The Memorial to the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides at Mardan, Pakistan

[Photographs by the author. Click on images for larger pictures.]

Illuminated initial T

hese photographs (taken on 24th April 1993) show three views of the Guides’ memorial which stands in the centre of Mardan, in the North West Frontier Province (recently renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) of Pakistan. Mardan lies on the main road from Nowshera to the magnificent fortress at Malakand which towers above the pass leading into the beautiful Swat Valley. Malakand was the scene of an uprising against the British in 1897 in which Winston Churchill was involved. He later wrote his famous “The story of the Malakand Field Force”. The area has also featured in several disturbances since the mid 1990s involving a group which later became part of the Pakistani Taliban.

Left to right: (a) The Guides Memorial, Mardan. (b) A Panel that describes the massacre. (c) The list of casualties.

During the final hundred years of British rule in India, Nowshera, Mardan and Malakand all had substantial garrisons and Mardan was the base of the most famous regiment in the British Indian Army “the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides”. Founded by Harry Lumsden in 1846 from local Pashtun (the British preferred the word “Pathan”) tribesmen the Guides were renowned for remarkable feats of endurance and courage. Their best-known achievement was the march to Delhi in May and early June 1857 at the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny covering a distance of 580 miles in just 26 days at the hottest time of the year and mostly during the fasting month of Ramadan.

The Guides were unique in being both a cavalry and infantry regiment. It was also the first regiment in the world (from 1848) to wear khaki uniforms.

Another epic moment in the regiment’s history is commemorated in this memorial. After the Treaty of Gandamak of 26th May 1879 between the Afghan Amir Yakub Khan and the British it was decided to send a diplomatic mission to Kabul led by Major Louis Cavagnari assisted by William Jenkyns of the Bengal Civil Service. The escort was provided by 75 men of the Corps of Guides (25 cavalry and 50 infantry) under Lieutenant Walter Hamilton VC with Surgeon Major Ambrose Kelly attached from the Bengal Medical Service. Despite Cavagnari’s relentless optimism it was a tense period in Kabul, and on 3rd September 1879 some Afghan regiments from Herat rioted over pay. They had heard a rumour that there was treasure inside the Residency. Cavagnari initially refused to negotiate, and in the subsequent attack on the British Residency he and the entire escort were killed. So began the Second Afghan War.

Two views of the exterior of the Bala Hissar in Kabul (taken in 1993) where Cavagnari and his escort of Guides were massacred in 187.

A subsequent enquiry heard testimony from Afghans that the Guides had fought with remarkable courage and tenacity. As a result the whole escort was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM), at the time the highest award available to Indian soldiers. Colonel Younghusband’s Story of the Guides devotes a gripping chapter (VIII pages 97 to 116) to the massacre as reconstructed later from Afghan witnesses.

The memorial in Mardan was erected in 1892. It includes references to British gothic church architecture, Hindu temples and Islamic cupolas. For good measure there are also some Buddhist motifs. It falls broadly within the definition of Indo-Gothic. I am told that it is now much neglected, but the fact that it still survives intact owes much to Mardan being a Pakistani military town. The Corps of Guides still survives as part of the Pakistan Army, and there is still considerable pride in its colonial era honours and achievements.

The long-forgotten story of the Kabul massacre experienced a brief recovery when it featured in Mollie Kaye’s novel the Far Pavilions (1978) and its 1984 TV adaptation with Cavagnari played by Sir John Gielgud and with Benedict Taylor as Hamilton. Mollie’s husband had himself served with the Guides and was a relative of Walter Hamilton.

A 2003 photograph of the ruined interior (taken in 2003) with modern war debris scattered all around.

With the kind permission of the Afghan Defence Minister I visited the scene of the massacre inside the Bala Hissar fort in Kabul in September 2003, but years of warfare had obliterated all traces of the old Residency. Apart from some magnificent outer walls the interior of the Bala Hissar is little more than a pile of rubble. At that time Afghan troops (assisted by the US and UK) had removed the Taliban from power and had chased Al Qa’ida into the borderlands of Pakistan. There was a real sense of optimism that peace would at last come to Afghanistan. Cavagnari would have shared that optimism. However in 1879 Hamilton must have had a sense of foreboding. He penned the following lines just a week before he died. He might have felt the same about 2003.

Though all is changed, yet remnants of the past
Point to the scenes of bloodshed, and alas!
Of murder foul; and ruined houses cast
Their mournful shadows o’er the graves of grass

Further Reading

Robson, Brian. The Road to Kabul. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1986

Roberts, Field Marshal Earl. Forty-one years in India. London: MacMillan, 1896

Younghusband, Col G.J. The Story of the Guides. London: MacMillan, 1908

Last modified 23 December 2015