Sherpur--Defence of Sherpur--Arrest of Daud Shah --Rumours of an assault--Attack and counter-attack --Communication with India re-opened--Sherpur made safe
The moment the gates were closed I telegraphed the result of the day's operations to the Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief, for I knew that the enemy's first thought would be to stop communication with India by cutting the telegraph-wires. I reported that I had ordered Brigadier-General Charles Gough's brigade to push on from Gandamak as fast as possible; and I recommended that General Bright should have more troops sent up to him, to allow of his keeping open the route to Kabul, and of his reinforcing me should I find it impossible to clear the country with the force at my disposal. It was a satisfaction to be able to assure the authorities in these, to me, otherwise painful telegrams, that there was no cause for anxiety as to the safety of the troops; that sufficient supplies for men were stored in Sherpur for nearly four months, and for animals for six weeks; that there was abundance of firewood, medicines, and hospital comforts, and sufficient ammunition both for guns and rifles to admit of an active resistance being carried on for between three and four months.
It was fortunate there was no lack of provisions, for our numbers were considerably increased by the presence of Wali Mahomed Khan and many other Sirdars, who begged for shelter in Sherpur, on the plea that their lives would not be safe were they to return to the city. They were far from being welcome guests, for I could not trust them; ostensibly, however, they were our friends, and I could not refuse their petition. I therefore admitted them, on condition that each Sirdar should only be accompanied by a specified number of followers.
The stormy occurrences of the 14th were succeeded by a period of comparative calm, during which the entrenchments were strengthened, and the heavy guns found in the Kabul arsenal were prepared for service.
The great drawback to Sherpur, as I have already mentioned, was its extent and the impossibility of reducing the line of defences owing to the length of the Bimaru ridge. The cantonment was in the form of a parallelogram, with the Bimaru heights running along, and protecting, the northern side. Between this range and the hills, which form the southern boundary of Kohistan, lay a lake, or rather jhil, a barrier between which and the commanding Bimaru ridge no enemy would dare to advance.
The massive wall on the south and west faces was twenty feet high, covered at a distance of thirty feet by a lower wall fifteen feet high; the southern wall was pierced at intervals of about 700 yards by gateways, three in number, protected by lofty circular bastions, and between these and at the four corners were a series of low bastions which gave an admirable flanking fire. The wall on the western flank was of similar construction, but had been considerably damaged at the northern end, evidently by an explosion of gunpowder.
The weak part of our defence was on the eastern face, where the wall, which had never been completed, was only seven feet high, and did not extend for more than 700 yards from the south-east corner; the line then ran to the north-west, and, skirting the village of Bimaru, ended at the foot of the ridge.
From this description it will be seen that, though the perimeter of Sherpur was rather too large for a force of 7,000 effective men to defend, its powers of resistance, both natural and artificial, were considerable. It was absolutely necessary to hold the Bimaru ridge for its entire length; to have given up any part of it would have been to repeat the mistake which proved so disastrous to Elphinstone's army in 1841. In fact, the Bimaru heights were at once the strength and the weakness of the position. So long as we could hold the heights we were safe from attack from the north; but if we had been forced, either from the weakness of our own garrison, or from any other cause, to relinquish the command of this natural barrier, the whole of the cantonment must have lain open to the enemy, and must forthwith have become untenable.
The question of how Sherpur could best be defended had been carefully considered by a committee, assembled by my orders soon after our arrival in Kabul; and a scheme had been drawn up detailing the measures which should be adopted in case of attack.
On the recommendation of this committee six towers had been constructed on the Bimaru heights, and shelter trenches and gunpits made at the points where Infantry and Artillery fire could be used with the greatest advantage. These trenches were now deepened and prolonged, so as to form one continuous line of defence, protected by an abattis; and the defences in the depression between the heights were so arranged that fire could be brought to bear on an enemy advancing from the north. To strengthen the north-east corner, a battery was thrown up on the slope of the ridge, which was connected with the tower above and the village below. The village itself was loop-holed, the outlying buildings to the front made defensible, and the open space to the north-east secured by abattis and wire entanglements. The Native Field Hospital was strengthened in like manner, and sand-bag parapets were piled upon the roof, which was somewhat exposed.
The unfinished wall on the eastern face was raised by logs of wood, and abattis and wire entanglements were placed in front. In the open space lying between the Bimaru ridge and the north-west circular bastion, a defence on the laager system was constructed out of gun-carriages and limbers captured from the enemy; while the village of Ghulam Hasan Khan, which formed an excellent flanking defence along the northern and western faces, was held as an independent post.
I divided the whole of the defences into five sections, under the superintendence of five different commanders: Brigadier-General Macpherson, Colonel Jenkins, Brigadier-General Hugh Gough, Major-General Hills, and Colonel Brownlow. Brigadier-General Massy was given the centre of the cantonment, where were collected the forage and firewood; and Brigadier-General Baker commanded the reserve, which was formed up at the depression in the Bimaru heights mentioned above, that he might be able to move rapidly to either end of the ridge, the weakest points in our defences.
The several sections were connected with each other and with my Head-Quarters by a telegraph-wire, and visual signalling was established at all important points.
In my arrangements for the defence of Sherpur I relied to a great extent on the advice of my accomplished Chief Engineer, Colonel Æneas Perkins, and it was mainly owing to him, and to the exertions of his competent staff, that the work was carried on as rapidly and satisfactorily as it was.
During these days of preparation the enemy remained comparatively inactive, being chiefly employed in looting the city and emptying the Amir's arsenal. The gunpowder had been destroyed as far as possible; but a great deal still remained, and many tons of it were carried off by the army of Mahomed Jan, who had now become the practical leader of the Afghan combination, and had lately proclaimed Yakub Khan's eldest son, Musa Khan, Amir.
On the afternoon of the 16th I received the welcome news that Colonel Hudson had successfully resisted an attack on his position by the Ghilzais--welcome because I could now feel assured that Lataband could be depended upon to hold its own.
For the next five days nothing of much importance was done on either side. The enemy took up positions daily in the neighbouring forts and gardens, causing a few casualties, and some of our troops moved out to dislodge them from those places from which they could specially annoy us. I destroyed some of the forts, and removed other cover in the immediate vicinity of the walls; but I did not undertake any large sorties, for to have attempted to drive the enemy out of the outlying posts, which I could not then have held, would have been a useless waste of strength.
My chief trouble at this time was the presence of the Afghan Sirdars within the cantonment. I had good reason to believe that some of them, though full of protestations of friendship, had been in communication with Mahomed Jan, the high-priest Mushk-i-Alam, and other Afghan leaders, so that I felt sure that neither they nor their followers were to be depended upon. I was also somewhat anxious about the Pathan soldiers in our ranks, a feeling which I was unwilling to acknowledge even to myself, for they had hitherto behaved with marked loyalty, and done splendid service; but they were now being exposed to a most severe trial, in that they were, as I knew, being constantly appealed to by their co-religionists to join in the jahad against us, and bitterly reproached for serving their infidel masters. Whether they would be strong enough to resist such appeals, it was impossible to tell; but it would have been most unwise, as well as most painful to me, to show the slightest suspicion of these fine soldiers. It happened that the Corps of Guides and 5th Punjab Infantry, which had of all regiments the largest number of Mahomedans amongst them, were located at the two extremities of the Bimaru range, the points most likely to be attacked; to have made any change in the disposition would have been to show that they were suspected, so I determined (after taking their commanding officers, Colonels Jenkins and McQueen, into my confidence) to leave them where they were, and merely to strengthen each post by a couple of companies of Highlanders.
I was also considerably exercised about the safety of the large stacks of firewood, grain, and forage, for if anything had happened to them we could not have continued to hold Sherpur. There were not enough British soldiers to furnish guards for these stacks, so I was obliged to have them watched for a time by officers; an opportune fall of snow, however, on the night of the 18th, rendered incendiarism impossible.
One other extremely unpleasant precaution I felt it my duty to take was the placing of Daud Shah, Yakub Khan's Commander-in-Chief, under arrest. I liked the man, and he had mixed freely with us all for more than two months. He was not, however, absolutely above suspicion: some of his near relatives were the most prominent amongst our enemies; and I had been struck by a change in his manner towards me of late. In trusting him to the extent I had done, I acted against the opinion of almost everyone about me, and now that I had a doubt myself, I felt I was not justified in leaving him at liberty, for if he were disposed to make use of his opportunities to our disadvantage, his unrestrained freedom of movement and observation would be certainly a source of great danger.
For three or four days cloudy weather prevented heliograph communication with Lataband, and messengers sent by Hudson had failed to reach Sherpur, so that we were without any news from the outer world; but on the afternoon of the 18th I received a letter from Brigadier-General Charles Gough, conveying the disappointing intelligence that he had only got as far as Jagdalak, twenty-one miles from Gandamak, and that he did not consider himself strong enough to advance on Kabul.
Gough no doubt felt himself in an awkward position. The line to his rear was weakly held, the telegraph-wire on both sides of him was cut, his rear guard had been attacked near Jagdalak, there was a considerable collection of men on the hills to his front, and, as he reported, 'the whole country was up.' Moreover, Major-General Bright, under whom Gough was immediately serving, shared his opinion that it would be wiser for him to wait until reinforcements came up from the rear.
Gough, however, had with him 4 Mountain guns and 125 Artillerymen, 73 Sappers and Miners, 222 Native Cavalry, 487 British Infantry, and 474 Gurkhas; in all, 1,381 men, besides 36 officers--not a very large force, but composed of excellent material, and large enough, I considered, augmented, as it would be, by the Lataband detachment, to move safely on Kabul. I had no hesitation, therefore, in sending Gough peremptory orders to advance without delay, thus relieving him of all responsibility in the event of anything unexpected occurring.
Hudson, at Lataband, as has already been recorded, was only victualled until the 23rd, before which date I had calculated that Gough would surely have relieved the garrison and brought the troops away. But now all was uncertain, and it was incumbent upon me to send them food. The difficulty as to how to get supplies to Lataband was solved by some Hazaras, who had been working in our camp for several weeks, volunteering to convey what was necessary, and it was arranged that the provisions should be sent with two parties, one on the 19th, the other on the 20th. The first got through safely, but the second almost entirely fell into the hands of the enemy.
On the 21st a heliogram from Hudson informed me that Gough's brigade was expected the next day; but as it had been found necessary to drop his Cavalry at the several posts he passed on the way for their better protection, I deemed it expedient to send him the 12th Bengal Cavalry, for he had to pass through some fairly open country near Butkhak, where they might possibly be of use to him. Accordingly, they started at 3 a.m. on the 22nd, with instructions to halt at Butkhak should that post be unoccupied, otherwise to push on to Lataband.
Finding the former place in possession of the Afghans, Major Green, who was in command of the regiment, made for the further post, where he arrived with the loss of only three men killed and three wounded.
It was not easy to get reliable information as to the movements or intentions of the enemy while we were surrounded in Sherpur; but from spies who managed to pass to and from the city under cover of night, I gathered that plans were being made to attack us.
It was not, however, until the 21st that there were any very great signs of activity. On that and the following day the several posts to the east of the cantonment were occupied preparatory to an attack from that quarter; and I was told that numbers of scaling-ladders were being constructed. This looked like business. Next, information was brought in that, in all the mosques, mullas were making frantic appeals to the people to unite in one final effort to exterminate the infidel; and that the aged Mushk-i-Alam was doing all in his power to fan the flame of fanaticism, promising to light with his own hand at dawn on the 23rd (the last day of the Moharram, when religious exaltation amongst Mahomedans is at its height) the beacon-fire which was to be the signal for assault.
The night of the 22nd was undisturbed, save by the songs and cries of the Afghans outside the walls, but just before day the flames of the signal-fire, shooting upwards from the topmost crag of the Asmai range, were plainly to be seen, followed on the instant by a burst of firing.
Our troops were already under arms and at their posts, waiting for the assault, which commenced with heavy firing against the eastern and southern faces. The most determined attack was directed against the two sections commanded by Brigadier-General Hugh Gough and Colonel Jenkins, who by their able dispositions proved themselves worthy of the confidence I had reposed in them.
It was too dark at first to see anything in front of the walls, and orders were given to reserve fire until the advancing masses of the assailants could be clearly made out. Gough's Mountain guns, under Lieutenant Sherries, then fired star-shells, which disclosed the attacking force up to a thousand yards off. The 28th Punjab Infantry were the first to open fire; then the Guides, the 67th, and 92nd, each in their turn, greeted by their volleys the ghazis who approached close to the walls. Guns from every battery opened on the foe moving forward to the attack, and from 7 to 10 a.m. the fight was carried on. Repeated attempts were made to scale the south-eastern wall, and many times the enemy got up as far as the abattis, but were repulsed, heaps of dead marking the spots where these attempts had been most persistent.
Soon after 10 a.m. there was a slight lull in the fighting, leading us to believe that the Afghans were recoiling before the breechloaders. An hour later, however, the assault grew hot as ever, and finding we could not drive the enemy back by any fire which could be brought against them from the defences, I resolved to attack them in flank. Accordingly, I directed Major Craster, with four Field Artillery guns, and Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, with the 5th Punjab Cavalry, to move out over the hollow in the Bimaru range and open fire on a body of the enemy collected in and around the village of Kurja Kila. This fire had the desired effect; the Afghans wavered and broke.
From that moment the attacking force appeared to lose heart, the assault was no longer prosecuted with the same vigour, and by 1 p.m. it had ceased altogether, and the enemy were in full flight.
This was the Cavalry's opportunity. I ordered Massy to follow in pursuit with every available man, and before nightfall all the open ground in the neighbourhood of Sherpur was cleared of the enemy. Simultaneously with the movement of the Cavalry, a party was despatched to destroy some villages near the southern wall which had caused us much trouble, and whence it was necessary the enemy should be driven, to facilitate the entrance of Brigadier-General Charles Gough the next day, for that officer had arrived with his brigade within about six miles of Sherpur, where I could see his tents, and gathered from the fact of his pitching them that he meant to halt there for the night. The villages were found to be occupied by ghazis, who refused to surrender, preferring to remain and perish in the buildings, which were then blown up. Two gallant Engineer officers (Captain Dundas, V.C., and Lieutenant C. Nugent) were most unfortunately killed in carrying out this duty.
The relief I felt when I had gathered my force inside the walls of Sherpur on the evening of the 14th December was small compared to that which I experienced on the morning of the 24th, when I realized that not only had the assault been abandoned, but that the great tribal combination had dissolved, and that not a man of the many thousands who had been opposed to us the previous day remained in any of the villages, or on the surrounding hills. It was difficult to form an accurate estimate of the numbers opposed to us. As the Contingent from the more distant districts advanced, they received accessions from every place they passed, and as they neared Kabul they were joined by the inhabitants of the numerous villages, and by the disaffected in the city. It was calculated by those best able to judge that the combined forces exceeded 100,000, and I myself do not think that an excessive computation.
Our casualties between the 15th and the 23rd were remarkably few: 2 officers, 9 men, and 7 followers killed, and 5 officers, 41 men, and 22 followers wounded; while the enemy lost not less than 3,000.
I think I had great reason to be proud of my force. All night and every night, the ground covered with snow and the thermometer marking sixteen degrees of frost, officers and men were at their posts, and each day every available man had to be hard at work strengthening the defences. Native and European soldiers alike bore the hardships and exposure with the utmost cheerfulness, and in perfect confidence that, when the assault should take place, victory would be ours.
Early on the 24th the fort of Mahomed Sharif was occupied, and a force moved out to escort Charles Gough's brigade into Sherpur, a precaution which, however, was hardly necessary, as there was no enemy to be seen.
I next set to work to re-open communication with India, Butkhak was re-occupied, and the relaying of the telegraph was taken in hand. General Hills resumed his position as military Governor of Kabul; the dispensary and hospital were re-established in the city under the energetic and intelligent guidance of Surgeon-Captain Owen; and in the hope of reassuring the people, I issued the following Proclamation:
'At the instigation of some seditious men, the ignorant people, generally not considering the result, raised a rebellion. Now many of the insurgents have received their reward, and as subjects are a trust from God, the British Government, which is just and merciful, as well as strong, has forgiven their guilt. It is now proclaimed that all who come in without delay will be pardoned, excepting only Mahomed Jan of Wardak, Mir Bacha of Kohistan, Samandar Khan of Logar, Ghulam Hyder of Chardeh, and the murderers of Sirdar Mahomed Hassan Khan. Come and make your submission without fear, of whatsoever tribe you may be. You can then remain in your houses in comfort and safety, and no harm will befall you. The British Government has no enmity towards the people. Anyone who rebels again will, of course, be punished. This condition is necessary. But all who come in without delay need have no fear or suspicion. The British Government speaks only that which is in its heart.'
The effect of this Proclamation was most satisfactory: the city and the surrounding country quieted rapidly, shops were re-opened, and before the close of the year the bazaars were as densely thronged as ever. Most of the principal men of Logar and Kohistan came to pay their respects to me; they were treated with due consideration, and the political officers did all they could to find out what they really wanted, so that some basis of an arrangement for the peaceful administration of the country might be arrived at.
While taking these measures, which I thought would create confidence in our clemency and justice, I endeavoured in other ways to prevent a repetition of further serious troubles. Snow was still deep on the ground, but I did not let it prevent my sending General Baker to destroy a fort about twenty miles off, where dwelt an influential malik, who was one of the chief ringleaders in the revolt. All walled enclosures within 1,000 yards of the cantonment were razed to the ground, roads fit for guns were made all round the outside walls and towards the several gates of the city and Siah Sang, while two bridges, strong enough for Artillery to pass over, were thrown across the Kabul River.
The increased numbers to be accommodated on the arrival of Gough's brigade necessitated the re-occupation of the Bala Hissar, the defences of which were reconstructed so as to give a continuous line of fire, and admit of free circulation round the walls; roads were made through the lower Bala Hissar, and redoubts and towers were built on the Shahr-i-Darwaza range.
A strong fort--Fort Roberts--was constructed on the south-west point of Siah Sang, which commanded the Bala Hissar and the city; a smaller one was built at the crossing of the river; and as these two forts were not within sight of each other, a tower to connect them was constructed at the north-west extremity of Siah Sang.
Sherpur was thus made safe; but for the absolute protection of the city against an enemy operating from the Chardeh direction, a third fort was erected on the Asmai heights, which completed a formidable line of defences most skilfully carried out by Colonel Perkins and his staff.
[Footnote 1: Four and a half miles.]
[Footnote 2: The committee consisted of Brigadier-General T. D. Baker, Lieutenant Colonel Æ. Perkins, commanding Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant-Colonel B. Gordon, commanding Royal Artillery.]
[Footnote 3: A curious exemplification of the passive courage and indifference to danger of some Natives was the behaviour of an old Mahomedan servant of mine. At this juncture, just at the time when the fight was hottest, and I was receiving reports every few seconds from the officers commanding the several posts, Eli Bux (a brother of the man who had been with me throughout the Mutiny) whispered in my ear that my bath was ready. He was quite unmoved by the din and shots, and was carrying on his ordinary duties as if nothing at all unusual was occurring.]
[Footnote 4: This hospital was admirably managed, and was attended by a large number of patients, half of whom were women. The disease moat prevalent in Kabul was ophthalmia, caused by dust, dirt, and exposure, while cataract and other affections of the eye were very common. Dr. Owen, amongst his other many qualifications, excelled as an oculist, and his marvellous cures attracted sufferers from all parts of Afghanistan.]