The Virtual Armchair General
In my tent, Lt. Col. Webb and I were trying to take the chill off the night air with a tot of something a mahout from the supply column used to make his elephant sweat off disease. I didn't care, mind you. I was already sweating as I thought about what was coming in the morning.
"That Pommy Bastard," Webb whispered in a language that might once have been the Queen's English, but which he called 'Strine.' Over time, I had deciphered that an English visitor, fresh off the boat to the Colonel's native Australia, quickly burned in the desert sun. Thus, the "Pink Tommy" had evidently evolved into a "Pommy." I already knew what the other was--I seem to have served with most of them during my soldiering days.
Webb poked the fire under the boiler, and
looked out the open tent flaps at the darkness, the deeper black of the nearby hills hiding half the stars.
"Any particular Pommy?," I asked. Webb pointed at my canvass wall in the direction of General Steven's tent.
"That Pommy Bastard," he replied.
"Any particular Pommy?," I asked. Webb pointed at my canvass wall in the direction of General Steven's tent. "That Pommy Bastard," he replied.
I got his drift. "Righto. Just because Stevens can't stand Lieutenant Weathersby for being the milk sopping-son-of-an-MP-from-a-rotten-borough, he sends him off to reconnoiter the Pass--alone." Webb looked up at me, his eye brow raised. "Alright, 'alone' with that failed goat thief he calls his batman, Babu." I remembered the last time I'd seen that beggar, and added. "You know, that gibbering idiot still thinks we're fighting the Moghul's? And every time he looks at my waistline, I can see his catsup for brains trying to comprehend a well fed Briton. Good riddance to the both of them."
Webb gave me another silent look. "Alright, so now the Political wallah's and the Gabardine Swine back in Delhi say we have to fetch Weathersby back. Some nonsense about a cause de guerre they can't pass up if we're going to put old Ahmdersum Khan back in his box."
Webb poured another inch of elephant medicine from the ugly green bottle into his tin cup, then knocked it back with the speed of a ranker taking his quinine pills to avoid the bitter taste. "Careful!," I warned him. "Colonel Carr said that was the last bottle he had to sell!"
"That Pommy Bastard." He stood up, stepped outside and looked at the camp of the Lancaster Field Force all around us, lit by hundreds of tiny tent fires. I knew what he was thinking. Earlier, General Stevens had called us in to explain his plan for tomorrow's operations, and when Webb and I saw his dispositions, we both knew we were for it.
With my Brigade on the far left, and Webb's on my right, we formed the left and center, facing the Hadamofatva Pass and the heights on either side. Sheer bloody cliffs, they were. Johnny Pathan wouldn't need Sniders and Jezail's to pick us off. Fly swatters would do nicely, thank you. Well, we'd been in similar straits before and our lads had pulled us through, but it was the rest of the plan that would make an iron idol weep.
Farther along the line, to Webb's right, Lt. Col. Carr's Regiment of Lancers formed the far left flank. A long, steep ridge line ran across the front virtually as far as the eye could see, far past the Field Force's right flank--which flapped in the air like an Hussar's empty sleeve at the gallop. At the top of the ridge, in the center, was an old stone fort. Not Ghuznee, I'll grant, but tricky enough if occupied--and I'd have bet my pension old Amdersum Khan hadn't missed that trick.
Webb was Col. Brom's Brigade. Had to respect him, one did. He'd seen
it all. From Gandamack, to Lucknow, to Maiwand--though evidently without
the benefit of a sunhat. Mad as a bloody March hare, he was, willing
to play polo on quicksand, and twice as fast to storm 42-pounders
chain shot. But we respected him. We had to. Following him could get
one's ticket clipped.
So that was his plan. No hesitation. No dithering. No reserves. We were all to go straight ahead like some horde of mad ploughmen, keeping a straight furrow so we could all be laid in end-to-end and buried more easily when it was over. I had already made up my mind about one thing, about the only thing General Stevens was right about. There could be no hesitation. No dithering. Webb and I made our own plans while doing fatal damage to the malevolent green bottle of elephant medicine. Looking back at it, not even absinthe was better suited for our council of war.
We would storm the Pass and take it ourselves. In each of our Brigades, we would put our Sikh Battalions in the lead. My old 33rd Yawanalifrevah would screen my Gurkha's, the 2nd Battalion "Billy Fish" Rifles. Webb's Brigade would deploy in kind, with everyone's Battalions in open order lines. At the right moment, our Gurkha's would storm the heights on both sides of the Pass; Mine, the left peaks, his the right. I don't know all Webb was thinking about his own Sikhs, but I knew that I would personally lead the 33rd straight up the Pass, devil take the hindmost. It was the only way to make Steven's plan work. I even toyed with the idea of making the 33rd unload their Martini's, but decided against it. I knew I could trust them to move when I told them to and not to engage in a shooting match.
The Hadamofatva Pass would be taken with cold steel, or not at all.
A sniper's moon was starting to rise above the ridgeline to our front. I bid Webb a "Good Night," and fell on my cot.
He walked away, looking back at the green bottle he had left on my camp table. "Pommy Bastard," he muttered as he passed the sentry into his own lines. Probably his password, I thought, and fell asleep.
At military first light, my batman, Grish Chundar, woke me with strong hot tea and something that might once have been food he'd spread on a biscuit. By full sun up, the drummers were beating us into columns as we deployed to our positions. My Battalion turning into line, I rode over to my right, between the 33rd and the Gurkhas, looking to see if Webb was about. He was, though his black beard was now matched only by his mood.
Before I could rein up to speak, General Stevens and his Immortals (his Staff Officers, of which I never did see a dead one) rode past along the Army's rear. Waving his hat with all the heartfelt enthusiasm of a "Royal Wave" while his mounted bugler was trying hard not to make "British Grenadiers" sound like a tipsy version of "Drink, Puppy, Drink" as he bounced along at the trot, I suddenly realized it was either Stevens' idea of inspiring us, or just possibly, saying "Goodbye."
Webb and I followed them until taking up their positions by the near Battery, still rather far behind and to the right of us. I had meant to say something about keeping close, choosing the moment to send up the Gurkha's, and maybe just "Good Luck," but Webb, his eye still on the C-in-C only muttered into his beard, "That Pommy Bastard." No point in trying to match him for eloquence, so it was back to seeing if I'd be around for lunch afterwards.
The signal being given, we started off. While I might be forgiven for being primarily concerned with my own Brigade in this action, and, indeed, as I only found out about the cock-up on our far right after the fact, I feel that a brief description of this singular disaster is still in order now.
Immediately after the advance had been sounded, Webb's Brigade came under intense fire from as large a Native Battery as I've ever seen on The Grim. At least four sections opened up on him, with terrific effect. Brom's Brigade quickly moved into position on Webb's right and promptly received similar attention, not least from hordes of riflemen in and around that old Fort on the ridgeline. Steven's far right Battery did some damage to the Enemy's guns, but the weight of metal being thrown at both Brigades was proof they'd never make it up that ridge. Still, they tried.
Webb's Sikhs and Brom's Brigade of Sikhs all stormed up towards the crest, but were broken on the attempt. The Pathan's counter attacked, swarming down the slope like... like... something that really swarms. Then, to crown folly with madness, Carr's Lancers attacked up those same slopes. They stopped the Pathan pursuit, but were themselves shot to pieces, then attacked from that flapping right flank--and rear!--by a mass of mounted Pathan's. All units engaged were decimated and fell back. The Pathan Cavalry even attempted to storm the right flank Battery, but was--Thank Gawd--blown to pieces for their trouble. In almost the time it takes to tell, three Battalions of Infantry, and a Regiment of Lancers were just so much jackal bait. General Brom, attempting to lead a "forlorn hope" counter charge against the Pathan's to his front finally met the bullet with his name on it. A unsubstantiated rumor went round the camp later that the wound may have been self inflicted. Either way, he had the good sense to go home a Hero--rather than a scapegoat.
But what of my Brigade, and Webb's plucky little Gurkha's? Well, that story, too, is easily told. Indeed, much more easily told than lived!
As soon as Webb's Sikhs were being hung out to dry for biltong, his Gurkha's followed his orders and, closing into range, started madly up the heights to the right of the Pass. My Brigade had somewhat farther to go, but not long behind his, my Gurkha's also made the precipitous climb. Even though Webb's Sikhs, protecting his Gurkha's flank, were attacked by a mass of Ghazi's at one point, he at least always had the foe to his face. I was not so lucky!
Just as my Sikhs moved to the right, in front of the Pass, and my Gurkha's, started up the cliffs, a huge force of Pathan Infantry charged my open left flank. Led by the notorious Turnitsa Khan (the name always sounded suspiciously Ukrainian to me--those bloody Russian agents are everywhere!), these particular tribesmen may not have believed their good fortune, or maybe they had left their lunch on the spit in camp, but just as it looked as though they would hit the Gurkhas in the rear as they went up--they broke and fell back.
might have been forgiven for feeling a big smug at that moment, but
something must have seemed wrong about their situation, too, for my
2nd Gurkha's also broke and, hickory-dickory-dock if they didn't rush
down the bloody clock!
General Stevens (should have stayed in the Royal Artillery, you know)
brought the left flank Battery to bear and with striking accuracy, blew
the everlasting aspirations out of Turnitsa Khan's swordsmen at the
foot of the heights. Shot in the back by shell, they broke and never
returned to the dance.
With my left protecting itself by going forward, it was time to do the same with my right. Throwing any remaining caution to the wind, I turned to the 33rd Sikhs and shouted, "Remember, they don't like it up 'em!," and cantered up and into the Pass. I confess to commingled pride and relief when, upon discreetly looking back after riding about a cable, they were right behind me.
knew that by doing the one thing the Enemy did not expect, and by constantly
moving forward up the Pass, their entire Army would either have to disengage
to stop me, or--as I actually rather preferred--flee for their camps
and leave us alone and in control. But, as usual in life, I got rather
a mixed bag instead.
Turning my mount, Gin Sling, about on a Sovereign (and leaving 11 Shillings change), I saw a second body of Tribesmen howling up the Pass at me from behind. This was it! The Crisis was at hand! There was nothing for it but to ape the lads in Egypt and order the rear rank, "About Face!" Then, without a second to spare, I improvised, "Front and Rear Ranks! Volley Fire!" Both faces of the 33rd opened fire as cleanly as if on the parade ground at Meerut. At almost the same moment, I heard the echoing boom of Steven's Battery firing into the backs of the Pathan's attacking my rear. For an uncertain moment, everything happened at once, and I drew my Tranter. For all I knew, in the next instant I'd have wild-eyed, bearded faces lunging at me with their damned pig-stickers!
Then, with the suddenness of Austrian
Crystal shattering at Jenny Lind's "C" above "E," both bodies of the Enemy's warriors stopped, wavered--and broke!
A moment of stunned silence from my Sikhs, and then the cheer! Waving my hat like The Iron Duke at Waterloo, I let
the 33rd loose in pursuit up the Pass. I didn't give another thought to my rear. I knew Stevens would keep putting shot
into the Enemy as long as they were still in range of his guns.
A moment of stunned silence from my Sikhs, and then the cheer! Waving my hat like The Iron Duke at Waterloo, I let the 33rd loose in pursuit up the Pass. I didn't give another thought to my rear. I knew Stevens would keep putting shot into the Enemy as long as they were still in range of his guns.
If they lost in the fight, the Pathan's came first in the race. By the time the 33rd reached the end of the Pass, there was no one left to play with. Looking up to the heights on either side, I only saw grinning Gurkha's stringing souvenirs and wiping their blades. All in all, it looked very Regimental. I found myself wishing that Lady Butler, or least that doodler, Caton Woodville, were around to put it all on canvas.
As it seemed best not to leave the Pass, but wait for the Field Force (such as was left!) to join me, I stopped for the 33rd to fill their water bottles from a small waterfall along the left side of the Pass while I counted noses. Loses were high, about 20%. Then again, with three other Battalions and a Regiment of Lancers fit to be erased from the pay register, I hadn't done badly.
Just as I saw General Stevens riding up the Pass, along with Col. Webb, one of my scouting parties came in with--Lt. Weathersby and Babu. By the Eight Arms of Kahli, I'd almost forgotten Weathersby was at the bottom of this mess! He gave me some nonsense about escaping, but I'd have gone Banco at Monte Carlo with my pension if Old Amhdersum Khan hadn't let him "escape" to sweeten the atmosphere at the next treaty signing. I found myself thinking it would have looked better in The Times if there'd been a neatly understated account of Weathersby being found in a variety of locations after the action. Oh well, if Britain had lost a Hero, it had gained a milk-sopping-son-of-an-MP-from a-rotten-borough. Never enough of THOSE to go around!
A thirsty looking Webb dismounted and
walked over to Col. Carr (who seemed rather lost after his command had been obliterated) and waved a handful of
rupees under his nose. Salesman to the end, Col. Carr collected himself and produced another evil green bottle
from his bag. "Last one," indeed!
That Pommy Bastard.
That Pommy Bastard.
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