To Meet the Ameer (2)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 1 April 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks, 28/1 p. 15. Diary 29 March 1885.
This is the sixth article in the series.[T.P.]


From our Special Correspondent
Jamrud, March 29th Day-break

Circumstances over which the local officials seem to have no control, prevent a journey to Ali Musjid. A modest ticca gharri (hired carriage), however, will convey you as far as the historic walls of Jamrud, and from thence, to the mouth of the Khyber is but two or three miles. His Highness the Ameer of Afghanistan is due this morning — no one seems to know at what hour. Meantime, the top of fort Jamrud is an elevated and decidedly airy point of vantage.

The Four Winds of Heaven are fighting it out between them on the bastions, and each gust brings with it a douche of fine rain. The Khattak and Swat hills are swathed in mist. Only towards the north west and the Khyber, is the air comparatively clear. Along the undulating Khyber road runs a scattered line of the Ameer’s camp followers, who have been dropping in all night and through a great portion of the previous day. Interminable files of camels, yaboos, coolies, and loud-voiced donkeys and flocks of sheep, stretch from the camp to the south of Jamrud, into the very jaws of the Pass and in the grey light of dawn, these resemble nothing so much as lines of black ants on a foraging expedition. Three hundred horses of the 12th Bengal] C[avalry] are dozing in the enclosures below the walls of the fort.

Thursday’s hail storm, by the way, was felt very severely at Jamrud, as long as it lasted; and, but for the fact of the beasts being picketed within brick walls, they would inevitably have stampeded over the face of the country. As it was, several of them broke loose under the stinging hail.

Half of the M.—3, R[oyal] H[orse] A[rtillery], lies under the northwest bastions, and as yet the only sign of life there, is the stamping of half awakened horses and an occasional squabble amid the drowsy syces. But it is impossible to slumber long in the teeth of the camp followers’ chatter; and the babel of tongues that surges round the walls on every side.
7 o’clock. — The daylight has brought down the Scotch mist more densely than ever; and never did the Afghan hills look more rugged and forbidding than now. Jamrud has awakened the centre of a little city, the population of which is increasing minute by minute. Still no news of the Ameer. He has left Ali Musjid. He hasn’t. The rain has delayed him. He will be here in the evening. He will be in in half an hour. Private Thomas Atkins, hard at work in the little pigeon box of a telegraph office, at the very top of the Fort, could probably tell us how much truth or fiction lies in these rumours, but his hands are fully occupied in the most literal sense of the word. There is only one decrepid ‘ticker’ in the Fort, and this has to bear the burden of the day’s telegraphic intelligence. Sister Anne’s employment in the time of Blue Beard had at least one advantage over this morning’s waiting and watching. There is no reason to believe that her toes were numbed and her teeth chattering in the keen morning air. Otherwise, her vigil was exactly the same. ‘Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see any one coming.’ Only a flock of sheep, a rush of obstreperous yahoos or a phalanx of slow-paced camels, working their way across the stony road. The troop horses below are hard at work on their morning’s meal; ‘the wind is moaning in turret and tree’, at least, it would, if there were a tree available, and the thin rain penetrates to one’s marrow. A descent into the maelstrom of camp followers near the police barracks, keeps the blood from stagnation, and reveals incidentally some curiosities of character. Undoubtedly, our friends beyond the border, though their pals are as filthy as themselves, and their horses ungroomed since the day they were born, have a very good notion of camp pitching, and accomplish their work with not more than deafening clamour. Perhaps the rain has quenched them. A young Afreedee of thirteen is keeping watch and ward over a bunch of picketed yaboos. The lad’s garments are filthy, but he smiles and swaggers affably; displaying at his belt a Colt’s revolver. Subsequent investigation shows that it is loaded and as clean as oil and rag can make it. It belonged to his father who departed this life a year ago the embryo cateran does not say how, and the weapon was handed on to the son.

‘Have you ever done anything with it?’ The question is a somewhat brutal one, but the Afreedee regards it evidently in the light of a compliment. ‘Not yet, Sahib, but please God, I shall some day,’ he replies, with a cherubic smile, and swaggers over to his horses once more. A cheerful race these Afreedees.
8 o’clock. — Alarums and excursions. A dozen sowars and a European officer — all very wet — have come in from somewhere out of the mist and several bugles have sounded. The troop horses are being saddled, and the gloom is lifting a little. Tommy Atkins ticks away imperturbably in his dove cote, and the stream of camp followers thickens. More bugles; more camp followers and a gruelly streak of sunshine for an instant through the clouds. The hills riven into gorge and cavern, are chequered with light and shadow as though to do honour to the great man’s arrival. But the great man makes no sign; and the clouds shut down gloomier than before. One by one the 12th Bengal Cavalry, prance out of the courtyard on to the rnaidan, and form in three Squadrons, bay, grey and chestnut, preparatory to moving out to meet the Ameer. All the men are shrouded in top coats and there is no colour visible. The artillery on the other side of the Fort, clatter out also into the open, and the advance begins. First the bay squadron; then the three guns, then the grey and chestnut horses. About 500 hundred yards from the fort, on the Khyber road, they pause. Then the artillery takes up its position on the right of the road, a few hundred yards away from it, and the cavalry lines the road on the same side, two deep; then they halt, and the temporarily interupted stream of followers sweeps on. These latter are now moving by at their best pace. The Ameer must really be here before long. The three guns are unlimbered in readiness for the salute, and all Jumrood is a waiting. From the signalling tower — in spite of the life and babble below — the impression is one of intense loneliness and desolation. On every side the thriftless unfriendly land sweeps away to the foot of the hills as bare as the desert of Sahara. In the far distance, for the intervening veil of mist puts them miles and miles away, lies the belt of green crops that encircle Peshawar, and mark practically the limits of British rule. The stony ground runs up to the limit of the crops, and is dotted here and there with the ominous heaps of stones, where a man has been done to death. Peshawur is invisible, and the frowning hills bound the view on three sides of the horizon. Only around Jumrood is there any sign of life, and the gathering of men here marks more strongly the silence of the hills and plains. The hour passes away, Tommy Atkins is drenched and doubtless grumbling as he waits by the guns; and once more the clouds lift. A solid column of men appears over the crest of a rise close to the mouth of the Pass. Without a doubt there are at last the Ameer’s troops, and the Ameer with them.
10 o’clock. — The column has disappeared in a hollow, rises again and approaches rapidly. There is a stir among the gunners, and in a few moments a puff of white smoke tells the watchers on the signalling tower of the fort, that their watching is nearly at an end. One—two—three — twenty-one guns — the smoke hanging heavily at the mouth of the cannon; and by the time the last welcome is spoken, Abdur Rahman Khan, ruler of Afghanistan and its dependencies, has fairly set foot on British ground. For the past ten minutes the field glass has shown him merely as a blot of blue on a small horse. A closer inspection is necessary, and this involves a rush through some two hundred Afghans, who are hastening forward to line the road. Colonel Waterfield and General Gordon are riding on the right of a handsome black-bearded man, in a blue choga embroidered with gold. The pace quickens as they near the camp, and the Ameer has passed. For those who are curious in such matters, it shall be recorded that he was smiling affably at the time, and looked about him on both sides of the way, with every appearance of interest. Behind him follow his cavalry, wild picturesque men on wild horses — to whose appearance it is impossible to do justice, while writing on the spot. No two sets of accoutrements are alike, cela va sans dire, if I except the regiment of Usbeg Lancers. These resemble Cossacks in every particular, down to the high-set saddle and the shaggy circular cap of hair. One or two of the officers carry the short-handled double thonged Tailor whips, and all, without exception, ride splendidly. To the Usbegs, succeeds a nondescript following of horsemen, some with grey felt jockey caps and string bridles, some with fur trimmed smoking caps and muzzle-loading carbines. Their horses are all small fiery little rats, and under the circumstances keep line remarkably well. The riders represent every shade of Turanian and Mongolian blood, high cheek bones, oblique eyes, shaggy hair, flat noses, cavernous mouths.
Their speech, of course, is utterly unintelligible, and they are all talking and staring about them One or two have calmly pulled up their horses to look at the Englishman by the wayside. They point like children, and their remarks would, no doubt, be immensely amusing to listen to. The men are all cantering, and it is difficult to give any idea of their outre and ferocious experience [sic]. Somehow, the back ground of dark hills, the sullen sky and the rain seems to set them off to perfection.

The Ameer’s infantry preceded him. There were two regiments of these, I fancy. As I write, they are taking up their position on the encamping ground, and look as cut-throat a crew as one would wish to see. One regiment is dressed in white duck trousers, European boots, and a tunic of blue with red trimmings. They look in the distance like engine drivers out of employment. All are armed with Martini-Henry rifles, and march in two Indian files, each the width of the road apart from the other. The second regiment (both by the way are Duranis and are composed of picked men) wears black ‘understandings’; but in every other respect appears to be exactly like the first. Their notions of sentry-go are original and elastic; and many of them have their Martinis protected from the rain by dirty bits of cloth.
The screw-gun battery, six guns, which immediately preceded the Ameer, is the most workmanlike section of the force. It has already camped, set out the guns, quarter guard etc. secundem artem. The carriages are painted dull green, and the various parts of the limber and gear are carried by horses. Abdur Rahman, who limps slightly, now that he is off his horse, has just gone into his tent; a large blue and white striped shamiana, in the centre of the camp. Colonel Waterfield and General Gordon are doing the honours thereof, and Golam Hyder, Commander-in-Chief, is having his boots cleaned, preparatory to following them. Golam Hyder’s uniform is a mass of gold braid — more gorgeous even than some Civilian uniforms — and he wears the Tartar cap of grey Astrakhan fur. His saddle cloth is a blaze of gold and velvet, with monograms and devices, ad lib, on its surface. The Ameer, it seems, has been suffering severely from gout — hence the delay in his arrival — and is still very lame. Usbegs, Duranis, tag rag and bobtail, are settling themselves as comfortably as they can in camp. The Ameer has been left to himself, and the scene closes amid more rain, a wild confusion of horses, tent ropes, camels, guns, and a far-reaching tumult of strange tongues. The following must be close upon three thousand.

Later — March 29th, 6 o’clock.

No less than four contradictory telegrams from Jumrood, in the course of the afternoon. ‘First he would, and then he wouldn’t: then he said he really couldn’t’ — and to this view of the case Abdur Rahman has finally struck. If the spirit moves him, he may up-sticks and come into Peshawar in the middle of the night, but it is to be hoped that the blessed rain will keep him to some decent hour, and that he will arrive here tomorrow about seven. How long he will stay here is quite another matter