George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





Cattle were brought from Sierra Leone, from the Canaries, from Madeira, and even from Lisbon, and in this way an abundant supply was obtained for the use of the white troops. Had they, says Henty, been obliged to subsist solely upon salt and Australian meat during the march up and back again, I believe that the mortality would have been vastly greater than it really was.

After one of the encounters with the Ashantis, rumour began to reach the British from prisoners and escaped slaves that the enemy had lost a great number of men, and that immediately the action was over they had begun to retreat. But upon the day after the fight the partly-conquered black army was met by reinforcements seven thousand strong, bringing orders from the king that they were not to retreat, but to attack the English and drive them back. This the retreating army refused to do, declaring that they had done all that was possible and that they could do no more. The new-comers, struck by their wretched appearance, and by their tales of misery and distress, which they now heard for the first time, refused to advance alone, and the whole force fell back together. Several slaves now made their escape, and brought the news that the Ashanti army was crossing the river in canoes and on rafts. But such intelligence could not be relied upon, and Sir Garnet Wolseley, after much enquiry, finding it impossible to obtain trustworthy information, called for volunteers to go on ahead and discover whether the Ashantis had really got across. His troops had plenty of pluck, and two men belonging to one of the West India regiments at once undertook the task, which meant an advance alone some twenty-five miles to the river Prah.

They found how severe had been the enemys defeat, for all along the whole route of the retreat men were lying dead, while on reaching the banks of the stream it was to find that the survivors of the beaten army and the reinforcements had all crossed.

Elated by their success, the two scouts stopped on the river bank to write their names on a piece of paper and fasten it on a tree to prove that they had been there. This done, in the coolest manner possible they fired their rifles across the stream in the direction of the enemy, as if in contempt for their prowess, and then in the most matter-of-fact way shouldered their pieces and marched back towards their generals camp to bear their news.

This feat, Henty writes, appears to me one of the most courageous, if not the most courageous, which was performed during the whole campaign. Nothing could have been more trying to the nerves than that long march through the lonely forest, with the knowledge that at any moment some body of Ashantis who had lingered behind the rest might spring upon them, and that, if not killed at once, they were doomed to a lingering death by torture at Coomassie.

Chapter Thirty One.
The Battle of Amoaful

At last, after endless hindrances, the expedition was within measurable distance of coming into direct touch with the Ashantis, and Henty records in dramatic style the great decisive battle of the campaign, when, after five hours and a half of stubborn fighting, the Ashantis were completely discomfited.

The Battle of Amoaful will long remain a memory in Ashanti, where it is a superstition to swear by the days which have brought misfortune in their train. And the last day of January in that eventful year, or the word Amoaful, will for centuries be the most solemn of words to the Ashanti people an oath by which kings will be bound; a legend with which children will be awed. But yet there was no shame in the defeat. The Ashantis fought like the brave men they are, and though worsted they added to their reputation, while nothing but admiration can be felt for the manner in which they came on time and again, notwithstanding the fierce musketry fire which was intended to stop their assaults.

On the day of the battle the marching orders came early. The Naval Brigade and the 23rd Regiment had to come from Kiang Bossu. These united at Insafoo with the 42nd, the Rifle Brigade, and the artillery of Captain Rait, the officer who had succeeded so well in his attempt to utilise oxen for hauling the guns up country. At Quarman things were well under weigh at dawn, but it was half-past seven ere the head of the 42nd Regiment entered the village, through which they swung without a halt. Following them came Raits artillery, a company of the 23rd, and the Naval Brigade, which included the Marines, eighty in number, who distinguished themselves like their comrades. Henty, in reference to the disappointment that was felt in England at the doings by the Marines not being specially commented upon, rightly points out that it would have been difficult to go into details respecting the deeds of this small body, wholly apart from the force with which they were linked. It was enough that they shared in all the glory of the brigade of the handy men.

Woods regiment had only three companies and Russells four, owing to the garrisons which had necessarily to be left en route, and these regiments took their position in the rear of the naval men, whom they were to follow in the fight.

When the staff reached Quarman, Henty learned that the difficulties of transport were at last surmounted. Colonel Colley proved an excellent transport officer, and had succeeded in amply provisioning Insafoo. Henty proceeded with the staff in the rear of Russells regiment, and had not been more than ten minutes on the march ere the brisk rattle of musketry told him that the 42nd were busy at work clearing the village. There was a short pause, and then the firing began again. At this time he was annoyed at the progress being so slow. In front there was much lumber in the way of ammunition and hammocks, which impedimenta was in the charge of a large number of bearers somewhat scared and wholly stupid men. Still, he managed to get a very good panoramic view of the proceedings, and in the course of his exciting narrative he describes accurately the position of all the leaders of our troops, from Sir Garnet downwards. He says that the first shot was fired a few minutes before eight, and it was nearly half an hour later that the troops came out into the open place of Agamassie, a village of six or eight houses. The firing was unceasing, and with bush all round there was heavy work for the engineers in clearing a way for the baggage. The enemys fire came from the front and right and left, and the English progress was slow.

At the entrance to Agamassie Captain Buckle, of the Royal Engineers, a brave man and a brilliant officer, was found breathing his last, shot with two slugs just above the heart, while the doctors were hard at work attending to the wounds of several men of the 42nd. Not far away Dr Feagan, of the Naval Brigade, was also busy, having taken up his station under a tree a tree which Sir Garnet promoted to be his head-quarters.

Here three roads converged, and he was able to receive reports from Colonel McLeod on the left, Sir Archibald Alison in the centre, and Colonel Wood on the right. It seems that the 42nd drove the enemys outposts helter skelter out of the village, and then pushed on for nearly a quarter of a mile, when they were checked by a tremendous fire. The undergrowth was dense in the extreme, and the Ashantis contested every inch, while a great difficulty which our men had to face was the risk of firing at friends, in consequence of the intricacy of the bush, which was so bewildering that all idea of the points of the compass was lost. Sir Garnet sent orders to commanding officers to warn their men against this danger, and to prevent it from happening the rear of Colonel Woods column was swung round so that it advanced more towards the right. Five minutes with the Naval Brigade, Henty says, showed me sufficiently that I should gain nothing in the way of incidents by remaining there, for no enemy was actually in sight, while I was running a very considerable risk of being knocked over. I therefore returned to the head-quarters at the village.

It was now ten oclock; wounded men were coming in fast 42nd Rifles, Naval Brigade, and native allies. On the left the firing had nearly ceased, and a despatch was received from Colonel McLeod saying that all was comparatively quiet on his side. Orders were accordingly sent to him to bear to the north-east until he came in contact with the enemy. In so doing he came upon a partial clearing, where a sharp opposition was experienced. The Hausas carried the clearing at a rush, but the enemy, as usual, opened a heavy fire from the edge of the bush. The Hausas were recalled and a fire was opened with the rockets, which soon drove the Ashantis back. The 42nd were meanwhile in the thick of things, and the men were admirably handled by Major McPherson; but generalship availed nothing in a swamp where the firing was terrific, so the regiment suffered a temporary check. The enemy could not be seen, but every bush had its white puff of smoke, and the air was full of slugs. At this juncture Captain Raits guns proved their efficacy. Assisted by Lieutenant Saunders, the Captain advanced boldly in front of the line and poured round after round of grape into the enemy, with the result that their fire slackened and the 42nd were enabled to continue their advance. Through the camp and up the hill they went; and now the effect of the English fire was to be seen, for the dead Ashantis lay in heaps. Beyond the camp upon the hill the bush was thicker than ever, and here, where it was impossible for the white soldier to skirmish, the Ashantis made a last desperate stand. The narrow lane up which alone the troops could pass was torn as if by hail with the shower of slugs, but a large tree which stood nearly in the centre of the path, and caused it slightly to curve, afforded some shelter to our men, and they sent back a storm of bullets in return.

The 42nd suffered greatly, and Major McPherson had been shot in the leg; but he declined to go to the ambulance, and, helped by a stick, still led his men. Eight other officers were wounded, and the total of 104 killed and wounded out of a force of a little over 450, showed plainly enough how hard fought was the day. However, victory was not far off. The Ashantis found the bush a trifle too hot, and had to take to the open, where the Sniders and the guns proved too much for them. From this point the advance was rapid. Led by Sir A. Alison, the 42nd went with a rush up the narrow path and out into the clearing beyond. There was desultory firing from the houses, but the men drove the enemy out of these, and a single shell down the space (hardly a street) which divided the village burst in a group at the farther end, killing eight and completing the work.

It was mid-day then, but the Ashantis were not finally beaten, and throughout Henty has high praise for their courage and tenacity, which was evidenced once again in a determined but abortive attempt to retake the village.

Finally, when Sir Garnet gave orders for the general advance, a number of our allies, who had fought admirably while on the defensive, raised their war-cry and, sword in hand, rushed on like so many panthers let loose, while by their side, skirmishing as coolly as if on parade, were the men of the Rifle Brigade. The latter searched every bush with their bullets, and in five minutes from the beginning of the advance the Ashantis were in full retreat.

Such is the story of the Battle of Amoaful, a battle which reflects as much credit on all engaged in it as many affairs in which the number of combatants have been ten times as large.

Never, says Henty, was a battle fought admitting less of description. It is impossible, indeed, to give a picturesque account of an encounter in which there was nothing whatever picturesque; in which scarcely a man engaged saw an enemy from the commencement to the end; in which there was no manoeuvring, no brilliant charge, no general concentration of troops. The battle consisted simply of five hours of lying down, of creeping through the scrub, of gaining ground foot by foot, and of pouring a ceaseless fire into every bush in front which might conceal an invisible foe.

The scene in Agamassie after the day had been won was full of interest. In the centre of the village Sir Garnet was busy issuing instructions and making sure that his orders were carried out. Fortunately for the wounded, there was but little sunshine, and Henty has a word of praise for the fortitude of the natives, who submitted to the operation of probing and extracting slugs without a murmur. There were in all 250 casualties, but only fifteen or twenty deaths. One poor fellow of the 42nd, unluckily, was separated from his comrades in the bush and was killed, while when found later he was headless.

It was difficult to estimate the number of natives engaged. The total might be anything from fifteen to twenty thousand. No accurate details could be obtained from the enemy, for the Ashantis seem to be unable to count anything higher than thirty. Beyond that the figures are to them too vast for comprehension. They always carry off their killed and wounded unless extremely hard pressed; but after the Battle of Amoaful their dead lay very thickly together, often in groups of five or six. Henty considered, too, that numbers of the wounded could only have crawled away to die. In and about the village eighty bodies were found, and he estimates the Ashanti loss at two thousand, and these the best fighting men. Ammon Quatia, a famous leader, was among the slain, and Aboo, one of the six great feudal kings, fell also, likewise the kings chief executioner. The Ashantis were wretchedly armed, and yet for five hours they held out against picked troops who were equipped with the best weapons of precision. The choice of a position, too, was, he considered, admirable.

After the din of the battle the succeeding silence was very strange, but this was soon broken by the rattle of firing to the rear. The Ashantis were still in force along the road, and the first convoys of wounded were forced to return, while Quarman had been attacked unpleasant news to a man whose baggage was in that town, and who knew that the garrison was a small one. Fortunately, a few hours later the village in question was relieved.

Amoaful was found to be a dirty town, capable of housing about two thousand people. It was divided into two parts by the high road, some thirty yards wide, and down this road grew three or four shady trees. Under these officers and men sat in groups, the central tree being left to the officers, just as in a French town one caf? is tacitly reserved for their use. There was nothing to eat, apart from the limited haversack ration, but everyone was in high spirits. Fortunately an immense supply of grain was found, and this came in usefully to the Control. It was served out to the carriers, who much preferred it to rice.

Bequah, only a mile and a quarter from Amoaful, was the capital of a powerful Ashanti king. Here on the following day the enemy were only dislodged after a severe fight, they being in great force; and Henty attributes this victory in part to the moral effect produced by the proceedings at Amoaful. The place was burned down, which action of course proved a damaging blow to the prestige of the king, though so far as permanent damage went, the houses with their palm-leaf roofs could easily be rebuilt.

The many villages that they passed were much like each other, and the programme of the troops in the course of the march onward to Coomassie was marked by a good deal of repetition bush dangers, sudden fusillades, and then a searching of the scrub in every direction before camp was formed.

Some of the convoys suffered, and in the Quarman attack several officers lost their kits, and were reduced for the remainder of the campaign to the clothes on their backs. This was in consequence of the action of the cowardly carriers, who threw down their loads and ignominiously ran away.

The native troops fought well, and rushed several of the villages in good style; still, the advance was slow, the enemy hanging on the flanks. Here and there, though, in the villages there was evidence of panic war-drums, horns, chiefs stools and umbrellas being scattered broadcast. Up to the time, however, of a message being received from General Sir Archibald Alison to the effect that all the villages save the last were taken, the firing had been going on without cessation, and Sir Garnet himself received a blow on the helmet from a slug.

A pestilential black swamp surrounded Coomassie, and after this was passed and the town had been entered, the General rode up to the troops, who had formed in line, and called for cheers for the Queen.

There was a great deal to be done, and a beginning was made with disarming all the Ashantis possible. The first night in Coomassie was eventful, for fires broke out in several directions, the result of carriers and others plundering. Pour encourager les autres, one man a policeman, of all people was hanged at sight. Several others had the lash. The General was much vexed at these fires, as he had asked the king to come in and make peace, stipulating that the town should be spared.

Coomassie was decidedly picturesque, many of its houses resembling Chinese temples. But the great feature was the fetish. Everything was fetish. Near the door of each house was a tree, at the foot of which were placed little idols, calabashes, bits of china, bones an extraordinary medley. Inside there was dust and litter, the result of years of neglect, and the chief apartments were filled with lumber, all kinds of paraphernalia, umbrellas, drums, wooden maces, and what not.

Up to the last it was believed by the Ashantis that the fetish would save the day, and the optimism of the king was shown by the state of the royal palace. It was in all respects exactly as he had left it, except that the gold-dust must have been carried off or buried. The royal bed and couch lay in their places, the royal chairs were in their usual raised positions, only oddly enough they had been turned round and over.

In the palace there was a curious jumble of gold masks, gold caps, clocks, china, pillows, guns, etc. It was rather like a sale-room. There were many great alcoved courts, one containing war-drums ornamented either with skulls or thigh-bones. In two or three there was simply a royal chair upon which his majesty used to sit to administer what passed for justice, and several stools were found covered with thick coatings of recently-shed blood. Henty says that a horrible smell of gore pervaded the whole palace. The nauseating odour was everywhere perceptible; and this was not to be wondered at, for twenty yards from one of the fetish trees was a charnel place where thousands had perished. Here were scores of bodies in various stages of putrefaction.

The palace contained fetishes of all kinds, little dolls, and other articles. The kings bed-room was ten feet by eight, and the bed had a ledge on the near side, which the monarch had to step over when he sought his pillow. Among other weapons found here was an English generals sword, inscribed, From Queen Victoria to the King of Ashanti, presented to his predecessor.

There is only one term that can be applied to Hentys work in connection with the march to Coomassie, and that is thorough, for danger seems not to have been considered for a moment. What the troops had to do, he told himself, that he had to see, and self was never spared.

After the desperate fighting was at an end, and the Generals offers to the defeated monarch had been made known, it was anticipated that the king would come in and surrender. But in spite of much waiting and patience on the Generals part nothing happened, and all delay and expectation were ultimately brought to an end by a terrific storm. For now, after much thought, it was decided and Henty applauded the decision to mark the visit of the punitive troops by the destruction of the place as a warning and an object-lesson in Britains power to the king and the petty chiefs around. For the moment it was anticipated that to fire the place would be impossible after the saturating by the tremendous rains, as this, it was feared, would prevent the thatch from burning; but the engineers went to work with axe, powder, and palm-leaf torch, with the result that the whole fabric of the place was brought down like a piled-up pack of cards. Palm, bamboo, and thatch, as soon as the flames once got hold and began to leap, rapidly disappeared, and it was soon abundantly clear that before long Coomassie would be a city of the past. The royal residence, which was little more than a cemetery, shared in the general destruction, for it was blown up; and then the men cheered, and every heart grew light, for the task was done.





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