H. B. (Henry Bathurst) Hanna.

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

. (page 23 of 32)
Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bathurst) HannaThe second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) → online text (page 23 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Wing 29th Baluchis—

to retrace his steps to Ata Karez, whilst he transferred his own Head-
quarters, the Peshawar Battery, the 10th Company of Sappers and
the Pontoon Train, to Palliser's column at Bala Khana. Lacy
executed a delicate duty with energy and discretion ; but his troops
soon swept the district lying round Ata Karez bare of food and
fodder, and, notwithstanding the exertions of his Purchasing Agents,
Major C. Sartorius and Captam J. E. Waller, who visited many dis-

^ See General Biddulph's Lecture, vol. 24, No. cvii. of the Journal of the
Royal United Service Institution.


tant villages in search of supplies, he had to fall back on Haus-i-
Madat Khan, where he put himself into communication with Kan-
dahar, by establishing a heliographic station on an isolated hUl near
his camp.

Even after the sacrifice of so large a part of its strength, it looked
as if the second Division would faU to reach the Helmand ; and only
by extending the operations of Colonel Moore's Purchasing Agents
to the right bank of the Argendab, could Biddulph obtain sufficient
food to carry his men through the last stage of their arduous journey.
On the 29th, he reconnoitred the Helmand, and determined the ulti-
mate disposition of his troops ; and the next day his Force, preceded
by an advanced guard under Colonel Kennedy, consisting of —

2nd Punjab Cavalry.

32nd Pioneers.

5th and 10th Company of Sappers and Miners —

moved slowly forward through an apparently illimitable desert,
stretching away westward to where, on the far horizon, a range of
hills, bare and stony as the plain from which they spring, could be
descried. Suddenly, at the men's very feet, lay a deep valley, two
to three miles broad, its fertile surface diversified with hamlets and
orchards ; Girishk, half hidden in jungle, on the further side ; and,
flowing under the cliffs on which they stood, the swift, clear stream
of the Helmand, winding among yellow sands, and giving the finishing
toucli to the beauty which, in countless centuries of ceaseless change
it had itself called into being, and then hidden from sight — for to step
back only a few paces, was to lose all hint of it and its surroundings.
That night, the troops, including Tanner's flanking party, slept
on the left bank of the river ; but by ten o'clock the next morning,
the Sappers, under the direction of Lieutenant L. F. Browne, R.E.,
had established a flying ferry across its channel. Mir Afzul, in his
flight from Kandahar, had destroyed all the boats on the river except
one, which the people of Abbazai saved by sinking it out of sight.


This and the pontoon raft,^ brought up by the 5th Company of Sappers,
sufficed for the conveyance of the Infantry, camp-followers and baggage
belonging to the Force with which Palliser was to occupy positions
on the further shore, the Cavalry and unladen camels crossing by
the ford, in small groups, each accompanied by two or three guides,
thanks to whose intimate knowledge of the stream, not a life was
lost, though the water in places was four feet in depth, the current
rapid, and the diagonal passage narrow and difficult to keep.^

Wlien all the dispositions previously determined on by the General
had been carried out, only the Divisional Headquarters, the Pesha-
war Mountain Battery, the Field Park and two hundred Baluchis
remained on the southern side of the Helmand, encamped on the
summit of the cliffs above Abbazai— the valley itself reeked with
malaria. Two companies of Sappers were employed m ferry opera-
tions on the right, and two companies of Pioneers on the left bank
of the channel, whilst the bulk of Palliser's troops occupied a position
on high ground above Girishk, which fort was garrisoned by small
detachments of Pioneers and Baluchis, under Colonel Tanner, and
gave shelter to the Commissariat depot and, in the first instance, to

1 A raft consists of two pontoon boats.

2 During the tiiiie the Force remained on the Hehnand only one man was
drowned, and he lost his hfe in attempting, in defiance of orders, to cross the
river without a guide. A dog belonging to the author frequently crossed the
river at night to visit the only other canine member of the expedition, visits
which were never returned. The following are the Helmand's principal fords : —

(a) Koji Bazak Ford, about three miles above Abbazai, bottom stony,
passage difficult.

(6) Abbazai Ford. Very fair bottom ; water about 3| feet deep in dry weather.

(c) A Ford about 700 yards below b and similar in character. Above Abbazai
the river divides into two branches, which reunite three-quarters of a mile lower
down, thus forming a long island between 300 and 400 feet wide, covered with
brushwood and small jungle. Fords 6 and c cross the two channels on either
side this island.

(d) Ford Malger, 5 miles below Abbazai and of the same nature as b and
c, minus the island.

(e and /) The two Fords at Killa-i-Bist, both very easy to cross. (H.B.H.)


the hospital ; but as every case of pneumonia — and there were many,
especially among the Pioneers — treated within its walls, ended fatally,
the sick were very soon removed into tents, pitched in a wide hollow,
where, sheltered from the keen winds, they rapidly recovered.^

Hardly, however, had the arrangements for a prolonged sojourn
on the Helmand been completed, than all illusions as to the value of
its valley, as a source of supply, were roughl}^ dispelled. Both up
and down stream, the stocks of grain and bliousa, within anything
like easy reach of Girishk, were quickly exhausted, and the foraging
parties and Purchasing Agents had to go ever further and further
afield. Wlien one of these latter had been murdered by the Alizais
of the Zemandawar, a district twenty-five miles from the British
camp, and it had become impossible for the transport camels and
the horses of their escort to go and return in a single day, — Palliser
reported that some other system of collecting supplies would have
to be devised, and Biddulph was driven to the dangerous expedient
of scattering his cavalry over the country, leaving each detachment to
forage for itself. How dangerous that expedient was, no one knew
better than the General, whose thoughts were continually occupied
with the problem of how to keep on good terms with tribes whom
he saw himself compelled to strip of the very necessaries of life, and
who was well aware that the discontent provoked by his exactions
— pay as he might for the stores taken — was growing daily deeper
and more widespread. That he adopted it, is the best proof of
the straits to which he had been reduced within ten days of his
arrival at Girishk.^ He continued, nevertheless, to believe that his

^ Girishk, as a fort, is quite useless, as, being commanded by the opposite
bank, it would be untenable under the fire of modern artillery. Forty years
before Biddulph occupied it, Major J. Woodburn, one of Nott's most trusted
officers, had recommended that it should be blown up. (H.B.H.)

^ The troops were generally short of tea, sugar and vegetables. Scurvy
was showing itself, and there was no lime-juice in camp. The grain procured
locally was not unfrequently poisonous. At first, treachery was suspected,
but a searching inquiry bhowcd that datuia plant had been garnered with the


men were the advanced guard of a larger body that would march
triumphantly on Herat, and, in that belief, began preparations for
the building of a bridge over the river and for the improvement of
the ferry service ; constructed a good military road between the ferry
and the Helmand's northern bank — a work which called for the
bridging of three wide water-courses — and sent out towards Herat,
one reconnoitring party in the direction of Wasliir, sixty-two miles
from Abbazai, and another, for three marches, towards Farrah, both
of which brought back reports showing that, by either route, an
invading army would have to carry all its supplies, and was likely
to fare badly in the matter of water. He also took advantage of
the scattering of the cavalry to extend his knowledge of the country
through which he had advanced. An excellent traverse of the road
between Kandahar and Abbazai had already been made by Captain
Beavon ; now, the whole of the Argendab-Helmand Doab ^ was
thoroughly surveyed ; and Biddulph himself, escorted by the Peshawar
Battery and the Baluchi Infantry, visited Killa-i-Bist and the point,
some miles below that ancient city, where the two rivers meet. From
this interesting excursion he was recalled by news that the Alizais and
other tribes were about to deliver simultaneous attacks on the British
camps at Abbazai and Girishk.^ A forced march of forty miles

corn, and this, though eaten with impunity by the people of the country, was
hurtful to the troops, seventy of whom, from this cause, were under treatment
at one time. The symptoms were extreme giddiness, followed in some cases by
uiaconsciousness. No deaths occurred (H.B.H.)

^ Doab. Strip of country lying between two rivers.

^ " The Headquarters Camp commanded the passages (of the Hehnand),
nevertheless our situation was critical, divided as we were by such an obstacle
as lay between the two camps. Zemindawar, the country of the Alizais, a war-
like tribe, was only 25 miles distant. There were signs of excitement in that
quarter and a blow was threatened on both banks at the same time. Had an
attack been made, we should have been found weak in numbers, as the troops
were much occupied in distant expeditions ; reconnoitring and bringing in sup-
plies." See General Biddulph's Lecture, vol. 24, No. cvii. of the Journal of the
Royal United Service Institution.


brought him to the latter place m time to frustrate plans which, in
the dispersed state of his troops, might have proved successful ; and
a few days later — the 15th of February — he received the unexpected
order to withdraw his Force to Kandahar, preparatory to returning
to India by the Thai Chotiali route.

In view of the heat that would soon be setting in below the passes,
delay was to be deprecated ; but it was impossible to move without
supplies, and Biddulph had to wait till the 22nd of February for a convoy
from Killa-i-Bist, where he had established a Purchasing Agency,
and another from Kandahar, to ensure the safe arrival of which
large bodies of cavalry were sent out. On the 19th, whilst strong
reconnoitring parties watched the Zemandawar frontier to give timely
notice of any symptoms of hostile unrest on the part of its inhabit-
ants, Biddulph shifted his Headquarters back to the cliffs above
Abbazai, and, in the course of the three following days, withdrew
all the troops, sick and baggage from the right to the left bank of
the Helmand.

The retirement to AtaKarez, which began on the 23rd, via Kushk
i-Nakhud, was covered by a rear-guard under Colonel H. P. Malcolm-
son's command, consisting of two squadrons 3rd Sind Horse and
one company 29tli Baluchis — strength seven officers and four hundred
and six men, of whom two hundred and eighty-five were Cavalry.
Malcolmson's orders were to watch the up-stream fords for a day
and a night, and so to time his subsequent movements as to be always
one march in rear of the main body, which, by the recall of Lacy to
Kandahar, had lost the support it had hitherto enjoyed from the
presence of a British column at Haus-i-Madat Khan.

Ata Karez was reached, without incident, on the 26th ; but, after
dark, two men of the 3rd Sind Horse galloped into camp bringing a
message from Malcolmson, asking urgently for reinforcements both
of Cavalry and Infantry, as he was surrounded by a large body of
Tribesmen, and, though he had beaten off their attack, there was


every likelihood of its being renewed during the night. The messengers
were evidently very anxious, and there could be no doubt that the
rear-guard was in danger of being overwhelmed before help could
reach it, though Biddulph lost not a moment in despatching Lieutenant-
Colonel G.Nicholetts with a squadron of the 2nd Punjab Cavaky and
a wing of the 29th Baluchis — strength, two hundred and nmety-one
officers and men — to its assistance. Wlien, after a rapid march,
this little relief party arrived m the neighbourhood of Kushk-i-Nakhud,
there were no lights to indicate the presence of friend or foe, and the
stillness of the desert — that stillness which only they who have lived
in that land of rocks and stones, can realize — was unbroken by the
slightest movement of man or horse. For a moment Nicholetts thought
of sounding a bugle call to give Malcolmson notice that friends were
at hand ; but the reflection that the signal would be equally under-
stood by the enemy, and must destroy any chance, there might be,
of taking them by surprise m the morning, made him abandon the
idea. So, in drizzling rain, he and his men lay hidden till dawn,
silent and watchful, their minds full of doubt and anxiety ; for what
disaster might not the darkness conceal from them, and what would
be their own fate if those they came to succour, had already been
anniliilated ? Daybreak dissipated their fears. An early patrol
sent out by Nicholetts fell in with one of Malcolmson's ; and soon the
two forces were merged into one, and the former officer had heard
from the latter, the story of his narrow escape from destruction.

Malcolmson had marched into Kushk-i-Nakhud at noon the pre-
vious day, without the slightest suspicion that fifteen hundred Alizais
and other Tribesmen, who, on the 25th, had crossed the Helmand
by a ford far up-stream and, after a rapid march of thirty miles along
the foot of the hills to the north of the Kandahar road, had spent
the night in a ravine not far from Kushk-i-Nakliud — were, at that
very time gathering on the reverse slope of some high ground, a mile
and a half to the left front of the British position. Just as the officer


in command of the Sind Horse was holding an inspection of the men's
saddles, which, together with the bridles, were laid out on the ground —
vedettes galloped in to report that they had seen a large body of
men streaming over the adjacent ridge. The troopers coolly put their
accoutrements together, saddled their horses and mounted. With
equal steadiness, the Infantry fell in, and, in obedience to Malcolmson's
order, Colonel Tanner brought their right shoulders forward so that
their rifles might bear on the enemy's left. The Baluchis reserved
their fire till the assailants were within five hundred yards of their
ranks, and then poured into them such a storm of bullets that, to avoid
it, they edged off to their own right, with the evident intention of occu-
pying some huts and enclosed gardens. In doing this, they brought
themselves on to ground favourable to Cavalry, and Malcolmson
instantly wheeled his squadrons to the left, formed line and charged
into the enemy's centre. A determined attack met with an equally
determined resistance ; — the Cavalry rode through the heavy masses
opposed to them, sabring right and left ; the Tribesmen forced their
way through the Cavalry, hamstringing the horses as they pressed
forward. At last the Zemandawaris' stubborn valour gave wav before
the desperate courage of the Indian liorsemen, and, dividing into two
columns, they retreated, still fighting, towards the hills. Major W.
Rejmolds was sent in pursuit of the enemy's right wing ; Tanner,
with the bulk of the Infantry, followed up the left, driving them,
with heavy loss, into broken ground ; whilst Malcolmson, with a troop
of horse and a small detachment of Baluchis, tried to cut off a
third body that was making for a village not far from camp. A
deep, wide water-course intervened, and a false alarm that the right
of his position was threatened, reaching him as he pulled up on its
edge, he recalled his troops, and set all hands to work to strike the tents
and get the camp equipage, ammunition, treasure and stores into the
fort before dark. This done, he placed his men in an enclosure,
protected on three sides by a wall two and a half feet high, and all


through the night sent out patrols, none of which chanced to approach
the hollow where Nicholetts's party lay concealed.

In this sharp afifair, the Infantry had no casualties, but the Cavalry
had their second in command, Major William Reynolds, and four
men killed, and Colonel Malcolmson and twenty-three men wounded,
besides losing twenty-eight horses. Reynolds had been wounded
early in the action, but continued to lead his men, and fell in the pur-
suit. In his despatch, Malcolmson, whose own wound fortunately
was slight, brought the following officers' names to notice : —

Lieutenant-Colonel O. V. Tanner.
Captain J. P. Maitland.
Lieutenant H. C. Hogg.
Lieutenant F. D. N. Smith.
Lieutenant B. L. P. Reilly.
Surgeon C. E. E. Boroughs.

Praise of Boroughs' gallantry failed to save him from being re-
minded by the Deputy-Surgeon-General that a medical officer's place
was with the wounded, not in the fighting line ; an undeserved rebuke,
since, in this case, every man was needed to repulse the enemy, who,
led by^iiefs of distinction, displayed both military skill, and the
utmost coolness and contempt of death. The total number of their
killed probably exceeded two hundred — one hundred and sixty-three
bodies were counted in the open, amongst them that of Abu Bukker,
the Alizai chief who had murdered the Purchasing Agent's party a
week or two before. One of the three men taken prisoners, stated
that a hundred and twenty wounded had escaped, or been carried
off by their friends ; but the explanation of the fact that only these
three fell alive into Malcolmson's hands was an ugly one : whilst the
troops were in pursuit, the camp-followers broke loose ; and, as they
certainly mutilated the bodies of their dead foes in barbarous fashion,
there is strong reason to suspect that they murdered all whom they
found still living ; but as there were no outside witnesses of their
brutal deeds, the crime could not be brought home to them.


General Biddulph and his StafT rode into Kushk-i-Nakhud shortly
after the meeting of Malcolmson and Nicholetts, and after inspecting the
field of battle and visiting the wounded,returned, with the troops, to Ata
Karez. The next morning, just when all was ready for a start, camels
laden, Infantry fallen in. Cavalry thrown forward to examine the ground
to the front and flanks — an officer galloped up to announce that the
Tribesmen were rapidly advancing in numerous columns, with banners
displayed and flags flying. Apparently, the Zemandawaris defeated
by Malcolmson, had been reinforced, and were about to try their for-
tune a second time. Camels and baggage were hastily parked, with
strong guards told off to protect them ; the reserve ammunition
was placed at points convenient for the troops, who were drawn up in
line of contiguous columns ready to deploy, and then — another mes-
senger arrived, breathless, to explain that the dust-enveloped masses
of the enemy had resolved themselves into flocks of mountain sheep,
whose long tails, wagging in the air, had been changed into waving
banners by the mirage, so common in Afghanistan. The news was
received with shouts of laughter, mingled with some grumbling over
lost time and wasted energy, and tempered by a general feeling of dis-
appointment that, after all, the bulk of the troops were to see no
fighting ; then the quickly made preparations were as quickly un-
done, and the interrupted march resumed.

Two days later, March 1st, Biddulph's Division re-entered Kan-
dahar in a storm of sleet and rain. It had been absent exactly six
weeks; and thougli it had had the same Commissariat difficulties
to struggle with that had troubled Stewart's Force, in coping with
which the Cavalry horses were well-nigh worn out, yet, thanks to a
milder climate and an abundance of fuel all along the course of the
Helmand, it had suffered comparatively little in health, and there
were no heavy losses among its transport animals to deplore.



Observation I. Biddulph's expedition to Girishk was as barren of
results as Stewart's to Khelat-i-Ghilzai ; it failed even of the immediate
advantage expected of it, for the troops had to be mainly supported
by provision convoys sent out from Kandahar ; and, though the camels
improved in condition, the cavalry horses were worn out in the inces-
sant search for food. Its chief effect was to rouse the inhabitants
of the Zemandawar into active hostility, and to bring trouble on the
peaceable inliabitants of the Doab,^ whose villages were threatened
and, in some cases, plundered by the Tribesmen in revenge for their
defeat at Kushk-i-Nakhud, lack of carriage for a time rendering it
impossible to afiford them the protection to which they had a claim
at the hands of their ne^ rulers. All that was really gained would
have been attained, without these drawbacks, by sending the spare
camels to Ata Karez with a strong Cavalry and Infantry guard.

Observation II. The disposition of Biddulph's troops on the Hel-
mand was faulty in the extreme. In an enemy's country to divide
so small a force — fifteen hundred men with only four guns, its nearest
supports fifty miles aw^y — would have been unwise under any cir-
cumstances ; but to place the bulk of the troops on the further side
of a deep and rapid river, flowing through a vallej' so intersected by
water-courses as to be impassable by night, and to leave Headquarters,
the mountain guns, and the Engineer Park on the hither side, pro-
tected only by a few hundred men with a desert at their back — was

1 " The defeat of the Alizais on the 26th ultimo has had less effect than was
expected. Bands of Alizais and other vagabonds, religious and predatory,
collecting to the number of two thousand in the neighbourhood of Kandahar,
at a distance of thirty miles, are looting weak and threatening strong villages,
in the name of the Amir and Islam. The respectable inhabitants, including the
Barakzais, are inclined to assist in putting the vagabonds down, but nearly all
the means of carriage have been absorbed by the returning force, and none are
left for columns strong enough to restore order at any distance." — Telegram
from the Kandahar correspondent of the Times, dated 6th Marcli, 1879.



to expose the latter to serious risks. Yet, to have kept the whole force
together on the left bank of the stream, would have added enormously
to the labour and danger incurred in the collection of supplies, as the
resources from which they were drawn, lay on the right bank, and the
unsupported foraging parties would have been constantly liable to
attack and capture. It should never be forgotten that a commander's
first duty is to his troops, and that only exceptional circumstances —
circumstances in which some much higher interest than that of their
safety is involved — can justify him in exposing them to the possibility
of having to choose between starvation and annihilation at the hands
of the enemy. In the case under consideration, there were neither
political nor military reasons calling for the maintenance of a position
on the Helmand. There was no enemy to keep at baj^ no friendly
force to rescue or support, no rich province to hold for the sake of
its teeming supplies. Biddulph, therefore, when brought face to
face with two equally unwise courses, should have informed the Indian
Government that he had been given a task to which his troops and
his material resources were alike inadequate, and have asked either
to be placed in a position to perform it satisfactorily, or to be permitted
to return to Kandahar.

Observation III. In the retirement from the Helmand, wise caution
was shown in watching the fords till the troops were clear of the river,
but only Cavalry, unencumbered with baggage, should have been used
for that purpose, with orders to rejoin the main body the same evening ;
for the safety of a small force depends on keeping its units together,
and on making up for its deficiency in numbers by enhanced vigilance,
surprise being guarded against by night and day patrolling ; by sur-
rounding camps with strong outlying pickets, protected by sangars ;
l>y holding a certain proportion of the troops ever ready to fall in ;

Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bathurst) HannaThe second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) → online text (page 23 of 32)