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The Khyber Pass Massacre page 4

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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.

But what of Elphinstone and the other hostages? Did Akbar keep his word? For a time. He first sent them far into the mountains and had them interned in an Afghan fortress. The journey there was almost as perilous as the passage through the Khyber. Some of the gorges that the ladies had to climb were so steep that they clung to their horses' necks to keep themselves and their saddles from rolling down the mountain side. One of the rivers they crossed was so difficult to ford that they even availed themselves of the offer of Akbar to seat themselves behind the Afghans on their horses. When they had reached the comparative safety of the fortress they found that it was not so safe after all. One day they felt the building swaying and all rushed into the courtyard which was now undulating like waves of the sea. As they stood there the earth opened in a tremendous quake and the hut in which their goods were stored was suddenly engulfed. Lady Macnaghten had brought some of her pet animals through those terrible passes to the safety of the fort. At sight of the earthquake she raised her voice in lamentation: one of her cats had been swallowed up. Her fellow hostages seized spades and began to dig. Her cat leaped out alive!

Akbar continued his practice of sending messengers to the British Forces. When it became evident that the British Raj was getting the whip hand, his tone changed. Affirming that he had all along been Britain's only friend among the savage tribesmen he asked the British General to state how much of the country he would make over to him in return for helping in its reconquest. General Pollock disdained to offer terms to this wily villain. Akbar expressed astonishment when two of his hostages, sent to the British camp with messages from him voluntarily returned to captivity, bringing with them an unfavourable answer. He asked his chiefs if they would have done so. They replied "Praise be to Allah; we're not such fools."

Meanwhile Elphinstone had died in the enemy camp. Akbar had his body placed in a coffin and sent down towards Jellalabad for internment by the British. But on the way the cortege was met by some of the savage tribesmen who had distinguished themselves in the retreat from Kabul. Suspecting that it contained treasure, they knocked off the lid. Disappointed at what they found, they expressed their wrath by taking out the body of the Infidel General and hacking it to pieces. Like Long John Silver, Akbar played his double game to the end. He had the coffin fastened down again and taken safely into Jellalabad.

Angry at the persistent refusal of General Pollock to come to suitable terms, Akbar now threatened to send his hostages over the border into Turkestan where they would be sold into slavery. The ladies of the party looked gloomily at each other. The horrors of such a future they well understood. Suddenly deliverance came. One of the chieftains, seeing that the British had returned to power, offered to escort them back through Akbar's lines to their friends - for a reasonable ransom. On the way they met a rescue party, led by General Sale, whose reunion with Lady Sale was one of the most touching scenes in the whole series of campaigns.

The British now released Dost Mohammed, Akbar's father and permitted him to resume his position as Amir of Afghanistan. As such he found in his son Akbar the same monster of treachery under a veneer of urbanity as the British had found. The two quarrelled and Akbar, always revengeful when frustrated, might have again distinguished himself by another savage murder had not fate intervened. Feeling run down, and needing a stimulant, he ordered an Indian medicine man to prepare him some physic. Cautious as ever, he told the Indian to take the first two pills from the box, and to swallow them. Presumably the Indian knew which were the right ones to swallow, for he suffered no harm from his concoctions. But the brutal Akbar was taken suddenly ill, and died in convulsions. So ended the life of the man who had given the British Army the most humiliating experience in its history.

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