CHAPTER VIII: THE SIEGE AND DEFENCE OF JELLALABAD
Sale's brigade, retreating from Gundamuk, reached Jellalabad on the 12th November 1841. An investigation into the state of the fortifications of that place showed them, in their existing condition, to be incapable of resisting a vigorous assault. But it was resolved to occupy the place, and to Captain George Broadfoot, as garrison engineer, was committed the duty of making it defensible. This assuredly was no light task. The enciente was far too extensive for the slender garrison, and its tracing was radically bad. The ramparts were so dilapidated that in places they were scarcely discernible, and the ruins strewn over what should have been the glacis afforded near cover to assailants, whose attitude was already so threatening as to hinder the beginning of repairing operations. Their fire swept the defences, and their braves capered derisively to the strains of a bagpipe on the adjacent rocky elevation, which thenceforth went by the name of 'Piper's Hill.' A sortie on the 15th cleared the environs of the troublesome Afghans, supplies began to come in, and Broad-foot was free to set his sappers to the task of repairing the fortifications, in which work the entrenching tools he had wrenched from the Cabul stores proved invaluable. How greatly Sale had erred in shutting up his force in Jellalabad was promptly demonstrated. The connecting posts of Gundamuk and Peshbolak had to be evacuated; and thus, from Jumrood at the foot of the Khyber up to Cabul, there remained no intermediate post in British possession with the solitary exception of Jellalabad, and communications were entirely interrupted except through the medium of furtive messengers.
The Jellalabad garrison was left unmolested for nearly a fortnight, and the repairs were well advanced when on the 29th the Afghans came down, invested the place, and pushed their skirmishers close up to the walls. On December 1st Colonel Dennie headed a sortie, which worsted the besiegers with considerable slaughter and drove them from the vicinity. Bad news came at intervals from Cabul, and at the new year arrived a melancholy letter from Pottinger, confirming the rumours already rife of the murder of the Envoy, and of the virtual capitulation to which the Cabul force had submitted. A week later an official communication was received from Cabul, signed by General Elphinstone and Major Pottinger, formally announcing the convention which the Cabul force had entered into with the chiefs, and ordering the garrison of Jellalabad forthwith to evacuate that post and retire to Peshawur, leaving behind with 'the new Governor,' an Afghan chief who was the bearer of the humiliating missive, the fortress guns and such stores and baggage as there lacked transport to remove. The council of war summoned by Sale was unanimous in favour of non-compliance with this mandate. Broadfoot urged with vigour that an order by a superior who was no longer a free agent and who issued it under duress, could impose no obligation of obedience. Sale pronounced himself untrammelled by a convention forced from people 'with knives at their throats,' and was resolute in the expression of his determination to hold Jellalabad unless ordered by the Government to withdraw.
More and more ominous tidings poured in from Cabul. A letter received on January both reported the Cabul force to be still in the cantonments, living utterly at the mercy of the Afghans; another arriving on the 12th told of the abandonment of the cantonments and the beginning of the march, but that the forlorn wayfarers were lingering in detention at Bootkhak, halted in their misery by the orders of Akbar Khan. Those communications in a measure prepared the people in Jellalabad for disaster, but not for the awful catastrophe of which Dr Brydon had to tell, when in the afternoon of the 13th the lone man, whose approach to the fortress Lady Butler's painting so pathetically depicts, rode through the Cabul gate of Jellalabad. Dr Brydon was covered with cuts and contusions, and was utterly exhausted. His first few hasty sentences extinguished all hope in the hearts of the listeners regarding their Cabul comrades and friends.
There was naturally great excitement in Jellalabad, but no panic. The working parties were called in, the assembly was sounded, the gates were closed, the walls were lined, and the batteries were manned; for it was believed for the moment that the enemy were in full pursuit of fugitives following in Brydon's track. The situation impressed Broadfoot with the conviction that a crisis had come in the fortunes of the Jellalabad garrison. He thought it his duty to lay before the General the conditions of the critical moment which he believed to have arrived, pointing out to him that the imperative alternatives were that he should either firmly resolve on the defence of Jellalabad to the last extremity, or that he should make up his mind to a retreat that very night, while as yet retreat was practicable. Sale decided on holding on to the place, and immediately announced to the Commander-in-Chief his resolve to persevere in a determined defence, relying on the promise of the earliest possible relief.