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The Khyber Pass Massacre


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Akbar Khan, heir to the Afghan Throne, forced by his British conquerors to wander in the wilderness of exile, plotted revenge. Perhaps the Shah of Persia would lend him troops wherewith to eject the accursed Infidel from Kabul, the City of Orchards, his capital-to-be. Perhaps....

A swarthy horseman galloped towards him bringing news. The garrison of Kabul had been depleted, and the Afghan chiefs were in revolt against the British invader. They had sworn to throw him back across the Khyber Mountains into the India from which he had come to capture Dost Mohammed, King of Afghanistan, father of Akbar, and their country. They had written their oath in blood on the leaves of the Koran. And the British Resident, Sir William Macnaghten, utterly incapable of understanding his fellow-men, especially the treacherous inhabitants of these stark regions of the north, had taken no serious measures to frustrate them. This foolish, high-principled, bespectacled British Envoy, surrounded by a spate of desperate men, had even thought it weakness to attempt to discover who had written their names in the Koran. Had he only arrested three or four of the conspirators and sent them to India to join Akbar's father, Dost Mohammed, all would have been well.

Akbar's dark eyes glowed at the good news. His powerful sensual mouth uttered fierce orders, the impetuous prince led his men back at speed to Kabul, there to join the conspirators. They were not so pleased to see him as he would have liked. These wild men of the hills had no great desire to be ruled by any one, King of England or Amir of Afghanistan. The dawning kingship of Akbar must be kept at bay. The Afghan's cunning brain does not go direct to the point. The conspirators first suggested that Akbar was too friendly disposed towards the British, then they hinted that he might be a traitor to the general desire to throw out the accursed Infidel.

And Akbar was furiously angry. He defended himself with great energy. His fiery words, fierce countenance and undisciplined gestures, showed that their captive monarch's favourite son was an awkward prince, one not lightly to be trifled with. This man, with many family wrongs to redress, had the spirit of his fine physique; he was to exert a mighty influence over them all; and they must now understand just where he stood.

"Prove your words."

"That I will. I swear by the Koran before you all that by this time to-morrow I will bring the British Resident from Kabul into our camp either as a hostage or as a corpse."

That vow, spoken with all the force of his wild nature, surprised them all. Hitherto they had contented themselves with a little furtive shooting, a sly murder or two; but if Akbar Khan, son of their deposed Amir, would be so bold as to strike down the British Raj, that would be the end of Infidel rule in Kabul. Some of the lesser chieftains maybe hoped that Akbar would himself be struck down, as some day he would be, but by an enemy as yet unknown. Meanwhile he would become the terrible avenging figure swooping again and again on the ever-dwindling British column struggling vainly to escape from Kabul to the safety of India. From changing positions high up in the blood-stained Khyber he would direct and observe probably the most frightful debacle in the history of the British Army.

Sir William Macnaghten received a request from Akbar Khan for another conference. He was a little surprised, for he had only recently seen Akbar, presented him with a pair of pistols, and made a humiliating treaty for the evacuation of the city. In this new demand he might have seen the shadow of coming evil, but he still professed his confidence in the good faith of the Afghan leader. It was Christmas Day, 1841, when the Resident, taking with him Captains Lawrence, Trevor and Mackenzie, kept the appointed rendezvous at a bridge outside the British cantonments where sixteen Afghan warriors were ambushed.

For the benefit of the hidden tribesmen Akbar began to inveigh against the British official for what he described as his delay and duplicity. Why had his father not been set at liberty? And why, seeing that he was prepared to supply transport for the baggage, had not the British cleared out of Kabul? Further, why had not General Sale, occupying Jellalabad on the other and safe side of the Khyber, not quitted according to the terms of the treaty? "Instead of leaving," shouted Akbar, "your General has fortified himself against us with more energy than ever."

Some of the hidden tribesmen began to draw round and Macnaghten, seeing them, urged Akbar not to speak so loudly. He replied that there could be no secrets on these matters between him and his followers. Then, no longer playing a part, he announced that he considered Sir William and his suite to be his prisoners. The Resident protested that he had not broken the treaty, and that he would rather die than submit himself to Akbar. The Afghan seized the feeble British official in a mighty grip, whereupon his three aides ran to protect him. The encircling Afghans leaped forward and slew Captain Trevor; the other two were captured.

But the Resident was given no mercy. The savage Akbar produced one- of his captive's gift pistols and pulled the trigger. It flashed in the pan, but at the second attempt the Envoy lay dead at his feet. That Christmas morning Akbar had surely demonstrated that he was no friend of the British!

The head of Macnaghten, still wearing his rose-coloured spectacles, was first shown to his two captains in custody, and then carried in triumph through the bazaar on the point of an Afghan spear. Then it was fixed to a pole on the dome of the bazaar, where it remained for three days before being thrown into a disused well. Captains Lawrence and Mackenzie, after hearing the jeers of Akbar and his men, were allowed to return to the British camp.

Such was the treatment received by the head of the British Government in newly-captured Kabul. Yet the man who was responsible for this treachery, Akbar Khan, was the villain with whom Macnaghten's successor must perforce negotiate for the evacuation of Afghanistan. To his tender mercies must be entrusted some 5,000 troops and 12,000 camp-followers, besides women and children, all of whom, if they would reach safety, must trudge through or be carried over, snow a foot deep, in mid-winter, through the narrow defiles of Khyber, alive with enemy snipers, who had proclaimed a holy war against them, and who had determined to plunder their goods and gorge themselves with their blood.

But there was no help for it now. After a series of blunders in the handling of an alien race the colossal blunder had been made of appointing to the command of the soldiery a decrepit gout-ridden old man named General Elphinstone, who had confessed his own inability for the trust confided to him. Macnaghten had hoped that the army would have been able to disperse the investing hordes of Afghans; Elphinstone declared that his troops were incapable of the task. So a treaty had to be made with these Ishmaels of diplomacy whose cold relentlessness of purpose was everywhere evidenced.

Akbar's fellow-chieftains, still unwilling for the concentration of power into the hands of one man, decided to take part in the fresh negotiations now opened by Major Pottinger. They all ratified the terms of the new treaty, which were that General Sale should evacuate Jellalabad, that Dost Mohammed should be liberated, and that the British should take their arms with them upon leaving Kabul.

After a siege lasting sixty-seven days, General Elphinstone, and the army he commanded, prepared to leave under these humiliating conditions. The fatal morning of January 6, 1842, dawned bleak and cold. It was a dreary and dismal prospect for the strongest and stoutest heart; and there were not many of those in that bedraggled procession of nearly 20,000 souls. Every inch of the mountains and the plain was dazzling white snow, and the cold was so penetrating that everybody shivered in the sunshine. The lot of the women and children among the camp-followers was indeed miserable from the start, and became progressively so. The country through which they would travel, presented unparalleled difficulties; the fact that it would soon become peopled with the enemy transformed it into a narrow line of ghostly valleys destined to become the grave of all.

Akbar had promised an escort to protect them on the way, but this escort, like many of his promises, did not materialise. Nor did the fleeing British see any signs of the enemy at the moment when the head of the procession left the camp. They were held in check; the rabbits must not be frightened back into their hole. The Afghan vultures were in no great hurry; the journey was long, Jellalabad was many miles away; at their rate of progress it would be a long time before the Khyber Passes were threaded. In fact, the first day's journey had only covered five miles when nightfall forced the column into camp.

In the morning a cut had been made in the Kabul cantonment to allow of a clear passage out for troops and baggage, gun wagons and platform planks, which would make a temporary bridge over Kabul River. Through this opening lumbered every available camel and Afghan pony laden with camp equipages, stores and things necessary to shelter at least some of the troops from the rigours of the mountain climate.

The advance began at the early hour of 9 a.m., a pathetic cavalcade of victors in retreat. By ten o'clock the Afghans had bestirred themselves and were beginning that devilishly subtle diplomacy which characterised all their dealings with the retreat. A message came suggesting that the departure be postponed for yet another day to enable the escort to be made ready; the real reason was to give the Afghans time to plunder the Kabul camp and to send their human vultures to line the passes.

But the column was now in motion and could not conveniently return. Moreover, from the Afghan villages nearby a crowd of armed tribesmen was already emerging. Soon it was in the mission compound, evacuated too soon, and the work of plunder and destruction had begun. There could be no return!

As was to be expected with a force so badly controlled, there were many delays, and it was noon before the head of the procession had cleared the river, leaving the way open for camp-followers and rearguard to follow.

The presence with the army of two or three times their number of camp-followers made it impossible for the troops to march in proper order. From the very start the camp-followers were a clog on the movements of the soldiers, contributing immensely to the misfortunes of the march. But the civilians could not have been left behind to the mercy of the tribesmen, for men who would triumphantly parade through the Bazaar with the head of the British Resident on the point of a spear were unlikely to show greater mercy to his unprotected people. If only the British Force, small though it was, had refused to leave, and stayed on to fight if necessary, as was done in Jellalabad, all might yet have been well.

The procession moved out, and the women and children, mixing in with the troops, soon threw the column into confusion. As that long train of soldiers, civilians, ponies and heavily-laden camels moved forward it presented an irresistibly tempting sight to the greedy watchers. At last Allah had delivered the accursed Infidel and all his possessions into their hands. Not content would they be with exulting over their parting guests' discomfiture; they must ever and again be interfering with that tempting column. The rearguard did its best to restrain them, but it presently had to take up a position on the plain to protect a large quantity of baggage which had been dumped there.

The Afghans, as the day passed, became satiated with plundering the deserted cantonments, and now began to line the ramparts. Their chief had promised protection to the departing British. His yelling followers produced their long rifles and poured a mischievous fire into the slow-moving procession.

Perhaps it was fortunate that the soldiers had spiked the cannon which they were unable to bring away with them, or the tribesmen would have turned those heavy guns as well on to the column.

The confusion and the babble, the shouts of command, the wrangling of the women, the rampaging of the camels, and the general disorder, would have discouraged the most patient of strong commanders. Elphinstone's patience and that of his lieutenants were soon exhausted. Away in the distance were the treacherous defiles, destined to become the glens of slaughter. When the request had come to wait another day for the escort Elphinstone had looked back ruefully at the devastated encampment, at the army of plunderers who were already harrying the baggage columns and straggling civilians and had said pathetically, "It's too late now!" The cantonments had been fired, and the scene was one of fearful sublimity. If death lay ahead there was certainly no chance of life in that plundered and burning encampment. The Residency was the first to go, after which every other building was set alight; even if the Infidel changed his mind, he could now find no shelter in his old cantonments.

Though a day of unclouded glory over the whole valley of Kabul, it had been a terrible first day for the luckless marchers. A bridge of gun-carriages, overlaid with planks, had been built across Kabul River, but even with this the river had not been fordable for much of their goods. Pottinger advised Elphinstone to push on as far as Khurd Kabul before calling a first halt, but it was found impossible to move that imponderable conglomeration of soldiers, civilians and cattle any farther that night. Looking back over the five miles that had been traversed, the outcasts could see the plain dotted with the baggage which had been first abandoned and then plundered. There lay also the dead bodies of some fifty British soldiers. But that was not the worst, for scores of old Sepoys whose fighting days were over and other camp-followers, unfitted to battle with the cold or to endure a tramp of even a few miles, were already sitting down in the snow, ready for death by cold or by the knives of the holy warriors of Afghanistan.

Tongues of fire played about the sky, making a vast funeral pyre of the home of the British Forces for the past three years, and illuminating the wretched sleepless crowd that lay freezing in the snow of the new camp. The officers' wives and some of the troops had a few provisions, but for the majority there was little or no food, and for these starving wretches a shelterless night in the open was a poor preparation for the grim to-morrow. Some were fortunate; they became so benumbed that they were incapable of feeling. And when the bugle sounded in the morning these lucky ones were left behind, frozen to death.

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