Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

First Steps in War


It is given to some regiments to spread their achievements over the quiet centuries, while to the lot of others it falls to live, for a generation or two, in an atmosphere of warlike strife and ever present danger. The Guides have been, from a soldier's point of view, somewhat fortunate in seeing much service during the past sixty years; and thus their history lends itself readily to a narrative which is full of adventure and stirring deeds. The story of those deeds may, perchance, be found of interest to those at home, who like to read the gallant record of the men who fight their battles in remote and unfamiliar corners of the Empire across the seas.

To Sir Henry Lawrence, the preux chevalier, who died a soldier's death in the hallowed precincts of Lucknow, the Guides owe their name and origin. At a time when soldiers fought, and marched, and lived in tight scarlet tunics, high stocks, trousers tightly strapped over Wellington boots, and shakos which would now be looked on as certain death, Sir Henry evolved the startling heresy that to get the best work out of troops, and to enable them to undertake great exertions, it was necessary that the soldier should be loosely, comfortably, and suitably clad, that something more substantial than a pill-box with a pocket-handkerchief wrapped round it was required as a protection from a tropical sun, and that footgear must be made for marching, and not for parading round a band-stand.

Martinets of the old school gravely shook their heads, and trembled for the discipline of men without stocks and overalls. Men of the Irregular Cavalry, almost as much trussed and padded as their Regular comrades (who were often so tightly clad as to be unable to mount without assistance), looked with good-natured tolerance on a foredoomed failure. But Sir Henry Lawrence had the courage of his opinions, and determined to put his theories to practice, though at first on a small scale.

Not only were the Guides to be sensibly clothed, but professionally also they were to mark a new departure. In 1846 the Punjab was still a Sikh province, and the administration was only thinly strengthened by a sprinkling of British officers. Men, half soldiers, half civilians, and known in India under the curious misnomer of Political Officers,—a class to whom the British Empire owes an overwhelming debt—were scattered here and there, hundreds of miles apart, and in the name of the Sikh Durbar practically ruled and administered provinces as large as Ireland or Scotland. The only British troops in the country were a few of the Company's regiments, quartered at Lahore to support the authority of the Resident,—a mere coral island in the wide expanse. What Sir Henry Lawrence felt was the want of a thoroughly mobile body of troops, both horse and foot, untrammelled by tradition, ready to move at a moment's notice, and composed of men of undoubted loyalty and devotion, troops who would not only be of value in the rough and tumble of a soldier's trade, but would grow used to the finer arts of providing skilled intelligence.

The title selected for the corps was in itself a new departure in the British Army, and history is not clear as to whether its pre-ordained duties suggested the designation to Sir Henry Lawrence, or whether, in some back memory, its distinguished predecessor in the French army stood sponsor for the idea. Readers of the Napoleonic wars will remember that, after the battle of Borghetto, the Great Captain raised a Corps des Guides, and that this was the first inception of the Corps d'Elite, which later grew into the Consular Guard, and later still expanded into the world-famed Imperial Guard ten thousand strong.

But whatever the history of the inception of its title, the duties of the Corps of Guides were clearly and concisely defined in accordance with Sir Henry's precepts. It was to contain trustworthy men, who could, at a moment's notice, act as guides to troops in the field; men capable, too, of collecting trustworthy intelligence beyond, as well as within, our borders; and, in addition to all this, men, ready to give and take hard blows, whether on the frontier or in a wider field. A special rate of pay was accorded to all ranks. And finally, fortunate as Sir Henry Lawrence had been in the inspiration that led him to advocate this new departure, he was no less fortunate in his selection of the officer who was destined to inaugurate a new feature in the fighting forces of the Empire.

Even from among officers of proved experience and ability it is by no means easy to select the right man to inaugurate and carry through successfully an experimental measure; much more difficult is it to do so when the selection lies among young officers who have still to win their spurs. Yet from among old or young, experienced or inexperienced, it would have been impossible to have selected an officer with higher qualifications for the work in hand than the young man on whom the choice fell.

Born of a soldier stock, and already experienced in war, Harry Lumsden possessed all the finest attributes of the young British officer. He was a man of strong character, athletic, brave, resolute, cool and resourceful in emergency; a man of rare ability and natural aptitude for war, and possessed, moreover, of that magnetic influence which communicates the highest confidence and devotion to those who follow. In addition he was a genial comrade, a keen sportsman, and a rare friend to all who knew him. Such, then, was the young officer selected by Sir Henry Lawrence to raise the Corps of Guides.

That the commencement should be not too ambitious, it was ruled that the first nucleus should consist only of one troop of cavalry and two companies of infantry, with only one British officer. But as this story will show, as time and success hallowed its standards, this modest squad expanded into the corps which now, with twenty-seven British officers and fourteen hundred men, holds an honoured place in the ranks of the Indian Army.

Following out the principle that the corps was to be for service and not for show, the time-honoured scarlet of the British Army was laid aside for the dust-coloured uniform which half a century later, under the now well-known name of khaki, became the fighting dress of the whole of the land forces of the Empire.

The spot chosen for raising the new corps was Peshawur, then the extreme outpost of the British position in India, situated in the land of men born and bred to the fighting trade, free-lances ready to take service wherever the rewards and spoils of war were to be secured. While fully appreciating the benefits of accurate drill, and the minute attention to technical detail, bequeathed as a legacy by the school of Wellington, Lumsden upheld the principle that the greatest and best school for war is war itself. He believed in the elasticity which begets individual self-confidence, and preferred a body of men taught to act and fight with personal intelligence to the highly-trained impersonality which requires a sergeant's order before performing the smallest duty, and an officer's fostering care to forestall its every need.

Holding such views, it is with no surprise we read that, while his men were still under the elementary training of drill instructors borrowed from other regiments, Lumsden led them forth to learn the art of war under the blunt and rugged conditions of the Indian frontier. To march, not through peaceful lanes, but with all the care and precautions which a semi-hostile region necessitated; to encamp, not on the quiet village green where sentry-go might appear an unmeaning farce, but in close contact with a vigilant and active race of hard fighters, especially skilled in the arts of surprises and night-attacks; to be ready, always ready, with the readiness of those who meet difficulties half way,—such were the precepts which the hardy recruits of the Guides imbibed simultaneously with the automatic instruction of the drill-sergeant.

Nor was it long before Lumsden had an opportunity of practically demonstrating to the young idea his methods of making war. The corps, barely seven months old, was encamped at Kalu Khan in the plain of Yusafzai, when sudden orders came, directing it to make a night-march, with the object of surprising and capturing the village of Mughdara in the Panjtar Hills. In support of the small band of Guides was sent a troop of Sikh cavalry, seasoned warriors, to stiffen the young endeavour and hearten the infant warrior. Marching all night, half an hour before daylight the force arrived at the mouth of a narrow defile, three-fourths of a mile long, leading to the village, and along which only one horseman could advance at a time. Nothing dismayed, and led by the intrepid Lumsden, in single file the Guides dashed at full gallop through the defile, fell with fury on the awakening village, captured and disarmed it, and brought away, as trophies of war, its chief and three hundred head of cattle. To add to the modest pride taken in this bright initial feat of arms, it was achieved single-handed, for the supporting troop of Sikhs failed to face the dark terrors of the defile and remained behind. This opening skirmish was the keynote to many an after success. It helped to foster a spirit of alert preparedness, readiness to seize the fleeting opportunity, and courage and determination when once committed to action. These seeds thus planted grew to be some of the acknowledged attributes of the force as it blossomed into maturity under its gallant leader.

During the first year of its existence the young corps was engaged in several more of the same class of enterprise, and in all acquitted itself with quiet distinction. As, however, the history of one is in most particulars that of another, it will not be necessary to enter into a detailed account of each.

The British in the Peshawur Valley, as elsewhere in the Punjab, were in a somewhat peculiar position. They were not administering, or policing, the country on behalf of the British Government, but in the name of the Sikh Durbar. In the Peshawur Valley, in which broad term may be included the plains of Yusafzai, the Sikh rule was but feebly maintained amidst a warlike race of an antagonistic faith. In the matter of the collection of revenue, therefore, the ordinary machinery of government was not sufficiently strong to effect regular and punctual payment; and consequently, when any village or district was much in arrears, it became customary to send a body of troops to collect the revenue. If the case was merely one of dilatoriness, unaccompanied by hostile intent, the case was sufficiently met by the payment of the arrears due, and by bearing the cost of feeding the troops while the money was being collected. But more often, dealing as they were with a weak and discredited government, the hardy warriors of the frontier, sending their wives and cattle to some safe glen in the distant hills, openly defied both the tax-collector and the troops that followed him. It then became a case either of coercion or of leaving it alone. An effete administration, like that of the Sikhs, if thus roughly faced, as often as not let the matter rest. But with the infusion of British blood a new era commenced; and the principle was insisted on that, where revenue was due, the villagers must pay or fight. And further, if they chose the latter alternative, a heavy extra penalty would fall on them, such as the confiscation of their cattle, the destruction of their strongholds, and the losses inevitable when the appeal is made to warlike arbitration.

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


It was on such an expedition that one of the Guides had a curious and fatal adventure. Colonel George Lawrence, who was the British Representative in Peshawur, was out in Yusafzai with a brigade of Sikh troops, collecting revenue and generally asserting the rights of government. Co-operating with him was Lumsden with the Guides. Among the recalcitrants was the village of Babuzai, situated in a strong position in the Lundkwar Valley, and Lawrence determined promptly to coerce it. His plan of operation was to send the Guides' infantry by night to work along the hills, so that before daylight they would be occupying the commanding heights behind the village, and thus cut off escape into the mountains. He himself, at dawn, would be in position with the Sikh brigade to attack from the open plain; while the Guides' cavalry were disposed so as to cut off the retreat to the right up the valley.

In pursuance of their portion of the plan of operations, as the Guides' infantry were cautiously moving along the hills towards their allotted position, in the growing light they suddenly came upon a picquet of the enemy placed to guard against this very contingency. To fire was to give the alarm, so with exceeding promptness the picquet was charged with the bayonet, and overpowered. At the head of the small storming party charged a duffadar of the Guides' cavalry, by name Fatteh Khan. Fatteh Khan was one of those men to whom it was as the breath of life to be in every brawl and fight within a reasonable ride. On this occasion he was of opinion that the cavalry would see little or no fighting, whereas the infantry might well be in for a pretty piece of hand-to-hand work. "To what purpose therefore, Sahib, should I waste my day?" he said to Lumsden. "With your Honour's permission I will accompany my infantry comrades on foot. Are we not all of one corps?" And so he went, keeping well forward, and handy for the first encounter.

As the gallant duffadar, sword in hand, dashed at the picquet, he was from a side position shot through both arms; but not a whit dismayed or hindered he hurled himself with splendid courage at the most brawny opponent he could single out. A short sharp conflict ensued, Fatteh Khan with his disabled arm using his sword, while his opponent, with an Affghan knife in one hand, was busy trying to induce the glow on his matchlock to brighten up, that the gun might definitely settle the issue. In the course of the skirmishing between the two men a curious accident, however, occurred. The tribesman, as was usual in those days, was carrying under his arm a goat-skin bag full of powder for future use. In aiming a blow at him, Fatteh Khan missed his man, but cut a hole in the bag; the powder began to run out, and, as ill chance would have it, some fell on the glowing ember of the matchlock. This weapon, pointed anywhere and anyhow at the moment, went off with a terrific report, which was followed instantaneously by a still greater explosion. The flame had caught the bag of powder, and both the gallant duffadar and his staunch opponent were blown to pieces.

So died a brave soldier. But lest the noise should have betrayed them, his comrades hurried on with increased eagerness, and as good fortune would have it arrived in position at the very nick of time. The operation was completely successful. In due course the Sikhs attacked in front, and when the enemy tried to escape up the hills behind their village, they found retreat cut off by the Guides' infantry. Turning back, they essayed to break away to the right; but the intention being signalled to the Guides' cavalry, who were placed so as to intercept the fugitives, these fell with great vigour on the tribesmen and gave them a much needed lesson. It was now no longer an effete Sikh administration that breakers of the law had to deal with, but the strong right arm and warlike guile of the British officer, backed up by men who meant fighting.

It was now the spring of 1848, and great events were brewing in the Punjab. It was the lull between the two stormy gusts of the First and Second Sikh Wars. To us at this date it does not seem to require the omniscience of a prophet, prophesying after the event, to discover that the settlement arrived at after the First Sikh War contained most of the possible elements of an unpermanent nature. The Punjab was to remain a Sikh province, with the infant son of the Lion of the Punjab as its Sovereign; but the real ruler of the kingdom of the Sikhs was a British officer, Henry Lawrence, at the head of a council of regency. To support his authority British bayonets overawed the capital of the Punjab, and assumed the mien of those who hold their place by right of conquest. Attached to, but really at the head of, the minor centres of administration, were men like Herbert Edwardes, Abbott, Taylor, George Lawrence, Nicholson, and Agnew; the stamp of high-souled pioneer who though alone, unguarded, and hundreds of miles from succour, by sheer force of character makes felt the weight of British influence in favour of just and cleanly government. And acting thus honourably they were naturally detested by the lower class of venal rulers, whose idea of government was, and is at all times and on all occasions, by persuasion, force, or oppression, to squeeze dry the people committed to their charge. Ready to the hand of a discontented satrap, sighing for the illicit gains of a less austere rule, were the bands of discharged soldiers, their occupation gone, who crowded every village. It was easy to show, as was indeed the case, that these discontented warriors owed their present plight to the hated English. For while one of the conditions of peace, after the First Sikh War, insisted on the disbandment of the greater portion of the formidable Sikh army, the enlightened expedient of enlisting our late enemies into our own army had not yet been acted upon to any great extent. To add to the danger, every town and hamlet harboured the chiefs and people of only a half-lost cause.

Thus the train of revolt was laid with an almost fatal precision throughout the province, and only required the smallest spark to set it alight. At the head of the incendiary movement was the Maharani, the wife of the late and mother of the present infant king. Some inkling of the plot, as could hardly fail, came to the British Resident's ears, the primary step contemplated being to seduce from their allegiance the Company's troops quartered at Lahore.

It was at this stage that a summons reached Lumsden to march with all despatch to Lahore, a distance of two hundred and fifty miles. Here was an opportunity of testing the value of a corps whose loyalty was above question, and which from its composition could have no sympathy with the movement. Consequently to Lumsden and his men was assigned the difficult and unaccustomed duty of unravelling the plot and bringing the conspirators to justice. Setting to work with his accustomed readiness, and aided by one of his ressaldars, Fatteh Khan, Khuttuk, of whose prowess on many a bloody field the story will in due course be told, Lumsden with characteristic alacrity undertook this intricate and dangerous duty. His tracks covered, so to speak, by the unsuspicious bearing of a blunt soldier in command of a corps of rugged trans-border warriors, the unaccustomed role of a skilled detective was carried out with promptness and success. In the course of a very few days some of the Guides had obtained conclusive proof regarding three matters: that the Maharani was at the head of the movement, that her chief agent was the Sikh general Khan Singh, and that the Company's troops had already been tampered with.

As the plot thickened it was discovered that a meeting of the conspirators, including fifty or sixty men of various regiments, was to take place on a certain night at a certain place. Lumsden patiently awaited the event, intending with the Guides to surround and capture the conspirators red-handed. But, on the night fixed for the meeting, a retainer of General Khan Singh came to visit one of the Guides, with whom he was on friendly terms, and in the course of conversation made it evident that his master was not easy in his mind, why not no one could say, and that he had half determined on flight. The man of the Guides, leaving his friend in charge of a comrade, with commendable acumen hastened to Lumsden and told him the story. That officer at once saw that the moment had come to strike, lest the prey escape. He therefore immediately clapped the Sikh general's retainer into the quarterguard, much to that individual's astonishment, and promptly parading the Guides, hurried down to the city and surrounded Khan Singh's house.

It was now past eleven o'clock, the house was in darkness and strongly barricaded all round; the city was that of a foreign power, and no police, or other, warrant did Lumsden hold. But he was no man to stand on ceremony, or shirk responsibility, nor was he one for a moment to count on the personal risks he ran. Finding the doors stouter than they expected, his men burst in a window, and headed by their intrepid officer dashed into the building. There, overcoming promptly any show of resistance, they seized General Khan Singh, his munshi (a secretary or clerk) and a confidential agent, together with a box of papers, and under close guard carried them back to the Guides' camp. In due course the prisoners were tried and conclusive evidence being furnished, and confirmed by the incriminating documents found in the box, General Khan Singh and his munshi were sentenced to be hanged. This prompt dealing served at once to check rebellion in the vicinity of Lahore, and placed the Company's troops beyond the schemes of conspirators.

Amongst other papers found in Khan Singh's box were some which clearly inculpated the Maharani, and it was at once decided to deport her beyond the region of effective intrigue. The lady was, under arrangements made for her by the Government, at this time residing in one of the late Maharaja's palaces at Sheikapura about twenty-three miles from Lahore. To Lumsden and his men was entrusted the duty of arresting and deporting the firebrand princess. As taking part in this mission, first appears in the annals of the Guides the name of Lieutenant W.S.R. Hodson, afterwards famous for his many deeds of daring, and whose name still lives as the intrepid and dashing leader of Hodson's Horse. Appointed as adjutant and second-in-command to a born exponent of sound, yet daring, methods of warfare, his early training in the Guides stood him in good stead in his brief, stirring, and glorious career.

In the execution of their orders Lumsden and Hodson with the Guides' cavalry set off quietly after dark for their twenty-three miles ride. The service was of some difficulty and of no little danger, for not only might the Maharani's numerous partisans make an armed resistance, but failing this they might organise a formidable rescue party to cut off the enterprise between Sheikapura and the Ravi. Against any such attempt, made with resources well within hail, the slender troop of the Guides would naturally come in for some rough buffeting. Much, however, to the surprise, and possibly the relief, of the British officers, they were received not only without any signs of hostility, but with smiles of well-assumed welcome. The explanation of this was that somehow news of the fate of General Khan Singh had already reached the Maharani, and with Eastern diplomacy she was preparing to trim her bark on the other tack. Even to the suggestion that she should prepare to make a journey she raised no objection; and it was only when she found herself on the road to Ferozepore, and learnt that her destination was Benares, that the courtesy and dignity of a queen gave place to torrents of scurrilous abuse and invective such as the dialects of India are pre-eminently capable of supplying.