CHAPTER VII: THE CATASTROPHE
It was not until noon that the living mass of men and animals was once more in motion. The troops were in utter disorganisation; the baggage was mixed up with the advance guard; the camp followers were pushing ahead in precipitate panic. The task before the wretched congeries of people was to thread the stupendous gorge of the Khoord Cabul pass - a defile about five miles long, hemmed in on either hand by steeply scarped hills. Down the bottom of the ravine dashed a mountain torrent, whose edges were lined with thick layers of ice, on which had formed glacier-like masses of snow. The 'Jaws of Death' were barely entered when the slaughter began. With the advance rode several Afghan chiefs, whose followers, by their command, shouted to the Ghilzais lining the heights to hold their fire, but the tribesmen gave no heed to the mandate. Lady Sale rode with the chiefs. The Ghilzai fire at fifty yards was close and deadly. The men of the advance fell fast. Lady Sale had a bullet in her arm, and three more through her dress. But the weight of the hostile fire fell on the main column, the baggage escort, and the rear-guard. Some of the ladies, who mostly were on camels which were led with the column, had strange adventures. On one camel was quite a group. In one of its panniers were Mrs Boyd and her little son, in the other Mrs Mainwaring, with her own infant and Mrs Anderson's eldest child. The camel fell, shot. A Hindustanee trooper took up Mrs Boyd en croupe, and carried her through in safety; another horseman behind whom her son rode, was killed, and the boy fell into Afghan hands. The Anderson girl shared the same fate. Mrs Mainwaring, with her baby in her arms, attempted to mount a baggage pony, but the load upset, and she pursued her way on foot. An Afghan horseman rode at her, threatened her with his sword, and tried to drag away the shawl in which she carried her child. She was rescued by a sepoy grenadier, who shot the Afghan dead, and then conducted the poor lady along the pass through the dead and dying, through, also, the close fire which struck down people near to her, almost to the exit of the pass, when a bullet killed the chivalrous sepoy, and Mrs Mainwaring had to continue her tramp to the bivouac alone.
A very fierce attack was made on the rear-guard, consisting of the 44th. In the narrow throat of the pass the regiment was compelled to halt by a block in front, and in this stationary position suffered severely. A flanking fire told heavily on the handful of European infantry. The belated stragglers masked their fire, and at length the soldiers fell back, firing volleys indiscriminately into the stragglers and the Afghans. Near the exit of the pass a commanding position was maintained by some detachments which still held together, strengthened by the only gun now remaining, the last but one having been abandoned in the gorge. Under cover of this stand the rear of the mass gradually drifted forward while the Afghan pursuit was checked, and at length all the surviving force reached the camping ground. There had been left dead in the pass about 500 soldiers and over 2500 camp followers.
Akbar and the chiefs, taking the hostages with them, rode forward on the track of the retreating force. Akbar professed that his object was to stop the firing, but Mackenzie writes that Pottinger said to him: 'Mackenzie, remember if I am killed that I heard Akbar Khan shout "Slay them!" in Pushtoo, although in Persian he called out to stop the firing.' The hostages had to be hidden away from the ferocious ghazees among rocks in the ravine until near evening, when in passing through the region of the heaviest slaughter they 'came upon one sight of horror after another. All the bodies were stripped. There were children cut in two. Hindustanee women as well as men - some frozen to death, some literally chopped to pieces, many with their throats cut from ear to ear.'
Snow fell all night on the unfortunates gathered tentless on the Khoord Cabul camping ground. On the morning of the 9th the confused and disorderly march was resumed, but after a mile had been traversed a halt for the day was ordered at the instance of Akbar Khan, who sent into camp by Captain Skinner a proposal that the ladies and children, with whose deplorable condition he professed with apparent sincerity to sympathise, should be made over to his protection, and that the married officers should accompany their wives; he pledging himself to preserve the party from further hardships and dangers, and afford its members safe escort through the passes in rear of the force. The General had little faith in the Sirdar, but he was fain to give his consent to an arrangement which promised alleviation to the wretchedness of the ladies, scarce any of whom had tasted a meal since leaving Cabul. Some, still weak from childbirth, were nursing infants only a few days old; other poor creatures were momentarily apprehending the pangs of motherhood. There were invalids whose only attire, as they rode in the camel panniers or shivered on the snow, was the nightdresses they wore when leaving the cantonments in their palanquins, and none possessed anything save the clothes on their backs. It is not surprising, then, that dark and doubtful as was the future to which they were consigning themselves, the ladies preferred its risks and chances to the awful certainties which lay before the doomed column. The Afghan chief had cunningly made it a condition of his proffer that the husbands should accompany their wives, and if there was a struggle in the breasts of the former between public and private duties, the General humanely decided the issue by ordering them to share the fortunes of their families.