Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

Twenty Years of Minor Wars

With Sir Sidney Cotton against the Hindustani fanatics—Fierce hand to hand fighting—Dressed to meet their Lord—Against the Waziris in 1860 under Sir Neville Chamberlain—Fierce attack on the Guides' camp—Lumsden stands the shock—The charge of the five hundred—The Guides clear the camp with the bayonet—Heavy casualties—Lumsden's last fight—A story or two—Lord William Beresford—The Crag picquet—Colonel Dighton Probyn—A boat expedition—Cavignari's methods—Surprise of Sappri

Short breathing space, and little of the rest of peace awaited the Guides on their return from Delhi. Within two months they were again taking the field, under Sir Sidney Cotton, against the Hindustani fanatics of Sittana.

These fanatics, as they were called, were really refugees from British territory, for the most part deserters from corps that had mutinied, or outlaws who had participated in some unforgivable outrage; some, however, were clean-handed patriots, who, on principle, refused to bow to the decree of destiny, or to become peaceful subjects of the Queen. If the latter had remained quiet and inoffensive members of tribes or communities beyond our borders, the British Government, never vindictive, would probably, as the heat and passions of a desperate war died down, have left them to their solitude. But instead of thus living peaceably in the asylum they had found, they set about inciting their hot-blooded neighbours to join them in disturbing the peace of the border. They harried villages, drove off cattle, killed and wounded British subjects, and thus became an additional disturbing feature on a frontier always ready enough for the pleasure of a good fight. The opportunity was therefore taken of the presence of Sir Sidney Cotton's column to make them feel that the strong hand of the British Government could reach them even in their mountain fastnesses.

With the co-operation of a force from the Hazara district Sittana, the stronghold of the Hindustanis, was skilfully surrounded, and a fierce hand-to-hand conflict ensued. Their Pathan allies, whose hearts were evidently not in the business, showed but lukewarm enthusiasm, and escaped as best they could; but the Hindustanis stood to a man. They fought like fanatics, coming boldly and doggedly on, and going through all the preliminary attitudes and posturing of the Indian prize-ring. Their advance was made steadily and in perfect silence, without a shout or a word of any kind, unlike the yelling charge of the Afghan ghazi. All were dressed in their bravest and best for the occasion, as is meet for him who goes to meet his Lord, most of them in pure white, but some of the leaders in richly embroidered velvet coats. The fight was short, desperate, and decisive; and in the end every one of these brave, if misguided, warriors was killed or captured. The brunt of the charge fell on the 18th Punjab Infantry, who lost one officer and sixteen men in the encounter.

Many another fight too did the Guides have during the next few years with unvarying success, but we may perhaps pass the less important by, and come to the stiff encounter that faced them during the expedition against the Mahsud Waziri tribe in 1860.

The British force operating in that country had in the course of the campaign been split up into two columns; one under Sir Neville Chamberlain had gone forward, lightly equipped, into the Waziri fastnesses; while a weaker column, some one thousand five hundred strong under Lumsden and including the Guides, was left at Pallosin to guard camp, equipage, and stores. Knowing the enemy he had to deal with, and his predilection for, and skill in executing the unexpected in war, Lumsden drew in his camp, so as to make it as snug and defensible as possible, and putting out strong picquets with their supports all round, he awaited the few days' absence of the main column. During the interval no signs of the enemy could be seen, nor could any news of him be obtained by means of spies. To all intents and purposes he seemed to have disappeared, and the little column lay, apparently unnoticed and unheeded, amidst the great mountains. Yet suddenly, from anywhere, from nowhere, from the very bowels of the earth, the Waziris rose in their thousands, and hurled themselves at the British camp.

Reveille was just sounding in the grey dawn of April 23rd, when three thousand Waziris armed with swords and guns, and fired with fierce fanaticism, boldly charged that side of the camp which was held by the Guides. The storm first fell on the outlying picquets, who fired a volley, and then received the great rush of white-robed swordsmen on their bayonets. They fought with the utmost gallantry, but the weight of numbers was against them, and in a few minutes, standing bravely at their posts, they were practically annihilated. Yet the strife was not in vain, for it was strong enough to cause all but the bravest of the brave to pause before proceeding to attack the kernel of the nut, whose shell had been so hard to crack. And thus it came about that only five hundred of the three thousand swordsmen faced the death beyond. These, with scarce a pause, and calling loudly on Allah to give them victory, swept swiftly on to the camp of the Guides. In that war-seasoned corps, half an hour before dawn, wet or dry, in freezing cold or tropical heat, the inlying picquet, a hundred strong, falls in, and stands silent, fully equipped, armed, and ready for all emergencies, till broad daylight shows all clear and safe. At the first sound of the firing Lumsden jumped to his feet, and taking this inlying picquet, rushed out of camp at its head, and so posted it as to enfilade and hold in check the great body of Waziris who now darkened the skyline. Then, hastening back to camp, he reached it almost abreast of the five hundred, who were not to be denied.

Now commenced the very babel of conflict; horses and mules neighing and screaming and straining at their ropes, dogs barking, men yelling, the clash of swords, the rattle and crash of musketry, the screams of the wounded and the groans of the dying. Was ever such a pandemonium? The Guides in small knots, though hard stricken, fought with determined courage; but they were gradually driven back, inch by inch, till they were almost on to the guns parked in the rear. Then came to the rescue the keen resource and ready courage of the British subaltern. Borne back in the rush were Lieutenants Bond and Lewis of the Guides; but in the awful din and confusion they could at first do little else but defend themselves. Gradually, however, they formed the few men near them into a rough line, and by dint of shouting and passing the word along, succeeded in getting more men to catch the notion; till in a few minutes they had the best part of two hundred men in line right across the camp. Then came the order passed along with a roar, "Fix bayonets!" This order was in fact superfluous, for every man was already busy holding his own with his bayonet; but there is a certain sequence in military orders, which in times of confusion tend to steady the nerves with the cool touch of drill and discipline. The sequence of the order "Fix bayonets!" is "Charge!" When that sequence came a wild cheer echoed down the line of the Guides; as one man they leaped forward, and with thrust and staggering blow cleared the camp of the enemy. As they retreated the 4th Sikhs and 5th Gurkhas took them in flank, and in a few minutes turned a repulse into a headlong flight. The enemy left one hundred and thirty-two dead on the ground, ninety-two of whom were in the Guides' camp, and carried off immense numbers of wounded and dying. The Guides lost thirty-three killed and seventy-four wounded.

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


This was Lumsden's last fight at the head of the Guides. Now a Lieutenant-Colonel and a Companion of the Bath, his promotion was assured, and it came with his transfer to the command of the Hyderabad contingent, with the rank of Brigadier-General. This fine soldier from the raising of the corps in 1846 had held command of it for sixteen years; the brightest example of what a brave, chivalrous, and resourceful leader should be. Commanders of regiments come and go, and few leave their mark; but over the Guides the influence of Lumsden still burns bright and clear. To be alert and ready; to rise equal to the occasion, be the call small or great; to be not easily taken aback in a sudden emergency; to be a genial comrade and a good sportsman,—such are the simple soldier maxims left to his comrades by one of the best soldiers who ever drew sword.

The extraordinary devotion felt for Lumsden by the rude warriors whom he had enlisted and trained to war was somewhat pathetically, if quaintly, illustrated by an incident that occurred not long before he left. Sir John Lawrence, then Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, had been round to inspect the Guides, for in those days they were not under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, but directly under the Civil Government. Something in the course of the day had occurred to put Sir John Lawrence out of humour, and he was at all times a man of blunt speech. Whatever it was, it temporarily annoyed Lumsden, and quite unwittingly this became evident to the faithful fellows who were ready to charge into hell-fire at his order. It was a mere passing cloud, for the cheery bright-hearted Lumsden was no man to brood over small matters of this sort. As, however, he sat out under the stars smoking his last pipe, he became aware of a figure in the background, and turning round saw one of his orderlies respectfully standing at attention.

"Hullo! What's up?" asked Lumsden.

"It is only this," replied the orderly, one of the rough warriors who took orders only from his own sahibs, and cared not a jot for any other man, black or white. "It is only this, Sahib: I and my comrades noticed that the Lord Sahib spoke to-day words that were not pleasing to your Excellency, and that you were angry and displeased when you heard them. So we have consulted together as to how best we may serve the proper end; for it is not right and proper that we should allow our Colonel Sahib to be harshly spoken to by anyone. There is, therefore, this alternative: the Lord Sahib has arranged to leave by the straight road to-morrow morning for Peshawur, but with your honour's kind permission, and by the Grace of God, there is no reason whatever why he should ever reach it." That man thoroughly meant what he said, and to this day the same touching devotion of the men to their officers, though perhaps less bluntly expressed, is still one of the characteristics of the Guides.

Many years afterwards Lord William Beresford, when Military Secretary to the Viceroy, was fond of telling a story not only illustrative of the personal equation which would cause one of the rough and ready old soldiers to refuse obedience to any but his own officers, but also giving a somewhat embarrassing illustration of a sentry adhering too literally to his orders. Lord William was somewhat annoyed at the time; but when cooler, he saw the sound military spirit underlying the incident, and hence always mentioned it with commendation.

It appears that as the Guides' cavalry were marching in to Rawul Pindi for a concentration of troops, just before they reached their camping-ground they passed a pond by the roadside. The officer commanding turning round, called one of the men to him and said: "Go, stand sentry on that pond, and don't let anyone water there, till we have watered our horses."

"Very good, your Honour," replied the trooper, and went and posted himself.

What the commanding officer really meant was, not to allow cattle and transport animals to dirty the water before the horses came down to drink; but he did not express himself very clearly.

Shortly after the sentry had taken up his beat a string of horses, headed by a gorgeous being in a scarlet uniform, appeared, making for the pond.

"Hullo! you there, where are you going?" shouted the sentry.

"Going?" repeated the gorgeous being, superciliously. "Why, to water my horses, you stupid fool."

"No you don't," said the sentry; "no one waters here till the Guides have finished with it."

The gorgeous person nearly fell off his horse with astonishment, and when he found speech he replied: "Cease prattling, son of an impure mother! These are the Great Lord's horses, and can of course water where and when they choose."

"I don't care a quarter of an anna whose horses they are, but they don't water here. So, out of this, you mis-begotten son of a red-coated ape, or I'll give you something to help you along." And the sentry quietly pulled out a cartridge, and began leisurely fitting it into the breech of his carbine.

This was not at all to the red-coated gentleman's liking. To trot behind his Lord, richly caparisoned and splendidly mounted, was one thing; but to meet an infernal fellow who deliberately fitted a cartridge into his carbine to defend his post, was a matter not lightly to be undertaken. Accordingly he galloped off to fetch his native officer. When this officer arrived he was much enraged, and roundly abused the sentry, calling him every name under the sun, and casting the gravest reflections on the whole of his ancestors, especially on the female side.

But the sentry stood like a block of wood, and when the other had finished answered: "I don't know who you are, and don't care; and for the present you may talk as much as you like, though when I am at liberty I also shall have a few words to say. But I am sentry here on this pond, and my orders are such and such, and I mean to obey them. The first man who tries to force me I hit with a bullet."

"Was there ever such a person?" said the native officer. "He must be mad! And the Great Lord's horses too! God preserve him; he will certainly be hanged, or sent across the Black Water for life."

So he too rode off to fetch his sahib; and shortly a trail of dust on the road showed that he was returning, and not leisurely. The officer was hot, indignant, and vexed, and said to the sentry: "By my order you will allow the Viceroy's horses to water at this pond."

"With every respect," replied the sentry, "my own Sahib has given me other orders, and I mean to obey him."

And nothing the officer could say, and he said a good deal, could move the sentry one hair'sbreadth from that resolve. So he, in his turn, rode off to fetch the last court of appeal, the Military Secretary, Lord William Beresford.

As all who knew him will remember, his Lordship was very short and sharp when anything occurred that in the least infringed the dignity of the Viceroy, or of anything belonging to that exalted personage; and probably few would have cared to be in the shoes of that sentry during the next few minutes. But the sentry was sublimely oblivious of the existence of so high an official as a Military Secretary, and only dimly aware of the existence of a Great Lord. On the other hand his own Colonel Sahib and his own sahibs, with whom he had fought and bled, were real live people, whom he knew quite well and whose word was law unto him. The Military Secretary, therefore, being evidently an older and more worthy sahib than the last, was received with even more respect; but as to allowing the horses to water, the sentry was adamant on that point. "I obey my Colonel's orders," said he, "and no one else's." Lord William, though greatly vexed, as perhaps was only natural, was too good a soldier to force a sentry, and rode off therefore to the Guides' camp to lay the matter before the commanding officer. The rest was naturally all cordiality and good feeling, and an invitation to lunch; while the Guides' subaltern galloped off and cut the Gordian knot.

Scarcely had Lumsden parted from his beloved corps, when they again took the field, in the small but bloody Umbeyla campaign of 1863. The opening incident was in what was coming to be honourably looked upon as thoroughly Guides' fashion. Two troops of the cavalry and two companies of the infantry of this corps, under Jenkins, were encamped at Topi, blockading the Gaduns and Hindustani fanatics preparatory to the advance of the field-force. One night a patrol of three men, under Duffadar Fakira, suddenly encountered a body of about three hundred of the enemy, on their way to surprise and capture the camp of the Guides. Without a moment's hesitation, and with highly commendable presence of mind, the duffadar began shouting "Fall in! fall in!" as if addressing countless legions; and then wheeling his three men into line, and each man yelling like a dozen fiends, fell with fury on the advancing enemy. The effect was magical, the enemy thinking that they had been betrayed, or forestalled, or had perchance fallen into an ambush, and that opposed to them was the whole strength of the Guides. In the darkness a panic set in, and the whole force broke and fled, their redoubted and sainted leader, the Mullah Abdullah, showing the way.

In the fierce and frequent fighting which week after week, raged round the celebrated Crag picquet, the Guides took their part. This picquet stood at the top of an abrupt and precipitous rock, accessible from our side only by a narrow rocky path, while towards the enemy the ground sloped away to further hills. The weakness of the picquet, therefore, lay not only in its openness to determined attack, in days of short-range weapons and hand-to-hand fighting, but also in the difficulty experienced in quickly reinforcing it. Once taken, not only the neighbouring post, known as the Monastery picquet, but the whole camp lay under its commanding fire.

The first occasion on which the Crag was seriously attacked was before dawn on the 30th of October, when the picquet was rushed, and the twelve men of the 1st Punjab Infantry who held it were swept from the crest, but like limpets bravely clung to the near slopes. In support, close below, lay Major Keyes (afterward General, and Commandant of the Guides) with the remainder of the 1st Punjab Infantry and a company of the Guides. Owing to the rocky and difficult ascent it was impossible to do much till daylight, but with the first streak of dawn, valuably aided by the flank fire of Major Brownlow (later General) and the 20th Punjab Infantry, Keyes himself at the head of the storming party most gallantly recaptured the Crag picquet at the point of the bayonet. As illustrating the severity of this hand-to-hand fighting, it may be mentioned that the enemy left sixty dead or dying, mostly Hindustani fanatics, in and round the picquet, while our own losses amounted to fifty-five.

In this gallant assault the company of the Guides bore their share, and four of them are mentioned as having been amongst the first into the recaptured position. The next serious assault took place on November the 12th, but after severe fighting was beaten off by Major Brownlow and the 20th Punjab Infantry, again supported by two companies of the Guides. A native officer of the Guides was specially mentioned on this occasion for carrying ammunition at great personal risk up to the besieged picquet. It was estimated that two thousand of the enemy took part in this assault.

The third assault on this historic picquet was made by the undaunted tribesmen on November the 13th, when it was held by the 1st Punjab Infantry; and so determined and strongly supported was the attack that not only was the picquet, now one hundred and twenty strong, driven off the hill, but something like a panic spread amongst the followers in camp, much disturbing the dispositions made for recapturing the Crag. The first attempt to stem the tide was made by detachments of the Guides and 1st Punjab Infantry, but these were not strong enough to retake the picquet, and could barely hold their own. Then came to the rescue Major C.C.G. Ross with detachments of the Guides, 1st Punjab Infantry, and 14th Native Infantry, which, charging up, got close to the crest, but were not strong enough to drive out the swarms of determined warriors grimly holding the vantage ground.

The matter had now reached a serious point, at once apparent to Sir Neville Chamberlain; for the possession of the Crag picquet by the enemy made untenable the whole British position. He therefore immediately ordered to the assault the 101st Royal Bengal Fusiliers (Now the Royal Munster Fusiliers). This gallant regiment aided by three companies of the Guides, and the line swelled by Major Ross's mixed detachments, without a check stormed and captured the position with the bayonet. The enemy lost two hundred and thirty men in this gallant attempt, while our own casualties reached one hundred and fifty-eight.

The final attempt came on the afternoon of November the 20th. The post was then garrisoned by one hundred bayonets of the 101st Royal Bengal Fusiliers and one hundred bayonets of the 20th Punjab Infantry. Again so determined was the attack, and made in such strength, that the British garrison was swept from the hill with considerable loss. The position of affairs was now so critical that Sir Neville Chamberlain himself determined to lead the columns detailed to assault and retake the picquet. In this fine advance the 71st Highland Light Infantry, supported by the Guides, made the frontal attack, and so impetuous was their charge that the summit was reached and the enemy driven from it with little loss. Our total casualties in the affair, however, reached one hundred and fifty-three, while the estimated loss of the enemy was three hundred and twenty.

Such was the history of the Crag picquet, four times fiercely attacked with overwhelming numbers by a brave and fanatical foe, thrice captured, and thrice by sterling grit and stout endeavour bravely recaptured. Of a surety this bloody site has earned the title given it by all the countryside. It is called the Kutlgar, or the Place of Slaughter, for of friend and foe well nigh a thousand warriors had shed their blood to keep or take that barren rock.

Eight of the Guides received the Indian soldiers' highest reward for conspicuous gallantry in the field during these strenuous assaults and counter assaults.

Though this was no cavalry country, as may readily be judged, several troops of the Guides' cavalry, together with the 11th Bengal Cavalry, did useful service on more than one occasion, under the gallant leadership of Colonel Dighton Probyn,[17] one of the brilliant band of cavalry soldiers who had earned undying fame in the great Mutiny. It is perhaps the memory of those old days of dangers and troubles passed through together, that keeps alive the kindly feeling which leads Sir Dighton Probyn to write a few words of brave encouragement when his old comrades of the Guides take their share of such fighting as still, from time to time, falls to their lot. On their side the Guides look on him, along with Lumsden and Jenkins and other old heroes, as one of their own sahibs.

The element of secrecy is absolutely essential to a successful surprise. This is a military truism all the world over, but applies with special force amongst the Pathan tribes on the North-West Frontier of India, as indeed it did amongst the Boers, and for probably a very similar reason. They were not always professional spies whom the Boers employed; nor is it always a Pathan spy who is on the spot. But both peoples without having any highly organised system have been exceedingly fortunate in the manner in which information of impending movements has somehow got reported in the nick of time in the most interesting quarter.

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


Due south from Mardan, and distant, as the crow flies, some thirty-five to forty miles, lies the village of Paia, which for high crimes and misdemeanours, including murder, rapine, and arson, it was considered necessary to punish. Now punishment in the days of Cavignari not unusually meant waking up some fine morning to find that before breakfast it was either necessary to meet the Guides in a pitched battle, or to submit quietly to the demands of Government, and expiate the crimes committed. The difficulty, from our point of view, was to place the troops in the desired position, at the desired moment, without previously informing the enemy of the proposal. Failing this, either an ambush would be prepared into which the troops might fall, thus reversing the tables; or the whole village, men, women, and children, flocks and herds, and all the chickens that could be caught on short notice, would migrate bodily for a few days, till the storm was overpast. Then they would quietly return and cheerfully resume the uneven tenor of their ways.

Now Paia was inhabited by Jowaki Afridis, and he that findeth an Afridi asleep, when he ought to be awake, is either a very astute or a very fortunate person. Cavignari was a very astute person and a match for the most wakeful Afridi. For instance, the British troops that lay nearest to Paia were those in garrison at Nowshera, and these, therefore, were the most obvious ones to use. Being the most obvious, it was at once decided that they were not the troops to use. Therefore Cavignari refrained from touching the Nowshera garrison, and called on the Guides, who were sixteen miles further away, and watching quite another frontier, to undertake the business.

But here again a difficulty arose; the Guides on their way would have to pass through Nowshera, and as that place was doubtless full of spies, no better result could be hoped for than by using a Nowshera regiment direct. And there was yet another difficulty: it was the middle of the hot weather and a great many of the British officers of the Guides, including the Commanding Officer, were away on leave; to recall them was to make the ears prick up of every person, with a guilty conscience, within a fifty mile radius.

But after all, military difficulties are possibly only introduced by a beneficent Providence lest warlike operations should become too easy; at any rate these were in due course overcome, though it required considerable ingenuity to do so. In the first place the Guides were marched off, without a notion what they were required for, or whither they were going. All they knew was that they were plodding along the Nowshera road on a very hot evening in August. When well on their way, like a man-of-war at sea they opened their sealed orders, and learnt that in the vicinity of Nowshera they would find a fleet of boats on the Kabul River. Embarking on these they were to drop down that river, now in flood, to its confluence with the Indus at Attock. Here the flotilla was to be concealed while one or two intelligent men were sent ashore to a place of tryst, whither Major R.B. Campbell, the Commanding Officer, and the other officers on leave, had been ordered to arrive by a certain hour. Then, complete in officers, the flotilla was to slip anchor again and drop down the roaring flood of the Indus for another twenty-eight miles to Shadipore, the local Gretna Green, to judge from its name. It speaks highly for the skill with which the operation was planned, and the exactitude with which it was executed, to record that it was carried out without a hitch. The Guides by a seventy-eight mile circuit now found themselves south-east, instead of north, of the objective, and the enemy were consequently taken from a totally unexpected quarter.

Another of Cavignari's coups may perhaps be given as illustrating not only his policy of smiting hard, instead of palavering, but also the necessity for strict secrecy. In 1878 when the Swat River Canal, which has turned the desert plain of Yusufzai into one great wheat-field, was under construction, the more pestilential class of mullah, always on the look-out for a cause to inflame Mahomedan fanaticism against the English unbeliever, stirred up the tribesmen to interfere with the work. A raid was consequently made by them, and a lot of harmless coolies murdered. The village of Sapri, just across the border, was chiefly implicated in this outrage, and Cavignari immediately demanded the surrender of the murderers, as well as a heavy fine in money wherewith to pension the families of the victims. Secure in their fastness the men of Sapri sent replies, varying from the evasive to the impertinent.

Cavignari said nothing more, but secretly warned the Guides, who lay forty-three miles away, to be ready to act. So carefully was the news kept that a movement was on foot, that some of the officers were playing racquets up to the last moment, and were called from the court to march at once. Captain Wigram Battye was in command, and took with him the Guides' cavalry and a detachment of Guides' infantry mounted on mules. Marching all night, the force arrived three miles beyond Abazai and within eight miles of its objective, when it was found impossible, owing to the difficult nature of the country, to proceed further on horseback. All the horses were consequently sent back to Fort Abazai, and the dismounted cavalry and infantry went on in the darkness over a most stony precipitous country. By strenuous effort the village of Sapri was reached and surrounded by daybreak. The villagers immediately rushed to arms and prepared for a desperate resistance, but the Guides were not to be denied; they carried the place, killing many and capturing the ringleaders, and nine others of those implicated in the murders. Our own losses were eight men wounded; while two received the Order of Merit for conspicuous bravery in action.

Such were a few of the adventures of the Guides during the twenty years which elapsed between the Mutiny and the Afghan War.