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Chapter 52: 1879

Guiding instructions--Visit to the Bala Hissar--Yakub Khan abdicates --The Proclamation--Administrative measures --Explosions in the Bala Hissar

At last I was at Kabul, the place I had heard so much of from my boy-hood, and had so often wished to see! The city lay beneath me, with its mud-coloured buildings and its 50,000 inhabitants, covering a considerable extent of ground. To the south-east corner of the city appeared the Bala Hissar, picturesquely perched on a saddle just beneath the Shahr-i-Darwaza heights, along the top of which ran a fortified wall, enclosing the upper portion of the citadel and extending to the Deh-i-Mazang gorge.

Kabul was reported to be perfectly quiet, and numbers of traders came into our camp to dispose of their wares; but I forbade anyone to enter the city until I had been able to decide upon the best means of maintaining order amongst a population for the most part extremely fanatical, treacherous, and vindictive.

So far our success had been complete: all opposition had been overcome, Kabul was at our mercy, the Amir was in my camp ready to agree to whatever I might propose, and it had been all done with extraordinarily little loss to ourselves. Nevertheless, I felt my difficulties were very far from being at an end--indeed, the part of my duty still remaining to be accomplished was surrounded with far greater difficulty, and was a source of much more anxiety to me than the military task I had undertaken; for, with regard to the latter, I possessed confidence in myself and my ability to perform it, whereas, with respect to the political and diplomatic side of the question, actual personal experience I had none, and I could only hope that common-sense and a sense of justice would carry me through.

The instructions I had received from the Government of India were very general in their character, for the Viceroy felt that any proceedings must necessarily depend on the state of affairs obtaining at Kabul, the acts and attitude of the Amir and his people, and the various conditions impossible to foresee when the Foreign Office letter was written to me on the 29th September. But, though general, they were very comprehensive.

The troops were to be placed in strong and secure positions, such as would give me complete control over the Amir's capital; any Afghan soldiers remaining at Kabul, and the whole of the city population, were to be disarmed; supplies were to be collected in sufficient quantities to render my force independent in case of interruption along the line of communication; Yakub Khan's personal safety was to be secured, and adequate supervision maintained over his movements and actions; a close investigation was to be instituted into all the causes and circumstances connected with the 'totally unprovoked and most barbarous attack by the Amir's soldiery and the people of his capital upon the representative of an allied State, who was residing under the Amir's protection in the Amir's fortress, in very close proximity to the Amir himself, and whose personal safety and honourable treatment had been solemnly guaranteed by the Ruler of Afghanistan.'

The retribution to be exacted was to be adapted to the twofold character of the offence, and was to be imposed upon the Afghan nation in proportion as the offence was proved to be national, and as the responsibility should be brought home to any particular community. Further, the imposition of a fine, it was suggested upon the city of Kabul 'would be in accordance with justice and precedent,' and the demolition of fortifications and removal of buildings within range of my defences, or which might interfere with my control over the city, might be 'necessary as a military precaution.'

In forming my plans for the removal of obstructive buildings, I was to consider 'whether they can be combined with any measures compatible with justice and humanity for leaving a memorial of the retribution exacted from the city in some manner and by some mark that will not be easily obliterated.'

I was told that 'in regard to the punishment of individuals, it should be swift, stern, and impressive, without being indiscriminate or immoderate; its infliction must not be delegated to subordinate officers of minor responsibility acting independently of your instructions or supervision; and you cannot too vigilantly maintain the discipline of the troops under your orders, or superintend their treatment of the unarmed population, so long as your orders are obeyed and your authority is unresisted. You will deal summarily in the majority of cases with persons whose share in the murder of anyone belonging to the British Embassy shall have been proved by your investigations, but while the execution of justice should be as public and striking as possible, it should be completed with all possible expedition, since the indefinite prolongation of your proceedings might spread abroad unfounded alarm.'

The despatch concluded with the words: 'It will probably be essential, not only for the protection of your own camp from annoyance, but also for the security of the well-affected population and for the general maintenance of order, that you should assume and exercise supreme authority in Kabul, since events have unfortunately proved that the Amir has lost that authority, or that he has conspicuously failed to make use of it.'

On the 10th I visited Sherpur, and the next day I went to the Bala Hissar, and wandered over the scene of the Embassy's brave defence and cruel end. The walls of the Residency, closely pitted with bullet-holes, gave proof of the determined nature of the attack and the length of the resistance. The floors were covered with blood-stains, and amidst the embers of a fire were found a heap of human bones. It may be imagined how British soldiers' hearts burned within them at such a sight, and how difficult it was to suppress feelings of hatred and animosity towards the perpetrators of such a dastardly crime. I had a careful but unsuccessful search made for the bodies of our ill-fated friends.

The Bala Hissar, at one time of great strength, was now in a somewhat dilapidated condition. It contained eighty-five guns, mortars and howitzers, some of them of English manufacture, upwards of 250 tons of gunpowder, stowed away in earthen vessels, many millions of Enfield and Snider cartridges, and a large number of arms, besides quantities of saddlery, clothing for troops, musical instruments, shot, shell, caps, and accoutrements, and a vast amount of lead, copper and tin. It would not have given us much trouble to storm the Bala Hissar, had we been obliged to do so, for Artillery could have opened on it within easy range, and there was cover for Infantry close up to the walls.

The reading of the Proclamation announcing the intentions of the British Government with regard to the punishment of the city was to take place in the Bala Hissar next day. The Amir had agreed to accompany me. The leading people were invited to attend, and I had given orders that all the troops were to take part in the procession, so as to render as impressive as possible the ceremony, at which were to be made known to the inhabitants of Kabul the terms imposed upon them by the British Government. The object of my visit was to decide how the troops might best be disposed so as to make the most imposing display on the occasion.

I decided to detain in custody two Sirdars, Yahia Khan[1] and his brother Zakariah Khan, the Mustaufi, and the Wazir, as these four were Yakub Khan's principal advisers, and I was satisfied that their influence was being used against us, and that so long as they were at large a mine might be sprung upon me at any moment.

The Commander-in-Chief, Daud Shah, was also in the Amir's confidence; but I determined to leave him at liberty, for, from what I could learn, he had made an effort (not a very strong one, perhaps) to help our unfortunate countrymen, and he had on several occasions since he had been in my camp given me useful information; moreover, I hoped to obtain further help from him, in which hope I was not altogether disappointed.

As to what I ought to do with the Amir I was considerably puzzled. Lord Lytton had urged upon me the necessity for weighing well the advisability of prematurely breaking with him, as it was very possible he might become a useful instrument in our hands, an eventuality which I thoroughly understood; but I was not at all sure that Yakub Khan would not break with me when he learnt my decision with regard to his Ministers, and I had received more than one warning that, if he failed to keep me from entering Kabul, he contemplated flight and a supreme effort to raise the country against me.

Yakub Khan certainly did not deserve much consideration from us; for, though no absolute proof was forthcoming of his having instigated the attack upon the Embassy, he most certainly made not the slightest effort to stop it or to save the lives of those entrusted to his care, and throughout that terrible day showed himself to be, if not a deliberate traitor, a despicable coward. Again, his endeavours to delay the march of my force for the sole purpose of gaining sufficient time to organize the destruction of the army to whose protection he had appealed deprived him, to my mind, of the smallest claim to be treated as an honourable ally.

My doubts as to what policy I ought to pursue with regard to Yakub Khan were all solved by his own action on the morning of the 12th October. He came to my tent before I was dressed, and asked for an interview, which was, of course, accorded. The only chair I possessed I offered to my Royal visitor, who seated himself, and then and there announced that he had come to resign the Amirship, and that he was only carrying out a determination made before he came to Kushi; he had then allowed himself to be over-persuaded, but now his resolution was fixed. His life, he said, had been most miserable, and he would rather be a grass-cutter in the English camp than Ruler of Afghanistan; he concluded by entreating me to allow his tent to be pitched close to mine until he could go to India, to London, or wherever the Viceroy might desire to send him. I placed a tent at his disposal, ordered breakfast to be prepared for him, and begged him not to decide at once, but think the matter over for some hours, adding that I would see him again at ten o'clock, the hour appointed for him to accompany me to the Bala Hissar in order that he might be present at the reading of the Proclamation. At this time, it must be remembered, the Amir did not know what the terms of the Proclamation were, and was entirely ignorant of my intentions regarding his Ministers.

As arranged, I had another interview with Yakub Khan at ten o'clock, when I found him unshaken in his resolve to abdicate, and unwilling, under the circumstances, to be present at the ceremony which was about to take place. He said, however, that he would send his eldest son, and that all his Ministers should attend me. I begged him again to reconsider the decision he had come to, and to think well over the results to himself; but finding that he had finally[2] made up his mind, I told His Highness I would telegraph his determination to the Viceroy and ask for instructions; that he would not, of course, be forced to continue to reign at Kabul against his will, but that I would ask him to retain his title until I could receive a reply from Simla.

At noon I proceeded to the Bala Hissar, accompanied by my staff, the Heir-Apparent, the Ministers, and a large gathering of the chief Sirdars of Kabul. Both sides of the road were lined with troops, of whom I felt not a little proud that day. Notwithstanding that the duty required of them had been severe and continuous, now that they were required to take part in a ceremonial parade, they turned out as clean and smart as one could wish to see them.

As the head of the procession entered the main gateway, the British flag was run up, the bands played the National Anthem, and a salute of thirty-one guns was fired.

On arriving at the public Hall of Audience, I dismounted, and ascending the steps leading to it, I addressed the assembled multitude, and read to them the following Proclamation, containing the orders of the British Government:

'In my Proclamation dated the 3rd October, I informed the people of Kabul that a British army was advancing to take possession of the city, and I warned them against offering any resistance to the entry of the troops and the authority of His Highness the Amir. That warning has been disregarded. The force under my command has now reached Kabul and occupied the Bala Hissar, but its advance has been pertinaciously opposed, and the inhabitants of the city have taken a conspicuous part in the opposition offered. They have therefore become rebels against His Highness the Amir, and have added to the guilt already incurred by them in abetting the murder of the British Envoy and his companions--a treacherous and cowardly crime which has brought indelible disgrace upon the Afghan people. It would be but a just and fitting reward for such misdeeds if the city of Kabul were now totally destroyed and its very name blotted out; but the great British Government ever desires to temper justice with mercy, and I now announce to the inhabitants of Kabul that the full retribution for their offence will not be exacted, and that the city will be spared.

'Nevertheless, it is necessary that they should not escape all penalty, and, further, that the punishment inflicted should be such as will be felt and remembered. Therefore, such portions of the city buildings as now interfere with the proper military occupation of the Bala Hissar, and the safety and comfort of the British troops to be quartered in it, will be at once levelled with the ground; and, further, a heavy fine, the amount of which will be notified hereafter, will be imposed upon the inhabitants of Kabul, to be paid according to their several capacities. I further give notice to all, that, in order to provide for the restoration and maintenance of order, the city of Kabul and the surrounding country, to a distance of ten miles, are placed under martial law. With the consent of His Highness the Amir, a military Governor of Kabul will be appointed, to administer justice and punish with a strong hand all evil-doers. The inhabitants of Kabul and of the neighbouring villages are hereby warned to submit to his authority.

'This punishment, inflicted upon the whole city, will not, of course, absolve from further penalties those whose individual guilt may be hereafter proved. A full and searching inquiry into the circumstances of the late outbreak will be held, and all persons convicted of having taken part in it will be dealt with according to their deserts.

'With the view of providing effectually for the prevention of crime and disorder, and the safety of all well-disposed persons in Kabul, it is hereby notified that for the future the carrying of dangerous weapons, whether swords, knives, or firearms, within the streets of the city or within a distance of five miles from the city gates, is forbidden. After a week from the date of this Proclamation, any person found armed within those limits will be liable to the penalty of death. Persons having in their possession any articles whatsoever which formerly belonged to members of the British Embassy are required to bring them forthwith to the British camp. Anyone neglecting this warning will, if found hereafter in possession of any such articles, be subject to the severest penalties.

'Further, all persons who may have in their possession any firearms or ammunition formerly issued to or seized by the Afghan troops, are required to produce them. For every country-made rifle, whether breech or muzzle loading, the sum of Rs. 3 will be given on delivery, and for every rifle of European manufacture Rs. 5. Anyone found hereafter in possession of such weapons will be severely punished. Finally, I notify that I will give a reward of Rs. 50 for the surrender of any person, whether soldier or civilian, concerned in the attack on the British Embassy, or for such information as may lead directly to his capture. A similar sum will be given in the case of any person who may have fought against the British troops since the 3rd September (Shawal) last, and therefore become a rebel against His Highness the Amir. If any such person so surrendered or captured be a captain or subaltern officer of the Afghan army, the reward will be increased to Rs. 75, and if a field officer to Rs. 120.'

The Afghans were evidently much relieved at the leniency of the Proclamation, to which they listened with the greatest attention. When I had finished reading it, I dismissed the assembly, with the exception of the Ministers whom I had decided to make prisoners. To them I explained that I felt it to be my duty to place them under restraint, pending investigation into the part they had taken in the massacre of the Embassy.

The following day I made a formal entry into the city, traversing all its main streets, that the people might understand that it and they were at our mercy. The Cavalry brigade headed the procession; I followed with my staff and escort, and five battalions of Infantry brought up the rear; there were no Artillery, for in some places the streets were so narrow and tortuous that two men could hardly ride abreast.

It was scarcely to be expected the citizens would give us a warm welcome; but they were perfectly respectful, and I hoped the martial and workmanlike appearance of the troops would have a salutary effect.

I now appointed Major-General James Hills, V.C., to be Governor of Kabul for the time being, associating with him the able and respected Mahomedan gentleman, Nawab Ghulam Hussein Khan, as the most likely means of securing for the present order and good government in the city. I further instituted two Courts--one political, consisting of Colonel Macgregor, Surgeon-Major Bellew,[3] and Mahomed Hyat Khan, a Mahomedan member of the Punjab Commission, and an excellent Persian and Pushtu scholar, to inquire into the complicated circumstances which led to the attack on the Residency, and to ascertain, if possible, how far the Amir and his Ministers were implicated. The other, a military Court, with Brigadier-General Massy as president, for the trial of those Chiefs and soldiers accused of having taken part in the actual massacre.[4]

Up to this time (the middle of October) communication with India had been kept up by way of the Shutargardan, and I had heard nothing of the approach of the Khyber column. It was so very necessary to open up the Khyber route, in view of early snow on the Shutargardan, that I arranged to send a small force towards Jalalabad, and to move the Shutargardan garrison to Kabul, thus breaking off communication with Kuram.

Colonel Money had beaten off another attack made by the tribesmen on his position, but as they still threatened him in considerable numbers, I despatched Brigadier-General Hugh Gough with some troops to enable him to withdraw. This reinforcement arrived at a most opportune moment, when the augmented tribal combination, imagining that the garrison was completely at its mercy, had sent a message to Money offering to spare their lives if they laid down their arms! So sure were the Afghans of their triumph that they had brought 200 of their women to witness it. On Gough's arrival, Money dispersed the gathering, and his force left the Shutargardan, together with the Head-Quarters and two squadrons of the 9th Lancers, which had been ordered to join me from Sialkot, and afterwards proved a most valuable addition to the Kabul Field Force.

I was sitting in my tent on the morning of the 16th October, when I was startled by a most terrific explosion in the upper part of the Bala Hissar, which was occupied by the 5th Gurkhas, while the 67th Foot were pitched in the garden below. The gunpowder, stored in a detached building, had somehow--we never could discover how--become ignited, and I trembled at the thought of what would be the consequences if the main magazine caught fire, which, with its 250 tons of gunpowder, was dangerously near to the scene of the explosion. I at once sent orders to the Gurkhas and the 67th to clear out, and not to wait even to bring away their tents, or anything but their ammunition, and I did not breathe freely till they were all safe on Siah Sang. The results of this disaster, as it was, were bad enough, for Captain Shafto, R.A. (a very promising officer), a private of the 67th, the Subadar-Major of the 5th Gurkhas, and nineteen Natives, most of them soldiers, lost their lives.

A second and more violent explosion took place two hours and a half after the first, but there was no loss of life amongst the troops, though several Afghans were killed at a distance of 400 yards from the fort.

There was given on this occasion a very practical exemplification of the good feeling existing between the European soldiers and the Gurkhas. The 72nd and the 5th Gurkhas had been much associated from the commencement of the campaign, and a spirit of camaraderie had sprung up between them, resulting in the Highlanders now coming forward and insisting on making over their greatcoats to the little Gurkhas for the night--a very strong proof of their friendship, for at Kabul in October the nights are bitterly cold.

Two telegrams received about this time caused the greatest gratification throughout the force. One was from the Commander-in-Chief, conveying Her Majesty's expression of 'warm satisfaction' at the conduct of the troops; the other was from the Viceroy, expressing his 'cordial congratulations' and His Excellency's 'high appreciation of the ability with which the action was directed, and the courage with which it was so successfully carried out.' I was informed at the same time by Lord Lytton that, on the recommendation of the Commander-in-Chief, I was given the local rank of Lieutenant-General, to enable me to be placed in command of all the troops in eastern Afghanistan, a force of 20,000 men and 46 guns, in two divisions. The first division remained under my own immediate command, and Major-General R. O. Bright, C.B.,[5] was appointed to the command of the other. I was, of course very much pleased at this proof of the confidence reposed in me.

[Footnote 1: Yahia Khan was Yakub Khan's father-in-law.]

[Footnote 2: At an interview which Major Hastings, the Political Officer, and Mr. Durand, my Political Secretary, had with His Highness at my request on the 23rd October, he said, referring to the subject of the Amirship: 'I call God and the Koran to witness, and everything a Mussulman holds sacred, that my only desire is to be set free, and end my days in liberty. I have conceived an utter aversion for these people. I always treated them well, and you see how they have rewarded me. So long as I was fighting in one place or another, they liked me well enough. Directly I became Amir, and consulted their own good by making peace with you, they turned on me. Now I detest them all, and long to be out of Afghanistan for ever. It is not that I am unable to hold the country; I have held it before and could hold it again, but I have no further wish to rule such a people, and I beg of you to let me go. If the British Government wish me to stay, I will stay, as their servant or as the Amir, if you like to call me so, until my son is of an age to succeed me, or even without that condition; but it will be wholly against my own inclination, and I earnestly beg to be set free.']

[Footnote 3: Dr. Bellew was with the brothers Lumsden at Kandahar in 1857.]

[Footnote 4: My action in endorsing the proceedings of this court, and my treatment of Afghans generally, were so adversely and severely criticized by party newspapers and periodicals, and by members of the Opposition in the House of Commons, that I was called upon for an explanation of my conduct, which was submitted and read in both Houses of Parliament by the Secretary of State for India, Viscount Cranbrook, and the Under-Secretary of State for India, the Hon. E. Stanhope. In the Parliamentary records of February, 1880, can be seen my reply to the accusations, as well as an abstract statement of the executions carried out at Kabul in accordance with the findings of the military Court.]

[Footnote 5: Afterwards General Sir Robert Bright, G.C.B.]