Norwich victims of Afghan military disaster exactly 140 years ago
PUBLISHED: 08:00 31 March 2019
Victims of a military disaster exactly 140 years ago, remembered in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, would have lived in Norwich
The soldiers were ordered to cross the fast-flowing mountain river in the dark.
Of the 76 men who rode their horses into the water, on March 31 1879, exactly 140 years ago, only 29 survived. Forty seven men were swept away and drowned in the Afghan river, weighed down by their swords and uniforms.
The tragedy came to be known as the Kabul River Disaster, and was compounded when another 38 men from the same regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, died from cholera as they travelled through the Khyber Pass just weeks later.
Many of the victims will have lived in Norwich, where the 10th Hussars had been based in the Cavalry Barracks on Barrack Street. The Hussars held recruiting sessions in local pubs and signed up men from the city and surrounding towns and villages. In the Norwich Mercury newspaper of May 21, 1879 an eyewitness, from Norwich, describes the disaster.
He writes of orders to move from Jalalabad at night. The troops began to leave the camp but by 11pm those still to move out were shocked to see riderless horses returning. “At about 11pm there were horses galloping all over the place and no-one on their backs, so I, with others went to see the cause, and to our sorrow we found all the saddles quite wet, and came to the conclusion that all their riders were drowned…the poor fellows who could not swim, and many who could, were drowned…Good swimmers could not swim with their swords and clothing on them.”
The following day search parties were sent out, and found 19 of the bodies, which were buried on April 2 in a mass grave.
Richard Pillinger, of Tatterford, near Fakenham, is researching the history of the regiment and runs a website in tribute to his grandfather, Major Roland Pillinger, who joined the 10th Royal Hussars less than a month after the disaster, responding to a request for more men after so many had been lost. The major went on to serve with the 10th Hussars for 35 years. He retired in 1913 - and then the the First World War began and, aged 54, he joined the Egyptian Camel Corps in Cairo, going on to fight at Gallipoli.
Major Roland Pillinger also wrote a history of the 10th Hussars. Recounting the tragedy of the Kabul River Disaster he described how two mules were swept away, 140 years ago, at a turn in the S-shaped ford.
“The 10th leaders, following in the dim moonlight, left the ford, and soon the whole squadron was struggling for life in the rushing river. The men were heavily equipped with ammunition, swords, rations etc; the snow water of the river was icy cold and the night dark.” He tells of how those who managed to reach the banks plunged back into the river to rescue comrades. “Thus was one of the saddest pages in our history, brightened by the self sacrifice and devotion of the officers and men of the regiment.”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the tragedy, Ford o’ Kabul River, describes the river “up and brimming” with “’arf a squadron swimming ’cross the ford o’ Kabul river in the dark.”
“There I left my mate for ever,
Wet and dripping by the ford,” writes Kipling.
“Blow the bugle, draw the sword,
Strewth I shan’t forget his face.”
And the final verse begins:
“Gawd ’elp ’em if they blunder, for their boots’ll pull ’em under,
By the ford o’ Kabul river in the dark.”
Richard Pillinger would love to hear from anyone with family history involving with the 10th Royal Hussars, and can be contacted via his website majorpillinger.co.uk More information about the regiment can also be found at horsepowermuseum.co.uk