Read an Excerpt
The Khyber Rifles
From the British Raj to Al Qaeda
By Jules Stewart
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jules Stewart
All rights reserved.
Malcolm Morris, OBE Australian Ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, 1973–5
'To stop is dangerous, to recede ruin'
The summit of the Khyber Pass rises 3,600 feet above sea level, a barren, rock-strewn wasteland swept in winter by blasts of icy spindrift, baked in summer by temperatures that soar above 110°F. Perched on a rocky promontory near the summit stands Michni Fort, the most remote outpost of the legendary tribal militia, the Khyber Rifles. Below to the west lies a land drenched in the blood of Greek, Persian, Moghul, British, Russian and American invaders. From here, one's gaze is drawn across the desolate Afghan flatlands stretching to the western horizon, beyond which lurk the eternal snows of the Hindu Kush. Gazing down from Michni, it is hard to repress a shudder at the dark and sombre defiles of this pass, so pregnant with disaster. They invoke an uncomfortable reminder of the fate that befell those who throughout history have entertained thoughts of Afghan conquest. The fanatical mullahs who preach jihad to their brethren must be endowed with magical powers, to have so effectively sprinkled amnesia dust in the eyes of each successive wave of invaders. For the US forces now engaged in the futile exercise of dropping bombs on rocks in Afghanistan arrived only twelve years after the mighty Soviet Red Army trudged home exhausted and humiliated, and a century and a half after the British Raj suffered its costliest ever military disaster, a few desperate miles from the Khyber Pass.
The British displayed more tenacity than even the armies of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in their determination to subjugate the wild Afghan tribesmen. In 1878, thirty-six years after Britain's calamity on the retreat from Kabul, the army once again crossed the Khyber. This time it was determined that British soldiers would not be exposed to surprise attack on the road. To ensure the army safe passage into enemy territory it was necessary to secure the Khyber Pass, the strategic route between Afghanistan and British India. But instead of stationing regular troops on the inhospitable and dangerous cliffs that tower over the road, the British came up with an ingenious scheme: why not recruit the local tribesmen into the fold, offering them the incentive of paid employment in the Government of India plus the freedom to use their weapons with impunity? After all, the Pathans knew every sniper's nest above the pass like the back of their hands, and their long-barrel matchlocks could easily out-range British breech-loading Sniders. Thus was born the rag-tag embryo of what was to become the Khyber Rifles, the guardians of the Khyber Pass.
With the raising of the first of the Frontier Corps the British found that the tribesmen's loyalty could in part be bought, in part commanded by officers of a very special calibre, men who spoke their language and understood their ways. The government had made significant strides in dealing with the Pathans since that fateful day in 1842 when the army marched out of the gates of Kabul to its destruction, leaving in its wake a legacy of arrogance and ineptitude. But the experience had been gained at a terribly high cost.
On a bitter January morning, a rider slumped across a dying pony was spotted stumbling across the Afghan plain towards the shortly-to-be-besieged British garrison of Jalalabad, 90 miles east of Kabul. William Brydon was a 33-year-old Scottish surgeon attached to the doomed Army of the Indus, commanded by Major-General William Elphinstone, an ageing soldier crippled by gout, an ailment that he had hoped to cure by taking the posting to India. From the outset grave doubts had been expressed about the General's suitability for the task of leading an army against so cunning an adversary as the Afghan. Elphinstone's previous battle experience had been at Waterloo twenty-six years before.
Brydon was close to gasping his last when a detachment of cavalry officers galloped from the fort to escort him to safety. He was rushed to the infirmary where the garrison's surgeon worked feverishly to stem the flow of blood from multiple sword cuts to his hand, knee and head, with a musket ball wound in his leg for good measure. That evening, hunched by the fire in the officers' mess, Brydon savoured his first proper meal in more than a week. As for his wounds, 'how, and when, these happened,' he recounted in a numbed state of mind, 'I know not'. But Brydon did retain an appallingly vivid recollection of what he had endured during the seven-day retreat from Kabul, a tale that filled his listeners round the fire with a stunned horror. It was the tale of a massacre, the slaughter of more than 16,000 men of the once victorious Army of the Indus, including wives and children and thousands of camp-followers, who on a freezing January morning had tramped out of Kabul, jubilant with the prospect of returning home to the warmth and civilisation of India. In spite of the knee-deep snow that turned each step into a gruelling struggle, the retreating British were confident of reaching safety ninety miles away at Jalalabad in a fortnight's march. Instead, the entire column perished within three days of abandoning Kabul.
The British forces garrisoned in Kabul had been lulled into a state of complacency by the ease with which the Afghans had been beaten into submission by their new masters in 1838, one year after the royal teenager Victoria had ascended to the throne of England. The first two years in Kabul passed without major incident, and with mulberry blossoming in spring the troops, no longer an expeditionary force, were settling down as an army of occupation. Bungalows were erected, gardens laid out, wives sent for, and not a soul among them could anticipate the calamity that lay in waiting like a tiger crouched in a thicket. The enemy king Dost Mohammed had surrendered in November 1840 and was given honourable asylum in India. The British Lion roared with victory, and all was well.
The melancholy events that enfolded on the march from Kabul in 1842 came about largely as a result of the East India Company seeking to cut back on expenditures. One of history's earliest episodes of corporate downsizing was to touch off a major human and political cataclysm. With wisdom that may be generously described as dubious, the cost-conscious government babus in Calcutta had decided to reduce the subsidies that were doled out each year to the Khyber tribal chieftains. These allowances were given on the tribesmen's commitment to keep open the lines of communication with the army and its outposts across the border in Afghanistan. The British could generally rely on the tribal maliks to keep their word, that is so long as the baksheesh kept rolling in. But directly the bribes dried up, the all too predictable outcome was an immediate Pathan uprising. Revolt swept swiftly and suddenly across Kabul in November 1841. The incapacity of the British command to deal with the situation was surpassed only by the treachery of the Afghans. The British Envoy Sir William Macnaghten, a fastidious, pinched-mouth career bureaucrat, had taken it upon himself to break the news to the tribesmen: following orders from the East India Company he announced abruptly to the maliks assembled in jirga, the government subsidy was to be slashed from £8,000 to £4,000. The tribal leaders went away to ponder this piece of intelligence, and their response was to summarily cut off the key road connection to and from British India, the Khyber Pass. A tidal wave of horsemen fell upon every caravan that ventured up the road, looting the baggage trains and spreading havoc among the camel drivers. Spurred on by the Dost Mohammed's favourite son, Akbar Khan, a slight, feline creature with a wispy moustache and almond eyes, who bore a deep hatred for the feringhee, the flames of revolt spread up and down the Frontier, to finally engulf the unsuspecting British forces and their families in Kabul, where the situation was deteriorating by the hour.
Kabul was now effectively cut off from the powerful garrison at Jalalabad. Another British Envoy to the city, the adventurer Alexander Burnes who had attempted to negotiate an alliance with Dost Mohammed, was the first high-profile figure in the cantonments to fall victim to the mob. On 2 November the Afghans torched the Residency, hacked Burnes to pieces, along with two British officers and all the sepoy guards inside. The kindly but doddering Elphinstone, when told of the assassination, took pen in hand and wrote to Macnaghten: 'We must see what morning brings and then think what can be done.' Macnaghten barely had time to ponder his commander's soothing words. As the government's caretaker administrator, Macnaghten was looking forward to taking up his new appointment as Governor of Bombay. He arranged to meet Akbar Khan for truce talks at a spot by the banks of the Kabul river, a quarter mile from the Residency. No sooner had Macnaghten alighted from his horse, he was brutally murdered in the presence of the amir's nephew. The crafty Afghan, who was in his early twenties, disclosed to the attending mob that the British envoy was plotting to abduct a tribal chief, and that was provocation enough for the tribesmen to fall upon Macnaghten. To the delight of the Afghans already intoxicated with the scent of British blood, Akbar Khan ordered Macnaghten's head to be paraded through the city on a pole. As for the rest of the hapless Envoy's remains, the rabble took it upon itself to hang Macnaghten's headless corpse from a hook at the entrance to the bazaar.
The game was now well and truly up. This supreme humiliation of the British master roused the horde to even loftier enterprises. The frenzied tribesmen next laid siege to the cantonments, the vulnerable bungalows and barracks where the British had foolishly chosen to hold up instead of behind the secure hilltop walls of the Bala Hissar citadel. The well-defended palace-fortress was occupied by Shah Shujah, the despised weakling the British had placed on the Afghan throne after the Governor-General Lord Auckland engineered Dost Mohammed's removal. Britain's amir-in-waiting, however, made the fatal mistake of taking his position too seriously. He haughtily refused to allow the British, his benefactors and only realistic source of protection, to take up residence in the Bala Hissar. Shah Shujah suffered his inevitable fate: he fell to Akbar Khan's dagger as soon as the army trudged out the city gates on the ill-fated retreat from Kabul. To give Elphinstone his due, he had recommended the building of a fort for the garrison, but this proposal clashed with the tight-fisted policies of the East India Company's bean counters, who rejected the army's request for £2,400 to carry out the works. After all, the occupation of Kabul was already costing the Honourable Company £1 million a year. Lieutenant Vincent Eyre, one of the few British survivors of the Afghan disaster, observed with some irony that 'The credit of having selected a site for the cantonments, or controlled the execution of its works, is not a distinction now likely to be claimed exclusively by anyone.' Eyre, the garrison's Deputy Commissary of Ordnance, expresses in his memoirs of captivity under Dost Mohammed a stark wonder of how the government could have 'in a half-conquered country' left their forces in so extraordinary and injudicious a military outpost as the exposed cantonments:
The position eventually fixed upon for our magazine and cantonments was a piece of low swampy ground, commanded on all sides by hills or forts. It consisted of a low rampart and a narrow ditch in the form of a parallelogram ... 1000 yards long and 600 broad, with round flanking bastions at each corner, every one of which was commanded by some fort or hill.
The Mission compound, which served as the residence of the envoy, officers and assistants of the occupation force, was a death trap. Its very existence 'rendered the whole face of the cantonments, to which it was annexed, nugatory for purposes of defence'. With a doddering old man like Elphinstone at the helm, the garrison's predicament could hardly have been more desperate. Eyre lavishes praise on his commanding officer's professional acumen, his courtesy and kindly attitude towards all ranks. But of Elphinstone the leader of men, he sadly notes, 'He had, indeed, but one unhappy fault as a general – the result, probably, of age and infirmity – and this was a want of confidence in his own judgement, leading him to prefer everybody's opinion to his own ... until he was at a loss which course to take.' In the end, Elphinstone's dithering and indecision 'proved the ruin of us all'.
Most of Elphinstone's contemporaries tended to agree that defending the Kabul garrison was too overwhelming a task for him to take on in his deteriorated state of mind and body. The ominous clouds gathering over the Army of the Indus and its civilian charges was, in the opinion of the indomitable Lady Sale 'enfeebling the powers of (Elphinstone's) mind'. Lady Florentina Sale was the embodiment of Victorian self-confidence and pluck. Her husband, Sir Frederick Sale, was dispatched to command the garrison at Jalalabad, while she remained at Kabul Cantonment with the main body of the army. This grande dame had nothing but contempt for what she dismissed as 'reprehensible croaking' by British officers who spent their time bemoaning the imminence of disaster. When the Afghan mob finally attacked and scaled the walls of one fortification using poles picked up from the ground as ladders, Lady Sale snorted, 'A child with a stick might have repulsed them.'
With tragic inevitability, Elphinstone capitulated to Akbar Khan's threats and agreed to withdraw his army from Kabul. This decision precipitated the most calamitous defeat ever to befall a British fighting force: a 16,000-strong column betrayed and exterminated by an Afghan rabble-rouser, who moreover had personally guaranteed the retreating column safe conduct to India.
Before Elphinstone and his army were permitted to abandon Kabul that freezing January morning, the amir demanded six hostages be delivered to ensure certain pledges undertaken by the British officials. The prisoners were later to be liberated by Major-General George Pollock, but fortunate as they were to escape the ghastly fate awaiting those who marched with Elphinstone, their months in captivity could hardly be described as a bed of roses. Captain James Airey recalls in his diaries that on the day the prisoners rode out of Kabul in the company of their liberator General Pollock, he was alarmed to learn of a 'reverse' suffered by the Second Division in the Khyber Pass. The report was in fact erroneous. The British forces managed to rout the Afghans who had attempted to block the advance of the Army of Retribution. But it was distressing news for a group of officers anticipating a triumphant march home after ten months of confinement in the hands of their bloodthirsty captors. 'You cannot conceive how glad I am to have left Afghanistan,' Airey writes:
I always hated it and the last ten months were a period of anxiety that was anything but pleasant. During the first five or six months we poor hostages were never certain how long we should have our heads on our shoulders, for the people of Kabul used to often to assemble around the house in which we were and insist on our being brought out to be killed. Had it not been for the man in whose custody we had been placed, who defended us at the risk of his own ruin, we should have all been murdered.
Airey adds with some understatement, 'It is rather a disagreeable sensation at first to be awakened in the morning by the cries of people insisting on having your blood.'
Eyre was another of the lucky survivors who was taken back into captivity to join the small band of British hostages left behind after the departure of Elphinstone's column. His account of the journey is one of the few contemporary tales of the full horror of the carnage that befell the once-proud Army of the Indus:
The retreating army had marched over the same ground on the previous day, and terrible was the spectacle presented to our eyes along the whole line of road. The snow was absolutely dyed with streaks and patches of blood for whole miles, and at every step we encountered the mangled bodies of British and Hindoostanee soldiers, and helpless camp followers, lying side by side, victims of one treacherous undistinguishing fate, the red stream of life still tricking from many a gaping wound inflicted by the merciless Afghan knife. Here and there small groups of miserable, starving and frost-bitten wretches, amongst whom were many women and children, were still permitted to cling to life, perhaps only because death would in their case have been a mercy.
Eyre raised a cry of outrage at the horrors he witnessed on that march, never doubting that 'these events will assuredly rouse the British Lion from his repose'. As indeed they did.
Excerpted from The Khyber Rifles by Jules Stewart. Copyright © 2013 Jules Stewart. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.