John Hills.

The Bombay Field Force, 1880 online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryJohn HillsThe Bombay Field Force, 1880 → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

^7^ A



UNivwsmr Of





/ /




8, York Buildings, Adelphi, W.C.



As the public have had no explanation
of the duties undertaken by the Bombay
Field Force in the Afghan Campaign of
J 880-81, the following brief report has been
written to make known their difficulties,
and to publicly refute the insinuations
thrown out against their courage and
steadiness in the field.

Publication was deferred from the end oj

1899, as it was held undesirable that it

should take place during the absence of
Lord Roberts from England.




In ancient days Tamarlane the Tartar, the most successful
and enterprising of all Eastern conquerors, has more than
once in his most interesting memoirs related how, before he
launched forth into any new enterprise, he carefully worked
out in detail all the prospective advantages which he might
reasonably expect to rfesult from successful operations. He
then weighed in the balance against these benefits the
dangers and disadvantages which might arise in the case
of receiving a check ; the characteristics of the people ;
the opposition to be encountered ; the resources of the
country for offence and defence ; the difficulties to be
surmounted ; and, finally, the number and quality of the
troops on his side who would have to be put into action in
order to establish beyond all doubt the superiority of his
arms, and to assure for himself a thoroughly satisfactory result.
And he averred that it was only after a most careful con-
sideration of all the attendant circumstances, and after
arriving at the conclusion that the advantages derived greatly
outweighed the dangers and obstacles on his path, that he
entered heart and soul into any project.

He further adds that, as years rolled on, experience
made only more manifest, to his mind, the necessity of such
preliminary calculations.

In later days, as regards the manner of dealing with
native powers, we have the experience and maxims of our
most successful soldier, the Duke of Wellington, before us;
whose most important rule (one so seldom applied and so
little appreciated by the present generation of generals), was
that no matter how disproportionate the opposing forces might



be, on no account must there be any retrograde movement,
or retirement in face of an advancing native army. On the
contrary, the smaller and weaker the force, the more absolitte
was the necessity of a bold advance and immediate attack. Any
retirement was disastrous and fatal. He himself, in his great
victory of Assaye, gave a most practical proof of his own
maxim ; for, finding himself opposed by an enormously
preponderating army, in place of retiring a few miles,
whereby he would have been able to effect a junction with
another British Force, he boldly advanced, took the initiative,
and won a glorious victory.

Still later the records of the previous Afghan Campaign
of 1839-40 teach us another important lesson. It is that,
while at the outset a numerically weak but well disciplined
force could beat down the opposition of the enemy's troops,
and was able to occupy the chief cities as Cabul, Kandahar,
and Quetta, yet this same force became inadequate to hold
the country in military occupation when, some months after,
the real dangers and difficulties of the campaign sprang into
being, at the time when the fierce, warlike and fanatical
tribesman realised that not only a foreign, but an infidel
power held their cities and country in subjection. To meet
such a general uprising and Jehad (in truth a much more
formidable matter) a great and immediate increase of the force
originally deemed sufficient was absolutely necessary.

This lesson should, by the events of 1879, have still more
forcibly impressed itself upon the minds of the directors of
the campaign — the Government of India. General Roberts
and his army of 7,500 (originally rashly weak) were sent on
a most hazardous expedition ; but, gallantly led and well
handled, they overcame all opposition, and occupied, after
a brief struggle, the city of Cabul, and the Arsenal of Bala
Hissar, which latter contained an enormous amount of guns,
ammunition, rifles, etc., etc. It was a most brilliant achieve-
ment, the finest in all the campaign, and yet but little com-
prehended, or acknowledged by the Government or military
critics. Shortly after occupation, however, General Roberts
found himself and this grand force wholly unable, from utter
inadequacy of numerical strength, to make headway against
an assemblage of tribesmen ; and he was forced by them.


to the general dismay of the authorities, to retire with all
his troops into the Cantonments of Sherpur — happily a strong
walled enclosure, in which, moreover, had been stored supplies,
guns, etc. There he had to remain, till reinforcements should
come up; or the tribesmen disperse of their own accord, from
failure of their supplies, or from some other fortuituous chance.

The inadequacy of this picked force of officers and men (as
fine soldiers as were in the British army, and now raised to
over 10,000 men) had at last (though only after these events
had taken place) impressed itself upon the minds of the
directing heads of Simla ; and they, in accordance with their
altered views, issued orders to General Sir D. Stewart to
move up with his division from Kandahar to Cabul, and take
over the command of the combined forces, 15,000 men and
38 guns at Cabul, and 15,000 men and 30 guns on line of

But even with this numerical strength, that the Govern-
ment of India were far from being confident in the cap)acity
and power of the Cabul army to cope with all eventuali-
ties was unquestionably demonstrated ; for in what other
way can one explain the nervousness shown in the extra-
ordinarj' orders issued by them (when they were apprised of
the advance of Sirdar Ayub Khan with an army from Herat)
to the Officer commanding the Kandahar force (under 4,000
men) that the Government considered it of the highest political
importance that Ayub's force should be dispersed, and pre-
vented by all possible means from passing on to Guzni.

How was it possible — except from extreme ignorance of the
Afghan country, and of the qualities of the people ; from utter
incajpacity for forming judgment, or drawing just conclusions
from previous events — that the Government should have been
so solicitous of the safety and welfare of the powerful armies
concentrated at Cabul, and so strangely regardless of the
insecurity and inadequacy of the tiny garrison at Kandahar,
holding city and cantonments ? They must have been fully
aware of the fact that only seven native regiments were
holding Beluchistan, Quetta, and the lines of communication.
Above all how could the Government possibly expect a brigade
of six companies of Europeans, two Native regiments, six
guns R.H. artillery, and two weak regiments of Native cavalry,


to possess sufficient strength to stem Ayub's advance, and
drive him, his large and well equipped army, and the attendant
hordes of tribesmen, off the field ?

The following is a brief summary of the several actions
which should have impressed the minds of the Commander-
in-Chief and Governing Council at Simla, and regulated their
instructions and strategy.

I. On December 13th, 1879, General Roberts, in spite of
his so far apparently successful attack on separate bodies of
the tribesmen, on receipt of a report that the City had joined
the enemy, that the cantonments were threatened, and that
the control of the city was lost, ordered General Macpherson
to leave a regiment on Darwaza Heights for the protection of
the arsenal Bala Hissar, and then to move the remainder of
his brigade into cantonments ; similarly General Baker was to
leave a detachment on theTakhti-Shah, moving the remainder
of his force also into Sherpur. General Roberts (though he
had in the meanwhile been reinforced by the Guides Corps)
also ordered the garrison at Butkak to march in, and
further telegraphed for General Ch. Cough's Brigade to be
sent at once to his assistance.

II. Next day, 14th, he despatched General Baker and his
brigade, fully equal in strength to that of the Maiwand force
of General Burrows, to drive the clansmen from the heights of
Azmai, which they had occupied. He assisted this attempt
with the fire of four guns, and signalled to General Macpherson
to give General Baker every assistance. The 67th Europeans
were at once sent in support of General Baker, and guns, etc.,
were brought into use. At first all went smoothly and
satisfactorily ; but by 2 p.m., in spite of the fact that the
troops then engaged in action were twice as strong as those of
the Bombay Brigade at Maiwand, General Roberts was forced
to recognize the fact that he was overmatched, and had to issue
orders for the retirement of all his troops, about 7,000 men,
within the Cantonments of Sherpur ; giving up the City and
Bala Hissar, the latter with its enormous amount of
ammunition and arms, to the Afghans.

III. Sir D. Stewart, who had left Kandahar with his
division of about 5,000 to 6,000 men on March 30th, 1880,
en route to Cabul, was, on April 19th, suddenly attacked by


some 4,000 or 5,000 tribesmen — about the same number
looking on — and for some considerable time the British force
could barely hold its own ; in fact it was for a few moments
touch and go.

IV. On April 24th, though the division marching from
Kandahar was closely approaching Cabul, Colonel Jenkins
with 1,200 men was attacked in the Logar Valley, and was
forced to remain from early morning till i p.m. on the
defensive, till General Macpherson with 962 infantry and other
troops came up to his assistance. This attack was made on
Colonel Jenkins by merely local tribesmen.

These and other similar actions were carried out against
local clansmen who had no cohesion, were without any
influential or even nominal leader, and had no artillery or
even effective firearms.

Hensman, History of i\u Afghan Campaign. " There is no
organized plan of attack among them, and unless more
determination is shown than that displayed to-day . . ."

The above actions should have fully demonstrated to the
Government the enormous numbers and fighting qualities of
the tribesmen ; and it was unaccountable folly to believe that
any small force of 1,500 bayonets (Maiwand Brigade), at a
distance of eighty miles from any support, could be capable of
resisting an armed and well equipped enemy of over 10,000
men commanded by a Prince of the Royal blood, and assisted,
as they were certain to be, by all the fanatical tribesmen of the



We now enter the second phase of the Afghan campaign.
The situation in January, 1880, was the following : —

Sir D. Stewart held Kandahar with a Bengal Division ;
Sir F. Roberts, Cabul ; and General Phayre, Quetta ; while to
the north-west of Kandahar at Herat, Sirdar Ayub Khan, son of
the late Ameer, Shir Ali, and a brother of the deposed Sirdar
Yakub Khan, reigned over the only independent portion of
Afghanistan. To this place had been attracted most of the
Bourakzai and Populzai leaders belonging to the Southern
Province, who had fled there on the British force approaching
Kandahar. Sir D. Stewart, receiving orders to move on
to Cabul, marched from Kandahar on the 30th March for
that place, but previously to leaving he installed a native chief,
Sirdar Shir Ali Khan, as the Governor, or Wali, of Kandahar
and its southern provinces. To support his authority the
Government made the Wali a present of 6,000 rifles, one million
rounds of ammunition, and a battery of six-pounder guns ; all
of which, as might have been easily foreseen, would be used
against us should any opportunity of doing so arise. In Sir
D. Stewart's hands, and with excellent results, were combined
both military and political powers, as should invariably be the
case ; but on the arrival of the relieving Bombay Field Force
another momentous false step was made when these depart-
ments were placed in separate hands. General Primrose was
placed in military command ; and the political, or in truth the
strategical control of the campaign, was entrusted to a young
Major of Engineers, whose last duties had been purely civil
(as Principal of a Native College in Ajmere), and to whom,
with reference to military rank and experience, not even the
command of a regiment would have been granted. The real
meaning of such an absurdly foolish arrangement was that the
control of the campaign was placed in the hands of the Foreign
Secretary to Government, at Simla, as will appear later.

A letter, from the Horse Guards at home, pointed out that
all the commands of importance had been placed in the hands of
the so-called Indian Service (Sir D. Steward, Sir F. Roberts,
and Sir R. Phayre), and that the British Service had been


ignored ; and requested that a so-called British officer should
be nominated to the command of the Bombay Field Force —
so far a reasonable and equitable arrangement. There were
of such, many experienced and capable officers in India, but
unhappily, the selection fell on General Primrose, who at the
time was commanding a Division at Poona. This officer had
oeen repxirted to at least one of the members of the Governor's
Council to be at that time practically unfit for active service,
and he himself, probably recognising that such was the case,
was not willing to take command. The two Brigadiers of the
Infantry were officers selected from the Headquarters staff of
the Bombay Army, the Q.M.G. and the Adjutant-General,
both of whose services had been passed chiefly on the staff,
and who had seen little or no service in the field.

The third Brigadier, that of the Cavalry Brigade, a good
comrade, but possessing no military cajwicity whatever, as had
already been disclosed during the previous year while he was
serving under Sir D. Stewart, was again selected for the
command of the cavalry brigade ; even though he had passed
most of his service in Civil employment, in the police, and
had never served in the Cavalry.

The force consisted of two regiments European Infantry,
three batteries of Artillery, three-and-a-half regiments Native
Infantry, two regiments of Native Cavalry, and one small
company of Sappers and Miners.

Europeans. Natives.

7th Royal Fusiliers. 3rd Sind Horse.

66th Berkshire. 3rd Bombay Cavalry.

Artillery- ^^^ Grenadiers.

^" and Belooches.

1 Battery R.H.A. Jacob's Rifles.

I Battery Field. Half of 19th N.I.

1 Battery Heavy. i Company of S. and M.

Of the above force, two Companies 66th, the 2nd Belooches,

two guns Field Artillery, and one Squadron of Cavalry, were

despatched to Khilat-i-Ghilzai to garrison that place, leaving the

7th Royal Fusiliers and six Companies only of the Berkshires,

with two-and-a-half Native Regiments of Infantry, to garrison

the extensive and undefensible cantonments of Kandahar, and

to hold the city and citadel walls of about three-and-a-half

miles perimeter — not much less than that of Sherpur, but

unlike that place, full of turbulent Afghans.


From the first, in spite of the opinions and reports of the
Politicals, the country was unquestionably in a state of ferment
and unrest. Dubrai, one of the posts on the line of communi-
cations, was attacked and looted. There were risings of the
Hotaks in the Turnak Valley, quelled by Colonel Tanner and
the Khilat-i-Ghilzai garrison ; troubles about Quetta ; and
Mullahs were everywhere preaching against the Wali.
Agitation commenced also in the West, among the Zemindawar
tribesmen on the banks of the Helmund, and the Wali had to
move his levies in that direction to control and suppress the
tribesmen. Finally, to add to all this disorder, at the end of
April arrived the intelligence that Sirdar Ayub Khan, the
brother of Yakub Khan, the late Ameer, whom we deposed at
Cabul, was marching from Herat with a large and well-
organized army, and with thirty-two guns, to expel the
infidels from the country. His force consisted of four
regiments of Cavalry, ten of Infantry, and thirty-two guns,
with a numerous following of Irregular Horse and Ghazies.

On the ist June the Wali and his irregular troops, the latter
reported by the Politicals as trustworthy, but well known to all
others as disloyal and disaffected, were moved to the front to
the river Helmund, about eighty miles from Kandahar.
Apparently the political idea was that the Wali could not only
suppress the agitation in Zemindawar, but was strong enough
to meet Ayub Khan in the field. This idea, however, soon
vanished into thin air, for on the 27th June, when Major St.
John officially announced the advance of Ayub Khan, he at
the same time urgently requested General Primrose to send
forward a Brigade of all arms to the Helmund, to encourage
and support the Wali and his levies.

Curiously enough, an exactly similar incident had occurred
at the same place, Kandahar, in the previous Afghan war of
1839-40, but with very different results ; though it is to be
noted that the opposing force was then not nearly so powerful
or so well organized and equipped as that of Ayub. The
Political Officer of that day. Sir H. Rawlinson, on hearing
of a movement made by an Afghan chief, with some
considerable following, towards Kandahar, demanded that a
portion of the garrison should be sent out to meet this force ;
General Nott then in command, a strong and experienced


soldier, refused to entertain this proposition. He stated that
the relative strength of the force he could detail precluded the
certainty of a decided issue in his favour, while a check, if
received by either, involved the fate both of the advanced force
and of those remaining at Kandahar. He then assumed the
ix>litical power, as being, for the time, the responsible head,
awaited the closer arrival of the Afghans, and as soon as they
came within striking distance, marched out with his whole
available strength, attacked, and signally defeated the enemy —
a sensible and well executed operation.

On the proposal of the Political Officer becoming known, a
strong remonstrance was made by the C.R.E. to General
Primrose. He represented not only the numerical inadequacy
of the force proposed to be sent out, but pointed out the
impossibility of provisioning the troops in the Helmund district
for any length of time— which had been proved in the previous
year, when General Biddulph was forced, from want of
supplies, to return — and the perilous condition in which, with
only a garrison of 1200 men of all arms, the city itself might
be placed, while the agitation in the surrounding country was
certain to increase. General Primrose gave in to the urgent
requests of the Political Officer, and proposed to Government
to move forward a Brigade ; and, at the same time, in order to
strengthen his garrison, it was suggested to withdraw the
Khilat-i-Ghilzai force and move up the 4th N. I. from Quetta.
To the former of these proposals Major St. John, the Political
Officer, was averse, and recommended that only one wing of
the 2nd Belooches should be withdrawn, but on this being
referred to the Government of India they refused to allow a
man to be moved from Khilat-i-Ghilzai, so nervous were they
of agitation near Cabul.

In sanctioning such a rash forward movement, the
Government of India had before them : —

(i) The reports of General Biddulph of the previous year,
as to the country's inability to supply forage beyond
a short period, an inability aggravated in the year
1880 by the threatened famine and want of rain.
(2) The fact that the retirement of General Biddulph's
Brigade was followed at once by the general rising
up of the Zemindawar and other tribesmen, who
attacked him on his retreat.


(3) The relative strength of the troops who had been in

action near Cabul as detailed in previous chapters,
and the enforced retirement of General Roberts and
his force of no less than 7,500 men before a rising
of the clansmen.

(4) The probable effect upon the country and tribesmen

of Ayub's advance and the general unrest prevalent
all over the country.

(5) The utter inadequacy of the force (well under goo

bayonets) which would be left for several days to
man the city and hold the Cantonments of
Kandahar, a city of 30,000 inhabitants.

(6) There were only seven Native regiments in Beloo-

chistan and on the line of communications to Sindh
— holding Quetta, and protecting also the line
of railway under construction in the main gorge.
The 15th Queen's and the Battery of Artillery were
at Kurrachie in Sindh, and hence little or no
reinforcements could be made available in good
time, especially as the tribesmen to the north and
west of the Bolan and Chummun routes were in a
state of ferment and unrest.

(7) They should have borne in mind, had they known, the

arguments employed and actions undertaken by
General Nott in the previous campaign of 1839-40.

(8) And, finally, an experienced Indian official, the

Governor of Bombay, Sir R. Temple, had already
pointed out the inadequacy of the Kandahar force,
and urged the addition of another Brigade to its
Yet on the ist of July orders were received from Head-
quarters sanctioning the advance of the Brigade to Ghirisk
on the Helmund, 80 miles distant, but with the fatal proviso
attached, " that on no account was the Helmund to be crossed."
The Commander-in-Chief added that the Khilat-i-Ghilzai garri-
son, in the line of communications, was not to be weakened,
and that troops from the reserve were to be pushed forward
at once, as he considered the force proposed to be left
at Kandahar weak in all arms. This force consisted of one
regiment (the 7th Fusiliers) greatly weakened by sickness, and



one wing of Native Infantry — a force hardly adequate to hold
a large cantonment and a city of 3^^ miles perimeter, full of
turbulent Afghans, ready to take immediate advantage of any
difficulties in which we might become involved.

Notwithstanding this, when General Phayre telegraphed
directly to the Commander-in-Chief from Quetta, urgently
suggesting the advance of his troops towards Kandahar, he
was met with a curt refusal.

Meanwhile crowds of Afghan men and women were daily
leaving the city, and the Political Officer was obliged to
telegraph on 2nd July to the Government of India : " It is
rumoured in the City that talibs are daily taking away arms,
packed in bales of merchandise, for the Gurmsel, with the
intention of joining Ayub, and the disaffected are plucking up
their spirits at the news of Ayub's advance." This information
was not submitted to the military authorities at Kandahar.

On the and July, the Commander-in-Chief in India
telegraphed that the garrison was to be reinforced by the 15th
Foot (East Yorkshire Regiment), one Battery of Artillery (both
miles away in Sindh), one Native Cavalry and two Native
Regiments. This was not carried out, in fact it was impossible
to be done in time as should have been known ; for neither
carriage for corps nor supplies could be procured at short
notice; and nothing should have been attempted or any forward
movement made till their arrival had been assured. Only two
N. I. Regiments got up from the line of communications,
but none of the other troops, except one squadron of the
Poona Horse.

In accordance with above instructions a Brigade under
General Burrows was detailed for advance, consistinsr of : —

I Battery Horse Artillery ...
^ Company Sappers

6 Companies Berkshire, 66th

Jacobs' Rifles

1st Grenadiers

3rd Sindh Horse

3rd Bombay Cavair}-


Thus, incredible though it seems after all the events which
happened during the winter and spring of 1879-80, the force
left to garrison Kandahar and as the sole support of the for-
ward brigade consisted only of : —

1 Squad. Poona Horse with some details of 3rd B.C. and 3

Sindh Horse.
4 Guns Field Artillery.
4 Armstrong's Heavy Battery

2 Mortars

7th Fusiliers not over 550 effective
One wing 19 N.I. 300

Total ... 850 bayonets.

The C.R.E. writes 4th July: "We are left, the remnants

1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryJohn HillsThe Bombay Field Force, 1880 → online text (page 1 of 6)