CHAPTER VII: THE CATASTROPHE
The ill-omened evacuation by our doomed people of the cantonments wherein for two months they had undergone every extremity of humiliation and contumely, was begun on the dreary winter morning of January 6th, 1842. Snow lay deep on plain and hill-side; the cruel cold, penetrating through the warmest clothing, bit fiercely into the debilitated and thinly clad frames of the sepoys and the great horde of camp followers. The military force which marched out of cantonments consisted of about 4500 armed men, of whom about 690 were Europeans, 2840 native soldiers on foot, and 970 native cavalrymen. The gallant troop of Company's Horse-Artillery marched out with its full complement of six guns, to which, with three pieces of the mountain train, the artillery arm of the departing force was restricted by the degrading terms imposed by the Afghan chiefs. In good heart and resolutely commanded, a body of disciplined troops thus constituted, and of a fighting strength so respectable, might have been trusted not only to hold its own against Afghan onslaught, but if necessary to take the offensive with success. But alas, the heart of the hapless force had gone to water, its discipline was a wreck, its chiefs were feeble and apathetic; its steps were dogged by the incubus of some 12,000 camp followers, with a great company of women and children. The awful fate brooded over its forlorn banners of expiating by its utter annihilation, the wretched folly and sinister prosecution of the enterprise whose deserved failure was to be branded yet deeper on the gloomiest page of our national history, by the impending catastrophe of which the dark shadow already lay upon the blighted column.
The advance began to move out from cantonments at nine A.M. The march was delayed at the river by the non-completion of the temporary bridge, and the whole of the advance was not across until after noon. The main body under Shelton, which was accompanied by the ladies, invalids, and sick, slowly followed. It as well as the advance was disorganised from the first by the throngs of camp followers with the baggage, who could not be prevented from mixing themselves up with the troops. The Afghans occupied the cantonments as portion after portion was evacuated by our people, rending the air with their exulting cries, and committing every kind of atrocity. It was late in the afternoon before the long train of camels following the main body had cleared the cantonments; and meanwhile the rear-guard was massed outside, in the space between the rampart and the canal, among the chaos of already abandoned baggage. It was exposed there to a vicious jezail fire poured into it by the Afghans, who abandoned the pleasures of plunder and arson for the yet greater joy of slaughtering the Feringhees. When the rear-guard moved away in the twilight, an officer and fifty men were left dead in the snow, the victims of the Afghan fire from the rampart of the cantonment; and owing to casualties in the gun teams it had been found necessary to spike and abandon two of the horse-artillery guns.
The rear-guard, cut into from behind by the pestilent ghazees, found its route encumbered with heaps of abandoned baggage around which swarmed Afghan plunderers. Other Afghans, greedier for blood than for booty, were hacking and slaying among the numberless sepoys and camp followers who had dropped out of the column, and were lying or sitting on the wayside in apathetic despair, waiting for death and careless whether it came to them by knife or by cold. Babes lay on the snow abandoned by their mothers, themselves prostrate and dying a few hundred yards further on. It was not until two o'clock of the following morning that the rear-guard reached the straggling and chaotic bivouac in which its comrades lay in the snow at the end of the first short march of six miles. Its weary progress had been illuminated by the conflagration raging in the cantonments, which had been fired by the Afghan fanatics, rabid to erase every relic of the detested unbelievers.
It was a night of bitter cold. Out in the open among the snow, soldiers and camp followers, foodless, fireless, and shelterless, froze to death in numbers, and numbers more were frost-bitten. The cheery morning noise of ordinary camp life was unheard in the mournful bivouac. Captain Lawrence outlines a melancholy picture. 'The silence of the men betrayed their despair and torpor. In the morning I found lying close to me, stiff, cold, and quite dead, in full regimentals, with his sword drawn in his hand, an old grey-haired conductor named Macgregor, who, utterly exhausted, had lain down there silently to die.' Already defection had set in. One of the Shah's infantry regiments and his detachment of sappers and miners had deserted bodily, partly during the march of the previous day, partly in the course of the night.