You are here

Chapter 50: 1879

Hector Macdonald and Sher Mahomed--Yakub Khan --A Proclamation and an Order--The maliks of Logar --Attack on the Shutargardan--Reconnoitring roads leading to Kabul

On the 27th September I made over the Kuram command to Brigadier-General T. Gordon, and set out for Kushi, where Baker was now encamped.

Just before I started I had the pleasure of welcoming my old friend and brother officer, Major-General J. Hills, V.C., C.B., who had been with Sir Donald Stewart as Assistant Adjutant-General from the beginning of the campaign, and who had, the moment he heard there was to be an advance on Kabul, come with all speed to place his services at my disposal. Although I had no employment for Hills at the time, there would be plenty for all to do at Kabul, and I was delighted to have so good a soldier with me.

My escort consisted of the Head-Quarters of the Cavalry brigade, one squadron 9th Lancers, 5th Punjab Cavalry, and detachments of the 5th and 28th Punjab Infantry. We had only gone about halfway through the pass when I pushed on with the Cavalry, in the hope of reaching the camp on the top before dark, and was very soon met by twenty-five men of the 92nd Highlanders, who brought me a note from Colonel Perkins, R.E., in command on the Shutargardan, warning me that we were sure to be attacked. We had not proceeded far, when at the narrowest part of the defile we found the passage blocked by some 2,000 Afghans, and as we approached a volley was fired from a party concealed by some rocks on our left. I was told afterwards that it was intended for me, but I remained unscathed, and the principal medical officer, Dr. Townsend, who was riding on my right, and to whom I was talking at the moment, was severely wounded. The Highlanders, supported by some dismounted Cavalry, cleared away the enemy to the north, but as they clung to the precipitous hills on the south, we had to wait till the main body of the escort came up, when they were speedily dispersed.

Meanwhile, a sharp little engagement had taken place further up the gorge, and as we advanced we could see the enemy retiring before a detachment of the 92nd Highlanders, under Colour-Sergeant Hector Macdonald, and of the 3rd Sikhs, under Jemadar Sher Mahomed, a Native of Kabul. The manner in which the Colour-Sergeant and the Native officer handled their men gave me a high opinion of them both.[1]

On the top of the Shutargardan Pass that evening I received the Amir's reply[2] to my last letter, in which he expressed his gratitude for the sympathy and support afforded him by the British Government, and informed me that he had given orders to the Governor of Jalalabad that the Khyber column should not meet with any opposition. I was also given a letter from Sirdar Wali Mahomed Khan, and several other Sirdars, professing loyalty to the British Government, and expressing pleasure at my approach. And at the same time the rather embarrassing information reached me that the Amir, desiring personal communication with me, had already arrived in Baker's camp at Kushi, attended by his son Musa Khan, a lad about seven years old, his father-in-law, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Afghan army (Daud Shah), with a suite of 45 members and an escort of 200 men.

Although I had met with but slight opposition hitherto, it was evident from the secret information I received that the Ghilzais were inclined to be hostile, and intended to oppose us, and as it was important to keep open communication with Alikhel through their country, I arranged for the Shutargardan to be held by a Mountain battery, the 3rd Sikhs, and the 21st Punjab Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel G.N. Money, an officer on whose judgment and coolness I knew I could rely.

The next morning I rode to Kushi, where my first interview with the Amir of Afghanistan took place.

I cannot say that I was favourably impressed by his appearance. He was an insignificant-looking man, about thirty-two years of age, with a receding forehead, a conical-shaped head, and no chin to speak of, and he gave me the idea of being entirely wanting in that force of character without which no one could hope to govern or hold in check the warlike and turbulent people of Afghanistan. He was possessed, moreover, of a very shifty eye, he could not look one straight in the face, and from the first I felt that his appearance tallied exactly with the double-dealing that had been imputed to him. His presence in my camp was a source of the gravest anxiety to me. He was constantly receiving and sending messages, and was no doubt giving his friends at Kabul all the information he could collect as to our resources and intentions. He had, however, come ostensibly as our ally, seeking refuge from his mutinous soldiers, and whatever suspicions I might secretly entertain, I could only treat him as an honoured guest, so long as there was nothing proved against him.

My first visit to Yakub Khan was of a formal character. Nevertheless, he seized the opportunity to urge strongly upon me the advisability of delaying my advance, that he might have time, he said, to restore order amongst his troops, and to punish those who had participated in the attack on the Embassy. I replied that my orders were peremptory, and that it was my duty, as it was my determination, to press on to Kabul with all possible speed. Finding that his arguments had no effect, he changed his tactics, and declared that he was much alarmed for the safety of his family, whom he had left in the Bala Hissar; that he had only one regiment on which he could depend; that he feared when the others should hear of our approach they would break out and attack the citadel; and that the innocent people in Kabul, not considering it possible that a British force could get there so quickly, had made no arrangements to convey their families away.

Feeling that anxiety for the safety of the families was not the true cause for the Amir's efforts to delay us, and that his sole object was to gain time for the development of plans for opposing our advance--which subsequent events proved had been made with great care--I told him it was impossible to accede to his wishes, but that time would be given for all women and children to clear out of the city if it should prove necessary to attack it. This necessity, however, I was most anxious to avoid, and earnestly hoped that our fighting would be over before we entered Kabul, for I had not forgotten Delhi, and I dreaded the idea of the troops having to force their way through narrow streets and crowded bazaars.

Yakub Khan was evidently much chagrined at my decision. He had left Kabul hurriedly, his movements probably being hastened by hearing that his uncle, Wali Mahomed Khan, and several other Sirdars with whom he was at enmity, were on their way to join me. He had not even brought a tent with him, and, had he succeeded in inducing me to delay our advance, he would without doubt have returned to Kabul at once. As it was, he was accommodated with a tent in the centre of the camp, and the best arrangements possible, under the circumstances, made for his entertainment.

When his own tents arrived, he asked leave to have them pitched outside camp limits. To this I consented, at the same time ordering that a guard of the same strength as my own should be detailed as his escort, ostensibly to do him honour, but in reality that I might be kept informed as to his movements. Unwelcome guest as he was, I thought the least of two evils was to keep him now that we had got him, as his presence in Kabul would be sure to increase the opposition I felt certain we should encounter.

In response to the fears expressed by the Amir as to the safety of the non-combatants, I issued the following Proclamation to the people of Kabul:

'Be it known to all that the British Army is advancing on Kabul to take possession of the city. If it be allowed to do so peacefully, well and good; if not, the city will be seized by force. Therefore, all well-disposed persons, who have taken no part in the dastardly murder of the British Envoy, or in the plunder of the Residency, are warned that, if they are unable to prevent resistance being offered to the entrance of the British army, and the authority of His Highness the Amir, they should make immediate arrangements for their own safety, either by coming to the British camp, or by such other measures as may seem fit to them. And as the British Government does not make war on women and children, warning is given that all women and children should be removed from the city beyond the reach of harm. The British Government desires to treat all classes with justice, and to respect their religion, feelings, and customs, while exacting full retribution from offenders. Every effort will, therefore, be made to prevent the innocent suffering with the guilty, but it is necessary that the utmost precaution should be taken against useless opposition.

'After receipt of this Proclamation, therefore, all persons found armed in or about Kabul will be treated as enemies of the British Government; and, further, it must be distinctly understood that, if the entry of the British force is resisted, I cannot hold myself responsible for any accidental injury which may be done to the persons or property of even well-disposed people, who may have neglected this warning.'

At the same time, the matter having been brought to my notice by Lord Lytton, and bearing in my mind that my father had told me one of the chief causes of the outbreak in Kabul in 1841 was the Afghans' jealousy of their women, and resentment at the European soldiers' intimacy with them, I thought it well to impress upon all the necessity for caution in this respect by publishing the following Order:

'Sir Frederick Roberts desires General officers, and officers commanding corps, to impress upon all officers under their command the necessity for constant vigilance in preventing irregularities likely to arouse the personal jealousies of the people of Kabul, who are, of all races, most susceptible as regards their women.

'The deep-seated animosity of the Afghans towards the English has been mainly ascribed to indiscretions committed during the first occupation of Kabul, and the Major-General trusts that the same excellent discipline so long exhibited by the troops under his command will remove the prejudices of past years, and cause the British name to be as highly respected in Afghanistan as it is throughout the civilized world.[3]

On the 30th September (my forty-seventh birthday), all arrangements which it was possible for me to make having been completed, the Cavalry brigade marched eight miles to Zargunshahr, the first halting-place on the way to Kabul. I accompanied it, for I was informed that Wali Mahomed Khan and the Sirdars had arrived so far, and I could not let them come on to my camp so long as the Amir was still in it. I wished, also, to interview the Logar maliks and ascertain whether I could procure supplies from their valley. There was bread-stuff with the force sufficient for fourteen days, but for the transport of so much grain a large number of animals was required, which could ill be spared, for carriage was so short that I could only move a little more than half the troops at one time, and instead of being able to march direct on Kabul with 6,000 men, a halt would have to be made every other day to admit of the animals going back to bring up the rear brigade, which practically meant my only having at my disposal rather more than half that number at any one time. How fervently I wished that those in authority, who never can see the necessity for maintaining transport in time of peace, could be made to realize the result of their short-sightedness--the danger of having to divide a none too large force in an enemy's country, the consequent risk of failure, the enormous increase of anxiety to the Commander, the delay in achieving the object of the campaign, and the additional labour to all concerned in an undertaking, arduous enough under the most favourable circumstances, in a difficult country, and under a burning eastern sun, even if possessed of good and sufficient transport.

Stores had been collected at Kushi partly by means of local carriage, and partly by our own animals doing the journey twice over from Alikhel, a distance of thirty-six miles. So hard pressed was I for transport that I had to make the Cavalry soldiers march on foot and lead their horses laden with grain--an unusual piece of duty, which was, however, performed with the cheerful alacrity which the troops of the Kabul Field Force always displayed.

But all this is a digression. To return to my story. The maliks of Logar, greatly to my relief, agreed to bring a certain amount of supplies; while Wali Mahomed Khan and the other Sirdars were full of protestations of loyalty and devotion. Most of them remained with me all the time I was in Kabul, and some of them afforded me considerable assistance. The Sirdars warned me to place no trust in the Amir, and enlarged on the treachery of his conduct, but as I knew they looked upon Yakub Khan as their own deadly enemy, I accepted their counsel with some reservation. I was not, however, able to feel quite at ease about the proceedings of my Royal guest, so I returned to Kushi that same evening.

On the 1st October the whole of the Kabul Field Force was assembled in the Logar valley.[4]

I waited at Kushi with the last of the Infantry until the morning of the 2nd. Just as I was leaving camp, I became aware that firing was going on in the direction of the Shutargardan, and later in the day I received a report from Colonel Money as to what had happened there.

The enemy, emboldened by the diminished numbers of the garrison, and undervaluing what might be accomplished by a small number of good soldiers, had assembled in force, and occupied the crest of the mountain, the only place from which heliographic communication with me could be kept up. Money very properly decided that this could not be permitted, and considered it best to take the initiative before the enemy should become still stronger, so ordered an advance. Under cover of the Mountain battery's fire, Major Griffiths, of the 3rd Sikhs, with 200 of his own men and 50 of the 21st Punjab Infantry, supported by 150 rifles of the latter corps, stormed the Afghans' position. The assault, delivered in a most spirited manner, was perfectly successful.

Major Griffiths, however, was wounded, also a signalling sergeant of the 67th Foot and five men of the 3rd Sikhs, while the enemy left thirty dead on the ground, and were pursued down the slope of the hill without making any attempt to rally.

On the 3rd we marched fifteen miles to Zahidabad, where we first came in sight of the fortified hill above Kabul. The rear guard was fired into on the way, and we had considerable difficulty in crossing the Logar river, as the water from a large irrigation cut had been directed back into the stream just above the ford. Our only casualty on this day was Captain 'Dick' Kennedy, who was wounded in the hand.

It was plain from these occurrences, and from the attack on the Shutargardan, that the people generally were not disposed to be friendly. From the Amir I could extract no information on this head, although he must have been fully aware of the feelings and intentions of his subjects. He was in constant communication with Kabul, and was frequently being met by mounted messengers, who, from the haste with which they travelled, as evidenced by the exhausted state of their horses and the eagerness with which the Amir read the letters they brought, appeared to be the bearers of important tidings.

It may be imagined how irritating and embarrassing was Yakub Khan's presence, since his position in my camp enabled him to give the leaders at Kabul accurate information as to our numbers and movements. That he felt pretty sure of our discomfiture was apparent from his change of manner, which, from being at first a mixture of extreme cordiality and cringing servility, became as we neared Kabul distant, and even haughty.

On the 5th October, one month from the receipt at Simla of the evil tidings of the fate of the British Embassy, we reached the pretty little village of Charasia, nestling in orchards and gardens, with a rugged range of hills towering above it about a mile away. This range descended abruptly on the right to permit the exit of the Logar river, and rose again on its other side in precipitous cliffs, forming a fine gorge[5] about halfway between our camp and Kabul city, now only from ten to twelve miles distant.

An uncle of the Amir (Sirdar Nek Mahomed Khan), and a General in the Afghan army, came out to meet Yakub Khan at this place; he remained some time in earnest conversation with his nephew, and, as he was about to remount his horse, called out in so loud a tone that it was evidently meant for us all to hear, that he was 'now going to disperse the troops.'[6] Very different, however, was the story brought to me by an escaped Native servant of Cavagnari's, who came into our camp later in the day. This man declared that preparations for fighting were steadily being carried on; that the soldiers and townspeople were streaming into the arsenal and supplying themselves with cartridges; that large bodies of troops were moving out in our direction; and that, when we advanced next day, we should certainly be opposed by a formidable force. The Amir, on having this intelligence communicated to him, pretended to disbelieve it utterly, and assured me that all was at peace in the city, that Nek Mahomed would keep the troops quiet, and that I should have no trouble; but I was not taken in by his specious assurances.

Now more than ever I felt the want of sufficient transport! Had it been possible to have the whole of my force with me, I should have advanced at once, and have occupied that evening the range of hills I have described; but Macpherson's brigade was still a march behind, and all I could do was, immediately on arrival, to send back every available transport animal to bring it up. I pushed forward Cavalry patrols along the three roads leading to Kabul, and rode out myself to reconnoitre the position in front. It was sufficiently strong to make me wish I had a larger force. Towards evening groups of men appeared on the skyline all round, giving unmistakable warning that the tribes were gathering in large numbers.

From the information brought me by the Cavalry, and from my own examination of the ground, I decided to advance along the left bank of the river: and to facilitate this movement I determined to seize the heights on either side of the gorge at daybreak, whether Macpherson's brigade had arrived or not. That night strong piquets were thrown out round the camp, and Cavalry patrols were ordered to proceed at dawn to feel for the enemy. L'homme propose, mais Dieu dispose.

[Footnote 1: Macdonald, having subsequently further distinguished himself, was given a commission, and is now commanding a regiment in the Egyptian Army. Sher Mahomed was rewarded with the Order of Merit.]

[Footnote 2:


(After compliments.) Your friendly letter has reached me just at this moment, 8 p.m., the 10th Shawal (27th September), and opened the doors of joy and happiness on the face of my heart marked with affection. I feel perfectly certain and confident that the movements of Her Imperial Majesty's victorious troops are merely for the purpose of consolidating the foundation of my kingdom and strengthening the basis of my government.

In truth, the sympathy of friends with friends is fitting and proper, and the indulgence and kindness of a great Government to a sincere and faithful friend are agreeable and pleasing. I am exceedingly gratified with, and thankful to, the representatives of the illustrious British Government for their expression of sympathy and their support of my cause. Your friendly and wise suggestion that none of the ignorant tribes of Afghanistan should oppose the British troops, so that the officers of the British Government should be the better able to support and protect me, is very acceptable and reasonable. Before I received your letter, I had sent orders repeatedly to the Governors of Jalalabad and Lalpura not to let anyone oppose or resist the British troops, and stringent orders have again been issued to the Governor of Jalalabad to use his utmost endeavours and efforts in this respect. The order in question to the address of the Governor of Jalalabad will be shown you to-morrow, and sent by an express courier.]

[Footnote 3: It was a matter of intense gratification to me that the whole time we remained in Afghanistan, nearly two years, not a single complaint was made by an Afghan of any soldier in my force having interfered with the women of the country.]

[Footnote 4: The force was made up as follows:

Other Ranks
British Native
Divisional, Brigade,
and Departmental Staff
F/A, R.H.A.
G/3, R.A.
No. 2 Mountain Battery
Two Gatling guns
9th Lancers (one squadron)
5th Punjab Cavalry
12th Bengal Cavalry
14th Bengal Lancers
67th Foot
72nd Highlanders
92nd Highlanders
5th Punjab Infantry
5th Gurkhas
23rd Pioneers
28th Punjab Infantry
7th Company Bengal Sappers and Miners








  192   2,558   3,867  

[Footnote 5: Known as the sang-i-nawishta (inscribed stone).]

[Footnote 6: Shortly after I was settled at Kabul, the following letter, written by Nek Mahomed on the evening of the day he had been with the Amir, to some person whom he wished to acquaint with the state of affairs, was brought to me:

'MY KIND FRIEND,--The truth is that to-day, at sunrise, I went to the camp, the Amir having summoned me. When I arrived, Mulla Shah Mahomed [the Wazir] first said to me, "Go back and tell the people to raise a holy war." I did not feel certain about what he said [or was not satisfied with this], [but] the Amir afterwards told me to go back that very hour and rouse the people to a ghaza. I got back to Kabul about 7 o'clock, and am collecting the people. Salaam.'

The letter was not addressed, but it was sealed with Nek Mahomed's seal, and there was no reason to doubt its authenticity.]