Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

War Stories


Several months before the Afghan War began the Guides were placed on guard at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, and there occurred an incident which illustrates the extremely delicate problem accompanying the employment of Indian troops in certain situations. In the ranks of the Guides are men belonging to a great number of tribes and nationalities, many of them enlisted from amongst peoples whose territories lie outside the British borders. It may so happen therefore, and indeed does happen, that in the kaleidoscope of events a man who has taken service and sworn to fight the battles of the King finds himself called upon to attack his own village, and possibly to raise his rifle against his own kith and kin. Such a situation naturally requires very careful handling. It is of course absolutely necessary to maintain the great principle, that a soldier is bound hand and foot and in all honour to the service of his Sovereign, and that no family or private ties must stand between him and any duty that service may call on him to perform. On the other hand, without relinquishing this principle, it is often possible, by a little tactful and unostentatious redistribution of troops, to avoid placing a soldier in so unenviable a position as taking part in an attack on his own home. Sometimes, however, this is impossible, as in the story here related.

The Guides were daily expecting orders to advance into the Khyber Pass at the head of an army, and would thus at the very outset be fighting against some of the men's own relations and friends. Amongst these men was a young Afridi soldier, who was sore puzzled what to do. His own village lay right in the path of the army, and only a few miles distant; his relations and friends came daily to visit him, urging him to take his discharge and return to his own people before the war began. Was anyone ever in a more awkward position?

On the very eve of the advance he made his decision to stand by the colours, and gave a final refusal to his relations. Yet even then opportunity, combined with the ties of kinship, was too much for him. It was his turn for sentry-go that night, all double sentries, and, as is the custom, no two men of the same class together. With our young Afridi on his beat there happened to be a Gurkha, and that Gurkha did a thing which not only hurled his comrade to perdition, but brought himself to a court-martial. His tent was close by and he said to the young Afridi: "Hold my rifle a minute, while I fetch something from my tent." In one second the whole of that young Afridi's good resolutions failed him; the struggle of weeks had been in vain. Two rifles in his hand, not a soul near, the black night in front, and beyond—his own village, and friends, and a warm welcome! He stalked off into the darkness and was lost for ever. Then came the sequel.

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


The British officers were at dinner in their mess tent, when the havildar of the guard came running up to make his report, and brought as witness the erring Gurkha. The Colonel of the Corps at this time was Colonel F.H. Jenkins, a man who had learnt much from Lumsden, and had caught in many ways the genius for dealing with wild warriors. "How many men of that man's tribe are there in the regiment?" sternly demanded Jenkins. After reference to the company, it was found that there were seventeen of them all told. "Parade them all here," said the Colonel; and they were duly summoned, and paraded in line. "Now take off every scrap of uniform or equipment that belongs to the Sirkar." Each man did as he was bid, and placed the little pile in front of him, on the ground. "You can now go, and don't let me see your faces again till you bring back those two rifles."

The Colonel perhaps hoped that they might overtake the fugitive, overpower and secure him before he had gone far; but if so he was disappointed, for as day followed day, and week succeeded week, no news came of pursued or pursuers. The matter had been forgotten; the vacancies had long since been filled; indeed, two whole years had passed, when one day there walked into Mardan Cantonment a ragged, rough-bearded, hard-bitten gang of seventeen men, carrying two rifles. It was the lost legion!

Of those two years' toil and struggle, wounds received and given, a stark unburied corpse here and there on the mountain-side, days in ambush and bitter nights of silent anxious watch, they spoke but little. But their faces beamed with honest pride as their spokesmen simply said: "The Sahib told us never to show our faces again until we found the rifles, and here they are. Now, by your Honour's kindness, we will again enlist and serve the Queen."

On another occasion, during the Afghan War, it was a matter of considerable importance to ascertain the temper of an important tribe, whose position and territory threatened the left flank of the lines of communication not far short of Jellalabad. For this difficult and dangerous duty Duffadar Faiz Talab of the Guides offered his services, well knowing the great risks he was likely to incur, though, as the event proved, he materially underrated them.

Dressed as an ordinary Pathan, with great flowing white garments, a slatey blue puggery, and with a dagger or two stuck in his cummerband, he sallied forth one dark night, and laid up not far from camp. This precaution was taken so that not one of the hundreds of pairs of sharp eyes in our own camp should see him depart.

Next day he strolled on leisurely, and in the course of the afternoon arrived at the chief village of the tribe in question. In every Afghan village there is a rest-house, or serai, for strangers, and thither as a rule towards evening the village gossips also find their way; the hospitable hookah is passed from mouth to mouth, and in grave Oriental fashion they set about picking each other's gossip-pockets. "And you, brave stranger, who are you?" asked a grey-bearded, sharp-eyed old man of Duffadar Faiz Talab.

"I?" he answered readily; "why, I have just left those dogs of Feringhis (may God burn them in hell!), where I took service for a short time, so as to learn their ways, and their tricks of fighting."

"Shahbash (bravo)!" exclaimed the company; "and what are you going to do now?"

"What am I going to do now? Why, fight the accursed infidels, of course!" replied the duffadar.

"That is indeed fortunate," said the headman of the village, "for our spies tell us that the Feringhis intend attacking us. We shall now be able to make you the general of our forces, and since you have been so wise as to learn the cunning strategy of the infidels we shall of a surety kill them all, and send their souls to hell."

"Oh yes, certainly, if I am here," hastily murmured Faiz Talab, adding as he regained his composure and the Oriental art of fluently telling the thing that is not true, "but unfortunately I have urgent business over the Khost, and cannot delay. To-morrow at crack of dawn I must be on my way."

"Our kismet is indeed bad, but let the will of God be done!" was the pious rejoinder of the most villainous-looking of the surrounding cut-throats.

Night having now fallen, and the lighting arrangements of an Afghan village being limited to a wood fire, travellers and villagers began one by one to roll themselves up in their wadded quilts, and each man, hugging his sword, dropped off to sleep.

Just before dawn Faiz Talab was awakened by someone rudely shaking him. "Get up, oh indolent one, the English are upon us, and we look to you to help us to defeat them. Here, take this rifle and these twenty rounds of ammunition, and come and show us how best we may arrange our battle line."

Up jumped the duffadar, and hastily shook together his sleeping wits. Here was a pretty dilemma! Evidently something had occurred to precipitate action on the part of the British, and it had been found inexpedient, or perhaps impossible, to wait for the receipt of his report. Meanwhile the duffadar was in the exceedingly uncomfortable position of him who finds himself between the devil and the deep sea. As the chosen leader, thus miraculously fallen from heaven on the eve of battle, he had become so important a figure that it was impossible for him to take up a modest position in the rear; indeed, a bullet through the head would have been the immediate rejoinder to any such suggestion on his part. Forced thus by circumstance into the forefront of the battle, he turned his back to the devil and stood forth to face the deep sea, and the great waves of British soldiers which surged across it to the attack.

"The first thing to do," he shouted authoritatively, "is to take good cover, so that the bullets and cannon-balls of the English cannot hit us; and then, when they have expended their ammunition, we will shout Allah! and charge them with the sword."

"Well spoken!" was the cry, and the order passed up and down the line.

Be assured that duffadar Faiz Talab did not fail to appropriate the thickest and strongest wall in support of his tactical scheme.

"The next thing to do," yelled the unwilling general, "is to fire as rapidly as possible, so as to frighten the English thoroughly, before we sally forth and kill them." And suiting action to words Faiz Talab fired off his twenty rounds with great rapidity in the safest possible direction, and prayed God that he had not hit one of his own comrades. At the same time he added a perhaps equally potent supplication, to the effect that his comrades might not be so careless or inconsiderate in their turn as to shoot him.

Having no more ammunition, Faiz Talab hugged his wall closer than a limpet, and noticed with growing satisfaction that ammunition was running out all along the line. On the other hand, as an inquisitive neighbour, with two bullets in his puggery, pointed out, the English were advancing very quickly, apparently with plenty of ammunition, and were just at that moment fixing bayonets.

"Fixing bayonets!" exclaimed one and all; "then it is indeed necessary that we should depart, so that, by the grace of God, we may be ready to fight with renewed vigour on another day."

"That is well spoken, brethren," said Faiz Talab, and added with considerable pathos, "but as for me, I shall remain and die at my post."

"Oh, say not so!" remarked one or two with polite, but not very insistent interest.

"Nothing will persuade me to move," stubbornly reiterated the duffadar, devoutly praying that no one else would insist on sharing his bed of glory.

The English soldiers could now be heard talking plainly, and one, speaking louder than the rest, said, "Cease firing, fix bayonets, charge!" A loud hurrah! sounded, and then Faiz Talab found himself alone on his side of the wall. That was all very well, but it was not of much avail to have escaped so far, to end his days with eighteen inches of a British bayonet through his best embroidered waistcoat. If it had been any Indian regiment, or, better still, his own regiment, the Guides, he could at once have secured safety by declaring who he was. But with British soldiers, none of whom would probably understand a word he said, and all heated with the excitement of battle, he might get the bayonet first and enquiry afterwards. However, something had to be done; so up he jumped and, holding up his hands, yelled, "Stop! stop! I am a friend of the British."

"'Ullo, 'ere's another bloomin' ghazi! 'ave at 'im, Bill!" was the brisk rejoinder, in the familiar tongue of a British soldier of the 17th Foot.

And "'ave at 'im" they most assuredly would, had not a British officer arrived in the very nick of time. "He says he is a friend of the British," the officer shouted; "give him quarter till we find out whether he speaks the truth or not."

So reluctantly they made Faiz Talab a prisoner, temporarily postponing the pleasure of sending him to join his numerous friends in the ghazis' Paradise.

But Faiz Talab said to the officer: "May I see you alone? I have something important to tell you."

"Yes, certainly," said the officer; "but mind, one of my men covers you all the time."

And when they drew apart, Faiz Talab took off his shoe; under the lining was a little piece of paper, which he handed to the officer, and on it was written in English: The bearer of this is Duffadar Faiz Talab of the Guides: please give him every assistance.—F.H. Jenkins, Lt.-Col.