Sentry of the 13th Hussars at Kandahar
Lieutenant Robert Baden-Powell


The Afghan War—The Great March—Ordered up to Kandahar—A Warlike Atmosphere—The Expedition of I842—The Camel and His Ways—Kandahar—A Dangerous City—Theatricals Under Difficulties—A Serious Mistake—Afghan Nerve—Attacked by Ghazis —The Crack of Doom—The Field of Maiwand—A Broken Square—A Heroic Chaplain—A Narrow Escape

IN India every star pales before the sun of war. lt is scarcely realised, yet it is none the less a fact, that there was hardly a single year throughout the long reign of Queen Victoria in which there was not war in some form in one part or another of Her Majesty’s empire.

If no other quarter was able to supply it the North-West Frontier of India generally managed to have one on hand. Pigsticking, big-game shooting, polo, theatricals; all are forgotten when the Tribes are out and the excitement of war is upon the land. The hours are then occupied in speculating as to who will get staff-appointments, what regiments will be ordered to the front and, tragedy of tragedies, who will be left behind.

In 1880 we were at war with the Afghans under Ayub Khan. It happened this way. Owing to supposed machinations of the Russians with the Ameer of Afghanistan, an expedition was sent to Kabul in November 1878. This force passed through the Khyber Pass and took up its position at Jalalabad and other places on the road to Kabul. At the same time Sir Donald Stewart marched a force through the Bolan Pass into Baluchistan and seized Kandahar. Sir Frederick (now Earl) Roberts, with a third force, marched up into the Kuram valley and on into Afghanistan, defeating the Afghan troops at Paiwar Kotal.

Under these defeats the Ameer Shere Ali fled the country and died soon afterwards. He was succeeded by his son, Yakub Khan, who then made terms with the British, whose troops left the country, while Major Cavagnari was installed as British Resident at Kabul. A few months later this officer and his staff were massacred, whereupon a fresh expedition was sent into Afghanistan under Sir Frederick Roberts who, after defeating the Afghans at Charasia, took the city of Kabul and captured Yakub Khan. His force was then cut off by a rising of the Afghans; but was relieved by Sir Donald Stewart from Kandahar.

Abdurrahman was now made Ameer (1880) on condition that he remained an ally of the British; but Ayub Khan, a son of the late Ameer, had meantime raised a force in Persia and advanced from Herat against Kandahar. A British force, consisting of about 2,500 British and native troops under General Burrows, went out to oppose him. They met near Maiwand in a heavy mist and our force was surrounded and defeated with heavy loss. In this fight 961 of our officers and men were killed and 168 were wounded or missing.

Kandahar was then besieged by the Afghans, and two columns were sent to its relief, one under Sir Frederick Roberts from Kabul, the other from India under General Phayre. The 13th Hussars were ordered from Lucknow to join the latter force and, together with the 78th Highlanders, formed its rear guard as it entered Afghanistan through Baluchistan. Sir Frederick Roberts’ force of 10,000 men, by a rapid march of 313 miles from Kabul through the mountains, which has become famous, won the race and attacked and defeated the Afghans with heavy loss. This practically ended the war. Our force, marching up through the difficult Bolan Pass and over the Kojak range, reached Kandahar after it was all over.

I had just then returned to India from sick-leave only to discover on my arrival at Lucknow that the regiment had already a few days previously gone on to the front. I find in my diary the following entry (which leads me to think that I was in those days a fairly callous beggar):

"Here’s a jolly lark ! A telegram came at twelve last night ordering me to get two chargers and to go up to Kandahar immediately, so I am off tomorrow. To-day I am busy fitting out with warm clothes, horses, camp equipment, etc."

That day a new doctor had arrived at Lucknow for the regiment, and as I was the only officer there he reported himself to me. He was accompanied by a lad of apparently about fourteen. After some conversation, in the course of which he agreed to join me in my journey to overtake the regiment, I asked: " What will you do with your son ? " " My son ? This is not my son. This is an officer who has come to join the 13th. And so the youth turned out to be McLaren, who on account of his appearance was fated ever afterwards to be called "the Boy."

We arranged to start without delay and next day saw us en route by train for the North-West Frontier.

McLaren had no horses but trusted to getting some at Lahore, where we stopped a day; and he picked up two. Next day we went on by train to Multan and thence up the new Kandahar line as far as Sibi, the base of supplies for Afghanistan. The train simply stopped in the middle of the desert among a heap of baggage, bales of clothes, thousands of ponies, camels, mules, and millions of flies, etc. There were no houses, simply sand and rocks—and flies. In fact, the natives say of it: "When God had made Hell He found it was not bad enough, so He made Sibi—and added flies."

Here we pitched our tent and had rations served out to us, just the same as to the men. Next day we went on to the end of the temporary line to the foot of the mountains, Pirchowkee. Here the railway ended, no station or anything; we simply got out of the train, saddled our horses, and rode to camp a little way off, where transport ponies were supplied, seven between two of us. We slept the night there in a shed and then packed our things on to the ponies, ourselves on to our horses, and started the march early in the morning. We went through mountains, along the course of a river which we crossed twelve times that day in twelve miles, and stopped for the night at a " station," i.e., three tents and a food store.

For six days we marched, mainly along the gorge through which the river ran, over boulders, sand, and stones all the way. It was a jolly life, although the scenery generally was beastly—arid rocks and boulders. For the last march the road was perfectly straight for eighteen miles, over white boulders in the glaring sun, with a low ridge of mountains five miles away on either side, and not a sight of vegetation all the time.

Here we began to get into touch with active service. For the first time we saw everybody walking about with revolvers on. We always carried them. At the first camp we stopped at, some friendly natives came in all covered with wounds which they had just got from some Afghans, and we passed another wounded man on the road. We were told that in going up the road the 13th found the bodies of three men with their hands tied and their throats cut.

I met two fellows who said that they thought I might catch the regiment up at Quetta if I hurried, so I left my pals (Fraser our doctor, Moore our " vet." and McLaren, all going to join the 13th). and went on with two horses and one pony. I shoved a pair of panniers on "Clown," my second charger, in which were my clothes and the horses’ blankets, and I put my tent and bedding on the pony, and myself, Jock, and regimental saddle on " Hagarene," and with my bearer and one syce I started off. I left these to come over as best they could, and I plugged on in double marches, doing forty-four miles m two days over very bad ground, which brought me to Quetta. The pony caved in on the way and did not get in.

To my great disappointment I found that the regiment had been gone three days and that it a]so had been doing double marches. As it would be impossible to catch it up, I remained at Quetta for a few days and the other fellows joined me on the following day. It was great fun, that ride by myself—twenty miles of it was across sandy desert and I met several small parties of Afghans, some of them armed. They do not go for Europeans at all, but still I watched their shadows after we had passed each other to make sure that they did not come at me from behind and stick me, as they would have done had they been Ghazis. After Quetta, we were not allowed to travel alone, as that was the enemy’s country, and every party had sent with it an escort of native cavalry.

The 9th Lancers arrived from Kandahar whilst we were at Quetta, twelve days’ march distant. They had been up there two years on service and were a very ragged-looking crew in consequence, but fine and healthy. They had met the 13th and camped together for one night, and I believe it was a very wonderful night for both ! We had in our mess champagne and glasses, neither of which they had seen for years, and I believe they made the most of the occasion, as they said they did. Also our band played to them, and they had not heard a band for a long time, and our men groomed their horses for them because the two regiments were old friends.

It was interesting at Quetta to see reminders of the former expedition of 1842 in the shape of mud platforms on which the tents of the forts used to stand. Evidently they did themselves well in the way of number and size of tents, and in placing them high above the surrounding ground and fitting them with good fire-places and chimneys.

By the time we were ready to leave Quetta, our party had grown to seven, together with half a dozen men of the 13th who had been left behind with fever. We had awful work to get over the Kojak, a high range of mountains which divides British territory from Afghanistan. We had eleven bullock-carts, five ponies and mules, and twelve camels. The steep rough road was a tremendous strain on all the animals, especially the camels, when the road was at all wet. Their feet seem to slip in all directions and they were very apt to split themselves by their legs sliding apart.

An’ when ‘e comes to greasy ground ‘e splits ‘isself in two.

The consequence was dead camels on either side of the road all the way along and a splendid aroma. I estimated that there was a dead camel to every yard of road over that pass, and climbing up it in a hurry one was afraid to pant for fear of sucking in the awful smell. We should never have got over the pass had we not met with a company of native infantry and a lot of tame Afghans, whom we set to work to haul up the carts. When we were over, the going down the other side was just as bad, the road being terribly steep and zig-zagging down the precipice. The carts had ropes behind with men hanging on to prevent them from running away down hill and going over the cliff instead of turning at the corners. We got into camp long after dark, in a storm of sleet, and had to keep a pretty good look-out for Afghan thieves, who were all round trying to steal rifles if they got a chance.

Kandahar was to me a wonderfully interesting place, but not quite so large as I had expected. It was a city of flat-roofed houses and narrow alleys closely bottled-up by huge grey walls with towers. We quartered at a place called Kokoran, a village about seven miles to the front of Kandahar. It was much better being there, as we were in wild open country where it was comparatively healthy. In Kandahar there was a good deal of sickness; the 11th Devonshire Regiment lost eighty-five men in less than three months and the 78th Highlanders also lost a great number. At one place on the march where they had camped we saw written up on the rocks, " Kilts for sale here," meaning that a lot of men had died. The ground round about us was the scene of Lord Roberts’ fight when he relieved Kandahar a few months previously. The Afghans after their defeat fled up into the neighbouring mountains and hid in the caves. One of the Ghoorka regiments on their own initiative followed them and got right away from their officers, and nothing was known of them until a good many hours later, when a few came in to Kandahar to ask for food and ammunition for the rest, as they had marked all the Afghans down into different caves and were quietly waiting for them to come out again to be killed.

One day our doctor picked up a visiting-card of McLean’s, the man who was a prisoner in Ayub Khan’s camp and was there murdered. He found the card near a well-hole out in the herds, probably where he had taken refuge and been captured.

Kandahar itself, which I visited many times, was a strange place and more than a trifle dangerous. All the officers and men went about armed, most officers carrying a hog-spear, some of them revolvers. I had a long stout stick with a lanyard to it, and a beautiful smile which I expected would disarm anybody ! But amongst the crowd there were very often fanatics or Ghazis who were only too anxious to stick their knives into a European, as they believed that if they were then killed in consequence of their act they would go straight to Heaven.

A stable in the city containing all the ordnance and commissariat stores was covered thickly with shotmarks received during the siege. The sand-bags were still up on the ramparts, and everywhere were to be seen signs of the fighting that had so recently taken place. Outside the main gate was a rough gallows where Ghazis were strung up every few days. All the soldiers had to carry revolvers or bayonets when they went for a stroll. Even when a man was going only ten yards from the barrack-room to get water from the stream he would carry a drawn bayonet in his hand. It was a very necessary precaution, as the fanatics generally pounced on them without warning.

One day the sentry of the main gate was stabbed in the back by a Ghazi and killed on the spot. The Ghazi then walked into the guard-room, threw his blood-stained knife on the table and gave himself up to be hanged. The sentries were all doubled in consequence and worked back to back. The sentries at Kokoran, instead of carrying their carbines, carried drawn swords as being more handy for a hand-to-hand contest. We got up a small theatrical performance, and it was amusing to see the men going to rehearsal just outside the fortified buildings in which we lived, each man carrying his sword in his hand. The swords were stuck into the ground to mark out the limits of our stage, and at the same time be handy in case of attack.

When they propose to go to Heaven the Ghazis dress themselves in clean white clothes and refuse to take food or to cut their hair until they have succeeded in killing an unbeliever. It is then best for them to get killed themselves before they have time to meet with temptation, and to commit further sins. A Ghazi came hovering round our camp one day, but, failing to find a white man unprepared for his rush, he stabbed one of our native followers, believing him to be a native Christian. He then gave himself up, and was tried and condemned to death. He was asked why he had killed one of his own religion. The news that he had done so horrified him, and he asked if he might be released, as it was al1 a mistake, and he would have every chance now of going to the wrong place. On the occasion of his execution another man was to be hanged, a Hindu native follower who had murdered an Afghan woman. When they were on the scaffold some of the supports gave way and the whole thing collapsed before the execution had been completed. So the two prisoners were put on one side while the scaffolding was again erected. Then the difference of character between the two men showed itself. The Afghan, though bleeding from a wound in the head incurred in the fall, started to work in helping to re-build the gallows, while the Hindu cowered in misery awaiting his end.

At Quetta again we were bothered by Ghazis. On one occasion a gunner had a lucky escape. When walking down a native street in the bazaar there was a sudden flash of light on the wall alongside him. This gave him such a start that he involuntarily jumped away from it, and the next moment a big knife descended harmlessly over his shoulder, just grazing him when otherwise it would have plunged into his back. The Ghazi was seized before he could do any further harm and was afterwards hanged.

On the occasion of his execution there were two others also to be hanged. Three gallows posts were therefore erected in the market-place, each with a separate drop worked by a separate man. When the three criminals were placed ready with the nooses round their necks the Commissioner directed that the drops should be pulled simultaneously when he gave the signal by cracking his hunting crop. Two of the executioners watched him, the other only listened for the crack. The Commissioner slung the lash round his head but failed to make the required noise, consequently two malefactors were at once dangling in the air, while the third, with the listening executioner, still remained awaiting the fatal signal.

The attempts by the Ghazis on the lives of white men were finally put a stop to by the proclamation being made that any man hanged in future would have a dead dog buried with him; as this would entirely prevent his soul getting to Heaven the murder of white men lost its charm for them.

My diary tells me that I was entirely opposed to the authorities upon the question of making a fuss about Afghanistan. With all the assurance of a subaltern I wrote:

"I do not know what is the good of keeping this country; it is nearly all a howling desert, with a little cultivation along the few river banks. However, personally, I do not mind how long they keep it, it is a jolly climate. These Afghans are awful-looking sportsmen, fine big fellows with great hooked noses and long hair, in loose white clothing, and very’ murderous. Since we have been here six of our native servants have disappeared and have never been seen again. One of them was the head cook of our mess; we suspected a village near by of murdering him, for he went to buy eggs, so we sent a squadron out there with the political officer and they searched the place, but of course found no signs of the old boy; if they had they would have probably hanged some of the villagers and burned the place."

I had a very interesting three days’ outing at Maiwand with a reconnoitring squadron. With us went General Wilkinson, Colonel St. John, and several other swells. A few miles from Kokoran we came across the marks of gun wheels where our guns had made their escape from the massacre. They had come round the end of a spur of mountains, which made rather a long detour, and it was said that the Afghans had come a shorter cut through the mountains and so harassed their retreat. Therefore we made a bee line for the mountains to see if we could discover the short cut, and before long we came on wheel marks, which we afterwards discovered were those of Ayub Khan’s guns. Following these up we came to a pass in the mountains which the Afghans had used, but of which our people had no knowledge. It was a wonderfully picturesque, steep, rocky gorge, and as we passed through it we could see a number of ibex outlined on the cliffs above us watching our progress. The battlefield was a big, open, sandy and stony plain, and we camped about a mile from it.

Everything was very much as it had been left after the fight. Any amount of dead horses were lying about, mummified by the sun and dry air. There had been no rain and apparently very little wind since the battle was fought, and the footmarks and wheel tracks were perfectly clear in every direction. Lines of empty cartridge cases showed where the heaviest fighting had taken place: wheel-tracks and hoof-marks showed where the guns had moved, dead camels and mules showed the line of the baggage train. Dead men lay in all directions; most of them had been hurriedly buried, but in many cases the graves had been dug open again by jackals. Clothes, accoutrements, preserved food, etc., were strewn all over the place. In one spot the whole of an Afghan gun team, six white horses with pink-dyed tails, had been killed in a heap by one of our shells.

The British brigade in marching early in the morning had sent out a reconnoitring party to visit the only watering place on the desert to the westward, and this patrol had returned saying there were no enemy there. It was therefore at once assumed that no enemy were in the neighbourhood, but, as subsequently transpired, the patrol had not been to the right place and the enemy were there all the time. That morning a heavy mist hung over the plain and the Afghan army had crossed just in front of the advance of the brigade, neither party being aware of the other’s presence. Our advance guard, seeing a few men retiring into the mist, had fired after them This had brought the Afghans back to attack us.

Unknown to the British a deep ravine ran in a horse-shoe form almost entirely round the spot on which the brigade was standing. The brigade formed a square to receive the attack, expecting to see the enemy coming across the open, instead of which the Afghans poured down the nullah by thousands unseen, and then suddenly made their attack from three sides at once. Some Bombay cavalry, ordered out to charge them, swerved under their attack and charged into the rear of our own men, and the native infantry broke and ran with them through the ranks of the Berkshire Regiment, the 66th. These stuck to their post as well as they could but were driven back, and then held one position after another to cover the retreat of the remainder, but in the end were practically wiped out in doing so. They made their last stand at a long, low mud wall and ditch. It was at this spot that one of the men waved his hand cheerily to the Horse Artillery getting their guns away, and cried that historic farewell: "Good luck to you. It’s all up with the bally old Berkshires!" They were all killed here, and the shortest way of burying them was to throw down the wall on the top of them.

Sir Oliver St. John was present at the fight and succeeded in getting away, splendidly helped by a great Afghan orderly. This man, finding that his master’s collie dog was missing when they were in full flight, turned back to the scene of the fight and recovered the dog and brought him with them. The Roman Catholic chaplain to the troops also behaved with conspicuous gallantry, carrying on his back a big skin of water and helping the wounded with it. He would probably never have escaped himself had not some gunners seized him and put him on to one of their limbers, which was making its way to the rear.

I had to make two maps of the battlefield for General Wilkinson and the Commander-in-Chief. The Colonel also asked me to do one for him to send to Sir Garnet Wolseley. I brought back some mementos from the battlefield, a shell, also the hoof of a horse of E. Battery Royal Horse Artillery —he belonged to the one gun which went to the front and fired on the Afghan rear guard and so began the battle. I have also a belt stained with blood and a leaf out of Sir Garnet Wolseley’s pocketbook, which was found close by one of the officers.

From: Baden-Powell, Memories of India, 1915.

  Forward by Sir Robert Baden-Powell
  From Chapter III. The Sport of Kings and the King of Sports. B-P tells an amusing story of Young Winston Churchill, his devotion to the sport of polo, and early evidence of his talent for public speaking.
  Chapter IX. The Aftermath of War. The Image of War—Patrols and Picnics A Curious Superstition—Jock Fights a Wild Cat—Afghan Depredations—Relics of Alexander the Great—Camp Rumours —Abdurrahman Waits—The Horses Stampede—A Subaltern’s Opinion of the Government—A Study in Contrasts—Rifle Stealing—An Ingenious Plan—Further Losses—I Shoot Myself—I Hear my Death Announced —Digging for the Bullet—Convalescence—Stalked by a Leopard—A Rough and Tumble
  Chapter XI. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright. A Possible Interrogation—I Go in Pursuit of Tigers— Smith-Dorrien at Work—The Party Meets—The Old Hands—A Native Weakness—How to Beat for Tigers— A Dead Enemy—A Native Village—Nearly a Fatality— Camp Literature—I Become Doctor—I Get a Bear— Camp Life—A Tiger’s Wings—The Mahout—The Tables Turned—Table Delicacies—Jungle Yachts— The End of the Ghost
  Chapter XII. A Frontier Row. The Value of the North-West Frontier—Village Warfare —Readiness and Efficiency—How an Irishman Got a Dog and a Breakfast for Nothing—Trouble in the Buner Country—The Subaltern in War-time—The Pessimistic Afridi—A Terrified Jehu—Sniping—The Morning of the Fight—Sir Bindon’s Dispositions—The Artillery Triumphs—Touching the Button—Rock-rolling—An Exciting Race—The Bravest Man I Ever Saw—The Enemy in Retreat—An Exhausting Climb—The Tribute of a Foe—The Trophies of War—Our Casualties
  Chapter XIV. The Elephant as Gentleman. Sentiment About the Elephant—His Mathematical Mind—"Dandelion’s" Idiosyncrasies—Her Courage in the Face of an Enemy—The Elephant Who Died—A Problem in Sanitation—The Jungle Ship—Sea Legs— The Genius of the Elephant—His Timidity—Jock’s Victory—The Duchess of Connaught’s Adventure— The Elephant’s Caution—He Utilises Human Material— A Malefactor Flogged by Elephants—The Elephant in War—An Elephant Fight

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A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career.
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