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Chapter 47: 1878-1879

Alikhel--Treachery of the tribesmen--Transport difficulties --Sher Ali looks to Russia for aid--Khost--An attack on our camp --An unsuccessful experiment--An unpleasant incident --Punjab Chiefs' Contingent

Perceiving that further pursuit of the enemy would be useless, I decided to halt a few days to admit of our overtaxed transport bringing up supplies and tents, and to arrange for the occupation of the Peiwar position during the winter months. But I considered that my work would be incomplete if we stopped short of the Shutargardan Pass. Moreover, it was very desirable that we should investigate this route, and, if possible, get into friendly communication with some of the sections of the Ghilzai tribe. The Jajis, through whose territory the first part of the road ran, now showed themselves to be as well disposed as the Turis; they readily brought in supplies, and volunteered to labour for us, and from the information obtained by the political officers, the inhabitants of the Hariab valley seemed equally anxious to be friendly. The dislodgment of the Afghan army by a much smaller force, from a position they had themselves chosen, had evidently had a salutary effect.

As soon as I had leisure, I inquired from Colonel Gordon whether he had been able to discover the men who had fired the signal shots on the night of the 2nd, and whether he did not think that the Pathan Native officers ought to be able to point out the offenders. Gordon replied that he suspected the Jemadar of the Pathan company knew who the culprits were, and that one soldier had confessed to firing the second shot; moreover, he told me that eighteen Pathans had left the regiment during the fight. On receiving this unpleasant information, I assembled a Court of Inquiry, with orders to have the proceedings ready for my consideration by the time I returned from the Shutargardan.

Having despatched the sick and wounded to Kuram and made all necessary arrangements, I marched on the 6th December to Alikhel, twelve miles on the road to the Shutargardan. Before starting, I issued an order thanking the troops for the efforts they had made to ensure success, and I had the honour of communicating to them at the same time a congratulatory message from the Queen.[1]

We reached the foot of the Shutargardan on the 8th, and reconnoitred to the top of the pass the next morning. This point was 11,000 feet above the sea, commanded a fine view of the Logar valley, and I discovered from it that there was nothing between us and the immediate vicinity of Kabul to prevent a force moving rapidly on that place.

We returned to Alikhel on the 10th, and, as it was important to retain control of this advanced post, I decided to leave Captain Rennick in political charge, a duty for which his nerve and determination of character eminently fitted him. Colonel Waterfield, as a temporary arrangement, remained there also with a battery of Artillery and two regiments of Punjab Infantry, for the purpose of establishing friendly relations with the neighbouring tribesmen.

From Alikhel there were said to be two roads leading to Kuram, besides the difficult path over the Peiwar Kotal; and as it was of great importance to gain a knowledge of an alternative line of communication, in view of further trouble, I determined to explore one of them, choosing that which appeared to be the shortest, and which I heard had been used some time before by an Afghan Mountain battery. This route was described as practicable for camels, and ran through lands belonging to tribes whose headmen were with me, a fact which should, I thought, ensure our being free from attack.

I left Alikhel on the 12th December, taking with me No. 1 Mountain Battery, a wing 72nd Highlanders, the 5th Gurkhas, and the 23rd Pioneers. The route lay for four miles along the banks of the Hariab stream, a tributary of the Kuram river, through a valley which gradually narrowed into a thickly-wooded ravine, three miles long: at the end of this ravine the road, turning sharply to the left, ascended till it reached an open grassy plateau, on which stood the hamlet of Sapari. The inhabitants turned out to welcome us, bringing supplies, and appearing so friendly that I settled to halt there for the night. I had been warned, however, by the maliks of some of the villages we had passed through in the morning, that we should probably be attacked on the march the next day, and that a defile which lay at the other side of a mountain over which we had to cross would be particularly dangerous to us. I determined, therefore, to send on troops that evening to occupy the pass over this mountain, and to start the baggage off long before daybreak, so that it should be out of the way of the main body, which would also have to march at an early hour in order to reach the kotal before the tribesmen had time to collect.

This could have been accomplished without difficulty, but for the machinations of our false friends in the village, who directed on to the precipitous path we had to ascend a stream of water which soon turned into a sheet of ice, and when I arrived on the spot I found the road blocked by fallen animals vainly struggling to regain their footing. This caused so much delay that it was nearly noon before the last camel had got over the pass.

The descent on the other side was scarcely less difficult, though free from ice. We dropped 3,000 feet in the first two miles, down a way which can only be described as a ruined staircase, with the steps missing at intervals, ending in the defile against the dangers of which we had been warned. This defile was certainly a nasty place to be caught in, being five miles long, and so narrow that the camels' loads struck against the rocks on either side; and it was impossible to move flanking parties along the cliffs above, as they were intersected by wide chasms running back for long distances.

It was important to secure the exit from this gorge without delay, and for this purpose I pushed on four companies of the 23rd Pioneers, and in support, when the ravine began to widen out a little, I hurried on the Highlanders and the Mountain battery, leaving the Gurkhas to protect the baggage and bring up the rear.

We only got possession of the exit just in time. The Pioneers, by occupying commanding positions on either side of the opening, effectually checkmated several large bodies of armed men who were approaching from different directions, and whose leaders now declared they had only come to help us! Later on we discovered still more formidable gatherings, which doubtless would have all combined to attack us, had they been in time to catch us in the ravine.

The tail of the column was followed and much harassed by the enemy; but they were kept at bay by the steadiness of the gallant Gurkhas, and so successful were they in safe-guarding the baggage, that, although many of the drivers ran away at the first shot, leaving the soldiers to lead the animals as well as defend them, not a single article fell into the hands of the tribesmen. The regiment lost three men killed, and Captain Powell and eleven men wounded. Captain Goad, of the Transport Department, was also badly hurt.[2]

On Goad being knocked over, Sergeant Greer, of the 72nd Highlanders, assisted by three privates, picked him up, and having placed him under cover of a rock, they turned their attention to the enemy. They were only four against large numbers, but by their cool and steady use of the Martini-Henry rifle, which had shortly before been issued to the British soldiers in India, they were enabled to hold their ground until help arrived, when they succeeded in carrying the wounded officer away.

I had observed in the advance on the Peiwar Kotal the skill and gallantry displayed by Sergeant Greer, and noted him as a man fitted for promotion. His distinguished conduct in rescuing and defending Goad confirmed me in my opinion, and I accordingly recommended him for a commission, which, to my great gratification, Her Majesty was graciously pleased to bestow upon him.

That night we halted at the village of Keria; thence the route was easy enough, so, leaving the troops to rest and recover from the last hard march, I rode on to Kuram, where there was much to be done.

The ejectment of the Afghan ruler of Khost and the exploration of that valley formed, it will be remembered, part of the programme given to me to carry through, and it was very desirable that this service should be completed before the winter rains set in. Peace and order now reigned in Upper Kuram and in the neighbourhood of the Peiwar; but there was a good deal of excitement in the lower part of the valley and in Khost, our line of communication was constantly harassed by raiders, convoys were continually threatened, outposts fired into, and telegraph-wires cut. The smallness of my force made it difficult for me to deal with these troubles, so I applied to the Commander-in-Chief for the wing of the 72nd Highlanders left at Kohat, and the 5th Punjab Cavalry at Thal to be ordered to join me at Kuram. At the same time I moved up No. 2 Mountain Battery and the 28th Punjab Infantry, sending the 29th Punjab Infantry to take the place of the 28th at Thal.

I was greatly hampered by want of transport. Arrangements had to be made for sending the sick and wounded, as well as the captured guns, to Kohat (the sight of the latter, I fancied, would have a good effect on the tribes in our rear); but hard work, scarcity of forage, and absence of supervision, had told, as was to be expected, on animals in bad condition at the outset. Mules and camels died daily, reducing our all too small numbers to such an extent that it was with considerable difficulty the convoy was at last despatched.

From the first I foresaw that want of transport would be our greatest difficulty, and so it proved; very few supplies could be obtained in the vicinity of Kuram; the troops at Kohat had been drawing on the adjacent districts ever since October, so that the purchasing agents had every day to go further away to procure necessaries, and consequently an increased number of animals were required for their conveyance. My Commissary-General reported to me that only a few days' provisions for the troops remained in hand, and that it was impossible to lay in any reserve unless more transport could be provided. About this reserve I was very anxious, for the roads might soon become temporarily impassable from the rising of the rivers after the heavy rain to be expected about Christmas. Contractors were despatched to all parts of the country to procure camels, and I suggested to Government that pack-bullocks should be bought at Mirzapur, and railed up country, which suggestion being acted upon, the danger of the troops having to go hungry was warded off.

The treacherous soldiers of the 29th Punjab Infantry had now to be dealt with--a necessary, but most unpleasant, duty. A perusal of the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry satisfied me that the two men who discharged their rifles during the night-march, the Jemadar of their company who failed to report their criminal action, and the eighteen who deserted their colours during the engagement, should all be tried by Court-Martial.

The prisoners were found guilty. The sepoy who fired the first shot was sentenced to death, and the one who discharged the second to two years' imprisonment with hard labour; the court, recognizing a possibility that the latter, being a young soldier, might have loaded and fired without intending treachery, gave him the benefit of the doubt. The Jemadar was awarded seven years' transportation, and the eighteen deserters terms varying from ten years to one year.

It was with deep regret that I confirmed these several sentences, but it was necessary that a deterrent example should be made. Treachery was altogether too grave a crime to be lightly dealt with, and desertions amongst the Pathans were becoming of much too frequent occurrence, particularly as the deserters invariably carried away with them their rifles and ammunition.

The effect of these sentences was most salutary; there was not a single desertion subsequent to the Court-Martial for more than a year, although during that time the Mahomedan portion of my force were severely tried by appeals from their co-religionists.

On Christmas Eve authentic intelligence was brought to me that, on hearing of the defeat of the Afghan army, Sher Ali, with the members of the Russian Mission then at Kabul, had fled to Turkestan, and that his son, Yakub Khan, had been released from prison, and had assumed the reins of Government.

About this time, also, Sir Samuel Browne, who was at Jalalabad, received a letter[3] from the Amir, in which he announced his intention of proceeding to St. Petersburg to lay his case before the Czar and obtain the aid of Russia.

Sher Ali's disappearance and Yakub Khan's assumption of authority suggested new possibilities to the Viceroy, who at once instructed Major Cavagnari, the political officer with the Khyber column, to communicate, if possible, with Yakub Khan, and explain to him that our quarrel was with Sher Ali alone, that he might rest assured of the friendly disposition of the British Government towards him personally, and that, unless he took the initiative, hostilities would not be resumed.

Before proceeding to Kuram, I invited all the Turis and Jajis who had afforded us assistance to meet me in durbar that they might be suitably rewarded. A goodly number responded to the invitation, and were told, in accordance with the instructions I had received from the Government of India, that they would henceforth be under British protection; that no Amir of Afghanistan should ever again be permitted to tyrannize over them; that while they would be expected to live peaceably, neither their religion nor their customs would be interfered with; that roads would be made and markets established, and that whatever supplies they could provide for the use of the troops would be liberally paid for.

After this I started for Khost, accompanied by Colonel Waterfield, the political officer.

The column I took with me consisted of the squadron of the 10th Hussars, 200 of the 72nd Highlanders, a wing of the 5th Punjab Cavalry, the 21st and 28th Punjab Infantry, and Nos. 1 and 2 Mountain Batteries. The corps were so weak that their total strength only amounted to 2,000 men.

We reached Matun, the name given to some three villages grouped round a small fort in the centre of the valley, on the 6th January, 1879. The Afghan Governor, with whom I had been in communication, met me and arranged to surrender the fort, on condition that his personal safety should be guaranteed, and that he should be allowed to go either to Kabul or India, as he might desire.

About half a mile from the fort I halted the column, and taking a small escort of the 10th Hussars, I rode on with the Governor, who invited me with my staff into his house. While tea was being handed round, the Governor (Akram Khan by name) warned me that we should be attacked, and that he could do nothing to prevent it, having only some 200 local militia and no regular troops. He further said that the inhabitants of the valley were not directly opposed to the British Government, and, if left to themselves, would give no trouble; but he doubted their being able to resist the pressure put upon them by a large number of tribesmen who had collected from the adjacent districts, attracted by the smallness of the force, which they believed 'had been delivered into their hands.'

This intelligence showed me I must be prepared for a scrimmage, so I ordered the camp to be pitched in the form of a square as compactly as possible, with the transport animals and impedimenta in the centre, and strong piquets at the four angles. Cavalry patrols were sent out as far as the broken and hilly nature of the ground would permit, and every endeavour was made to ascertain the strength and whereabouts of the enemy, but to no purpose: the enemy were invisible, and the patrols reported that they had come across numbers of peaceable-looking husbandmen, but no one else.

The night passed off quietly, but when advancing day made them visible, multitudes of tribesmen were descried collecting on the slopes of the neighbouring hills. Some friendly Natives were sent to ascertain their intentions, followed by a Cavalry reconnoitring party, when suddenly a number of camel-drivers and mule-men, who had gone to the nearest village to procure fodder for their animals, came rushing back to camp in the wildest terror and excitement, declaring that the enemy seemed to rise as if by magic out of the ground, and that several thousands were already in the village. No doubt some of these were 'the peaceable-looking husbandmen' the patrols had encountered the previous day. I now became somewhat anxious, not only for the safety of the reconnoitring party, which appeared to be in danger of being cut off, but for that of the whole force; such a mere handful as we were compared to the numbers arrayed against us.

Vigorous action was evidently necessary. Accordingly, I ordered all the available Cavalry (only 70 men of the 10th Hussars, and 155 of the 5th Punjab Cavalry), under Colonel Hugh Gough, to follow the reconnoitring party in case of their being so hard pressed as to have to retire, and Captain Swinley's Mountain battery, with six companies of the 28th Punjab Infantry, under Colonel Hudson,[4] to move out in support. Colonel Drew I left in charge of the camp, with 200 Highlanders, the 21st Punjab Infantry, and a Mountain battery. I myself joined Gough, who, by dismounted fire and several bold charges, notwithstanding the difficult nature of the ground, succeeded in driving the enemy to the highest ridges, over which Swinley's well-directed fire eventually forced them to retreat.

Heavy firing was now heard in the direction of our camp, and I hurried back, taking with me a troop of the 5th Punjab Cavalry. I found that during my absence Drew had been attacked on two sides; he had been able to prevent the enemy from coming to close quarters, but they were still hovering about at no great distance, and I thought it advisable to clear them away by moving out against them with all the troops at my disposal. As we approached, they disappeared with their usual rapidity; the 5th Punjab Cavalry, however, got in amongst some of them, and we returned to camp with 100 prisoners, 500 head of cattle, some sheep, and a large quantity of grain.

The tribesmen, however, had not been sufficiently punished to prevent a repetition of the attack, probably with largely increased numbers; so I ordered the destruction of the hamlets nearest us, in which they had been sheltered and some of our camp followers had been murdered.

The next night a most unfortunate occurrence took place, resulting in the death of six of our prisoners; but it was just one of those things which could hardly have been foreseen or guarded against, and for which, however lamentable, no one was to blame. The headmen of the particular Waziri tribe to which the captives belonged had been summoned during the day, and told that the men would be released on payment of a sum of fifty rupees each. The money was paid down at once for a certain number, who were immediately set free; but there was not quite enough for all, and the headmen went off to procure what was required for the ransom of the remainder. Soon after dark, however, some of the enemy[5] were discovered creeping up the banks of a nulla at the back of the camp, where the unransomed men were detained under a guard; the nearest sentry instantly fired, and the piquets all round took up the firing, thinking that another attack on the camp had commenced. At the sound of the first shot the prisoners all jumped to their feet, and calling to each other to escape, attempted to seize the rifles belonging to the guard, upon which the Native officer in command (a Pathan like themselves) told them that if they persisted in trying to escape, they would be shot. His words had no effect, and to prevent his men being overpowered, he gave the order to fire. Six of the prisoners were killed and thirteen wounded. It was a most regrettable affair, but a Court of Inquiry decided that the Native officer had no option, and completely exonerated the guard from acting with undue severity. The wounded were, of course, taken to our hospital, and well cared for by our Doctors.[6]

The remainder of our sojourn in Khost was not marked by any incident of particular interest. We marched to the end of the valley, and made a careful survey of it and of the surrounding hills.

The instructions I received with regard to Khost were, to occupy the valley and dislodge the Afghan administration therefrom. To my great chagrin, the smallness of my force made it impossible for me to give effect to these instructions as I could have wished. To have remained in Khost under the circumstances would have been to court disaster; the numbers of the enemy were daily increasing, and it would have been impossible to hold our own. It was, however, of great importance, if practicable, to retain some control over the valley, a peculiarly productive district, which, if left alone by us, I feared would become a centre of dangerous intrigue against any settled government in Kuram. Accordingly I determined to try how placing Khost in charge of one of our own Native officials would answer, and I selected for the position Shahzada Sultan Jan, a Saddozai gentleman of good birth, and a Sunni Mahomedan in religion, who, I thought, would be a persona grata to the Khostwals, and, if supported by some Native levies, and associated in his administrative duties with the chief maliks of Khost, would be more likely to hold his own than anyone else I could place there. This was, however, a mere experiment, and I did not disguise from myself that its success was very doubtful; but it was the only way in which I could attempt to carry out the orders of Government, my hands being so completely tied by paucity of troops. I had no fear for the Shahzada's personal safety, and I felt that, if in the end I should be obliged to abandon Khost altogether for the present, it could later, if necessary, be easily re-occupied with a somewhat larger force.

Having decided on the course to be adopted, I held a durbar, which was numerously attended, and addressed the people of Khost in much the same way I had spoken to the Turis in Kuram, expressing a hope that they would support the Shahzada's authority until a more permanent form of government could be established.

On the 27th January we left Khost and made one march; the next day I halted, so as to be near the Shahzada in case of need. The intelligence brought to me that evening satisfied me that my experiment would not answer, and that without troops (which I could not spare) to support the newly-established authority at first starting off, we could not hope to maintain any hold over the country; for though the Khostwals themselves were perfectly content with the arrangements I had made, they could not resist the tribesmen, who directly our backs were turned began to show their teeth. Accordingly, I decided to bring the Shahzada away while I could do so without trouble. I marched back to Matun the next morning with 1,000 men (Cavalry and Infantry) and four Mountain guns. We found Sultan Jan in anything but a happy frame of mind, and quite ready to come away. So having formally made the place over to the maliks, we started on our return journey. As we departed, a collection of our tribal enemies (about 3,000) who had been watching the proceedings took the opportunity to attack us; but two weak squadrons of Cavalry, skilfully handled by Hugh Gough, kept them in check, and we reached camp without further molestation.

The next day, the last of January, we returned to Hazir Pir in Kuram. There I received a visit from Sirdar Wali Mahomed Khan, brother of Sher Ali, who was accompanied by several leading men of the Logar valley, some of whom were of great assistance to me a few months later. Wali Mahomed was a man of about fifty years of age; he had a pleasing countenance, of the same Jewish type as the majority of the Afghan nation, but he had a weak face and was evidently wanting in character. He told me that he had fled from Kabul to escape the vengeance of his nephew, Yakub Khan, who attributed his long imprisonment by his father to the Sirdar's influence. Sir Samuel Browne and Major Cavagnari, on the Khyber line, were conducting all political negotiations with the Afghans, so I passed Wali Mahomed Khan on to them.

During the month of February my time was chiefly employed in inspecting the roads and the defensive posts which my talented and indefatigable Chief Engineer was constructing, examining the arrangements for housing the troops, and looking after the transport animals and Commissariat depots. No more military demonstrations were necessary, for the people were quietly settling down under British rule. Convoys were no longer molested nor telegraph wires cut; but I had one rather unpleasant incident with regard to a war Correspondent, which, until the true facts of the case were understood, brought me into disrepute with one of the leading London newspapers, the representative of which I felt myself compelled to dismiss from the Kuram Field Force.

Judging from his telegrams, which he brought to me to sign, the nerves of the Correspondent in question must have been somewhat shaken by the few and very distant shots fired at us on the 28th November. These telegrams being in many instances absolutely incorrect and of the most alarming nature, were of course not allowed to be despatched until they had been revised in accordance with truth; but one, evidently altered and added to after I had countersigned it, was brought to me by the telegraph master. I sent for the Correspondent, who confessed to having made the alterations, not apparently realizing that he had done anything at all reprehensible, but he promised that he would never do such a thing again. This promise was not kept; telegrams appeared in his paper which I had not seen before despatch, and which were most misleading to the British public. Moreover, his letters, over which I could have no control, and which I heard of for the first time when the copies of his paper arrived in Kuram, were most subversive of the truth. It was on the receipt of these letters that I felt it to be my duty to send the too imaginative author to the rear.

No one could be more anxious than I was to have all details of the campaign made public. I considered it due to the people of Great Britain that the press Correspondents should have every opportunity for giving the fullest and most faithful accounts of what might happen while the army was in the field, and I took special pains from the first to treat the Correspondents with confidence, and give them such information as it was in my power to afford. All I required from them in return was that the operations should be truthfully reported, and that any Correspondent who did not confine himself to the recording of facts, and felt himself competent to criticize the conduct of the campaign, should be careful to acquaint himself with the many and varied reasons which a Commander must always have to consider before deciding on any line of action.

What to my mind was so reprehensible in this Correspondent's conduct was the publication, in time of war, and consequent excitement and anxiety at home, of incorrect and sensational statements, founded on information derived from irresponsible and uninformed sources, and the alteration of telegrams after they had been countersigned by the recognized authority, the result of which could only be to keep the public in a state of apprehension regarding the force in the field, and, what is even more to be deprecated, to weaken the confidence of the troops in their Commander. It was satisfactory to me that my action in the matter met with the fullest approval of the Viceroy.

About this time my column was strengthened by the arrival of the Contingent provided by the Punjab Chiefs, under the command of Brigadier General John Watson, my comrade of the Mutiny days. The Contingent consisted of 868 Cavalry, and 2,685 Infantry with 13 guns, which were placed in position along the line of communication, and proved of great use in relieving the Regular army of escort duty. The senior Native officer with the Punjabis was Bakshi Ganda Sing, Commander-in-Chief of the Patiala army, a particularly handsome, gentlemanly Sikh, with whom I have ever since been on terms of friendly intercourse.

Towards the end of February I paid a visit to Kohat, where my wife met me; we spent a week together, and I had the pleasure of welcoming to the frontier that grand regiment, the 92nd Highlanders, which had been sent up to be in readiness to join my column in the event of an advance on Kabul becoming necessary.

[Footnote 1:


'I have much pleasure in communicating to you and the force under your command the following telegram just received Her Majesty, and desire at the same time to add my warm congratulations on the success achieved. Message begins: "I have received the news of the decisive victory of General Roberts, and the splendid behaviour of my brave soldiers, with pride and satisfaction, though I must ever deplore the unavoidable loss of life. Pray inquire after the wounded in my name. May we continue to receive good news."']

[Footnote 2: Both officers died of their wounds soon afterwards.]

[Footnote 3:


'Be it known to the officers of the British Government that this suppliant before God never supposed, nor wished, that the matters [in dispute] between you and myself should come to this issue [literally, "should come out from the curtain"], or that the veil of friendship and amity, which has for many years been upheld between two neighbours and adjoining States, should, without any cause, be thus drawn aside.

'And since you have begun the quarrel and hostilities, and have advanced on Afghan territory, this suppliant before God, with the unanimous consent and advice of all the nobles, grandees, and of the army in Afghanistan, having abandoned his troops, his realm, and all the possessions of his crown, has departed with expedition, accompanied by a few attendants, to St. Petersburg, the capital of the Czar of Russia, where, before a congress, the whole history of the transactions between myself and yourselves will be submitted to all the Powers [of Europe]. If you have anything in dispute with me regarding State affairs in Afghanistan, you should institute and establish your case at St. Petersburg, and state and explain what you desire, so that the questions in dispute between us may be made known and clear to all the Powers. And surely the side of right will not be overlooked. If your intentions are otherwise, and you entertain hostile and vindictive feelings towards the people of Afghanistan, God alone is their Protector and real Preserver. Upon the course of action here above stated this suppliant before God has resolved and decided.']

[Footnote 4: The late Lieutenant-General Sir John Hudson, K.C.B., who died as Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army.]

[Footnote 5: No doubt friends of the prisoners, who had come to help them to escape.]

[Footnote 6: This occurrence was made great capital of by the anti-war party at home. A member of the House of Commons, in commenting upon it, said that 'some ninety prisoners, who had been taken, had been tied together with ropes'; that 'on their making some attempt to escape they were set upon, and many of them slaughtered in their bonds'; and that 'the dead, the living, the dying, and the wounded were left tied together, and lying in one confused mass of bodies.']