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Letter VIII

Camp, near Ghuzni, July 24th, 1839.

MY DEAR FATHER,--You must put down yesterday, the 23rd of July, in your memorandum book as a memorable day for your son Tom, and, I may say, for the British army. Ghuzni, the strongest fortress in Afghanistan, was taken by assault in three-quarters of an hour, by the four European regiments of the army--viz., the Queen's, 13th Light Infantry, 17th regiment, and Bengal European regiment. The storming party, or forlorn hope, consisted of the Light Companies of the four regiments. The whole right in front--ergo, our company (the Light Company of the Queen's) was the first in. I may well remember it, as it was the first time I smelt gunpowder and saw blows given in real earnest. It is the most splendid thing for us that could have happened: if we had failed, we should have had the whole country down upon us in a few days; now, they say, the country is ours.

It is reported that Sir J. Keane was so very anxious about it, that when he heard our first cheers, after entering the gate of the town, he actually cried, it was such a relief to his mind; and that he told Brigadier Sale, lieutenant-colonel of the 13th Light Infantry, who commanded on the occasion, that it was very likely that the fate of India depended on our taking this place. Ghuzni was considered Dost Mahomed's principal fortress; his son commanded in it, and it was garrisoned by 3000 Afghans. Young Dost expected to hold it out for a fortnight; and his father was to have come to his relief in a day or two, when we should have had a difficult part to perform, as we should have been surrounded in this valley by armed parties on all sides; so that it would have been really a ticklish job. They had collected provisions in the town for three months, and arms and ammunition; in fact, it was the regular depôt for their army. They had also about four or five lacs of rupees; but that will not give us much prize money. Our loss was very trifling, owing to the daring and sudden nature of the attack, as they were taken totally by surprise. Our regiment suffered the most, and we have thirty-seven killed and wounded, including officers, of whom six out of eighteen were wounded--one-third of the whole,--however, none of the latter dangerously, thank God, though two of them are returned severely wounded. Five men of our regiment were killed outright on the spot, and I am afraid we shall lose some more in a few days from the effects of their wounds. Of the enemy, about 500 were killed, and more than 1500 made prisoners; and of the remainder, who made their escape over the walls, the greater part were cut down by the Dragoons, or spifflicated by the Lancers. Among the prisoners is young Dost himself, the greatest prize of all. More than a thousand magnificent horses have also been taken, besides pack-horses, camels, and grain in abundance. However, I never can tell a story without going back to the very commencement.

I finished my last letter to you the day before we left Candahar. Well; we started on Sunday, the 30th of June, and made seven marches to Belanti Ghiljee, where we caught up the Shah's army, with a Bengal division. Here Sir John Keane had first come in sight of young Dost's army, who, however, retired very quickly, though there was some talk of their holding out at this place, and we were pushed on rapidly in consequence. They shewed their sense in not holding out there, as it would not have taken us long to dislodge them. We halted here a day, and then marched on by very short and easy marches, halting every third or fourth day, and taking things very easy, although we were constantly annoyed by the Ghiljees, who murdered several of our camp followers, and tried to rob us whenever they could find an opportunity, until we were within five good marches of Ghuzni, when General Willshire received an order to push on by forced marches, and to make these five into three. After making two out of these three, (and precious long ones they were,) we found out that we were still upwards of twenty miles from Ghuzni, with the men so fatigued that it was nearly impossible for them to do it, and that we should therefore be obliged to make two of it. The event, however, proved the contrary; for, about seven o'clock in the evening, a dispatch came from General Willshire, and about eight, just as we were preparing to turn in, the orders were out to strike our tents, and march in an hour's time, and catch up Sir John Keane and the Shah, who were halted about nine miles in advance of us. Sir John was anxious to have the whole force concentrated before marching on Ghuzni. Nothing, however, was certain; and we were all in a high state of excitement, not knowing what to expect: this was the evening of the 20th. We made quick work of this march, and reached Sir John Keane about half-past twelve. Here we heard that Sir John Keane was in expectation of a night attack. He had fallen in that morning with the advance of the enemy, who had, however, upon the appearance of the British force, retired upon Ghuzni. We bivouacked on our ground, after throwing out strong pickets, and marched again at 5 A.M., Sir John Keane, the Bengalees, and cavalry in advance, then the Shah, and then our small party. We, however, sent our artillery to join Sir John. About eight o'clock, when within about three miles of Ghuzni, we heard the first symptoms that the game of war was beginning: our batteries were firing on the place, and the garrison were returning it with good effect; it served as a sort of overture to the opera in which we knew we must soon be actors.

In consequence of the great quantity of baggage, now the whole army was joined, we were halted for a couple of hours to protect it, and the whole of the cavalry was sent back for that purpose; and well it was that they were, as a part of the enemy's cavalry made a demonstration for attacking it, but withdrew on seeing ours. We were at length marched on, and took up our ground a little to the S.W. of the fort, but out of harm's way, when we heard a more definite account of what had been done. The advance of the Bengal column, H.M. 13th Light Infantry and the 16th Native Infantry, had some little work in driving the enemy out of the gardens and old buildings that surround the town. This, however, they accomplished with a trifling loss; our guns then opened on the place, but as they were light ones (the heaviest being still in the rear), with little effect. This desultory fire on both sides was, however, kept up for about three hours: little execution being done, and a few casualties having occurred among the artillery, Sir John Keane ordered the guns to be withdrawn. We had not been on our ground more than three hours when we were ordered once more on the march, and to march by a circuitous route across the mountains, in order to avoid the fire of the town, and take up our ground on the other side of it. We reached our new ground about nine, after a fatiguing march of seven miles, crossing the river, and, by an infernal path, through the hills. Here we bivouacked again for the night, as little of our baggage had arrived.

The enemy took this move of ours as a defeat, and concluded that we had marched on to Cabool, despairing of taking their fort: the event proved how wofully they were mistaken! They wasted a good deal of powder in firing for joy, and young Dost sent a dispatch from the place to his father, apprizing him of the fact, and begging him to come down upon us immediately, while he would follow upon our rear. He also sent to a Ghiljee chieftain near us, telling him to collect as many followers and country people as he could to make an attack upon our baggage, as he had only to come down and take it. We sold this fellow a bargain, however, the next day. Well; the first thing we heard the next morning was from young Keane, and to this effect, that we were to rest for that day, and that the four European corps were to storm the place the next morning before daylight, as the state of the country was such that Sir John could not waste time in breaching it; and, moreover, it was doubtful whether, from the nature of the walls, it could be breached at all. We did not, however, learn the final dispositions till the evening.

That day, the 22nd, I shall never forget; it was a very dismal one; much more so than the next. There was a nervous irritability and excitement about us the whole day; constantly looking at the place through spy-glasses, &c.; and then fellows began to make their wills, and tell each other what they wished to have done in case they fell; altogether it was not at all pleasant, and every one longed most heartily for the morrow, and to have it over. I felt as I used to do when I was a child, and knew I must take a black dose or have a tooth drawn the next morning. About twelve o'clock a great deal of firing took place on our left; this we soon ascertained to be the Ghiljee chief I have before mentioned, coming down with the amiable purpose of lootzing our camp. A part of the Shah's Afghan cavalry, a few guns of the Horse Artillery, and a squadron of Lancers, were ordered out, who soon sent them to the right-about. The chief, when he saw that it was not such an easy job as he expected, cut his stick the first, with his horsemen, about 2000, leaving the poor footpads, about 1000, to shift for themselves. They were terribly mauled, and a great number of prisoners taken, whose heads the Shah struck off immediately. Well; evening came at last! and then we heard the morning's news confirmed; that the Light Companies of the four corps were to form the storming party, that an Engineer officer, with some Sappers, each carrying a bag of gunpowder (in all 300lbs.), was to advance to the Cabool gate, and place it there, in order to blow it down; that immediately upon the gates falling we were to rush in and take possession of the town, &c. At the same time a false attack was to be made by the 16th Bengal Native Infantry on the Candahar gate, in order to divert the enemy's attention. Brigadier Sale, lieut.-colonel of the 13th, was to command the whole, and Col. Dennie, of the same corps, the storming party. Three regiments of Native Infantry were to be in reserve, under Sir Willoughby Cotton; and the cavalry were to be stationed so as best to intercept the flight of those who might manage to make their escape from the place. We were to be formed ready for the attack at two o'clock in the morning, close to a high pillar, about half a mile from the fort; we were to advance under cover of the Artillery, who were to fire over and clear the walls for us. I laid down in my cloak directly after mess, and, being dreadfully tired, never slept more soundly than I did the night before the storming of Ghuzni.

At one o'clock we turned out; I took a cup of tea and a couple of ginger biscuits, and joined my company: in a quarter of an hour we were on our march to the pillar, where we were to be formed. Here we found Col. Sale and the Engineer officers, &c. Col. Sale called out the officers, and told them the plan of the attack, which was to be the same as mentioned before, except that the 13th Light Infantry were to line the ditch outside the town, and fire on the ramparts, while we advanced. The storming party, Queen's and Bengal European regiments, were, after entering the gate, to move along a street to the left, clearing the houses, &c., and on arriving at the end to mount the ramparts, and to return by them. Our object in doing this was to drive as many men as possible into the citadel, and having obtained this object, a signal was to be given, and the artillery were to fire shells into the citadel, which, particularly as their powder magazine was there, it was expected would soon make them cut and run. The 17th and 13th regiments being nearest, were then to rush up and take possession of the citadel, and the Native regiments, being in reserve, were to assist them. Col. Sale then said a few words of encouragement, and concluded by hoping "we should all have luck"--on the whole a very neat and appropriate speech. We then piled arms, and officers fell out. I never saw fellows more merry than most of us were while we were waiting there; in fact, if we had been going to the most delightful place in the world, we could not have appeared in better spirits; and this put me strongly in mind of a scene I had read in a book called "The Subaltern," where the feelings of the officers, waiting for an attack, are described as being just the same. At length, "bang" went a gun from our batteries. Col. Sale said, "Ah, there goes the signal; we had better be starting:" just as if one was to get ready to take a ride to Brixham or elsewhere. Well; we fell in, and in about a quarter of an hour off we went. The enemy returned the fire from our batteries in good style, and there was a regular row. They pointed their "Long Tom," a fifty-two pounder, towards us, and sent the shot over our heads and a little to our left. The ball made a terrific row rushing over us. Whilst we were marching down to the attack the fire on both sides was at its height. The noise was fearful, and the whole scene the grandest and, at the same time, the most awful I ever witnessed. I caught myself, once or twice, trying to make myself as small as I could. As we got nearer the gate it grew worse, and the enemy, from their loop-holes, began to pepper us with matchlocks and arrows. The scene now was splendid. The enemy, at the commencement of the firing, threw out blue lights in several places, which looked beautiful, and the flames of their and our artillery, together with the smaller flashes from the matchlock men, added to the roar of their big guns, the sharp cracking of the matchlocks, the whizzing of their cannon balls and ours, (the latter of which, by-the-bye, went much nearer our heads than the enemy's, as our artillery fired beautifully, and sent their shot close over our heads, on the ramparts,) the singing of the bullets, and the whizzing of their arrows, all combined, made up as pretty a little row as one would wish to hear. Add to this, that it was as dark as pitch, and you may judge of the effect. We made a rush over the bridge, which the enemy had not destroyed, and continuing it up a slight ascent, we found ourselves of a sudden close to the gate. Here there was a check. Although the gate was blown down, still the remains of it, and the barricade on the inside, rendered it a difficult place to get over, particularly as it wanted at least half an hour of daylight, and was perfectly dark. The two first sections were therefore a long time getting through, during which the two last, to which I belonged, were standing still outside, exposed to a cross fire from two round towers, which flanked the entrance. Our men, however, kept up such a smart fire upon every hole and opening that no man dared shew his nose, and their fire was therefore rendered harmless. At length we moved in, and found that, besides what I have mentioned above, there was a large hole in the roof of the portico over the gate, through which the enemy were pitching earth, beams of wood, stones, &c.; one of these beams knocked over my European servant, who was next to me, and dislocated his arm, and, taking me in the flank, made me bite the dust also; however, I had no further hurt than a slight bruise, and was up again immediately, as I heard one of the soldiers say, "Oh! there is poor Mr. Holdsworth: he's down!"

On getting within the gate a few volleys cleared the opening of the street. Robinson, (our captain,) Col. Sale, with Kershaw and Wood of the 13th, Sale's staff, (the latter the man who knew Arthur at Canterbury,) were the first in. Poor Col. Sale got a cut in the mouth, and fell upon Kershaw, who went down with him; on rising, an Afghan was lifting his sword to cut down Sale when Kershaw seized the hilt of his sword, and ran his own into him. Robinson also got a terrible cut on the side of his head, which would have done his business for him if he had not had on a cap padded with cotton, which deadened the weight of the blow. All the companies of the storming party, however, got in well, except the last, the light company of the Bengal European regiment, and they had a desperate fight, the enemy having returned to the gate in great numbers, and twenty-seven men of the company were laid low in no time. After this every company that came in had a shindy at the gate; the fact was, that the enemy took every company for the last, and therefore made a desperate attempt to escape through it. Our company, with the advance, pushed through the town, clearing the tops of the houses. We only lost one man of our company; we thought he was done for at first, but he is still alive, and, I am glad to say, likely lo do well; he was shot right through the breastplate, and the ball went round his body and was taken out of his back; he is to wear the same breastplate in future. On coming to the end of the town we halted, and were agreeably surprised, shortly after, to see the British flag waving on the top of the citadel: the fact of the matter was, that the enemy never thought of retiring to the citadel at all, but endeavoured to make their escape directly they found we were inside the gates; the 17th and 13th, therefore, quietly marched up and took possession of it.

We now returned by the ramparts, taking a great number of prisoners, and on reaching the large street where the horses were, the scene was perfectly ridiculous; the horses were loose, and running and charging about in all directions, kicking, fighting, &c. On getting near the gate we entered by, the effects of our fight became more apparent, as dying and dead Afghans testified. There were eight lying at one particular spot, where a tumbril had blown up, and their bodies were still burning from the effects. I never saw finer men than some of these Afghans--they were perfect models. The plunder now began, though to little purpose, as prize agents were at the gates and made most of us refund. I managed, however, to get through a rather handsome spear, which I took from before the tent of one of the chiefs. If the carelessness of my servants will allow it I mean to keep it till we get back whenever that may be, and send it home by some trusty person, when perhaps you may think it worthy of a place among your curiosities at Brookhill. The 13th and 17th, however, had the best of it in the citadel, which was also the palace, and where all young Dost's women were. I hear that the soldiers have possession of some very handsome articles which they boned there I believe. After this, young Dost, or, to give him his right name, Hyder Khan, was found in a large hole near the citadel, with about twenty followers; they had some work, however, in securing him. About this time I saw the Shah, with the diplomatic people, Sir J. Keane, and Sir W. Cotton, enter the fort and proceed to the citadel. The old Shah was mightily delighted, as well he might be, and expressed himself in raptures with the European soldiery. I was back again to breakfast at mess by eight o'clock. Several of our men were wounded by arrows. One soldier swore "that a fellow had shot his ramrod into him." Stisted had an arrow through the calf of his leg, but his wound is not considered of any importance.

July 30th.--Sir J. Keane, with the greater part of the army, marched this morning for Cabool; ours (the Bombay division) march to-morrow. Although the greater part of the town was taken in the way I have described, still a party of about 100 men, under Dost Mahomed's standard-bearer, (a great man, of course,) held out till the next day, when they were all taken, and soon afterwards shot. They certainly must have been assisted by some Europeans, as their powder was made up in a very scientific manner, and their grape was exceedingly well put together. Young Dost cannot imagine how the gate was blown down; he thinks, I hear, that we shot two men inside the fort from a big gun, who opened the door for us. He was sleeping over it at the time; the explosion must have "astonished him a few, I guess." He says some of his father's best soldiers have fallen there; and one man in particular, a great chief, said to be the best swordsman between Cabool and Candahar. I have been in the fort since, and I am glad we took it in the dark, as it is not at all a nice looking place by daylight. The rooms in the citadel are very fine, particularly where the women were, the ceilings of which are inlaid with gold work. All our sick and wounded are to be left here: we only leave one officer behind, poor Young, who was shot through the thigh very near the groin.

Reports have been very various since the fall of Ghuzni whether Dost himself will fight or not. It seems to be generally expected that we shall have another shindy before we get to Cabool, though a great number of chiefs have lately come in to the Shah, among the principal of whom is Hadjee Khan Kauker, the governor of Bamian, a man of great influence in the country, and a great intriguer, formerly a great friend of Dost Mahomed's. He came in to us about three hours after the place had fallen: he had been waiting on the top of a hill to see the result, and was prepared to join whichever side was victorious. I must tell you, also, that on the 21st, the day we marched upon Ghuzni, another son of Dost was waiting outside the town to attack us with about three thousand men; but on seeing the size of our army he thought better of it, and cut for Cabool as fast as he could; he was deserted on the way by most of his army, and reached Cabool with scarcely a follower: his father was exceedingly enraged, and is said to have put him in prison.

Sunday, 28th.--The day before yesterday, Dost Mahomed's brother, a man who has always favoured the English, and advised Dost to have nothing to do with the Persians, &c., but who lives quite retired, and has very little to do with politics, came into our camp to endeavour to make terms for his brother; but, it is said, neither party was satisfied: they say that he was disgusted at our proposals, and replied, "that Dost would rather lose his life than accept them." Dost wants to be made the Shah's vizier; but that, of course, could not be allowed. How it will end no one knows: however, a few days will shew. We have had several deserters from Dost's army; they say he is encamped, and has thrown up strong entrenchments about three miles in front of Cabool. I should hardly, however, think that the people of Cabool will allow his doing so, as there are several rich people in it who would not like to see Ghuzni reacted at their own door. There would be lots of prize money for us. Talking of prize money, I am afraid there will not be very much, though the things that were taken sold remarkably well, as did also the horses, &c. I managed to buy, though for much beyond its value, a rather pretty coverlet for a bed, which was taken in the fort, which perhaps belonged to some of the young ladies of the harem; it is of shawl velvet, and said to be made in Cashmere. I intend to send it home with the spear, and give it to Kate; though what use she can put it to I hardly know, as I am sure it will not be large enough for her bed; still, when one considers whence it was taken, it may possess some little interest. Young Dost is left behind in the fort, which is to be strongly garrisoned, and where we leave all our sick and wounded.

The climate of this place is delightful; it is about 6000 feet above the level of the sea; and although this is the hottest month in the year, still we do not find it at all unpleasant, living in tents: a delightful change from Candahar. There is the most beautiful clover here I ever saw, and lots of fruit.

We have just received intelligence of Runjet Sing's death; he has been reported dead several times before; but they say this time it is really the case; if so, we are still only at the beginning of our work, as we shall most likely have something to do in the Punjab. The government, it is said, have guaranteed the succession of Runjet's son, who is little better than a natural idiot. The chiefs of the Sikhs, who are very warlike people, and have often licked the Afghans, say they will not consent to be ruled by such a person,--thereon hangs the matter. A large force has been gradually concentrating at Delhi, Meerut, Loodiana, and all the north-west stations in Bengal, ready to march into the Punjab in case of Runjet's death, which has been long expected; and we very likely shall make an advance by the line of the Cabool river to Peshawur, and Attock, on the Indus. It is rather late to begin a campaign after marching more than a thousand miles, and not meeting an enemy except robbers. If I ever do get home safe and sound after all this work, I shall consider myself very lucky.

July 31st.--Here we are, our first day's march to Cabool. Reports still flying about as to whether Dost means to fight. I wore the pistols you gave me in London at the storming,--they are a capital pair! The post goes directly, so I must conclude, with best love to all, your very affectionate son,


P.S.--They say Shah Shooja will give us all medals when everything is settled; those for the officers to be a small gold one, with an impression of the Fort of Ghuzni; those for the soldiers to be silver, and the same pattern. If you look into the military papers when this reaches you, I dare say you will find further accounts of the business.

NOTE.--"It was arranged that an explosion party, consisting of
three officers of engineers (Capt. Peat, Lieuts. Durand and
M'Leod), three Serjeants and eighteen men of the sappers in
working dresses, carrying three hundred pounds of powder in
twelve sand bags, with a hose seventy-two feet long, should be
ready to move down to the gateway at break of day.

"So quickly was the operation performed, and so little was the
enemy aware of the nature of it, that not a man of the party
was hurt."--From Memoranda of Capt. Thompson, R.E., Chief
Engineer, Army of Indus