Attack on the Takht-i-Shah--City people join the tribesmen --Increasing numbers of the enemy--Loss of the conical hill --Captain Vousden's gallantry--The retirement to Sherpur
On the morning of the 12th I was cheered by hearing that the Guides had arrived during the night under the command of Colonel P. Jenkins--a most welcome reinforcement, for I knew how thoroughly to be depended upon was every man in that distinguished corps.
The first thing now to be done was to endeavour to drive the Afghans from the crest of the Takht-i-Shah; and I directed Macpherson, as soon as his men had breakfasted, to attack the position from Deh-i-Mazang. Just then my mind was considerably relieved by a heliogram from Baker informing me that he was on his way back to Kabul. The message was despatched from near Kila Kazi, within four miles of which place Baker had encamped on the afternoon of the previous day.
Macpherson deputed the task of trying to dislodge the enemy to Lieutenant-Colonel Money, of the 3rd Sikhs, with a detachment consisting of 2 Mountain guns and 560 British and Native Infantry.
It was a most formidable position to attack. The slopes leading up to it were covered with huge masses of jagged rock, intersected by perpendicular cliffs, and its natural great strength was increased by breastworks, and stockades thrown up at different points.
After a gallant and persistent attempt had been made, I ordered the assault to be deferred; for I perceived that the enemy were being reinforced from their rear, and to ensure success without great loss, it would be necessary to attack them in rear as well as in the front. The arrival of Baker's brigade made it possible to do this. I therefore ordered Macpherson to hold the ground of which he had gained possession until Baker could co-operate with him next morning from the Beni Hissar side.
During the night Mahomed Jan, who had been joined by several thousands from Logar and Wardak, occupied the villages situated between Beni Hissar and the Bala Hissar and along the sang-i-nawishta road. Baker, who started at 8 a.m. on the 13th, had, therefore, in the first place, to gain the high ground above these villages, and, while holding the point over-looking Beni Hissar, to wheel to his right and move towards the Takht-i-Shah.
When he had proceeded some little distance, his advance guard reported that large bodies of the enemy were moving up the slope of the ridge from the villages near Beni Hissar. To check this movement, and prevent the already very difficult Afghan position being still further strengthened, Major White, who was in command of the leading portion of the attacking party, turned and made for the nearest point on the ridge. It was now a race between the Highlanders and the Afghans as to who should gain the crest of the ridge first. The Artillery came into action at a range of 1,200 yards, and under cover of their fire the 92nd, supported by the Guides, rushed up the steep slopes. They were met by a furious onslaught, and a desperate conflict took place. The leading officer, Lieutenant Forbes, a lad of great promise, was killed, and Colour-Sergeant Drummond fell by his side. For a moment even the brave Highlanders were staggered by the numbers and fury of their antagonists, but only for a moment. Lieutenant Dick Cunyngham sprang forward to cheer them on, and confidence was restored. With a wild shout the Highlanders threw themselves on the Afghans, and quickly succeeded in driving them down the further side of the ridge.
By this successful movement the enemy's line was cut in two, and while the Cavalry and a party of the 3rd Sikhs prevented their rallying in the direction of Beni Hissar, the 92nd and Guides, protected by the Mountain guns, which had been got on to the ridge, and the Field Artillery from below, advanced towards the Takht-i-Shah. The Afghans disputed every inch of the way, but by 11.30 a.m. White's men had reached the foot of the craggy eminence which formed the enemy's main position. They were here joined by some of the 72nd Highlanders, 3rd Sikhs, and 5th Gurkhas, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Money, who had fought their way from the upper Bala Hissar.
A brilliant charge by the combined troops now took place, the two Highlands corps vying with each other for the honour of reaching the summit first. It fell to the 72nd, Colour-Sergeant Yule of that regiment being the foremost man on the top. The enemy made a most determined stand, and it was only after a severe struggle and heavy loss that they were driven off the heights.
From my position at Sherpur I had the satisfaction of witnessing this success. This satisfaction, however, was short-lived, for almost immediately I received a report from the city that the inhabitants had joined the tribesmen, and that the cantonment was being threatened; indeed, I could see large bodies of armed men emerging from the city and moving towards Siah Sang, whence the road between the Bala Hissar and Sherpur would be commanded.
Having only too evidently lost control over the city, the value of Deh-i-Mazang was gone, so I ordered Macpherson to abandon it and move to the Shahr-i-Darwaza heights, taking with him six companies of the 67th Foot for the protection of the Bala Hissar, to which it was desirable to hold on as long as possible. The remainder of his troops I ordered to be sent to Sherpur. To Baker I signalled to leave a party on the Takht-i-Shah under Lieutenant-Colonel Money, and to move himself towards the cantonment with the rest of his troops, driving the enemy off the Siah Sang on the way.
But from his point of vantage on the heights Baker could see, what I could not, that the Afghans had occupied two strongly fortified villages between Siah Sang and the Bala Hissar, from which it was necessary to dislodge them in the first instance, and for this service he detached the 5th Punjab Infantry and a battery of Artillery. It was carried out in a masterly manner by Major Pratt, who soon gained possession of one village. The other, however, was resolutely held, and the Artillery failing to effect a breach, the gates were set on fire; but even then a satisfactory opening was not made, and the place was eventually captured by means of scaling-ladders hastily made of poles tied together with the Native soldiers' turbans.
Baker was now able to turn his attention to Siah Sang, so I despatched the Cavalry under Massy, to act with him when a signal success was achieved. The enemy fought stubbornly, but were at last driven off. The 5th Punjab Cavalry, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Williams and Major Hammond, greatly distinguished themselves, and a grand charge was made by the Guides and 9th Lancers, in which Captain Butson, of the latter regiment, was killed, also the troop Sergeant-Major and 3 men; and Captain Chisholme, Lieutenant Trower, and 8 men were wounded.
This ended the operations on the 13th. Our losses during the day were: killed, 2 British officers and 12 men; wounded, 2 British officers and 43 men, British and Native.
I was in great hopes that our successes and the heavy losses the enemy had sustained would result in the breaking up of the combination against us; but in case these hopes should not be realized, I decided to do away with some of the smaller posts on the line of communication, and order up more troops. Accordingly, I telegraphed to General Bright to send on Charles Gough's brigade, and I directed the detachment at Butkhak to return to Kabul, and that at Seh Baba to fall back on Lataband. Having great confidence in its Commander, Colonel Hudson, I determined to hold on to Lataband for a time, though by so doing the numbers I might otherwise have had at Sherpur were considerably diminished. Lataband was the most important link in the chain of communication between Kabul and Jalalabad; it was in direct heliographic connexion with Kabul; it had sufficient ammunition and supplies to last over the date on which Gough should arrive at Sherpur, and its being held would be a check on the Ghilzais, and prevent his encountering any serious opposition. At the same time, I could not disguise from myself that there was a certain amount of risk attached to leaving so small a garrison in this somewhat isolated position.
The night of the 13th passed quietly, but when day dawned on the 14th crowds of armed men, with numerous standards, could be seen occupying a hill on the Kohistan road; and as day advanced they proceeded in vast numbers to the Asmai heights, where they were joined by swarms from the city and the Chardeh valley. It then became apparent that the combination was much more formidable than I had imagined, and that the numbers of the enemy now in opposition to us were far greater than I had dreamt was possible. Foiled in their attempt to close in upon us from the south and west, the tribesmen had concentrated to the north, and it was evident they were preparing to deliver an attack in great strength from that quarter. I quickly decided to drive the enemy off the Asmai heights, to cut their communication with Kohistan, and to operate towards the north, much as I had operated the previous day to the south of Sherpur.
At 9 a.m. I despatched Brigadier General Baker to the eastern slope of the Asmai range with the following troops: 4 guns, Field Artillery; 4 guns, Mountain Artillery; 14th Bengal Lancers; 72nd Highlanders (192 rifles); 92nd Highlanders (100 rifles); Guides Infantry (460 rifles); and 5th Punjab Infantry (470 rifles).
Covered by the fire of his Artillery, Baker seized the conical hill which formed the northern boundary of the Aliabad Kotal, thus placing himself on the enemy's line of communication, and preventing them from being reinforced. He then proceeded to attack the Asmai heights, leaving 2 Mountain guns, 64 men of the 72nd, and 60 Guides, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Clarke, to hold the hill.
To aid Baker in his difficult task, I brought four guns into action near the north-west corner of the cantonment, and I signalled to Macpherson to give him every possible assistance. Macpherson at once sent the 67th across the Kabul river to threaten the enemy's left rear; while the marksmen of the regiment and the Mountain guns opened fire from the northern slope of the Bala Hissar heights.
The enemy fought with the greatest obstinacy, but eventually our troops reached the top of the hill, where, on the highest point, a number of ghazis had taken their stand, determined to sell their lives dearly.
All this I eagerly watched from my place of observation. There was a fierce struggle, and then, to my intense relief, I saw our men on the topmost pinnacle, and I knew the position was gained.
It was now a little past noon, and I was becoming anxious about the party left on the conical hill, as Macpherson had heliographed that very large bodies of Afghans were moving northwards from Indiki, with the intention, apparently, of effecting a junction with the tribesmen who were occupying the hills in the Kohistan direction. I therefore signalled to Baker to leave the 67th in charge of the Asmai heights, and himself return to the lower ridge, giving him my reasons.
Baker at once despatched a detachment of the 5th Punjab Infantry, under Captain Hall, to reinforce Clarke, who I could see might soon be hard pressed, and I sent 200 rifles of the 3rd Sikhs (the only troops available at the moment) to his assistance.
I watched what was taking place on the conical hill through my telescope, and was startled to perceive that the enemy were, unnoticed by him, creeping close up to Clarke's position. I could just see a long Afghan knife appear above the ridge, steadily mounting higher and higher, the bearer of which was being concealed by the contour of the hill, and I knew it was only one of the many weapons which were being carried by our enemies to the attack. The reinforcements were still some distance off, and my heart sank within me, for I felt convinced that after our recent victories the Afghans would never venture to cross the open and attack British soldiers unless an overwhelming superiority of numbers made success appear to them a certainty. Next I heard the boom of guns and the rattle of musketry, and a minute or two later (which, in my anxiety, seemed an eternity to me), I only too plainly saw our men retreating down the hill, closely followed by the enemy. The retirement was being conducted steadily and slowly, but from that moment I realized, what is hard for a British soldier, how much harder for a British commander, to realize, that we were over-matched, and that we could not hold our ground.
Clarke, as well as every man with him, fought splendidly; the Afghans by force of numbers alone made themselves masters of the position and captured two guns.
While all that I have described was going on, the enemy began to collect again on Siah Sang, and to make their way round the eastern flank of the cantonment towards Kohistan.
I had sent orders in the morning to Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, who was quartered with his regiment (the 5th Punjab Cavalry) in the King's Garden, between Sherpur and the city, to be on the look-out, and not to allow any of the enemy to pass in that direction. About 1 p.m. some 400 Afghans were observed moving along the left bank of the river: these were met by Captain Vousden of the same regiment, who with one troop was employed in reconnoitring; he most gallantly charged in amongst them with only twelve of his men, the remainder being effectually stopped by a heavy fire opened upon them from behind a low wall. Vousden succeeded in dispersing these heavy odds, and in inflicting severe loss upon them--a very brilliant service, for which he received the Victoria Cross.
My object throughout these operations had been, as I hope I have made clear, to break up the combination by dealing with the enemy in detail, and preventing them getting possession of the city and the Bala Hissar.
Up till noon on the 14th I had no idea of the extraordinary numbers they were able to bring together, and I had no reason to believe that it would be possible for them to cope with disciplined troops; but the manner in which the conical hill had been retaken gave me a more correct idea of their strength and determination, and shook my confidence in the ability of my comparatively small force to resist the ever-increasing hordes, on ground which gave every advantage to numerical superiority. It was a bitter thought that it might be my duty to retire for a time within the defences of Sherpur, a measure which would involve the abandonment of the city and the Bala Hissar, and which I knew, moreover, would give heart to the tribesmen.
I had to decide at once on the course I ought to pursue, for, if I continued to act on the defensive, food and ammunition must be sent before dark to Macpherson's brigade, occupying the hills above the city, and arrangements must be made for Baker's retention of the Asmai heights. I heliographed to Macpherson to inquire the direction in which the enemy were moving, and whether their numbers were still increasing. He replied that large masses were steadily advancing from north, south, and west, and that their numbers were momentarily becoming greater, to which the young officer in charge of the signalling station added, 'The crowds of Afghans in the Chardeh valley remind me of Epsom on the Derby day.'
This decided me; I determined to withdraw from all isolated positions, and concentrate my force at Sherpur, thereby securing the safety of the cantonment and avoiding what had now become a useless sacrifice of life. I only too thoroughly recognized the evils of the measure, but I considered that no other course would be justifiable, and that I must act for the present entirely on the defensive, and wait until the growing confidence of the enemy should afford me a favourable opportunity for attacking them, or until reinforcements could arrive.
The inevitable order reached the two Generals at 2 p.m., and the retirement was begun at once. The Afghans speedily discovered the retrograde movement, and no sooner had each post in its turn been evacuated than it was occupied by the enemy, who pressed our troops the whole way back to the cantonment. There was hand-to-hand fighting, and many splendid acts of courage were performed, Major Hammond, of the Guides, earning the Victoria Cross; but throughout there was no hurry or confusion, all was conducted with admirable coolness and skill, and shortly after dark the troops and baggage were safe inside Sherpur. That night the Afghans occupied the city and the Bala Hissar.
It is comparatively easy for a small body of well-trained soldiers, such as those of which the army in India is composed, to act on the offensive against Asiatics, however powerful they may be in point of numbers. There is something in the determined advance of a compact, disciplined body of troops which they can seldom resist. But a retirement is a different matter. They become full of confidence and valour the moment they see any signs of their opponents being unable to resist them, and if there is the smallest symptom of unsteadiness, wavering, or confusion, a disaster is certain to occur. It may be imagined, therefore, with what intense anxiety I watched for hours the withdrawal. The ground was all in favour of the Afghans, who, unimpeded by impedimenta of any kind, swarmed down upon the mere handful of men retreating before them, shouting cries of victory and brandishing their long knives; but our brave men, inspired by the undaunted bearing of their officers, were absolutely steady. They took up position after position with perfect coolness; every movement was carried out with as much precision as if they were manoeuvring on an ordinary field-day; and the killed and wounded were brought away without the slightest hurry or confusion. In fact, the whole of the hazardous operation was most successfully and admirably carried out; and as each regiment and detachment filed through the Head-Quarters gateway I was able to offer my warm congratulations and heartfelt thanks to my gallant comrades.
Our losses during the day were: 19 killed, including Captain Spens and Lieutenant Gaisford, 72nd Highlanders, and 88 wounded, amongst whom were Captain Gordon, 92nd Highlanders, Lieutenant Egerton, 72nd Highlanders, and Captain Battye, of the Guides.
[Footnote 1: His force consisted of 4 guns, Field Artillery; 4 Mountain guns; 1 squadron 9th Lancers; 5th Punjab Cavalry; 6 companies 92nd Highlanders; 7 companies Guides; and 300 3rd Sikhs; and subsequently it was strengthened by 150 of the 5th Punjab Infantry.]
[Footnote 2: Dick Cunyngham received the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry and coolness on this occasion.]
[Footnote 3: This gallant non-commissioned officer was killed the following day.]
[Footnote 4: Notwithstanding that his wound was most severe, Captain Chisholme remained in the saddle, and brought the regiment out of action.]
[Footnote 5: Clarke never recovered the loss of this post. He and I had been cadets together at Sandhurst, and I often visited him while he was in hospital at Sherpur. He was apparently suffering from no disease, but gradually faded away, and died not long after he reached India.]
[Footnote 6: General Baker, in his despatch, stated that 'No blame for the loss of these guns is in any way to be attached to the officers and men of No. 2 Mountain Battery.... Every credit is due to Captain Swinley, the late Lieutenant Montanaro, and Lieutenant Liddell, and the several Native officers, non-commissioned officers and men composing the gun detachments, for the gallant manner in which they stood to their guns to the last, and it was only on the sudden rush of this overwhelming force of the enemy that they had to retire with the loss of two guns.'
Of the men composing the gun detachments, one was killed and six wounded, and Surgeon-Major Joshua Duke was specially mentioned for his attention to the wounded under heavy fire.]
[Footnote 7: The same officer who so gallantly met his death during the recent Chitral campaign, while commanding the regiment of which he was so justly proud, and in which two brave brothers had been killed before him--Quinton at Delhi, and Wigram during the first phase of the Afghan war.]