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The Army of the Indus and the Advance to Kabul

The Army of the Indus consisted of one force from Bengal in the east, and one from Bombay in the west, of the British Army. In addition, the East India Company raised its' own regiment, plus two regiments of Indian cavalry and twelve regiments of Indian infantry. Of the men raised for Shah Shuja's army, no one seems to have been very impressed with them. Speculation was that not only were they not very committed to the Shah, but that the native Indian troops, trained in and  used to the heat of the plains, would not fare well in Afghanistan's hilly contours and desperately cold winter.

Calcutta's  Bengal Army gathered near Ferozepore on the Sutlej river in the Punjab in late November of 1838.  G/G Auckland joined them and a few days later met Ranjit Singh with his forces. The first meeting, at the English camp, nearly turned in to a riot, with the clamor of the varied musicians, over one hundred elephants in a tiny space, and the Sikh and British officers jockeying for position. Singh himself almost got knocked over and crushed in the melee, had not an English officer grabbed him and literally carried the little man into the durbar pavilion. Later, in fact, he did trip over a cannon shell and fell flat on his face. He was unhurt, but his ministers and elite Khalsa guard were reportedly aghast as the spectre of their leader, prostrate before the British guns.

The next day, the whole mob turned around and made it's way to Singh's encampment in 110 degree heat, at a pace which one officer later described as "a snail's gallop". The party that night was riotous, to say the least, with wine, women and song. Miss Emily Eden, ever the archetypical Victorian maiden aunt and fussbudget, described how she "did not particularly care for the affair, with all those satraps in a row and those screaming girls and crowds of long-bearded attendants and the old tyrant drinking in the middle." The "old tyrant" was attended to by dozens of rather comely Kashmiri dancing girls whom he loved to watch gallop by, topless, on horses, and also by jewel-bedecked young boys to whom he turned when age and illness made the girls not as attractive a recourse. One can imagine the strait-laced English view of all this Oriental tomfoolery...

While still at Ferozepore, Auckland deemed that Sir Henry Fane and five Indian regiments would stay behind as reserves. Fane then, oddly enough, resigned himself from the army. He evidently decided that an expedition of this size, entering a country so barren and destitute it could barely feed its' own inhabitants much less a 15000-person invasion, during the dead of winter, was perhaps not such a good idea. His departure left the Bengal Army under the command of one Sir Willoughby Cotten, but by virtue of seniority, the entire Army of the Indus now fell under Sir John Keane, the Bombay commander. The Bombay force had sailed up the western coast of India, intending to disembark at Karachi and join their brethren upland.

Plans called for the Army to enter Afghanistan through the Bolan pass in the south. This was the long way around, but the Khyber Pass was much more difficult to cross, and to get there the Army would have had to march through Sikh territory.  Singh was not overly enthusiastic about large numbers of British and Indian soldiers tramping across his country, so he threatened to pull out if they didn't head south. A small Sikh-British force, under the direction of Claude Wade, did ultimately head for the Khyber, though, and would meet back up with the rest of the column in Kabul.

So the Army marched south along the Sutlej until it joined with the Indus, in the Baluchistan territories of the Amirs of Sind, a wholly independent area. Needless to say, the Amirs were not pleased, but the Army took the opportunity to sack the country and loot Hyderabad, the capital. Eventually, the Amirs relented. The Bengal  army marched south, and in March of 1839, joined forces with the Bombay contingent. The total force now consisted of 9500 men from the Bengal army,  5600 from the Bombay side, and about 6000 men raised for the Shah of Shujah. There were as well over 30,000 camels, around 8000 horses, and hundreds of oxen pulling carts.

The Army's  principal weapon, besides swords and lances, was the "Brown Bess", a muzzle-loading musket that hadn't changed since the Battle of Waterloo a quarter of a century earlier.  It was accurate to around 150 yards, and a really good man could get off two shots per minute. By comparison, the Afghan jezail, though long and awkward to carry, was reputedly accurate up to 800 yards, and there are reports of the Afghans picking off sheep and horses at 600 yards with a single shot.

The officers of the Army unfortunately, left a lot to be desired. Commissions in the British Army were still purchased instead of earned, and the educational level of the officers was barely above that of their men, 85% of whom were illiterate. European officers of Indian regiments were even worse, and depended on experience gained in the field - but India had been at peace for 30 years. The Indian officers were useless, being promoted purely by seniority and therefore, to a man, almost all were in their late 50s or worse. They had little or no authority, though.

What made the Army of the Indus doomed almost from the start, though, was the remainder of the force - almost 40,000 camp followers - servants, families, animal handlers, the ubiquitous "bazaar girls" and thousands more. Camels carried the gear and put up a tremendous din 24 hours a day. And in those days, a British officer didn't travel light:  A typical officer carried half a dozen servants, glass, crockery and silver plate for his table, a portable wine chest, and a bathtub. Sir Willoughby Cotten required no less than 260 camels for his gear alone, and one other brigadier required three camels just to haul his cigars.

On February 23, 1839, the mass of humanity and beasts started across the scorching desert. Within days, camels started dying left and right, through shortages of food and water. One officer counted 20 dead animals in a space of four miles. Soon the army spread out all across the land, suffering from raiding Beluchi tribesmen at night and interminable heat and dryness during the day.  By March 11th, the entire force was down to half-rations.

In mid-March, the force entered the southern end of the 60-mile long Bolan Pass. The pass had walls 500 feet high on either side,  no roadway, a narrow river running down the middle, and a pathway varying from 500 yards to less than 70 feet wide. The Beluchi's peppered the column from the heights, and the men in the rear were not heartened to be passing the bodies of slain animals and men as they moved forward. One officer wrote back that the force looked more like an defeated army in retreat than advancing conquerors.

Finally though, after two long weeks, the head of the force straggled out of the northern end of the pass onto the high plain. The nearby town of Quetta was thought "a wretched place", but there was food, water, and acres of peach and apricot trees. By April 6th, the column was through the pass, and General Keane had his entire army together, in one place, for the first time.

However, the mismanagement of the supply situation was still a problem - the troops were on half rations, and the camp followers on quarter rations. It was so bad that even the perennially over-optimistic and sanguine Macnaghten wrote back to Auckland "the troops and followers are nearly in a state of mutiny for food".

Things didn't get better as the army plodded north. Water was nowhere to be found. Beasts and men dropped by the dozens. As they approached modern day Kandahar,  the militant ones hoped for a good fight, but Mohan Lal, Burnes' aide-de-camp, had bribed the chiefs in town with British gold, and the city welcomed the returning Shah Shujah with a vocal procession. The adoration of the crowd was considerably dimmed a few days later at his 'official coronation', when a miniscule percentage of the city's population turned out to grumble at the British force and glower darkly at the Sikh bodyguards. Of course, the British celebrated their successful mission at a party thrown by Burnes in which the principal menu items were iced champagne and wine. Later, several officers would write home that they were surprised by the total apathy shown Shujah by the natives, and rather bewildered by the lack of enthusiasm that  they had been led to believe would occur (by Shah Shujah, of course).

The Army was stuck in Kandahar for over two months waiting for supplies. They waited for food, horses and military supplies to come up from the south. Enlisted men took to looting and pillage for excitement. 40 of them were flogged on one eventful day. The Indian sepoys turned homesick and listless. The Afghan natives did a lively trade by stealing the English camels at night and then selling them back the next day.

Finally, though, the column turned north towards Kabul and Dost Mohammed on June 27th, the same day old Ranjit Singh died in Lahore. Inexplicably, General Keane decided to leave all the heavy cannons and siege guns in Kandahar.  Sniping from the heights continued to bedevil the marching column. Occasionally Shujah's men would catch a sniper and the retribution was swift, visible and gruesome - the stoic Afghan was tied to the mouth of a cannon barrel and blown to pieces..

The fortress town of Ghazni was next in line - walls thirty feet high, and almost as thick, surrounded by a moat, and perched on the side of a mountain.  It seemed impregnable, and Keane soon regretted leaving his large siege artillery back in Kandahar. However, fate smiled upon the British force for one of the few times - a nephew of Dost Mohammed escaped out of the city and stole into the British camp. For what amounted to around $250.00, the ever present Mohan Lal paid him to draw up a map of the city's fortifications.  

Soon the British were in possession of the fact that, although the Kandahar gate to the city was heavily fortified and bricked up to prevent it being blown in, the Kabul gate on the other side of the city was not reinforced at all. The plan was hatched to move around the city under cover of darkness, blow the Kabul gate in, and storm the city before the defenders knew what was happening. Stupidly, however, Keane told Macnaghten of the plan, and even more stupidly, Macnaghten told Shah Shujah, who's babbling attendants managed to leak the news to the locals.  

One starlit night late in July, (later, Sir) Henry Durand and some of engineers snuck up towards the gate, with a wildly over-sufficient amount of gunpowder. While still 150 yards from the gate, the waiting Afghan snipers started peppering them with shot. Somehow, Durand and the sappers managed to set several bags of powder against the gate, all the while being shot at from above, and even subject to rocks and mud bricks being dropped on them, most of which found their mark.  Hurriedly lighting the fuse, Durand and the sappers high-tailed it for the moat and tossed themselves in. As would be expected, the fuse went out. After a few moments, Durand fired his pistol at it, but with no success. He decided to crawl back to the gate and relight the fuse. 

Meanwhile, the officer covering the sappers decided that it had taken so long that Durand and his party must have been killed, so he decided to charge the gate and try to blow up the powder himself. As he got close, the gunpowder, thanks to Durand's second try, blew up with a tremendous roar, tossing the office several yards backwards into his troops. Amazingly, the only British casualty of the huge explosion was the company bugler. 

Chaos ensued. With no bugler, the British troops had no way of knowing when to charge. Finally, they advanced on the burning gate. Fighting was fierce, not in the least because of the tremendous pile of rubble that blocked their way. After a bloody ebb and flow during which both British and Afghan warriors fought bravely, the Afghans were surrounded and forced to give up arms. Nearly 1200 were killed and over a thousand taken prisoner, with nearly 200 British and Indian casualties. The troops turned to looting, burning and other typical cruelties. To add to the horror, fifteen hundred Afghan horses broke loose and stampeded throughout the city's center square until they were shot down by British gunners. For the most part, the British treated their captives with restraint, with one glaring exception. Shah Shujah ordered 50 of the defenders to be beheaded. A British officer chanced upon the scene and described it with horror to Macnaghten, telling of the captives being bound hand and foot, men and boys alike, Shujah's executioners hacking away with their long swords. This act of brutality towards his own countrymen did not sit well with the British, nor would the Afghans forget it.

The strongest fortress in his kingdom having fallen, Dost Mohammed attempted to compromise, but turned down the British offer of peaceful exile in India. He replied that "if Shah Shujah was such a popular ruler and the people of Afghanistan were so anxious to see him lead, why were the British there with all their military might and power. Why not just leave and see whom the Afghans really wanted to lead them." His counteroffer was itself turned down by Macnaghten. The Army of the Indus continued it's march on Kabul, about 80 miles north.

Josiah Harlan came back in to the picture a few weeks later, ostensibly in charge of Dost Mohammed's army, but in reality seeking employment with the British. They'd had enough of him by now. More of a nuisance than a trouble-maker, Harlan had started out with Singh, training his army, then moved to British employ as a "special envoy", then over to Shujah's army, and was now finding his position with Dost Mohammed tenuous. The exasperated British packed him up and shipped him back to Philadelphia. 

Mohammed's army came out one more time, and, Koran in hand, he exhorted them to charge so he could "die with honor." The response was wholesale flight by most of his army. Dost Mohammed fled north towards Turkestan with his oldest son, Akbar, and about 2000 loyal troops.  The British entered Kabul, pushing Shah Shujah ahead of them. His welcome into the city was described as "restrained" by one sardonic English officer who watched the procession. He "gleefully bounded" into the Bala Hissar, the palace/fort/stronghold where traditional Afghan rulers either hid from or terrorized their subjects. His 600 wives took up residence as well. The British Army of the Indus had done its' job.

Their success due more to Mohan Lal's knowledge and ability to pass out gold than British military power, many officers were disappointed at the lack of action with which to advance their careers. One officer judged most of the country through which they had marched "totally impracticable for an army if properly defended by the enemy". 

The Army of the Indus had achieved its' objective. Shujah was back on his throne. Auckland was made an Earl, General Keane a peer - Lord Keane of Ghazni - Clade Wade, in charge of Singh's army was knighted, and Macnaghten was made a baronet. Despite logistical failures and the dismal harmony among top officers, the Army had acquitted itself fairly well. There were appalling losses among the camp followers, and thousands of horses and camels had died, but Afghan resistance had proved surprisingly light. However, the real problems lay ahead.

Next : Occupation, Murder, and Retreat