My Life Story (Ch 3)


A British Mountain Battery on the line of march to Kandahar

A British Mountain Battery on the line of march to Kandahar

There were practically two Afghan Campaigns. The first ended with the signing of peace at Gandamak. The second finished in August 1880, with our placing the old Amir Abdurahmon on the throne of Kabul.

During the first campaign I was sent as Surveyor with the Southern Afghanistan Field Force, and worked between Kandahar and the Indian Frontier. I saw very little fighting, but as I served under a most energetic geographer in Sir Michael Bidduiph, who commanded on that side of Afghanistan, I had a pretty strenuous time. On leaving Kandahar finally for the Indian Frontier we followed a route which had never even been explored. General Biddulph was aIl over the country, and he would have done my work for me if he could! He could climb the steepest cliff with his sword and spurs on, and it was often as much as I could do to follow him. He was fond of sketching, too, so we became good allies and he recommended me for a brevet when the campaign was over. But alas! he quarrelled with Government, and nobody that he recommended ever got anything.

Then the Peace Treaty of Gandamuk was signed, and we all went to our headquarters to work out our results, and thought the war was all over. But the Indian Government unadvisedly sent a Mission under Sir Louis Cavagnari to Kabul. This was simply asking for trouble, and the trouble promptly came. Cavagnari and his entire escort were massacred, and a new campaign began.

This time I was sent to Northern Afghanistan by the Khaibar route, with instructions to get to Kabul and there to join Sir F. Roberts, who had rapidly fought his way to Kabul by another route — the Peiwar. I believe I was the first officer to pass up the Khaibar route to Kabul since the old Afghan War of 1848-9. There, in Kabul, we had a strenuous time. Roberts was just as keen on getting a map of the country as Biddulph, and I (with others) was out in the wilds with an escort all over Northern Afghanistan. I even reached the Hindu Kush, and did my best to get observations from a high peak on that range, but I was beaten by the intense cold, the fierce winds, and the rapidity with which it was necessary to work.

I got very little new information, but as I lived for a time in the hospitable home of a Mahommedan gentleman who had been a native officer in the Indian cavalry, it was quite a new and delightful experience. I used to wander with him over his great domain. He was a sort of “squire” or overlord, and evidently much respected by his people. So long as I was in his company, he was most benevolent and gracious. All the women and children knelt before him as he blessed them, whilst the men salaamed deeply. It was quite touching; but what happened when I was with him, I don’t know. Anyhow, I enjoyed this experience of living in an Afghan country house immensely. One morning, however, my host whispered in my ear that it was high time for me to get back to Kabul and the army. The Afghans were collecting in thousands to wipe us all off the face of the country, and we should find it difficult to hold our own. As a matter of fact, I only just got into the Kabul encampment (called Sherpur) as the gates were closed. There we were fired at by a besieging Afghan army for about two months, fighting more or less ever day over the hills which overlooked Sherpur, until finally we were driven inside the walls and had to defend them.

To show how varied were the duties of the Survey officer attached to a field force, I may mention one incident. When the Afghan hosts were swarming over the hills above Kabul and our little force of Gurkhas, Highlanders and Mountain Artillery was doing its best to hold them, the best point of vantage to watch the progress of the fight was the roof of the northern Main gate of Sherpur, and on this roof Sir F. Roberts paced to and fro, deciding what step to take from time to time. Like many another General, he was not very good at looking through a telescope, and I was placed on duty with him to watch proceedings through the best instrument I had and to report. I saw the Afghans mass themselves for attack, and swamp our little mountain guns which were not sufficiently protected. This I reported, but the General was sceptical. It took him a little time to swallow the fact that his beloved guns were in the hands of the enemy. But when he was convinced, he took about two turns up and down that roof, and decided most promptly what to do.

All the A.D.C.’s were scattered to recall the troops into Sherpur. It was then he decided to stand a siege inside Sherpur than to let his little force be reduced by fighting against overwhelming odds (in numbers) outside. He had no one left to recall the cavalry (under Sir Hugh Gough) who were out of sight altogether. So he detailed me promptly for that job, though I had very little idea about the cavalry movements which would help me to find them.

It was bitter cold. The snow lay in patches over the plains, and the river was ice-bound. The trees stood up stark and bare and offered no cover whatever. I saddled up my trusty dun Tradesman, and rode out of the gates of Sherpur just as the outside troops were marching in, with some doubt as to whether I should ever get back, and no idea whatever as to where to look for Gough, beyond a vague report that the cavalry was last seen near a hill about 2 miles away called Siah Sang (black stone).

So, for Siah Sang I went. The way .was open, as the enemy had not closed in on our troops, and except for one shot fired out of a ditch a yard or two off (which missed!) nothing happened till I reached the river. The bridge had gone, and great lumps of ice were floating down, and it looked beastly uninviting. However, there was nothing for it but to take a plunge into it and hope to cross. Luckily I struck a ford and came out of it all right.

At Siah Sang I had a good look round. There was not a sign of the cavalry; but I saw a Sowar of the 12th B.C. riding for all he was worth in my direction. I found that he too had lost the cavalry brigade, after being separated for some reconnaissance duty, and was making for Sherpur as fast as he could. He knew that Gough had gone eastwards with the brigade, and that he was quite aware of the position. He would probably sweep round the southern walls and enter Sherpur by its eastern gate — which, in fact, he did. So I had come exactly the wrong way to find him. However, it was high time to get into Sherpur ourselves. The enemy were swarming in between us and the walls, so we rode for it, recrossed the river and scuttled in by the western gate just in time. It was quite a good ride, but it was very cold, and luckily the Afghan was a shocking bad shot.

The last time a British Army got boxed up inside Sherpur it was all destroyed (in 1848), but that army made the mistake of coming out of Sherpur and attempting to fight its way back to India. We did not make that mistake, but waited for the Afghans to storm the defences. This they did when they thought they were strong enough. One early winter morning, before daylight, on the peak of the Takht-i-Shah (the highest peak overlooking Kabul) a gigantic bonfire was lit by the great High priest of Islam, as the signal for attack. I saw it from afar, and made a sketch, which long afterwards I saw in Lord Roberts’ drawing room at Ascot. The attack was fast and furious, but nowhere did the Afghans get inside the walls. Long before noon they were scattered and running, running across the plains — a most weird sight. I don’t think we killed more than a few hundred of them, but it was enough for the time at any rate. Next day a relief column under Sir Charles Gough arrived. This column had gallantly fought its way to Kabul up the Khaibar, and there was some disappointment at our having cleared off the enemy before they arrived.

When spring came on, as the country quieted, we made many glorious excursions. Much of northern Afghanistan is very beautiful, and spring is the time to see it. The winter had been deadly cold, with much deep snow and ice everywhere, but spring was a sheer delight before the hot days of summer.

The great event of that summer was the defeat of a British force at Maiwand, near Kandahar, in south Afghanistan. The Southern Army was driven into Kandahar and could not make an effective defense. Things were very bad indeed until Roberts was given command of 10,000 of the best troops in Kabul, and made his famous march to Kandahar, where he defeated the Afghans and relieved the Kandahar garrison.

I was then under Sir Donald Stewart, who was Commander-in-Chief (Roberts having been superseded because he hanged too many of Cavagnari’s murderers), and he gave me my orders to remain with him whilst he invited the Amir Abdurahmon to Kabul and installed him on the throne, and then returned with the balance of the British Army to India. After a great “durbar”, during which I was introduced to the Amir, we marched out rapidly from Kabul and then proceeded by the Kaibar route to India. We quite expected to be attacked by the Ghilzai tribes all the way, but we were too big in our movements. The Afghan takes time to assemble a big force, his country is mountainous, and the people are widely scattered. Thus ended the Afghan Campaign in the summer of 1880. For this I got my first brevet.


After that, I never again left the Indian Frontier. Between Afghanistan and India there is a rugged tract of mountains inhabited by wild and turbulent tribes who are supposed to be under the authority of the Indian Government, but who are in fact under no control at all. These people, or tribes– who do not love one another, will occasionally combine to raid the Indian Frontier and to fight such British forces as may be sent against them. In which case they can between them raise a force of about 20,000 well-armed men, all trained to shoot and all as active as cats in their own hills. It is a difficult force to deal with, and always will be.

More often, however, they spend their time quarrelling with each other, and when there is a sudden raid into India and towns are destroyed and people murdered, it is generally one tribe, or collection of clans, that does the mischief. The Waziris — or Wazirs — of Waziristan are the worst offenders and the most difficult to punish, because the mountains they inhabit are an impossible obstacle to the British soldier unless he is specially trained. The native troops are better when they are men of the hills themselves, as are the Ghurkhas’ and some of the Sikhs.

I took charge of a party of surveyors whose business it was to make maps of these rugged and dangerous hills, and I trained some of them (natives) to explore in all sorts of disguises, both the frontier and countries far beyond the frontier, and bring back not only maps but information.


These men worked splendidly, but I think we got our most valuable results when a military frontier expedition to punish the tribespeople was organised. I was with a military expedition into this country of Waziristan. It was all mountains. I succeeded in reaching the summit of the highest peak of all and in taking a round of useful observations. It was tough work. We had only a small escort of picked men — – good climbers – — and we moved as secretly as we could.

We camped one night on a small isolated hill where we could not be attacked by the enemy too easily or suddenly, and when night fell, we were surprised to see on the opposite side of the great valley that spread out at our feet, hundreds of fires (we lit no fire ourselves), which showed that the Wazirs had collected a large force which would get between us and the army below and prevent us from re-joining it.

However, there was nothing for it but to carry on, and I got to the top of the mountain with no further mischance than the loss of a man who was climbing alongside, and who was shot suddenly from behind a rock. We never even saw the man who fired the shot. He was evidently on his way to join his friends on the other side of the valley and came on us unexpectedly. But when I reached the top, I turned the telescope of the theodolite on to the place where the Waziri force had collected. There were many hundreds of them and they were carefully preparing a little surprise ambuscade for us as we returned down the valley. They had chosen a specially narrow place where the stream was tightly enclosed between great cliffs, and where we should be much hampered on our return journey by the rocks and boulders that filled up the bed of the stream.

So, whilst I was doing my work, we sent off a specially selected party of sepoys to crawl over and round the hills, keeping out of sight, and by degrees to get behind the Waziris and above them. They did this splendidly. When we reached the gorge on our way down, we got what we expected — a volley from the cliffs above. I think I never heard such a row as there was from the noise of firing in that narrow space, with a thunderstorm going on at the same time! The next thing was a volley from our own sepoys, who were above the Waziris and behind them, right into the thick of them. This was quite unexpected, and there followed a remarkably rapid “getting away” on their part, dodging amongst the bushes and rocks and yelling like fiends. It was soon all over.

They “suffered severely”, as the papers say. There were a few killed, but on the whole they were more frightened than hurt. Anyway, we got back to camp all right, and I got my work done. After burning a few mud-built villages, the Waziris gave in, and we marched out of Waziristan with all the honours of war. We actually lost more men from thirst (this was a bad business) on one hot march over the plains than we lost in any action with the Waziris themselves.

It was during this time on the frontier that I got such splendid work done by my explorers. Many of them

got special rewards and honours from Government for the work they did in districts beyond the frontier where no European could venture. The result of this recognition on the part of the Government was that my frontier service became very popular with the natives. Many wanted to join it from other parts who were not allowed to do so.

…to be continued

Written by Col Sit TH Holdich and first published in the HFHS Journal Issue 3 November 1992

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