Page last updated at 07:37 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 08:37 UK

Why Britons walked warily in Waziristan

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

Francis Stockdale in Waziristan
'Waziristan is a thoroughly dangerous area'

In 1919, a young British army officer, Francis Stockdale, was deployed to the Waziristan area of British India.

The title of his book, "Walk Warily in Waziristan" seems no less appropriate now than it did 90 years ago, because today the autonomous Pakistani tribal region of North and South Waziristan is the centre of militancy orchestrated by pro-Taleban and al-Qaeda militants.

It is also an area where many believe the al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, may be hiding after the September 2001 World Trade Centre attacks.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Capt Stockdale's family published a handful of copies of the book, only a few of which survive. But because or renewed interest in the region, the family in the English county of Norfolk are considering reprinting it.

'Wait, watch and pounce'

The book provides a fascinating account of what was regarded then - as it is today - as a thoroughly dangerous area.

One of the main towns close to Waziristan is Tank. Capt Stockdale describes it as being "the worst station in British India".

Waziristan landscape

"It was known as 'Hell's door knocker' because in the summer the temperature would rise so high that a village nearby rejoiced in the highest temperature in the world - a modest 131 degrees in the shade.

"But it was also an area where hostile tribesman waited, watched and pounced," he wrote.

"My memories of Tank are characterised by sporadic outbreaks of rifle fire by night and spasmodic outbreaks of cholera during the day. The town fully deserved its poor reputation."

Capt Stockdale goes on to describe just how dangerous the "hostile tribesmen" were in the Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, when a sniper infiltrated a British camp.

"Like all tribesmen in this area, he was a marvellous shot," Capt Stockdale wrote, "and he killed the commanding officer with his first shot.

"He killed or wounded 11 other men before his hiding place was discovered."

'Passionate letters'

Ninety years ago, it seemed that British troops in Waziristan faced the same kind of dangers as Pakistani troops in the region do today.

Cover of 'Walk Warily in Waziristan'
Only a few copies of the book remain

"One one occasion, tribesmen rolled down boulders in front of a military convoy - effectively cutting them off. I could hear the firing in the distance and there were lots of casualties."

Getting captured, it seemed, was not an option: "It would result in death by torture, an activity which I was informed the tribal women folk used to luxuriate."

The shortage of female company in these remote outposts of the British empire played heavily on officers and men alike.

Capt Stockdale describes the lucky escape of one soldier who took to writing passionate letters to his wife and his mistress from a British encampment in the region that was surrounded by tribesmen.

"Waiting for a target, they got bored and fired a bullet at random into the camp. It removed the digit finger of the man's right hand as he was writing to the loves of his life.

"That incident kept me on the straight and narrow path for many months to come - not that there were many opportunities in Waziristan to be tempted or led astray!"

'Ransom papers'

A book packed with colourful reminiscences, Capt Stockdale describes many of his brother officers.

These included Whipples, who wore a monocle every time the bullets started flying and specialised in using camels to provide supplies of whisky and gin in remote areas.

"The tribesmen got Whipples in the end and I guarantee the monocle was in when the last bullet hit him," he wrote.

British soldiers in Waziristan
British soldiers were impressed by the ingenuity of the tribesmen

He also describes attempts by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to drop bombs on tribesmen encamped close to the border with Afghanistan.

"Their bombs did not always explode upon hitting the earth and the tribesmen soon adapted themselves to shooting at flying targets. The pilots carried ransom papers, so if they were captured and returned to safety, the reward would be large."

Some of the unexploded bombs dropped by the RFC were "collected by the tribesmen who used them to decorate their mud huts or houses".

Local fighters in the 1920s were as tough then as they are now.

"We often used to ask ourselves, how could they survive so long living in a rocky area, with a film of earth capable of growing only scrub trees?"

Capt Stockdale ended up serving two years in Waziristan and considered himself lucky to be returning home.

"Many of my friends were killed, but I lived 60 years since then," he wrote.

Capt Stockdale - who was later promoted to be a major - died in 1989 aged 93.

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