CHAPTER IX: THE BATTLE OF CANDAHAR

Although Yakoub Khan had ceased to beleaguer Candahar, he had withdrawn from that fortress but a very short distance, and the position he had taken up was of considerable strength. The Urgundab valley is separated on the north-west from the Candahar plain by a long precipitous spur trending south-west from the mountainous mass forming the eastern boundary of the valley further north. Where the spur quits the main range, due north of the city, the Murcha Pass affords communication between the Candahar plain and the Urgundab valley. The spur, its summit serrated by alternate heights and depressions, is again crossed lower down by an easy pass known as the Babawali Kotul. It is continued beyond this saddle for about a mile, still maintaining its south-westerly trend, never losing its precipitous character, and steeply scarped on its eastern face; and it finally ends in the plain in a steep descent of several hundred feet. The section of it from the Babawali Kotul to its south-western termination is known as the Pir Paimal hill, from a village of that name in the valley near its extremity. Ayoub Khan had made his camp near the village of Mazra, behind the curtain formed by the spur described, and about a mile higher up in the valley than the point at which the spur is crossed by the road over the Babawali Kotul. He was thus, with that point artificially strengthened and defended by artillery, well protected against a direct attack from the direction of Candahar, and was exposed only to the risk of a turning movement round the extremity of the Pir Paimal hill. Such a movement might be made the reverse of easy. A force advancing to attempt it must do so exposed to fire from the commanding summit of the Pir Paimal; around the base of that elevation there were several plain villages, and an expanse of enclosed orchards and gardens which strongly held were capable of stubborn defence. In the valley behind the Pir Paimal hill there was the lofty detached Kharoti hill, the fire from which would meet in the teeth a force essaying the turning movement; and the interval between the two hills, through which was the access to the Mazra camps, was obstructed by deep irrigation channels whose banks afforded cover for defensive fire, and could be swept by a cross fire from the hills on either flank.

Sir Frederick Roberts at a glance had perceived that a direct attack by the Babawali Kotul must involve very heavy loss, and he resolved on the alternative of turning the Afghan position. A reconnaissance was made on the afternoon of the 31st by General Gough, accompanied by Colonel Chapman. He penetrated to within a short distance of the village of Pir Paimal, where it was ascertained that the enemy were strongly entrenched, and where several guns were unmasked. A great deal of valuable information was obtained before the enemy began to interfere with the leisurely withdrawal. The cavalry suffered little, but the Sikh infantry covering the retirement of the reconnaissance were hard pressed by great masses of Afghan regulars and irregulars. So boldly did the enemy come on that the third and part of the first brigade came into action, and the firing did not cease until the evening. The enemy were clearly in the belief that the reconnaissance was an advance in force which they had been able to check and indeed drive in, and they were opportunely audacious in the misapprehension that they had gained a success. The information brought in decided the General to attack on the following morning; and having matured his dispositions, he explained them personally to the commanding officers in the early morning of September 1st. The plan of attack was perfectly simple. The Babawali Kotul was to be plied with a brisk cannonade and threatened by demonstrations both of cavalry and infantry; while the first and second brigades, with the third in reserve, were to turn the extremity of the Pir Paimal hill, force the enemy's right in the interval between that hill and the Kharoti eminence, take in reverse the Babawali Kotul, and pressing on up the Urgundab valley, carry Ayoub Khan's principal camp at Mazra. The Bombay cavalry brigade was to watch the roads over the Murcha and Babawali Kotuls, supported by infantry and artillery belonging to General Primrose's command, part of which was also detailed for the protection of the city; and to hold the ground from which the Cabul brigades were to advance. General Gough was to take the cavalry of the Cabul column across the Urgundab, so as to reach by a wide circuit the anticipated line of the Afghan retreat.

Soon after nine A.M. the forty-pounders on the right of Picquet hill began a vigorous cannonade of the Babawali Kotul, which was sturdily replied to by the three field-guns the enemy had in battery on that elevation. It had been early apparent that the Ayoub's army was in great heart, and apparently meditating an offensive movement had moved out so far into the plain as to occupy the villages of Mulla Sahibdad opposite the British right, and Gundigan on the left front of the British left. Both villages were right in the fair way of Roberts' intended line of advance; they, the adjacent enclosures, and the interval between the villages were strongly held, and manifestly the first thing to be done was to force the enemy back from those advanced positions. Two batteries opened a heavy shell fire on the Sahibdad village, under cover of which Macpherson advanced his brigade against it, the 2d Goorkhas and 92d Highlanders in his first line. Simultaneously Baker moved out to the assault of Gundigan, clearing the gardens and orchards between him and that village, and keeping touch as he advanced with the first brigade.

The shell fire compelled the Afghan occupants of Sahibdad to lie close, and it was not until they were near the village that Macpherson's two leading regiments encountered much opposition. It was carried at the bayonet point after a very stubborn resistance; the place was full of ghazees who threw their lives away recklessly, and continued to fire on the British soldiers from houses and cellars after the streets had been cleared. The 92d lost several men, but the Afghans were severely punished; it was reported that 200 were killed in this village alone. While a detachment remained to clear out the village, the brigade under a heavy fire from the slopes and crest of the Fir Paimal hill moved on in the direction of that hill's south-western extremity, the progress of the troops impeded by obstacles in the shape of dry water-cuts, orchards, and walled enclosures, every yard of which was infested by enemies and had to be made good by steady fighting.

While Macpherson was advancing on Sahibdad, Baker's brigade had been pushing on through complicated lanes and walled enclosures toward the village of Gundigan. The opposition experienced was very resolute. The Afghans held their ground behind loopholed walls which had to be carried by storm, and they did not hesitate to take the offensive by making vigorous counter-rushes. Baker's two leading regiments were the 72d and the 2d Sikhs. The left wing of the former supported by the 5th Goorkhas, the old and tried comrades of the 72d, assailed and took the village. Its right wing fought its way through the orchards between it and Sahibdad, in the course of which work it came under a severe enfilading fire from a loopholed wall which the Sikhs on the right were attempting to turn. Captain Frome and several men had been struck down and the hot fire had staggered the Highlanders, when their chief, Colonel Brownlow, came up on foot. That gallant soldier gave the word for a rush, but immediately fell mortally wounded. After much hard fighting Baker's brigade got forward into opener country, but was then exposed to the fire of an Afghan battery near the extremity of the Pir Paimal spur, and to the attacks of great bodies of ghazees, which were withstood stoutly by the Sikhs and driven off by a bayonet attack delivered by the Highlanders.

The two brigades had accomplished the first part of their task. They were now in alignment with each other; and the work before them was to accomplish the turning movement round the steep extremity of the Pir Paimal ridge. Macpherson's brigade, hugging the face of the elevation, brought up the left shoulder and having accomplished the turning movement, swept up the valley and carried the village of Pir Paimal by a series of rushes. Here, however, Major White commanding the advance of the 92d, found himself confronted by great masses of the enemy, who appeared determined to make a resolute stand about their guns which were in position south-west of the Babawali Kotul. Reinforcements were observed hurrying up from Ayoub's standing camp at Mazra, and the Afghan guns on the Kotul had been reversed so that their fire should enfilade the British advance. Discerning that in such circumstances prompt action was imperative, Macpherson determined to storm the position without waiting for reinforcements. The 92d under Major White led the way, covered by the fire of a field battery and supported by the 5th Goorkhas and the 23d Pioneers. Springing out of a watercourse at the challenge of their leader, the Highlanders rushed across the open ground. The Afghans, sheltered by high banks, fired steadily and well; their riflemen from the Pir Paimal slopes poured in a sharp cross fire; their guns were well served. But the Scottish soldiers were not to be denied. Their losses were severe, but they took the guns at the point of the bayonet, and valiantly supported by the Goorkhas and pioneers, shattered and dispersed the mass of Afghans, which was reckoned to have numbered some 8000 men. No chance was given the enemy to rally. They were headed off from the Pir Paimal slopes by Macpherson. Baker hustled them out of cover in the watercourses in the basin on the left, and while one stream of fugitives poured away across the river, another rolled backward into and through Ayoub's camp at Mazra.

While Macpherson had effected his turning movement close under the ridge, Baker's troops on the left had to make a wider sweep before bringing up the left shoulder and wheeling into the hollow between the Pir Paimal and the Kharoti hill. They swept out of their path what opposition they encountered, and moved up the centre of the hollow, where their commander halted them until Macpherson's brigade on the right, having accomplished its more arduous work, should come up and restore the alignment. Baker had sent Colonel Money with a half battalion away to the left to take possession of the Kharoti hill, where he found and captured three Afghan guns. Pressing toward the northern end of the hill, Money to his surprise found himself in full view of Ayoub's camp, which was then full of men and in rear of which a line of cavalry was drawn up. Money was too weak to attack alone and sent to General Baker for reinforcements which, however, could not be spared him, and the gallant Money had perforce to remain looking on while the advance of Macpherson and Baker caused the evacuation of Ayoub's camp and the flight of his cavalry and infantry toward the Urgundab. But the discovery and capture of five more Afghan cannon near Babawali village was some consolation for the enforced inaction.

Considerable numbers of Ayoub's troops had earlier pushed through the Babawali Pass, and moved down toward the right front of General Burrows' Bombay brigade in position about Picquet hill. Having assured himself that Burrows was able to hold his own, Sir Frederick Roberts ordered Macgregor to move the third brigade forward toward Pir Paimal village, whither he himself rode. On his arrival there he found that the first and second brigades were already quite a mile in advance. The battle really had already been won but there being no open view to the front General Ross, who commanded the whole infantry division, had no means of discerning this result; and anticipating the likelihood that Ayoub's camp at Mazra would have to be taken by storm, he halted the brigades to replenish ammunition. This delay gave opportunity for the entire evacuation of the Afghan camp, which when reached without any further opposition and entered at one P.M. was found to be deserted. The tents had been left standing; 'all the rude equipage of a half barbarous army had been abandoned - the meat in the cooking pots, the bread half kneaded in the earthen vessels, the bazaar with its ghee pots, dried fruits, flour, and corn.' Ayoub's great marquee had been precipitately abandoned, and the fine carpets covering its floor were left. But in the hurry of their flight the Afghans had found time to illustrate their barbarity by murdering their prisoner Lieutenant Maclaine, whose body was found near Ayoub's tent with the throat cut. To this deed Ayoub does not seem to have been privy. The sepoys who were prisoners with Maclaine testified that Ayoub fled about eleven o'clock, leaving the prisoners in charge of the guard with no instructions beyond a verbal order that they were not to be killed. It was more than an hour later when the guard ordered the unfortunate officer out of his tent and took his life.

The victory was complete and Ayoub's army was in full rout. Unfortunately no cavalry were in hand for a pursuit from the Mazra camp. The scheme for intercepting the fugitive Afghans by sending the cavalry brigade on a wide movement across the Urgundab, and striking the line of their probable retreat toward the Khakrez valley, may have been ingenious in conception, but in practice did not have the desired effect. But Ayoub had been decisively beaten. He had lost the whole of his artillery numbering thirty-two pieces, his camp, an immense quantity of ammunition, about 1000 men killed; his army was dispersed, and he himself was a fugitive with a mere handful along with him of the army of 12,000 men whom he had commanded in the morning.

The battle of Candahar was an effective finale to the latest of our Afghan wars, and it is in this sense that it is chiefly memorable. The gallant men who participated in the winning of it must have been the first to smile at the epithets of 'glorious' and 'brilliant' which were lavished on the victory. In truth, if it had not been a victory our arms would have sustained a grave discredit. The soldiers of Roberts and Stewart had been accustomed to fight and to conquer against heavy numerical odds, which were fairly balanced by their discipline and the superiority of their armament. But in the battle of Candahar the numerical disparity was non-existent, and Ayoub had immensely the disadvantage as regarded trained strength. His force according to the reckoning ascertained by the British general, amounted all told to 12,800 men. The strength of the British force, not including the detail of Bombay troops garrisoning Candahar, was over 12,000. But this army 12,000 strong, consisted entirely of disciplined soldiers of whom over one-fifth were Europeans. The accepted analysis of Ayoub's army shows it to have consisted of 4000 regular infantry, 800 regular cavalry, 5000 tribal irregular infantry of whom an indefinite proportion was no doubt ghazees, and 3000 irregular horsemen. In artillery strength the two forces were nearly equal. When it is remembered that Charasiah was won by some 2500 soldiers of whom only about 800 were Europeans, contending against 10,000 Afghans in an exceptionally strong position and well provided with artillery, Sir Frederick Roberts' wise decision to make assurance doubly sure in dealing with Ayoub at Candahar stands out very strikingly. Perforce in his battles around Cabul he had taken risks, but because those adventures had for the most part been successful he was not the man to weaken the certainty of an all-important issue by refraining from putting into the field every soldier at his disposal. And he was wisely cautious in his tactics. That he was strong enough to make a direct attack by storming the Babawali Kotul and the Pir Paimal hill was clear in the light of previous experience. But if there was more 'brilliancy' in a direct attack, there was certain to be heavier loss than would be incurred in the less dashing turning movement, and Sir Frederick with the true spirit of a commander chose the more artistic and less bloody method of earning his victory. It did not cost him dear. His casualties of the day were thirty-six killed including three officers, and 218 wounded among whom were nine officers.

The battle of Candahar brought to a close the latest of our Afghan wars. Sir Frederick Roberts quitted Candahar on the 9th September, and marched to Quetta with part of his division. On the 15th October, at Sibi, he resigned his command, and taking sick leave to England sailed from Bombay on the 30th October. His year of hard and successful service in Afghanistan greatly enhanced his reputation as a prompt, skilful, and enterprising soldier.

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The Pisheen and Sibi valleys are the sole tangible results remaining to us of the two campaigns in Afghanistan sketched in the second part of this volume - campaigns which cost the lives of many gallant men slain in action or dead of disease, and involved the expenditure of about twenty millions sterling. Lord Beaconsfield's vaunted 'scientific frontier,' condemned by a consensus of the best military opinions, was rejected by the Liberal Government which had recently acceded to power, whose decision was that both the Khyber Pass and the Kuram valley should be abandoned. On this subject Sir Frederick Roberts wrote with great shrewdness: 'We have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and the best thing to do is to leave it as much as possible to itself. It may not be very flattering to our amour propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance of attaching the Afghans to our interest if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime.' During the winter of 1880-1 the Khyber and the Kuram were evacuated by the British troops, the charge of keeping open and quiet the former being entrusted to tribal levies paid by the Indian Government.

So far, then, as regarded the north-western frontier, the status quo ante had been fallen back upon. But there was a keen difference of opinion in regard to the disposition of the salient angle furnished by Candahar. Throughout the British occupation and the negotiations with Abdurrahman, the annexation of Candahar had been consistently repudiated. The intention on our part announced was to separate it from Cabul, and to place it under the independent rule of a Barakzai prince. Such a prince had actually been appointed in Shere Ali Khan, and although that incompetent Sirdar was wise enough to abdicate a position for which he was not strong enough, this action did not relieve us from our pledges against annexation. Nevertheless many distinguished men whose opinions were abstractly entitled to weight, were strongly in favour of our retention of Candahar. Among those were the late Lord Napier of Magdala, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sir Edward Hamley, Sir Donald Stewart, and Sir Frederick Roberts. Among the authorities opposed to the occupation of Candahar were such men as the late Lord Lawrence and General Charles Gordon, Sir Robert Montgomery, Lord Wolseley, Sir Henry Norman, Sir John Adye, and Sir Archibald Alison.

While the professional experts differed and while the 'Candahar debates' in Parliament were vehement and prolonged, the issue, assuming that fidelity to pledges was still regarded as a national virtue, was perfectly clear and simple. In the frank words of Sir Lepel Griffin: 'We could not have remained in Candahar without a breach of faith.' And he added with unanswerable force: 'Our withdrawal was in direct accordance with the reiterated and solemn professions which I had been instructed to make, and the assurances of the Government of India to the chiefs and people of Cabul.... The wisdom of the policy of retiring from Candahar may be a fair matter for argument, but it was one on which both Governments were agreed. I am convinced that withdrawal, after our public assurances, was the only practicable policy.'

Lord Ripon acted on his instructions 'to keep in view the paramount importance of effecting a withdrawal from Candahar on the earliest suitable occasion.' The abdication of the Wali Shere Ali Khan cleared the air to some extent. A British garrison under the command of General Hume wintered in Candahar. Ayoub Khan was a competitor for the rulership of the southern province, but he received no encouragement, and after some negotiation the Ameer Abdurrahman was informed that Candahar was reincorporated with the kingdom of Afghanistan, and it was intimated to him that the capital would be given over to the Governor, accompanied by a suitable military force, whom he should send. On the 1st of April an Afghan force entered Candahar, followed presently by Mahomed Hassan Khan, the Governor nominated by the Ameer. General Hume soon after marched out, and after halting for a time in the Pisheen valley to watch the course of events in Candahar, he continued his march toward India. The restless Ayoub did not tamely submit to the arrangement which gave Candahar to Abdurrahman. Spite of many arduous difficulties, spite of lack of money and of mutinous troops, he set out toward Candahar in July 1881. Mahomed Hassan marched against him from Candahar, and a battle was fought at Maiwand on the anniversary of the defeat of General Burrows on the same field. Ayoub was the conqueror, and he straightway took possession of the capital and was for the time ruler of the province. But Abdurrahman, subsidised with English money and English arms, hurried from Cabul, encountered Ayoub outside the walls of Candahar, and inflicted on him a decisive defeat. His flight to Herat was followed up, he sustained a second reverse there, and took refuge in Persia. Abdurrahman's tenure of the Cabul sovereignty had been at first extremely precarious; but he proved a man at once strong, resolute, and politic. In little more than a year after his accession he was ruler of Shere Ali's Afghanistan; Candahar and Herat had both come to him, and that without very serious exertion. He continues to reign quietly, steadfastly, and firmly; and there never has been any serious friction between him and the Government of India, whose wise policy is a studied abstinence from interference in the internal affairs of the Afghan kingdom.

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