Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
Sir Donald Stewart's division, which, I have mentioned, it had been decided should be sent to Kabul to take part in the pacification of northern Afghanistan, left Kandahar1 on the 30th March, and was [Page 463] expected to arrive at Ghazni about the 21st April. On the 16th I received a letter from Sir Donald, dated six days before, asking me to send supplies to meet him. I, therefore, that same day despatched a small column, under the command of Major General Ross, C.B., with the articles of food required; and as I thought it likely that my object in sending this force might be misunderstood, the deputation which attended the durbar was told to explain matters to the Chiefs at Maidan, and assure them that the advance would be peaceful unless hostilities should be provoked by their own action. Notwithstanding this precaution, I thought it quite possible the column would be opposed, for the news concerning Abdur Rahman's advent was causing considerable excitement; and whilst the soldiers and a proportion of the tribesmen were disposed to welcome him as a deliverer, those from Wardak and Logar resented his appearance on the scene as putting an end to their hopes of having Yakub Khan reinstated.
With a view, therefore, to prevent the Logaris from joining any attack which might be made on General Ross, I sent a party, 1,200 strong, under Colonel Jenkins, in the direction of Charasia.
On the 22nd April Ross reached Sar-i-top, forty-one miles from Ghazni; Sir Donald Stewart having arrived that same day at the latter place, heliographic communication was at once opened with him, and the welcome news was signalled that Sir Donald had fought an engagement at Ahmedkhel on the 19th, and had been entirely successful. On receipt of this intelligence I ordered a Royal salute to be fired in honour of the victory, the announcement of which I hoped might have a quieting effect on the excitement which prevailed around Kabul.
Jenkins attacked near Charasia In this I was disappointed. On the evening of the 24th, Jenkins, who was encamped at Charasia, heard that he was about to be attacked by the Logaris, under Mahomed Hasan Khan. At once striking his tents, and collecting his baggage in a sheltered spot, he ordered a party of Cavalry to reconnoitre up the Logar valley, strengthened his piquets, and sent off an express messenger to inform me of the situation.
I immediately despatched Brigadier-General Macpherson to Jenkins's assistance. By 9 a.m. he had started, with four Mountain guns and 962 Infantry, followed later by two more guns and a troop of the 3rd Punjab Cavalry; and as a support to Macpherson, Brigadier-General Hugh Gough, with the Cavalry brigade and four Horse Artillery guns, was ordered to take up a position half-way between Kabul and Charasia.
At 1 p.m. on the 25th Macpherson arrived on the high ground beyond the sang-i-nawishta gorge, whence he obtained a good view of Jenkins's position; and seeing that the enemy formed a complete semicircle round it, he pushed on. Jenkins had stood on the defensive from the early morning, and the Afghans, who had advanced to within[Page 464] a couple of hundred yards, were only kept at bay by the steadiness of his fire.
Macpherson first sent back the baggage to Sherpur, so as to free all hands for action, and then proceeded to attack the left horn of the semicircle. The enemy broke, fell back, and were completely scattered by a well-directed Artillery fire; the surrounding hills were speedily cleared, and the Cavalry and Horse Artillery pursued for four miles. By four o'clock not a single living Afghan was to be seen; more than 200 had been killed, while our casualties were only four killed and thirty-four wounded.
I came up just as the fight was over; and being sure from the decisive character of the defeat that a retirement could not be misunderstood, I ordered the troops to return to Kabul.
In anticipation of Sir Donald Stewart's arrival, and the consequent necessity for my making over to him, as my senior, the supreme command of the Kabul Field Force, I prepared a report2 for his information, which explained the general military situation in northern Afghanistan, and contained a statement of economic details which I thought would be of use to the Government, and concerning which an experience of eighteen months in the field enabled me to give an opinion with some confidence.
The strength of the Kabul Field Force at the end of April amounted to nearly 14,000 men and thirty-eight guns, with 12,500 followers;3 besides 15,000 men and thirty guns on the Khyber line, under the immediate command of Major-General Bright.
Sir Donald Stewart reaches Kabul Sir Donald reached Kabul on the 5th May. On the same day we heard that the Beaconsfield Administration had come to an end; that a new Ministry had been formed under Mr. Gladstone; that Lord Lytton had resigned, and was to be succeeded by the Marquis of Ripon; and that the Marquis of Hartington had become Secretary of State for India.
Notwithstanding the pleasure of meeting an old friend in my new Commander, that 5th of May was altogether not a happy day for me. Lord Lytton's approaching departure was a source of real sorrow. Personally, I felt that I was deeply indebted to him for the confidence he had reposed in me, and for the warm support he had invariably accorded me. I had hoped that he would have had the gratification of seeing, while in office, the campaign in which he was so much interested satisfactorily concluded, and with the prospect of permanent[Page 465] results; and I dreaded that a change of Government might mean a reversal of the policy which I believed to be the best for the security of our position in India. Moreover, it was not in human nature to feel absolute satisfaction in yielding up the supreme command I had so greatly delighted in, into the hands of another, even though that other was one for whom I had so great a personal regard, and under whom I had already served in the field.
The amalgamated troops were now styled the Northern Afghanistan Field Force, and I retained the command of the two divisions at Kabul, with Major-General John Ross as second in command; while Major-General Hills was given the brigades from Kandahar, which now became the third division of the Force.
The idea in bringing Stewart away from Kandahar was that he should occupy Ghazni and Kabul; that my divisions should operate in Kohistan and in the direction of Bamian; that General Bright should move against the Ghilzais; and that a column from Kuram should march over the Shutargardan to Kabul. It was hoped that these operations would have the effect of quieting the country, and, by the time they had been carried out, it would be possible to evacuate northern Afghanistan.
With a view to having my divisions thoroughly efficient and mobile for the service they were expected to perform, I had largely replenished the numbers of my transport animals, which had suffered greatly from the strain put upon them in supplying the troops with food and other necessaries during the winter months; they had been continuously at work in the most inclement weather, numbers had died, and those that remained required to be carefully looked after and given complete rest to render them fit for the contemplated operations. Major Mark Heathcote, who had taken, at my particular request, the arduous charge of this department, wished to revert to regimental duty, so I applied for, and obtained, the services of Lieutenant Colonel B. Low4 as Director of Transport, under whose energetic and intelligent management the transport service was rendered as perfect as it was possible to make it. In the end, circumstances prevented the concerted movements for which these preparations were made being carried out, but I reaped the benefit of them when later in the year I was required to undertake a rapid march to Kandahar, which could not possibly have been successfully accomplished had my transport not been in such admirable condition.
In order to relieve the great pressure put upon the Commissariat Department by having to provide for the increased number of troops at Kabul, and with a view to opening up the roads upon which traffic had been more or less impeded for some months, it was considered[Page 466] desirable to send a strong brigade towards Maidan, which I accompanied, and remained away from Kabul for some weeks. On my return, I found a considerable change had taken place in the political situation. The Mustaufi had been deported to India; the correspondence between Abdur Rahman and Mr. Griffin had taken rather an unsatisfactory turn, and the Sirdar's dealings with the leading Chiefs and tribesmen had given cause to fear that, if he came to Kabul during our occupation, it might be as an enemy rather than a friend.
The Mustaufi was a firm adherent of the Sher Ali faction, and, finding there was no hope of Yakub Khan being reinstated, and that we were negotiating with Abdur Rahman, he had espoused the cause of Yakub's younger brother, Ayub Khan, and had been proved guilty of inciting the Sirdars and Chiefs to oppose us. For this he was very properly sent out of Afghanistan; nevertheless, I looked upon his removal as a misfortune, for it broke up the only party that could possibly be formed to counterbalance Abdur Rahman, who was astute enough to see that the weaker our position became, the more chance there was of his being able to get his own terms from us.
Difficulties with Abdur Rahman From the letters he had written to his friends and relations in northern Afghanistan (the majority of which had fallen into our hands), it was evident that he was doing all he could to strengthen himself, even at our expense, and that he greatly disliked the idea of Kandahar being separated from the kingdom of Kabul. Indeed, in one of his communications to Mr. Griffin he had made it clear that he expected the whole inheritance of his grandfather, Dost Mahomed Khan, to be made over to him.
The uncertainty as to the result of the correspondence with Abdur Rahman, the rumours in circulation regarding his real disposition and plans, and the general excitement throughout the country, suggested such grave doubts of the Sirdar's good faith that, in some quarters, the question was seriously discussed whether it might not be necessary to break off negotiations with him, and reinstate Yakub Khan, or else set up his brother, Ayub Khan, as Amir.
I myself was altogether opposed to Yakub Khan's restoration, and as to Ayub Khan, we were in total ignorance of his character and proclivities, even if he had been near enough to treat with. It appeared to me, moreover, that we had gone too far with Abdur Rahman to throw him over because, in conformity with Afghan character and tradition, he was not running quite straight. I, therefore, gave it as my opinion that we should not change our tactics unless it was found impossible to come to terms with him, or unless it was made evident on his nearer approach to Kabul that the majority of his countrymen were averse to have him as their Ruler.
Soon after this the situation began to improve, and early in July[Page 467] Mr. Griffin was able to inform the Government of India that 'the probabilities of a settlement with Abdur Rahman appear far more favourable than they did last week....' 'Abdur Rahman has seen that we have been fully informed of the game he has been playing, that trickery and treachery would not be tolerated, and that, if he intends coming to a settlement with us at all, he must be prepared to accept our terms rather than dictate his own.'
A few days later a letter was received from Abdur Rahman, announcing his arrival in Kohistan. His near approach, and the report that he was willing to accept our terms, excited a keen and hopeful interest throughout the country, for the Afghans had at length become convinced that the only chance of getting rid of us was by agreeing to any form of settled government we might establish, and they had grown heartily tired of perpetual fighting and of having to maintain bands of ghazis to oppose us, who were eating them out of house and home. With the exception of the Sher Ali faction, therefore, whose interests were directly opposed to his, Abdur Rahman's advent was welcomed by the people, and several of the most influential amongst them went to meet him.
Towards the end of July Sir Donald Stewart was empowered to conclude all political and military arrangements preparatory to withdrawing from northern Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman was to be recognized as 'Amir of Kabul'; he was to be provided with a sufficient number of guns to strengthen effectively his occupation of the city, and he was to be given as much money (within a maximum of ten lakhs) as was thought necessary to meet his present wants. It was to be clearly explained to Abdur Rahman that the Government of India would not engage to give him a regular subsidy, or a continuous supply of arms or money, and that after he had taken possession of his capital he would have to rely upon his own resources for holding it. There was to be no treaty, and all questions of reciprocal engagements between the two Governments were to be postponed until some settled and responsible administration had been consolidated.
General Stewart was directed to make the best arrangements he could with Abdur Rahman for the protection of the tribes and individuals who had assisted us, and the Sirdar was to be informed that, if he desired our goodwill, he could give no better proof of his friendly disposition than by his behaviour towards those of his own nation in whom the British Government were interested.
Abdur Rahman proclaimed Amir Sir Donald Stewart considered that the best way of giving effect to these instructions was to publicly proclaim Abdur Rahman as Amir of Kabul; for this purpose he held a durbar on the 22nd July, at which the Sirdar's representatives were received. Sir Donald, in a few words, gave his reasons for summoning them to meet him, and Mr. Griffin then explained more fully the motives by which the Government[Page 468] of India were actuated in acknowledging the claims of Abdur Rahman. Immediately after the durbar orders were issued for an early retirement.
I was to withdraw my column by the Kuram route; but being anxious to see something of the Khyber line while I had the opportunity, I started off the following day to ride through the Jagdalak Pass to Gandamak, where I was entertained by General Bright and his staff. The next day I went on to Jalalabad, and was greatly interested in wandering over the place where Sir Robert Sale in some measure redeemed the lamentable failures of the first Afghan war.
My intention, when I left Kabul, was to ride as far as the Khyber Pass, but suddenly a presentiment, which I have never been able to explain to myself, made me retrace my steps and hurry back towards Kabul—a presentiment of coming trouble which I can only characterize as instinctive.
The feeling was justified when, about half-way between Butkhak and Kabul, I was met by Sir Donald Stewart and my Chief of the Staff,5 who brought me the astounding news of the total defeat by Ayub Khan of Brigadier-General Burrows's brigade at Maiwand, and of Lieutenant-General Primrose,6 with the remainder of his force, being besieged at Kandahar.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER LIX
[Footnote 1: Sir Donald Stewart's division was replaced at Kandahar by troops from Bombay.]
[Footnote 2: The part of the report which deals with economic details is given in the Appendix*; the military portion is omitted, as it was only intended for Sir Donald Stewart's information at the time.]
See Appendix X.]
[Footnote 3: Of these, more than 3,000 were doolie-bearers, and nearly 8,000 were saices of Native Cavalry regiments, and men belonging to the Transport and other Departments.]
[Footnote 4: Now Major-General Sir Robert Low, G.C.B.]
[Footnote 5: Colonel Macgregor and Lieutenant-Colonel Chapman had changed places, the former joining Sir Donald Stewart as Chief of the Staff, and the latter taking up the same position with me.]
[Footnote 6: Lieutenant-General Primrose succeeded Sir Donald Stewart in command of the troops at Kandahar.]