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Burma from January to February 1915

Burma and the Kachin People

In 1914 Burma, now named Myanmar, was a British possession that had been taken by conquest over a 60 year period from the 1820s to the 1880s.  Burma was made a Province of British India and ruled from Rangoon on the southern coast.  Burmese government had been feudal and the rulers antagonistic towards their neighbours China, Siam and Assam, but the Burmese people were culturally advanced and often literate.  However there were many ethnic minorities in the country, mostly based in peripheral locations, and they developed their own cultures and ways of life, having minimal contact with or reference to the Burmese government.  The Kachins were one of these minorities.  A responsible aspect of British rule was the interest taken in the minority groups whose tribal areas were surveyed and administered.

The Kachin tribal grouping is a collection of sub-groups of which the Jingpo is the dominant one.  The Kachin inhabit the mountainous north-eastern corner of Burma that is adjacent to China.  They were and still are hill farmers, teak-foresters and miners of gold and jade, which was easily traded with the Chinese.  The Kachin were warriors and disciplined fighters, using advanced jungle warfare and survival skills.  (Today they are still fighting the central Myanmar government.)

The pre-war military garrison of Burma was a two-brigade mixture of British regular army and Indian Army infantry battalions, plus the Burma Military Police battalions that were permanently there.  All these units formed the Burma Division that was headquartered at Maymyo.  Some of the regular units rotated in and out of Burma whilst others were permanently based there.  In late 1914 some Territorial Army battalions arrived from Britain to take over garrison duties from regular British Army battalions that were then sent to France and Flanders.

The Burma Military Police

The Burma Military Police (BMP), a regiment financed by the Burma authorities, had been raised in 1886 as a low-cost alternative to having Indian Army units deployed along Burma’s 1,300 kilometre-long land border.  Initially recruits for the BMP came from the Punjab area of north-west India but soon suitable Burmese hill-tribesmen were also recruited.  European Officers were seconded from the Indian Army for tours with the BMP; Indian and Burmese officers, the backbones of the battalions, were recruited from the Punjab or trained and developed within the units.  Each BMP battalion had a mounted detachment and some had obsolescent muzzle-loading artillery pieces.  The BMP maintained law and order in remote regions of Burma but it was more similar to a light infantry regiment than a police unit.  During the Great War the BMP supplied reinforcement drafts of men to France and Flanders, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine and Persia.

Very few plains (lowland) Burmans, the largest and most politically developed ethnic group in the country, joined Burmese military units before the Great War as they did not like or want British rule, and the British did not trust them; however political and military expediency during the war led to the recruitment of some plains Burmans.

Right: A steep-sided valley in the Kachin Hills.

The Kachin disturbances


In December 1914 intelligence reports of Kachin disaffection were circulated and an attack was expected on Myitkyina on the 4th of that month, but it did not occur possibly because the date was insufficiently auspicious.  It appears that four Shan tribesmen had gained influence amongst the Kachins in the Hukawng Valley by preaching sedition against British rule.  The four Shans, Nga Po Thaik, Nga Kyi, Nga Ni and Nga Se Bon solidified their influence by the practice of a few magical tricks and blatant false claims that amazed the superstitious Kachins.  The Shan leader Nga Po Thaik blew fire from his mouth, and because of his broad forehead claimed to have been an elephant in a former life.  Thus when Nga Po Thaik said that the BMP units had been withdrawn from Burma to fight elsewhere in the war some but not all of the Kachins believed him and agreed to rebel.  The Kachins had firearms obtained through cross-border trade that were replacing their traditional cross-bows and spears.  Every tribesman carried a curved sword named a Dha that was a useful decapitator.

Left: Kachin Dha.

It is quite possible that the four Shans were in the employ of Germany as that country had definite plans to destabilise India and Burma.  The Germans had developed strong links with the expatriate revolutionary Indian Ghadar Movement and German money was being used to ship arms to India and Burma to be used by revolutionaries.  In 1914 German civil engineers were working on a section of the Siam Northern Railway just across the international border, and it is more than likely that German military intelligence personnel were part of the railway construction team.

On 2nd January 1915 a party of Kachins stole some buffaloes at the entrance to the Hukawng Valley near the Kamaing BMP post; the garrison of this post was part of the Myitkyina BMP Battalion.  Six BMP Nepalese sepoys (foot-soldiers) went out to recover the buffaloes and were captured at Ichi, north-east of Kamaing.  The local Political Officer, Mr. Baker then went out with a stronger BMP group and found 300 belligerent Kachins occupying a strongly-built stockade.  Baker’s sepoys skirmished with the Kachins but lost one man killed and another wounded; Baker withdrew as he could make no impression on the stockade.  News of this Kachin ‘victory’ set the Hukawng Valley ablaze and many previously hesitant Kachins joined the rebels.  The situation became serious for the British.

Above: Kachin men in the 1890s.

The British response

Burma Military Police columns marched into rebel areas and started punishing the inhabitants by shooting armed belligerents, burning down stockades and huts and by confiscating domestic animals.  However the uprising continued and regular units of the Indian Army were deployed to the Kachin Hills.  The operational area was split into two sectors.  The 64th Pioneers was working on construction tasks in the Myitkyina area and the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel C.T. Swan, was placed in command of operations north of that town.   Indian Army Pioneer Regiments were units capable of fighting as infantry and defending themselves in hostile territory, with the advantage that they were trained and equipped to construct basic roads and bridges, and to perform other light engineering tasks.

Left: Bhamo stockade, south of Myitkyina.

Lieutenant Colonel A.W.H. Lee (1st-7th Gurkha Rifles attached to Burma Military Police), was placed in charge of operations in the Kamaing and Mogaung Jurisdictions (territories legally defined for administrative reasons).  Numbers II (Captain J. Simpson) and IV (Major E.S. Gale) Double Companies of the 1st-10th Gurkha Rifles moved by train from the battalion permanent base at Maymyo to Myitkyina; Major F.E. Coningham commanded the Gurkhas, Captain H.R. Williams was his officiating Adjutant and Captain A.MacD. Dick MB, FRCS, Indian Medical Service, was the Gurkhas’ Medical Officer. Later the battalion machine gun detachment under Lieutenant E.A.K. Crossfield, battalion Machine Gun Officer, arrived at Myitkyina.  Detachments of Coningham’s men came under Lee’s command.
As the scale of the military operations increased a wing (half a battalion) of a British Territorial unit was despatched to Myitkyina, as was a section (two guns) of an Indian Army mountain artillery battery.  Later in February Major General H.A. Raitt CB, the divisional commander, proceeded to Myitkyina to direct operations.

Operations in and around the Hukawng Valley

Colonel Lee despatched six columns into Kachin areas on punitive missions.  Most of these columns were manned by BMP personnel, and the BMP list of Mentions in Despatches at the end of this article is very probably a list of BMP column commanders plus Lee.  The BMP experienced some stiff fighting over very rugged and jungle-covered ground, as the accompanying list of eight recipients of the Indian Distinguished Service Medal shows.

One BMP sowar (mounted soldier), No 2519 Sowar Kala Singh, received the higher award of the Indian Order of Merit 2nd Class.  His citation provides a useful description of the operational conditions:  For conspicuous gallantry, coolness and resource on the 24th February 1915, when carrying dispatches with a comrade through jungle country infested by the enemy. During the journey, they were fired on from an ambuscade and Sowar Kala Singh’s comrade was severely wounded and rendered unconscious.  He was, however, helped to safety by Kala Singh who thus saved his life.

Coningham’s Gurkhas formed columns with Lee’s men.  One column under Lee was accompanied by Major Gale and 90 Gurkhas plus Lieutenant Crossfield’s machine gun detachment.  The column left Kamaing in late January and burned down houses at the village of Walapum without encountering opposition.  Concurrently Captain Simpson with 112 Gurkhas left Kamaing with 63 BMP personnel, six of them mounted, and a 7-pounder muzzle-loading gun.  Captain Porter of the BMP was with the column but was acting in the capacity of a Civil (political) Officer.  This column destroyed the Mawmwepum stockade, traversed the Jade Mines area and marched back to Myitkyina.   On 30th January Coningham was ordered to march 139 of his Gurkhas, with Captains Williams and Dick, to join Swan’s operations to the north.

Above: Typical Kachin Hills terrain.

Operations north of Myitkyina

After inciting the Hukawng Valley Kachins into revolt the four Shans moved eastwards to Wawang village in the Mali Valley.  Here a huge and intimidating Kachin named Pawlum Kron Li had seized the position of local leader, and established a reign of terror in the area.  With Pawlum Kron Li the four Shans tried to induce the Kachins of Nmaizin Long, further east across the Mali Valley, to join the uprising; but the Nmaizin Long Kachins preferred to wait and see how things developed.  This resulted in the other non-belligerent Kachins in the Mali Valley also waiting to see what happened, and the village leaders advised the British that if the trans-Mali Kachins did cross the river to fight then all the villages in the valley would have to fight or the inhabitants would lose their heads.

The major problem facing Pawlum Kron Li and the Shans was that they had no surplus food and no transport, and so a large party of Kachins could not be mobilised for more than a few days.  The Wawan Kachins therefore decided to raid the Public Works Department food store at Shingboi, 24 kilometres away.  A company of the 64th Pioneers was camped near Shingboi but was not considered to be a problem.

Hearing of the proposed enemy raid the 64th Pioneers decided to attack first and a column of 100 men of No 1 Double Company made an extremely difficult night march to Wawang on 27th January.  The night was moon-less and the men were marching in single file through dense jungle, over steep ridges and up overhung stream beds.  The sepoys carried only their rifles and fighting equipment as a party of mules followed behind with blankets, water and rations.  Major J.A. Bliss MVO commanded this column accompanied by Captain E. Marsden and Mr Lowis, the local Executive Engineer who had been granted the powers of a magistrate.

The foot of the steep hill on which Wawang stood was reached at dawn and a volley of shots from the jungle greeted the Pioneers.  After a steep climb up the hill a stockade manned by a few enemy stalwarts was seen and immediately rushed with the bayonet.  The Kachin defenders withdrew rapidly but not before Major Bliss shot dead the last one to leave, who turned out to be Pawlum Kron Li.  The Pioneers then burned down the stockade and village without any harassment from the Kachins and the four Shans, who had all retreated into the jungle.

The Pioneer casualties were two Havildars and one private wounded, and as these men needed medical attention the column retraced its steps.  During the withdrawal one hostile shot was fired from the jungle.  The column returned fire with a volley that luckily killed the enemy rifleman who turned out to be the headman from a nearby village. During February Colonel Swan took out a larger column to again punish Wawang and adjacent dissident villages.  The infantry troops used were two companies of the 1st-4th Battalion the Border Regiment (Territorial Army); two companies of the 1st-10th Gurkha Rifles under Lieutenant B.R. Mullaly, plus 18 mounted sowars and 10 dismounted sepoys of the BMP.  Artillery support was provided by No I Section of the 22nd Derajat Mountain Battery (two mule-packed guns whose barrels could be unscrewed into two pieces to make manageable mule loads). The gunners were commanded by Major K.D. Field who was accompanied by Captain M.D. Bell, both of the Royal Artillery.  Lieutenant F.O.N. Burn of the Pioneers was the column staff officer and Captain Marsden the Transport Officer; Major S.R. Godkin FRCSI, Indian Medical Service, was the Medical Officer. Major W.B.T. Abbey, Deputy Commissioner of Myitkyina marched as a Special Service Officer representing the civil authority.  A platoon of Pioneers was deployed to make zig-zag tracks over the steep ridges for the large heavily-burdened artillery mules to follow.

Swan left a ration post at Darukha with a Gurkha platoon to guard it and marched on to reach Wawang on 10th February.  The mountain gunners shelled the prominent house of a village leader at a range of 1,600 metres, after which the infantry occupied the village without opposition and burned it again.  Next day two columns of 50 men each went out under Captain Williams and Lieutenant Mullaly.  Williams destroyed villages adjacent to Wawang whilst Mullaly went a little further afield to burn down the village of Lengatawang. 

Left: Kachin Tribal Dress

Mr W.A. Hertz, Deputy Commissioner of Putao (also named Fort Hertz) joined the column at Wawung followed a few days later by his Assistant Deputy Commissioner Mr Leonard.  The British administration had decided to deal out severe punishment to the dissident Kachins to demonstrate to the hill-tribes that rebelliousness during war time would be harshly and severely punished.  On 13th February two more 50-man columns went out.  Captain Williams destroyed houses north of Wawung and Major Coningham, accompanied by Major Abbey, reconnoitred the Weship Zup ferry across the Malikha River.  


The uprising ends

The Kachins had had enough and ceased hostilities; they were resentful of the failed guarantee made by the Shans that their mystical powers would protect the Kachins.  The four Shans had fled eastwards into the Triangle, an area bounded by the Malikha and Nmaikha Rivers; this territory was similar to the Tribal Territory on the Indian North-West Frontier in that the British chose not to administer it.  Kachins from Nkraun village in the Triangle seized the Shans and handed them over to the British.  In September 1915 the Shans pleaded in court that they were only in the Kachin Hills to buy drugs and were not connected with the rebellion, but the Mandalay Sessions Judge sentenced them to death and they were hanged.

Awards of the Indian Distinguished Service Medal for the 1914-1915 Kachin Hills Operations:

64th Pioneers:  No 3661 Havildar Rahman Sharif and No 4030 Lance Naik Qadar Beg.

Burma Military Police:  No 2831 Grade 1 Havildar Waru Tang;  No 2163 Grade 2 Havildar Ranbahadur Khattri;  4508 Sepoy Sao Tu;  No 180 Lance Naik Mohan Lal Bhaju;  No 2839 Sowar Jowahr Sing;  No 4205 Sowar Bhagwan Singh;  No 4828 Sowar Mastan Singh and No 4912 Mehr Singh.

Mentions in Despatches for the 1914-15 Kachin Hills Operations:

64th Pioneers: Major J.A. Bliss MVO (Member of the Royal Victorian Order); Captain E. Marsden;  Lieutenant Colonel C.T. Swann;  No 3661 Havildar Rahman Sharif;  No 4030 Lance Naik Qadar Beg.

1st 10th Gurkha Rifles:  Major E.S. Gale.

Burma Military Police:  Captain E. Bird (93rd Burma Infantry); Captain H.W.F. Clive (129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis); Captain C.E. Daly (66th Punjabis); Captain E.M. Hobday (41st Dogras); Lieutenant Colonel A.W.H. Lee (1st 7th Gurkha Rifles); Captain O.L. Pugh (72nd Punjabis);  Captain W. Thyne (90th Punjabis).

Civil and Administrative Officers:  Mr W. Scott, Assistant Superintendent Kachin Hills; Major W.B.T. Abbey, Indian Army, Deputy Commissioner Myitkyina; Lieutenant Colonel S.L. Aplin, Indian Army, Commissioner Mandalay Division.

Great War Victory Medal Qualification
Operations on the eastern frontier (Chin, Kuki and Kachin Hills) qualified participants for the Great War Victory Medal.

Above: North-eastern Burmah

Historical Note

Forty years after the Kachin Hills operations of 1915, Territorial soldiers of the 4th Battalion the Border Regiment, some of them no doubt the progeny of the 1915 men, were back amongst the jungles and hills of Burma fighting successfully in a Chindit Column against Japanese invaders.

SOURCES:

London Gazette No 29652 of 4th July 1916, pages 6699, 6670 and 6703.

BAILLE-KI-PALTAN being a history of the 2nd Battalion, Madras Pioneers, 1759 – 1930 by Lieutenant Colonel H.F. Murland.

History of the 10th Gurkha Rifles 1890 - 1921 compiled by Captain B.R. Mullaly.

The Border Regiment in the Great War by Colonel H.C. Wylly CB.

Historical Record of 22nd Derajat Mountain Battery (Frontier Force) Anonymous.

Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit 1914-1918 by Peter Ducker.

The Indian Distinguished Service Medal by Rana Chhina.

Haj to Utopia. How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire by Maia Ramnath.

The Punjab and the War Compiled by M.S. Leigh OBE, Indian Civil Service.

 
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