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Chapter 45: 1878

Shortcomings of my column--Attitude of the Border tribes

It was a proud, albeit a most anxious, moment for me when I assumed command of the Kuram Field Force; though a local Major-General, I was only a Major in my regiment, and save for a short experience on one occasion in Lushai, I had never had an opportunity of commanding troops in the field. Earnestly longing for success, I was intensely interested in ascertaining the qualities of those who were to aid me in achieving it. To this end I lost no time in taking stock of the several officers and corps who were to be associated with me, some of whom were personally known to me, while others I had never met before; and in endeavouring to satisfy myself as to their qualifications and fitness for their several posts, I could not help feeling that they must be equally anxious as to my capability for command, and that the inspection must be of nearly as great moment to them as to me.

The results of a very close investigation were tolerably satisfactory, but there were weak points in my armour which gave me grave cause for anxiety.

I came to the conclusion that the force was not numerically strong enough for the very difficult task before it--in the first instance, the occupation of the Kuram valley and the expulsion of all Afghan garrisons south of the Shutargardan Pass, and in the second, as opportunity might offer, the pushing my reconnaissances into the Khost valley, and, if military considerations would admit, the dislodging the Amir's administration from that tract of country, so as to prevent the Kabul Government drawing supplies from it. Finally, I was directed to explore the roads leading to the unknown region beyond Khost.

The Shutargardan was not less than 180 miles from Kohat, the garrison of which station would, on my departure, be reduced to a minimum, and Rawal Pindi, the nearest place from which aid could be procured, was 130 miles still further off, separated from Kohat by an execrable road and the swiftly-flowing river Indus, crossed by a precarious bridge of boats. It had to be taken into account also that the various Afridi tribes were watching their opportunity, and at the first favourable moment, in common with the tribesmen nearer Kuram, they might be expected to take advantage of our weakness and attack our convoys and the small posts which had necessarily to be established along our line of communication.

The attitude of the Mahomedan sepoys, of whom there were large numbers in four out of my six Native Infantry regiments, was also a cause of considerable anxiety; for I was aware that they were not altogether happy at the prospect of taking part in a war against their co-religionist, the Ruler of Afghanistan, and that the mullas were already urging them to desert our cause.

Furthermore, I discovered that my only British Infantry Regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Foot, was sickly to a degree, and therefore in an unserviceable condition. It was largely composed of quite young, unacclimatized soldiers, peculiarly susceptible to fever--that terrible scourge which fills the hospitals of our Punjab stations in the autumn of each year. I rode out to meet the battalion on its way into Kohat, and was horrified to see the long line of doolies and ambulance-carts by which it was accompanied.

The inefficient state of the transport added to my anxieties. Notwithstanding the difficulties experienced in former campaigns from the same cause, the Government had neglected to take any steps for the organization of a proper transport service while we were at peace; consequently, when everything should have been ready for a start, confusion reigned supreme in this all-important department. Large numbers of camels, mules, and bullocks arrived daily, picked up at exorbitant prices from anyone who would supply them; but most of these animals were quite unfit to enter upon the hard work of a campaign, and with a totally inexperienced and quite insufficient staff of officers to supervise them, it was evident that the majority must succumb at an early date.

Hardly had I realized these shortcomings in the constitution and equipment of my column than I received intelligence which led me to believe that the Afghans would hold the Peiwar Kotal (the pass leading into Afghanistan over the range of mountains bounding the Kuram valley) in great strength, and were determined to oppose our advance at this point. Under these circumstances I felt myself justified in representing to the powers at Simla that I considered the number of troops at my disposal inadequate for the task they were expected to perform, which representation resulted in the 23rd Pioneers, whose transfer to the Khyber column had been under consideration, being left with me, and the 72nd Highlanders, a battery of Field Artillery, and the 28th Punjab Infantry, being sent to Kohat. Of these, however, I was allowed to take on with me only one wing of the 72nd, half the battery, and the 28th Punjab Infantry; and the last-named regiment I could hardly consider as part of my force, for when we should arrive at Thal, our furthest frontier post, it would have to be dropped, with a wing of the 5th Punjab Cavalry and No. 2 Mountain Battery, to garrison that place.

This small reinforcement was not given to me without considerable demur on the part of the military authorities, who had made up their minds that the Kuram column would meet with slight, if any, opposition, and that the chief stand would be made in the Khyber. Lord Lytton, however, supported my appeal, as did Sir Neville Chamberlain, who was then acting as Military Member of Council, and who had personal knowledge of the great natural strength of the Peiwar Kotal position.

I next turned my attention to the transport, and endeavoured by all the means I could think of to render it more efficient. A certain portion of it I placed in regimental charge; I had the men instructed in loading and unloading, and I took great care that the animals were not overladen.

Happily, I had a very able staff. Major Galbraith, the Assistant-Adjutant-General, though new to the work, proved exceptionally good, and Captain Badcock, the chief Commissariat officer, and Major Collett and Captain 'Dick' Kennedy, officers of the Quartermaster-General's department, whom I had myself selected, I could thoroughly depend upon.

As regards my own personal staff I was equally lucky, Captain Pretyman of the R.A. being my A.D.C., and Lieutenant Neville Chamberlain, of the Central India Horse, and Lieutenant-Colonel George Villiers, of the Grenadier Guards, my Orderly officers.

As political adviser I had with me an old friend and schoolfellow, Colonel Garrow Waterfield, Commissioner of Peshawar, who brought with him a large following of Native gentlemen connected with the frontier, by whom he thought our intercourse with the tribesmen would be assisted. With scarcely an exception they proved loyal, and throughout the campaign helped me materially.

Knowing how important it was to secure the interest of the Chiefs and Khans of the border on our side, especially those who had influence in the Kuram valley, we lost no opportunity of becoming acquainted with them while we were at Kohat. They were friendly and full of promises, but it was clear that the amount of assistance to be given by them depended on whether or not our occupation of Kuram was to be permanent, and on this important point I solicited definite instructions. I reported to the Commander-in-Chief that, from all I had learnt, the advent of a British force would be welcomed by the people, provided they understood that it was the forerunner of annexation; that in this case we should be regarded as deliverers, and all the resources of the country would be placed at our disposal; but if the people were led to believe that the force would be withdrawn when our work was finished, and that they would be again handed over to the tender mercies of the Kabul Government, we must expect no aid from them, as they would naturally dread the resentment of their Afghan rulers.

In reply, I was informed that I could assure the people of Kuram that our occupation would be permanent; and my being enabled to make this promise was undoubtedly the explanation of the friendly reception we met with on entering the valley, and the cause of my receiving at the same time a letter from the Chief of the Turis (the inhabitants of the Kuram valley), inquiring when we might be expected, as they were suffering greatly from the tyranny of the Afghan Government, and were anxiously waiting the arrival of the British.