H. B. (Henry Bathurst) Hanna.

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of the many opportunities for faUing unexpectedly on the invading
Force, afforded to them by the nature of the ground through
which the narrow, stony track threaded its difficult way. From the
first, the column was divided into four, afterwards, into three detach-
ments, and these, again, were separated by marches so long that each
body was completely isolated. Hazir Pir Ziarat was sixteen miles
from Ahmed-i-Shama ; yet the vanguard, numbering hardly eight
hundred men, lay two nights at the former viUage, awaiting the
arrival of the leading detachment of Cobbe's Brigade, which found it
impossible to accomphsh the march from the latter place in a single
day. Again, the same body, re-inforced only by a wing of the 5th
Punjab Infantry, the General and his Staff being with it, spent two
days and nights outside the Kuram Forts, two thousand regular Afghan
troops with twelve cannon, and an unknown number of warlike
tribesmen in its front, a river at its back, and, for the greater part of
the time, twelve miles of exceptionally difficult country between it
and its nearest support.


Preliminary Operations on the Peiwar Mountain

General Roberts's first act after crossing theKuram, was to inspect
the Forts; his second, to reconnoitre the enemy's position. Accom-
panied by two squadrons of the 12th Bengal Cavaky, he rode forward
twelve miles to a point near the village of Peiwar, from which, through
field-glasses, the Afghans could be observed retiring in the direction
of the Kotal, a col eight thousand six hundred feet above the level
of the sea, three thousand eight hundred and twenty above the Forts,
over which runs the road that connects the Kuram Valley with Kabul.
Turi spies reported that the movements of the retreating troops, con-
sisting of three infantry regiments, were much hampered by the
twelve field-guns they had with them. Later on this rumour took
a more definite form-the twelve gun-carriages had stuck in the
ravine at the foot of the Pass— and in this shape it was so frequently
and 80 positively repeated, that, in therad, General Roberts was fuUy
convinced of its truth, and based upon it the plan of attack which he
attempted to carry out two days later. At the moment, no advan-
tage could be taken of the supposed difficulties of the enemy, so the
reconnoitring party returned to camp to await the arrival of Cobbe's
and Thelwall's Brigades.^

' It was rather hard to retire, and one could see that Colonel H. Gough was
dying to make a dash at the enemy. But General Roberts wisely restrained
him, and after a good look, we returned to camp with the firm behef that the
guns would fall into our hands whenever we were prepared to take them.
(Timts Correspondent, November 29th, 1878.)



The 27th was a busy day for the sappers, who were set to work at
the Kuram Forts, improving gateways, re-roofing sheds, and generally
repairing the damage done by the Turies during the interval which
elapsed between the withdrawal of the Afghan and the arrival of the
British troops. Both the upper and the lower forts were in too ruinous
a condition to be rendered defensible, but a little labour adapted them
to the purpose for which they were required. The least dilapidated
buildings were set aside as hospitals and storehouses for surplus stores
of all kinds, and a small garrison, consisting of two guns F.A Royal
Horse ArtiUery, a squadron of the 10th Hussars, three guns G.3
Royal Artillery, the 7th Company Sappers and Miners, and the sick
and weakly men of all regiments were detailed for their protection.
With these exceptions, aU the troops under General Roberts's command
were to take part in the advance on the Peiwar Mountain, which had
been arranged for the foUowing day. In order to march lightly througli
the difficult hill-country in which the force was about to operate, the
already low scale of baggage, both for officers and men, was ordered
to be still further cut down ; only seven days' supplies were to
accompany the expedition, and commanding officers were directed to
dispense, as far as possible, with camp-foUowers ; even then, there
were neariy three thousand of these necessary evils, owing to the
number of dandies and doolies which, with severe fighting in pros-
pect, it was impossible to leave behind.

The troops were under arms by five o'clock, on the morning of the
28th, formed up in two columns :—

Left Column. Right Column.

Brigadier-General Cobbe, Brigadier-General Thelwall,

commanding. commanding.

Advanced Guard. Advanced Guard.

1 Squadron 12th Bengal Cavalry. 1 Squadron 12th Bengal Cavalry.

2 guns No. 1 Mountain Battery. 2 Guns No. 1 Mountain Battery.
4 Companies 5th Punjab Infantry. 4 Companies 5th Gurkhas.


Main Body

5th Punjab Infantry. 5th Gurkhas.

23rd Pioneers. 72 Highlanders.

29th Punjab Infantry. 2nd Punjab Infantry.

8th " King's." 2 Guns F.A.,Royal Horse Artillery

2 guns, F.A., Royal Horse Ax- on elephants,

tillery, on elephants.

It was bitterly cold, and so dark that some of the regiments had
hardly left their respective camping grounds before they became
entangled in a net-work of ravines and watercourses, in which they
wandered about, lost and bewildered, till the dawning of light enabled
them to discover the direction of the appointed rendezvous} By six
o'clock order had been restored, except that aU the four guns carried
on elephants, attached themselves to-Thelwall's Brigade with which
they remained during the day, and the two columns moved off parallel
to each other.^ As a whole, the force moved but slowly, for the
banks of numerous drainage lines had to be ramped before the guns
and baggage could pass over them, but the head of the left column
w.th which were the General and his Staff, pressed on in front and
reached Habib I^lla, fourteen miles from the Kuram Forts, soon after
10 a.m. Here, Roberts halted the Cavalry; but, deceived anew bv
fresh reports that the Afghans were retreating in disorder, he deter'-
mmed to push forward the Infantry in the hope of capturing the guns
which he believed to be within his grasp. Accordingly, as soon as

y' On the 28th November, at 3.30, the regiment (8th King's) paraded
Its tents bemg by this time struck and loaded on mules . . . We had a haM
day smarehmg before us, so the men were obliged to parade as lightly dothed as
possible. The morning was dark and bitterly cold, and for the best pa ' o
iZatTTl TTt ''°''' ^^^^^°^^^-^' - °- P-de or close to it I "
™et^:tt"^^^ ''' '' ^^^"" - ^' ^- ^ ^^^-on,8th, the

' '• The stars were still shining when we started, but it was very dark and we
were chilled to the bone by a breeze blowing straight off the snows of the SafaL
Koh ; towards sum-Lse it died away, and was followed by oppressive heat and
clouds of dust." (Forty-one Years in India, page 131.)


the left column had closed up, he directed Cobbe to turn the spur that
overlooks the ascent to the Peiwar Kotal, and to seize Turrai, a village
lying at the base of that spur about a mile in a straight Hne from the
summit of the pass, to foUow up closely any body of troops they
:night come across ^ at the same time, orders were despatched to
Thelwall to support Cobbe's movement by marching on Turrai by
the direct road that traverses the village of Peiwar.

In the thickets of prickly oak through which the 1st Brigade had
now to struggle, it was an easy thing to miss the direction, and for
one corps to lose touch of another ; and thus it happened that, though
Cobbe with the 5th and 29th Punjab Infantry and two guns, carried
out his instructions, the 8th King's and the 23rd Pioneers went astray,
and, keeping on the northern side of the spur eventuaUy fell in with
Thelwall's column. Seeing nothing of the enemy on the southern
slope of the hill, Cobbe struck across it by a track which appeared to
lead straight to Turrai, but which brought him instead to the entrance
of a narrow gorge opening into a small valley, since known as "The
Devil's Punch Bowl." Hardly had the leading files set foot in this pas-
sage, when, high above their heads, crowning inaccessible heights, the
Afghans started into view. A glance at their numbers and the formid-
able position they had taken up. convinced Cobbe that the only course
open to him was instantly to withdraw his tired and weakened force
from the defile, and to faU back upon Turrai which now lay a quarter
of a mile in his rear, though whether he should find that viUage aban-
doned or held by the enemy, he had no means of knowing. The order
to retire was accordingly given, but no sooner had the retreat begun
than a number of Afghans rushed down the steep mountain-side, and
the troops had to turn to meet their attack. Some sharp fighting
followed, in which a driver was killed, and one British officer-Captain
A. J. F. Reid— and one Native officer and eight sepoys wounded. The

1 With the Kuram Field Force, page 89, by Major Colquhoun.


two mountain-guns were brought into action, but the shells they threw
did little harm to the enemy; and though the 29th, supported by a
wing of the 5th Punjab Infantry, drove back their assailants, and even
pursued them up the hill for a short distance, Cobbe would have had
great difficulty in making good his retreat to Turrai, if, at 2 p.m..
General Roberts had not come up with Thelwall's column, and instantly
sent forward the 5th Gurkhas who, from behind some sheltering rocks,
poured a deadly &e into the advancing Afghans, under cover of
which the 29th were safely withdrawn out of action. Fighting now
ceased ; the enemy retired to the hill-tops from which they had
descended, whilst Roberts, recognizing, at last, that nothing could
be successfuUy attempted against them without far better informa-
tion as to their strength and position than he had hitherto possessed,
and perceiving that his men, who had been on foot and almost con-
stantly in motion for ten consecutive hours, were utterly worn out,
gave the order to encamp. Unluckily, in selecting a site for the camp
on the terraces below Turrai, he reckoned ^without the Afghans,
who were not slow to discover that the British position was com-
manded by one of the many spurs of the Peiwar Mountain, and, being
as fresh as their adversary was jaded, had soon dragged a gun to its

About 4 p.m., shells began unexpectedly to drop among the groups
of British and Native soldiers who, having piled arms, had thrown
themselves on the ground to rest, and it became apparent that safer
quarters must be sought, and sought quickly, since the short winter's
day was already near its close.i The neighbourhood of Turrai

^ "One shell burst on the gi^ound mthin six or seven yards of Villiers N
Chamberlain, Perkins and myself, sending the pebbles and stones flyin- all
round my ears. Several about the same range bm-st at a place where some
two hundred Gurkhas were standing, but ciu-ioasly enough only two or three
were hit." ("Old Memories," by General Sir Hugh Gough, V.C, G.C B • the
May number of the Pall Mall Magazine for 1 898, page 45. )



afforded no position out of range of the Afghan fire ; further advance
was impossible ; there was tlierefore no alternative but to faU back
along the road by which Thelwall's column had marched, and up
which the baggage was stiU advancing. On the rough, narrow track,
in the gathering darkness, troops and baggage met, and soon men
and animals, soldiers and camp-followers were mingled in one confused
and struggUng mass. And when, at last, the troops succeeded in
forcing their way through the living stream opposed to them, and
reached the new camping-place which meanwhile had been hastily
selected, about a mile and a quarter to the west of Turrai, they found
it strewn with rocks and stones, dotted over with dwarf oak and thorny
bushes, and shut in on three sides by jungle and broken ground in
which a scattered enemy might lurk unobserved, whilst a deep ravine
running along the remaining side, afforded cover in which they might
have collected in large numbers, to rush the camp. The spot was
utterly unsuitable as a resting-place, and yet the best that could be
found, short of falling back another three miles to the more open
country near the village of Peiwar.

Little by little, as the strayed mules and camels were recovered
and brought in, tents were pitched and the different regiments sought
and found their baggage ; but so great were the difficulties of the situa-
tion and the hour that, in the end, many a man " went supperless to
bed or to the strong pickets which were placed on the adjoining
heights." ^

General Roberts, in his despatch of the 5th of December,
calls the operations of the 28th of November a Reconnaissance
in Force, but, looking carefully at all the events of the day
and taking special note of the order given to Cobbe to attack
and follow up the enemy, it is impossible to accord to them this

1 With the Kuram Field Force, 1878-79, by Major Colqiihoun, page 92.


misleading name.t It is contrary to all military precedent for a
Commander to make a reconnaissance with the whole of his force,
including guns on elephants ; and no General would direct his subordi-
nates, at the end of a twenty-one miles' march, to attack, with hungry
and exhausted men, an unkno^vn enemy in a position of extraor-
dinary natural strength, except in the hope of snatching a success by
the very irregularity and temerity of his tactics. There can be no
doubt that Roberts, misled by the Turi spies, who were probably
employed by the Afghans to deceive him,^ imagined that he could
make himself master of the Peiwar Kotal by a couv-de-main, and
started from the Kuram Forts with this object in view. The retreat-
ing enemy proved to be calmly awaiting his approach, protected by
the cannon which were supposed to be lying bogged at the foot of
the pass ; Cobbe's troops, that had been pushed forward into the very
heart of the Afghan position, were for a time in extreme peril ; and
that the whole Division escaped an overwhelming disaster in with-
drawing from their first untenable camping-ground, was due entirely
to the lack of judgment displayed by the adversary. ^

^ " One Brigade, under Brigadier-General Cobbe, . . . was sent sldrmishing
over the hills overlooking the pass on the left, to seek for the enemy and make
a strong demonstration on his right flank ; and General Thelwall's Brigade
somewhat in echelon by the right ; with this latter column the General proposed
maUng a direct attack through the pass.^' (Italics not in original text ) (" Old
Memories," page 44, by Sir Hugh Gough in Pall Mall Magazine, May, 1898 )

" In war, spies and their information count for nothing. To trust to them
is to risk men's lives on trifling grounds." (Napoleon.)

' " The eagerness of the Afghans to commence hostihties, was the salvation
of the force. If, knowing the range as they did, and being in an inaccessible
position, they had been content to wait till the camp was pitched at Turrai
and had commenced to shell the camp with all their mountain-guns after dark
had set m, the consequence would have been most serious. Nothinc. could
then have been done, except to withdraw from the camp ; but, in all probability
there would have been a stampede among the mules and their owners who
with the other camp-followers, would have taken themselves well out of reach of
danger. The camp, with all the bedding and baggage, miglit have been burned
down, and the Kuram Field Force have been rendered hors de combat for
some time." ( With the Kuram Field Force, page 92, by Major Colquhoun )


Reconnoitring the Peiwar Mountain

On the morning of the 29th of November, having again sHghtly shifted
his camp which took the name of Gubazan from an adjacent hamlet,
and taken steps to improve its approaches and to render it somewhat
less open to attack, General Roberts, taught caution by the events of
the preceding day, went to work to reconnoitre the Peiwar Moun-
tain ; but the parties he sent out were too weak to venture into the
vicinity of the enemy, and the reports they brought back were, in
consequence, incorrect in more than one particular .^

There were three reconnoitring parties. The first, consisting of
two companies of the 23rd Pioneers, under Colonel JE. Perkins, Com-
manding Engineer, was directed to investigate the ridge lying im-
mediately to the north of the camp ; the second, one company of the
29th Punjab Infantry, Colonel J. H. Gordon commanding, was dis-
patched to the southernmost spur of the Peiwar, the foot of which
approaches the Kuram River ; to the third, consisting, like the first,
of two companies of the Pioneers, under Major H. CoUett, who was
accompanied by Captain F. S. Carr, Captain R. G. Woodthorpe, R.E.,
and Lieutenant Manners-Smith-the two latter officers belonging to

1 "We halted the two following days. Men and cattle were exhausted from
their fatiguing marches, and supplies had to be brought up before we could ad-
vance further ; besides, I required time to look about me before making up ray
mind how the Peiwar Kotal could most advantageously be attacked." (Forty-
One Years in India r p. 133.) Napoleon bitterly complained that Wellington
had been attacked at Talavera without first ascertaining whether his position
could be carried. " So long as these errors are committed," he said, " my men
will be led on to destruction and to no good piu-pose."



the Survey Department— was allotted the task of examining the
alternative road over the Peiwar Mountain, known as the Spin
Gawai, or White Cow Pass, which starts from the village of Peiwar
and crosses the main ridge about two miles to the north-east of the
Peiwar Kotal.

Perkins reported unfavourably of the spur north of the camp :
it did not run up direct to the main ridge, but dipped suddenly into
a deep valley, to descend into and to emerge from which under the fire
of a strongly posted enemy, must necessarily entail heavy loss on a
flanking party. Colonel Gordon, on the contrary, was satisfied that
the southern spur was really a continuation of the main ridge, and
practicable for a turning movement, an opinion which proved to be
well grounded. The third reconnoitring party, which had scaled a
hill overlooking the Spin Gawai Ravine, a mile and a half south-east
of the Spin Gawai Kotal, also brought back a favourable report ; but
in this case the judgment formed by Major H. Collett, based as it was on
a bird's-eye view of a very rugged and thickly wooded country, was
vitiated by several errors. He pronounced the Spin Gawai Pass
practicable for all arms ; and in this he was right. But when he gave
it as his opinion that an unbroken ridge connected the two kotals,
and that the Spin Gawai position was held only by a picket and two
guns, he was mistaken ; nor was he more happy in his estimate of the
time required to reach the Peiwar Kotal by this route, which he set
down at seven hours.

The following day, Gordon again reconnoitred the southern spur
of the Peiwar Mountain, and Roberts went over the ground that
Perkins had examined, whilst Collett and Carr, this time without any
escort, succeeded in getting, once again, within a mile and a half of the
Spin Gawai Kotal, and returned to camp with the opinions they had
previously formed so strengthened that the former officer laid a plan
for surprising the Spin Gawai position, and then advancing along the
ridge to the storming of the Peiwar Kotal, before the General who


adopted it, under the erroneous impression that the Afghan strength
which he would have to encounter, did not exceed the 1,800 men, with
five field and six mountain guns, that had occupied the Kuram Valley,
and withdrawn from it, at the approach of the British. This was, indeed,
the case on the 30th of November ; but by the evening of December 1st,
the Afghan force holding the Peiwar Mountain, had been increased
to 4,800 men with seventeen guns, by the arrival of four regiments and
six guns from Kabul ; and there is the best authority for saying that this
force was no untrained rabble. " I may be permitted to point out,"
wrote General Roberts in his despatch of the 5th of December, " that no
similarity exists between the Afghan army of the former war and that
which has now been put into the field. The men are now armed with
excellent rifles, and provided with abundance of ammunition . . .
Their shooting is good ; their men are of large stature and great
physical strength and courage, and are well clothed. The Afghan
artillery is well served and efficiently equipped."^ The military
knowledge and ability of the generals in command of this excellent
material — Kerim Khan and his Brigadiers, Gool Mahomed Khan and
Abdul Ali — is attested by their choice of a position and their disposi-
tions for defending it. Its only defect was its length — four miles
from the end of the spur reconnoitred by Gordon on its extreme
right, to the Spin Gawai Kotal on its extreme left ; but the whole of
the ridge was so difficult of access, and so completely dominated at
various points by knolls and peaks, which had been carefully fortified,
that they were justified in believing it to be practically safe against

This long ridge extends from south-west to north-east, the suc-

* General Roberts's comparison, so far as it implies that the Afghans were
more on an equality with their invaders in the matter of weapons in the second
war than in the first, is incorrect, as the jazails of the Tribesmen who shot down
Elphinstone's men like sheep, were better arms, carrying farther than themuskots
of the British and native troops. — H.B.H.


cessive hills that rise from it, increasing in height as they recede from

the Kuram River till they culminate in the mountain above the Spin

Gawai Kotal— that kotal being itself nine thousand four hundred

feet above sea-level— from which point a spur runs nearly due

north to the majestic peak of Sikka Ram. The Afghan position

on the Peiwar Kotal, was crescent-shaped, facing south-east — more

east than south— its horns threatening the British camp. Guarding the

head of the pass on its northern side, rises a conical hill, and beyond

this, a little to eastward, running from south-east to north-west and

forming a right angle with the true front of the position, stretches a

ridge a mile and a half long, afterwards known as Afghan HiU. The

north-eastern face of this ridge dips suddenly into a deep hollow with

precipitous sides, which hollow falls away at either end, leaving as

the only traversable ground, a narrow strip of land, overlapped by

Afghan HiU for a mile on the left, and half a mile on the right. This neck

connects that hill with a higher peak, to which, on the 2nd December,

General Roberts's troops gave the name of Pic-nic Hill. Looked at

from the spot reached by Major CoUett, these two hills would seem

to spring from an unbroken ridge ; but between them, in reality, lies

this deep and difficult hollow, cutting the Peiwar Mountain into two

distinct halves, only united by the narrow strip of land between the

points where the drainage hues, to either side, begin their precipitous

descent. Between Pic-nic Hill and the Spin Gawai Kotal stretches a

plateau, or, more properly speaking, an upland vaUey, about a mile

long and three-quarters of a mile broad, bordered by a succession of

wooded hillocks. Afghan Hill is covered with dense forest, laced

together by tangled undergrowth, whilst the south-eastern slope of

Pic-nic Hill is comparatively open. From this latter, spring two

spurs, one flanking the Peiwar Ravine, the other abutting on the valley

close to Gubazan. The direct road to the Peiwar Kotal is exceedingly

difficult — rough, narrow, steep — especially for the last half-mile.

At the summit it turns away to the left, and descends towards Zabar-


dust Killa through a deep defile, at the entrance of which, unseen from
below, the Afghans had pitched their camp.

Although possessing seventeen guns, the Afghans, on the 2nd
December, only brought nine into action — three field and six mountain-
guns — probably for lack of trained artillerymen to work the other eight ;
but those nine were most judiciously placed. The three field-pieces —
two twelve-pounder Howitzers and one six-pounder — were ranged

Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bathurst) HannaThe second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) → online text (page 6 of 32)