On the 15th March 1878, Roberts took up the command of the Punjab Frontier Force. He had often longed for a command, and the Frontier Force promised chances for active service afforded by no other post.
Events in Afghanistan were now coming to a crisis, and it was proposed to send a mission to try to come to terms and settle all disputes. Accordingly, an Englishman, Major Cavagnari, was told to go to Kabul and. let the Amir know that a mission would soon arrive.
Major Cavagnari had, however, hardly crossed the frontier when he was met by the Afghan general, Faiz Mahomed. Faiz Mahomed treated the English officer courteously, but told him distinctly that he had orders not to let the mission pass. Such was the command of his master the Amir; nay more, "but for their personal friendship," he said, "he would, in obedience to further orders from the treacherous Afghan ruler, have shot Major Cavagnari down, and his escort." This direct insult could not be allowed to pass unnoticed. The peaceful mission was forced to retire, but to take its place two British columns were immediately formed, and the command of one of these columns—the Kuram Field Force—was given to Major-General Roberts.
The object of this force was to defeat and disperse any Afghan army that might march to oppose it, and at the same time it was to threaten Kabul, and thus try and bring the Amir to his senses.
On the 21st of November our troops crossed the frontier, General Roberts being in front with the advanced guard. As the British advanced the Afghans sullenly retired, and finally took up a very strong position on a hill called the Peiwar Kotal. The general had only a small force with him (it consisted of 1345 British and 3990 native soldiers, with 13 guns), but he determined to strike a blow.
The tribes in the Kurman thought the small army doomed. "Even the women taunted us," says Roberts. "When they saw the little Gurkhas for the first time, they exclaimed, 'Is it possible that these beardless boys think they can fight Afghan warriors?' They little suspected that the brave spirits which animated these small forms made them more than a match for the most stalwart Afghan."
The plan of attack was soon formed. It was to make a night march, arrive at the foot of the Kotal Hill, where the enemy lay encamped, and storm the position by daybreak. Meanwhile the Afghans' attention was turned to every point of assault but the one determined on.
With great skill the general made use of his small forces by spreading them out, and feinting to attack in different places. In consequence of this, the enemy were completely puzzled and out-manœuvred.
At 10 p.m. on Sunday the 1st December, the men fell in, and began their perilous march in absolute silence. A bitterly cold wind blew down the valley, and by the fitful moonlight, over boulders and through mountain torrents, the soldiers surely but steadily toiled upwards. As dawn was breaking, the enemy saw them, and hastily began to fire into them. Up leapt the Gurkhas and Highlanders, and side by side charged wildly into the entrenchments. A fierce hand-to-hand fight followed; the Afghans fought bravely, but after a short resistance the plateau was taken, and the enemy fled.
Roberts, who led the attack in person, had a narrow escape, a bullet whistling past him, and actually grazing his finger. During the thickest of the fight his native orderlies showed the greatest devotion to their well-loved master. He had two Sikhs, two Pathans, and two Gurkhas in attendance on him, and while the firing was at its hottest, all six crowded round him, regardless of their own safety, as long as they could shield the general from the storm of bullets.
After two hours' well-earned rest, the troops again marched forward on the enemy's main position. The attack on the enemy's front had also been successful, and soon the whole Afghan camp was in our soldiers' hands. The foe were in headlong flight, pursued by our cavalry. The rout was complete; their guns, waggons, and baggage were left behind, and General Roberts had won his maiden victory.
Sikh orderly trying to protect General Roberts from bullets.
The victorious general now made all his plans for a march on Kabul as soon as spring came. News came, however, that a treaty of peace had been signed, and that a peaceful British mission was to be sent to the Amir's capital. On hearing this, Roberts bade farewell to his splendid little army, and started off to return to Simla. Before actually leaving, he met the Peace Mission, which consisted of Major Cavagnari, who was accompanied by three other Englishmen, and an escort of the Guides.
They were all in the best of spirits, but General Roberts was haunted by a feeling of approaching disaster. At dinner he sat silent, filled "with gloomy forebodings as to the fate of those fine fellows." Next morning he rode with them part of the way. A solitary magpie—emblem of bad luck—flew past them, and Major Cavagnari begged the general not to tell his wife of their ill-omened start. With a heavy heart Roberts bade the little company good-bye. "My heart sank," says he, "as I wished Cavagnari good-bye. When we proceeded a few yards in our different directions, we both turned round, retraced our steps, shook hands once more, and parted for ever."
This parting took place in July; between one and two on the morning of the 5th September, Roberts—who had returned to Simla—was awakened by the arrival of a telegram. The contents told him that his worst fears were realised. Cavagnari and his comrades had been treacherously murdered in the Residency at Kabul.
This, of course, meant war; the murderers must be punished, the murdered mission avenged. With the least possible delay, Roberts was soon busily engaged in plans for the formation of "The Kabul Field Force," as his new command was called.
On the 6th of September he left Simla and went to Umballa, where he was joined by his staff. When he reached the troops the general received a most hearty and enthusiastic welcome, and he was much cheered by the bearing of his soldiers.
"A splendid spirit pervaded the whole force; the men's hearts were on fire with eager desire to press on to Kabul, and be led against the miscreants who had foully murdered our countrymen, and I felt assured that whatever it was possible for dauntless courage, unselfish devotion, and firm determination to achieve, would be achieved by my gallant soldiers."
The troops moved steadily on. On the 5th of October, exactly a month after the sad news of the fate of Cavagnari had reached Simla, it was halted at the "pretty little village of Charasia, nestling in orchards and gardens, with a rugged range of hills towering above it, about a mile away."
The general had made up his mind to strike while the iron was hot. The Afghans were in great numbers, and strongly posted; they were being hourly reinforced, and the situation was one of great anxiety. After breakfast the attack began: delay might have been fatal; and Roberts, grasping the situation at a glance, hurled his little force straight at the dense hordes of Afghans on the ridge.
The enemy were obstinate, and fought with dogged courage. The ground was steep and difficult, and the advance of the stalwart Highlanders was somewhat checked in consequence. Seeing this dilemma, their brother hill-men (the little Gurkhas) joined them, with the fierce, active Punjabis. Highlanders, Gurkhas, Punjabis, all men of fighting race, united in a desperate charge.
Loading and firing as steadily as if on parade, our troops went on till finally the position was reached, and cold steel was called upon to do its work. The Afghans fought well, but the attack was not to be resisted, and finally they fled, leaving their trenches in the hands of our gallant troops.
The order for a general advance was now sounded, and Highlanders, Gurkhas, and Punjabis again dashed forward in friendly rivalry, each striving hard to be the first to close with the enemy.
The Afghans could not meet their fierce onslaught: first they wavered, then, finally, they scattered and fled in all directions, and the victory was won.
A day or two afterwards the victorious army were at Kabul: the city was at their mercy, and so far their success had been complete. Though the entry into Kabul had been accomplished there was still much to be done. The murderers of Cavagnari had to be brought to justice, order had to be kept in the city, and all the plans made for the army's going into winter quarters.
While in the city Roberts visited the spot where the members of the Residency had made their brave defence and met their cruel end. He was familiar with such scenes of native treachery and British courage; and doubtless the scene of Cavagnari's last stand must have brought back to the Mutiny hero the days of Delhi, Cawnpore, and Lucknow.
"The walls of the Residency, closely pitted with bullet holes, gave proof of the determined nature of the attack and the length of the resistance. The floors were covered with blood-stains, and amidst the embers of a fire were found a heap of human bones. It may be imagined how British soldiers' hearts burned within them at such a sight, and how difficult it was to suppress feelings of hatred and animosity towards the perpetrators of such a dastardly crime."
In the meantime, although the British army was in Kabul, it was by no means in safety, nor was the war at an end. The 8th December saw the enemy's "last peaceful act." That day a great parade of all the troops was held in order to show the Afghans "our teeth and our mettle." Six days after, the enemy had become so daring that General Roberts got all his troops together within the Sharpur Cantonments. Two days before Christmas the Afghans made their fiercest attack. This was beaten back by the steady courage of our troops, who, surrounded by masses of the enemy, and in the heart of a hostile country, were now fighting for their very existence.
The weather was bitterly cold; there was a very hard frost, and the ground was covered thick with snow. "I think I had good reason to be proud of my force," says Roberts. "Native and European soldiers alike bore the hardships and the exposure with the utmost cheerfulness, and in perfect confidence that when the assault should take place victory should be ours."
On the 5th of May Sir Donald Stewart arrived with his force, having marched from Kandahar and gained a great victory on the way. Sir Donald, as senior officer, took command of the united forces. The army was divided into three divisions, Roberts retaining the command of two divisions.
With such a large army in front of Kabul it was thought that some of the troops might be sent back. Accordingly a column was formed, the command of which was given to Roberts, and the idea was that the little army should withdraw by the Kurman route.
Roberts himself had started off in order to view the Khyber Pass, when in his own words: "Suddenly a presentiment, which I have never been able to explain to myself, made me retrace my steps and hurry back towards Kabul—a presentiment of coming trouble."
This feeling, as in the case of Cavagnari, was justified; as, on approaching Kabul, he was met by Sir Donald Stewart with the news of a grave disaster to the British arms. This was the defeat of General Burrows' force at Maiwand.
The general had left Kandahar with about 2500 men, and on reaching Maiwand the little army had been attacked by 25,000 Afghans. The artillery stood to their guns till all their ammunition had been fired away. Our troops fought doggedly, but they were overwhelmed by numbers, and were finally broken. Nearly half the British force was killed, wounded, or missing; the remnant struggled on through the night, and reached Kandahar the next morning. General Burrows, who in the fight had two horses shot under him, was among the last to reach the city.
Kandahar was soon besieged, a vast native army hemming in the British force.
The consequences of this defeat might well be expected to be serious and far-reaching. "The disaster to our arms caused, as was to be expected, considerable excitement all along the border; indeed throughout India the announcement produced a feeling of uneasiness—a mere surface ripple, but enough to make those who remembered the days of the Mutiny anxious for better news from the north."
Roberts was quick to grasp the situation. He saw that a force ought, without delay, to be sent from Kabul to the relief of Kandahar. After consulting with General Stewart, he sent a telegram to the Adjutant-General in India, in which he told his views plainly and to the point.
"I strongly recommend that a force be sent from this to Kandahar," he began. "You need have no fears about my division. It can take care of itself, and will reach Kandahar under the month," he continued.
On the 3rd of August the reply came; the authorities cordially agreed, and an assent was given.
Roberts was given a free hand in selecting his troops, and he quickly chose an army of close on 10,000 men, with 18 guns. All sorts of fighting men were represented, and many nationalities—Highlanders, British Lancers, British Artillery, with Sikhs, Punjabis, Gurkhas, Native Cavalry, and Native Artillery.
On the 9th of August, at 6 a.m., the force bade farewell to Kabul, and started on its famous march. From that date till its triumphant entry into Kandahar "Sir Frederick Roberts' army was cut off from all communication with India and the outer world." Of this historic march, with its record of heroism, of dangers met, and difficulties overcome, this is not the place to tell.
The picked troops marched splendidly. The general, ever anxious for the comfort and safety of his men, had arranged the whole scheme with absolute fearlessness and prudent forethought.
To quote from the words of an officer who was with the column: "While it must be allowed that the whole force, men and officers, had done their duty nobly, and had accomplished a march which has seldom been surpassed, still the key of the movement was the firm determination of the general commanding. Few commanders have been more personally liked by all, from the drummer to the colonel, than was General Roberts; and the national and universal admiration which this march and subsequent victory inspired, has stamped it as one of the greatest achievements of the British army."
All ranks believed and trusted in their leader, and though the work was hard, the way long and weary, one and all would have fallen on the march rather than give in.
On the morning of the 31st the force reached Kandahar, having marched just over 313 miles from Kabul. Next morning the battle was fought. The fighting was of a fierce and often hand-to-hand order. On the British dashed, position after position being carried at the point of the bayonet. "Just one charge more to close the business!" Major White shouted as he led his men at an intrenchment, and in this spirit of reckless gaiety and daring officers and men alike fought. Soon the foe were in confusion, and, with comparatively slight loss on our side, the Afghans were utterly routed, and Kandahar and the besieged force relieved.
Peace was soon afterwards made, all the British demands being fully satisfied, and the victorious general started to return to India, his work nobly done and ended. "I shall never forget the feeling of sadness with which I said good-bye to the men who had done so much for me," says Roberts. "I looked upon them all, Native as well as British, as my valued friends. And well I might, for never had a commander been better served."
With the ringing cheers of the soldiers he had led to victory, and the pathetic strains of "Auld lang syne" in his ears, Roberts bade farewell to the gallant army which had made his name and its own so famous, and started off for Quetta, on his way to England.