Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

On the Frontier in the 'Fifties


The Guides were now two years old, and, as an outward and visible sign that they had won their spurs, they were by the orders of the Government considerably augmented. Hitherto with one troop and two companies they had established an honoured record; they were now raised to three troops of cavalry and six companies of infantry.

To the general historian, who can of necessity deal only with great events, peace reigned in India from the conclusion of the Sikh Wars to the outbreak of the Mutiny; but there was no peace for the Guides during those eight years. Their history is full of hardy adventure, of forced marches, and night attacks; of the wiles of the border free-lance, met and overcome with equal strategy and greater skill; of brave deeds and splendid devotion. The conscientious scribe is tempted to enlarge on each and all of these; but perhaps our purpose in giving the story of the Guides will be well enough served if we content ourselves with taking only two or three of these exploits, thus hoping to throw some light on the life led by a regiment on the Indian frontier in those rough days.

Dipping haphazard into the ancient records, we chance again on our old and gallant friend Fatteh Khan, Khuttuk; and once again we find him a man not easily taken aback in a sudden emergency. It was towards the end of 1851 that the British Government, having undertaken the surveying and mapping out of the Peshawur Valley and Yusafzai, deputed Mr. James, of the Survey Department, to superintend a portion of the work. For his protection during this duty, amongst a people fanatically opposed to anything in the shape of a map or a survey, a party of thirty of the Guides' cavalry was detailed under Ressaldar Fatteh Khan. This detachment was ordered to meet Mr. James at a small village named Gujar Garhi, about two miles from Mardan. Here, therefore, Fatteh Khan encamped to await the Sahib's arrival; but the day passed, the night fell, and still there were no signs of him. Thinking that there must have been some mistake in the dates, all turned in, and the camp was soon wrapped in slumber, the silence disturbed only by the stamping and roaring of the stallions at their standings, and by the crisp alert call of the sentries as they challenged.

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


It was past midnight, when a sharp-eyed Pathan sentry espied mistily through the darkness what looked like a large body of mounted men approaching. Instantly a sharp peremptory challenge rang out: "Halt! Who goes there?" Equally promptly floated back the answering watchword, "Friend." "What friend?" the sentry shouted, suspicious still. "Sahib," came back the disarming reply. Whereupon the sentry, coming to the not unnatural conclusion that the long-expected Sahib had at last arrived, and that he saw before him Mr. James with a large escort, sloped his sword, and gave the usual right of way: "Pass friend,—all's well."

At this moment Fatteh Khan awoke, and hearing the word sahib, jumped up, ran out of his tent, and hastened down to the end of the camp to meet the Sahib. He had, however, no sooner arrived there, than he at once noticed that the advancing horsemen were armed with matchlocks. Now our own cavalry in those days carried swords and lances, but not firearms, therefore these midnight visitors could not belong to any regiments in our service. To a man like Fatteh Khan, born to wars and alarms, who takes little for granted in daylight and nothing at night, this was sufficient to place him on his guard. With instant presence of mind he shouted, in a voice to be heard throughout the camp: "Rouse up everyone! Draw swords! The enemy are upon us!"

Scarcely had he ceased speaking when the enemy, throwing off further disguise, gave a yell and dashed at the camp, firing heavily as they rode. But though taken at a great disadvantage, and with odds of seven to one against them, the Guides made shift to be ready for the onslaught. There was naturally no time to get to horse, or into any regular formation, and therefore the attack had to be met on foot with sword and lance, in some hasty serviceable formation. Fatteh Khan therefore shouted to all the non-commissioned officers, who carried lances, to dash to the front and hold the outskirts of the camp, while the rank and file who were armed with swords should fall into knots of five or six, and prepare to defend themselves.

Against this hardy improvised defence the fierce attacks spent themselves like stormy waves against outstanding rocks; yet as a proof of the heavy fire, no tent escaped with less than ten or twelve bullet-holes. When once, however, the first fusillade was over, matters were on a somewhat more equal basis, for a matchlock cannot be reloaded on horseback; yet the odds were still great, and it took the Guides all their time to hold their own. But the surprise, as a surprise, having failed, the Swati cavalry, finding so stout a resistance, began to weaken in their endeavour. Catching the tide on the turn, the Guides dashed forth, and became themselves the attackers, hamstringing the horses, and so hewing, cutting, and thrusting, that, finding this no pigeons' nest, but rather a swarm of angry hornets, the whole two hundred horsemen scattered and fled.

The loss of the Guides in this staunch little affair proved, when all was over, to have been altogether insignificant; while the enemy on their part, besides leaving many dead men and horses in camp, carried off also, as was afterwards ascertained, a goodly number who would never throw a leg over a horse again. The leader of the attack was the redoubtable Mukaram Khan, one of the most daring and notable free-lances on the border.

In consequence of this and other raids it was determined to take measures, on a considerable scale, to discourage further efforts on the part of the border tribes. Consequently a brigade of all arms, under Sir Colin Campbell, moved out from Peshawur, to punish the lawless, and to exact retribution from those who had erred from the strict path of peace.

Amongst the various strongholds that were on the black list, and which, unless they surrendered at discretion, were destined to be attacked, captured, and sacked, was the Utmankheyl fortified village of Nawadand. Opposite this the British force sat down with the studied deliberation of old-time warfare, when contending armies might encamp for weeks and months within a stone's throw of each other. During this dignified pause, while doubtless supplies were being collected, and negotiations proceeding with the enemy, the British outpost line lay in full view of, and only "one shout's distance," as the Pathans expressively call it, from the enemy. And outside the line of infantry outposts lay a cavalry picket of twenty men of the Guides.

Thus it happened that one fine morning, in the month of May, 1852, the enemy, whether with intent to surprise, or merely fired with the nervous irritation of one who can no longer stand the strain of awaiting an impending blow, determined to hasten the issue by taking the offensive. So collecting his rough and ragged legions, stout of heart and stout of arm, carrying weapons not meanly to be compared with our own, the outlaw chief, Ajun Khan, marched out to attack the British, and to take them unawares in their tents.

The movement was at once reported by the British outposts, but troops take some few minutes to arm, equip, and form up in line of battle; while the Affghan border warrior moves with a swiftness that may well cause panic and dismay. A young subaltern of the Guides, Lieutenant G.N. Hardinge, seeing how matters were trending, rode out to the outlying picket of the Guides' cavalry, and there took his stand. It was an anxious moment. Behind him was the hastily arming camp, humming with the bustle of preparation; and before him, advancing across the stony plain, moved a line of skirmishers backed up by closed supports, and followed by great hordes of shouting warriors.

The motionless troop of the Guides stood foremost to meet the shock. On came the hardy tribesmen swiftly and relentlessly; but still, as he looked anxiously back, it was plain to the British subaltern that his comrades were not yet armed to meet the coming storm. "We can only give them one minute more," he said, and stout and steady came the answer: "Yes, your Honour, one minute more." And as they spoke each stalwart trooper gripped his sword still tighter and, shortening his reins, laid the flat of his thigh hard on his wiry neighing stallion; for as of old, so now, the war-horse scented the battle from afar.

The time passed very slowly, a minute seeming an eternity to the impatient soldiers. Fifteen seconds—twenty seconds—thirty seconds—for—ty-five seconds—six—ty!

"Carry swords," in a serene and conversational voice remarked the young subaltern; equally smoothly and quietly came the order, "Walk, march." Then, as the troop moved forward, followed the slightly more animated command, "Trot"; and as the excitement of coming conflict coursed with the wild exuberance of youth through the boy's veins, "Gallop! Charge!" he yelled, and back came an answering shout, "Fear not, Sahib, we are with you!" And thus was launched on the flood of death a little band of heroes, that they might save an army.

But ever since the day when David slew Goliath, the God of Battles has not always sided with the big battalions. A few staunch hearts hurled fearlessly at the foe may still, like the ancient slinger's stone, lay low the giant. So on this occasion the effect of the bold attack was magical. Through the thin line of skirmishers, heedless of the spluttering fire, went the troop, like a round shot through a paper screen, and fell like yelling furies on the clumps of swordsmen, pikemen, and any-weapon-men, who formed the supports. These they killed and wounded and scattered like chaff to the wind. And then,—their mission was accomplished! The enemy's advancing masses wavered, halted, hesitation and dismay replacing the confident sling-trot of a few minutes before. The surprise had failed, the camp was saved. Then Hardinge, his work accomplished, himself sore wounded, the enemy's standard in his hands, rallied his pursuing troop, and clearing to a flank left displayed the British force drawn up and ready to receive all comers.

To see the right moment and to seize it, to balance the profit and loss, counting one's own life as a feather in the scales, to strike hard and bold whatever the odds,—such are a few simple soldier lessons, learnt not from the scribes, but from a gallant British subaltern.

While Lieutenant Lumsden was in England in 1853 the command of the Guides was given to Lieutenant W.S.R. Hodson. This book would not be complete without relating the story of at any rate one of the many occasions on which this gallant officer, afterwards so famous, showed his fine metal. The fight about to be described was one, too, in which the many brave and devoted officers who have been surgeons to the corps have displayed the greatest gallantry.

For high crimes and misdemeanours it was decided to punish the large and important cluster of villages named Bori, in the land of the Jowaki Afridis, not far from the present military station of Cherat. A brigade of all arms, consisting of the 22nd Foot, 20th Punjab Infantry, 66th Gurkhas (now the 1st Gurkha Rifles), the Corps of Guides, a squadron of Irregular Cavalry, some 9-pounder guns on elephants, and a company of Sappers, the whole under Colonel S.B. Boileau, was detailed for the undertaking. The Bori villages lay in the valley of the same name enclosed by high and rugged mountains, making both ingress and egress in face of practised mountaineers a most difficult operation.

The advance was led by the Guides, who, themselves active as panthers in the hills, drove the Afridis before them through the Bori villages and up the precipitous mountains behind. The main body then set to work to burn and destroy the villages with all the food and fodder therein, and to drive off the cattle. So far, as is often the case in fighting these mountaineers, all had gone well; but now came the crucial time. Afridis may be driven all day like mountain sheep, but when the night begins to fall, and their tired pursuers commence of necessity to draw back to lower levels for food and rest, then this redoubtable foe rises in all his strength, and with sword and gun and huge boulder hurls himself like a demon on his retiring enemy.

At one of the furthest points ahead was Lieutenant F. McC. Turner, who with about thirty men of the Guides had driven a very much superior force of the enemy into a stone breastwork at the top of a high peak. Here the British officer was held; not an inch could he advance; and now he was called upon to conform with the general movement for retirement. To retire, placed as he was, meant practical annihilation, so sticking to the rocks like a limpet he blew a bugle calling for reinforcement. Hodson, who himself was faced by great odds, seeing the serious position of his friend, sent across all the men he could afford to extricate him, but these were not strong enough to effect their purpose. Then it was that Dr. R. Lyell, the surgeon of the Guides, took on himself to carry forward the much needed succour. In reserve lying near him was the Gurkha company of the Guides, and also a company of the 66th Gurkhas under a native officer. Taking these troops, with great dash and personal gallantry he led them to the attack, drove back the already exulting enemy, stormed their position, and extricated Lieutenant Turner and his party from their perilous position. It was a noble deed, nobly and gallantly carried out; and when it had been achieved, the brave fighter returned to the tender care of the wounded, and to alleviate the pains of the dying.

And now Hodson had got together the threads of his retirement, and using one to help the other, gradually and slowly drew back, covering the brigade with a net of safety. Thus quietly falling back, and meeting wild charges with ball and bayonet, he kept the open valley till all the force had safely passed the defile of exit. Then, while the last of his infantry got safely to commanding posts on the lower slopes, he himself, with the ready resource of the born fighter, changed his game, and from the patient role of the steady infantry commander, became a cavalry leader. Mounting his horse and calling on the Guides' cavalry to follow him, he suddenly charged the astonished enemy, and hurling them back with slaughter secured for the rest of his men a peaceful retirement. But before they laid themselves on the hard ground, this paladin of the fight and his staunch warriors had spent eighteen hours in desperate warfare with little food and no water.

So far as the records show this was the first occasion on which Hodson had led a cavalry charge, and was an auspicious opening to a cavalry career of remarkable brilliancy,—a career which was brought to a brave, but untimely end, only four years later before the walls of Lucknow.

Amongst other historic figures who watched this fight, and who added their generous meed of praise, were John Lawrence, the saviour of the Punjab, who later, as Lord Lawrence, was Viceroy of India, Major Herbert Edwardes, now Commissioner of Peshawur, who as a subaltern had won two pitched battles before Mooltan, and Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Napier, afterwards Lord Napier of Magdala and Commander-in-Chief of the Army in India.