1920-1939 | Burning villages | Pakistan | Punitive operations

Waziristan villages ‘utterly destroyed’ – villagers left to freeze

A British led punitive force on the North West Frontier. c. 1917-20.
 © IWM (Q 52641)

7 February 1920

On 7 February 1920, a Reuters report, from the North West Frontier, described how British military operations in Waziristan ‘have now assumed a more punitive character, whole villages being utterly destroyed.’ It added that ‘the majority of the tribesmen are moving their families and portable property hurriedly into the valleys remote from our line of march.’1 The official army report of the operation was similarly succinct, noting that ‘considerable punitive destruction was carried out especially in the villages of the Shabi Khel, much firewood being collected from the villages as they were destroyed.’2 The confiscation of the firewood was deemed necessary in order to help keep the troops warm in the extreme cold.

The punitive mission was taken at a time of year when the average minimum night time temperature was well below zero, with the army campaign report noting that early in February the ‘troops underwent much discomfort during the day from the snow and the mud’ and ‘the severity of the cold.’ The temperature fell to ’25 degrees below freezing point’ and ‘was accompanied by a biting wind.’ Even by the middle of the month ‘the intense cold still continued,’ but ‘the troops were issued with leather jerkins which greatly added to their comfort.’  It is difficult to imagine how the villagers, expelled from their burned homes, might have suffered or managed to survive in such severe conditions, without even any firewood.3

The army report did not waste words pondering the fate of the villagers, but it did express concern over their increasing determination to resist the burning of their homes, noting that ‘the destruction of a frontier village is a much more dangerous operation than it used to be in frontier operations. A very much larger number of troops must be employed to keep the tribesmen at a distance from the scene of destruction.’ It also warned that the dense smoke from the premature burning of houses ‘without express orders’ was ‘liable to interrupt communications’ and it helpfully suggested that the commanding officer could order the firing of Very lights to denote ‘permission to begin firing the village.’4


  1. ‘Punitive Measures: Tribesmen Flee to the Valleys,’ The Western Daily Press, 19 February 1920, p. 9 and ‘Strong Punitive Measures,’ The Portsmouth Evening News, 18 February 1920, p. 3.
  2. General Staff, Army Headquarters India, ‘Operations in Waziristan, 1919-1920,’ Superintendent Government Printing, Calcutta, 1921, p. 130.
  3. Ibid., p. 129.
  4. Ibid., p. 136.

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