Ford o' Kabul River
The river disaster of the 10th Hussars 31 March 1879
by Garen Ewing

"Gawd 'elp 'em if they blunder, for their
boots'll pull 'em under,
By the ford o' Kabul river in the dark."
- Rudyard Kipling

| read full poem |

"A whole squadron, or nearly so, slain - not in an honest fight, face to face with the foe, but by the
cruel water; or kicked to death by their terrified plunging chargers." - Rev. Arthur Male.

Kipling's poem, that first appeared in The National Observer in November 1890, recalls a tragedy of the 1878-1880 Afghan War that would almost certainly have quickly faded into obscurity had his pen not kept it in the public mind through the last 125 years. Even so, the facts of the event are sometimes confused, and the fate of the forty-six men who drowned in that 'river in the dark' are pretty much lost to time.

The 10th Hussars had been in Afghanistan since the beginning of the campaign, with two squadrons (commanded by Major Wood) present at the taking of Ali Masjid in the Khyber Pass, and another squadron (under Captain Bulkeley) joining General Roberts' Kurram Valley Field Force and seeing action at the Peiwar Kotal. The Peshawar troops pushed on to Dakka, and by 20 December 1878 were in Jalalabad, where they proceeded to serve in and around the Kunar Valley, and were joined there by the Kurram detachment in early February 1879.

With his headquarters at Jalalabad, General Sam Browne found himself under pressure from several of the fiercely independent tribes around him, including some who were coming into the area specifically to stir up trouble, notably one Ghilzai chief by the name of Asmatulla, who already had 1,500 followers and was trying to attract more to his cause. General Browne decided to send two columns to deal with this threat before it got too far out of hand. One, under Brigadier-General Macpherson, was to meet Asmatulla on the Kats Laghman, while the other, under Brigadier-General Gough, was sent to deal with some Khugianis in the vicinity of Fatehbad.

Macpherson's unit was split into two, with the infantry and mountain battery leaving half an hour before the cavalry to move rapidly and come upon the rear of their enemy, while Major Wood's two cavalry squadrons (one each of the 10th Hussars and the 11th Bengal Lancers) would confront the Ghilzai's head-on. The cavalry left at 9.30 p.m on 31 March, and turned east out of Jalalabad to cross the Kabul river at Kalai Sak, roughly two miles from camp. They had to use the ford there as a trestle bridge, constructed by the British near Zangui, had recently been dismantled in expectation of rising waters from the melting mountain snows. Despite this, the ford was generally considered safe, with a 30' crossing to a small island, and the water about two and a half feet deep. The next part of the crossing was much wider and was lengthened even further due to the indirect line that kept to the shallows, 3' at their deepest, with the water running quite fast at about 9 miles an hour.

The Bengal Lancers were leading the way in the misty night, lit dimly by moonlight, and the closely packed Hussars were ordered to keep up behind the baggage mules that trailed the Lancers. Often at a ford, the route would be staked out, but sensitive to local villager's requests, none were planted. With each man tending to stray slightly downstream a few inches of the man in front, by the time the baggage mules were in it is possible they were actually treading water and were way off course. The Hussars blindly followed them into the deep and disaster engulfed the squadron. Horses panicked and turned, weighed down heavily with packs and saddles. The men fared no better with their heavy riding boots, full ammunition, swords and carbines slung over their shoulders, kicked by the flailing animals and in water up to 15' deep. Powerless, they were carried off into faster waters and eventually into rapids where, exhausted, many of them couldn't fight against the river and rocks, if indeed they were still conscious.

'Messengers of Death' - the first sign at Jalalabad of the terrible accident.

Back at camp the alarm was raised when several riderless horses galloped in, dripping wet. Soldiers and camp doctors rushed down to the ford to see what could be done - not much by that time, despite lighting a huge bonfire on the central island to aid visibility. The following morning a more comprehensive search was conducted, including the use of Major Wilson's elephants to bring in some of the bodies. Many of the dead cavalrymen had been severely injured by their horses and thus were powerless against drowning. One, found further down stream, had managed to climb into a villager's moored boat, but hadn't lasted much longer, exhausted and freezing. One officer and three men were found alive on a sandbank in the river. All together nineteen bodies were recovered out of forty-six lost, and thirteen horses were also drowned.

On 3rd April, the nineteen men were wrapped in blankets and buried in a 45' long grave in the British cemetery at the west end of the Jalalabad camp. The Reverend Arthur Male conducted the service, and the band played 'Dead March in Saul'. Lieutenant Harford's body was found a few days later, and he had a night burial accompanied by flashes of lightning in the Afghan sky. The only item of his missing was his sword, and this actually turned up 15 years later when it was found at Ramorah in the roof beams of an Afghan hut during the Chitral expedition.

In the end, MacPherson's infantry and guns had experienced a very tough journey themselves and had arrived exhausted at their destination to find Asmatulla and his army gone. More cavalry had been sent up, but by 2 April they were all back at Jalalabad having seen no action, while Gough's Fatehbad brigade defeated a large body of Khugianis, at the expense of six dead (including Major Battye of the Guides) and forty injured.

The recovered bodies are buried. Also in the grave is a soldier of the 17th Foot, killed at Fatehbad.

Kipling's poem may suggest that the 10th Hussars drowning incident happened by 'Kabul town', but it was actually just two miles from Jalalabad, which in itself is about 70 miles east of Kabul as the crow flies. Another common misconception is that it was a flash flood that overawed the cavalrymen mid-stream, which none of the contemporary reports indicate.

January 1880 saw a similar incident, also on the Kabul River, but at a different ford. This time the victims were five troopers of the 6th Dragoons. An anonymous officer, stationed at Jalalabad and wondering why all the casualties had been European, and none indigenous, wrote:

"Is it that the extension of railways, both at home and abroad, is depriving our splendid English cavalry of the opportunities they had in former days of becoming expert, not only in crossing fords, but even in swimming their horses through dangerous rapids? Or is the old story... that the British light (?) horseman is still overweighted with his own multifarious and complicated accoutrements, that, once submerged, he has small chance of coming up again?"

If you have information on any of the men that drowned so they can be aded to the database, please do get in touch. The names are known, but biographical information is most welcome.

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