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Chapter 54: 1879

The amnesty Proclamation--Strength of the Kabul Field Force --Yakub Khan despatched to India

On the 1st November my Head-Quarters and the 1st division moved into Sherpur, which the Engineers had prepared for winter quarters, and where stores of provisions and forage were assuming satisfactory proportions. The same day Brigadier-General Macpherson left Kabul with a brigade of about 1,800 men and four guns to join hands with the troops which I had lately heard were advancing from the Khyber, and had reached Gandamak. I joined Macpherson the following morning at Butkhak, about eleven miles from Kabul, where our first post towards the Khyber had already been established. It was very important that our communication with India should be by a route good enough for wheeled carriages; I was therefore anxious to see for myself if it were not possible to avoid the Khurd-Kabul Pass, which was said to be very difficult. I had, besides, a strong wish to visit this pass, as being the scene of Sir Robert Sale's fight with the tribesmen in 1841, and of the beginning of the massacre of General Elphinstone's unfortunate troops in 1842.[1] The Afghan Commander-in-Chief, Daud Shah, and several Ghilzai Chiefs, accompanied me; from them I learned that an easier road did exist, running more to the east, and crossing over the Lataband mountain. Personal inspection of the two lines proved that Daud Shah's estimate of their respective difficulties was correct; the Lataband route was comparatively easy, there was no defile as on the Khurd-Kabul side, and the kotal, 8,000 feet above the sea, was reached by a gradual ascent from Butkhak. However, I found the Khurd-Kabul much less difficult than I had imagined it to be; it might have been made passable for carts, but there was no object in using it, as the Lataband route possessed the additional advantage of being some miles shorter; accordingly I decided upon adopting the latter as the line of communication with India.

Macpherson reported that the country beyond Khurd-Kabul was fairly settled, and that, on the 7th, he had been able to open communication with Brigadier-General Charles Gough, commanding Bright's leading brigade. I was thus again brought into communication with India, and in a position to clear my hospitals of those amongst the sick and wounded who were not progressing favourably, and could not soon be fit for duty.

By this time the Inquiry Commission had completed its difficult task of trying to sift the truth concerning the fate of Cavagnari and his companions from the mass of falsehood with which it was enveloped. The progress had been slow, particularly when examination touched on the part Yakub Khan had played in the tragedy; witnesses were afraid to give evidence openly until they were convinced that he would not be re-established in a position to avenge himself. The whole matter had been gone into most fully, and a careful perusal of the proceedings satisfied me that the Amir could not have been ignorant that an attack on the Residency was contemplated. He may not have foreseen or desired the massacre of the Embassy, but there was no room for doubt as to his having connived at a demonstration against it, which, had it not ended so fatally, might have served him in good stead as a proof of his inability to guarantee the safety of foreigners, and thus obtain the withdrawal of the Mission.

It was impossible, under these circumstances, that Yakub Khan could ever be reinstated as Ruler of Kabul, and his remaining in his present equivocal position was irksome to himself and most embarrassing to me. I therefore recommended that he should be deported to India, to be dealt with as the Government might decide after reviewing the information elicited by the political Court of Inquiry, which to me appeared to tell so weightily against the ex-Amir, that, in my opinion, I was no longer justified in treating as rebels to his authority Afghans who, it was now evident, had only carried out his secret, if not his expressed, wishes when opposing our advance on Kabul. I decided, therefore, to proclaim a free and complete amnesty[2] to all persons not concerned, directly or indirectly, in the attack on the Residency, or who were not found hereafter in possession of property belonging to our countrymen or their escort, on the condition that they surrendered their arms and returned to their homes.

At Daud Shah's suggestion, I sent three influential Sirdars to the Logar, Kohistan, and Maidan valleys, to superintend the collection of the amount of forage which was to be levied from those districts; and in order to lessen the consumption at Kabul, I sent away all elephants,[3] spare bullocks, and sick transport animals. In furtherance of the same object, as soon as Macpherson returned, I sent Baker with a brigade into the Maidan district, about twenty miles from Kabul, on the Ghazni road, where the troops could more easily be fed, as it was the district from which a large proportion of our supplies was expected, and I also despatched to India all time-expired men and invalids who were no longer fit for service.[4]

Towards the end of November, Mr. Luke, the officer in charge of the telegraph department, who had done admirable work throughout the campaign, reported that communication was established with India. As, however, cutting the telegraph-wires was a favourite amusement of the tribesmen, a heliograph was arranged at suitable stations between Landi Kotal and Kabul, which was worked with fair success to the end of the war. Had we then possessed the more perfect heliographic apparatus which is now available, it would have made us, in that land of bright sun, almost independent of the telegraph, so far as connexion with Landi Kotal was concerned.

Hearing that Baker was experiencing difficulty in collecting his supplies, I joined him at Maidan to satisfy myself how matters stood. The headmen in the neighbourhood refused to deliver the khalsa grain they had been ordered to furnish, and, assisted by a body of Ghilzais from Ghazni and Wardak, they attacked our Cavalry charged with collecting it, and murdered our agent, Sirdar Mahomed Hussein Khan. For these offences I destroyed the chief malik's fort and confiscated his store of grain, after which there was no more trouble, and supplies came in freely. I returned to Kabul, and Baker, with his brigade, followed me on the 1st December.

That same day Yakub Khan was despatched by double marches to India, careful precautions having been taken to prevent his being rescued on the way. When saying good-bye to him, he thanked me warmly for the kindness and consideration he had received, and assured me that he left his wives and children in my hands in the fullest confidence that they would be well treated and cared for.

A week later I sent off the two Sirdars, Yahia Khan and Zakariah Khan, as well as the Wazir, whose guilt had been clearly proved, and whose powerful influence, I had every reason to believe, was being used to stir up the country against us. The Mustaufi I allowed to remain; he had been less prominent than the others in opposing us, and, besides, I had an idea that he might prove useful to me in the administration of the country.

[Footnote 1: A most thrilling account of Elphinstone's retreat through this pass is given in Kaye's 'History of the War in Afghanistan,' vol. ii., p. 229.]

[Footnote 2: The amnesty Proclamation ran as follows:

'KABUL, '12th November, 1879.

'To all whom it may concern. On the 12th October a Proclamation was issued in which I offered a reward for the surrender of any person who had fought against the British troops since the 3rd September, and had thereby become a rebel against the Amir Yakub Khan. I have now received information which tends to show that some, at least, of those who shared in the opposition encountered by the British troops during their advance on Kabul, were led to do so by the belief that the Amir was a prisoner in my camp, and had called upon the soldiery and people of Kabul to rise on his behalf. Such persons, although enemies to the British Government, were not rebels against their own Sovereign, and the great British Government does not seek for vengeance against enemies who no longer resist. It may be that few only of those who took up arms were thus led away by the statements of evil-minded men, but rather than punish the innocent with the guilty, I am willing to believe that all were alike deceived. On behalf of the British Government, therefore, I proclaim a free and complete amnesty to all persons who have fought against the British troops since the 3rd September, provided that they now give up any arms in their possession and return to their homes. The offer of a reward for the surrender of such persons is now withdrawn, and they will not for the future be molested in any way on account of their opposition to the British advance; but it must be clearly understood that the benefits of this amnesty do not extend to anyone, whether soldier or civilian, who was concerned directly or indirectly in the attack upon the Residency, or who may hereafter be found in possession of any property belonging to members of the Embassy. To such persons no mercy will be shown. Further, I hold out no promise of pardon to those who, well knowing the Amir's position in the British camp, instigated the troops and people of Kabul to take up arms against the British troops. They have been guilty of wilful rebellion against the Amir's authority, and they will be considered and treated as rebels wherever found.']

[Footnote 3: There was a slight fall of snow on the 11th November, followed by severe frost, and the elephants were beginning to suffer from the cold. Three of them succumbed on the Lataband Kotal, much to the annoyance of the olfactory nerves of all passers-by. It was impossible to bury the huge carcasses, as the ground was all rock, and there was not wood enough to burn them. So intense was the cold that the ink froze in my pen, and I was obliged to keep my inkstand under my pillow at night.]

[Footnote 4: This party marched towards India on the 14th November, followed by a second convoy of sickly men on the 27th idem. On this latter date the strength of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, Kabul Field Force, and the Reserve at Peshawar was as follows:

  British Force Native Force Total
Officers Rank &
1st Division, at and around Kabul

2nd Division, on the Khyber line

Reserve at Peshawar





















   245   7,120    238 18,304 25,907

Total:-- 483 British officers. 7,120 British troops. 18,304 Native troops. Grand total:-- 25,907 with 60 guns, 24 with 1st Division, and 36 with 2nd Division and the Reserve.]