The Khyber Pass Massacre page 3
Again an emissary approached the little force. Despite all his previous treacheries, Akbar was still posing as the treaty-keeping friend of the British. Elphinstone sent one of his officers to where Akbar stood surveying the many times decimated force, to ask the Afghan chief why this butchery was continuing. Akbar expressed deep concern over the tremendous losses of his enemy, and proposed a safe escort of the remainder to Peshawar, if they would only surrender their arms. For once Elphinstone refused, and his force moved down to the valley of Tazin, harried all the way by knives and bullets.
Many camp-followers were slain during that descent of 2,000 feet, and the whole force would have perished there but for the determined resistance of the little rearguard. When presently they encamped on the plain, Akbar occupied a fort above them and closely observed the movements of the doomed force, quietly chuckling at the achievements of his troops and the havoc caused among the enemy ranks. But here at Tazin there was no shelter. They decided to remain but a few hours, to spike their remaining twelve-pounder, and hurry off at nightfall in the hope of forcing the Jagdalak Pass before morning.
A few odds and ends of food were discovered among the regimental stores together with a few frozen bottles of wine. This time the troops decided to move off quickly before the camp followers could stir and interrupt their progress, but this was not to be. The civilians hurried after them through the fierce country until the still fiercer heights of Jagdalak drew near. Here again they saw what they had all dreaded to see - the ubiquitous enemy.
Akbar, from his elevated fort, had seen them folding their tents and stealing away. Instead of following upon their heels, he had taken a short-cut across the mountains and was investing the Jagdalak Heights by the time they arrived. Some of the Afghans had established themselves on a little hillock by the roadside and Elphinstone ordered his men to charge. They did valiantly and suffered heavily. The remaining few, tormented by hunger and thirst, exhausted with incessant fighting, now sought refuge behind some ruined walls where they were still overlooked by the insatiable tribesmen. By now most of the rank and file had been killed or had given up the effort; and the surviving officers were almost as numerous as the men. They made a little meal from a few handfuls of flour during which one of them dropped their last piece of rock salt.
Some one said, "It is a bad omen to spill the salt." The others laughed, forced laughter, to hide their misery.
Once more they saw approaching horsemen - another envoy from the remorseless Akbar. Thinking that a parley meant respite from attack, the troops threw down their arms and slept. They were observed from the heights and attacked once more. The exhausted British scrambled back to the semi-shelter of the ruin from which twenty of them made a desperate effort to dislodge the Afghans, and would have done so had not the general, fearful of losing them, recalled them to camp. And now Akbar, again pleading that General Sale was refusing to evacuate Jellalabad, demanded more hostages. General Elphinstone, Brigadier Shelton and another officer rode off for a further parley.
But why argue further with this clever and audacious villain whose plan of campaign had been working out so diabolically as they marched? By a series of messages Akbar had created a false optimism in the ranks of his enemy as they passed through the stark regions and yawning gorges of Afghanistan. Specious promises of an escort, had kept them dawdling for two days at the start while his troops plundered the capital; and for five nights he had kept the demoralised rabble in altitudes where frost and snow would assist his butchers to do their work of destruction. By parley after parley, always accompanied by some new impudent demand, supported by offers of help which never matured, he kept delaying the advance until every fresh height they reached had been lined by his fanatical snipers. And now he had induced the British General to leave his command and trust himself to his tender mercies.
The fragment of the retreating column awaited his return until nightfall, by which time there were barely two hundred and fifty soldiers left. Two officers rode out hoping to meet the returning General, but met only a lone horseman who, riding up to one of the officers thrust a pistol in his face, pulled the trigger and galloped off.
Elphistone did not return; but the sniping continued; it could only be checked by charges up the heights; and these were continued from dawn the following day until noon. Although the holy warriors always fled before the British bayonets, the ranks of the little force became more and more depleted. Still no news of Elphistone, and the company decided to march at dusk. Only a few wounded could be taken. Amid pitiful entreaties from the rest, who knew they would be butchered at dawn, this handful of survivors tore themselves away. Before a real start could be made the enemy discovered they were on the move, and swooped down again. Dr. Brydon was pulled off his horse and felled by a blow on the head; but rising on one knee, he guarded himself against the second blow. Whilst his assailant went one way Dr. Brydon, hatless, shoeless and horseless went the other. He proceeded alone up through the Jagdalak Pass and then became aware that some of the advance guard were being driven backwards, completely demoralised. The holy warriors had drawn a barrier of prickly holly-oak across the mouth of the gorge against which the troops had charged in vain. Those who attempted to scramble over it fell back with hands and faces torn and bleeding. At the moment the tribesmen were not there to greet them, for they had not expected the advance to begin until dawn. But they soon swarmed to the barrier, yelling their war cries and raining bullets upon the discomfited British. In that nightmare of carnage no one knew how long the battle raged, but presently one horse and man broke through the barrier. As the gap widened others fought through; until nearly one hundred units of a column that originally totalled nearly 20,000 souls, had escaped. On went this tiny company, their progress signalled by watch-fires from hill to hill. A further barrier, and another terrible struggle ensued. Presently the survivors struck the open country, now aflush with dawn. They had passed such a night that if they now succeeded in reaching safety they were certain of being lionised by England when their epic story became known.
The snow had gone and the morning air was fresh and sweet. But again the tribesmen were in evidence still athirst for blood and plunder. Further progress was impossible. The stragglers came in, all that was left of the column, about seventy of them. Through that terrible night they had made tremendous progress, the best since Kabul was evacuated. They had travelled no less than twenty-five miles, but a similar distance still separated them from Jellalabad. Their armament now consisted of twenty swords, twenty rifles, and forty cartridges. But they took a height and held it for a while, threatening all comers with death. The Afghans drew round, jested with the men they intended to murder, and attempted to snatch away their rifies. The fight was on again. Charge after charge was made by the holy warriors and time and again they were beaten back, cursing the enemy who had taken toll of so many of their braves. But the end came at last, and every one of that gallant remnant lay dead on the height where they had defended themselves so gallantly. The Kabul garrison was no more.
But a few of the advance guard might yet have escaped. Four of them, taken alive that day, were sent to join the hostages still safe in Akbar's keeping. Seven others, however, were at liberty, waiting in a little glen ten miles ahead, and wondering why the main body did not join them. They decided to resume the advance, and came to a village where they were promised bread; but the village chief sent out a signal, and soon the vultures again put in an appearance. The villagers followed and invited them to return, still declaring that they were friendly. One officer named Bellew, tormented for rest and food, turned back to ask them further questions. He and another were hacked to pieces. The other five resumed their journey, counting themselves lucky to have escaped the perfidious villagers. Of these, the three who had the best horses drew farther ahead, and Dr. Brydon found himself riding with a young wounded officer named Steer, whose horse was bleeding at the mouth and nostrils. Brydon urged the boy forward saying that they would win through yet. But Steer declared that he could do no more. He would lie in one of the caves till nightfall, and then resume his journey. Brydon protested that he was mad to linger, yet Steer would not listen. The doctor rode on alone, still hatless, one unshod foot resting in the only stirrup of his wooden saddle. His poor horse was even more exhausted and desperate than he.
He scanned the horizon for his goal - -Jellalabad - securely held by General Sale and his British troops. He saw only twenty horsemen picking up stones with which to greet him. The desperate Brydon made one more determined fight for safety. He galloped his pony at his tormentors, slashing at them right and left, and so prevented then-knives from doing their bloody work. He was through and away, followed by a volley of stones. Somewhere in the distance lay Jellalabad but again between it and Brydon appeared yet another body of horsemen. One more lone charge, his lagging pony spurred forward with the point of his sword. Though he broke through again, his sword was now broken at the hilt by a large stone. Then a shot fired by a man hiding behind a mound wounded his pony which lurched but struggled bravely on. Still more men ahead of him, leading one of the horses of his three better mounted companions. They too must have gone the way of the great majority. But he contrived to pass before it was realised that he was an Englishman. Then one man turned and gave chase. Brydon flung the hilt of his sword in the Afghan's face, but the tribesman dodged cleverly. Having dropped his reins, Brydon now stooped to gather them, and the gesture saved his life. Thinking that the enemy had reached for a pistol, the Afghan galloped away. With the disappearance of the last of his enemies the nerve of Dr. Brydon broke. He continued his journey startled by every shadow.
At Jellalabad news had been received that the army of Kabul had set out to cross the Khyber. Colonel Dennie, one of the officers serving under General Sale, heard the news, and uttered a prophecy. This is what he said:
"You will see that not more than one man will reach this city alive. And he will come in to say that all the rest are destroyed."
The watchers on the walls of Jellalabad saw a lone figure riding a stumbling pony, rolling towards the gates of the city.
The one Englishman to escape from that long-drawn-out massacre had arrived to tell the appalling story.
Colonel Dennie turned to his brother officers.
"Didn't I tell you," he said quietly, "Here comes the survivor!"
Dr. Brydon swayed into the city.
Having achieved his relentless purpose with the army of Kabul, Akbar Khan decided to keep his hostages until he should hear that Jellalabad had been evacuated. General Sale knew better than to follow the example of General Elphinstone. And it was well that he did for it became known afterwards that Akbar had planned to exterminate his army to the last man.
Akbar, now that his forces had been augmented by deserters from the Kabul garrison, laid seige to Jellalabad, but Sale's army sallied out, attacked the Afghans and completely routed them. Akbar himself had a lucky escape from capture. He was also fortunate in not being shot by a rival chief whose gun went off accidentally. Akbar, alleging that the shot had been fired purposely, had the chief executed.
But Britain was not content to let Afghanistan off with one defeat. Kabul must be reoccupied and Akbar and his chiefs taught that they could not massacre semi-defenceless British troops and their wives and children without suffering for their devilry. Two armies set out for Kabul, one commanded by General Nott, which had to cover ninety miles, and the other by General Pollock, who had only two-thirds the distance to traverse. These two capable generals were each determined to Leat the other in being first in Kabul. Pollock had to march his army through those four blood-stained Passes where Elphinstone's cavalcade had made their grave. At that dreaded Jagdalak Pass, where the remnant had been stopped by the holly barricade, the standards of the holy warriors fluttered everywhere. Pollock ordered Sale to take his brigade up those heights and revenge the lost garrison, and gallantly they did so. The Afghans fled in terror from that advancing forest of steel, fled to the topmost peak which they thought inaccessible; and there they planted their standard. Under cover of the guns the British troops scaled that dizzy height and wiped out the disgrace of the massacre. On they went to the ruined enclosure, passing the bodies of their dead comrades, preserved by the frost - and still recognisable.
In that other terrible Pass of Khurd Kabul, Akbar awaited them again with a larger force, totalling 16,000 men. Again the Afghans had all the advantage of position; but they had not the discipline, the courage, nor the determination to be revenged, which stimulated the British troops. Again the heights were stormed; but this time the Afghans, fighting under the eye of their chief, made a firmer stand. No quarter was asked or given and in the end the peaks were carried. The Gurkhas, described as "the finest sight of the day," looked like terriers attacking mastiffs, when compared with the brawny Afghans. But in the end all the passes were carried, and Akbar and his followers were in flight. As they passed through the last defile the British saw the bodies of Elphinstone's army lying in heaps of fifties and hundreds. It was a veritable Golgotha. The British gun-wheels literally rumbled over the skulls of their former comrades.
Pollock won the race to Kabul by a short head. Had not General Nott been compelled to waste a couple of days trying to save a pair of historic gates, Pollock would have come in second. Even so there was some little feeling between the two generals over the coveted honour.
In revenge for the treatment of Macnaghten the British troops destroyed the bazaar where his severed head had been publicly displayed, also a citadel and a Mohammedan Mosque.
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