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Islamic History Sourcebook

Rev. Arthur Male:

The Hill of Bones, Afghanistan 1878

[Tappan Introduction]

AFGHANISTAN was conquered by Alexander the Great, and from his time until the middle of the eighteenth century, indeed, almost to the present day, it has been constantly changing masters. The conqueror of the eighteenth century, Nadir Shah, was assassinated, and succeeded by one of his officers. Since that time the country has been independent, but her annals have been a story of anarchy, revolt, and warfare. In 1838, England restored an exiled shah. The result was a bitter war between the Afghans and the British, followed a few years later by a second struggle, in which the British were successful. An Afghan revolt was put down by General Roberts's march to Kandahar, which won for him his title of Lord Roberts of Kandahar. Since then the land had been practically under British control. In 1838 war broke out between Afghanistan and England. Four years later, the British army was destroyed while retreating through the Kurd-Kabul Pass. The visit to the "Hill of Bones," described in the text, took place in 1878, during the second war.

WHILE we lay at Gundamuk it was but natural that our thoughts often went back to the sad episodes of the former Afghan campaigns of 1841 and 1842. Not very far from our campCperhaps four or five milesCthe people of the country still pointed out the remains of "Burnes Sahib's" camp, a few mud walls standing to mark the spot where our forces, when going up to Kabul, were cantoned for a while. Among them were Sir Alexander Burnes, Macnaughten, Elphinstone, and others. Then, after a period of garrison in Kabul, there came the sudden and fierce rising of November 2, 1841, when Macnaughten was treacherously slain while holding a parley with Akbar Khan in view of the British garrison who were on the walls of the city. After this came the episode of retreat. The force, diminished in number and weakened by sickness, were promised safe conduct through the passes if they would give up the city they had defended so long and retire to India. They did so, or essayed to do so. And then the arch-traitor, Akbar Khan, who knew no honor, lined the cliffs en route with his overwhelming numbers. They hung upon the flanks of the retreating army, harrying them, and cutting off the stragglers day after day. Some sixteen thousand souls, of whom perhaps forty-five hundred were fighting men, the rest servants and camp-followers, left Kabul. On they struggled with desperate valor, almost at the outset having to abandon their baggage. It was winter-time, and the snow lay thickly on the road. Thus while the multitudes dropped under the fire which ever poured upon them from the high rocks which lined the Pass, many, very many, perished from the cold, lying down at night in their bed of snow, and rising not again at morning dawn. At last, when bullet, sword, and cold had ended the struggles of almost all the native soldiers and camp-followers, the miserable remnant of the force, consisting mainly of men of the Forty-fourth, a few Artillery men, and a score or so of officers, and numbering, all told, barely a hundred fighting men, with two or three hundred camp-followers, reached the vicinity of Gundamuk, or at least a spot some eight miles from our present camp. The day before they had crossed the stream called the Surkh Ab, or "Red Water," fighting hand-to-hand with their foe for the passage. And now what more could they do? Strength was gone, and hope was almost dead. Six officers were chosen and sent to ride as hard as their miserable ponies would carry them to Jellalabad, some thirty-five miles off, where Sale and Havelock were gallantly holding out, to seek help. It was a forlorn hope, for the journey was fraught with fearful peril. How could six worn-out men ever anticipate a safe ride through a wild country swarming with fierce tribesmen?

But they started. Meanwhile the handful of fighting men who remained gathered on the summit of a round-topped hill. And there, a desperate band, they resolved to fight, and, if no help came, to die, selling their lives as dearly as possible. And they did it. Standing shoulder to shoulder in old heroic British fashion, surrounded by a perfect sea of Ghilzai tribesmen, and the fierce warriors of Akbar, they held their foe at bay till all their ammunition was gone. Then the waves of the sea closed in and swept on and over them, for every man had fallen in his tracks.

And what about the forlorn hope? For a while fortune seemed to favor them. Half the distance had been accomplished without molestation. But at the village of Futtehabad (nigh unto the spot of our fight with the Kujianis a few weeks since) they turned asideCfatal mistakeCand sought milk and refreshment from some of the villages. It was given. But while partaking of it, all unsuspicious of treachery, the false villagers attacked them; and though they defended themselves with desperate courage, five were slain. One only, Dr. Brydon, an army surgeon, escaped. Fighting his way through the traitors, he gained the open path, and though pursued for many a mile, with his broken sword he managed to beat off his assailants and then distance them.

About midday on January 13, 1842, a sentry pacing the walls of Jellalabad called aloud that he saw a mounted man slowly wending his way across the barren plain towards the city. Many glasses were leveled, and they could just discern a European supporting himself on a miserable country pony, faint with travel, and perhaps wounded too. Who could he be? they asked one another, as a thrill passed over them; for the very sight of the solitary stranger seemed to bring them forebodings of disaster. Slowly they led him through the city gate, faint, bleeding, covered with wounds, grasping still the fragment of sword which had been shattered in the conflict for life. It was Brydon, the sole survivor of the force which had left Kabul to return to India, and, with the exception of the hostages who were in captivity, the only living remnant of Elphinstone's army. Riding over the very same pathway as poor Brydon, when I was going back to India, how vividly did I recall Miss Thompson's marvelous picture, where with such strange fidelity she depicts the weary, wounded man clinging to his worn-out, gasping pony. It is the same path today, as you look out from the Kabul gate of Peshawar, with the selfsame solitary tree standing at the corner where it bends away to the left.

With the various remembrances of this old dark page in our history all around us, it was not strange that some of us desired to see a little more closely the very spots where some of these events had taken place.

One morning accordingly two of us rode out beyond our lines, and towards the Jugdullok Pass, accompanied by an old Kujiani who knew the country around, and every spot of interest. The old fellow professed to remember well the time of the last campaign from 1839 to 1842. The names of our leaders then were familiar to him, Pollock and Sale, Elphinstone, Burnes, and Macnaughten. For six miles he led us across the stony plain, and by tortuous hill-paths, until we came out upon a broad stretch of country which led away, we could see, to the entrance of one of the passes. And here on the flat ground, the hills away in the distance, and no cover or protection near, we found the remains of the old mud walls, and even the remnants of huts, which had once formed part of the cantonments of Burnes. He was our envoy to the Court of Kabul, and a most distinguished Oriental scholar and traveler. But for some time before proceeding to the capital he had been permanently "cantoned" in this spot. With sad interest we moved along the broken walls, and tried to imagine the scene of thirty-nine years ago, when in this spot the little European force were located and lived, surrounded by tribes who were at any rate hostile in heart, aliens in a strange land.

But there was more than this to see, and so we turned to our old guide, one of whose accomplishments, very important to us, was that he could understand a little Hindustani. "Larai ki jagah kahan hai, buddha?" "Where is the place of fight, old man?" said we. And the old man said not a word, but pointing with his finger forward, silently led us on. Away to our right, perhaps two miles off, we could see a conical hill rising out of the plain, round-topped and solitary. The hill ranges were around it, but distant. It stood alone, a monument itself! We did not say much as we neared it. Both my companion and myself were thinking of the old tragedy and its consummation on that hilltop. We thought of the devoted band who had struggled down the passes from Kabul, fighting every inch of the way; men, women, camp-followers, and soldiers dropping in their tracks under murderous fire or savage attack; or perchance lying down at night, weary of life, to rise no more. We thought of them,Ca diminished band, indeed,Csixteen thousand souls reduced to about five hundred; forty-five hundred soldiers to a bare hundredCreaching the river four miles ahead and finding the ford and bridge barred by an overwhelming host of savage foes. But they cut their way through, and came onCthus far. And here they paused awhile, and then climbed the hill yonder to die. We could see it all again after a lapse of thirty-seven years. The little band toiling with painful effort up the hillside, and forming up on the top shoulder to shoulderCat bay. The fierce tribesmen gathering round, closing in more and more, the band of heroes lessening moment by moment; and then the great wave of the human sea around surging over them and burying them away out of sight unshaken in discipline, undaunted in spirit, faithful unto death!

We reached the bottom of the hill. My companion, who had brought his photographic apparatus with him, and was anxious to get a view first from the base, waited to do it, the Kujiani with him. I slowly ascended; my horse, which belonged to a hill breed, climbing like a cat among the big rocks that covered the side. Soon I reached the summit, and prepared to look upon the very spot where our gallant fellows had made their death-stand. There it must be, I thought, towards the center. And I made my way towards it. The summit of the hill was of fairly large extent; but as I came nearer the middle, I saw that there the surface seemed strangely white. What could it be? I hurried forward; and to my horror there I saw gathered together in a great heap the skeleton bones of that heroic band. There, where the men had fallen, their remains had been lying for thirty-seven long years, bleached by the sun, and swept by every tempest which had broken on that hilltop. It was a ghastly sight. But it was not the ghastliness so much as the sadness of it that struck me most of all. Alien feet had trodden around that hill summit; the wild shepherds who tended their mountain sheep and goats, Kujiani and Ghilzai tribesmen, all had looked upon that open sepulcher; but never before had foot of brother Englishman been there, nor had friendly eyes lighted on the unburied remains. Here were truly the "relics of a lost army." I shouted to my companion, who was still at the bottom of the hill manipulating his camera, and waiting for a peep of brighter light to get a good view.

The day had been gloomy, in consonance, I seemed to feel, with the sad sight on which I had been gazing. I understood now why our Kujiani friend had been quite content to stay below, while I went up alone. He knew what I should find; but he had told us nothing to prepare us for the sight. In response to my shout, Burke, leaving his camera, came hastily up, and looked with horror and amazement on what again revealed itself, as we together came to the center of the hill. They were truly the remains of our poor fellows. Probably when Pollock's avenging force, after relieving the "Illustrious Garrison" at Jellalabad, had marched on up the passes towards Kabul, they had found the bodies here and had buried them out of sight by covering them with a great stone cairn. This, no doubt, had been subsequently rudely cast down by the Afghans belonging to the tribes around, and the bodies left shamefully exposed; the Mussulman creed allowing them to desecrate the place of sepulcher, but not the dead bodies themselves. This was the general opinion. And, indeed, in connection with our own campaign we had cases where graves in which we had laid some of our men to rest were rudely broken open,Coutrage enough, indeed,Cbut the remains within not otherwise disturbed.

Burke brought up his camera, and from the top of a neighboring height took a picture of the "Hill of Bones," as it afterward came to be called. It was a gloomy, weird picture enough! All around were the mountain spurs reaching down to the barren plain, the furthermost peaks still capped with snow. Yonder away the dark entrance to the Jugdullok Pass. And here in the middle the one solitary round-topped hillCmonument and grave at once. Two human forms could be discerned, myself and the old Kujiani, who had now been induced to come up too; we two looking down sadly on the gathered bones of the brave men, as they lay resting on God's earth, and looking up into the face of God's heaven.

When we returned to camp we unfolded the tale of what we had found, and arrangements were made soon after for the reverent burial of the bones. A detachment was sent out, and over the great grave they raised a tall obelisk, which no doubt still marks the spot.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 275-282.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.

This text is part of the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November1998

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