Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Afghan War, 1878-80


The Afghan War of 1878-80 lives chiefly in the memory of all as connected with the rise to fame of one who has since earned a place in English history with Marlborough and Wellington. And coupled with his name remains indelibly engraved the great historic march from Kabul to Kandahar.

Though they took no part in that celebrated march, being so reduced in numbers by the stress of war after two years' arduous campaigning that fresh regiments took their place, yet the Guides look back with the greatest pride to having once served under Lord Roberts, and to having earned the kindly praise of this great Captain. To this day grey-bearded old warriors speak with quiet pride and affection of their fighting days with "Roberts Sahib" at Kabul; and many an old eye kindles and bent back straightens as they salute his picture in the mess. Some, too, will remember the exact place and date on which he shook hands with them, and congratulated them on some brave deed, as he pinned the star for valour on their breasts.

It is given to few men to gain the affection and soldierly respect of all, but Roberts possessed the two great merits in the eyes of the simple Indian soldier. He was always kind and considerate, though firm as a rock, and always brave: kind with the kindness which is never weary of watching over the welfare of all, never forgetting a friend however humble, and always remembering those little soldier courtesies which count for so much; brave not only with the bravery that wins the Victoria Cross, but which, stout of heart, looks clear and undaunted through the dark storm of a winter like that of 1879 at Kabul; and still burns bright when at seventy years of age he goes forth at his Queen's behest to turn back the dark tide of defeat in 1899, and bring back victory to her standards.

To give an instance of this magnetic influence,—one day long after the Afghan War, Lord Roberts, then Commander-in-Chief in India, was passing the camp of the Guides, riding quietly along, when the sentry on the quarter-guard, an old soldier, recognised him in the distance, and shouting as in duty bound, "Guard, turn out!" added unofficially, but louder still, "Roberts Sahib is coming." The words spread like lightning down the long lines of horses and rows of tents; and with one accord each man dropped his work at the magic name and dashed to the head of the camp to see their old leader and friend: it was no question of Commander-in-Chief, it was only their old comrade Roberts Sahib. Need it be recorded that when his old soldiers heard that in the day of trouble Lord Roberts had gone to South Africa, they remarked with quiet confidence, "Ah! now all will be well."

For the Guides, serving as part of the force under the command of the brave and chivalrous leader of light horse, Lt.-General Sir Sam Browne, K.C.B., V.C., the Afghan War opened with the operations resulting in the capture of the formidable fort of Ali Musjid, which bars the entrance to the far-famed Khyber Pass. Sir Sam Browne was an old Colonel of the Guides, and to meet again in the field was the meeting of old comrades and friends. Like Roberts, he knew how to use them, and how to get the best out of them; and the glowing words of his despatches show they served him well.

In the plan of operations for the capture of Ali Musjid one brigade was to attack in front, one in flank, and one by a wide detour through the mountains was to cut off the retreat. In this operation it fell to the Guides to accompany General Tytler's column, which was the one destined, after a long night march through the mountains, to drop down in rear of the fort. The column was greatly delayed owing to the difficulty of the country, great mountains of eight thousand feet high intervening; but Jenkins with the Guides and 1st Sikhs pushed on, and by their timely arrival broke the back of the desperate resistance met by the frontal attack. No Afghan or Pathan can stand the strain of being taken in rear; a sauve qui peut becomes at once the order of the day. Most of the enemy fled through the mountains, but a regiment of regular infantry took the road through the pass and was captured by Jenkins and his men. Next came a squadron of cavalry, and these bold fellows determined to make a dash for liberty. Scattering therefore and riding at a break-neck gallop many got through, though many lay dead and wounded on the ground; and then, out of the cloud of dust and smoke might be seen, calmly riding at a foot's pace, a solitary trooper. A perfect hailstorm of bullets was falling about him, not the tiny bullets we now use, but great one ounce Snyder bullets, such as would knock over an elephant; but though nearly eight hundred rifles were in action, the serene horseman appeared not the least discomposed, and except for a defiant wave of his sword he rode quietly on.

Then Jenkins, struck with the admiration of one brave man for another, sounded the cease fire ; and in the dead stillness that followed the Colonel's orderly shouted down to the horseman to ask him who he was, and why he thus courted death. "Oh, brother," shouted the orderly, "who art thou and whence comest and whither goest?" "I am Bahaud-din Khan," replied the horseman, "and I come from Ali Musjid, which the Feringhis have taken, and I follow those sons of pigs, the Kasilbash Horse, who you saw pass in such a hurry just now."

"The Sahib says," shouted the orderly, "that surely you must be mad thus to walk your horse through a heavy fire like that."

"Not mad, tell the Sahib," replied the Afghan, "but fearing no man; and I shook my sword at you, and your hundreds of rifles, to show that I cared not that much for you."

"By Jove, he's a brave fellow!" said Jenkins; "tell him to come up and have a talk with me."

"By all means," was the cheery reply; and dismounting quietly, the man tied his horse to a bush, slipped his sword into its scabbard, and strolled up the hill.

"Well, now tell me all about yourself," was Jenkins's greeting.

"There is nothing much to tell. I live in Kabul and belong to the Kasilbash Horse, and my father was a soldier before me. But he was a brave fellow like myself; we are no mis-begotten apes, like those sons of perdition who fled just now. They are all cowards and runaways, and no fit company for a warrior."

Jenkins liked the look of the man, and his courage was beyond doubt, so he said cordially: "You're a fine fellow and I like you. Will you take on with the Guides?"

"Yes, I will," said the free-lance without a moment's hesitation.

So there and then, on the field of battle, Bahaud-din Khan, late of the Kasilbash Horse, joined the Guides, and was made a non-commissioned officer on the spot. For two long years, through the many ups and downs of the campaign, through much severe fighting and many a hardship, he did good and valiant service. It was only when the war was over, and the corps was nearing India on its downward march, that Bahaud-din Khan began to lose his reckless devil-may-care bearing; he seemed sad, and dispirited, and out of sorts altogether.

"Why, what ails you, my man?" said Jenkins one day as he chanced across him on the march.

"Nothing, Sahib; I am very happy in the service of the Queen, and I feel it an honour to serve in the Guides."

"Well, then, why look so doleful? One would think you had lost your best horse, or broken the sword of your ancestors on the head of a buffalo," laughed Jenkins.

"The truth cannot be hidden from you, Sahib, so I will tell it," ingenuously replied Bahaud-din Khan. "My comrades tell me that down at Mardan they have to do riding-school and drill, and all that sort of thing. Well, I don't think, Sahib, that is quite in my line. Give me as much fighting as you like, but I'm too old a soldier to go bumping round a riding-school. Therefore, with your Honour's kind permission I think I will take my leave, and return to Yaghistan, the land of never-ending conflict."

"By all means," said Jenkins; "no man stays in the Guides against his will. You are a free man from this moment."

And so, very near the same spot where he had taken service on the field of battle, Bahaud-din Khan quietly took his discharge, and rode off, like a knight of old, to place his sword at the service of any who wanted it. "But riding-school, God forbid!" he muttered as he went.

It is not intended to follow the Guides through all the phases of the Afghan War, but only to tell the story of some of their gallant adventures. One of the earliest of these was at the little battle of Fattehabad, where Wigram Battye was killed, and Walter Hamilton earned the Victoria Cross. A small force consisting of portions of the 10th Hussars, Guides' cavalry, 17th Foot, forty-five Sikhs, together with a battery of horse-artillery, were sent on from Jellalabad, as an advance force to clear the road to Kabul. About twelve miles out, at the village of Fattehabad, General Gough was suddenly threatened in flank by a great gathering of Afghan tribesmen.

Acting on the principle that in dealing with Asiatics it is always wise, whatever the odds, to attack, instead of waiting the onslaught, the General moved out rapidly with the cavalry and horse-artillery, and ordered the infantry to follow as quickly as possible. Getting in touch with the enemy, the horse-artillery came into action, but their fire, good and accurate as it might be, was not sufficient to stay the determined advance of large bodies of bloodthirsty and fanatical ghazis. The General, therefore, ordered the cavalry to charge, the two regiments acting independently under their own commanders.

Major Wigram Battye was commanding the squadron of the Guides' cavalry launched to the attack, but ere he had proceeded a few hundred yards a bullet hit him in the left hip, and the squadron, under Hamilton, swept on, leaving him still in the saddle, though in great pain and supported by his orderly.

Then happened one of those strange fatalities which brings the Kismet of the Mahomedan into close touch with the Providence of the Christian. Hamilton and the whole squadron galloping every second into more imminent danger remain unscathed. The solitary sore wounded horseman, walking his horse behind them, had that day come to the end of God's allotted span; and as he walked yet another chance bullet pierced his chest, and he fell to rise no more; the second of the Battyes to die on the field of honour, in the ranks of the Guides.

A touching proof of the affection and respect which his men had for him was most affectingly illustrated after the battle. There were, as in all armies, ambulance-bearers, whose duty it is to carry in litters the dead and wounded. For fear of desecration it was decided to send back the dead for burial to Jellalabad and beyond, and a litter was sent for Wigram Battye's mortal remains. But the rough warriors whose soldierly hearts he had won would allow of no such cortege. "Ambulance-bearers may be right and proper for anyone else," they said; "but our Sahib shall be carried by us soldiers, and by no one else." And so reverently they lifted the body of their dead comrade, and through the hot spring night carried it on the first stage towards the sweet spot in Mardan where the brothers Battye lie at rest.

But the silver lining to this dark cloud of loss was the prowess of the young subaltern and the squadron that had fallen to his charge. "Take 'em on, Walter, my boy," were his leader's last words; and right manfully did he obey them.

The plain over which they were advancing was somewhat undulating, covered with loose stones, and intersected here and there by more or less formidable nullahs. Across this not very promising cavalry country, Hamilton made good way, and was now close enough to the enemy to give the orders, "Gallop, Charge!" With the wild yell which so often, before and since, has struck chill to the heart of an enemy, the Guides dashed forward, the ground scouts checking back for the squadron to come up to them; but just as contact was imminent, a warning signal came from one of these that there was impassable ground in front. Here was a dilemma! Large masses of the enemy firing heavily close in front, an obstacle impassable for cavalry between, the guns uncomfortably threatened close by, and the infantry still some way off! Happily, however, it takes a good deal to stop a brave young Irishman with such men behind him. A second or two brought them to the obstacle, and sure enough it was no cold-blooded chance; a sheer nine foot drop into the dry bed of a stream, and opposite, with only a few yards interval, another sheer cliff, and on top of that an exulting and frenzied enemy! Without a moment's hesitation Hamilton jumped into the gulf, and after him, scrambling, sliding, jumping, anyhow and nohow, like a pack of hounds, streamed his fierce following. Like hounds, too, hot on the trail, they tarried not a moment there, but scattering up and down the nullah singly, or in clumps of two or three, found egress somehow. And then came death, and the Prophet's Paradise, to many a brave soul. From here and there, from front and right and left, by ones and twos, by threes and fours, charged home the gallant horsemen; and at their head, alone with his trumpeter, rode Hamilton. So rough and determined an onslaught would shake the nerves of even disciplined troops; but undrilled and undisciplined levies, however brave individually, cannot hope to stand the fiery blast of determined cavalry charging home. And so the great crowd broke, and for four long miles the pursuit continued, till man and horse alike were worn and tired, and arms became too stiff to strike or parry, and steeds yet willing staggered to a standstill.

In this brilliant charge the enemy lost four hundred men, while the squadron of the Guides lost twenty of all ranks and thirty-seven horses. To Walter Hamilton was awarded the Victoria Cross, and to six of his men the Order of Merit, for conspicuous gallantry where all were gallant.

Leaving many months of intervening history, we come to a notable feat of endurance, which threw a much needed reinforcement into Sherpur during the siege in December, 1879. The Guides were then strung along the lines of communication towards Jellalabad, but, on receipt of the serious news from Kabul, were at once concentrated forward towards the Jugdullak Pass, the scene of the massacre of our army in the old Afghan War. Hastening forward to the summit of the Lataband Pass, Jenkins got into communication by heliograph with Sir Frederick Roberts (as he then was), and learnt that reinforcements were urgently required. This was quite enough for the Commander of the Guides; he at once decided to make an effort to cross the thirty-six miles of mountainous country that intervened, and to fight his way single-handed through the great hordes of Afghans who were encircling Sherpur. Leaving the whole of their baggage, no mean sacrifice during an Afghan winter, and loading the mules with all the ammunition that could be carried, the Guides set cheerfully forth on their venture.

It is wonderful how often sheer boldness succeeds in warfare; here was a small body of troops marching forty miles en l'air through the enemy's fastnesses, and at the weary end unknown thousands blocking the way. With scarce a halt, horse and foot plodded on and on, till evening came and darkness fell, and still they marched along the dimly marked track. Near midnight the lights of Kabul and Sherpur became closely visible, and the crucial moment had arrived. But "by the kindness of God," as the ressaldar-major piously remarked, the night was very cold, Kabul lies six thousand feet above the sea, and a warm hut is better than an open field; and in fact, to make a long story short, the Afghans were keeping no watch on the road by which the Guides came, and thus the whole corps marched swiftly through the enemy's lines without firing a shot or losing a man. In Sherpur they were warmly welcomed by Sir Frederick Roberts and many old comrades, for, as at the siege of Delhi, the boldness, swiftness, and assuredness of their arrival added heartening and encouraging effect quite out of proportion to the numerical addition to the strength of the garrison.

During the next two days the Guides' infantry took part in the great assaults on the Takht-i-Shah, and the Asmai heights, with the 72nd and 92nd Highlanders; and in these Captain Fred Battye was dangerously wounded, and Captain A.G. Hammond (now Colonel) was awarded the Victoria Cross. In Sir Frederick Roberts's despatch the latter incident is thus recorded:

Another officer who greatly distinguished himself on this occasion was Captain A.G. Hammond, Corps of Guides. He had been very forward during the storming of the Asmai heights, and now when the enemy were crowding up the western slopes, he remained with a few men on the ridge until the Afghans were within thirty yards of them. During the retirement one of the men of the Guides was shot; Captain Hammond stopped and assisted in carrying him away, though the enemy were at the time close by and firing heavily.

No less than twelve men of the Guides also received the Order of Merit for conspicuous gallantry on this occasion.

As no result sufficient to counterbalance the serious losses incurred by making these repeated attacks on the enemy's position appeared to be obtained, Sir Frederick Roberts determined to alter his tactics, and to allow the enemy in their turn to hurl themselves against our defence. For a whole week, though in immensely superior numbers, the enemy could not steel their hearts to attack the fortified enclosure of Sherpur, where Roberts's small force lay entrenched. But on the evening of December 22nd certain information was received that a grand attack would take place at dawn, and that the signal for the advance would be a beacon which would be kindled on the Asmai heights, just above the village of Deh-i-Afghan.

Strict watch was kept that night in the British lines, and after the keen anxiety of the long vigil a feeling almost of relief passed through the staunch defenders when, about half-an-hour before daylight, the beacon shone forth that waved to the attack the followers of the Prophet, to wipe the hated infidel from the face of God's earth.

In the intense stillness of the frosty winter's night the swift shuffling tramp of thousands of sandalled feet could be heard coming across the open. The attack was evidently aimed at the eastern face of Sherpur, rightly considered the weakest point structurally, but stoutly and steadfastly held by the Guides. Where such immensely superior numbers are concerned it is not safe to allow them to get too close, or by sheer weight they may beat down a thin line of rifle-fire. The Guides consequently opened a heavy fire into the darkness in the direction of the advancing masses, thereby making known to all and sundry that the surprise, as a surprise, had failed. This with undisciplined troops was alone enough to disconcert the whole operation; the enemy, instead of advancing, halted, and, taking refuge in the villages, awaited the break of day.

So soon as it was light they opened a heavy but badly aimed fire on the Guides, but showed no disposition to assault. At last, after some delay and evidently under the urgent haranguing of their priests and leaders, a mass of warriors some five thousand strong was collected under the shelter of the villages to make another effort. But so steady and accurate was the fire of the Guides, that even these brave fanatics feared to face the open, and the attack melted away. Sir Frederick Roberts, with the eye of the born general seizing the right moment, launched his cavalry and artillery in counterstroke and pursuit, till when the sun set that night fifty thousand of the chivalry of the Afghan nation had been swept from sight and hearing, and nothing but a vast solitude remained where teeming thousands stood lately.

Thus collect, and thus disappear, the great yeomen armies of Afghanistan. To-day they are not; to-morrow they are assembling in their thousands from the four quarters of the compass; a few days, and they have melted away like snow. The explanation is simple enough. The fiery crescent goes forth, summoning the faithful, every man with his arms and ammunition and carrying in his goatskin bag food enough to last him for a week. Commissariat or Ordnance Departments there are none; thus as each soldier finishes his food or his ammunition, or both, he hies him home again for a fresh supply; perhaps he returns, and perhaps he has had enough fighting for the present, and does not. And so is it with all the fifty thousand.

The Guides did not see any more serious fighting till April, when, together with a wing of the 92nd Highlanders under Major White (afterwards Field-Marshal), and two guns of F.-A. Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, they fought a gallant little action with about five thousand of the enemy at Charasiab near Kabul. Jenkins, who was in command, heard shortly after midnight that about two thousand of the enemy were bivouacked within five miles of the camp, but that they had no immediate intention of attacking. An old soldier like the Commander of the Guides, however, takes nothing for granted, and orders were at once issued for the Guides' infantry to stand to their arms an hour before daylight, while the Guides' cavalry sent out patrols to feel for the enemy at crack of dawn. And well was it that these timely precautions were taken, for as day broke the enemy's masses were seen advancing to the attack. To give elbow-room, and also as a preparation for all eventualities, Jenkins struck his camp, and ordered the baggage to be stacked behind a convenient mound; then sending back word of how matters stood to Sir Frederick Roberts, he with his little force prepared to face the onslaught.

Seizing such knolls and points of vantage as existed, his battle-line took the form of a semicircle, with one company of the 92nd Highlanders and two companies of the Guides in reserve. The enemy, now increased to three thousand warriors, steadily advanced, and with great bravery planted their standards in some places within one hundred yards of the British line; but that last one hundred yards they could not, by all the eloquence of their leaders or the promises of Paradise from their priests, be induced to cross. Nor was it only the Afghans who felt the tightening strain; it was an anxious moment for the British, too, for given one slight slip, one weakhearted corner, and the whole thin line might have been swept away by the onslaught of those fierce masses.

It was then that Jenkins used a curious and expensive, but, as it proved, effective expedient. He ordered the Guides' cavalry to mount, and, exposed at close range to the enemy's fire, to patrol quietly from one end of the line to the other, as a sort of moving reserve; a demonstration, in fact, that even if the enemy managed to break through the thin line of the infantry at any point, it would only be to fall on the dreaded swords of the cavalry. The behaviour of the men during this trying ordeal was above all praise; and indeed it requires high qualities of nerve and courage to walk one's horse up and down for a couple of hours under a hail of bullets, without being able to return the compliment in any way.

The enemy's numbers had increased to five thousand, and still Jenkins's little force held on with dogged courage, and though it could not make an inch of way, it refused to concede one. It was now past one o'clock, and the strain lay heavy on our men after seven hours of this bull-dog business; when the twinkle of the cheerful heliograph from Kabul gave fresh heart to all, and almost immediately afterwards the advance skirmishers of General Macpherson's column came into view, and the situation was saved. Then, borne on the flood of the reinforcements, Highlanders and Guides sprang to their feet and dashed at the now flying enemy. The cavalry and artillery, too, at last relieved of their long and dangerous vigil, dashed off in pursuit, and for four long miles they fell with relentless fury on the scattered and demoralised foe.

This was the last fight which the Guides had in the Afghan War. When Roberts and his gallant ten thousand marched to Kandahar, they were sent back to their hard-earned rest, after two years of incessant warfare, with a casualty roll of two hundred and forty-eight of all ranks and one hundred and forty-two horses; and with five hundred recruits to redress the balance.