Hundreds on the hills: a letter from Afghanistan, 1879

6th November 2015
Plan of attack from Major H Harvey's Afghan Letters in the Library Collection

From Major Harry Harvey of the King's Own Borderers' Afghan Letters, in the Library. His letters were copied by his sisters into notebooks. The schematic above accompanies this letter and next to it is noted: 'This formation kept off the tribes of whom there were hundreds on the hills. They were afraid to attack. HH.'

My dear Loo John Min & Ames,

[...] The day after I wrote last we came home from a route march; the 31st  December, we had been out towards the Khyber, and on our return found the Brigade Major with an order for 4 Companies of the 25th, 2 Guns, Half Battalion 24th Native Infantry, and a Squadron, to return and open the Pass, which had been signalled 'closed,' some robbing and murdering having gone on.

There wasn't time for the men to get their dinners, so they fell out for a quarter of an hour to get some bread and a glass of beer; and A B C D Companies fell in again, as fighting was expected and the Left Half Battalion were grumbling at the Right Half always getting first served.

I asked, as Senior Captain, for my right to go with F Company, but it was disallowed. But as it took the whole of E Company, and 30 men of F Company to make A B C D up to strength, I got relieved off Field Officer of the day in Camp, and went; as I didn't wish, the first time the Company went under fire, for the Captain to be somewhere else.

However, we only marched up the Pass 3 miles, found a native postman lying shot in the road, looked about, saw nobody, and came back. On our way out we passed some wounded natives coming in.

Next day the other Brigade furnished a similar expedition—of no more use—only like hunting a rabbit in the hills with an Elephant—for after our return the Afreedis cut and removed five miles of wire, and posts of the new telegraph; and after the return of the 5th Fusilier Expedition next day, they attacked one of the picquets in the Pass, and fired into the Camp at Ali Musjid, killing one Sepoy 6th Native Infantry and wounding a Serjeant.

The 3rd day, the 2nd January, I got an order, when I was fast asleep in bed at 8 a.m., to parade at 9 and escort camels through the Pass, as no convoy had gone for 2 days. They had a Captain's party, 50 Europeans, and 50 24th Punjab Native Infantry Pathans, i.e. Alfreedis; so I marched my 50 down to the Fort where the other 50 Native Infantry were paraded, and took over 68 camels and 250 bullocks, loaded with every conceivable thing, for Ali Musjid, and Dacca. Terry came down, and said he was coming. So I told him I should be very glad of his assistance, but only as a Volunteer, I wouldn't recognise him in command, unless he brought me a written order; so he rode off to the General, and came back presently to say, the General would only allow him to come as a spectator.

I told off the 2 parties of 50 men into 3 equal sections each corps, putting one section of 24th Native Infantry in front, in skirmishing order, at 30 paces interval, with scouts in front, 150 yards from the head of column and 1st section of 25th as their support, 50 yards in front of column; the two second sections of natives and Europeans distributed along the whole line of camels and bullocks; and the 3rd section Europeans in support of natives skirmishing with scouts as a rear Guard; and a party of the 81st of a sergeant and 12 men who attached themselves to us I put as an independent party in the centre; and told the supports, if the column was attacked, to detach two files and a corporal to the flank attacked, to cut off retreat of the attackers, or any how, to bother them with their fire.

The string of camels and bullocks was a mile long, and what with their lying down and wandering off to drink in the stream, - and a string of miles of the transport service, telegraphs; and Tom Dick & Harry attached of themselves, to the convoy for safe passage—I had to halt every now and then to close up, or we should have been all over the place.

I saw lots of Afreedis on the hills about 1000 yards distant, shortly after we entered the Khyber; and on meeting the 81st relieving escort, 2½ miles inside the Pass—as the Captain in command told me he had only 47 men in all—I told him I would accompany him up the hill. (For the road leaves the bed of the stream, and follows the left side of the clffs, up to the top; then rolling country then dips again.) He said he would be very glad, as the hills on both sides, all the way he had come were covered with Afreedis.

On getting to he top there was a grand view. I waited till the last of the convoy had passed, and were well on the way to Ali Musjid, and was going to return, when Terry came up and pointed out the smoke of a large village 3 miles off, and wanted to go there and burn it.

'Why,' I said, 'We are 7 miles from home; it's late; the men have not dined; we have no Doctor; no doolies; and who knows whether they are 'Friendlies,' or not? And how can we tell without a Political Officer? We could only tell they were enemies if they fired at us; and they would have a right to do so if we went to attack them.' 'Well,' he said, 'I can quite understand you're not liking the responsibility, but I would go if I was in command.' 'Well,' I said, 'If the General wants it burnt, he's only got to say so. I'm off back.' So whilst I was falling in the men, Terry walked off to make a 'Reconnaissance' as he called it, on foot, alone, leaving his horse. 'I'm not going to wait, you know,' I called out. 'Oh, never mind me!' he replied.

Well, I did wait, half an hour. Then it was 2 p.m., and thinking for future occasions it would be well to let him know that I meant what I said, I walked off, party and all; taking his Syce and horse with me, as the road was filling with armed Afreedis, and many more were on the hills much nearer than at first; and their favourite amusement had been murdering unarmed Syces and Native followers. I posted the horse and Syce at the first friendly police post he came to; but the Syce refused to stop, he didn't believe in the friendlies any more than I did. I was delighted to see Terry overtake us before we had gone 2 miles; as I was very uneasy about him. He told me he had got alarmed at the rapidly [increasing] numbers of Afreedis; they began to swarm, he said, as soon as my party had left. I knew he was well armed with breechloading revolver and sword, or must have waited for him.

I might have fired at lots of these armed Natives who were all about, had I been in the least able to tell whether they were friendly tribes or not. I have no doubt they were about half of each. The Lieutenant of the 24th, 'Naik,' told me his village was 10 coss (a coss is 3½ miles) from Ali Musjid, and he knew every inch of the country: that lots of these fellows were budmashes (desperadoes) from all parts. Last night, 3rd January, they fired at the Colonel Bhopal Battalion, and another Officer riding this side of the Pass. The Politicals won't let the Military go at them. Quartering troops in their villages, and routing them out of their caves in the mountains, is the only way.

Becker, from his signal station at the mouth of the Pass, saw the fellows fire at the at the Colonel Bhopal Battalion, and fired 20 rounds at them at 1800 yards; but was unable to say if he hit any; however the Colonel and his friend rode like John Gilpin back, and the Afreedis did ditto, the other way, on foot.

Becker has regular practice at a cave, distant about 2000 yards from his station. It is across a deep gully, is inhabited by robbers, he watched them with his telescope, and now and then treats them to a shot, which on looking again through his glass, he sees them acknowledge with derisive gestures.

You know that taking the top pin of the rifle band for a fore sight, and the outside edge of the sliding bar for a hind sight, gives sighting up to 2100 yards.

5th January

The General Maude, yesterday sent for the Chiefs of the Kuka Kheyls and other Kheyls about here, and told them that if they could not guard the Pass to say so, and we would do it ourselves. That the five miles of telegraph wire stolen, must be returned immediately, or all subsidies would be withdrawn, and every native seen with arms in his hands would be shot, so they are having a grand Durbar today amongst themselves to settle what they will do ... If we carry out what Maude said, we should have no trouble, if the civilians were only removed. ... No-one here sticks at wearing anything that is comfortable. I often see jungle mufti and a sword going about followed by an escort. Afghan pushtoos or fur coats with skin outside, and coarse cashmere puttis or leg swathing is worn by almost everybody. These last give Ruddell fits. I sent in my grass-cutter, my factotum, to Peshawar, to buy me a fur coat and three rough ones, one for each of my servants, Grass-cutter, Syce, and Sweeper. He will be back today.