Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
The next morning, the 1st September, in accordance with instructions from Simla, I assumed command of the army in southern Afghanistan. There was no return to show the strength or composition of General Phayre's column, but the troops at Kandahar all told now amounted in round numbers to 3,800 British and 11,000 Native soldiers, with 36 guns.
An hour before daybreak the whole of the troops were under arms, and at 6 a.m. I explained to Generals Primrose and Ross and the officers commanding brigades the plan of operations. Briefly, it was to threaten the enemy's left (the Baba Wali Kotal), and to attack in force by the village of Pir Paimal.
The Infantry belonging to the Kabul column, upon whom devolved the duty of carrying the enemy's position, were formed up in rear of the low hills which covered the front of our camp, their right being at Piquet Hill and their left resting on Chitral Zina. The Cavalry of the Kabul column were drawn up in rear of the left, ready to operate by Gundigan towards the head of the Arghandab, so as to threaten the rear of Ayub Khan's camp and his line of retreat in the direction of Girishk. Four guns of E Battery Royal Horse Artillery, two companies of the 2-7th Fusiliers, and four companies of the 28th Bombay Infantry, were placed at the disposal of Brigadier-General Hugh Gough, whose orders were to occupy with these troops the position above Gundigan,[Page 488] which had been so useful during the previous day's reconnaissance, and to push his Cavalry on to the Arghandab.
Guards having been detailed for the protection of the city, the remainder of Lieutenant-General Primrose's troops were ordered to be disposed as follows: Brigadier-General Daubeny's brigade to occupy the ground between Piquet Hill and Chitral Zina as soon as the Infantry of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force advanced to the attack. The remnant of Brigadier-General Burrows's brigade, with No. 5 Battery, 11th Brigade Royal Artillery, under Captain Hornsby, and the Cavalry under Brigadier-General Nuttall, to take up a position north of the cantonment, from which the 40-pounders could be brought to bear on the Baba Wali Kotal, while the Cavalry could watch the pass, called Kotal-i-Murcha, and cover the city.
From an early hour it was clear that the enemy contemplated an offensive movement; the villages of Gundigan and Gundi Mulla Sahibdab were being held in strength, and a desultory fire was brought to bear on the British front from the orchards connecting these two villages and from the Baba Wali Kotal.
Commencement of the fight The Bombay Cavalry moved out at 7.30 a.m., and Daubeny's brigade at eight o'clock. Burrows's troops followed, and shortly after 9 a.m., their disposition being completed, Captain Hornsby opened fire upon the kotal, which was one mass of ghazis.
This feint, made by General Primrose's troops, having had the effect I had hoped, of attracting the enemy's attention, I gave the order for Major-General Ross to make the real attack with the 1st and 2nd Brigades of his division. The 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier-General Macgregor, I placed in front of the village of Abbasabad, with the double object of being a reserve to the 1st and 2nd Brigades and of meeting a possible counter-attack from the Baba Wali Kotal.
Ross's orders were to advance against Gundi Mulla Sahibdad, capture the village, and then drive the enemy from the enclosures which lay between it and the low spur of Pir Paimal hill. This duty he entrusted to Brigadier-General Macpherson, and he directed Brigadier-General Baker to advance to the west, to keep touch with the 1st Brigade, and to clear the gardens and orchards in his immediate front.
Greig's 9-pounder and Robinson's 7-pounder (screw gun) batteries covered the attack on Gundi Mulla Sahibdad, which was made by the 2nd Gurkhas, under Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Battye, and the 92nd Highlanders, under Lieutenant-Colonel G. Parker, supported by the 23rd Pioneers, under Lieutenant-Colonel H. Collett, and the 24th Punjab Infantry, under Colonel F. Norman. The village was carried with the utmost gallantry, Highlanders and Gurkhas, always friendly rivals in the race for glory, by turns outstripping each other in their efforts to be first within its walls. The enemy sullenly and slowly[Page 489] withdrew, a goodly number of ghazis remaining to the very last to receive a bayonet charge of the 92nd. Meanwhile, Baker's troops had been threading their way through the narrow lanes and loop-holed enclosures which lay in the line of their spirited attack; the resistance they encountered was most stubborn, and it was during this advance that the 72nd lost their dashing Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel F. Brownlow,1 Captain Frome, and Lance-Sergeant Cameron, the latter a grand specimen of a Highland soldier.
72nd Highlanders and 2nd Sikhs In the 2nd Brigade, the 72nd Highlanders and the 2nd Sikhs bore the brunt of the fighting; they were the leading battalions, and frequently had to fix bayonets to carry different positions or to check the desperate rushes of the Afghans.
After continued and severe fighting, both leading brigades emerged at the point of the hill close to Pir Paimal, and, wheeling to their right, they pressed rapidly on, sweeping the enemy through the thickly-wooded gardens which covered the western slopes, until noon, when the whole of Pir Paimal was in our possession.2
During the early part of the advance the Afghans collected in great strength on the low hills beneath the Baba Wan Kotal, evidently preparing for a rush on our guns; their leaders could be seen urging them on, and a portion of them came down the hill, but the main body apparently refused to follow, and remained on the crest until the position was turned, when they at once retreated.
Having become assured of General Ross's complete success, and seeing that there was now no necessity for detaining Macgregor's (the 3rd) brigade to meet a counter-attack, I pushed on with it to join Ross, who, however, knowing how thoroughly he could depend upon his troops, without waiting to be reinforced, followed up the retreating foe, until he reached an entrenched position at the other side of the[Page 490] Baba Wali Kotal, where the Afghans made another most determined stand. Ghazis in large numbers flocked to this spot from the rear, while the guns on the kotal were turned round and brought to bear on our men, already exposed to a heavy Artillery fire from behind the entrenched camp.
92nd Highlanders and 2nd Gurkhas It now became necessary to take this position by storm, and recognizing the fact with true soldierly instinct, Major White, who was leading the advanced companies of the 92nd, called upon the men for just one charge more 'to close the business.' The battery of screw guns had been shelling the position, and, under cover of its fire and supported by a portion of the 2nd Gurkhas and 23rd Pioneers, the Highlanders, responding with alacrity to their leader's call, dashed forward and drove the enemy from their entrenchments at the point of the bayonet.3
Major White was the first to reach the guns, being closely followed by Sepoy Inderbir Lama, who, placing his rifle upon one of them, exclaimed, 'Captured in the name of the 2nd (Prince of Wales' Own) Gurkhas!'
Whilst the 1st Brigade was advancing towards the last position, a half-battalion of the 3rd Sikhs (belonging to the 2nd Brigade), under Lieutenant-Colonel G. Money, charged a body of Afghans and captured three guns.
Ayub Khan's Camp The enemy were now absolutely routed, but, owing to the nature of the ground, it was impossible for General Ross to realize how complete had been his victory, and he fully expected that the enemy would take up a fresh position further on; he therefore ordered the 1st and 2nd Brigades to halt while they replenished their ammunition, and then proceeded for about a mile, when they suddenly came in sight of Ayub Khan's enormous camp. It was entirely deserted, and apparently stood as it had been left in the morning when the Afghans moved out to the attack. With his camp was captured the whole of Ayub Khan's Artillery, thirty-two pieces, including our two Horse Artillery guns4 which had been taken at Maiwand on the 27th July.
Further pursuit by the Infantry being valueless, the 1st and 2nd[Page 491] Brigades halted on the far side of Mazra, where I with the 3rd Brigade shortly afterwards joined them.
Brigadier-General Hugh Gough, having satisfied himself as to the security of our left flank, scouted as far as Kohkeran, and then proceeded with the Cavalry of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force to execute the extended movement entrusted to him. He crossed the Arghandab, and pushed round to get in front of the line of the enemy's retreat towards Khakrez. Some ghazis and Irregular Afghan troops were overtaken, but no Regular regiments were met with, the soldiers having, as is their custom, quickly divested themselves of their uniform and assumed the garb of harmless agriculturists.
Ayub Khan himself had fled early in the day with his principal Sirdars.
As I rode into the abandoned camp, I was horrified to hear that the body of Maclaine, the Horse Artillery officer who had been taken prisoner at Maiwand, was lying with the throat cut about forty yards from Ayub Khan's own tent. From what I could learn, the latter had not actually ordered the murder, but as a word from him would have prevented it, he must be held responsible for the assassination of an officer who had fallen into his hands as a prisoner of war.
Our losses during the day comprised: killed, 3 British officers,5 1 Native officer, and 36 men; wounded, 11 British officers, 4 Native officers, and 195 men, 18 of whom succumbed to their wounds. It was difficult to estimate the loss of the enemy, but it must have been heavy, as between Kandahar and the village of Pir Paimal alone 600 bodies were buried by us.
With the exception of the 1st Brigade, which remained at Mazra for the night to protect the captured guns and stores, the troops all returned to camp before 9 p.m.6
Utterly exhausted as I was from the hard day's work and the weakening effects of my late illness, the cheers with which I was greeted by the troops as I rode into Ayub Khan's camp and viewed the[Page 492] dead bodies of my gallant soldiers nearly unmanned me, and it was with a very big lump in my throat that I managed to say a few words of thanks to each corps in turn. When I returned to Kandahar, and threw myself on the bed in the little room prepared for me, I was dead-beat and quite unequal to the effort of reporting our success to the Queen or to the Viceroy. After an hour's rest, however, knowing how anxiously news from Kandahar was looked for both in England and India, I managed to pull myself together sufficiently to write out and despatch the following telegram:
'Ayub Khan's army was to-day defeated and completely dispersed with, I hope, comparatively slight loss on our side; his camp was captured, the two lost guns of E Battery, B Brigade Royal Horse Artillery were recovered, and several wheeled guns of various calibre fell to the splendid Infantry of this force; the Cavalry are still in pursuit. Our casualties are: 22nd Foot, Captain Straton, killed; 72nd Highlanders, Lieutenant-Colonel Brownlow, Captain Frome, killed, Captain Murray and Lieutenant Monro, wounded, 7 men killed, 18 wounded; 92nd Highlanders, Lieutenants Menzies and Donald Stewart wounded, 11 men killed and 39 wounded; 2nd Gurkhas, Lieutenant-Colonel Battye, and 2nd Sikhs, Major Slater wounded. It is at present impossible to ascertain the casualties amongst the Native troops, but I have no reason to believe they are excessive; full details will be telegraphed to-morrow. The quite recently murdered remains of Lieutenant Maclaine, Royal Horse Artillery, were found on the arrival of the British troops in Ayub Khan's camp. Ayub Khan is supposed to have fled towards Herat.'
It can easily be imagined with what an intense sense of relief I awoke on the morning of the 2nd September—the march had ended, Kandahar had been relieved, Ayub Khan's army had been beaten and dispersed, and there was an adequate force in southern Afghanistan to prevent further disturbances.
Amongst the innumerable questions of detail which now confronted me was the all-important one, and that which caused me greatest anxiety, of how the large body of troops hastily concentrated at Kandahar, and for which the produce of the country was quite inadequate, were to be fed.
Difficulties about Supplies No supplies and very little forage were procurable between Quetta and Kandahar, and in the neighbourhood of the latter place there was now hardly anything in the shape of food for man or beast to be had for love or money, the resources of this part of the country having been quite exhausted. Relief could only be obtained by reducing the number of mouths to be fed, and with this object I scattered the troops in different directions, to posts as far distant from each other as possible, consistent with safety; and in accordance with my promise to the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force, that they should not be required to garrison Kandahar when the fighting was at an end, I arranged to[Page 493] despatch without delay to India the corps which had come with me from northern Afghanistan.
One column proceeded to Maiwand to inter the bodies of our soldiers who fell on the 27th July. The Cavalry brigade moved with a number of sick men and transport animals to Kohkeran. Macgregor's brigade started for Quetta on the 8th, and was followed soon after by Baker's and Macpherson's brigades. I accompanied Macgregor in the hope that the change to Quetta (where I remained about a month) would pick me up, and enable me to meet Lord Ripon's wish that I should retain the command in southern Afghanistan until some satisfactory settlement could be arrived at.
Before leaving Kandahar I issued an order thanking all ranks of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force for the work they had so nobly performed, and I had the gratification of acknowledging, on their behalf and my own, congratulatory messages from the Queen, the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquis of Ripon, and many others. On the way to Quetta I had the further gratification of being informed by the Viceroy that Her Majesty had been graciously pleased to make me a G.C.B., and to appoint me Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army.
I now heard that Abdur Rahman had been finally nominated Amir of Kabul on the 10th August, and that immediately after the ceremony of installation Sir Donald Stewart had marched the whole British force of 6,678 men of all arms out of Kabul on their return to India. Sir Donald left Peshawar to take up his appointment of Military Member of Council at Simla on the 31st August, and by the 7th September the last of his troops had arrived at the former place, except one brigade left as a temporary measure in the Khyber Pass.
At Quetta I stayed with Sir Robert Sandeman, the capable Resident, who by his great personal influence had done much to allay excitement amongst the tribes, and to prevent serious trouble in Baluchistan and along the border. I had never before been to that part of the frontier, and I was greatly impressed by the hold Sandeman had obtained over the country; he was intimately acquainted with every leading man, and there was not a village, however out of the way, which he had not visited. 'Sinniman sahib,' as the Natives called him, had gained the confidence of the lawless Baluchis in a very remarkable manner, and it was mainly owing to his power over them that I was able to arrange with camel contractors to transport to Quetta and Kandahar the huge stocks of winter clothing, medical comforts, grain, and the various requirements of an army in the field, which had been brought by rail to Sibi, and had there remained for want of transport to take them further on.
As the change to Quetta did not benefit me, and as I found that, owing to indifferent health, I was unable to carry on my duty with satisfaction to myself, I applied to be relieved. My request was acceded[Page 494] to, and I started on the 12th October for India.
Parting with the Troops Riding through the Bolan Pass I overtook most of the regiments of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force marching towards Sibi, thence to disperse to their respective destinations. As I parted with each corps in turn its band played 'Auld Lang Syne,' and I have never since heard that memory-stirring air without its bringing before my mind's eye the last view I had of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force. I fancy myself crossing and re-crossing the river which winds through the pass; I hear the martial beat of drums and plaintive music of the pipes; and I see Riflemen and Gurkhas, Highlanders and Sikhs, guns and horses, camels and mules, with the endless following of an Indian army, winding through the narrow gorges, or over the interminable boulders which made the passage of the Bolan so difficult and wearisome to man and beast.
A Pleasing Memory I shall never forget the feeling of sadness with which I said good-bye to the men who had done so much for me. I looked upon them all, Native as well as British, as my valued friends. And well I might, for never had a Commander been better served. From first to last a grand spirit of camaraderie7 pervaded all ranks. At the Peiwar Kotal, at Charasia, and during the fighting round Kabul, all were eager to close with the enemy, no matter how great the odds against them. Throughout the march from Kabul all seemed to be animated with but one desire, to effect, cost what it might in personal risk, fatigue, or discomfort, the speedy release of their beleaguered fellow-soldiers in Kandahar; and the unflagging energy and perseverance of my splendid troops seemed to reach their full height, when they realized they were about to put forth their strength against a hitherto successful enemy. Their exemplary conduct, too, under circumstances often of the most trying nature, cannot be praised in terms too strong or too full. Notwithstanding the provocation caused by the cruel murder of any stragglers who fell into the hands of the Afghans, not one act infringing the rules of civilized warfare was committed by my troops. The persons and property of [Page 495] the Natives were respected, and full compensation for supplies was everywhere given. In short, the inhabitants of the district through which we passed could not have been treated with greater consideration nor with a lighter hand, had they proved themselves friendly allies, and the conduct of the troops will ever be to me as pleasing a memory as are the results which they achieved.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER LXII
[Footnote 1: Brownlow's death was a great loss, for throughout the war he had frequently distinguished himself as a leader—at the Peiwar Kotal, during the operations round Kabul, and notably on the 14th December, when he won the admiration of the whole force by his brilliant conduct in the attack on the Asmai heights.]
[Footnote 2: The following Native officers, British and Native non-commissioned officers, and Native soldiers were brought forward as having been very conspicuous during this part of the fight:
[Footnote 3: During this engagement the following officers and men were specially remarked for their gallantry:
[Footnote 4: These guns were presented to me by the Indian Government, and are now at the Royal Hospital Dublin.]
[Footnote 5: The third British officer killed was Captain Straton, 22nd Foot, Superintendent of Army Signalling, a most accomplished officer, under whose direction signalling as applied to Field Service reached a wonderful pitch of perfection. His energy knew no difficulties, and his enthusiasm was beyond praise.]
[Footnote 6: The ammunition expended by the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force on the 31st August and 1st September was:
and in addition 313 rounds were fired by the Artillery, and 4,971 rounds by the Infantry of the Kandahar Garrison.]
[Footnote 7: The 72nd Highlanders and 5th Gurkhas were brigaded together throughout the campaign, and at their return to India the latter regiment presented the former with a shield bearing the following inscription:
The gift was entirely spontaneous, and was subscribed for by the Native officers, non-commissioned officers, and men.
In return, the non-commissioned officers and men of the 72nd gave the 5th Gurkhas a very handsome ebony, silver-mounted Drum-Major's staff.]