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D E C OR AT E D H E RO E S by Linda White


esearchers visiting Britain’s National Army Museum on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea (London) are invariably struck by several items in the archives among the Second Afghan Campaign mementoes. The first item is a sepia photograph of an old man with a bristling, white mustache astride a pretty, obviously very old, white Arabian horse. The elderly gentleman is in full military regalia, his jacket covered with medals, his epaulettes and high boots shining brightly, the white plumes on his tall helmet crowning a grim visage. The old horse is similarly bedecked, sans plumes, but wearing an elaborate military full bridle, ceremonial saddle, a richly embroidered saddle blanket, and a breast collar festooned with medals and awards. Viewers’ reactions to the photograph are unanimous. “Is there a more stirring picture than that of Lord Roberts riding his white Arabian stallion, Vonolel, at the head of Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee Procession?” wrote Albert W. Harris in the July-August, 1944 issue of U.S. Remount Magazine, The Horse. “With the medals awarded him worn on his breast collar, he must have been a glorious picture of a horse. Lord Roberts writes that he secured Vonolel in Bombay when he was five years old, had him for twenty-two years, during which Vonolel traveled with him over 50,000 miles and was never sick or sorry, and adds that he was only 14.2 hands.” “’Little Bobs,’ as Field-Marshall Lord Roberts was called, would ride no others,” added Arabian breeder Col. Spencer Borden in The Arab Horse. “There is a photograph of the horse Vonolel, as he appeared at the head of Queen Victoria’s jubilee procession, wearing on his breast two medals presented to the horse by her Majesty for the Afghan wars. At the


time the picture was made, Vonolel was twenty-five years old. He carried Lord Roberts for twenty-two consecutive years, through all his campaigns in Afghanistan, India and Burma, and never once been lame or sick.” Pioneer American breeder General J.M. Dickinson quoted Lord Roberts in his Arabian Horses in the United States and Their Origin. “Field Marshall Lord Roberts, V.C., wrote of his Arab Vonolel: ‘During the 22 years he was in my possession he traveled with me over 50,000 miles, and was never sick nor sorry. He measured exactly 14 hands, 2 inches.’” Clearly, Lord Roberts and his Arabian stallion were celebrated, if not in our time, certainly in their own, and for some time thereafter. Carl R. Raswan added to the Vonolel lore in an article in the JulyAugust 1944 issue of The Western Horseman. “Vonolel, a white Arabian of Nejd, brought to Bombay, India, by a horse-trader from Qawim (Central Arabia), was bought by Lord Roberts as a five-yearold in 1877. For 22 years, the faithful horse carried the British general on all his campaigns in Afghanistan, Burma and India. Vonolel remains the only horse ever decorated by a living monarch. This medal, variously called the Kandahar Bronze Star, the Roberts Star or the Kabul to Kandahar Star, was issued by Queen Victoria in 1882 to all those who took part in General Roberts’ march from Kabul to rescue Kandahar from Ayub Khan and his forces in August 1880. Queen Victoria also personally conferred a Jubilee medal on Vonolel in 1897 during the Jubilee Procession.” “The idea for issuing a medal to commemorate the march came from Roberts himself, and has led some to believe personal glory may have played a part in the notion, but it must also be said that it

Arabian Horse Times • April 2007

Arabian Horse Times • April 2007


Courtesy of the Council of the National Army Museum, London

is well-recorded how grateful Roberts was for the loyalty, bravery and hardiness of those who followed him. It was Roberts’ secondin-command, General John Ross, who put forward the romantic notion that the medal should be in the form of a gunmetal star. This immediately gave it a link to the Victoria Cross, which had been cast from captured Russian guns in the Crimean War. Ayub Khan’s guns had been superior at Maiwand, and it was the bronze from some of these weapons, captured at Kandahar, that would decorate the soldiers who came to the defeated garrison’s rescue,” writes historian Garen Ewing. [Editor’s Note: see angloafghanwar/waroffice/medals.php.] The medal, whose colors represent the Indian sunset, is in the form of a ridged 5-pointed star with the legend “Kabul to Kandahar 1880” encircling the letters V.R.I. (Victoria Regina et Imperatrix). Several stunning oil paintings of Lord Roberts and Vonolel, each highly charged with emotion and color, are treasured by British collectors. One was painted by Charles W. Furse, whose brother, Lieutenant-General Sir William Furse (1865-1953), had been Lord Roberts’ aide-de-camp. This probably accounts for the number of portraits the artist painted of the Field-Marshall. One, bequeathed in 1940 to the Royal Artillery, hangs in the Mons Cadet Unit at Aldershot. There is no doubt that Lord Roberts was a war hero, highly esteemed by an earlier British public. One of the British Army’s

highest ranking and most respected officers, he became known as “Kipling’s General.” From all reports, he was a well-loved commander and a shrewd tactician, yet careful of his men’s lives and solicitous of their welfare. General Roberts, known to his soldiers affectionately as “Bobs,” had suffered the loss of an eye in childhood. He also suffered personal tragedy in the death of his two sons, with Freddie, who won the Victoria Cross posthumously, dying two days after suffering wounds at Colenso during the Boer War. In 1914 Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the old soldier. “Nothing endears a leader to his men more than sparing them needless hardship,” wrote Kipling, “and for this reason, his men would follow ‘Bobs’ through all necessary perils, partly for their belief in him, and partly to see that no harm befell him.” Roberts served for a total of 41 years in India at a time when the Indian Army was both unfashionable and unadvantageous, rising from Horse Artillery subaltern to Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army and winning the Victoria Cross when still in his 20s for repeated acts of heroism. He was chiefly heralded, however, as the man who brought peace to India’s northwest frontier. His march from Kabul to Kandahar was a key strategic accomplishment, too soon forgotten by all but a few British history buffs. In 41 Years in India, Lord Roberts traces that 1878-1880 war in which he and Vonolel played such major roles. The son of General Sir Abraham Roberts who lived and served in India for nearly 50

Above: In memory of Vonolel’s service, a bowl was made from his four hooves, the medals presented to him by Queen Victoria and the saddle used by Lord Roberts. Right: One of Charles Furse’s studies of Lord Roberts on Vonolel, painted sometime between 1893-1900. 156

Arabian Horse Times • April 2007


IN HISTORY years, Field Marshal Lord Roberts was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. He left England for India in 1852 and joined the Indian Army as a subaltern in the native field battery at Calcutta at 20 years of age. His book, first published in 1896 and reprinted after 85 years, is historically accurate and entirely readable. It gives an authentic account of the rise and fall of the East India Company’s military fortunes, along with its author’s meteoric rise. The Second Afghan War began 36 years after the First Afghan War, during which high numbers of British troops and support personnel had perished. The First Afghan War effectively exploded the myth of British invincibility. Garen Ewing clarifies: “There was the incident of the retreat from Kabul in Jan 1842, in which approximately 10,000 did perish— but breaking down the numbers of the retreating column, this was 700 British soldiers, about 3,800 Indian soldiers and 12,000 camp followers.” Roberts’ account of the adventures and misadventures he, his men, his wife and family and his opponents experienced brings to life his and his horse’s years of hard experience. The following excerpt from Chapter 55, “1879 Political Situation at Kabul,” draws the reader, with startling force, into a single moment in one campaign. “The enemy now pressed forward on Massy’s left flank, which was also his line of retreat,” wrote Roberts, “and the guns had to be retired about a mile, covered on the right and left

Top: Lord Roberts on Vonolel receives the submission of a tribal chief (1879). Bottom: Roberts on Vonolel during the march from Kabul to Kandahar, the 92nd Highlanders marching in the foreground and mountain artillery and Bengal Lancers in the background.

Arabian Horse Times • April 2007


by the 9th Lancers and the 14th Bengal Lancers respectively, and followed so closely by the Afghans that when fire was next opened, they were only 1,700 yards distant. Four horse artillery guns could do nothing against such numbers attacking without any regular formation, and when the leading men came within carbine range, Massy tried to stop them by dismounting thirty of the 9th Lancers; but their fire had no appreciable effect. “It was at this critical moment that I appeared on the scene. Warned by the firing that an engagement was taking place, I galloped across the Chardeh valley as fast as Vonolel could carry me, and on gaining the open ground beyond Bhagwana, an extraordinary spectacle was presented to my view. An unbroken line, extending for about two miles, and formed of not less than between 9,000 and 10,000 men, was moving rapidly towards me, all on foot save a small body of Cavalry on their left flank—in fact, the greater part of Mahomed Jan’s army.” As we learned in “Maidan: Gallant Heart, Iron Will,” which appeared in the February 2007 issue of Arabian Horse Times, this was riddled with violence, treachery, hardship and anxious moments that lengthened into days, weeks and months. Lord Roberts and his men’s August 1880 march from Kabul to Kandahar is a grueling example. On August 6, 1880, two days before the entourage began their famous march, reporter Howard Hensman, one of two journalists who accompanied the troops, wrote: “To form one of a picked force such as General Roberts has now under his orders is no common fortune, for certainly not in the whole of India could a better lot of fighting men be got together than that now waiting the final order to march.” London Times correspondent Jonathan Luther Vaughan was the second journalist, and Lt. Charles Gray Robertson, although a serving soldier, was also there in the capacity of writing a book on the subject. The second memorable item in the Second Afghan War collection is a distinctive leather bowl, made of pigskin and ornamented with

silver, resting on a base made from the four feet of Vonolel. British military historian Garen Ewing, without whose aid neither Second Afghan War article could have been completed, shared a clipping from the Camberley News that tells the story of the bowl and gives readers a glimpse of the march. “VONOLEL THE WONDER HORSE!” shouts the headline, followed by the subhead, “Logged more than 50,000 miles. “An unusual bowl is displayed at the National Army Museum, Sandhurst,” the story begins. “It is made of pigskin from the saddle of a horse. It is unusual because it is a tribute to the Army service of a horse called ‘Vonolel,’ whose four hooves are used for the base. “The horse was bought in Bombay in 1877 and became the mount of Major-General Fredrick Sleigh Roberts, who used it for a historic march to Kandahar. In 1880, British troops under the command of Major-General Roberts were in the 2nd Afghan War. Afghanistan was a harsh country, extremely hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. “But after a series of battles the British forces proved stronger and the war was virtually finished. Major-General Roberts was preparing for the withdrawal from the city of Kabul when he heard bad news. “More than 300 miles to the south the town of Kandahar was under siege. A disastrous tactical error at Kandahar had resulted in nearly 2,500 men being killed. At Kabul, Major-General Roberts realized the danger and he decided to make a forced march to relieve the town. On August 8, 1880, he set out on his white horse, Vonolel. With him were 10,000 troops and 8,000 followers. As well as soldiers, there were bearers, chaplains, a reporter and many others. The followers alone included 2,192 doolie-bearers, 4,698 involved in transport and 1,244 servants and horse-grooms, not to mention all the ponies, mules, donkeys and camels. The 318-mile journey over the hard terrain took nearly a month. “Reaching the besieged town, the exhausted and footsore troops were still able to fight. The garrison was rescued and the Afghans routed. This battle was the end of fighting. When the troops returned to England, MajorGeneral Roberts took his horse with him, and Queen Victoria presented three medals to Vonolel for the service it had given to Sir Fredrick Sleigh Roberts during the campaign. “During its lifetime Vonolel carried Roberts more than 50,000 miles. The horse died in Dublin in 1899 at the age of 27. In memory of its service, a bowl was made from the saddle used by Roberts. Round the bowl are set the medals presented to the animal by Queen Victoria.”

Roberts’ coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the town square at St. Omer, France, on its way back to England (November 1914). Scots Guards line the route, while the French cavalry can be seen in the background.


Arabian Horse Times • April 2007


IN HISTORY In his book The Road to Kabul - The Second Afghan War 1878-1881, author Brian Robson discusses the arduous, forced march. “On 8th August 1880 Roberts marched out of the Sherpur cantonment in Kabul with his Kabul-Kandahar Field Force; his renowned march to Kandahar had begun. The Central Indian Horse and a battery of artillery, coming up from Gandamak, caught up the next day as Robert’s army moved across high ground to join the main Kandahar road near Ghuznee. The pace was forced as hard as possible; only mountain artillery accompanied the infantry and cavalry; with supplies carried by camel. The days were hot and the nights cold; the troops marching out in the early morning to avoid the full heat of the sun, halting a few minutes every hour, with camp pitched at around midday, in this fashion managing to cover up to 20 miles a day. “On 23rd August 1880 the force reached Kalat-i-Ghilzai, 140 miles beyond Ghuznee. The pace of the march was taking its toll, with soldiers falling sick at the rate of 500 a day. Messages from Kandahar suggested there was no pressing urgency as the garrison was well able to hold out for some time yet and so Roberts’ permitted his force to rest at Kelat-i-Ghilzai.” A few days later, word reached Roberts that the large Afghan army, under the leadership of Sirdar Mahomed Ayub Khan, had abandoned their siege of Kandahar and withdrawn westwards. Roberts sent Brigadier General Gough’s cavalry brigade to find the Afghans. The Kabul Field Force reached Kandahar on August 31, 1880. Roberts’ 10,000 troops had marched 300 miles in three weeks. “Roberts resolved to move against Ayub Khan the same day,” Robson’s narrative continues. “Ayub’s camp lay west of Kandahar, between the Baba Wali hills, which rose to 5,000 feet, and the Argandab River. The main assault would be made by the Kabul Field Force, with Bombay troops providing a diversion. In the main attack Robert’s Bengal force would move around the southern end of the hills and advance North up the river to Ayub’s camp, taking the villages on the way. “Roberts had 11,000 men and 32 guns in the field against Ayub Khan’s 13,000 Afghan regular troops and tribesmen and also 32 guns. The battle began the next morning at around 9.30 am with artillery bombardments of the foremost villages held by the Afghans. Following the bombardment, the 92nd Highlanders and the 2nd Gurkhas, aided by support troops, attacked the first village. After two hours of close combat, the village was carried and the troops moved on

to the next fortified village. To the south, the 72nd (Albany) Highlanders and the 2nd Sikhs took Gundigan, the colonel of the 72nd being killed in the assault. At around midday both infantry brigades began the assault on the last village stronghold shielding Ayub’s camp, the Third Brigade coming up in support. “As Roberts had hoped, the Afghans, their retreat threatened by the advance, began to melt away. The final Afghan fortifications outside the camp were heavily defended by guns, leading the British and Indian troops to expect a severe test. The regiments stormed forward, only to find the line abandoned. The Afghans had gone. “As the infantry advanced Gough’s cavalry brigade picked its way through the maze of walled gardens and fields, only to be ordered back to cross the river and cut off the Afghan retreat. By the time the cavalry had retraced their path and crossed the river, the horses were exhausted and the Afghans had largely gone, retreating west towards Herat. The last battle of the Second Afghan War had been fought. The British and Indian regiments finally withdrew from Afghanistan in April 1881.” Roberts and his troops captured all of Ayub Khan’s guns, including the two rebel forces had taken from the British at the Battle of Maiwand. British and Indian casualties were 248 killed and wounded, while Afghan casualties were estimated at around 2,500. Roberts’ march to Kandahar captured the imagination of the Victorian British public. His storied military career allowed him and his Arabian horse to remain heroes to generations of children in the United Kingdom. Now, Arabian Horse Times brings this remarkable pair to its readership’s attention. Characteristically, Kipling’s “Father Bobs” died while visiting his beloved soldiers on the Western Front in 1914, during a war that engulfed the entire world. A retelling of his and Vonolel’s story is timely, as we confront renewed difficulties in Afghanistan and its surrounds. All images courtesy of Garen Ewing Second Anglo-Afghan War Collection, unless otherwise noted. Visit to learn more about this conflict.

Roberts and Vonolel inspect a troop of Bengal Lancers, engraved from a painting by Charles Furse.

Arabian Horse Times • April 2007


Horse In History  

Horse In History