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

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thirty yards apart on the reverse slope of the Peiwar Kotal, where they
completely commanded the pass, and were well protected against fire
from below. The mountain-gun which had shelled the British camp on
the evening of the 28th of November, was still on the edge of the hill over-
looking the village of Turrai, christened "One Gun Spur" by Roberts's
men, out of compliment to that weapon ; whilst a second was placed
half-way up the same hill, in a rocky hiding-place, known subsequently
as the " Crow's Nest." The former swept the road leading up to the
kotal from Turrai, and the latter, the series of spurs which branch off
from the hill bounding the valley on its north-eastern side. Two
mountain-guns were posted to the right of the Peiwar Kotal to guard
against attack from the south-west, whilst two more were emj)loyed
in the defence of the Spin Gawai Kotal. The approach to this last-
named summit being somewhat less difficult than that to the Peiwar
Kotal, what was deficient in the natural defensibihty of the position,
had been artificially supplied. The Afghans, like all hill-tribes, excel
in the construction of sangars or breastworks. These are usually formed
of large trees, placed lengthwise one above the other, or, where timber
is scarce, of stones and brushwood, and give excellent cover to their
defenders. Three such lines of defence had been erected on the spur
up which the road runs in zig-zags to the top of the Spin Gawai Pass.
The lowest breastwork spanned the ridge, completely blocking the
pathway ; the second, two hundred and fifty feet higher up, extended
only partially across the spur which had widened out ; behind the
third, three hundred feet above the second, and parallel with the last


zig-zag, the two mountain-guns had been posted. The kotal itself
was dotted over with knolls, and beyond these to the north-east rose
thickly wooded slopes.

Such was the enemy and such the position which General Roberts,
acting on the information laid before him by Major Collett on the 30th of
November, had determined to attack at daybreak of the 2nd December,
^vith thirteen guns and three thousand three hundred and fourteen troops
of all arms ; meantime, however, he kept his own counsel, deceiving
the Amir's commanders and the " friendly " natives as to his inten-
tions and his strength, by marking out sites for batteries near Turrai,
and parading his reinforcements of Cavalry and Artillery brought up
from Habib Killa and the Kuram Forts, in full view of the Afghans,
whilst secretly working out the details of the plan which, at 4 p.m. on
the 1st of December, he laid before his staff and the senior regimental

The main body of the British force, consisting of the 29th Punjab
Infantry, 5th Gurkhas, Wing 72 Highlanders, 2nd Punjab Infantry,
23rd Pioneers, No. 1 Mountain Battery and four guns F.A. Royal
Horse Artillery on elephants, under the General's own command, were
to start from camp Gubazan at ten o'clock that night ; and he calcu-
lated that, allowing for one halt, it would reach the Spin Gawai Kotal
at dawn the next day. This it was to storm, and then to press on
along the Spin Gawai Plateau to attack the left of the Peiwar Kotal
position. The troops and artillery left with Cobbe, namely, the 5th
Punjab Infantry, a wing of the 2/8, " King's," two guns F/A Royal
Horse Artillery, three guns G/3 Royal Artillery, and two squadrons
12th Bengal Cavalry, were to steal out of camp very early on the
morning of the 2nd, and to establish themselves at the foot of the
Peiwar Pass. As soon as it was light enough to distinguish the enemy's
guns, the British guns were to open upon them, and when their fire had

1 Despatch of December the 5th, 1878.


begun to tell, the Infantry was to push its way along the hills on the
right of the valley, so as to be in readiness to assault the Kotal in front,
when the turning party should attack it in flank ; meanwhile Major A.
P. Palmer was to lead five hundred friendly Turisup Gordon's Spur, to
threaten the true right of the Afghan position. The turning party
was to consist of two thousand two hundred and sixty-three officers
and men and eight guns ; whilst with Cobbe, who would have to per-
form the threefold duty of protecting the camp, keeping open the
communications with Thai, and making the front attack, there were
to remain but five guns and one thousand and fifty-one men of all
ranks, of whom eight hundred and sixty-eight were to be employed
in the advance on the Kotal.

Action on the Peiwar Mountain


At dusk, on the evening of the 1st of December, the troops selected to
take part in the night-march, were warned, and at 10 p.m. the Turn-
ing Party started, each regiment being followed by its own ammunition
mules, and by its hospital doolies and dandies. Those belonging to the
29th Punjab Infantry, who, with the 5th Gurkhas, formed the advanced
guard under Colonel Gordon, Brigadier-General Thelwall command-
ing the main body, went astray almost at once, and proceeded up the
valley towards Turrai. The challenge of an outlying piquet showed
them their mistake, and they hurried back in time to take up their
proper place in the column.

The first stage of the march lay over ground already known to
many of the men ; the road also was fairly good ; yet, so slow was the
movement of the long line of troops, hampered as they were by the
intervening mules and litters, that it was midnight before they passed
the village of Peiwar and arrived at the edge of the Spin Gawai Nullah.
Here they were to have rested, but as i by this time ithad become clear
that, if the Spin Gawai Kotal was to be attacked at dawn, no time
must be lost by the way, the leading regiments at once plunged
down into the ravine. The descent was twenty feet deep, rough
with projecting ledges, and slippery with frost, so that great difficulty
was experienced in getting the mules safely to the bottom. As the
Force advanced the cold grew more and more severe ; the darkness,
too, deepened, for though the waning moon had risen, its light hardly


penetrated into the nullah, and it was no easy matter to keep the regi-
ments in touch. At one point, where there was a turn in the track,
the 2nd Punjab Infantry lost their way, and, as their lead was followed
by the 23rd Pioneers, the four guns on elephants and all the animals
and camp-followers belonging to both corps, nearly half the column
had gone two miles in a wrong direction, actually heading back to the
village of Peiwar, before it was overtaken and recalled by Lieutenant
G. V. Turner, who had been sent by Thelwall to look for them. Further
on, the 72nd Highlanders halted in perplexity, vainly straining their
eyes to discover what had become of the 5th Gurklias, which was
immediately in their front. It turned out that one regiment had gone
to the right, the other to the left of a wooded island lying in mid-
channel. Still, progress was made. Very slowly, and in profound
silence, the men moved upwards, climbing over ridges of loosely lieaped-
up stones, stumbling over boulders, splashing through icy water, avoid-
ing the deep holes of dried-up pools, or falling into them, as the case
might be. Every ear was on the alert to catch the faintest sound that
might betray the proximity of an enemy, or reveal that their march
had been discovered. Suddenly, about a mile and a half up the nullah,
there rang out the sharp report of a rifle, and this first report was
instantly followed by a second. The sounds came from the head of
the column, and clearly issued from the ranks of the 29th Punjab
Infantry. There was no mistaking their meaning : the regiment con-
sisted largely of Pathans, the kinsmen and friends of the Afghans, and
the shots had been fired to warn the garrison of the Spin Gawai Kotal
of the approach of their foes, thus justifying the fear which had been
present to General Roberts's mind ever since his arrival at Kohat.^ In

1 " I had chosen the 29th Punjab Infantry to lead the way on account of
the high reputation of Colonel John Gordon, who commanded it, and because
of the excellent character the regiment had always borne ; but on overtaking
it, my suspicions were excited by the unnecessarily straggling manner in which
the men were marching, and to which I called Gordon's attention. No sooner


the darkness it was impossible to discover the culprits, so all that could
be done was to put the 5th Gurkhas and one company of the 72nd
Highlanders in the place of the 29th, and to trust that the disaffection
which had manifested itself would go no further.^

Again, the long line of now wearied men and beasts got under weigh,
and by 3 a.m. the point where the track leaves the Spin Gawai Nullah
and enters a side ravine, had been reached. As the troops moved
upwards in the darkness, they could see fires blazing in a village on
the edge of the plateau, overlooking the nullah they had just quitted,
but whether, or not, they were signal fires, it was impossible to tell.
At last, the path issued from the gorge and entered the woods which
clothe the spur leading up to the top of the pass. It was six o'clock
and day was at hand, but in the shadow of the pines it was still
quite dark. Feeling their way, step by step, the Gurkhas had come
within a very short distance of the lower of the three breast-works,
when a sentry, posted one hundred and fifty yards in advance of it,
became aware of their approach, and fired off his rifle to give the

In a moment, the Afghans were afoot, and as the Gurkhas, led
by Major A. Fitzhugh and Captain J. Cook, rushed forward, they were
met by a volley which failed, however, to check their onslaught. In
a moment they were pouring over the barricade, and, after a brief hand-
to-hand struggle, the Amir's troops were driven back upon their second
line of defence. Here, again the stand they made was short ; the Gur-
khas and one company of the Highlanders, who had hurried forward

had I done so than a shot was fired from one of the Pathan companies, followed
in a few seconds by another. The Sikh companies of the regiment immediately
closed up, and Gordon's Sikh orderly whispered in his ear that there was treachery
among the Pathans." (Forty-one Years in India, vol. ii. p. 138.)

^ It transpired later that the reports were heard by an Afglian sentry on the
hill above, who reported the occurrence to his officer ; but this latter, appar-
ently, thought little of it, for he took no steps to find out by whom, and for what
purpose the shots had been fii-ed. — H.B.H.


at the first sound of the firing, outflanked the sangars and compelled its
defenders to take refuge behind the third and last stockade. The
two mountain-guns posted there, came immediately into action, but,
owing to the darkness, with very little result. The three remaining
companies of the Highlanders who, finding the path blocked by the
mules and dandies of the Gurklias, had pushed their way up through
the woods on its right, now reinforced the ranks of the assailants, and
all pressing forward up the zig-zag track, which led over open ground
to the Kotal, this breastwork also had soon changed hands. But on a
knoll above it, the Afghans were still strongly posted, and they swarmed
in the woods and on the Spin Gawai Plateau. The Highlanders, with
whom were the General and his Staff, soon dislodged them from the
knoll, and orders were sent back to Captain J. A. Kelso, R.A., to bring
up one of two mountain-guns which had already established them-
selves in the abandoned battery, and were firing on its recent occu-
pants. Kelso hastened to obey ; but, on issuing from the battery,
he was shot through the head ; the mule carrying the wheels of the
gun-carriage broke away, and was never seen again ; the mule with
the spare wheels could not be found ; and the gun was disabled for the
rest of the day. Its help could ill be spared. Even after the knoll
had been captured, the Afghans twice issued from the woods into
which they had been swept by the impetuous advance of the High-
landers, and charged down upon the kotal, where the Native troops,
broken up and dispersed by the nature of the ground, and deficient in
officers to hold them together and lead them on, were perilously open
to attack. The first charge was repulsed by Major Galbraith, Assis-
tant Adjutant-General, and by Captain J. Cook. The former collected
a few stragglers, whose fire checked the Afghan rush, and the latter,
after rescuing Galbraith from great danger, put himself at the head of
twenty men and drove back the assailants at the point of the bayonet.^

1 For this gallant act Cook received the Victoria Cross.


The second charge was defeated by the Sikh companies of the 29th
Punjab Infantry ; but the Pathan companies hung back, showing the
greatest reluctance to turn their weapons against men of their own
blood, eighteen of them actually deserting the field and returning to
Camp Gubazan, as waS discovered when the roll was called over at

This skirmish, in which Lieutenant S. C. H. Munro was wounded,
proved the enemy's last attempt to retain possession of the Spin Gawai
position, and by 7 a.m., after barely an hour's fighting, they were in
full retreat towards the Peiwar Kotal, unpursued, but harassed
so long as they were within range, by the fire of the mountain-guns.
At 7.30 a.m. the news of the capture of the left of the Afghan position
was heHographed to Cobbe, who was instructed " to co-operate vigor-
ously from below in attacking the Kotal." ^ This message, owing to
some mistake on the part of the intervening signalling party, who failed
to take up the position selected for them by the Signalling Officer,
Captain A. S. Wynne, was the only one which passed that day
between the two portions of the Kuram Field Force.

Unwilling to allow the Afghans time to recover from their defeat,
Roberts determined not to await the arrival of the 2nd Punjab Infan-
try, the 23rd Pioneers and the Elephant Battery, which were still
far behind, but to press forward to the storming of the Peiwar Kotal
with the troops under his hand ; so, after a very brief interval of rest,
the little column of about twelve hundred and fifty men was again in
motion, led, as at the beginning of the night march, by the 29th Pun-
jab Infantry, the three mountain-guns, the command of which had
now devolved on Lieutenant J. C. Sherries, bringing up the rear. The
sun had now risen above the hill-tops diffusing a genial warmth
very pleasant to the tired men after the bitter cold of the previous
night, and lighting up a scene of exquisite loveliness. On either side,
the Spin Gawai Plateau was bordered by picturesque knolls and grassy
^ Roberts's Despatch of the 5th December, 1878.


undulations, cro-«Tied by spreading deodars and lofty pines between
which, to the north-west, many glades sloped away to the Harriab
Valley, through which the road over the Spin Gawai Kotal runs down
to Zabardust Killa.

The troops quickly crossed the plateau, and began to ascend
the peak at its south-western extremity. The difficulties opposed to
their advance by the steep hill-side, by the dense forest, by tangled
brushwood, by trunks of fallen trees, by rocks and stones, were enor-
mous ; but, urged on to ever greater exertions by the fiery impatience
of their leader. General Roberts himself, the 29th Punjab Infantry—
now creeping, now climbing— worked their Avay upwards till, at the end
of two hours, they gained the summit, to find that there was no con-
tinuous ridge between the two kotals ; for at their feet, lay the deep
hollow mentioned in the description of the Afghan position, and oppo-
site them rose another hill, its precipitous face clothed with dense
woods, whose dark recesses they felt, rather than saw, to be alive with
the enemy. The disappointment to the General was of the keenest,
but the anxieties of the moment left him no time to dwell upon it,
— all his thought, all his energy, were needed to cope with the situation
which revealed itself, when, turning to organize his Troops, he dis-
covered that he and his Staff were alone wdth the untrustworthy
29th, face to face with an enemy of unknown strength ; Highlanders,
Gurklias, and guns had all disappeared, and the pathless forest upon
which he looked back, gave no hint of their whereabouts.

Many men would have withdrawn instantly from a position fraught
with such great and pressing danger, but Roberts's indomitable courage
and resolution saved him from what would have been a fatal error ;
for a backward movement on his part must have drawn the enemy after
him, and shown them the possibihty of destropng, singly, the scattered
members of his Force. With imperturbable sangfroid he stuck to the
summit of the hill, and had he had an army-corps at his back, instead
of a single regiment, one half of which was in a state of incipient mutiny,


he could not have sIiouti a bolder front to fiiend and foe. Tliough lost
to view, the missing troops must, he knew, be close at hand, and, at
first, he hoped that the Afghan fire, which had begun as soon as the
29th had shown itself on the crest of Pic-nic Hill, and which was grow-
ing momentarily heavier and heavier, might give them the direction,
and bring them to the spot where their presence was so urgently
needed ; but when a httle while had elapsed, and still there was no
sign of their approach, he sent off one Staff- officer after another in
search of them. The last to leave him, was the Rev. J. W. Adams, the
Chaplain of the Force, who had accompanied him that day in the
capacity of aide de camp ; and when, after an interval of cruel sus.
pense, he returned with no news of those he had gone to seek, the ten-
sion of the situation had become so great that Roberts felt it safer to
break it himself than to stand idle any longer, waiting for it to be
broken for him by some act of treachery on the part of his own men,
or by an overwhelming rush of the Afghans, who must, by this time,
have discovered the weakness of their adversary. Accordingly, after
starting Adams off in a new direction, he turned to the 29th, and, in a
few brief sentences, bade them seize the opportunity now afforded
them to retrieve the honour they had lost the previous night ; but
tliough Captain G. N. Chaimer, the officer in command, was able in-
stantly to answer for the loyalty of the Sikh companies which had
never been in question, the Pathan companies stood silent and sullen,
and it was evident that the utmost to be hoped from them, was that
they would not turn their weapons against their officers and comrades.
Relying on this chance, the General now ordered Captain Channer and
Lieutenant H. P. Picot to lead the Sikhs cautiously do-\vn into the hol-
low, hehimseK following a short distance behind to judge, with his
own eyes, of the feasibility of the enterprise on which he had bidden them
embark. That it was an impossible one, he had soon to confess, and
the whole party returned to the crest of the hill, where good news
awaited them : Adams had returned, having found not only the



Gurkhas, Highlanders and mountain-guns, but also the 2nd Punjab
Infantry, and the 23rd Pioneers. The elephants with the Horse Artil-
lery guns, were also close behind.

Great must have been the relief to the General and the handful of
British officers who had shared his suspense, with courage and cool-
ness only second to his own, when, one after another, the eagerly
expected reinforcements were seen to issue from the woods ; and, as
soon as the Pioneers had been substituted for the 29th, confidence and
hope took the place of a sense of insecurity and helplessness. Yet,
beyond a strengthening of the British power of defence, no change had
come over the position of affairs. Broken up into groups to take
advantage of the cover afforded by the trees and crags, Roberts's
men could do little more than keep up a rifle duel with the Afghans
on the other side of the chasm. The latter were armed with Enfield
rifles, the gifts of Lord Mayo and Lord Northbrook to Shere Ali,
which, at close range — and the two hills were only from a hundred
to one hundred and fifty yards apart — were but slightly inferior, except
in being muzzle-loaders, to the Sneiders of the Native troops, and they
were amply provided with ammunition, supplies of which were dis-
tributed at convenient points all along their line. Time after time,
the enemy made determined charges from behind the barricades with
which they had obstructed the narrow causeway in front of their
position, only to be driven back. But when Roberts ordered a party
of the 23rd Pioneers to deliver a counter-attack, they, in their turn,
were repulsed, losing their leader. Major A. D. Anderson, and a havildar
and two sepoys who tried to recover his body. A second party of the
same regiment, led by its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel A. A.
Currie, after some hand-to-hand fighting, was likewise compelled to
retire, with the loss of one havildar and three men killed, and
seven wounded. It seemed as if the two forces might continue
facing each other and firing into each other's ranks till the ammunition
of one side, or both, ran short ; but an event was at hand which was to


change this state of things and give victory to the British arms, though
not to the troops under General Roberts's immediate command.

Observation I. Turning movements have always played a great
part in war, but no sound strategist has ever undertaken one with the
bulk of his force, nor under circumstances which isolated each detach-
ment, and left both, incase of disaster— a contingency which should never
be lost sight of— without any safe line of retreat. At Aroza del Morino,
General Girard, having made a flank movement which severed his
force entirely from its base, was surprised and overthrown by General
Hill, on the 18th of October, 1811. Napoleon characterized the man-
oeuvre as " so ill managed that the enemy might have cut him off at any
time." " Remind him," he wrote to Berthier, " that when one has to
fight . . . one must not divide one's forces, but collect them and
present imposing numbers, as all the troops which are left behind run
the risk of being beaten in detail, or forced to abandon their positions.
General Roberts fell into the very error here condemned. He divided
his troops in the presence of the enemy, thus jeopardizing the safety
both of those under his command, and those left behind in camp. He
himself has admitted that, unless he could reach the Spin Gawai Kotal
while his approach was still concealed by the darkness, " the turning
movement would in all probability end in disaster" (see Forty -One
Years in India,^^ vol. ii. page 139). It is also not only probable, but
certain, that if the Afghans had poured down from the hills whilst
the Turning Party was struggling up the Spin Gawai NuUah — and this
had really been their intention, though on account of the fatigued state
of the newly arrived reinforcements the projected attack was put off
for twenty-four hours ^ — the little body of men occupying Gubazan

1 " If we could have looked behind the wall of rock that rose in om* front,
we should have seen that the enemy also had received their reinforcements,
four regiments of infantry with a mountain battery, and, on their side too, were


must have been overwhelmed, the camp and all it contained captured,
and General Roberts would have found himself shut up in the nullah,
with one half of the enemy on the heights above him, and the other
half attacking his rear.

Out of innumerable instances of successful turning movements
which will occur to every student of military history, none more clearly
illustrates the conditions subject to which such a manoeuvre may
legitimately be resorted to, than Sir Arthur Wellesley's double flank
movement at the actions of Rori9a and Vimeiro, fought, like the action
of the Peiwar, in a wild, mountainous country. ^ Wellesley's army,
consisting of thirteen thousand four hundred and eighty British Infan-
try, four hundred and twenty Cavalry, eighteen guns, and a contingent
of Portuguese, divided, almost immediately on issuing from the town
of Obidos, into three columns. The left, commanded by Major-

Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bathurst) HannaThe second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) → online text (page 7 of 32)