H. B. (Henry Bathurst) Hanna.

The second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) online

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or spurs, running parallel to the ravine, on all of which it would have
been necessary to place troops ; but such is almost always the case
in mountain warfare, and however difficult the duty of securing the
flanks of a force may be, it must be done before troops, especially if
encumbered with a convoy, should be permitted to enter any narrow

To the non-performance of this duty was due the destruction of
the Italian army by the Abyssinians a few years ago, and the fatal
consequences of its neglect were shown, on a smaller scale, during
General Sale's retreat to Jellalabad, in October 1841. That officer
did, indeed, picket the heights overlooking the defile between Jagda-
lak and the river Surkliab; but, that done, he and his main body
marched on, leaving the posts and rear-guard to withstand the
whole force of the enemy, now concentrated at the exit of the pass.
The pickets, finding themselves unsupported, soon fell back on the
rear-guard, which, seized with panic, rushed bhndly forward, while


the Ghilzais fired into the fugitives from above, and pressed them
in rear. " During this scene of terror all who fell wounded were
abandoned, the enemy, as they came up, falling upon them in heaps
like hounds on a fox." ^ In the Manjiar Defile it may have been im-
possible, owing to lateral ravines, to move flanking parties along the
cliffs overlooking it ; but there was no reason why pickets, protected
by sangars, should not have been established on those cliffs at con-
venient points, such pickets eventually falling back on the rear-
guard ; and the main body should have held the lower end of the
pass until the baggage and rear-guard were clear of the hills.^

1 The Career of Major Broadjoot, C.B., by his son, Major W. Broadfoot,
R.E.,p. 36 That the disaster was not greater was largelj' due to the courage
and skill of that officer, who was afterwards the moving spirit in the defence
of Jellalabad.— H. B. H.

^ Lord Roberts, in Forty-One Years in India, vol. ii. p. 153, thus describes
the passage of the Manjiar Defile : — "It was important to secure the exit from
this gorge without delay, and for this pm-pose I pashed on four companies of
the 23rd Pioneers, and, in support, when the ravine began to widen out a little,
T hurried on the Highlanders and the Moimtain Battery, leaving the Gurkhas
to protect the baggage and bring up the rear. We only got possession of the
exit just in time. The Pioneers, by occupying commanding positions on either
Bide of the opening, effectually checkmated several large bodies of armed men
who were approaching from different directions, and whose leaders now declared
they had only come to help us ! Later on, we discovered still more formidable
gatherings, which, doubtless, would all have combined to attack us had they
been able to catch us in the ravine." But General Roberts, in his despatch of the
18th December, 1878, says not a word about seizing the exit of the defile, and omits
all reference to the Pioneers and Highlanders in connexion with the action ;
while the evidence of the witnesses present establishes, beyond all dispute, the
fact that he and the main body marched straight away to the new encamping
ground, leaving the rear-guard unsupported, and that it was not until the
middle of the afternoon, when news reached the camp of the perilous position
of the Giirkhas, that re-inforcements of Highlanders and Pioneers were hastily
prepared and sent to the rescue of that gallant reguuent, which meanwhile
had succeeded in extricating itself from its difficulties.

To re-write despatches, after a lapse of nearly twenty years, is a dangerous
thing. Memory is not always trustworthy ; and moved by the desire to meet or
- to forestall criticism, a man is apt to write not what he did, but what he now
sees he ought to have done. — H. B. H.


Occupation of the Khojak Pass

At dawn on the 21st November, just when Sir S. Browne's Division
was starting from Jamrud, and Roberts's troops were crossing the
Kuram River, a portion of the Force which Major-General Biddulph had
succeeded in echelonning along the Quetta-Pishin road, issued from
Kuchlak under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel H. Fellowes, passed
the Anglo- Afghan frontier into the wilderness of sandhills lying on
its further side, and, after an unopposed but heavy march of eight
miles, pitched its camp near the village of Haramzai on the Kakar
River where, on the morrow, it was joined by the General with the
remainder of the Infantry. The advance, however, was merely a
nominal one, intended to satisfy Lord Lytton's dramatic instinct,
by carrying out, to the letter, his programme of a threefold invasion
of Afghanistan, on one and the same day ; for the Cavalry which had
been sent back to Mustang in search of grass had to rejoin, and supplies
of food, forage and fuel to be procured before any serious forward
movement could be begun. The small reserve of those necessaries
of existence with which Biddulph had entered Quetta had soon run
out — all the sooner, because, in the first instance, he had with him
not a single Commissariat Officer to check waste by organizing a
proper system of distribution ; and when the Principal Commissariat
Officer did appear on the scene, being without assistants, subordinates
and clerical staff, he could do but little to mend matters. For-
tunately, the Governor-General's Agent in Beluchistan — Major R.


Sandeman — whose activity in collecting supplies has already been
mentioned 1 — was able to furnish the reinforcements with seven
days' rations and two days' fuel ; and the foraging parties that scoured
the country in all directions, accompanied by officers acquainted
\vith the language of the inhabitants, succeeded in purchasing, at
exorbitant rates, sufficient grain and bousa (chopped straw) to save
the Cavalry and Artillery horses from actual starvation.^ But as
no price, however high, could induce the people to part with their own
winter-stores, and as General Biddulph was too wise and too humane
a man to sanction their being deprived of them by force, the troops
that were hurried forward into Afghanistan, would have been in evil
case if Sandeman had not again come to their assistance by stacking
at Kuchlak, out of his Quetta magazine, just sufficient supplies to
meet their more pressing needs till the provision convoys from India
should begin to arrive — a very considerable interval, as the first of
these convoys came up the Bolan in the wake of Stewart's Division.
On the 25th November, the British camp was shifted to the further
side of the Kakar River, and, on the 27th, the whole force crossed the
Anjeran range of hills into Pishin. A more desolate spot for a winter
sojourn can scarcely be conceived than this upland valley. Of con-
siderable extent — thirty miles broad by sixty long — its treeless sur-
face is intersected in all directions by formidable gullies. Down
these, when the snows melt in the encircling hills, raging torrents
rush along to swell the Kakar Lora River, chafing against its high
restraining banks ; but, at all other seasons of the year, main streams
and tributaries are alike empty of water, save for a few standing pools
all more or less impregnated with medicinal salts. Irrigation being

1 Vol. i. p. 316.

^ " In 1839 the Cavalry and Artillery horses belonging to Keane's Army
had no grain for twenty-seven days, and were in such a state of weakness
on arriving at Kandahar that not a single troop was fit for detached duty."
(The March of the Indus Army, by Major Hough.)


thus nearly everywhere impracticable, and the rainfall light, but
few of the inhabitants are cultivators of the soil, and the traders
and shepherds who resort thither in the summer-time disappear
before the icy winds which blast all vegetation and make life almost
impossible for man, and quite impossible for his herds and flocks.
How deadly their breath, the British invaders learnt to know, when,
day after day, scores of famished camels were found of a morning
dead, frozen fast to the ground on which they had sunk down the
previous evening.

The site of the new camp was close to the village of Haikalzai,
a spot of much historic interest, since on the hills overlooking it could
be discerned the sangars, still in a fair state of preservation, which,
in the year 1840, the Afghans defended so stubbornly against General
England that that Commander fell back upon Quetta, and refused
to renew the attack, though well aware that the ammunition and
treasure he was escorting, were urgently needed by General Nott at
Kandahar.^ Here, on the 28th of November, Biddulph made over the
command of the Division to Colonel H. de R. Pigott, the senior officer
present at the time, and joined Clay's column which, so far, had
been covering the right flank of the main body. With this he pro-
ceeded to reconnoitre towards the territory of the Kakars, lying
some thirty miles to the east of Haikalzai, with the object, as he has
himself stated, of "making our presence felt on the Kakar border,
of examining the passes leading towards Sibi and to the historic
Thal-Chotiali route, and at the same time of defining the limits of
the plains of the province along the east and north-east."

The movements of the column were kept within the limits of the
Afghan province of Pishin, whose inhabitants, even in the more remote

1 During the halt of Biddulph's Division at Haikalzai, the scene of this
action was a favourite resort of officers and men. It was easy to trace the
broken track by which the gallant Apthorpe advanced to the attack, in which
be fell, and a hundred of his men were killed or wounded. — H. B. H.


districts, gave the troops a more friendly welcome than had been
anticipated. Nowhere was their march impeded, and the only baggage
plundered had been left all night unguarded among the hills, and
may well have appeared to the inhabitants legitimate treasure- trove.
Its owners, however, took a different view of its character, and as
the two villages implicated in the theft failed, after notice given, to
restore the stolen property, their cattle were driven in and sold to
adjust the loss. The fort of Khushdil Khan-Ka-Killa, 40 miles north
of Quetta, which appeared to General Biddulph a point of sufficient
strategic importance to warrant its being put in repair, and gar-
risoned by a company of native troops, was, a few months later,
to be the point of assembly for his Division on its return march
to India.

f Wliilst this expedition which occupied a week, was in progress,
Major H. B. Hanna and Captain C. A. de N. Lucas, with fifty sabres
3rd Sind Horse, reconnoitred the Khojak Pass, and Colonel T. G.
Kennedy, with the 2nd Punjab Cavalry, the Rogani and Gwaja
Passes, with a view to determining the best route, or routes, for
the impending advance on Kandahar. The first of these recon-
noitring parties rode one afternoon across the valley to Arambi-
Karez, fifteen miles north-west of Haikalzai, where the Political
Agent had pitched his tents; and the following morning, accom-
panied by Sandeman and some of his Baluchi chiefs, it entered
the long defile at the lower end of the Khojak Pass, exchanging,
in a moment, warmth and sunshine for darkness and cold. Not a
ray of light fell across the path, which lay in the bed of a rapid
brook, shut in by towering cliffs devoid of all vegetation, save where
a weather-beaten olive, with spectral foliage and gnarled and twisted
trunk, grew out of some narrow cleft. Now and again, a pair of
magpies flew from among the rocks, and alighted on a boulder a few
hundred feet ahead of the column, but no other living creature wag
to be seen, and the rush of the water and the crunching of the shingle


under the horses' hoofs were the only sounds. As, however, any
number of Afghans might be lurking near, the advance was made
with great caution, and, at every mile or so, on some projecting crag,
a couple of videttes took up a position whence to watch the defile
and give notice to the reconnoitrers of the approach of an enemy
from the rear, or down some side ravine.

After a five or six miles' ride, the party, now considerably reduced
in numbers, emerged from the defile, and saw before them the rugged
hillside up which the track rose steeply to the summit of the Khojak
Pass, seven thousand three hundred and eighty feet above sea-level.
Dismounting and leaving their escort and horses in the bed of the
stream which here widens out sufficiently to form a good camping-
ground, the three officers and their native companions chmbed to
the kotal and looked down over the vast, treeless waste broken, here
and there, by fantastic-shaped hiUs of marvellous hues, their jagged
outlines standing out sharply against the cloudless sky, which con-
stitutes the major portion of the Province of Kandahar. Looked
at from above, that wide plain seemed to the beholders as lifeless
as the mountains among which they stood, for the few hamlets scat-
tered over its surface, were too small to be distinguishable, and one
of those weird ranges hid the embattled walls of the city of Kandahar
from view.

Turning from the contemplation of this strangely varied and
beautiful desert — for desert it may be termed, since its intermittent
rivers and scanty rainfall can endow it with but brief and fitful life —
the English officers carefully examined the reverse side of the pass,
and convinced themselves that, with time and labour, the long aban-
doned track could be fitted for the use of the troops, baggage and
guns, but not for that of a siege-train. Luckily, however, Colonel
Kennedy's reconnaissances showed that, although the Rogani Pass
could only be used by Infantry and dismounted Cavalry, the Gwaja
Pass, owing to its easier gradients, would admit of the passage of



the heavy cannon which were coming up with General Stewart, and
in expectation of which Biddulph's men ha4 been busily at work
improving the road from Quctta into the Pishin Valley, via the Ghaza-

band Pass. , -j u i ,.>

Wlien the reports of the three reconnaissances were laid before
General Biddulph on his return to camp, he liad no hesitation m
deciding that the advance of his Division should be made by the
Khoiak as the most direct and best watered road to Kandahar, and
he at once hurried forward » strong detachment to occupy the pass.
On the resumption of the advance, on the 12th of December, thejorce was
somewhat better off in the matter of superior officers than had hitherto
been the case, for Brigadier-General C. H. PaUiser. C.B.. command-
ing the Cavalry, and the two Infantry Brigade Commanders, B.
Jcy and T. NuttaU. had arrived in camp during Biddulph s absence,
and though each was without his proper Staii, they had been able
to do something towards putting the organization of their respective
Brigades on a proper footing. . ,. j „

On the 12th of December, Biddulph took up a new position at AbduUa
Khan.ka.Killa, a well watered spot about three miles from the mouth
of the Khoiak Defile; Clay's column, which he had left at Khushdd
Khan-Ka-Killa,' covering his right flank, whilst at Gulistan Karez
on his left, General PaUiser watehed the outlets of the Gwaja and
Kogani Passes. Thus protected, the 5th and 9th Companies of Bengal
Sappers and Miners, the 32nd Pioneers, the 26th Punjab Infantry
and a gang of Ghikai labourers, set to work to restore the nearly
obUterated path on both sides of the pass, and, notwithstanding a
heavy taU of snow and the extensive blasting operations rendered
necessary by the hardness of the rock, on the Uth, ^je Engineers
were able to report that, though impracticable for the Field Battery,
the road could safely be used for the passage of the Mountain Guns,

1 At this place Colonel Clay d«ooverea and seixed a large quantity
o, bariey and corn belonging to the Amir-a great wiad.all tor the troops.


Cavalry and loaded transport. The following day, Colonel Kennedy,
with two Mountain Guns, the 2nd Punjab Cavalry and the 26th Pun-
jab Infantry, crossed the Pass, and occupied Chaman on the western
side of the Khwaja Amran Mountains, pushing out examining parties
well to his front and flanks.

General Biddulph, in consultation with his principal Engineer
and Artillery Officers, Colonels W. Hichens and C. B. Le Messurier,
now decided to form a ramp, or slide, on the further side of the pass,
and down this, on the 18th December, the guns were successfully low-
ered by the ropes which Captain W. G. Nicholson's foresight had
provided; ^ but as the shde was, at best, but a temporary expedient, and
provision would ultimately have to be made for the passage of wheeled
carriage, the Commanding Engineer was directed to select a good
aUgnment for a new road ; and when a thirteen-foot track, with a
maximum gradient of 1' in 10', had been properly traced, Lieuten-
ant H. L. Wells, R.E., came up from Quetta with a gang of Ghilzai
labourers, to complete the work.^

The lowering of the guns down the ramp, and the initiation
of the permanent roadway which was to supersede it, were the last
acts of General Biddulph's independent command, for General Stewart
had now arrived at Quetta, and assumed supreme control of all the
British Forces in Southern Afghanistan.


Though the reconnaissance of the Kakar country doubtless added
to our geographical knowledge of Afghanistan, it was not demanded
by the circumstances of the moment, and it had the worst possible
effect on the neighbouring tribes, rousing in their minds well founded

1 Vol. i. p. 302.

2 General Biddulph had the satisfaction of inspecting this road on his return
to India, in March 1879, and of seeing the first wheeled carriages — a train of
carts laden with telegraph material — safely cross the pass. — H. B. H.


suspicions of ulterior objects inimical to their independence ; and
if it had been an absolutely necessary operation, it was not one which
the General should have undertaken in person. The proper place
of a Commander moving in an enemy's country, especially if ignorant
of that enemy's whereabouts and intentions, is with his main body.
Not only was Biddulph quite in the dark as to whether the moun-
tains in his front were held by the enemy and as to hostile gatherings
beyond them, but his communications with Quetta were none of
the surest, and an enterprising foe might have cut them at any moment
by occupying the Gazaband Pass.


Concentration of the Kandahar Field Force in


The truth that the real difficulty and danger of the war lay, not in
the organized resistance which the Amir could offer to the British
advance, but in the extent and nature of the country to be traversed,
and in the character and habits of the tribes distributed over its vast
surface, was destined to be as fully realized by the troops belonging
to Stewart's Division as by those who, under Browne, Roberts and
Biddulph, had preceded them into Afghanistan. At Rohri, on the
left bank of the Indus, they had been delayed for a considerable time
by the scanty provision made for conveying them and their stores to
the ^opposite shore, and at Sukkur, on the right bank, by the unwilling-
ness of the Sind camel-owners to furnish the transport needed to en-
able them to take the next step towards their distant objective — Kanda-
har — an unwillingness only overcome by the Sind Government's solemn
promise that their animals should not be required to go beyond Dadar,
where hill-camels would be waiting to take their place. As the
reluctantly accorded supply came slowly in, the troops were moved
forward in small bodies, across a foetid swamp reeking with poisonous
emanations from millions of dead fish left behind by the subsiding
floods, to Jacobabad (forty-five miles) ; through a belt of jungle


interspersed with slimy pools, to Nusserabad (eleven miles) ; and
lastly through the horrible Kachi desert/ where dust storms often
obliterate the only track, and where the length of each day's march —
twenty-eight miles in one instance — is regulated by the wells and pools
of brackish, turbid water scattered, at irregular intervals, along its
course, to Dadar (one hundred and thirteen miles), that "hell upon
earth" already described in Chapter XVI., Vol. I.

Starting a month later than Biddulph's Force, they had less to
suffer from heat, but more from cold, the thermometer often falling
below freezing-point at night ; and though they had no single experi-
ence to be compared to the terrible march from Bandowali to Kabra-
dani, their trials were of longer duration and their daily fatigues
even greater, for, early and late,2 they were engaged in helping forward
the Heavy Guns, whose carriages and ammunition waggons were
perpetually sticking fast in swamps and pools, lying helpless at the
bottom of the deep nullahs with which the flat surface of the desert
is intersected, breaking through that desert's hard upper crust, known
locally as pat, and sinking up to their axles in the loose sand below. ^
So great were the delays thus occasioned, that rear-guards had hardly

1 " It," — the Kachi desert — " is, in the hotter and drier months, a plain of
arid sand, but is converted by the first heavy fall of rain into a salt marsh. The
whole of it is swept at periods by the fatal simoon ; it is pestilential amidst the
extreme heats of April and May ; not less so when its sands have been converted
into swamps by the rains of June, July, August and September, or when the
exhalations rise in dense vapour from it a month later." (Havelock's History of
the First Afghan War).

2 Asked by a comrade in the Infantry why his Battery — a heavy one — was
called 5-11, a gurmer promptly replied, "Why, to be sm'e, we march at five
o'clock in the morning, and don't get into camp till eleven at night."

"^ " The siege-train I have given up as hopeless for the next two montlis, but
if I can get on the two elephant batteries, I hope to be in a position to take
Ghazni as well as Khelat-i-Ghilzai before the spring. . . . Men and officers
have been employed in hauling guns through the sand, and the officers themselves
had to put their hands to the rope and pull. I must say all have shown the best
spirit." (Elmie's Life of Sir Donald Stewart, p. 233.)


arrived in camp before they were called upon to load iip again, and
resume their march. Over-work soon bore its natural fruits. Many
men went sick, and each day showed larger gaps in the ranks of the
camp-followers and transport-animals. The mortality among the
latter filled their drivers with angry alarm ; and when rumours reached
them that no hill-camels had been collected at Dadar, and they began
to understand that they and their exhausted and over-laden beasts
would have to go on through the pass, in which, just forty years
earlier, so many of their fathers had perished, they took every oppor-
tunity of steaUng away from the line of march by day, or from the
camping- grounds at night ; and their desertions meant not only the
loss of valuable baggage and stores, but a serious addition to the
labours and responsibilities of the troops, who dared not lose sight of
their transport, lest man and beast should vanish in the trackless desert.
On arriving at Dadar, it proved only too true that the Baluchi
chiefs, still uncertain whether they would, or would not, throw in their
lot with the British Government, had failed to keep their promise
to provide camels of hardier breed ; and, notwithstanding the despair-
ing protests of their owners, the remnant of the twenty thousand Sind
camels, together with many thousands brought from the Punjab,
were ordered to proceed to Pisliin. The step, inevitable under the
circumstances, had serious consequences apart from the discredit
which it brought upon British honour.^ All the arrangements for
keeping up a constant stream of supplies between India and the
Forces in Southern Afghanistan, had been based upon the expectation
that the plain-camels, after making over their loads to animals better
adapted than they to tread rough mountain-paths, and endure the

' " But of all the evils which beset the fair progress of the Expedition, there
is nothing to my mind, so disgraceful as the breach of good faith committed
with the camel- men. ... A native will stand by the Sirkar (Government)

Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bathurst) HannaThe second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) → online text (page 10 of 32)