Ford o’ Kabul River
In 1890, Rudyard Kipling wrote on of his best-known poems, “Ford o’ Kabul River”, which tells the story of a tragic event in the history of the 10th Royal Hussars (The Prince of Wales’s Own).
The Second Afghan War had broken out in September 1878 when the ruler of Afghanistan, Sher Ali Khan, refused to accept a British diplomatic mission to rival a Russian mission already in the capital.
The 10th Royal Hussars, stationed at Rawalpindi (then in India, but now in Pakistan) were the first troops to enter Afghanistan, and in November took part in the successful battle at Ali Musjid in the Khyber Pass, where a fort blocking the British advance to the Afghan capital, Kabul, was captured.
Having spent the winter around the nearby town of Jellalabad, on the night of 31st March 1879, a squadron of the 10th Hussars, together with a squadron of the 11th Bengal Lancers (Probyn’s Horse), all under the command of Major E A Wood of the Tenth, were ordered to cross the Kabul River in preparation for an attack on enemy tribesmen the following day.
The river crossing was at an S bend with a treacherous current running at six miles an hour (about 10 km/hour). The night was pitch black, and stakes in the ground identifying the ford where the crossing was to be made could not be found. The Lancers went first, followed by the two mules carrying supplies and equipment, then the Tenth. The current slowly edged the men and the horses of the 11th downstream and off the safe crossing place, and the men of the Tenth, following them, were forced even further off the ford. Suddenly the two mules lost their footing and very quickly the entire squadron of the Tenth was swept away.
Weighed down by heavy equipment – each man was carrying 30 rounds of ammunition, and sufficient food for himself and his horse for the following day together with a sword, rifle and equipment – the swollen water and icy current took a heavy toll. The commander of the squadron, Captain R C D Spottiswoode, managed to get safely to shore, thanks to his particularly powerful horse. Another man, Private Goddard, was saved by two officers (Lieutenants C S Greenwood and C M Grenfell), and Private Cowley, who had stayed on his horse until it drowned, managed to rescue Lieutenant the Honourable J Napier.
Riderless horses, wet, freezing and scared, returned to camp and alerted the Regiment to the events that happened, but help arrived too late – one officer (Sub Lieutenant F H Harford) and 46 men had drowned; only four officers and seven men had survived. Some bodies were found up to 60 miles downstream. The bodies were interred in a mass grave in Jellalabad.
For the Tenth, the suffering was not over and worse was to follow. Returning to India after the war was temporarily ended, the Regiment lost a further 38 men in 38 hours to a virulent outbreak of cholera – a water-born sickness and diarrhoea infection which can cause death within a matter of a few hours. During these operations in Afghanistan 16 men also died from other diseases.
It is a point worthy of note that the First World War (1914-18) was the first war in which more lives were lost in the fighting than to sickness and disease.
Although the war began again in August 1879 following the murder of Major Cavagnari and Mr Jenkyns of the British Mission established at Kabul, the Tenth were so weakened by casualties that they remained at Rawalpindi. An outbreak of Dengue fever (an infection carried by mosquitoes, causing fever, headaches, muscular and joint pains) further affected the Regiment so there was no question of them returning to Afghanistan. Indeed, conditions and sickness were so bad that in 1880 the Regiment moved to Lucknow to recuperate.
The 10th Royal Hussars became the only British cavalry regiment to bear the Battle Honour “Ali Masjid”, awarded for the first battle of the campaign in November 1878, and this is still carried on the Regimental Guidon of The King’s Royal Hussars. The men who took part in the campaign received the Afghanistan Medal, with the bar “Ali Musjud” added for those who fought in that battle..
You can read more about the campaign and see examples of the Afghanistan Medal in Horsepower at Peninsula Barracks, Winchester.