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Political Officers


Mike Donoghue
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I was wondering if someone could help me with some perspective on the Political Officers on the North Western Frontier.

My initial understanding came from a book which suggested the P.O. 'blunted' almost every mission. That 'Jirgas' were frequently resolved in favour of the offending tribe. It seemed that they frustrated the efforts of the military expedition.

On a larger scale, I've also read that they were very valuable in establishing the Frontier's infrastructure, bring the locals on-side, so to speak.

My grandfather was in the N.W.F. from 1908 to 1912.

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Mike

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I was wondering if someone could help me with some perspective on the Political Officers on the North Western Frontier.

My initial understanding came from a book which suggested the P.O. 'blunted' almost every mission. That 'Jirgas' were frequently resolved in favour of the offending tribe. It seemed that they frustrated the efforts of the military expedition.

Mike,

I don't know a lot about them but am of the opnion that their role was a difficult and dangerous job. The opening pages of John Harris's "Much Sounding of Bugles" talk about the role and type of man who held the position-

"Most of them came from the army. It had always been the practice in India for the most vigorous and intelligent officers to be snatched away for the civil and political posts that were constantly being created by the 'Forward Policy' of the Government. To a few of these men the border tribes gave their devotion, and the young men returned this devotion by administering their territory with common sense and intuition rather than with arid laws and regulations. ...... Colonel Algernon Durand, political agent in Kashmir in the nineties, put it another way- 'You want men on the frontier, not machines to grind out files of paper.'

The book concerns the Seige of Chitral in 1895, but I don't think it had changed much by 1908- if at all. I imagine there were times when they put the army offside and did indeed frustrate them.

A couple of other books worth looking at that mention Political Officers (briefly) are 'Afghan Wars' by Michael Barthorp and 'Plain Tales From The Raj' by Charles Allan and John Master's 'Bugles and a Tiger' (a book worth reading if you are interested in the NWF).

An interesting subject.

Scott

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I'll try a fuller answer over the weekend, but the role of the Political was a pretty dicey one - think of Louis Cavagnari and William Jenkyns and their escort of the Guides in Kabul in 1879 to know that.

A particularly good book is "Soldier Sahibs" by Charles Allen: highly recommended.

I can see room for dissent between the military and the political officers, but the role of the latter was crucial in maintaining the Frontier in a degree of quietude, and the successful outcome of the Mutiny has at least in part to be attributed to the work of those dedicated men who kept the Sikhs and the Frontier tribes not only quiet but, in many cases, on-side.

Herbert Edwardes' "A Year on the Punjab Frontier" has to be one of the most breathtakingly entertaining books I have ever read. If my numbers come up tomorrow night I'm definitely looking for a copy. £750 last one I saw!

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Hi Mike,

The only Political Officer I have come across in my researches is one Captain Alfred Christopher Pearson who was murdered in Kurdistan on 4th April, 1919. He was educated at Giggleswick School and Lincoln College, Oxford. On the outbreak of war he received a commission into the 9th Bn Royal Warwickshire Regt. and accompanied his battalion to Gallipoli where he was badly wounded. Following his convalescence he returned to his battalion, now serving in Mesopotamia, and was wounded again in 1917. Upon his recovery he applied to serve as a Political Officer and was accepted.

"In March, 1919, the Goyan tribe appealed to him to pay them a visit. Pearson was, young, courageous and devoted to his task; he was an exceptionally good linguist and had already shown great skill in previous negotiations with Kurdish and other tribes. He accepted the invitation, and accompanied by a Kurdish orderly and a few men of the Goyan started off to meet the Goyan chiefs on their own ground, however, before he reached the trysting-place he was ambushed and killed."

Most of this information comes from "A Clash of Loyalties" by Sir Arnold Wilson.

Hope that this is of some interest.

Robert

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Just having a look at a couple of sources, and Philip Mason ("A Matter of Honour" - a splendid book) comments that before the Mutiny, many Politicals were officers tired of regimental service and passed over for promotion. Additionally Politicals were paid better.

Following the Mutiny it was realised that the quality of the Politicals needed to improve, and it also became the case that there was much more of a cross-over between regimental and political roles. For example, mason cites the case of the two regiments of Central India Horse in which the two commandants were de facto Politicals for the whole of central India and the Grand Trunk Road between Bombay and Delhi

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Thank you, Waddell, Steven and Old Owl for your comments. I apologize for not responding earlier but, I was away from my computer.

I will look up some of the books you mention. I do find the subject interesting. I'm sure they will broaden my perspective.

To date, the only book I have read on the subject was called 'Sword of the Raj. The British Army in India, 1747-1947.' Robert Beaumont cited 'Punitive Expedtions,' expeditions where the military would have departed their camp with an expectation of holding an offending tribe accountable for their reprehensible actions, ( one tribe raiding another, possibley the more indepenant mountainous tribes raiding one of the tribes within the protection of the Raj). It seems, at least in some of these cases, the Political Agent's sense of justice sometimes clashed with the military's.

Beaumont suggested the P.O.'s all too often used the tactic of 'Shilly-Sallying,' or to put it another way, bringing words where deeds were required. That the P.O.'s were, as has been stated, usually ex-military men, were frequently of native birth, and, as a result, held a closer allegience to the locals than that of the army.

As it seems this may be only one perspective, I look forward to reading more on the subject. Until then, thank you again for comments!

Mike

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  • 1 month later...

I'd recommend the book "Viceroy's Agent" by Charles Chenevix Trench which deals with the Indian Political Service from 1919 to 1947 (slightly out of period, but still relevant). My copy cost me £5, second hand - bound to be a few more around on abebooks or whatever.

Regarding Mike's original point, the feeling that the Political Officers "blunted" missions seems to have been prevalent among the military, but their respective agendas were quite different. The soldiers wanted a bit of a fight. The Political Officer's job was to ensure that there wasn't any fighting on his patch. He would probably have had, and would continue to have, a longstanding connection with the area, and speak the local languages, unlike the soldier, and he would have to live with the consequences on the well-being of his district of any action taken. The Political Officer's success would be the soldier's disappointment, and the soldier's success would imply a failure by the Political Officer.

Jumping even further out of 1914-18, I can heartily second Steven's recommendation of Herbert Edwarde's "A year on the Punjab Frontier". The second edition rebound, in 2 volumes, and lacking a map, cost me £60 about 20 years ago. An astonishing tale of dealings with the tribesmen arround Bannu and then the raising of a paramilitary force in the Second Sikh war. It really needs a bit of a primer on the political situation in the Punjab though as allegences are quite confusing - though a British Officer, Edwardes was effectively acting as a tax collector for the Sikhs, and I'm still not clear exactly for whom he was officially fighting.... the Brits or the Lahore Court. Or maybe both. Must read it again. More on him at http://en.wikipedia....njamin_Edwardes

Piers

PS You can read Edwardes on Google Books at http://tinyurl.com/8wz5z35

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A remote ancestor (as far as I can work out a G G G Uncle) was in the political service apparently running strings of agents across the border in China. If what little is available in family records is correct (and it might not be) the Imperial Secret Service got him in the end and he has no known grave. Not always a safe job.

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That's interesting, Centurion. What was his name? I've got quite a bit of literature on the Great Game....

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Mike

The Political Officer had his own political direction to follow, and he had primacy.

The Regimental Officer had his own Standing Operational Procedures and mission orders to follow, but these could be interrupted at any time by the directions of the Political Officer.

Wily unruly tribal chiefs became adept at causing a bit of havoc, seizing loot, briefly opposing an army advance, and then agreeing terms with the Political Officer - sometimes much to the frustration of the Regimental Officer.

Where the Political Officer system went wrong was in Iraq during the post-Great War Arab Revolt.

http://www.kaiserscross.com/304501/401601.html

Here the Political system was imported from India, but without the intimate knowledge of the tribes on the ground that was necessary to make it work.

Harry

Harry

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  • 3 weeks later...

Mike

Since seeing this thread I have been able to buy a copy on Amazon of the history of the Indian Political Service for under 10 pounds.

It is: The Indian Political Service - a Study in Indirect Rule by Terence Creagh Coen KBE CIE. (Chatto & Windus Ltd, London. 1971. ISBN 0 7011 1579 3)

The book is surprisingly readable and contains much interesting information on the duties of the Political Officers on the North-West Frontier, and the various militia, constabulary, scout and guide units that were used there to support the Political Officers' activities.

There is also interesting stuff on the Foreign Posts (such as Aden, East Persia, Iraq and the Gulf), Baluchistan, the Indian Princely States and Partition.

Harry

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  • 4 months later...

Both Coen and Trench mention a quip of Wavell's to a junior Political Officer:

'You're in the political, aren't you? Isn't that the service which they say is staffed with civilians who don't want to work, and soldiers who don't want to fight?'

The more I read about politicals in the princely states the more I agree with the quip, but the converse applies when I read about the politicals on the North-West Frontier, as more than a few were killed on duty.

I've just finished reading Enough Of Action by Edward Lydall - a political in WW2 on the NWF and in Imphal.

I have not laughed so much for so long in many a year - and the story is totally absorbing.

Harry

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