This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 3630).


Amateur film shot by Major Michael Nelson of 8th Gurkha Rifles, Indian Army while seconded to the Kurram Militia on the North-West Frontier records social and military activity, and the landscape, between August 1946 and June 1947.

Views of Kurram Valley, the recruitment area for Pathan tribesmen serving in the Kurram Militia, answerable to the local British Political Agent and the North West Frontier Government. Pathan wedding celebrations feature dancing by men and boys (no Pathan women allowed) and singing by four girls imported from Lahore (only female presence), watched by Kurram Militia men dressed in distinctive grey mazri cotton cloth used for all Scout uniforms; Captain Nelson, with parachute wings visible, is seated at head of table (August 1946). View of Nelson's bungalow at Parachinar, with his Ford V8 tourer in drive; fellow KM officer Captain Sam Semmence poses for camera. Off-duty scenes at the Kurram Militia Headquarters at Parachinar in October 1946, with Canna lilies in garden: seated outside are Political Agent Leeper, Indian Medical Service Doctor Harris and his Hungarian wife and Nelson in mufti. Visit to Recruits Training Camp near the Afghan border in the south west of the Kurram Valley. View looking north across the Kurram Valley to the Safed Koh Range on the northern border, with highest peak Mount Sikaram at western end. Militia flag with initials KM flies; recruits shown in the camp shaving and outside wearing mazri uniform. Back at Parachinar HQ, with full autumnal (1946) colourings on chenar (plane) trees. January 1947 visit to snow-covered Kashmir: through Murree Hills, with views of peaks of Southern Kashmir. Vehicles with Frontier province plates. Road completely snow-blocked at Barramula at western entrance to Kashmir Valley. Views north to Harramuke. Return to Kurram. Visit to temporary post at Manzala in January 1947 at extreme eastern end of the Kurram, on border of Afridi territory and very near North Waziristan. High angle view down to Kurram river with rice growing also shows bend in road near village where mail truck had recently been ambushed by Wazir tribesmen (temporary post set up to prevent recurrence); Union Jack flies over hilltop Manzala Post; views of company guard and Kurram Militia man showing mufti dress. Views of whole of Kurram valley from Manzala Post looking north west to Peiwar Kotal Pass bordering Afghanistan just south of Sikaram. Visit to Kharlachi Post at south western border of Kurram bordering Afghanistan (post to stop smuggling, mainly of matches and candles); Afghan post visible three-quarters of mile away. February 1947 visit to Khyber Pass. Nelson's bearer (servant) and his dog. Mustard fields. Regimental crests of Indian Army and British Army units which had fought in the Khyber in past (Afghan) wars. Views from top of Pass across Afghanistan to Hindu Kush mountains. Returning down Pass past Frontier Constabulary Post signpost 7 miles from Kohat and 86 from Bannu; Nelson in mufti looks down towards Kohat, where he later drinks lager in Club. Back in Kurram Dorothea Leeper and Mrs Harris attend subaltern's birthday party by the river (white women had to leave the Kurram soon afterwards, owing to tense situation prior to Partition of India on 15 August 1947). Visit to Lakka Tiga Post near Afghan border; shots from post battlements of shoeless KM men (Muslims) eating midday meal with right hand. Nelson's Subedar climbs hill on a gasht (patrol); helio signalling 25 miles back to HQ in Parachinar. View of Tirah Mountains (Afridi territory) on north east border of Kurram; Jemadar of Kurram Militia; fish swimming. Mount Sikaram, overlooking Afghanistan. KM soldiers practise firing one of the two 3.7 inch pack howitzers (direct fire only) from mountain position. Two Harvard planes take off from Parachinar airfield after visit from General Bruce (not seen); ancient chinar tree at Parachinar (seeming to confirm local legend that it would die when British were about to leave India); Headquarters Post, with Sikaram behind. KM recruits do about-turn after three days' training. Close-ups of faces of three distinct Pathan types in Kurram Militia: Turi Khel (Shi'ite Muslim), Mahsud (Sunni Muslim) and Parachumkunni (Sunni). Local bazaar in Parachinar and inside the Headquarters Post (Fort). Major Nelson poses in Scout uniform and films his Pathan batman. Swimming pool scenes, late June 1947.


Summary: based on notes taken during viewing of film with Major Nelson in April 1991, and on his subsequent detailed amendments. Major Nelson's parent unit was the 8th Gurkha Rifles; he was promoted to Major in October 1946 when taking command of one of the Kurram Militia's two Wings.

Major I R Nelson, known as Major Michael Nelson to family and friends.

Mount Sikaram is the highest peak in the Safeh Koh with an elevation of 15,620 ft.



With the British East India Company’s victory in the Anglo-Sikh war of 1848-9 and the subsequent annexation of the Punjab, the British inherited from Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom the nominal governance of an area that became known as the North-West Frontier Province (N-WFP): 704 miles of inhospitable, rugged mountain country separating the Punjab from Afghanistan, populated in hill and valley by a diverse patchwork of Pathan peoples, with Peshawar as its major conurbation. Almost all of the peoples of this area were both intractably martial and of extremely independent mind, and from the start of British involvement until Partition, the civil administration and military control of the North-West Frontier would be confronted with particularly thorny (and occasionally bloody) problems, necessitating unique if not wholly successful solutions.

At the time of the British annexation, the Pathan marches were effectively autonomous, as ever they had been. The Sikhs that preceded the British had never been able to properly suppress or control the area, and had only ever been able to collect revenues from their supposed subjects arbitrarily and with great violence. The British took control of territory which was without any central administrative structure, and were thus presented with the problem of securing and extending their newly gained authority, protecting British subjects from Pathan raids, and keeping trade routes open in the face of ‘an estimated 100,000 heavily armed Pathan fighting men’ who did not take kindly to external authorities (Moreman, 1998, 5). The net result was ‘a state of almost continual warfare’ across much of the frontier (ibid.,8). Punctuated by major campaigns, these sporadic, localised conflicts would continue until the end of Raj.

However, at first these developments largely bypassed the Kurram Valley. In the shadow of the Safed Koh mountain range, the valley follows the eastward course of the Kurram River; at its western end is the Peiwar Kotal pass into Afghanistan. The area had been under ‘vague Afghan rule’ (Caroe, 1976, 347) since the early nineteenth century, but never occupied directly. However, the collapse of the Sikh kingdom prompted an Afghan occupation of both the Kurram Valley and neighbouring Khost, and the valley was then administered by a succession of Afghan governors.

Unlike almost all the other tribes of the frontier, the Turis, people of the Kurram, were Shia Muslims, and were mistreated for it by both their Sunni Afghan overlords and neighbouring Sunni tribes, principally the Wazirs and Orakzais. They appear to have appealed for British protection in 1860 – Colquhoun reproduces a ‘petition’ to this effect, posted in the Bombay Gazettethat year (Colquhoun, 1881, 404-5) – but Kurram remained under Afghan control until the opening phase of the Second Afghan War in November 1878, when the Afghan garrison was expelled from the valley during the British advance, under Sir Frederick Roberts, to the Peiwar Kotal.

During this conflict the Turis assisted the British. The official history records that their ‘behaviour was excellent’ during the war, serving as levies and convoy escorts, and bringing the British forces supplies (General Staff India, 1914, 31). In 1880 they petitioned once more to come under British administration, resulting in an arrangement for the creation of a tribal corps of 600 men, supported by a system of land taxation and revenue collection.

This arrangement, though rather shaky, lasted until 1892 when an Afghan-inspired attempt to conquer Kurram was made by a variety of neighbouring Sunni tribes, leaving the Lower Kurram under Sunni occupation. Fearing a final defeat that would see the area incorporated into Afghanistan, the Turis asked for direct British assistance. The British obliged, pressing the occupiers to leave, organising for reparations to be paid, and finally occupying and administering the valley directly. Thereafter the Turis and their neighbours the Bangash remained loyal to the British. The Kurram Militia was raised as a ‘Turi Militia’ in 1892, being renamed in 1902 (www.khyber.org); based in Parachinar, by 1914 it numbered around 1000 men, and was composed primarily of Turis but also included Bangash, Chamkanni and hamsayah (tribes in a ‘client’ relationship to the Turi) among its ranks (General Staff India, op.cit., 250). 



One of the major anomalies of the final months before Partition was the political alignment of the North-West Frontier Province. Despite the fracturing of the Indian body politic along sectarian lines, an entirely counter-intuitive result in the elections of 1946 had seen victory for the Congress Party under Dr. Khan Sahib in the N-WFP. The situation could hardly have been odder – ‘a Congress party government made up almost entirely of militant Pathans attempting to maintain a common front with Gandhi and Nehru in a fanatically Muslim area’ (Spain, 1963, 194).

Not that there was any general enthusiasm for Nehru, far from it: an ill-advised visit to the Province in October 1946 provoked ‘a frightening show of violence’ (Noble, 1997, 291) everywhere he appeared, and in fact seasoned British administrators took the view that his arrival undermined both British prestige and made the N-WFP ungovernable by Khan Sahib’s ministry. Sir Fraser Noble reports that in Governor Olaf Caroe’s judgement, Nehru’s visit to the N-WFP ‘made Pakistan inevitable’ (ibid., 292). Communal violence flared in early 1947, and the challenge to the Congress Party became severe, eventually resulting in the mass imprisonment of Muslim League members, activists and assembly members. The anomaly of the N-WFP was by this time a major problem.

This was recognised by the Prime Minister Attlee in the plan for Indian independence that was announced on 3 June, and in the ‘India (Transfer of Power)’ speech a special provision was made for the Province: 

…it is clear, in view of its geographical situation, and other considerations, that, if the whole or any part of the Punjab decides not to join the existing Constituent Assembly, it will be necessary to give the North-West Frontier Province an opportunity to reconsider its position.

Just a month later this possibility was confirmed, with the N-WFP’s ‘opportunity to reconsider its position’ coming in the form of a referendum. Held in July 1947, the electorate returned more than 99% of the vote in favour of joining Pakistan (a figure that should be seen in the light of a less than 51% turnout) (Spain, op.cit., 200).

During these fraught months at the end of the British Indian Empire, Major I. R. Nelson of the 8th Gurkha Rifles was seconded to the Kurram Valley, as a commander of one wing of the Kurram Militia. It was here that he shot the colour footage of the Frontier that appears in this film.

The tension and violence of Partition, and the political implosion of the N-WFP, seem not to exist in the film, which is in general remarkably serene. This is possibly a reflection of the generally good relations that the British seem to have maintained with the Turi of the Kurram Valley: Noble even refers to the Kurram Agency in mid-1946 as a ‘safe haven’ (Noble, op.cit., 284). 

But the calm and indeed beautiful nature of the film is also surely a product of Nelson’s evident cinematographic talent and quick visual sense. The shots are very well composed, the camera movement directed and parsimonious, and there is an interest and intelligence in the treatment of the camera’s subjects, whether they be Pathan notables at a marriage feast or the abundant, simply and carefully framed scenes of the limitless, barren Frontier country. Nelson regularly juxtaposes scenes of small detail – close-ups of individual faces, a shoal of fish, people eating, himself and his colleagues at leisure – with broad and still scenes of this grand and rugged landscape; the effect is symphonic, and deeply evocative of both place and time.

Scenes of activity, such as the marvellously full wedding and feast sequences, are again shot with empathy and interest, and these too contrast with the immensity and stillness of the Kurram as Nelson films it, producing an absorbing sense of timelessness. Finally, what is conveyed by this privately made film is the quite correct impression that the people and places being filmed were immovable and unconquerable. Here, at the frayed edge of the Raj, the landscape and its people offer silent testimony to the ephemerality of grand human designs, and the evaporating Empire seems to have been little more than a brief fall of snow on the lower slopes. 

Francis Gooding 


Works Cited

Attlee, Clement ‘India (Transfer of Power)’, speech to House of Commons, 3 June 1947, Hansard HC deb vol 438, cc35-46, retrieved from http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1947/jun/03/india-transfer-of-power#S5CV0438P0_19470603_HOC_251

Caroe, Olaf. The Pathans (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1976 [1958])

Colquhoun, J. A. S. With the Kurram Field Force 1878-79 (London: W. H. Allen, 1881)

General Staff India, Military Report on The Tribal Country Between The Khaibar and The Kurram  (Simla: Government of India, 1914)

Moreman, T. R. The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, 1849-1947 (London: Macmillan, 1998)

Spain, James W. The Pathan Borderland (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1963)

www.khyber.org ‘Kurram Militia’ page, retrieved 26.2.2010 http://www.khyber.org/pashtohistory/frontiercorps/kurrammilitia.shtml 



  • KURRAM MILITIA, 1946-1947 (Allocated)

Technical Data

Running Time:
16 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
633 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Nelson, I R (Major)