The Broken Road

Chapter XXXIV

One of the Little Wars

A.E.W. Mason

THE CAMPAIGN which Shere Ali directed on the borders of Chiltistan is now matter of history, and may be read of, by whoso wills, in the Blue-books and despatches of the time. Those documents, with their paragraphs and diaries and bare records of facts, have a dry-as-dust look about them which their contents very often belie. And the reader will not rise from the story of this little war without carrying away an impression of wild fury and reckless valour which will long retain its colours in his mind. Moreover, there was more than fury to distinguish it. Shere Ali turned against his enemies the lessons which they had taught him; and a military skill was displayed which delayed the result and thereby endangered the position of the British troops. For though at the first the neighbouring tribes and states, the little village republics which abound in those parts, waited upon the event as Phillips had foretold, nevertheless as the days passed, and the event still hung in the balance, they took heart of grace and gathered behind the troops to destroy their communications and cut off their supplies.

Dick Linforth wrote three letters to his mother, who was living over again the suspense and terror which had fallen to her lot a quarter of a century ago. The first letter was brought to the house under the Sussex Downs at twilight on an evening of late autumn, and as she recognized the writing for her son’s a sudden weakness overcame her, and her hand so shook that she could hardly tear off the envelope.

“I am unhurt,” he wrote at the beginning of the letter, and tears of gratitude ran down her cheeks as she read the words. “Shere Ali,” he continued, “occupied a traditional position of defence in a narrow valley. The Kohara river ran between steep cliffs through the bed of the valley, and, as usual, above the cliffs on each side there were cultivated maidans or plateaus. Over the right-hand maidan, the road—our road—ran to a fortified village. Behind the village, a deep gorge, or nullah, as we call them in these parts, descending from a side glacier high up at the back of the hills on our right, cut clean across the valley, like a great gash. The sides of the nullah were extraordinarily precipitous, and on the edge furthest from us stone sangars were already built as a second line of defence. Shere Ali occupied the village in front of the nullah, and we encamped six miles down the valley, meaning to attack in the morning. But the Chiltis abandoned their traditional method of fighting behind walls and standing on the defence. A shot rang out on the outskirts of our camp at three o’clock in the morning, and in a moment they were upon us. It was reckoned that there were fifteen thousand of them engaged from first to last in this battle, whereas we were under two thousand combatants. We had seven hundred of the Imperial Service troops, four companies of Gurkhas, three hundred men of the Punjab Infantry, three companies of the Oxfordshires, besides cavalry, mountain batteries and Irregulars. The attack was unexpected. We bestrode the road, but Shere Ali brought his men in by an old disused Buddhist road, running over the hills on our right hand, and in the darkness he forced his way through our lines into a little village in the heart of our position. He seized the bazaar and held it all that day, a few houses built of stone and with stones upon the roof which made them proof against our shells. Meanwhile the slopes on both sides of the valley were thronged with Chiltis. They were armed with jezails and good rifles stolen from our troops, and they had some old cannon—sher bachas as they are called. Altogether they caused us great loss, and towards evening things began to look critical. They had fortified and barricaded the bazaar, and kept up a constant fire from it. At last a sapper named Manders, with half a dozen Gurkhas behind him, ran across the open space, and while the Gurkhas shot through the loop holes and kept the fire down, Manders fixed his gun cotton at the bottom of the door and lighted the fuse. He was shot twice, once in the leg, once in the shoulder, but he managed to crawl along the wall of the houses out of reach of the explosion, and the door was blown in. We drove them out of that house and finally cleared the bazaar after some desperate fighting. Shere Ali was in the thick of it. He was dressed from head to foot in green, and was a conspicuous mark. But he escaped unhurt. The enemy drew off for the night, and we lay down as we were, dog-tired and with no fires to cook any food. They came on again in the morning, clouds of them, but we held them back with the gatlings and the maxims, and towards evening they again retired. To-day nothing has happened except the arrival of an envoy with an arrogant letter from Shere Ali, asking why we are straying inside the borders of his country ‘like camels without nose-rings.’ We shall show him why to-morrow. For to-morrow we attack the fort on the maidan. Good-night, mother. I am very tired.” And the last sentence took away from Sybil Linforth all the comfort the letter had brought her. Dick had begun very well. He could have chosen no better words to meet her eyes at the commencement than those three, “I am unhurt.” But he could have chosen no worse with which to end it. For they had ended the last letter which her husband had written to her, and her mind flew back to that day, and was filled with fore-bodings.

But by the next mail came another letter in his hand, describing how the fort had been carried at the point of the bayonet, and Shere Ali driven back behind the nullah. This, however, was the strongest position of all, and the most difficult to force. The road which wound down behind the fort into the bed of the nullah and zigzagged up again on the far side had been broken away, the cliffs were unscaleable, and the stone sangars on the brow proof against shell and bullet. Shere Ali’s force was disposed behind these stone breastworks right across the valley on both sides of the river. For three weeks the British force sat in front of this position, now trying to force it by the river-bed, now under cover of night trying to repair the broken road. But the Chiltis kept good watch, and at the least sound of a pick in the gulf below avalanches of rocks and stones would be hurled down the cliff-sides. Moreover, wherever the cliffs seemed likely to afford a means of ascent Shere Ali had directed the water-channels, and since the nights were frosty these points were draped with ice as smooth as glass. Finally, however, Mrs. Linforth received a third letter which set her heart beating with pride, and for the moment turned all her fears to joy.

“The war is over,” it began. “The position was turned this morning. The Chiltis are in full flight towards Kohara with the cavalry upon their heels. They are throwing away their arms as they run, so that they may be thought not to have taken part in the fight. We follow to-morrow. It is not yet known whether Shere Ali is alive or dead and, mother, it was I—yes, I your son, who found out the road by which the position could be turned. I had crept up the nullah time after time towards the glacier at its head, thinking that if ever the position was to be taken it must be turned at that end. At last I thought that I had made out a way up the cliffs. There were some gullies and a ledge and then some rocks which seemed practicable, and which would lead one out on the brow of the cliff just between the two last sangars on the enemy’s left. I didn’t write a word about it to you before. I was so afraid I might be wrong. I got leave and used to creep up the nullah in the darkness to the tongue of the glacier with a little telescope and lie hidden all day behind a boulder working out the way, until darkness came again and allowed me to get back to camp. At last I felt sure, and I suggested the plan to Ralston the Political Officer, who carried it to the General-in-Command. The General himself came out with me, and I pointed out to him that the cliffs were so steep just beneath the sangars that we might take the men who garrisoned them by surprise, and that in any case they could not fire upon us, while sharpshooters from the cliffs on our side of the nullah could hinder the enemy from leaving their sangars and rolling down stones. I was given permission to try and a hundred Gurkhas to try with. We left camp that night at half-past seven, and crept up the nullah with our blankets to the foot of the climb, and there we waited till the morning.”

The years of training to which Linforth had bent himself with a definite aim began, in a word, to produce their results. In the early morning he led the way up the steep face of cliffs, and the Gurkhas followed. One of the sharpshooters lying ready on the British side of the nullah said that they looked for all the world like a black train of ants. There were thirteen hundred feet of rock to be scaled, and for nine hundred of it they climbed undetected. Then from a sangar lower down the line where the cliffs of the nullah curved outwards they were seen and the alarm was given. But for awhile the defenders of the threatened position did not understand the danger, and when they did a hail of bullets kept them in their shelters. Linforth followed by his Gurkhas was seen to reach the top of the cliffs and charge the sangars from the rear. The defenders were driven out and bayoneted, the sangars seized, and the Chilti force enfolded while reinforcements clambered in support. “In three hours the position, which for eighteen days had resisted every attack and held the British force immobile, was in our hands. The way is clear in front of us. Manders is recommended for the Victoria Cross. I believe that I am for the D.S.O. And above all the Road goes on!”

Thus characteristically the letter was concluded. Linforth wrote it with a flush of pride and a great joy. He had no doubt now that he would be appointed to the Road. Congratulations were showered upon him. Down upon the plains, Violet would hear of his achievement and perhaps claim proudly and joyfully some share in it herself. His heart leaped at the thought. The world was going very well for Dick Linforth that night. But that is only one side of the picture. Linforth had no thoughts to spare upon Shere Ali. If he had had a thought, it would not have been one of pity. Yet that unhappy Prince, with despair and humiliation gnawing at his heart, broken now beyond all hope, stricken in his fortune as sorely as in his love, was fleeing with a few devoted followers through the darkness. He passed through Kohara at daybreak of the second morning after the battle had been lost, and stopping only to change horses, galloped off to the north.

Two hours later Captain Phillips mounted on to the roof of his house and saw that the guards were no longer at their posts.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXXV - A Letter from Violet

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