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The Khyber Pass Massacre page 2

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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.

General Elphinstone had a small tent for his sick body; there was another for Lady Sale, who was to write her experiences of this retreat, and her daughter. The soldiers' tents were flimsy, and offered but poor protection from the cold. They had been pitched without any regard to regularity or regiment and the various sections were mixed with the camp-followers, the camels and the horses, in one hopeless intimate mass.

It was fortunate for Captain Mackenzie that his native riflemen were still loyal, for they had a system of camping which, had it been practised by everybody before the departure, would have saved much of the misery of that horrible night. These riflemen cleared a small space of the snow and then lay down in a closely-packed circle with their feet meeting in the centre, all the warm clothing available spread equally over each. In this way sufficient animal warmth was generated to preserve each person from frost-bite. There was no distinction between officer and men in that homely circle. Captain Mackenzie lay gratefully with the rest, and in the morning he declared that though he had lain in the open without a tent, with snow on the ground a foot thick, he had felt no cold. But who could sleep on a night like that? The hours of darkness were disturbed by the yells from without and the cries and whimperings from within the camp. And still the bonfires, lit by the holy warriors, played freakishly over all.

The sun rose next morning in unveiled splendour, shone on the smouldering embers of the old cantonments, and on the heavings and stirrings of the camp in the snow. No bugle call for breakfast. All who could, scrambled to their feet, shook the snow from their benumbed bodies, many cursing their fate as they stamped about to restore circulation. Captain Lawrence, who had done his utmost all through the previous day to rally the troops, the terrified women and children, joking with them, and shepherding them into the line of route, struggled out of his little tent to find an elderly artilleryman lying frozen to death at his feet. He still grasped his sword.

An effort was made to sort out the troops. Bugle calls sounded and resounded without evoking a response from the native sappers and miners, who had deserted to the enemy in the night. Better the opportunity of imprisonment and possible death with the Afghans, than certain death in the Khyber Pass. The order was given to resume the journey from this nightmare of snow to the warmer lands of the South; but it was an undisciplined mob, almost a rabble, that took up the march the second day. How could a hungry, frost-bitten army march in step with any semblance of order? How could frost-bitten hands carry their rifles? The Indian soldiers - unused to cold climates - had already-suffered so much that they were beginning to throw away their arms, leaving them for the enemy, who would soon turn them on their owners.

Away in the distance rose the rocky ranges with their vertical cliffs which guarded the gateway to the south. Once those were gained there was a sixty-mile trudge through valley after dangerous valley until they emerged at Jellalabad, on the farther side. Progress was again frightfully slow, the order of march becoming more and more disorganised. Again the Afghans showed that they were not early risers, but soon, from a small fort above the road, there debouched a horde of fanatical warriors, brandishing their weapons, and yelling their fury. It was a bad day for the guns, some of which, making a detour, were surrounded before they could be got back into the road. Though the British troops seemed incapable or unwilling to defend their guns, the officers dashed in and spiked them. Captain Lawrence returned gloomily from the scene, declaring that the disgrace was too humiliating to speak about. He was just in time to rescue Lady Macnaghten from the snow, where she had been dumped by her scared and frost-bitten coolies. Unable to induce them to resume their load, Lawrence took Lady Macnaghten with him on to his Arab charger. But at that moment some Afghan horsemen swooped down on the baggage column, slashing at everybody with their swords. Lawrence caught the rope trailed by a passing camel and transferred his charge.

The cavalcade, their casualities increasing with every furlong they traversed, plodded towards that yawning gap in the mountain, the first of the four Passes to be negotiated before they could reach safety. Again a messenger came urging them to wait until provisions, firewood, and an escort could arrive to help them through the Pass.

Brigadier Shelton, generally unpopular, furiously objected to the order to halt, even though that meant a re-organisation of the column. His advice was wise; their only chance now was to press forward with all possible speed. It was dusk before the order to resume the march was given, by which time a large body of Afghans had been observed riding after them through the snow. But they were not the expected escort, though their leader was Akbar Khan, murderer of Sir William Nacnaghten and the self-appointed instrument of vengeance on those who had conquered and misruled his father's country. He claimed to have come to protect the column from the fanatics who were beginning to people the hills through which they were to pass. Akbar sternly charged them with planning to effect a junction with General Sale at Jellalabad; if they did so their two forces would unite against him. He now demanded that they halt at one of the villages en route, until news came that Jellalabad had been evacuated. They must also supply him with hostages as guarantees that his demands would be carried out; and in return he would supply them with all the necessaries they required, and would clear the Passes of the savage tribes. The pusillanimous Elphinstone weakly agreed to the demand and halted the procession for the night, thus giving the human vultures still more time to prepare for their coming.

If the first night had been bitter, it had been but the beginning of sorrows. That second night the snow was deeper, the frost more keen, with the temperature 12 degrees below zero. Yet most of that column, still numbering over 15,000 souls, somehow lived through that awful night. The grip of the frost was so pitiless that some went almost insane with the cold. The state of the hungry, half-frozen children was terrible to witness. It may have been possible even at that stage to have charged the encircling enemy, and have made for the Bala Hissar, a citadel which they had passed on their first day's journey. Here they might have held out until a relief force arrived. It was not to be. On the third morning the fanatical warriors were again swarming about the camp, and still Elphinstone had no intention of attacking. But Captain Lawrence, seeing that the enemy were massing for a charge, led the cavalry towards them, scattering them like chaff. While this engagement was taking place, Akbar had sent in another ultimatum, a demand for six hostages, including the doughty Lawrence, and Shelton the Brigadier. Lawrence objected to surrender himself, and Pottinger, who had been wounded, volunteered to take his place. Meanwhile the sunless hours were passing, and noon was drawing on. Back came the message from Akbar saying that he would not press his demand for more than three hostages, but they must include Captain Lawrence, whose value as a fighting officer he had long recognised. The hostages departed, and that conglomerate mass moved forward into the valley of slaughter.

The Pass of Khurd Kabul, soon to become a Golgotha, was a broken track of rock and loose stones whose sides towered steeply upwards to end in jagged peaks. A gloomy, echoing, sinister gorge it was. At the start there was an attempt at order, with the native Infantry and Anderson's Force as the advance guard, and the light cavalry, with the two remaining guns in the rear. The general and his staff, the ladies in their camel panniers, the Government treasure, and what little baggage there was left, provided the main column. It was found impossible to round up all the cattle, and most of these, with perhaps half the ammunition, was left scattered about the camp, a prey to the avengers. The camp-followers still mixed themselves with the military, to everybody's confusion. Half blinded by snow-glares, benumbed by cold - there were icicles on the ponies' manes and the men's beards - the procession stumbled forward into the trap. The torrent that ran through the Pass had to be constantly recrossed, and soon the legs of men and animals became encrusted with ice. The Pass grew narrower, and as darkness came the men on the heights began to add to the woes of the British by incessant sniping. There was no escape either from the snow and ice, or from the fusillade of bullets. Whichever side of the valley was hugged, that side was exposed to the rifles of the tribesmen opposite. It seemed impossible that anybody could pass through that defile alive. Mingling with triumphal yells from above, as the snipers observed a successful shot, were the roar of the mountain cataracts, the smashing of ice, the groans and shrieks of dying men, women, children and animals. But on the whole the shooting from above was indifferent.

One of many odd incidents to attract the attention of the few was the sudden bolting of a horse on which rode the wife of Lieutenant Eyre. The horse, galloping ahead of the whole column, soon left it far behind, and presently its rider reached the top of the cliffs, the first to escape from the bloody Pass. As the advance guard followed her, some of the savage warriors, rushing down from the lateral gorges, fell upon the main column and rearguard with upraised swords. In the middle of that column were the other English women and children struggling to escape over the dead bodies of their relatives and friends. Mothers lost their children, wives their husbands, in that terrible struggle for life. Mrs. Mainwaring told little Mary Anderson to cling to her while she, carrying her own child in her shawl, strove to scramble up to safety. The child at her side was wrenched away and became lost, never to be found again. A savage horseman rode up to Mrs. Mainwaring and demanded the shawl in which her child was wrapped, but a Sepoy, seeing her shrink back, fired a shot and the savage fell from his saddle, dead. Yet a further shot struck the Sepoy and he, too, fell, begging Memsahib and her child to hurry up the rocks and boulders away from the carnage. Still the bloody hand-to-hand battle continued to rage in the centre of the glen.

And now one of the remaining two guns was lost and had to be spiked into uselessness. The gunners dragged the other up the slope, waited for the camp-followers to pass, then fired round after round of grape-shot into the teeth of the pursuing tribesmen. Through bad leadership and overwhelming odds the column had suffered frightfully in this gorge, at least three thousand dead and wounded having to be left behind. None of the wounded had an earthly hope of escape from the knives of the holy warriors. Yet the solitary remaining gun had done considerable devastation in the ranks of the enemy.

Following in the wake of the demoralised British came the inescapable Akbar. With him were the hostages. They had been allowed to keep their swords, and even told that they could use them against any fanatic who molested them in the Pass. Pottinger, who understood Persian, riding with Mackenzie, recognised the duplicity of Akbar from his own words. He heard Akbar shout to his followers in their own language to slay all the Infidels, whereupon, speaking the language only the British understood, he changed the order to "Cease fire." As the hostages rode through the glen the Afghans leapt up from the dead and dying to taunt them. Pointing their blood-stained knives at the corpses, they shouted that those who had sought fruit in Kabul had found it too sharp for their stomachs. Yet Pottinger and Mackenzie each contrived to rescue from that glen of slaughter a frightened child whom they took along with them.

Next morning it was found that Elphinstone's fighting men had been reduced from about five thousand to less than a thousand, of whom no more than three hundred might still be fit to fight. Again the depleted column stirred itself and prepared to start off at sunrise. But now another and still more startling proposition was received from Akbar. Professing himself to be greatly distressed by the plight of the English ladies and their children, and that his own troops were unable to protect them so long as they remained with the column, he invited them into his camp for safety. Up to this time they had scarcely eaten a meal since leaving Kabul. Some of the ladies had infants a few days old at the breast. "Others were far advanced in pregnancy.... Yet most had been without shelter, and with the exception of Lady Macnaghten and Mrs. Trevor, had nothing in the world left but the clothes on their backs." Akbar's offer seemed to be their only chance of salvation.

Could a man who had murdered their Envoy be trusted not to murder the ladies of his entourage? Elphinstone was in a mood to trust the untrustworthy. But already the column was on the move. It had to be halted and brought back to the camp, a proceeding which caused open mutiny among the Indian troops, who saw only too plainly how things were going and that they had no conceivable opportunity of struggling through the remaining fifty miles to safety.

Ten Englishwomen, twenty-two children and five husbands made up the new hostage party that set out for Akbar's camp, each of them feeling a haunting prescience of impending evil. Yet at first the little cavalcade were gallantly received and assured by Akbar that they would be safely escorted to Jellalabad. Nevertheless, it was plain that Akbar was playing a double game; because his father and family were in British hands, he must be openly friendly; secretly he would do his utmost to requite the invaders for stealing the throne of his fathers.

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