Gordon Highlander, North West Frontier, 1939 Impression

This month’s reconstruction takes us to the Indian sub-continent at the start of the Second World War and more specifically the North West Frontier Province. The NWF was characterised by high mountain ranges, deep passes and a lawless and fiercely independent tribal system that resented any intrusions from outsiders. The British spent much of the end of the nineteenth and half the twentieth century trying to control these rebellious tribesmen and although there were periods of outright rebellion, even during the quieter times there was an underlying tension in the region. One of the big advantages the British and Indian armies had over these tribesmen came from the speed of their communications. A concerted road building programme allowed men to be moved quickly around the region to any trouble spots, with news being sent quickly from mountain top to mountain top by highly trained signallers. Although wireless would be introduced later, for much of the period nothing could beat the heliograph for range and speed of communication. Set up on the top of a mountain pass, on a clear day a heliograph could be seen 50 miles away and with a network of signalling stations it did not take long for a message to be sent back and men moved forwards.

A couple of generations earlier in 1881 the following account was published in the journal of the United Services Institute:

During a surveying expedition made in January 1879, from Khost into the Waziri Hills under Captain (now Major) Woodthorpe RE., I accompanied the party, and from one of the first hills where the surveying table was set up, Banu, a station 35 miles distant, and within the frontier of India, could just be seen lying at the foot of the hills on the banks of the Kuram River and apparently not far from the Indus. A heliograph was directed on Banu, and although no previous intimation had been given, and there was only one officer present at the station who possessed a heliograph, communication was soon opened; signalling had all along been maintained with the headquarters at Khost, and messages were now passed between General Roberts and the Officer commanding the frontier. Banu being also in connection with the telegraphic system of India, a message from the General was despatched to the Viceroy in Calcutta.

Here we have a Gordon Highlander signaller inspecting his heliograph and setting it up correctly at the turn of the Second World War. Despite the increasing use of radios in the 1930s, their range was still limited and it would be the end of the war before the technology had matured enough to have the range in the mountains of the NWF the heliograph did. He wears the informal dress commonly seen on campaign in India. The kilt is made of wool and has nine yards of cloth in it, carefully folded and pleated. Over this expensive garment is a kilt apron made of khaki drill, with a centrally mounted pocket in place of a sporran that can be allowed to become soiled and washed easily in a way the kilt could not. He wears long socks and 37 Pattern anklets with black ankle boots. His shirt is the woollen greyback shirt that dates back to World War One, slowly being replaced with a khaki version but still in widespread use on the fringes of the Empire. He has the “Bombay bowler” helmet on his head. Although bulkier than the older Wolesley helmet, it was actually lighter and more comfortable to wear. It is smaller than the Cawnpore Tent Club and Solar Pith helmets and was never issued by the British Army, however it was commonly purchased by individuals and some units seem to have purchased them in bulk.

  1. Gordon Highlander’s Kilt
  2. Bombay bowler helmet
  3. Grey back shirt
  4. Long khaki socks
  5. Case for heliograph
  6. Anklets
  7. Ammo boots
  8. Tripod for heliograph
  9. Heliograph
  10. Kilt cover

One comment

  1. Nice to see you are getting everything together!

    If you are on Facebook, I’d like to invite you to the “British Heliograph Club” – a Facebook group that focuses on heliographs of the British Empire, with a core goal of mutual support for owners and users of heliographs of the British Empire. The link is:

    We currently have 18 of our 46 members who admit to owning or having access to a heliograph – more than one in the case of 11 of us!

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