Wargaming the North West Frontier 1897

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14 July 2022
Into the Valley

Each Command Decision aims to offer a series of playable options in timeless military scenarios. Command Decision is designed so you can read the situation and figure out your own command decisions if you were leading the troops on the ground. You can either work through the various options or use the mechanics to create the precise circumstances of the tabletop engagement. The scenarios may have particular historical themes and settings, but you can easily adapt the mechanics to suit your own preferences and collections.

“Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun, and they have not.” Hilaire Beloc


The North West Frontier has been a tinder-box for generations, an often fluid border region between British India and Afghanistan. Attempts to incorporate the region more fully into India are progressing with the laying of railway track to connect the isolated towns and garrisons. Encouraged by intermittent Russian agitation, three Pashtun brothers have orchestrated a number of hit and run attacks on the railway and raided neighbouring tribes to raise funds to pay for Russian arms and ammunition. The railway has reached a valley controlled by the brothers; it is the only feasible route through to Dir located near the border.


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You are Major-General Sir Johnnie Treadaway, 1st Royal West Kent Regiment and in overall command of the punitive expeditionary force assigned to clear the valley and pacify the region. General Herbert Lowe, commanding the Frontier Force has sent you the following despatch:


This is a great chance to get out all of your hills and rocky outcrops, slip objects under your terrain mat and cover the table with stones and trees. You want to create a valley down the centre of the table and along its length. We set up the railhead at the bottom of the valley and ran a rough track up the valley floor, only branching off to connect with the village about three quarters of the way up the table on the left. We placed an old abandoned stone fort ruin on the right hand side above the pass to provide a watch point for the British.

The game was played on a 10 x 6 table, but a smaller one would work just as well particularly if you focused the action around the village. In our game, the Afghans did not attempt to close with the British until they had traversed about half of the valley (mainly in the hope they could pick off some units that had strayed too far ahead).


The Afghan force should be split into three commands. Abdul Nafi should have command of the cavalry, but can take units from either of the two brothers if he wishes. Gulraiz commands the jezail armed men and operates at distance from the enemy. Jammas commands the hand to hand warriors and the artillery.

The Russians


This is now the fiftieth Command Decision I’ve written. As with the very first Command Decision, this scenario was designed to use Caliver Books’ Mad Dogs and Englishmen. You could use alternative skirmish-based rulesets such as Sharp Practice or The Sword and The Flame.

The Afghan player was given six numbered cards to place on the table. Three indicated the start positions of the brothers and their forces, another showed where the Russians were located and the other two were blanks to fool the British. The British could ask for the card to be revealed once they had got to within 30” of the card. The Afghan player could then deploy the forces in any formation around the card with the brother located where the card had been placed. The Afghan player was allowed to move any of the unrevealed cards 2d6” per turn.

The Russian card was placed on the table edge on the opposite side of the valley to the village with the intention of coming down the mountainside to cross the valley floor and make for the village to rendezvous with Abdul Nafi. Abdul Nafi’s card was placed on the road at the far end of the valley; the right hand side of the valley was assigned to Gulraiz and the left (and village) to Jammas.


Although fictitious, our valley is typical for the region and roughly based on events that took place during operations in the 1890s. The British launched operations against the Mohmands (a Pashtun tribe from north-west Peshawar) in 1851–1852, 1854, 1864, 1879, 1880, and major operations over 1897–1898. There was growing unrest related to the ill-defined borders and tribal fears over their future independence. On 10 June 1897, a detachment of Indian troops escorting a British frontier officer was attacked in the Tochi Valley. The last straw was his attack on Shabkadar at the beginning of August and the capture of British posts in the Khyber Pass.

Two columns were sent in to punish the Mohmands, several villages were burned and there was a major engagement at Nawagai on September 20. More villages were destroyed with one more major fight at Agrah at the end of the month. The Mamunds surrendered on October 5. Notably, Winston Churchill was with the expedition operating as a second lieutenant and war correspondent. 


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