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Afghan Winter, by
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With infinite slowness the sun rose between the distant peaks of the jagged, snow-capped mountains. The air was crystal clear, free of the customary dust that hung in the air through the short daylight hours. Cornet William Dexter sat astride a small cairn and watched in awe the arrival of a new day. It was dawn on the 13th December 1879 and the war in Afghanistan had begun to turn very bloody.
Dexter was just twenty-six years of age and two days ago had been convinced he would not see another dawn. The regiment had been in Afghanistan for nearly a year now and Dexter had barely fired a shot in anger. That had all changed forty-eight hours earlier when less than two hundred cavalrymen had been ordered to charge nearly ten thousand tribesmen. The steeply rising terrain, cut into agricultural terraces had slowed the horses to a stumbling trot. After two fruitless charges the cavalrymen had fallen back to their lines leaving eighteen men dead on the dusty ground. Fuelled by the adrenaline coursing through their veins, the cavalrymen, alongside Bengali riders, had fearlessly ridden into the hail of rifle fire laid down by the concealed tribesmen. Even while retreating badly mauled, the wild ride had been exhilarating, that is until one of the last shots fired, split Cornet Henry Cleggs head apart, spraying Dexter with gore and chips of bone. With an anguished cry, Dexter had managed to grab the dead mans horse and together they made the sanctuary of the fortified encampment at Sherpur.
Through tear filled eyes, Dexter watched the long shadows shorten over the harsh landscape. He shivered despite being swathed in a thick woollen blanket, the temperature was several degrees below zero and despite the clear, azure blue sky, snow was expected any day. He looked up to the heavens and felt his heart break in two. Henry had been his best friend at Eton and they had stayed inseparable whilst at university, until by sheer coincidence their paths had crossed once more when they were commissioned into the same regiment. Dexter had truly loved soldiering up to this point but now he just felt a dreadful homesickness and a sense of being very alone in a terrible cruel world. He stood stiffly, stretched and began to walk back to his billet, desperately tired he knew today would be a long day and first the regiment had to bury its dead.
The regiment was turned out in splendid order by eight oclock in the morning, accompanied by officers and men of the Bengal Cavalry. Eighteen canvas wrapped corpses had been placed into shallow graves scraped into the frigid earth. The padre had pronounced his conviction that these men had gone on to a better place. Dexter sniffed in the cold air; he held all religions in contempt, a man of science and learning he was convinced that the universe was wondrous enough without the hand of a malicious God interfering. He looked around at the frenetic activity taking place at the cavalrys lines and noted two figures running towards the burial party.
The bugler had just raised his instrument to his chapped lips when the booming voice of Staff Corporal Williams cut across the dusty ground.
Sir, begging your pardon Captain Butson but the Colonel needs the squadron to turn out right away, he bellowed somewhat breathlessly.
God Lord, right now man? the red faced officer spat back. What is it that cannot wait until these poor souls are interred?
Theres undreds of Afghans been driven off the Tahkt-i-Shar and we can get em in the open if we urry, Sir the NCO replied confidently.
That may well be Corporal but we will finish here and damn the Colonels eyes, Butson replied evenly, his eyes boring into the diminutive Corporal. Continue with the ceremony, he barked in the direction of the bugler.
As the last post swirled on the breeze, it was all Dexter could do to maintain his composure. Fighting back the tears he let his mind drift back in time, imagining how his grandfather had buried so many good friends through wars around the world. As a young boy he had hung on every word as the old man had regaled him with exploits and tales of derring do, never once thinking the stories unsuitable for a boy so young.
As the last notes died away and the parade came to rigid attention, grief gave way to anger, hot and deep-seated, burning in his chest as he saluted, then turned and ran with the others towards the squadrons horses, already prepared for combat.
Within minutes Dexter was aboard his faithful charger Agamemnon and forming up with the squadron, ready to ride out across the plain where they hoped to catch a large force of tribesmen out in the exposed wilderness. Dexter checked his Martini Henry carbine one more time and then moved to the head of his troop. Somewhere off to his left a trumpet sounded and together with a full squadron of Bengal cavalry they set out, weaving their way through the defences of the cantonment, passing gangs of men labouring to shore up the inadequate defences before the anticipated attack by the hordes of tribesmen gathering in the surrounding mountains.
After little over an hour in the saddle, the men and their steeds were coated in the fine dust that only the coming winter snows would suppress. Riding alongside Dexter was Cornet Peter Smith, who at eighteen was the youngest officer in the squadron.
This is it I reckon, this is the big attack and we arent ready for them are we? he asked, a nervous tremor cracking his voice.
No, believe me, this most certainly isnt it, Dexter re-assured him with false confidence. This mob will just be one of the forward parties trying to get over the mountains to join up with Mahomad Jan. Just be grateful the Highlanders have flushed them out for us.
Well avenge our friends today eh Dexter? the young man shouted, his face flushed with youthful exuberance. Bloody savages, Im going to kill them all, he cried, grinning given him a somewhat demented appearance.
Yes that we certainly will, Dexter replied, just a hint of sadness in his voice, knowing full well that all today would bring was another burial ceremony tomorrow.
Dexter was snapped from his reverie by the trumpeter sounding the advance. As a single unit the cavalry picked up the pace into a fast trot and through the dust kicked up by the lead units he could see swarms of running men, fleeing before the racing horses. The tribesmen had lost all discipline at the sight of the cavalrymen and rather than forming defensive formations they were inviting slaughter by scattering. The trumpet sounded once more and the charge began.
Dexter clipped his horse into a steady gallop, trying to stay close to the inexperienced young officer but the thrill of the charge had gripped him and he was spurring his horse on ever faster and pulling away. Bullets began to crack through the air as small groups of tribesmen realising that flight was futile began to form into little huddles and lay down deadly accurate fire. Two troopers immediately in front of Dexter pitched backwards from their mounts, blood flowing through rips in their khaki tunics. The resistance though was short lived and ineffective as the first troopers reached their enemy and a general melee ensued.
Dexter saw two more troopers knocked from their horses before the lances of their comrades massacred the small group of resisting Afghans. Time and again the long lances sliced into the torsos of the helpless tribesmen. Only the occasional shot was fired by the fleeing men but one of those rounds hit Cornet Smith and unseated him. Before Dexter could rein Agamemnon in, a horde of wild eyed Afghans had surrounded the fallen man. Captain Butson raced to the fallen mans aid, his sword held out straight ahead and a wild cry of encouragement sounding clear above the battles clamour.
Trying desperately to stand, Cornet Smith parried a thrust from an Afghan wielding a rusty bayonet just before his attacker was impaled clean through by a troopers lance. Two Afghans opened fire at point blank range and Captain Butson flew backwards from his horse, bright arterial blood spraying across the ground. Seconds later the Afghans died screaming as lances pierced their bodies. Yet another tribesman, wild eyed and spitting curses swung a long curved sword down toward Smiths neck only to be felled by a single shot from Captain Butsons trumpeter.
Dexter charged into the fray, his sword slicing off the top of a small rotund tribesmans head, as his horse trampled two more to the ground. Turning as tightly as he dared, Dexter lunged at an incredibly tall man just as his rifle discharged into the back of an unfortunate trooper. Dexters sword stabbed into the mans neck but was wrenched from his hand and in desperation he fumbled for his revolver. Young Smith was on his feet now, revolver in hand and in rapid succession pumped a heavy bullet into the two Afghans nearest to him. Dexter fired a bullet into the head of the one remaining tribesman before dismounting and rushing towards the fallen Captain.
A small huddle of troopers was attending the officer but Dexter realised that the man was dead. Above the din of the battle he heard the recall sounding. He looked toward the north where astonishingly the Afghans were re-grouping and advancing behind deadly accurate fire. Captain Scott-Chisholm rode up and halted unsteadily, blood staining his tunic and running from a crudely bandaged thigh wound.
Theyre getting organised, get the wounded together and the dead too if theres time, he ordered.
Sir, Captain Butson is dead, Dexter said, un-necessarily.
So I see, damn it all to hell, come on round everyone up! the Captain ordered.
Franticly the wounded were slung over comrades horses, their screams of agony sounding clear across the plain. Dexter looked across the flat, treeless landscape towards a horde of tribesmen charging toward them. Everyone re-doubled their efforts, disciplined carbine fire slowing the advance of the Afghans just enough to enable all but two of the dead to be recovered before they retreated toward the sanctuary of the cantonment. With many riders holding onto wounded comrades the cavalry rode at a steady trot only worried by the occasional stray bullet.
A shrill scream cut the air causing Dexter to rein his mount to a halt. Looking back he saw that one of their comrades they had believed dead was very much alive and being mercilessly hacked by Afghans wielding long curved swords. He drew his carbine from its saddle holster and began firing steady rhythmic shots toward the men. His third shot slammed into the back of the nearest Afghan but the second man had by now nearly decapitated the unfortunate soldier before Dexters final shot dropped him to the blood-soaked ground. Tears streaked his dusty face as Dexter urged his mount onwards to rejoin the rest of the retreating men.
Within the hour they were back inside the allusive sanctuary of the cantonment. As he rode, Dexter took stock of the fortifications and the frantic efforts by engineers and soldiers to strengthen and improve them. The series of walls and forts abutted the Bimaru Heights and commanded the road leading away to the north from Kabul. The southern side was protected by a wall over sixteen feet high and a mile and half in length but Dexter looked in dismay as they passed through a large gap in the east wall which at most reached seven feet in height.
Small forts and bastions were dotted around the perimeter walls to give the defenders a chance to bring down flanking fire on any would be attackers. As the weary cavalry reached their lines, Dexter could see several of the defenders artillery pieces being re-positioned. Somewhere he knew there were two of the American Gatling guns and he resolved to go and find them this very day. Everywhere he looked, men worked at a frantic pace to infill gaps in the defensive line with wire or trenches, even piling sandbags to make small fortified positions. If they truly faced sixty thousand men then they were in for a terrible time.
Over the next few days Dexter and his men were drafted into work parties along with everyone else. The first flurries of snow added to their misery as they laboured in the biting cold air. As the days passed, the number of Afghans massing just outside of artillery range began to increase. The cavalry patrolled outside the perimeter on several occasions, drawing inaccurate fire from their enemy. Only on one cold starry night did the tribesmen attempt to approach the perimeter but the stark white of a full moon exposed them and they were mercilessly cut down by accurate rifle fire from the 72nd Highlanders.
Dexter and Smith took a walk over to a small bastion on the eastern wall the next morning, just as the snow began to fall. Shrouded in a thick locally made blanket, Dexter began to feel the chill seep into his very soul and worse still his aching feet. Smith was as excited as a schoolboy when they were shown over the fearsome looking Gatling gun by its operators. It appeared to be invincible, firing a stream of bullets at the enemy just as fast as it operator could whirl a crank lever around and the rest of the men could keep it supplied with ammunition. Dexter was less enthusiastic about the machine, a new shiver passing through his body as he imagined charging such a creation with his troop. In his mind eye he could see bodies being chewed to pieces and wondered how a war would be fought when both sides had these Gatling guns.
Just before dawn on the 23rd December, Dexter and his troop were shivering in the defensive position they had been given along the eastern wall, close to the Gatling gun. Trembling and with chattering teeth, he tried to see out into the gloom that was concealing the advancing hordes of Afghan warriors. Fanatical and zealously led, these tribesmen were tactically inept but were deadly accurate with their ancient rifles and brutal with any form of sword. Their reputation for taking few prisoners and barbarously treating those they did take would be foremost in the minds of the surrounded soldiers.
The ground shook violently as every artillery piece at the British command opened fire, to be followed by candescent bursts of light over the stark landscape. Star shells illuminated the advancing hordes, who seeing surprise lost, broke into a wild run, screaming and firing pointlessly into the air. If this was intended to terrify the defenders it worked and it was all Dexter could do to control his body as the seemingly endless mass of Afghans closed to with two hundred yards. A second volley of star-shells was launched into the air and commands to fire at will, began to ring out.
Dexter lined up his sights on a bearded tribesman who was ahead of the others and squeezed the trigger. The man pitched forward and Dexter reloaded and took aim at a second man. From his right came a staccato crackling that drowned out all the other rifle fire, a spear of white light illuminating the ground beyond the sandbagged walls. The man he was aiming at fell over, as did the man next to him, behind him and then the next and next after that. Dexter stared in awestruck shock as the Gatling gun carved large holes out of the advancing ranks. Unable to turn because of the pressure from behind, they kept coming forward and the Gatling gun kept on firing.
Dexter was numbed to his core by the vision of horror unfolding before him. Such was the power of the bullets that they ripped chunks of flesh and whole limbs from the advancing men. It was though some unseen scythe was cutting down the crop of Afghan manhood before his eyes. Suddenly the firing stopped and Dexter and his men had to quickly shoot down a dozen men who had somehow made it to the foot of the wall. Another wave of men charged forward, stumbling over the corpses of their comrades, slipping in the snow in their haste to get to the walls, then the dreadful gun began to chatter once more and the slaughter resumed.
By mid-morning the attack was slowing and with resumed snowfall it began to falter all together. Numbed by the intense cold, Dexter and his men were relieved to be recalled to their own lines. After a welcome breakfast of hot stew, they were given their orders and began to prepare their horses. Having defeated the attack, General Roberts now wanted to drive the Afghans clear off the surrounding plains.
Do you think weve won? young Smith asked of no one in particular as he swung up into his saddle. He winced in pain as he aggravated the long bullet graze still healing after his traumatic baptism of fire a few days earlier.
For today, I should think so, Dexter replied thoughtfully.
My God that Gatling gun is a beauty isnt it?
Not when you are staring down its barrel it wont be, Dexter replied in a serious tone. There will come a day, mark my words young man, when both sides have those things and then the grim reaper will have his feast for sure.
Cant imagine this bunch of heathens getting them, can you? Smith replied lightly, bubbling over with boyish enthusiasm, with adrenaline coursing through his veins at the prospect of more action.
Well where do you think they got those rifles from? Dexter replied as he signalled to his Corporal. They stole them or bought them from gun dealers. How long will it be before we lose one of those infernal things and have it turned upon us?
A brief trumpet blast cut through the heavy air and the twenty troopers moved carefully over the snow covered ground toward the nearest gap in the southern wall. Dexter took them in a gentle trot in the direction of the nearest ruined village, just visible around a mile away. The buildings had been partially demolished prior to the big attack and now were little more than a few snow covered piles of rubble. The thick grey clouds promised more snow and Dexter was keen to get this sweep over with quickly. Everywhere across the plain, cavalry units were being sent out to drive the last of the Afghans away and heaven help any that were foolish enough to offer resistance.
Cautiously the cavalry approached the remains of the village, Dexter signalling that they should space out further. No sooner had the order been given than a shot rang out and Dexter watched in dismay as Trooper Carrington pitched from his horse, blood spraying from a ragged tear in the unfortunate mans throat. As one the cavalrymen advanced at the trot as more rounds buzzed past them, one finding its mark in the chest of a coal black charger that died before it hit the ground, spilling the rider into the snow. Seemingly from nowhere tribesmen appeared, some seeming to rise up from the ground itself where they had been concealed beneath the snow.
For a brief instant, disciplined but accurate fire cut into the cavalry, wounding three more men and killing another horse but then panic set in and as so many times before, the Afghans fled. Advancing to the gallop the cavalry chased them down with no mercy. Dexter as ever in the lead, Agamemnon striding clear of the rest, bore down on two men who had run clear of the village itself and into the open. He let his horse run down the nearest man then as the second turned and tried to raise his rifle in defence, Dexter swung his sword straight down into the mans head, almost decapitating him.
Managing to turn, Dexter struck another fleeing man with a vicious back slash that opened his belly wide, leaving him thrashing in the blood soaked snow. Only a handful of the Afghans had escaped, the rest lay crumpled on the ground, just one moving pitifully until Smith despatched him with a single shot. Seeing their intention, Dexter rallied the men to pursue the hardy band of Afghans that were making for a narrow gully leading to high ground. The men made it into the narrow defile and were scrambling over snow covered rocks, not bothering to fire their rifles, just intent on escape.
Led by Corporal Simmons and reduced to a stumbling walk in single file, the cavalrymen were unable to make much ground on the fleeing men. For nearly twenty minutes they continued to climb higher, the snow on the ground now nearly a foot deep in places. They emerged into a slightly wider valley and ahead could see their quarry running desperately for the next narrow gorge. The terror of being caught in the open by mounted soldiers drove them on and they made the sanctuary of the gorge with a lead of over three hundred yards.
The horses were forced once more into single file and Dexter found himself bringing up the rear. He strained to see Corporal Simmons ahead as a gusting wind was blowing powdery snow across the bare rock faces. The rock walls opened out briefly and the soldiers were forced to walk a perilously narrow path bounded by a cliff-face on one side and a sheer drop of fifty feet or more on the other. As Dexter set out on this dangerous stretch he saw that most of his men were entering the next steep sided gorge. It was at that very moment that the ambush was sprung, with perfect timing.
Gun shots rang out, the repeated echoes from the sheer rock faces amplifying the horror ten-fold. Horses and men were cut down, trapped with nowhere to run or hide. Dexter looked on in despair as thirty or more men appeared on the ridge above them, firing round after round into the trapped men. Not a single shot had been fired in their defence before the last man fell. Dexter tried to turn on the narrow track but just as the bullets began to buzz past him too, Agamemnon slipped and took them both over the edge and into the abyss. In a whirling flurry of snow and rocks, rider and horse crashed down the side of the mountain until Dexter heard a loud crack as his head struck the ground and then a dark shroud fell over him.
It was dark, almost totally dark and bone achingly cold when Dexter came round. He tried to sit up but the stab of pain into his head made him vomit violently before he could steady his spinning vision and more carefully sit upright. Gingerly he felt over his head and gasped as his fingers nudged a deep open gash running almost from ear to ear. Dried blood caked his head and most of his face, partially blocking his eyes. He fumbled for his canteen which though battered was still intact. He sipped some of the chilled water and used some more to clear his eyes and nostrils of caked blood. Looking upwards, he could make out a handful of stars and a distant orange glow. As a fit of violent shivering wracked his battered body, he realised that he would die on this mountain if he did not move now.
He could not see the body of Agamemnon but he assumed it lay nearby. With a heavy heart he began to climb the almost vertical rock face before him. With agonising slowness, he pulled himself steadily higher over the lose rock. The cold had number his fingers so deeply that he barely registered when his thumb nail was torn clean off. After nearly half an hour he was able to pull himself over one last ledge and roll exhausted back onto the track where the fateful ambush had been sprung. He lay on his back trying to gulp frigid air into his lungs, his heart hammering so intensely, he feared it might burst.
As he lay against the hard cold ground he noticed once more the strange orange glow further up the mountainside. With no other plan of action, he decided to investigate further. Cautiously he levered himself to his feet and began to warily trudge further up the track into the dark forbidding defile. He was horrified and sickened as his progress was hampered by the dead bodies of his comrades and their horses. Stumbling in the dark he tried to check for any signs of life but it was useless. The bodies had been stripped of everything of any use including in some cases their clothes. He did manage to find a canteen of water and some more ammunition for his revolver in discarded webbing sets.
The track wound its way ever higher up the mountain in a series of sharp zigzags. At one point he imagined that he heard a faint cry and once he was sure that a voice called out but he put this down to exhaustion and wishful thinking. When a shuddering scream cut the night air though, he knew for certain he was not alone on the mountain. With his revolver held out in front of him, he carefully moved forward once more, his breath catching in his throat, his stomach a tense knot of terror at what lay ahead.
The track was becoming steeper with each painful step and soon he found himself on all fours as he struggled to get a grip on the loose, snow covered ground. The elusive orange glow was now just ahead over a last ridge. He knew now for certain that it was the glow of a camp fire and voices were now carrying clearly on the breeze. Slowly he inched forward, hampered by the need to hold his revolver between the numb fingers of his right hand. He nearly threw all caution to the wind when a dreadful moaning cry carried to him, followed by two men shouting. Commonsense would have told him to flee but still he crawled toward that last steep ridge.
As he inched forward several more cries reached him and he moved as quickly as stealth permitted until at last he was at the top but now risked illumination by the very fire that had attracted him. With one last deep breath, the butterflies in his stomach painful now in their intensity, he wriggled up to edge of the ridge to be greeted by a sight of horrific proportions, all cast in the orange glow of a roaring fire of sagebrush.
Tied to a stake set in the ground was Trooper Cunningham, half laying half sitting on the snowy rubble strewn ledge. He was alive but his clothes were torn and bloody, his face a mass of swollen bruises. Near to the blazing fire was the body of another trooper, his body slashed open in a number of places, blood and intestines soaking the ground. Momentarily dazzled by the brightness of the fire, Dexter was suddenly able to see the tableau beyond, close to the mouth of a small cave.
Two tribesmen were holding a half naked soldier down while a third buggered him. Mortified, Dexter realised all the stories that he had heard were true after all. The tall bearded tribesman thrust violently into his struggling victim as the other two beat him around the head. As Dexter lifted his revolver the man suddenly climaxed with a great roar and in one motion pulled his victims head back and ripped his throat open with a long curved knife. In the instant he fired Dexter recognised the dying face of Cornet Smith.
The first bullet smacked into the back of the rapists head, the second into the spine of the tribesman on the left, the final shot bored into the third mans guts. Dexter scrambled to his feet, a blinding rage consuming him completely as he drew his sword and slashed at the dying Afghans. Moments later when the rage had subsided he looked down in horror and despair at the blood soaked mess that had been three Afghans and his friend. He collapsed sobbing and retching onto the hard unforgiving ground and screamed at the colossal night sky.
Sir...Sir untie me quickly...theres more of those swine further up the ill! Cunningham begged.
Yes of course... sorry, Dexter mumbled, staggering to his feet, did anyone else survive the ambush?
A good few but they came down and butchered everyone except us. They mustve fancied some sport. They cut Henrys heart out while it was still beatin I swear.
Suddenly one of the Afghans moaned in agony and stirred slightly. Cunningham strode over to him, dragging and rolling the body, he tossed it over the cliffs edge and any cry was carried away by the wind now blowing heavy wet snowflakes to add to their misery. Dexter pulled the corpse of Cornet Smith from under the body of his attacker. He pulled the coat from one of the other corpses and covered the young man as best he could. In silence the two men stared at the defiled remains of their comrades, no words adequate to express their horror. In unspoken agreement they turned and began to retrace their steps down the mountain as the snow fell thick and fast.
The journey down the mountain began well enough as they returned over familiar ground. Sickened though they were they looted their fallen comrades once more and found a few precious scraps of food. They ate hungrily before continuing their painfully slow descent. They were only yards from emerging onto the plain once more when Cunningham slipped, the crunch of the bone in his ankle as it snapped would live with Dexter until the day he died. The mans scream of agony echoed back from the mountain to mock them. Dumbstruck, Dexter turned to the fallen man just as the snowstorm doubled in its intensity. With still a few hours of night remaining, Dexter knew they had to find shelter or perish by dawn.
Every movement caused unbearable agony but nevertheless Dexter managed to heave the crippled man onto his back. Bent almost double by the extra weight, he began to trudge silently through the blizzard toward what might just be their salvation, the ruined village where they had encountered the rearguard of Afghan troops earlier in the day. Hour after endless hour he struggled against the howling wind, his back locked into a twisted agony by the weight bearing down upon him. Time began to lose all meaning as the cold bit into his consciousness and his reason began to fail. Twice he swore that they were being flanked by outriders of cavalry, men swathed in thick clothes astride giant black chargers. When he looked again though, they had gone as though they had never been there and all that remained was the endless swirling snow.
Without warning the sense of feeling in his legs ebbed away completely and he began to drag his feet rather than lift them clear of the snow. For the last hour all sensation had gone from his feet and hands and slowly inexorably he knew he was dying on his feet. As the ethereal spectres of comrades rode up to him once more, he gently let the unconscious Cunningham slip to the ground and took a few more steps before slumping to his knees. As he began to fall, one of the ghosts jumped down from his mount and caught him.
Dexter, my God we thought you were lost, Captain Jarvis cried against the winds howl. With a smile and a gentle sigh, Dexter collapsed into his arms.
A short story set in the Afghan War of 1879. The war that raged in Afghanistan in Victorian times was every bit as brutal and ultimately futile as the conflict raging today.
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