CHAPTER VIII: MAIWAND AND THE GREAT MARCH
The 24th was a halt day at Khelat-i-Ghilzai, where Sir Frederick Roberts received a letter from General Primrose in Candahar, describing the sortie made on the village of Deh Khoja and giving details of his situation. It was resolved to evacuate Khelat-i-Ghilzai and take on its garrison with the column, which on the 25th resumed its march to Candahar. On his arrival at Tir Andaz on the following day the General found a letter from Candahar, informing him that at the news of the approach of the Cabul force Ayoub Khan had withdrawn from his investment of Candahar, and had shifted his camp to the village of Mazra in the Urgundab valley, nearly due north of Candahar. On the morning of the 27th General Hugh Gough was sent forward with two cavalry regiments a distance of thirty-four miles to Robat, the main column moving on to Khel Akhund, half way to the former place. Gough was accompanied by Captain Straton the principal signalling officer of the force, who was successful in communicating with Candahar, and in the afternoon Colonel St John, Major Leach, and Major Adam rode out to Robat, bringing the information that Ayoub Khan was engaged in strengthening his position in the Urgundab valley, and apparently had the intention to risk the issue of a battle. On the 28th the whole force was concentrated at Robat; and as it was desirable that the troops should reach Candahar fresh and ready for prompt action, the General decided to make the 20th a rest day and divide the nineteen miles from Robat to Candahar into two short marches.
The long forced march from Cabul may be regarded as having ended at Robat. The distance between those two places, 303 miles, had been covered in twenty days. It is customary in a long march to allow two rest days in each week, but Roberts had granted his force but a single rest day in the twenty days of its strenuous march. Including this rest day, the average daily march was a fraction over fifteen miles. As a feat of marching by a regular force of 10,000 men encumbered with baggage and followers, this achievement is unique, and it could have been accomplished only by thorough organisation and steady vigorous energy. Sir Frederick Roberts was so fortunate as to encounter no opposition. For this immunity he was indebted mainly to the stern lessons given to the tribesmen by Sir Donald Stewart at Ahmed Khel and Urzoo while that resolute soldier was marching from Candahar to Cabul, and in a measure also to the good offices of the new Ameer. But it must be remembered that Roberts had no assurance of exemption from hostile efforts to block his path, and that he marched ever ready to fight. It will long be remembered how when Roberts had started on the long swift march, the suspense as to its issue grew and swelled until the strain became intense. The safety of the garrison of Candahar was in grave hazard; the British prestige, impaired by the disaster of Maiwand, was trembling in the balance. The days passed, and there came no news of Roberts and of the 10,000 men with whom the wise, daring little chief had cut loose from any base and struck for his goal through a region of ill repute for fanaticism and bitter hostility. The pessimists among us held him to be rushing on his ruin. But Roberts marched light; he lived on what the country supplied; he gave the tribesmen no time to concentrate against him; and two days in advance of the time he had set himself he reached Candahar at the head of a force in full freshness of vigour and burning with zeal for immediate battle.
While halted at Robat on the 29th Sir Frederick heard from General Phayre that his division had been retarded in its march by lack of transport, but that he hoped to have it assembled at Killa Abdoolla on the 28th, and would be able to move toward Candahar on the 30th. But as Killa Abdoolla is distant some eight marches from Candahar, it was obvious that General Phayre could not arrive in time to share in the impending battle. On the morning of the 31st the Cabul force reached Candahar. Sir Frederick Roberts, who had been suffering from fever for some days, was able to leave his dhooly and mount his horse in time to meet General Primrose and his officers to the east of Deh Khoja. The troops halted and breakfasted outside the Shikapore gate, while General Roberts entered the city and paid a visit to the Wali Shere Ali Khan. On his arrival he assumed command of the troops in Southern Afghanistan; and he remained resting in the city while the Cabul force marched to its selected camping ground near the destroyed cantonments on the north-west of Candahar. A few shots were fired, but the ground was occupied without opposition. Baker's brigade was on the right, camped in rear of Picquet hill, in the centre was Macpherson's brigade sheltered in its front by Karez hill, and on the left among orchards and enclosures was Macgregor's brigade, in rear of which was the cavalry.