Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Churchill On The Frontier - Mamund Valley II

September 1897 - our hero is feeling isolated at the head of the Mamund Valley ...

At last we reached the few mud houses of the village. Like all the others, it was deserted. It stood at the head of the spur, and was linked to the mass of the mountains by a broad neck. I lay down with an officer and eight Sikhs on the side of the village towards the mountain, while the remainder of the company rummaged about the mud houses or sat down and rested behind them. A quarter of an hour passed and nothing happened. Then the Captain of the company arrived. " We are going to withdraw," he said to the subaltern. You stay here and cover our retirement till we take up a fresh position on that knoll below the village." He added, "The Buffs don't seem to be coming up, and the Colonel thinks we are rather in the air here." It struck me this was a sound observation. We waited another ten minutes. Meanwhile I presumed, for I could not see them, the main body of the company was retiring from the village towards the lower knoll.

Suddenly the mountain-side sprang to life. Swords flashed from behind rocks, bright flags waved here and there. A dozen widely-scattered white smoke-puffs broke from the rugged face in front of us. Loud explosions resounded close at hand. From high up on the crag, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand feet above us, white or blue figures appeared, dropping down the mountain-side from ledge to ledge like monkeys down the branches of a tall tree. A shrill crying arose from many points. Yi! Yi! Yi! Bang! Bang! Bang! The whole hillside began to be spotted with smoke and tiny figures descended every moment nearer towards us. Our eight Sikhs opened an independent fire, which soon became more rapid. The hostile figures continued to flow down the mountain-side, and scores began to gather in rocks about a hundred yards away from us. The targets were too tempting to be resisted. I borrowed the Martini of the Sikh by whom I lay. He was quite content to hand me cartridges. I began to shoot carefully at the men gathering in the rocks. A lot of bullets whistled about us. But we lay very flat, and no harm was done. This lasted perhaps five minutes in continuous crescendo. We had certainly found the adventure for which we had been looking. Then an English voice close behind. It was the Battalion Adjutant. “Come on back now. There is no time to lose. We can cover you from the knoll."

The Sikh whose rifle I had borrowed had put eight or ten cartridges on the ground beside me. It was a standing rule to let no ammunition fall into the hands of the tribesmen. The Sikh seemed rather excited, so I handed him the cartridges one after the other to put in his pouch. This was a lucky inspiration. The rest of our party got up and turned to retreat. There was a ragged volley from the rocks; shouts, exclamations, and a scream. I thought for a moment that five or six of our men had lain down again. So they had - two killed and three wounded. One man was shot through the breast and pouring with blood; another lay on his back kicking and twisting. The British officer was spinning round just behind me, his face a mass of blood, his right eye cut out. Yes, it was certainly an adventure.

It is a point of honour on the Indian frontier not to leave wounded men behind. Death by inches and hideous mutilation are the invariable measure meted out to all who fall in battle into the hands of the Pathan tribesmen. Back came the Adjutant, with another British officer of subaltern rank, a Sikh sergeant-major, and two or three soldiers. We all laid hands on the wounded and began to carry and drag them away down the hill. We got through the few houses, ten or twelve men carrying four, and emerged upon a bare strip of ground. Here stood the Captain commanding the company with half a dozen men. Beyond and below, one hundred and fifty yards away, was the knoll on which a supporting party should have been posted. No sign of them ! Perhaps it was the knoll lower down. We hustled the wounded along, regardless of their protests. We had no rearguard of any kind. All were carrying the wounded. I was therefore sure that worse was close at our heels.

We were not half-way across the open space when twenty or thirty furious figures appeared among the houses, firing frantically or waving their swords. I could only follow by fragments what happened after that. One of the two Sikhs helping to carry my wounded man was shot through the calf. He shouted with pain; his turban fell off; and his long black hair streamed over his shoulders - a tragic golliwog. Two more men came from below and seized hold of our man. The new subaltern and I got the golliwog by the collar and dragged him along the ground. Luckily it was all down hill. Apparently we hurt him so much on the sharp rocks that be asked to be let go alone. He hopped and crawled and staggered and stumbled, but made a good pace. Thus he escaped. I looked round to my left. The Adjutant had been shot. Four of his soldiers were carrying him. He was a heavy man, and they all clutched at him. Out from the edge of the houses rushed half a dozen Pathan swordsman. The bearers of the poor Adjutant let him fall and fled at their approach. The leading tribesman rushed upon the prostrate figure and slashed it three or four times with his sword.

I forgot everything else at this moment except a desire to kill this man. I wore my long cavalry sword well sharpened. After all, I had won the Public Schools fencing medal. I resolved on personal combat a l'arme blanche. The savage saw me coming. I was not more than twenty yards away. He picked up a big stone and hurled it at me with his left hand, and then awaited me, brandishing his sword. There were others waiting not far behind him. I changed my mind about the cold steel. I pulled out my revolver, took, as I thought, most careful aim, and fired. No result. I fired again. No result. I fired again. Whether I hit him or not I cannot tell. At any rate, he ran back two or three yards and plumped down behind a rock. The fusillade was continuous. I looked around. I was all alone with the enemy. Not a friend was to be seen. I ran as fast as I could. There were bullets everywhere. I got to the first knoll. Hurrah, there were the Sikhs holding the lower one ! They made vehement gestures, and in a few moments I was among them.

There was still about three-quarters of a mile of the spur to traverse before the plain was reached, and on each side of us other spurs ran downwards. Along these rushed our pursuers, striving to cut us off and firing into both our flanks. I don't know how long we took to get to the bottom. But it was all done quite slowly and steadfastly. We carried two wounded officers and about six wounded Sikhs with us. That took about twenty men. We left one officer and a dozen men dead and wounded to be cut to pieces on the spur.

During this business I armed myself with the Martini and ammunition of a dead man, and fired as carefully as possible thirty or forty shots at tribesmen on the left-hand ridge at distances from eighty to a hundred and twenty yards. The difficulty about these occasions is that one is so out of breath and quivering with exertion, if not with excitement. However, I am sure I never fired without taking aim. We fetched up at the bottom of the spur little better than a mob, but still with our wounded. There was the company reserve and the Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the battalion and a few orderlies. The wounded were set down, and all the survivors of the whole company were drawn up two deep, shoulder to shoulder, while the tribesmen, who must have now numbered two or three hundred, gathered in a wide and spreading half-moon around our flanks. I saw that the white officers were doing everything in their power to keep the Sikhs in close order. Although this formation presented a tremendous target, anything was better than being scattered. The tribesmen were all bunched together in clumps, and they too seemed frenzied with excitement.

The Colonel said to me, "The Buffs are not more than half a mile away. Go and tell them to hurry or we shall all be wiped out." I had half turned to go on this errand, when a happy thought struck me. I saw in imagination the company overwhelmed and wiped out, and myself, an Orderly Officer to the Divisional General, arriving the sole survivor, breathless, at top speed, with tidings of disaster and appeals for help. "I must have that order in writing, sir," I said. The Colonel looked surprised, fumbled in his tunic, produced his pocket-book and began to write. But meanwhile the Captain had made his commands heard above the din and confusion. He had forced the company to cease their wild and ragged fusillade. I heard an order: "Volley firing. Ready. Present." Crash! At least a dozen tribesmen fell. Another volley, and they wavered. A third, and they began to withdraw up the hillside. The bugler began to sound the "Charge." Everyone shouted. The crisis was over, and here, Praise be to God, were the leading files of the Buffs. Then we rejoiced and ate our lunch. But as it turned out, we had a long way to go before night.

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