s a-moanin’ below.
We’re clear o’ the pine an’ the oak—scrub, we’re out on the rocks an’ the snow,
An‘ the wind Is as thin as a whip-lash what carries away to the plains
The rattle an’ stamp o the lead—mules—the jinglety jink o’ the chains — ‘Tss! Tss!
For you all love the screw-guns………

There’s a wheel on the Horns o’ the Mornin’, an’ a wheel on the odge o’ the Pit,
An’ a drop into nothin’ beneath you as straight as a beggar can spit; With the sweat runnin’ out 0’ your shirt—sleeves, an’ the sun off the snow in your face,
An‘ ‘arf’ o‘ the men on the drag-ropes to hold the old gun in ‘er place — ‘Tss ! ‘Tss !
For you all love the screw-guns………
Smokin’ my pipe on the mountings, sniffin’ the mornin’ cool.
I climbs in my old brown gaiters along o’ my old brown mule, The monkey can say what our road was—the wild-goat ‘e knows where we passed,
Stand easy, you long-eared old darlin’s !
Out drag-ropes! With sharpnel !
Hold fast— ‘Tss! ‘Tss!

For you all love the screw—guns—the screw-guns they all love you! So when we take tea with a few guns. o’ course you will know what to do —hoo! hoo!
Jest send in your Chief an’ surrender—it’s worse if you fights or you runs:
You may hide in the caves, they’ll be only your graves, but you can‘t get away from the guns !