CHAPTER VI: AHMED KHEL
While Sir Frederick Roberts had been fighting hard in North-Eastern Afghanistan, Sir Donald Stewart had been experiencing comparative tranquillity in his Candahar command. As soon as the news reached him of the destruction of Cavagnari's mission he had promptly concentrated his troops, and so early as the third week of September (1879) he was in a position to carry out his orders to create a diversion in aid of Roberts' advance on Cabul by making a demonstration in the direction of Ghuznee and placing a garrison in Khelat-i-Ghilzai. No subsequent movements of importance were undertaken in Southern Afghanistan during the winter, and the province enjoyed almost unbroken quietude. In Herat, however, disturbance was rife. Ayoub Khan, the brother of Yakoub Khan, had returned from exile and made good his footing in Herat, of which formerly he had been conjoint governor with Yakoub. In December he began a hostile advance on Candahar, but a conflict broke out between the Cabul and Herat troops under his command, and he abandoned for the time his projected expedition.
In the end of March Sir Donald Stewart began the march toward Cabul which orders from India had prescribed. He left behind him in Candahar the Bombay division of his force under the command of Major-General Primrose, whose line of communication with the Indus valley was to be kept open by Phayre's brigade, and took with him on the northward march the Bengal division, consisting of two infantry brigades and a cavalry brigade. The first infantry brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General Barter, the second by Brigadier-General Hughes, and the cavalry brigade, which divisional headquarters accompanied, by Brigadier-General Palliser. Khelat-i-Ghilzai was reached on 6th April; the Bengal portion of its garrison joined the division and the advance was resumed on the following day. Until Shahjui, the limit of the Candahar province, the march was uneventful; but beyond that place extreme difficulties were experienced in procuring supplies, for the villages were found deserted and the inhabitants had carried off, destroyed, or hidden their stores of grain. The force was embarrassed by a horde of Hazaras, who swarmed in wild irregularity on its flanks, plundering and burning with great vindictiveness, eager to wreak vengeance on their Afghan foes. And it had another although more distant companionship, in the shape of several thousand hostile tribesmen and ghazees, whose fanaticism their moullas had been assiduously inciting, and who marched day by day parallel with the British right flank along the foothills at a distance of about eight miles. Their attitude was threatening but it was not thought wise to meddle with them, since their retreat over the hills could not well be cut off, and since the policy of non-interference would tend to encourage them to venture on a battle. The soundness of this reasoning was soon to be made manifest.
On the night of April 18th the division was encamped at Mushaki, about thirty miles south of Ghuznee. The spies that evening brought in the information that the enemy had resolved on fighting on the following morning, and that the position they intended to take up was the summit of a low spur of the Gul Koh mountain ridge, bounding on the west the valley followed by the road. This spur was said to project in a north-easterly direction toward the Ghuznee river, gradually sinking into the plain. During a great part of its length it flanked and overhung the road, but near where it merged into the plain the road passed over it by a low saddle at a point about six miles beyond Mushaki. At dawn of the 19th the column moved off, Palliser leading the advance, which Sir Donald Stewart accompanied, Hughes commanding the centre, Barter bringing up the rear and protecting the baggage. An hour later the enemy were visible in great strength about three miles in advance, presenting the aspect of a vast body formed up on the spur and on the saddle crossed by the road, and thus threatening Stewart at once in front and on both flanks. The British general at once made his dispositions. His guns were on the road in column of route. The three infantry regiments of Hughes' brigade came up to the left of and in line with the leading battery, the cavalry took ground on the plain on its right, and a reserve was formed consisting of an infantry regiment, two companies sappers and miners, and the General's escort of a troop and two companies. Orders were sent back to Barter to send forward without delay half the infantry of his brigade. In the formation described the force resumed its advance until within striking distance. Then the two batteries came into action on either side of the road; the horse-battery on the right, the flat ground to its right being covered by the 2d Punjaub Cavalry; the field-battery on the left. Sir Donald Stewart's proper front thus consisted of the field and horse-batteries with their supports, but since it was apparent that the greatest strength of the enemy was on the higher ground flanking his left, it behoved him to show a front in that direction also, and for this purpose he utilised Hughes' three infantry regiments, of which the 59th was on the right, the 2d Sikhs in the centre, and the 3d Goorkhas on the left. Part of the reserve infantry was sent to make good the interval between the left of the artillery and the right of the infantry.