Saturday, January 29, 2000

The march from Kabul to Kandahar
A slice of history
By Satyindra Singh

A BOLD headline in a leading national daily on January 1, 2000, stated: "2000 dawns as brutal embrace ends". Hostages held on the Indian Airlines flight IC-814, had been freed in exchange for three militants. The External Affairs Minister’s mission was described in different ways: capitulation, prolonged, painful, dexterous.... A very telling assessment of the crisis was made by a former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral J.G. Nadkarni, on the Internet a few days ago. Referring to the crude exhibition of emotion when the passengers finally returned after eight days, he said: "The British left behind many things, unfortunately not their stiff upper lip in times of crises".

Left to right: China Medal with clasps, Peking 1860; Abyssinia Medal; Afghanistan Medal, 1878; Kabul to Kandahar Star, 1880 This odyssey to Kandahar reminds us of an earlier relief and rescue mission to Kandahar, 120 years ago in 1880. And here I refer to the well-known march from Kabul to Kandahar by Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC who later became the Commander-in-Chief in India.

This epic march undertaken by Lord Roberts involved both British and Indian troops and one of the regiments was the 23rd Sikh Pioneers. My grandfather Subedar Sant Singh of this regiment participated in this march and was given a medal that was specially struck for this historic occasion.

  The story is brought out succinctly in the History of the Sikh Pioneers by Lt General Sir George MacMunn and Byron Farwell’s manual Queen Victoria’s Little Wars and some other volumes.

The British defeat at Maiwind had focused the attention of Britain on Afghanistan. Roberts was sent to provide relief to his countrymen besieged by ferocious tribes in Kandahar. It may also be mentioned that it is not always easy to understand why some campaigns and battles excite little interest and remain unknown while others draw a lot of attention.

Stewart’s earlier march from Kandahar to Kabul had almost passed unnoticed, but Roberts’ march in the opposite direction was followed with keen interest in Britain, and the ‘March from Kabul to Kandahar’, a phrase which conjures up all the romance of the 19th century Asiatic war, has gone down in history as a major event. Roberts, a good professional soldier with little romance in his soul, was delighted by his command and mission, but he had no idea of the fame that would accrue to him on account of his march to Kandahar when he set out to Kabul under a blazing sun on the morning of August 9, 1880. It has been stated that it took Roberts six days, pushing men and animals, as fast as he could, and he estimated the distance travelled as 98 miles.

Much to his disgust, Roberts himself was not fighting fit. He had come down with a fever and had to be carried on a ‘dooly’, a most ignominious mode of conveyance for a general in service; but there was no way out for he could not sit on a horse. Roberts had been unwell from the beginning of the war, suffering from torpidity of the liver and aggravated dyspepsia. He had constant pain in his chest and experienced a feeling of weariness. Throughout the march to Kandahar, he suffered from violent headaches, constant nausea, pain in his neck and loss of appetite — none of which held him back.

Roberts now had 940 sick men with his force. Many simply had sore feet, but others suffered from the extremes of temperature — bitterly cold nights and day time temperatures that rose to 105F. Nevertheless, he reported to India: "The troops from Kabul are in famous health and spirits". He hastened to attack the Afghani positions, and on September 1, the army won a great victory over the Afghans, capturing Ayub Khan’s camp and all his artillery.

The British now withdrew their armies from Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman, a nephew of Sher Ali, mounted the throne as Amir and the British no longer insisted on a mission in Kabul. It had been proved once more that the British could defeat the Afghans in an open battle but they could not hold the country. Except for the glory won by the soldiers, no objective was achieved.

Roberts returned to India and then to England to receive a shower of honours. A special ‘Kabul to Kandahar’ medal was struck. It became known as the Roberts Star and was presented to all who had taken part in the march. The Queen even gave one to Roberts’ horse, Voronel, which also received the Afghan campaign medal with four clasps.

The Afghan losses were estimated by Roberts as 1200 killed and many wounded. As many as 600 bodies were buried, between Kandahar and Pimal alone.

The 23rd Sikh Pioneers in Macpherson’s Brigade were in notable command and were known more for their fighting qualities than their pioneering efficiency. The kits carried by them were meagre enough, 20 lb for a sepoy and 10 for a follower, with tents for one-third of each corp. The officers and soldiers had but nine mules.

But whether their feet were sore or not, this force of close to 20,000 confidently tramped on without halts, covering on an average 14 miles a day. As Roberts rode over the bridge on the Logar river, it was a company of Pioneers which gave him the triumphant war shout, ‘Guru! Guru! Guru Ki Fateh! (Victory to the Guru! Victory to the leader).

Next year in August 1881, the government decided to hand over Kandahar to the Amir and hence end this phase of Indian and Frontier history. The camaraderie between British and Indian soldiers which resulted from the troubles in Afghanistan, and especially from this notable march, is perhaps the more valuable fallout of the whole adventure.

The 23rd Sikh Pioneers were among the first troops to move back to India accompanying the column which Roberts marched to Quetta. From there they moved to the rail head and returned to Mianmir, the cantonment at Lahore, richer by 16 Orders of Merit. The awards included the grant of fertile land and my grandfather was awarded four squares (100 acres) in Lahore district and the village in which this land was located was named after him i.e. Santpura, now in Pakistan.

The losses in this campaign both from war and sickness were extraordinarily small. Fifteen soldiers died, 27 were wounded, and a daily sick percentage of 3.3 was reported for the whole war.