Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
Immediate action was imperatively necessary; the Afghans had to be dislodged from their strong position at any cost, or we should have been surrounded by overwhelming numbers. Their occupation of the heights was, I felt, a warning that must not be disregarded, and a menace that could not be brooked.
Behind this range of hills lay the densely-crowded city of Kabul, with the scarcely less crowded suburbs of Chardeh, Deh-i-Afghan, and numberless villages thickly studded over the Kabul valley, all of which were contributing their quota of warriors to assist the Regular troops in disputing the advance of the British. It did not require much experience of Asiatics to understand that, if the enemy were allowed to remain undisturbed for a single night in the position they had taken up, their numbers would increase to an extraordinary extent.
I now received a report from the rear that the road was blocked, and that the progress of Macpherson's brigade would certainly be opposed; while, on the crests of the hills to the right and left of my camp, bodies of men began to assemble, who, I surmised (which surmise I afterwards learnt was correct), were only waiting for the sun to go down to make a general attack upon the camp under cover of dusk.
The situation was one of great anxiety. The whole force with me was not more than 4,000 men and eighteen guns. The treacherous Amir and his equally treacherous Ministers had, of course, kept the Afghan Commander fully informed as to the manner in which my troops were perforce divided; the position of every man and every gun with me was known; and I feared that, as soon as we were engaged with the enemy, the opportunity would be taken to attack my weakly-defended[Page 403] camp and to engage Macpherson's small brigade, encumbered as it was with its large convoy of stores and ammunition.
The numbers of the enemy were momentarily increasing, so delay would assuredly make matters worse; the only chance of success, therefore, was to take the initiative, and attack the Afghan main position at once. Accordingly, I sent an officer with orders to the troops who were moving towards the gorge not to commence work, but to take up a defensive position until my plans were further developed. I sent another messenger to Macpherson, informing him of my intention to take immediate action, and telling him to keep a good look-out, and push on to Charasia with all possible speed, and at the same time I reinforced him by a squadron of Cavalry.
The Afghan position formed the arc of a circle, extending from the sang-i-nawishta gorge to the heights above Chardeh. Both sides of the gorge were occupied by the enemy, as was a semi-detached hill to the south of it, and sixteen guns were observed in position. The line they had taken up occupied nearly three miles of country; and their main position was the ridge, which, close to the gorge, rose 1,000 feet above the plain, running up at its western extremity to a peak 2,200 feet high. Thence the line stretched along the edge of some lower heights to a rugged hill, the summit of which was about 1,800 feet above Charasia. In front of this formidable position were a succession of sandy hills, forming a series of easily defensible posts, and at the foot of these hills ran a bare stony belt, sloping down to the cultivated land surrounding Charasia and the hamlet of Khairabad.
My movements and reconnaissances up till now having led the enemy to believe that I intended to deliver my attack on their left at the sang-i-nawishta, they were seen to be concentrating their forces in that direction. But this position could only have been carried with such damaging loss to us that I determined to make the real attack by an outflanking movement to their right.
The men having made a hasty breakfast, I despatched General Baker in this direction, and placing at his disposal the troops noted below,2 I entrusted to him the difficult task of dislodging the enemy, while I continued to distract their attention towards the gorge by making a feint to their left.
Baker's little column assembled in a wooded enclosure close to Charasia, where he left his field hospital and reserve ammunition, for the safe guarding of which I sent him the 5th Punjab Infantry, while he was further reinforced by 450 men of the 23rd Pioneers and three Field Artillery guns. I was thus left with only six Horse Artillery guns, 450 Cavalry, and between 600 and 700 Infantry for the[Page 404] protection of the camp, where I was still handicapped by the presence of the Amir and his untrustworthy following.
While Baker advanced to the left, the party near the sang-i-nawishta gorge, commanded by Major White, of the 92nd Highlanders, was ordered to threaten the pass and to prevent the enemy occupying any portion of the Charasia village, to advance within Artillery range of the enemy's main position above the gorge, and when the outflanking movement had been thoroughly developed and the enemy were in full retreat, but not before, to push the Cavalry through the gorge and pursue.
At about 11.30 a.m. Baker's leading troops emerged into the open, and were immediately engaged with a crowd of armed Afghans, supported by a considerable body of Regular troops. The General now sent one company of the 72nd, under Captain Hunt, to turn the Afghans off a succession of peaks situated at right angles to the ridge they were occupying on their extreme right. Running along this ridge, and stretching across the Indiki road to the sandhills, the Afghan right wing held a line considerably in advance of their left on the hill above the sang-i-nawishta gorge, and one which could not easily be turned, for the peaks the 72nd were sent to occupy were almost inaccessible, and the fire from them swept the slopes up which our troops must advance. These peaks, therefore, formed the key of the position, and their defenders had to be dislodged from them at all hazards before anything else could be attempted. The company of the 72nd with much difficulty fought their way up, and gained a footing on the first peak, where they were obliged to pause, until reinforced by two companies of the 5th Gurkhas under Captain Cook, V.C., when they advanced all together, clearing the enemy from each successive point, while the remainder of the 72nd breasted the hill, and, under cover of the Mountain guns, attacked the position in front. But the enemy were obstinate, and the extremely difficult nature of the ground somewhat checked the gallant Highlanders. Seeing their dilemma, Baker despatched two companies of the 5th Gurkhas, under Lieutenant-Colonel Fitz-Hugh, and 200 men of the 5th Punjab Infantry, under Captain Hall, to their assistance; while the 23rd Pioneers were brought up on the right, in support, and a detachment of the 5th Punjab Infantry echeloned in rear, on the left of the line.
The engagement now became hot, and the firing fast and furious. My readers will, I am sure, be able to realize with what intense excitement and anxiety I watched the proceedings. It was evident to me that little progress could be made so long as the enemy retained possession of the ridge, which the Afghan Commander apparently had just begun to appreciate was the real point of attack, for his troops could now be seen hurrying to this point, and it became more urgently necessary than ever to carry the position before it could be reinforced.[Page 405] At 2 p.m. it was seized; the Highlanders and Gurkhas could no longer be resisted; the Afghans wavered, and then began to retreat, exposed to a cross-fire that effectually prevented their rallying.
The brunt of this affair was borne by the 72nd, admirably led by their company officers, under the skilful direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke and his Adjutant, Lieutenant Murray. I closely watched their movements, and particularly observed one man pushing up the precipitous hillside considerably in advance of everyone else, and apparently utterly regardless of the shower of bullets falling round him. I inquired about him later on, and found that he was a young Irish private of the 72nd, named MacMahon, to whose coolness and daring was in a great measure due the capture of this very strong post. Her Majesty, I am glad to be able to relate, subsequently rewarded this intrepid soldier by bestowing on him the Victoria Cross.
Highlanders, Gurkhas, and Punjabis The general advance was now sounded, and gallantly was it responded to. The main position was stormed by the Highlanders, Gurkhas, and Punjab Infantry, each trying hard to be the first to close with its defenders. The enemy fought desperately, charging down on the Gurkhas, by whom, under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Fitz-Hugh and his Adjutant, Lieutenant Martin, they were repulsed and driven over the crest with heavy loss.
The Afghans now took up a position some 600 yards in the rear of that from which they had just been dislodged, where they made an obstinate stand for half an hour, but they were again forced back on the attacking party being strengthened by the arrival of two companies of the 92nd Highlanders, sent to their assistance by Major White, who had already successfully engaged the Afghan left above the sang-i-nawishta gorge. As the enemy's advanced posts on the hill to the south, and directly in front of the gorge, prevented our guns from coming within range of their position on the heights above, these posts had to be disposed of as a preliminary to effective co-operation with Baker; accordingly, about noon the hill was captured by two companies of the 92nd, under Captain Cotton, and half a battery of Field Artillery was advanced to a point whence Major Parry was able to engage the Afghan guns posted above the gorge.
It was at this juncture, when Baker's troops, having carried the main position, were proceeding to attack that to which the enemy had retreated, that White despatched two companies of the 92nd, under Captain Oxley, by whose timely aid the determined foe were at length driven from this point of vantage also. The troops followed up their success and advanced at the double, while our guns shelled the shaken masses.
Defeat of the Afghans The Afghan right and centre now gave way completely; the enemy broke, and fled down the slopes on the further side in a[Page 406] north-westerly direction, eventually taking refuge in the Chardeh villages.
By 3.45 we were in possession of the whole of the main ridge. The first objective having been thus gained, the troops, pivoting on their right, brought round their left and advanced against the now exposed flanks of the enemy's left wing, and simultaneously with this movement White advanced from his position by the hill in front of the gorge, and a little after four o'clock had gained possession of the pass and twelve Afghan guns.
Completely outflanked and enfiladed by Baker's fire, the left wing of the Afghan force made but little resistance; they rapidly abandoned the height, and retired across the river toward the north-east, pursued by the small body of Cavalry attached to White's force, under Major Hammond, and a party of the 92nd, under Major Hay.
Baker now paused to allow of the Infantry's ammunition being replenished, and then advanced along the ridge towards the pass, which he reached in time to help the Cavalry who were engaged with the enemy's rear guard at the river; the latter were driven off and forced to retreat; but by this time the growing darkness made further pursuit impossible. We were therefore compelled to rest satisfied with holding the ground in advance by piquets and occupying both ends of the sang-i-nawishta defile, where the troops bivouacked for the night. I was able to supply them with food from Charasia, and they were made as comfortable as they could be under the circumstances.
While the fighting was taking place on the heights in front of Charasia, the hills on both flanks of my camp were crowded with the enemy, anxiously watching the result; they did not approach within the Cavalry patrols, but one party caused so much annoyance to a picquet by firing into it that it became necessary to dislodge it, a service which was performed in a very daring manner by a few of the 92nd, under Lieutenant Grant and Colour-Sergeant Hector Macdonald, the same non-commissioned officer who had a few days before so distinguished himself in the Hazardarakht defile.
Our casualties were wonderfully few, only 18 killed and 70 wounded,3 while the enemy left 300 dead behind them, and as they succeeded in carrying numbers of their killed and wounded off the field, their loss must have been heavy. I subsequently ascertained that we had opposed to us, besides thirteen Regular regiments, between eight and[Page 407] ten thousand Afghans. Ghilzais from Tezin and Hisarak had hurried up in large numbers to join the enemy, but, luckily for us, arrived too late. Of these some returned to their homes when they found the Afghan army had been beaten, but the greater number waited about Kabul to assist in any further stand that might be made by the Regular troops.
The heliograph, worked by Captain Stratton, of the 22nd Foot, had been of the greatest use during the day, and kept me fully informed of all details. The last message as the sun was sinking behind the hills, confirming my own observations, was a most satisfactory one, to the effect that the whole of the enemy's position was in our possession, and that our victory was complete.
Throughout the day my friend (!) the Amir, surrounded by his Sirdars, remained seated on a knoll in the centre of the camp watching the progress of the fight with intense eagerness, and questioning everyone who appeared as to his interpretation of what he had observed. So soon as I felt absolutely assured of our victory, I sent an Aide-de-camp to His Highness to convey the joyful intelligence of our success. It was, without doubt, a trying moment for him, and a terrible disappointment after the plans which I subsequently ascertained he and his adherents at Kabul had carefully laid for our annihilation. But he received the news with Asiatic calmness, and without the smallest sign of mortification, merely requesting my Aide-de-camp to assure me that, as my enemies were his enemies, he rejoiced at my victory.
Macpherson's brigade, with its impedimenta, arrived before it was quite dark, so altogether I had reason to feel satisfied with the day's results. But the fact still remained that not more than twelve miles beyond stood the city of Kabul, with its armed thousands ready to oppose us should an assault prove necessary. I had besides received information of a further gathering of Ghilzais bent upon another attack on the Shutargardan, and that reinforcements of Regular troops and guns were hastening to Kabul from Ghazni. Prompt action was the one and only means of meeting these threatened difficulties. My troops had had more than enough for one day, and required rest, but needs must when the devil (in the shape of Afghan hordes) drives. I resolved to push on, and issued orders for tents to be struck at once and an advance to be made at break of day.
At the first streak of dawn on the 7th I started, leaving Macpherson to come on with the heavy baggage as quickly as he could. I marched by the sang-i-nawishta defile, where Major White met me and explained to me his part in the victory of the previous day. From my inspection of the ground, I had no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that much of the success which attended the operations on this side was due to White's military instincts and, at one supreme moment, his extreme personal gallantry. It afforded me, therefore, very great[Page 408] pleasure to recommend this officer for the Victoria Cross, an honour of which more than one incident in his subsequent career proved him to be well worthy.
Kabul in Sight Our rapid advance, following on the defeat of the previous day, had the effect I hoped it would have. On arriving at Beni Hissar, a considerable village, surrounded by orchards and gardens, only two miles south of the far-famed citadel of the Bala Hissar, I sent out Cavalry patrols to reconnoitre, who brought me the pleasing news that the Bala Hissar had been evacuated, and the only part of the city visible seemed to be deserted.
During the day I received visits from some of the chief merchants of Kabul, who each told a different tale regarding the movements of the defeated Afghan army and the intentions of the Afghan Commander. From their conflicting accounts, however, I gathered that, fresh troops having arrived from Kohistan, the remnants of the Charasia army had joined them, and that the combined forces were then occupying the range of hills immediately above Kabul, to the west, and had determined to make another stand.
Having received intelligence that the enemy, if again defeated, intended to retire towards Turkestan, I directed Brigadier-General Massy, on the morning of the 8th October, to move out with the Cavalry brigade and place himself across their line of retreat.4 The brigade started at 11 a.m., and, in order to avoid the city and adjacent heights, made a considerable detour by Siah Sang and Sherpur, the new Afghan cantonment. On reaching the latter place, Massy heliographed to me that he had found it deserted, the magazine blown up, and seventy-five guns5 abandoned inside the enclosure, and that the enemy were now occupying a ridge6 which seemed to him to be a prolongation of the Shahr-i-Darwaza range above Kabul; then, continuing his march, he crossed a depression in this ridge called the Nanachi Kotal, and wheeling to his left, and skirting the Asmai heights on the western side, he soon came in sight of the Afghan camp, pitched on the slope of the hills about a mile from Deh-i-Mazang.
Brigadier-General Massy was informed, in reply to his heliogram, that Baker would be despatched at once to drive the enemy from their position and force them to fall back upon the Cavalry, upon which Massy immediately made the arrangements which appeared to him most advisable for blocking, with the limited number of sabres at his[Page 409] disposal, the several roads by which the enemy might attempt to escape.
Deh-i-Mazang Gorge I could only spare to Baker a very small force (1,044 rifles, two Mountain guns and one Gatling), for Macpherson's and White's troops had not yet come up. He started off without a moment's delay, and, driving the enemy's scouts before him, worked his way along the Shahr-i-Darwaza heights to the west; but his progress was very slow, owing to the extreme difficulty of the ground, and the day was far spent before he found himself near enough to the enemy to use his Artillery. To his delight, Baker perceived that he commanded the Afghan camp and the rear of their main position; but his satisfaction was considerably allayed when he discovered that between him and them lay a deep gorge7 with precipitous sides, through which ran the Kabul river, and that before he could attack he would have to descend 1,600 feet, and then climb up the opposite side, which was nearly as high and quite as steep.
The enemy give us the slip Anxious as Baker was that there should be no delay in delivering the assault, by the time his dispositions were made it had become too dark to attempt it, and most reluctantly he had to postpone the movement till daybreak the next day. He had ascertained that the Kabul river was not fordable for Infantry except at a point which was commanded by the enemy's camp, and was too far from support to warrant piquets being pushed across at night. Nothing whatever could be seen, but a very slight noise as of stealthy movement in the Afghan camp was heard, and the fear seized Baker that the enemy might escape him. Soon after 11 p.m., therefore, when the rising moon began in a measure to dispel the darkness, Baker sent a strong patrol under a British officer to feel for the enemy. The patrol came into contact with the Afghan scouts on the river-bank, from some of whom, taken prisoners in the struggle, they learned that the enemy had crept away under cover of the night, and the greater number had dispersed to their own homes; but about 800, mounted on Artillery horses, were reported to have accompanied their Commander, Mahomed Jan, and to have escaped in the direction of Bamian.
Meanwhile, Brigadier-General Massy, from his point of observation beneath the Asmai heights, had perceived that it was impossible for Baker to carry the enemy's main position by daylight; he tried to communicate with Baker and ascertain his plans, but the party despatched on this service were unable to get through the villages and woods, which were all held by the enemy, and returned unsuccessful. Massy then collected his scattered squadrons and bivouacked for the night, being anxious that his men and horses should have food and rest, and it not having struck him that the enemy might attempt to escape[Page 410] during the hours of darkness.
The information that in very truth they had escaped was brought to Baker at 4.30 a.m. He at once communicated it to Massy, telling him at the same time that any movement the Cavalry might make in pursuit would be supported by the troops under his immediate command, and also by a brigade under Brigadier-General Macpherson, which I had despatched to reinforce Baker; Macpherson and White, with their respective troops, having arrived at Beni Hissar shortly after Baker had started.
I joined Baker at this time, and great was my disappointment at being told that the Afghans had given us the slip. I went carefully over the ground, however, and satisfied myself that Baker had done all that was possible under the circumstances, and that the enemy having eluded us could not in any way be attributed to want of care or skill on his part.
Massy scoured the country until nightfall on the 9th, but with very little success, only one small party of fugitives being overtaken about four-and-twenty miles on the road to Ghazni. Numbers, doubtless, found shelter in the city of Kabul, others in the numerous villages with which the richly-cultivated Chardeh valley was thickly studded, and whose inhabitants were hostile to a man; others escaped to the hills; and the remainder, having had ten hours' start, could not be overtaken.
The enemy's camp was left standing, and twelve guns, some elephants, camels, mules, and ponies, fell into our possession.
During that day our camp was moved nearer the city to Siah Sang, a commanding plateau between the Kabul and Logar rivers, close to their confluence, and less than a mile east of the Bala Hissar. The 5th Gurkhas and two Mountain guns were left to hold the heights on which Brigadier-General Baker had been operating, and the rest of the force was concentrated on Siah Sang.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER LI
[Footnote 1: Twenty sabres, 9th Lancers, one squadron 5th Punjab Cavalry, two guns, No. 2 Mountain battery, 284 rifles, 92nd Highlanders, and 450 rifles, 23rd Pioneers.]
[Footnote 2: Two guns, No. 2 Mountain battery, two Gatling guns, detachment 12th Bengal Cavalry, 72nd Highlanders, 5th Gurkhas (300 rifles), 5th Punjab Infantry (200 rifles), No. 7 Company Sappers and Miners.]
[Footnote 3: During the fight the Infantry expended 41,090 rounds, of which over 20,000 were fired by the 72nd Highlanders. The half-battery G/3 R.A. fired 6 common shell (percussion fuses) and 71 shrapnel (time fuses); total, 77 rounds. No. 2 Mountain Battery fired 10 common shell and 94 shrapnel, total, 104 rounds. The two Gatlings fired 150 rounds.
At the tenth round one of the Gatlings jammed, and had to be taken to pieces. This was the first occasion on which Gatling guns were used in action. They were not of the present improved make, and, being found unsatisfactory, were made but little use of.]
[Footnote 4: The troops available for this purpose were: One squadron 9th Lancers, 5th Punjab Cavalry, 12th Bengal Cavalry, and 14th Bengal Lancers; total, 720 of all ranks.]
[Footnote 5: The guns included four English 18-pounders, one English 8-inch howitzer and two Afghan imitations of this weapon, and forty-two bronze Mountain guns.]
[Footnote 6: The Asmai heights.]
[Footnote 7: The Deh-i-Mazang gorge.]