They belonged to different mohallahs of the old walled city of Lahore. In one fateful day, on the Third of September, 1879, the city lost 41 sons out of 69 killed. Their great grand children, now old men in their eighties, remember the respect they once commanded. They had a nameplate outside Mohallah Qassaban, inside Delhi Gate, that was removed in the 1920s after Jallianwala. They were the cannon fodder of the British Empire, unsung, forgotten, the ones who never came back.
In the old city they sing a couplet that goes: “Sarkar kay deewanay, jissay Kabul mein na mannay“. This couplet I had heard a number of times in my youth, and recently on one of my walks through the old city, I happened to share a cup of tea with old Baba Rehmat, who lives in Tehsil Bazaar, near the old mosque. I often use him as a sounding board for old stories, and every time he comes up with a unique explanation.
When I asked him about the couplet, he referred to a massacre of the “Lahore regiment” as he put it in Kabul, 20 years after the 1857 War of Independence. He calls it the ‘wadah ghaddar’. “The moghals had become eunuchs, what else did you expect”, he said scornfully. I researched the incident, met the great grand children of four Lahori soldiers, and the story makes remarkable reading, for we have lost just so much without learning anything from our losses. The decline continues.
The story of the 41 soldiers belonging to the old walled city out of the 69 Indians who never returned from Kabul in 1879 was told for years. They belonged to the 21 Guides Cavalry and 48 Guides Infantry, which were elite regiments of the Indian Army. The 41 belonged to four basic mohallahs, 11 of them from Mohallah Qassaban inside Delhi Gate, nine from Chohatta Rajah Dina Nath in Delhi Gate (now renames Chohatta Qazi Allah Dad), and 15 from Chuna Mandi Bazaar nearer the Masti Gate end, and six from Kocha Chabaksowaran.
All these mohallahs had in the past produced soldiers for the Moghal and Sikh armies, and had rich martial tradition. Even today some of the finest officers of the Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force belong to the old walled city; they have that special guile, educated and street smart.
First a bit about the fight, then about the actual soldiers, and lastly about what faded memories still exist in the city’s winding lanes. The British Residency was in the Bala Hissar in Kabul. In May, 1879, a Treaty was signed between the British and Amir of Afghanistan, Yakub Khan. Under the terms of the Treaty a British Mission was to be established in Kabul. Their safety was guaranteed by the Treaty and the word of the Amir. The Residency was set up in July 1879, and a small detachment of cavalry and infantry belonging to the 21 Guides Cavalry and 48 Guides Infantry, elite regiments belonging to Lahore, were sent as a security measure.
On the 3rd September 1879, without warning, Afghan soldiers attacked the Residency and were joined by almost the entire civilian population of Kabul. Urgent messages were sent to the Amir, claiming protection. The messages were ignored. It was to be a fight to the end.
The attackers promised amnesty, which none of the staff in the Residency believed. The attack started even before the time given was over. The worst fears of the Lahori soldiers were proven right. And so four British officers and 69 men from Lahore and its environs faced a raging attack by over 10,000 armed men.
The first to fall was the British Envoy, Major Sir Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, KCB, originally belonging to the 1st Bengal Fusiliers. Aged just 38, he was an experienced soldier and was serving as the Assistant-Commissioner in the Punjab, based in Lahore. With him was killed Surgeon Ambrose Kelly of the Indian Medical service.
After studying medicine and surgery in Dublin, in 1869 he was commissioned to the Bengal Medical Service and served in the Lushai expedition. He was posted to the 1st Punjab Infantry in 1872. He was working in Lahore when he was selected to join the Embassy to Kabul and was killed treating the wounded in the first wave of attacks.
As the Residency staff regrouped, they were led by the one remaining British officer, a 23-year old dashing soldier by the name of Lt. Walter Richard Pollock Hamilton, V.C., of the Guides Cavalry. At Fatehabad he led the Guides in a charge and was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was selected to command the 75 men of the Corps of Guides who accompanied the British Embassy to Kabul. He was killed defending the second wave of attack. With him dead, command was taken over by the Lahori soldiers.
The Afghans offered amnesty to the Muslim soldiers. The answer from the Lahori soldiers was the battle cry “Ya Ali Haider”, and an even stranger one the Afghans had never heard, and it was “Lahore Lahore Aye, Maaut Maaut Aye”. Regimental researchers were to note this unique battle cry, a cry that was only used again in the 1965 War with India by the Punjab regiment soldiers in the defence of Lahore.
So the third wave of attack started in which the last remaining British officer to be killed was a uniquely gifted 32-year old British “political officer” by the name of William Jenkyns. Educated at Cambridge, in 1876 he was Interpreter and Secretary to the Embassy at Peshawar for the conference with the Amir of Afghanistan. In 1878 he was a Political Officer with the army in Afghanistan and spoke fluent Pushto. Thus all British officers were dead and the men from Lahore were left to face the final onslaught.
Afghan records tell us that they stood fighting to the last man. One account of the battle tells us that when their bullets had finished, they fixed their bayonets, gave their battled cries and faced the enemy. After 12 hours of fighting the few remaining men fixed bayonets and charged out to their deaths. Over 600 Afghan dead bore witness to the heroic resistance of this small force from Lahore. From this emerged the ballad in Punjabi: “Marrna aye tey dass lay kay marriay”. Even today this myth of every Lahori soldier taking ten of the enemy is perpetuated in the regiments of Pakistan and India. Its roots are grouted firmly in the reality of the Kabul of 1879.
When on their own, the men were led by Jemadar Jewand Singh, who belonged to Mohallah Qassaban. He was assisted by Daffadar Hira Singh of Mozang. The cavalry sowars who charged in the final analysis were all from inside the old walled city, they being Gul Ahmed, Khair Ullah, Akbar Khan, Muhammad Akbar, Miroh Badshah, Ghulam Habib, Mahomed Amin, Mahomed Hassan, Amir Hyder, Pars Ram, Amar Singh, Wazir Singh, Ratan Singh, Harnam Singh, Deva Singh and Farrier Amir Ullah.
From the infantry were Jemadar Mehtab Singh, Havildar Hussain, Naik Mehr Dil, Bugler Abdullah (of Tehsil Bazaar and great grandfather of Baba Rehmat), Lance Naik Jangi. Among the sepoys were Sonu, Shibba, Sirsa and Tota all of Chuna Mandi. Then there were sepoys Roedad, Akbar Shah, Said Amir, Alam Shah, Mir Baz Khan (all from Kocha Chabbaksowaran), Hamzulla Waddah and Humzulla Chootha, two brothers from Chootha Rajah Dina Nath.
The list goes on and on. Last on the list is 3rd Class Hospital Assistant Rahman Bakhsh, who also worked in a Lahore hospital, and went to Kabul for the money and adventure. His great grandson, ironically, still lives inside Bhati Gate and works in Mayo Hospital, Lahore. But then who remembers all these exceptionally brave soldiers who refused to surrender. Even the families of these martyrs now have little recollection, except for the stories they have heard. Probably in a few years even the songs and ballads will die out.
It matters not who the rulers were, for we have had foreign rulers for almost 1,000 years. The men who died belonged to our soil. In a way, even today, the rulers seem foreign to the poor. The least we can do is to erect a monument for the ‘Unknown Soldiers’ of our city and land, so we never forget all those, irrespective of time, place, belief and circumstances, who helped shape our history.