Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Relief of Chitral


The anxiety of great events in South Africa has somewhat dimmed the recollection of our smaller troubles in previous years; but perhaps there are some who can recall the feeling of tense suspense that enthralled the nation during the spring of 1895.

Two hundred miles from our borders in an inaccessible, and hitherto almost unheard of, valley lay besieged a little force of Indian soldiers, under the command of a sprinkling of British officers. Between the beleaguered garrison and the nearest support lay great chains of the highest mountains in the world, still covered thick in snow, rivers deep and strong and of incredible treachery, roads that were mere goat-tracks carried along the face of precipices, or following a shingly bed between stupendous walls of rock, many made doubly perilous by craftily prepared stone-shoots. To add to the difficulties of the task climatic variations of extraordinary diversity had to be overcome, for troops might one day be freezing on a pass twenty thousand feet above the sea, and on another sweltering under the tropical heat of the valley below; days passed under the scorching rays of an Eastern sun might be succeeded by nights without shelter under storms of cold and pitiless rain. Finally one of the two relief columns had to pass through two hundred miles of unmapped and unexplored country, inhabited by armed fanatical tribes fiercely opposed to the passage of the troops while the other, weak in numbers, and marching en l'air hundreds of miles from any support, was a veritable forlorn hope.

It speaks highly for the mobilisation arrangements of the Indian Army that within eleven days a corps of all arms, twenty-five thousand strong, had derailed at a little roadside station, and under Sir Robert Low had marched forty-two miles to the frontier, fought a decisive action, and forced the first barrier of mountains on its road to Chitral. Unhappily it does not lie within the region of this story to relate how the gallant forlorn hope under Colonel Kelly, overcoming stupendous difficulties, made its way to the succour of the sore beset garrison, but history has already done justice to that gallant achievement. Here, in a regimental narrative we are naturally restricted to the column to which the Guides belonged.

On the opening day of the campaign it fell to the Guides' infantry to turn the right flank of the enemy, having, supported by the 4th Sikhs, captured after five hours' hard fighting a commanding mountain, to this day called the Guides' Hill, which completely dominated and turned the Malakand position. It was next day, however, that a weak squadron of the Guides' cavalry had the opportunity of performing a notable service. After the passage of the Malakand the road runs down between gently sloping spurs into the Swat Valley. At the end of one of these spurs was a rocky outcrop, which would now be called a kopje, and holding this was a regiment of Dogras, while in support, under cover, lay the best part of a brigade of infantry. Just under the tail end of the kopje stood dismounted a squadron, fifty strong, of the Guides, under Captain Adams and Lieutenant Baldwin. The neighbouring hills were covered with dense masses of the enemy, firing heavily, and severely pressing the Dogras. Evening was drawing on and the day too far advanced for the British force to commit itself to any very forward or extended operations.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Guides by F. Younghusband


At this moment a temporary non-combatant, the well-known Roddy Owen, then acting as a newspaper correspondent, in the course of doing a little scouting on his own account discovered a large force of the enemy, estimated at two thousand men, committed to the open with the evident intention of enveloping the left flank of the Dogras. This news he at once communicated to Captain Adams, and that officer rode back a short distance to take the General's orders. Just as he was returning, Lieutenant Baldwin, seeing that the moment to strike had arrived, boldly took the initiative and set off on his gallant venture. The effect was little short of magical, and established irrevocably the moral of cavalry and the arme blanche for the rest of the campaign. The moment the little squadron of the Guides appeared round the corner, yelling the well-known war-whoop of the Indian soldier, the whole of the forward movement of the enemy's masses ceased. There was a moment of hesitation, another of delay, and then the whole body broke and fled, fiercely pursued by the cavalry. The execution done was considerable, but greater still was the moral effect. From that day forth a mounted man was a power in the land.

The Relief Force now pushed across the Swat River, and over the Saram range of mountains, and came in due course to the formidable Panjkora River, formidable not so much from its size, or breadth, but from its great rapidity and uncertainty. In a single night, fed by melting snow from the higher levels, it would rise from twelve to fourteen feet. And this is exactly what happened at a critical moment, when it fell to the honour of the Guides to avert a serious disaster.

Before the Relief Force could cross it was necessary to bridge the river, and this was done at a narrow part. Directly it was completed the Guides were ordered across to hold the bridge-head, and thus cover the passage of the main body next morning. That the defence might not be a passive one only, Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Battye, who was commanding, was ordered at dawn to push out, destroy all the neighbouring villages, and turn the enemy out of all positions from which they had been operating during the construction of the bridge, and from which they could harass the passage of the force. During the night a freshet came down, the river rose fourteen feet, and the newly finished bridge was swept away. The Guides were thus isolated on the far bank, but getting no orders to the contrary, and very possibly thinking that to remain inactive was to invite unwelcome attention to their condition, Colonel Battye decided to adhere to the original programme. Therefore leaving two companies at the site of the broken bridge, he at six in the morning moved out to drive back the enemy's outposts, and destroy such villages as were troublesome.

Up to nine o'clock there was no opposition to speak of. Colonel Battye then formed the five companies of the Guides, which constituted his force, into three small columns, and was proceeding to carry out more extended operations, when, from the high ground now occupied, dense masses of the enemy, afterwards officially estimated at from seven to ten thousand, were seen rapidly approaching his right flank. It had evidently become known to the enemy that the bridge was broken, and that the Guides were cut off by an impassable river from all support. The matter was immediately reported by heliograph to Sir Robert Low, and orders as promptly sent for the Guides to retire on the bridge-head.

It is on an occasion like this that the true fighting value of a regiment shows itself. Great as is the glory of those who, surrounded by comrades, are borne on the tide of great events to victory, still greener are the laurels that adorn the standards of those who, amidst great tribulation and fighting against overwhelming odds, keep untarnished their ancient fame.

Before the anxious eyes of an army, so near yet so powerless to help, the Guides commenced their retirement. With the great mountains as an amphitheatre the drama began to unfold itself before the gaze of waiting thousands. At first so far away were they, so few, so scattered, and clad to match the colour of the hills, that only the strongest glasses could make out the position of the Guides; but apparent to the naked eye of all was the great straggling mass which was falling with relentless swiftness, guillotine-like, on the narrow neck of the communications with the bridge. With cool intrepid courage, with a deliberation which appeared almost exasperating to the onlookers, Colonel Battye and his men took up the challenge. Little parties of soldiers could be descried slowly sauntering back, a few yards only, then disappearing amongst the rocks with a rattle of rifle-fire. Then back came more little parties of soldiers, all seemingly sauntering, all with the long sunny day before them. And after them bounded great waves of men in blue, and men in white, only to break and stagger back before those little clumps of rock in which the rearmost soldiers lay. "Get back, get back! Damn you, why don't you get back?" shouted the spectators on the eastern bank in impotent excitement. But no word of this reached the Guides on the slopes of the still far-off mountain-side; nor would they have heeded had they heard, for they had been born and bred to the two simple maxims, "Be fiery quick in attack, but deadly slow in retirement." And so slowly back they came, and in their wake lay strewn the white and blue figures, all huddled up, or stark and flat.

The retirement now brought the regiment down the spur of a lofty hill which forms the angle where the Jandul River flows into the Panjkora. This hill is to the south of the Jandul, while the bridge-head was to the north. Thus to reach their entrenchment the Guides had to retire down the spur they were now on, and to cross the Jandul.

It was now noon, and at about this time the enemy's masses were seen to divide in two; one-half keeping to the right, so as to support the attack on the Guides, while the other column continued down the Jandul, so as to cut the regiment off from its bridge-head. Foot by foot (to the spectators it seemed inch by inch) the different companies retired alternatively, fiercely assailed on all hands, yet coolly firing volley after volley, relinquishing quietly and almost imperceptibly one strong position, only to take up another a few yards back.

At last the impatient spectators on the left bank of the Panjkora had a chance of helping, for the enemy were now within range of the mountain-guns, and the steady and accurate fire of these greatly relieved the pressure. At the same time the two companies of the Guides in the entrenchment, seeing that the enemy's left column was closing down, moved out to check their advance, and to stretch out to the rest of the regiment a helping hand. The whole of the 2nd Brigade also lined their bank of the Panjkora, and prepared with flank fire to help the Guides, when they reached the foot of the spur. Here it would have to cross several hundred yards of level ground, on which the green barley was standing waist-high, ford the Jandul, about three feet deep, and then across more open fields to the friendly bridge-head. This naturally was the most difficult part of the operation, and in executing it Colonel Fred Battye, the fourth of the heroic brothers to be killed in action, fell mortally wounded. He was, as might be expected from one of his race, always at the point of danger throughout the retirement, and as he crossed the open zone among the last, a sharp-shooter at close range, from behind a withered tree, fired the fatal shot.

It was on this open ground that the extraordinary bravery of the enemy was most brilliantly shown. Standard-bearers with reckless gallantry could be seen rushing to certain destruction, falling perhaps within ten yards of the line of the Guides; men, who had used up all their ammunition, would rush forward with large rocks and hurl them at the soldiers, courting instant death. Nothing could damp their ardour, or check the fury of their assaults. Even after the Guides had crossed the river, and the enemy were under a severe flank fire from the Gordon Highlanders and King's Own Scottish Borderers, they dashed into the stream, where each man stood out as clear as a bullseye on a target, and attempted to close again. But not a man got across, so steady and well directed was the flank fire of the British regiments. This welcome diversion enabled the Guides to complete the retirement into their entrenchment at the bridge-head, and there make rapid preparation for the attack that must follow; for though the enemy had lost six hundred men, their spirit was by no means broken.

Reinforcements consisting of two companies of the 4th Sikhs, and the Devonshire Regiment Maxim gun, were sent across after much labour by means of a little skin raft that only held two at a time. The near bank was also sungared and held by the 2nd Brigade and the Derajat mountain battery, which at eight hundred yards' range could fire over the heads of those at the bridge-head. Several officers of the Guides' cavalry also volunteered to cross over and help their comrades, for in a night attack it was a matter of holding their own, covering fire from the near bank being too dangerous an expedient.

The Guides, who were now under that good and cheery soldier Fred. Campbell, put out no picquets, so as to keep clear the field of fire, and every man slept, or sat awake, at his fighting station with his rifle in his hand. The enemy could be heard close by in large numbers, hidden by a fold in the ground, and directly darkness set in they began yelling and tom-tomming in the most approved fashion. This was to work up any flagging spirits that there might be, and to exalt the courage of all, for two thousand chosen warriors, sword in hand, lay ready in the standing corn, to make a desperate dash at the given signal, which was to be the first peep of the crescent moon over the mountains, calculated for about midnight. There was some warlike cunning in this, for when a moon is about to rise every weary watcher is looking for it during the last moments, and then looking down again would find everything dark as the pit's mouth by comparison. In those few seconds the assailants meant to bound across the short intervening space, and come to close grips with the enemy who had staved them off all day and half the night.

It was then that the use of one of the resources of science stood the British in good stead, and probably saved the lives of many hundreds. The officer commanding the Derajat battery, peering anxiously through the darkness, and perplexed to know what was happening, bethought him to throw a star shell over the Guides' entrenchment, so as to light up the ground beyond. The effect was magical. "What new devilment is this?" exclaimed the brave but ignorant tribesmen. And when another, and yet another, came, they said: "This is an invention of the Evil One; it is magic, and will cast a spell over us. We cannot fight against devils such as these."

And so those few harmless fireworks effected the same purpose as a storm of shot and shell. All that vast throng melted away, and only a few of the braver sort held post till morning. But before going they inflicted one great loss, mortally wounding the gifted Captain Peebles, the only officer who knew the working of a Maxim gun, then new to the army.

The remainder of the campaign was a matter of a few days. How Kelly, with his gallant regiment, the 32nd Pioneers, pushed on from the north, overcoming stupendous difficulties; how a strong force of levies under the Khan of Dir was thrust on from the south; how Aylmer, the brave and resourceful Sapper, working night and day threw a suspension bridge of telegraph wire across the Panjkora; how Sir Robert Low, crossing with his whole force, fought a decisive and conclusive battle at Mundah; and how thus, by a fine strategic combination, worked from widely divergent bases, Sir George White effected in the course of seventeen days the relief of the sore beset garrison of Chitral, are recorded amongst the many and sterling achievements of the army of India.

Amongst the trophies and standards brought down by the Guides was a solid brass cannon of tremendous weight captured at Mundah. In a mountainous country where there are no roads, and for a weight far beyond the carrying capacity of a pack animal, there appeared to be no alternative to leaving the gun behind. But rather than do this the men volunteered to carry it themselves, and thus twenty men at a time carried the gun while their comrades carried a double load of arms and ammunition. The gun now stands at Mardan near the memorial to the officers and men who fell in defence of the Kabul Embassy, and on it is engraved in Persian the curious and bombastic inscription:—

It's mouth is open wide to eat.

What shall I call it? A gun or a serpent?

This gun is most heavy, and makes victory certain.

There is none like it in India or Kabul.

Made by Ghulam Rasul.