Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Massacre of the Guides at Kabul, 1879


The annals of no army and no regiment can show a brighter record of devoted bravery than has been achieved by this small band of Guides. By their deeds they have conferred undying honour, not only on the regiment to which they belong, but on the whole British Army.... The conduct of the escort of the Queen's Own Corps of Guides does not form part of the enquiry entrusted to the Commission, but they have in the course of their enquiries had the extreme gallantry of the bearing of these men so forcibly brought to their notice that they cannot refrain from placing on record their humble tribute of admiration.

So wrote the brave, bluff soldier, Sir Charles Macgregor, as president of the Committee appointed to enquire into the causes of the dreadful tragedy which in a few hours ended in the massacre of Sir Louis Cavignari and the whole of his escort.

When Cavignari, as minister and plenipotentiary on behalf of the British Government, signed the treaty of Gundamuk, one of the provisions of which was that a British Embassy with a suitable escort should be established at Kabul, there were many who, unable to forget the long-drawn history of Afghan treachery, looked with grave apprehension on the proposal. The Amir Yakub Khan, himself but lately and unsecurely seated on the throne, was not strong enough, it was urged, to uphold this new departure, even were he honestly anxious to do so. But against all opposition Cavignari placed his commanding personality and strong prevailing will; and by degrees he calmed not only any doubts the Amir on the one hand may have expressed, but on the other removed by convincing argument the objections raised by the prophets of evil in our own camp. Finally, to prove his unwavering confidence in the practicability of establishing a British Embassy at Kabul, he asked to be allowed in his own person to prove the soundness and safety of the policy he advocated.

The treaty of Gundamuk was signed in June 1879; but the Amir asked for a short respite, that he might return to his capital to prepare quarters for the Embassy and also accustom the minds of his people to its proposed arrival. It was not therefore till July 24th that Sir Louis Cavignari and his escort arrived at Kabul.

This escort consisted of twenty-five, of all ranks, of the Guides' cavalry, and fifty-two, of all ranks, of the Guides' infantry under the command of Lieutenant Walter Hamilton, who a few weeks before had won the Victoria Cross at the action of Fattehabad The other Englishmen with the Embassy were Surgeon A.H. Kelly of the Guides, as medical officer, and Mr. W. Jenkins, as political assistant to Sir Louis Cavignari.

The reception of the Embassy at Kabul was to all seeming perfectly friendly, and even cordial. Every honour was paid to it, and the assembled crowds, though preserving the impassive mien of Asiatics on such occasions, respectfully saluted the British officers as they passed along. It had been arranged that the members of the Embassy and escort should take up their abode in quarters prepared for them in the Bala Hissar, the celebrated fortress which is indelibly connected with the name of Kabul, and which completely dominates the city. Here also were the Amir's palace and the houses of many of his highest nobles.

For a month all went well. Cavignari paid frequent visits to the Amir, and entered into long and friendly converse with him. The Amir's nobles and officials paid frequent return visits of ceremony or friendship. The officers of the Embassy rode out daily, morning and evening, to see the country and surrounding places of interest, accompanied always, however, by escorts of Afghan cavalry as well as of the Guides. To encourage friendly intercourse, they used to practise tent-pegging and lime-cutting, and invited the Afghan horsemen to join them. But, as showing how curious are the workings of the Asiatic mind, it afterwards transpired that this apparently unexceptional proceeding was looked on by many with grave offence. The Afghan officers muttered that this was mere braggadocio on the part of the sahibs; that the sport was only to show how they would spit and cut down the sons of the Prophet, if they had the chance! To fathom such depths of bigotry as this incident reveals is one of the many difficulties which face Englishmen in Asia.

Towards the end of August Sir Louis Cavignari received one or two direct warnings that all was not well. It appears that in the ordinary course of the relief of various garrisons several of the Amir's Herati regiments were ordered from Herat to Kabul, and Kabul regiments took their place. These Herati regiments had seen nothing of the late war: they had never crossed swords with the British; and they were filled with the insensate pride and confidence in their own prowess which abysmal ignorance could alone account for. As they marched through the streets of Kabul they set up, at the instigation of their officers it is said, loud cries of insult and abuse of Cavignari by name, of the British Embassy, and of the whole detested race of Feringhis. When this was told to Cavignari he merely laughed and replied: "Curs only bark, they do not bite." In a broad sense he was right, for if British officers had always lain down wherever stray curs were moved to yelp, the British Empire's outer frontier of to-day would be the cliffs of Dover. But a much more weighty warning came from an undoubted well-wisher, an old retired native officer of our Indian army, and a firm friend of the envoy. His warning said that a plot was afoot; that the cupidity of some had been appealed to by stories of large treasure in the Residency, while the fanatical hatred of others had been secretly fanned; that it was well therefore to be on guard. A warning coming from such a friendly quarter was doubtless duly weighed and duly allowed for; but after all, what could a peaceful Embassy do but trust to the honour and integrity of the friendly Power whose guest it was? To show the smallest sign of distrust by attempting, for instance, to place a merely residential set of buildings, completely commanded all round, into a state of defence, was only to court disaster. What could the British Ambassador in Paris do against a brigade of troops unrestrained by the French Government? What could an escort of seventy-five men, however brave, do against thousands, and tens of thousands, of armed men? Cavignari therefore took the bold course, which British officers, before and since, have taken. He sat quietly, and with good and brave heart faced the coming storm, if come it must; but greatly confident that it might split and roll by on either side.

In the end, by sad mischance, a small matter, and one quite unconnected, directly or indirectly, with the attitude of the British Embassy, caused the storm to burst with sudden and uncontrollable fierceness. The already half-mutinous Herati regiments were, as was not unusual in those days, very much in arrears as regards their pay. For months they had received none, and were, perhaps naturally, in an angry and sullen mood. The finances of the State were in a chaotic condition, the treasury at low ebb, and credit had receded to a vanishing point. After staving off the day of reckoning as long as possible, the welcome news reached the Herati troops that they were to receive their pay in full next morning, September 3rd, at the treasury in the Bala Hissar.

Assembling there early, they soon learnt to their disgust and indignation that they were only to receive one month's pay, a miserable pittance to men long in want. On the smouldering embers of mutiny someone wilfully, or from mere expediency, threw the spark: "Go to the British Embassy and demand pay; there is lots of money there." The idea caught like wildfire, and the whole mass of soldiery dashed off to the Embassy, situated only a few hundred yards away.

Here the ordinary routine of the day was going on. It was eight o'clock, and Cavignari, just returned from his morning ride, had not yet bathed or changed for breakfast. Hamilton and Kelly had been out to see that the grass-cutters were at their work on waste land, and not interfering with private rights, and were now probably strolling down the line of troop-horses seeing to their feeding and grooming. Jenkyns was doubtless within, reading or writing, and waiting for breakfast. The cavalrymen were about amongst their horses, and the infantry either on guard or taking their ease. On this peaceful scene suddenly burst a torrent of infuriated, half-savage soldiery, yelling for Cavignari, yelling for money, shouting curses and threats. At first they acted like mere Yahoos; they hustled and mobbed the Guides, shouting with rough humour, "Well, if we can't get money we'll get something," and then began untying horses to lead them away, stealing saddlery, swords, or anything that lay about. Then came a shot and silence; then another and another, five or six in all, by whom fired no one knows; and then the battle began,—four British officers and some seventy of the Guides, against countless thousands!

Nor was the vantage of position with the British, for they could not possibly have been more unfavourably situated for defence. The Residency consisted of a collection of mud and plaster buildings, of which the principal was the abode of the British officers. The others included the rows of huts that formed the barracks of the escort, servants' houses, and stables; outside, and enclosed by mud walls, were spaces in which were picketed the horses of the cavalry, and which formed courtyards to the Residency and men's barracks. Residential quarters of this description, given time to loop-hole and barricade them, would form fairly good defensive cover, except against artillery; but unprepared for defence they are mere death-traps. To add to the untenable nature of the position the Residency was completely commanded from several directions, and especially from a high flat-roofed house only eighty yards distant. The roofs of the Residency buildings were also flat, but made untenable by these commanding positions, except in one small portion where a low parapet, such as is often found on Eastern roofs, gave some slight protection.

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


After those first few shots there seems to have been a pause, while the mutinous troops rushed off to their camp to fetch arms and ammunition. During this brief respite Cavignari sent a message to the Amir, who was in his palace only a few hundred yards distant, informing him of the unprovoked attack, and claiming the protection due to a guest of the nation; while Hamilton hastily collected his men, and made such dispositions for defence as were possible. Then above the dust and din and rush of hurrying feet outside rose, clearer and stronger as hundreds of throats joined the swelling sound, Yar Charyar, the war-cry of the great Sunni sect of Mahomedans. They were coming in their thousands frenzied with fanaticism, and thirsting deep for Christian blood. On the other side, in calm and steadfast readiness, stood three score and ten of the Guides, men of an alien race, and some even brethren of the besiegers, but all filled with high resolve and stern determination to stand by their British officers even unto death.

Sir Louis Cavignari, soldier when diplomacy ceased, was the first to seize a rifle, and, lying prone on the flat exposed roof, with quick precision, one after the other, shot dead four leaders of the assault. But raked as he was from the higher positions, a splintered bullet hit him in the forehead, and he had to be taken below to have his wound dressed. Yet undaunted, when the first shock passed, he must have risen again, for an eye-witness from a neighbouring house declares he saw four sahibs charge out at the head of their men, and one of these must have been Cavignari. And that was the last of the fight for that brave soul, for the only further glimpse was that of a hurrying soldier, who saw him laid on a bed, with his feet drawn up, his hand to his head, and the doctor at his side.

This was all early in the day, perhaps before ten o'clock, and from this time forth the whole burden of defence lay on a young subaltern of the Guides, Walter Hamilton. Yet he was not alone, for sharing his glorious toil, and rising to the heights of heroism, was Jenkyns, a man of peace, bred not to war or the sword, and Kelly, physician and healer, but no fighting man.

And now in addition to the heavy fire from the house-tops the mutineers bored loop-holes through the compound walls, and through these, themselves protected, poured a murderous fire into the devoted building. Covered by this fire, escalading ladders were run forward at a dead angle, and in a moment the roof was reached, and the small remnant of Guides, six or seven in all, still manning the little parapet were driven below. After them, gallantly enough, the besiegers rushed down the steps; but there they met their fate, for, turning fiercely on them, the Guides killed many, and drove the survivors back to the roof. It was at this time that the first signs of fire were noticed, whether intentionally ignited by the storming party, or accidental, is not clear, though later conflagrations were undoubtedly intentional.

But though the fight had now waxed stronger and stronger for five hours, and though nearly one-half of the garrison were killed or wounded, though the British Envoy lay dead or dying, no thought of surrender occurred to the stout hearts within. Only, for the third time that morning, was an attempt made by letter to remind the Amir of his sacred obligations as a host and sovereign of a friendly Power. On this occasion the bearer selected was Shahzada Taimus, a Prince of the Sadozai dynasty, but a plain trooper in the ranks of the Guides' cavalry. The two preceding letters had been sent, one by the hand of an old pensioner of the Guides, slipped through an unguarded postern, but not seen again and supposed to be killed; and the second by a Hindu, who was indeed killed before the eyes of the garrison in his brave attempt to get through.

The third letter was written by Mr. Jenkyns, and handed by Hamilton to the Shahzada, a quiet unassuming man, to take to the Amir. A forlorn hope indeed faced the brave fellow, as he looked forth through a crevice at the yelling, shooting, cursing crowd, surging round on all sides. To open a door was instant death to himself and others, for a shower of bullets would have greeted his exit. The postern was now surrounded, and gave no hope of escape. There remained only the roof, and this means of escape Taimus decided to attempt. Crawling cautiously up, he found this bullet-swept area temporarily deserted, and creeping along it peered over the end. There he saw, only some ten feet beneath him, a furious crowd, many hundreds strong, and those nearest the wall busy digging a hole through it into the building.

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


Well, if he had to die, it was the will of God; he would fight his way through, or fall sword in hand. Standing up in full view, for a second the observed of all observers, armed to the teeth, he calmly jumped into the jaws of those baying wolves. The shock of the fall was unwillingly broken by the astonished forms of those on whom he fell, and before they could grapple with him he was pushing boldly through the crowd. But the odds and press were too great for him, and after a brief close scuffle he was for want of elbow-room overpowered and disarmed. Many shouted "Kill him! Kill him! he is a Cavignari-ite!" But above the uproar, holding his hands above his head, Taimus made himself heard. "Peace! peace!" he cried. "I undoubtedly eat the salt of the Sirkar, but I am alone and disarmed, a Mahomedan amongst Mahomedans, and the bearer of a letter to the Amir. Kill me if you like, but yours be the shame and disgrace." As he spoke, amidst the crowd of angry, scowling faces he saw a friend, a man of influence and standing; at his word the crowd gave way, and battered, bleeding, and closely guarded, Taimus was taken before the Chief. But help was now out of the Amir's power, as he sat bemoaning his fate in the women's apartments. He could give no succour he said, but he gave orders for Taimus to be detained in a place of safety. To finish the story of Shahzada Taimus: while confined there a havildar of the mutineers was brought in with a bullet in his back, and in his agony he besought Taimus to extract it. This the Shahzada, though no surgeon, succeeded in doing with a pocket-knife, and so grateful was the mutineer that when night fell he gave him his uniform and helped him to escape; and eventually, after many adventures and by the use of many disguises, the brave fellow reached India in safety.

But to return to the Residency. Jemadar (a native commissioned officer, next in rank to the subadar). Mehtab Sing, one of the two native officers of the Guides, was now dead, and Kelly's whole time was occupied in attending as best he could to the wounded, of whom there were now twenty or thirty. There remained in the fighting line only Hamilton, Jenkyns, Jemadar Jewand Sing, and some thirty of the Guides. The whole interior of the building was full of dead and dying, enemies and friends, the atmosphere made still more oppressive by the smoke of powder, and by the more deadly peril of creeping incendiarism.

At this juncture, loud and exulting shouts proclaimed that fresh heart had been given to the besiegers by the arrival of some new reinforcement. The cause was self-apparent; two guns were being run by hand into position at the gateway barely one hundred yards away. Two guns, neither then nor now, could face the open within a hundred yards of armed infantry who could freely use their weapons. But here was a different case. Driven by the storm of fire all round into rooms without loopholes, and incapable of affording either offensive or defensive fire, the Guides could only get snapshots here and there as occasion offered.

By a curious coincidence the story of those newly-arrived guns was told with almost faithful accuracy, in the brief testimony of a witness who was nearly three miles away. He said: "We heard the big guns fire twice, and then there was silence for some time; then they fired once or twice more; and then, after a long interval, one or two more shots. Perchance, seven or eight shots altogether were fired." What to the distant hearer were impressive, unaccountable pauses, were on the scene of action filled with the bravest incidents. Cooped up as they were with a murderous artillery firing point blank into them at one hundred yards range, and spreading not only death and destruction amongst wounded and unwounded alike, but still further aiding the conflagration, which had by now taken well hold of the buildings, yet still stout of heart the Guides girded up their loins to meet the new encounter.

Dr. Kelly left his wounded, and Jenkyns, the young civilian, took again a sword and pistol, and with the boy Hamilton as their leader, and with twelve staunch and true men of the Guides behind them, they opened the door. Then charging forth, they quickly crossed the bullet-swept courtyard, and fell with fury on the amazed gunners and the crowd behind the wall. Shooting, thrusting, and slashing, they killed or routed every man about the guns, and seizing them tried to drag them back. But here their strength was too small, though great their heart, and though they swung the guns round, and pulled them a few yards, they could not get them away. The little band was falling fast, right out in the open as it was; and at last the overwhelming tide returned and drove them back with the loss of half their numbers. Dr. Kelly, too, must in the sortie have received his mortal wound, for though he struggled back with the rest, he was never again seen alive. Requiescat in pace: physician and soldier, he died a hero's death.

Again the furious crowd surged up to the guns, recaptured them, slewed them round, and laid them on the door. Then came the second salvo heard by the distant listener; and again, scarce taking breath, Hamilton made preparations for his new attempt. "Do you stand here and here; and you two, there and there; and all of you shoot for all you're worth at the gunners, while I and the rest again charge out and capture the guns," he said. "And I come too," said Jenkyns.

Then a second time they threw open the door, and a second time those two young Englishmen at the head of the faithful few charged out on the guns. But for Jenkyns the glorious end had come, and sword in hand he fell, some seventy paces out, a lasting honour to the great Civil Service of India. Yet on went Hamilton and his dwindling band, and taking no denial, stayed not by bullet nor sword nor bayonet, again captured the guns. And then began again the dreadful heart-straining struggle of desperate men set to a task too great. Again with splendid effort they dragged the guns a few yards, and again the great returning wave engulfed them, and fighting foot by foot the Guides were again driven back.

And now the flames had got strong hold of the buildings, and here and there the roofs fell in, and dead and dying were entombed together. So the few survivors driven from end to end found last refuge in the hamam, or bath, which, being below the surface of the ground and built of solid brick, gave welcome shelter. But even so death was but a question of hours or minutes, and neither Hamilton nor his men were of the sort to sit tamely down to wait for it. Taking rest for awhile from the exhaustion of seven hours of this Homeric struggle, the undefeated Hamilton again laid his plans. "Now two or three," said he, "will fire from here, so as to try to keep down the fire on our assaulting party, while the rest dash out again. Arrived at the guns, I alone will face the enemy, while all of you, paying no heed to the fighting, will harness yourselves to one gun and bring it in. We shall then, at least, have one gun less against us, and may perhaps be able to use the captured one in defence. Then, in the same way, we will again charge out, and get the other gun." "Your Honour speaks well, we are ready," said his men.

This was the fourth sortie Hamilton had led that day; the first with all four Englishmen in a line, the second with three, the third with two, and now alone. Over six feet in height, splendidly made, lithe and strong, with all the activity of youth, expert with sword and pistol, he was a noble specimen of the British officer, and none more fit than he to stand in the deadly breach. Out then they went and acted on the plan arranged. For a third time those fateful guns were captured, and then alone to stem the fierce assault stood Hamilton, while his men laboured at the gun; but the odds were too great, and the gallant subaltern, after killing three men with his pistol and cutting down two more with his sword, was himself borne down. And so fighting died as brave a young heart as ever did honour to the uniform he wore. Swarming over his body, the mutineers recaptured the gun and again drove back the remnants of the forlorn hope. Hamilton lay where he fell close to the gun, till darkening night settled down on the dreadful scene. But when, next morning, a witness passed that way, he mentions that the brave young fellow's body was laid across the gun. Perchance it was the kindly act of a friend, or perchance the rough chivalry of one who had watched his heroic deeds.

It might be thought that a day so full of great deeds, of patient courage, and unshaken loyalty could, as the sun sank slowly down, produce no further spark from those exhausted, starving few. But it remained for the evening hour to produce, perhaps, the brightest flash of all.

It was apparent to all the besiegers, fighters or spectators, that one by one all the sahibs had been killed or sore wounded, and that now none remained to lead their men. At intervals during the day loud voices, as of those in command, had shouted to the garrison of Guides: "We have no quarrel with you. Deliver over the sahibs, and you shall all go free, with what loot you can take. Be not foolish thus to fight for the cursed Feringhis against your own kith and kin." But for answer all they got was fierce showers of bullets, and fiercer still the staunch defenders cried: "Dogs and sons of dogs, is this the way you treat your nation's guests? To hell with you! we parley not with base-born churls!"

And now, again, when all the Englishmen were dead, the voices cried: "Why fight any longer? Your sahibs are killed. Save yourselves, and surrender, before you are all killed. We will give you quarter." Left in command was Jemadar Jewand Singh, a splendid Sikh officer of the Guides' cavalry, and not one whit behind his British officers in brave resolve. He deigned no word of answer to the howling crowd without, but to the few brave survivors within, perhaps a dozen or so, he said: "The Sahibs gave us this duty to perform, to defend this Residency to the last. Shall we then disgrace the cloth we wear by disobeying their orders now they are dead? Shall we hand over the property of the Sirkar, and the dead bodies of our officers, to these sons of perdition? I for one prefer to die fighting for duty and the fame of the Guides, and they that will do likewise follow me." Then, as the evening closed, went forth unhurried the last slender forlorn hope. The light of the setting sun fell kindly on those grim and rugged faces, out of which all anger and excitement and passion had passed away: they were marching out to die, and they knew it. One last glimpse we have of their gallant end. From a window hard by an old soldier pensioner, himself a prisoner, saw, and bore witness, that the leader of those pathetic few, fighting with stern and steadfast courage, killed eight assailants before he himself, the last to fall, was overborne.

And so staunchly fighting they died to a man, that gallant group,—died to live for ever. But round them lay heaped six hundred dead, as silent witnesses of twelve hours' heroic fight. The night fell, and darkness and the silence of death succeeded the strife of a livelong summer's day.

With that wise statesmanship for which the British Government may claim its share, a national memorial was raised at Mardan to these deathless heroes, and on it is written: The annals of no army and no regiment can show a brighter record of devoted bravery than has been achieved by this small band of Guides.

Yet another scene in the tragedy remains to be told. It is a cold bleak day in early winter. On one side stand the blackened, bullet-riddled ruins of the Residency, much as we saw them last. To the left, drawn up as a guard, is a long double line of British soldiers with, bayonets fixed. Behind them, covering every coign of vantage, every roof and wall, are crowds of Afghans, silent, subdued, and expectant. In the centre, in an open space, stands a little group of British officers, one of whom holds a paper from which he reads. Facing the ruined Residency is a long grim row of gallows; below these, bound hand and foot and closely guarded is a row of prisoners. A signal is given, and from every gibbet swings what lately was a man. These are the ringleaders in the insensate tragedy, who, brought to justice by the strong resistless power of British bayonets, hang facing the scene of their infamy, for a sign throughout the length and breadth of Asia of the righteous fate that overtakes those who disgrace the law of nations.