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Hero of Herat

Image His skin darkened with dye, and posing as a Muslim holy man, Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger of the Company’s political service entered Herat on a routine Great Game reconnaissance on August 18, 1837, little suspecting that he would be there for more than a year. Aged 26, and the nephew of that veteran of the game Colonel Henry Pottinger, he had been sent into Afghanistan to gather intelligence. He had already visited Peshawar and, shortly before Burnes’s arrival there, Kabul, without his disguise being penetrated. He had been in Kamran’s capital for only three days when alarming rumours began to circulate in the bazaars that a powerful Persian force, led by the Shah in person, was marching from Teheran to attack the city. To an ambitious and adventurous young officer like Pottinger, the situation seemed to be full of possibilities. He decided to stay on and watch developments.

When word of the Persian advance reached Kamran he was campaigning in the south, and he hastened back to defend his capital. In his youth he had been a great warrior. With a single stroke of his sword, it was said, he could cut a sheep clean in half, while an arrow from his bow would go straight through a cow. But subsequently he had become dissolute, taking heavily to drink, and effective power now rested with his vizier, Yar Mohammed, whose reputation for cruelty exceeded even his. Orders were immediately issued for the seizure and incarceration of all those of doubtful loyalty, especially anyone with Persian connections. Villagers were ordered to gather in their crops, and to transport all grain and other foodstuffs into the city. Anything else which might prove useful to the enemy, including fruit-trees, was to be destroyed, and troops were sent to ensure that this was done. Simultaneously intensive work began on Herat’s massive ramparts, built mainly of earth, which had been allowed to fall into dangerous disrepair. Finally, all exits to the city were closed to prevent spies from leaving and conveying news of its defences to the enemy.

Until now Pottinger had not disclosed his presence to the authorities, happy to maintain his discreet role as an observer. But then one day in the bazaar he felt a gentle hand on his sleeve. ‘You are an Englishman!’ a voice whispered. By luck the man who had penetrated his disguise turned out to be an old friend of Arthur Conolly’s, a Herati doctor who had travelled with him seven years earlier. He had been to Calcutta, moreover, and could spot European features, even when darkened with dye. The doctor strongly advised Pottinger to go to Yar Mohammed and put his services, including his knowledge of modern siegecraft, at his disposal. The vizier received the Englishman enthusiastically, for although the Heratis had successfully beaten off earlier Persian attacks, it was clear that this one was much more serious. Not only was the Shah believed to have a Russian general in his service, but also a unit composed of Russian deserters who had fled to Persia. Herati cavalry sent to harass the advancing enemy returned complaining that this time they were using unfair tactics. Instead of the usual straggling mass of troops who in the past had been so vulnerable to the Afghan horsemen, under Russian direction they were advancing in compact bodies protected by artillery.

Pottinger’s determining role in the defence of Herat emerged only afterwards when other British officers entered the city and spoke to those who had lived through the ten-month siege. In his own official report to his superiors he played down his contribution, not to mention his own gallantry, although he wrote critically of the part played by others, especially Yar Mohammed. But he also kept a journal, and it was from this that the historian Sir John Kaye was later to piece together his graphic account of these stirring events in his celebrated History of the War in Afghanistan. Subsequently this journal was lost in a fire which swept through Kaye’s study.

Hostilities began on November 23 when the Shah’s forces, supported by artillery, launched a vigorous attack on the city from the west. ‘The garrison sallied out as they advanced,’ recorded Kaye. ‘The Afghan infantry disputed every inch of the ground, and the cavalry hung on the flanks of the Persian army. But they could not dislodge the enemy from the position they had taken up.’ And so the siege commenced. It was to be conducted, wrote Kaye, ‘in a spirit of unsparing hatred and savage inhumanity . . . what was wanting on either side in science would be made up for in cruelty and vindictiveness.’ One barbaric practice introduced by Yar Mohammed was to encourage his troops to cut off the heads of the Persian dead and bring these to him for inspection. His aim was to spread fear among the enemy, for the heads were displayed in rows along the ramparts for all to see. ‘As rewards were always given for these bloody trophies,’ Pottinger noted, ‘the garrison were naturally very active in their endeavours to obtain them.’ But as a soldier he considered this not only abhorrent but also counter-productive, for the Afghan sorties invariably petered out, the defenders being too busy severing heads to follow up their advantage.

It also led to temptation. On one occasion, after a sortie, an Afghan brought to Yar Mohammed a pair of ears. ‘A cloak and some ducats’, Pottinger recounted, ‘were given him as a reward for his butchery.’ However before he could be further questioned he vanished. Half an hour later another man appeared, this time carrying a mud-encrusted head. ‘The Vizier, thinking it looked as though it had no ears, ordered one of his retainers to examine it,’ Pottinger reported. ‘On this, the bearer of the ghastly trophy threw it down and ran away with all the speed he could command.’ When the head was more closely inspected it was discovered to belong to a defender who had died during the sortie. The man who had produced it was pursued, caught and brought back before Yar Mohammed, who ordered him to be severely beaten. But the man who had brought the ears and disappeared with his reward was never found, although Yar Mohammed promised the cloak and money to anyone who produced him. The Afghans were not alone in their barbarism, however. In the Shah’s camp Afghans unfortunate enough to fall into Persian hands were subjected to similar atrocities, including disembowelling.

So the siege dragged on, week after week, month after month, with neither side making any progress. Although the Persians had managed to break through the city’s outer defences, they never totally surrounded it. Even at the height of the fighting some fields close to the walls were still used for crops and grazing. Every night the beleaguered Afghans sallied out against the Persian positions, but were unable to dislodge them. Meanwhile the Persians kept up their bombardment of the ramparts, and the defenders continued to repair them. In addition to their cannons, the attackers had rockets, whose ‘fiery flight as they passed over the city’, Kaye recounts, ‘struck terror into the hearts of the people, who clustered on the roofs of the houses, praying and crying by turns.’ More accurate than either the cannons or the rockets were the mortars, which reduced many homes, shops and other buildings to rubble as the weeks passed. One mortar bomb, its fuse spluttering, plunged through the roof of the house next to Pottinger’s, landing near a sleeping baby. The child’s panic-stricken mother threw herself between it and her offspring, but seconds later it exploded, decapitating her and flinging her body on top of the baby, who was suffocated.

There were moments, too, of near farce. On one occasion the defenders were greatly disturbed by a mysterious drilling sound which appeared to come from the enemy lines where Russian soldiers could be seen digging a large hole. Immediately it was assumed that they were drilling a tunnel beneath the ramparts in order to plant mines under them. As the sound persisted, anxiety increased, and desperate attempts were made to find the tunnel and flood it. It was only later that the real source of the noise was discovered – ‘a poor woman’, Pottinger recounts, ‘who was in the habit of using a hand-mill to grind her wheat.’ Alarm again spread through the city’s 70,000 inhabitants when, in the New Year, the besiegers brought up a massive cannon capable of hurling devastating eight-inch shells against the ramparts, and bigger than anything ever seen in Central Asia before. But after only half a dozen rounds had been fired from it the carriage collapsed beneath it and it was never used again. Yet in spite of their Russian advisers, even when the Persians did succeed in breaching the ramparts they failed to take advantage of it – discouraged perhaps by the sight of their late comrades grinning down at them from above.

All this time Pottinger had been working tirelessly, stiffening the defenders’ resolve whenever it failed, which was often, and giving technical advice according to the latest European military precepts. ‘His activity was unfailing,’ wrote Kaye. ‘He was always on the ramparts; always ready to assist with his counsel . . . and to inspire with his animating presence new heart into the Afghan soldiery.’ Pottinger himself, however, attributed the city’s survival to the incompetence of the Persians and their Russian advisers. A single British regiment, he argued, could have taken Herat without much difficulty.

The Shah, who had been led by Count Simonich and his Russian advisers to expect a quick victory, was now becoming desperate over his failure to capture the city with his vastly superior force. He even sent Yar Mohammed’s own brother, Shere Mohammed, who had earlier surrendered to him, to try to persuade the Heratis to submit. But the vizier refused to see him, denouncing him as a traitor and disowning him as a brother. Before returning to the Persian lines, however, Shere sent his brother a message warning him that when the Shah’s troops stormed Herat he would be hanged like a dog and his women and children publicly dishonoured by the muleteers. Moreover, if the city continued to defy the Shah he himself would be put to death by the Persians. To this Yar Mohammed replied that he would be delighted if the Shah were to execute him as this would save him the trouble of having to do so himself.

Now and again, during lulls in the fighting, attempts were made by both sides to negotiate some kind of settlement. One of the Shah’s proposals was that if Herat accepted nominal Persian suzerainty he would not interfere in the government of the province. All he would require of the Heratis was that they should supply him with troops. The present campaign, he insisted, was directed not so much against Herat as against British India. If the Heratis would unite with him, then he himself would lead them against India, whose riches they would then share between them. It was a proposal which to Pottinger sounded suspiciously like the voice of Simonich. But Yar Mohammed was not that easily fooled, and he suggested that the best proof of Persian sincerity would be for them to lift their siege. A meeting was arranged between Yar Mohammed and the Shah’s chief negotiator which took place on the edge of the ditch beneath the ramparts. It ended abruptly, however, when Yar Mohammed learned that the Shah expected both him and Kamran (who most of the time was too inebriated to take much interest in the proceedings) to make formal submission to him in front of the entire Persian army.

By now Sir John McNeill and Count Simonich, both of whom had expected Herat to fall quickly to the Persians, had arrived from Teheran and were staying in the royal camp. Officially they were there as neutral observers, but each was working overtime to spoil the other’s game. McNeill was trying to persuade the Shah to abandon the siege, while Simonich was endeavouring to find a way of hastening the city’s surrender. The Persian troops, McNeill reported to Palmerston on April 11, nearly five months after the siege began, were in desperate need of supplies, and were being forced to survive on what wild plants they could find. ‘Without pay, without sufficient clothing, without any rations whatsoever,’ he wrote, ‘the same troops remain night and day in the trenches.’ These, at times, were knee-deep in water or mud, and with the death toll running at between ten and twenty a day the men’s morale and powers of endurance were beginning to fail. Unless the Shah was able to arrange regular supplies of food and clothing for his troops, McNeill believed, then the siege would eventually have to be abandoned.

Within Herat itself, however, the plight of the defenders was, if anything, worse. They faced grave food and fuel shortages, which increased as the siege dragged on, while sickness and starvation were beginning to claim as many lives as the Persian artillery. Houses were being torn down to provide fuel, and horses slaughtered for food. Everywhere there were huge mounds of refuse, while the unburied dead added to the stench and to the risk of pestilence. To try to ease the plight of the overcrowded city it was decided to let some of the population leave, the perils they faced outside the walls being considered no greater than those inside. Because they would have refused to agree to anything which would relieve the pressure on the garrison, the besiegers were not consulted. A batch of 600 elderly men, women and children were accordingly allowed out through the gates to chance their luck with the Persians. ‘The enemy’, Pottinger reported, ‘opened a heavy fire on them until they found out who they were, when they tried to drive them back with sticks and stones.’ To prevent this, however, the Herati official in charge of the operation fired on them from the ramparts, causing more casualties than the Persians, who finally let them pass.

Meanwhile, in the Persian camp, Count Simonich cast aside any remaining pretence of being there simply as a diplomatic observer and personally took over direction of the faltering siege. Word that Simonich, telescope in hand, had reconnoitred the beleaguered city soon reached the defenders, while a new vigour and an increased professionalism became apparent, causing Herati morale to plummet. To Pottinger’s dismay they began to consider submitting, not to the Persians but to the Russians. To his relief a rumour reached the defenders the very next day which brought hopes of British intervention. McNeill, it was said, had warned the Shah that were Herat to fall the British would not only go to war with him but would also drive his troops out of the city, whatever the cost. Arrangements were already being made, moreover, to rush supplies of desperately needed food to Herat from British India. The rumour happened to be untrue, but it miraculously saved the city, so crucial to India’s defence, from being handed over to the Tsar by its inhabitants.

By the time the Heratis discovered the truth it was too late for them to turn to the Russians, for on June 24, 1838, Count Simonich launched his great attack. It was destined to be Lieutenant Pottinger’s hour of glory. The assault began with a heavy artillery barrage directed against the city from every side, and was followed by a massed infantry attack delivered at five different points simultaneously. At four of these the Afghans, fighting desperately for their lives, managed to drive the Persians back, but at the fifth the enemy succeeded in gaining the breach made in the ramparts by their artillery. ‘The struggle was brief but bloody,’ wrote Kaye, the defenders falling at their post to a man. ‘A few of the most daring of the assailants, pushing on in advance of their comrades, gained the head of the breach,’ he went on. But the Afghans rushed up reinforcements just in time to throw them back, although only temporarily. ‘Again and again, with desperate courage,’ wrote Kaye, the attackers tried to fight their way through the breach and into the city. One moment they were all but there, and the next they were forced back again. For a whole hour, as the fighting ebbed and flowed, the fate of Herat hung in the balance.

Immediately on hearing of the danger Pottinger and Yar Mohammed had rushed to the spot. But when the vizier, whom no one had ever before accused of cowardice, saw how close the Persians were to storming the city his resolution failed him. He began to walk more slowly towards the breach, finally halting. Then, to Pottinger’s utter dismay, he sat down on the ground. The sight was not lost on the defenders who had seen him and Pottinger approaching. One by one those at the back began to sneak away on the pretence of carrying the wounded to safety. Pottinger knew that there was not a second to lose before the trickle became a flood and the defenders all took to their heels. By means of entreaties and taunts he managed to get Yar Mohammed to his feet again and impel him towards the parapet. For a moment disaster seemed to have been averted as the vizier roared at his men, in the name of Allah, to fight. This had always had magical results before, but this time they had seen his own hesitation. They wavered, and seeing this, his nerve again deserted him. He turned back, muttering that he was going to get help.

At this Pottinger lost his temper. Seizing Yar Mohammed by the arm, and loudly reviling him, he dragged him forward to the breach. The vizier called upon the defenders to fight to the death, but they continued to sneak away. What happened next was electrifying. ‘Seizing a large staff,’ Kaye tells us, ‘Yar Mohammed rushed like a madman upon the hindmost of the party, and drove them forward under a shower of heavy blows.’ Finding themselves with no other way of escape, and even more frightened of the vizier than of the enemy, the defenders ‘leapt wildly over the parapet, and rushed down the exterior slope upon the Persian stormers.’ Panicked by this violent onslaught, the attackers abandoned their position and fled. The immediate danger was over. Herat was saved – thanks, in Kaye’s words, ‘to the indomitable courage of Eldred Pottinger’.

When news of the subaltern’s role in Herat’s defence, and in foiling Russian designs, reached London and Calcutta, he was to receive similar acclaim to that showered upon Alexander Burnes on his return from Kabul and Bokhara five years earlier. Unlike Burnes, however, he was not there to receive it in person. For although the moment of greatest danger had passed, Simonich had not given up, and the siege was to drag on for another three months. Long afterwards Pottinger’s exploit was to be celebrated by Maud Diver, a romantic novelist, in The Hero of Herat, a bestseller in its day. But the ultimate compliment at the time came, ironically, from the Shah of Persia himself. Seeing Pottinger’s presence in Herat as the principal reason for his failure to bring Herat to its knees, he demanded that McNeill order the young officer to leave the city, in return for which he would be guaranteed safe passage through the Persian lines. McNeill pointed out, however, that Pottinger was not under his command, and that he was therefore in no position to issue such an order. Only Calcutta could do that. The Shah next tried the Heratis, declaring that he would not discuss an ending to the siege while Pottinger remained with them. This too failed, Yar Mohammed fearing that he might lose the invaluable Pottinger only to find that, on some spurious excuse, the siege was resumed.

Nonetheless, unknown to either Pottinger or the Shah, an end to the seeming stalemate was in sight. Alarmed by Vitkevich’s triumph in Kabul, and fearing a similar Russian gain at Herat, the British government had decided at last to act. The sending of a relief force across Afghanistan to the beleaguered city had been ruled out as too hazardous and too slow. Instead it was decided to dispatch a task-force to the Persian Gulf. Threatening the other end of the Shah’s domains while he was fully occupied in the East, might, it was thought, oblige him to release his grip on Herat. At the same time Palmerston stepped up the pressure on Nesselrode, the Russian Foreign Minister, to call a halt to Simonich’s highly irregular activities. Both moves were to produce swift and satisfying results.

On June 19, British troops landed unopposed on Kharg Island, at the head of the Gulf, just off the Persian coast. Wild rumours quickly began to spread inland that a massive British invasion force had landed on the coast and had begun to advance on the capital, capturing town after town as it proceeded. At the same time McNeill, who had by now returned to Teheran, sent one of his staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stoddart, to the royal camp at Herat to warn the Shah of the grave consequences if he continued the siege. ‘The British Government’, McNeill’s note declared, ‘looks upon this enterprise in which your Majesty is engaged against the Afghans as being undertaken in a spirit of hostility towards British India.’ Officially informing him of the seizure of Kharg Island, the note went on to caution the Shah that Britain’s next move would be decided by what action he took over Herat. It advised him to have nothing more to do with ‘the bad counsel of the ill-disposed persons’ who had encouraged him to attack the city in the first place.

Somewhat to his surprise Stoddart was cordially received by the Shah, whom he had believed to be still firmly under Count Simonich’s influence. He read aloud to the Shah the contents of McNeill’s note, translating it into Persian as he went along. When he came to the mention of ‘ill-disposed persons’, the Shah interrupted, asking: ‘The fact is that if I don’t leave Herat there will be war – is that not it?’ Stoddart replied that this was so. Dismissing Stoddart, the Shah told him that he would consider the British demands and give him an answer shortly. No one knows what transpired between the Shah and Count Simonich, although McNeill would dearly have liked to, but two days later Stoddart was summoned to the royal presence. ‘We consent to the whole of the demands of the British Government,’ the Shah told him. ‘We will not go to war. Had we known that our coming here might risk the loss of their friendship, we certainly would not have come at all.’

The Persians had climbed down completely, and the Russians had suffered an ignominious defeat. Gunboat diplomacy had triumphed where conventional diplomacy had failed. Reporting the dramatic turn of events to McNeill, Stoddart wrote: ‘I replied that I thanked God that his Majesty thus regarded the true interests of Persia.’ The Shah now gave orders for the siege to be lifted, and for his troops to prepare to return to Teheran. At 8 o’clock on the morning of September 9, Stoddart sent the following dispatch by special messenger to Sir John McNeill: ‘I have the honour to report that the Persian army has marched . . . and that His Majesty the Shah is about to mount.’ At 10.26 he added briefly: ‘The Shah has mounted his horse . . . and is gone.’

But there was more to come. All along Count Nesselrode had insisted that there was no Russian involvement in the siege, maintaining that Simonich had strict instructions to do all he could to dissuade the Shah from marching on Herat. He even offered to show the British ambassador, Lord Durham, the confidential book containing his instructions to Simonich. At first this had satisfied Palmerston, but by now it was embarrassingly obvious that he was being hoodwinked. Either Simonich had totally ignored his government’s instructions, or he had been told unofficially to disregard these for as long as he could get away with it, by which time, with luck, Herat would be safely in Persia’s compliant hands. The truth will probably never be known, and historians still ponder over it today. But whatever the truth, Palmerston was out for blood.

In London the Russian ambassador was summoned and informed that Count Simonich and Captain Vitkevich (who was still lurking in Afghanistan) were pursuing policies actively hostile to Britain which gravely threatened relations between the two governments. Palmerston demanded that the two men be recalled at once. Perhaps the Russians had gambled on the expectation that the British, as on earlier occasions, would do nothing. If so, this time they had badly miscalculated. Moreover, the evidence against Simonich was so damning that Tsar Nicholas had little choice but to accede to Britain’s demands. ‘We pushed Russia into a corner in the matter of Count Simonich,’ Palmerston told McNeill in triumph. ‘The Emperor has no other way out but to recall him and to acknowledge that Nesselrode made a whole string of untruthful declarations.’

Simonich, rather than Nesselrode, was made the scapegoat, however, being accused of exceeding his authority and ignoring his instructions. Even if this was unfair, and he was simply obeying covert orders, he had failed to deliver Herat, despite the many months he had had at his disposal while St Petersburg played for time. Few tears were shed on his behalf by his British adversaries, moreover, for he had made himself extremely unpopular with McNeill and others with whom he had had dealings. It was felt that he had got no more than he deserved. But the fate which was to befall Captain Vitkevich, a much respected rival, gave no one any satisfaction.

Recalled from Afghanistan, he was ordered to proceed to St Petersburg, which he reached in the spring of 1839. Precisely what happened there remains a mystery. According to one account, based on contemporary Russian sources, he was warmly received by Count Nesselrode who congratulated him on displacing the British at Kabul. He was promised that his status as a Lithuanian aristocrat, removed when he was sent into exile as a youth, would be restored to him, and that he would be promoted and found a place in an elite regiment. But according to Kaye, who had access to British government intelligence from the Russian capital, the young officer had returned full of hopes only to be cold-shouldered by Nesselrode. The latter, anxious to dissociate himself from the whole affair, refused even to see him, declaring that he knew of no such Captain Vitkevich – ‘except for an adventurer of that name, who had been lately engaged in some unauthorised intrigues in Kabul and Kandahar.’

However, on one thing both versions do agree. Returning to his hotel shortly after visiting the Foreign Ministry, Vitkevich went up to his room and burned his papers, including all the intelligence he had brought back from Afghanistan. Then, after scribbling a brief letter of farewell to his friends, he blew out his brains with a pistol. The Great Game had claimed another victim. As had happened after Griboyedov’s violent death in Teheran ten years earlier, there were suspicions in St Petersburg that the British somehow had a hand in this too. But any such thoughts were quickly forgotten in the wake of the momentous events which were soon to rock Central Asia.

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