The soldiers were the some of the toughest ever produced and they belonged to the army of the world's greatest super power. Yet even these troops wilted under the glare of the sun. The temperature climbed to 110°F and the powdery dust, kicked up by their feet and whipped by the wind, choked their throats and stung their eyes. The mountainous terrain made for an uneven march and the high altitude left them gasping for breath; behind each rock-face and within every ravine, lurked the possibility of ambush and bloody death. This was the road to Kandahar in 1880. And for the British and Indian troops there were hundreds of miles still to go.
The Great Game
In the Victorian Age, the jewel of the British Empire was India and Britain’s foreign policy was shaped around keeping the subcontinent secure from the external threats, especially Imperial Russia. During the mid-19th century, the Tsar’s Empire had been expanding inexorably throughout Central Asia. The closer their borders came towards India, the more guarded and wary the British became. Afghanistan, a barrier between the two Empires, became the setting of Imperial intrigues and espionage, known famously as the ‘Great Game’.
The source of the trouble that was eventually borne out between Britain and Russia, stemmed from the latter’s attempts to dominate Turkey and secure its access through the Straights of Constantinople. Britain had guaranteed Turkey’s independence and was more than willing to use its superior navy to blockade the Black Sea and close off the Dardanelles if the Russians made any aggressive maneuvers. In reply to this, Russia drew up well-publicized plans to march an army through Afghanistan and into India should hostilities ever break out.
But as long as both nations stayed their ambitions and upheld the results of diplomacy then most of the tensions between them could be resolved. Unfortunately, the balance was upset in 1874, when the Conservative Party under Disraeli won the British general election, ousting Gladstone’s Liberal government. In Conservative minds, foreign guarantees between nations had to be backed by military might. Both the Secretary of State for India, Lord Salisbury, and the region’s new Governor-General, Lord Lytton, strongly supported this stance. It was only a matter of time before a major quarrel with Russia would escalate into a crisis and, sure enough, the threat of open conflict arose in 1877 after Russia declared war on Turkey.
As the Tsar’s troops marched on Constantinople, Britain sent a large naval presence to the Dardanelles and began massing a counter-invasion force on the island of Malta. In reply to Britain’s preparations, Russia gathered a 15,000-man army to march into Afghanistan and on into India. The Russians sent a high-status diplomatic mission to meet with the Kingdom’s Amir, Sher Ali, to ensure Afghan co-operation.
This put Sher Ali into a very difficult position. He drew a large British ‘pension’ with two main provisos: keep the peace along the Northwest Frontier of India and reject any diplomatic advances from Russia. Accepting the Tsar’s men would certainly cause Britain to withdraw their funding and possibly antagonise them into launching an invasion. But if he rejected the mission and hostilities did break out between the superpowers, then the Russians would attack through Afghanistan and almost certainly depose the Amir on the way.
Making the best of a bad situation, Sher Ali accepted the Russian mission, although he then kept it in Kabul (spelt Cabul in Victorian times) and played for time, protracting negotiations and making non-committal promises. Sher Ali hoped that Russia and Britain would settle their differences and return to the status quo. He also hoped Britain would notice that the Russian mission had been led a merry dance and, although displeased, take no overtly aggressive action.
Britain and Russia did indeed settle their differences at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and the Russian mission prepared to withdraw from Kabul. But the Amir’s hopes that the British would appreciate his predicament were soon dashed: put simply, Lord Lytton was not a very understanding man.
In fact Lytton was furious, labeling the Amir ‘a savage with a touch of insanity’. He demanded Sher Ali welcome a British embassy, along with conditions that were likely to reduce both his and his country’s sovereignty.
But even if the Amir had been well disposed to receiving the British embassy, his countrymen were certainly not. The First Afghan War of the early 1840s – where British forces had avenged the deaths of the soldiers and citizens massacred on a retreat from Kabul – was still fresh in the people’s memory. By accepting the embassy and its terms he would, in effect, be signing his own death warrant. Unsurprisingly, the Amir refused the British mission entry and its leader, Neville Chamberlain, was warned to turn back at the border, which he promptly did.
Lytton seethed with indignation and issued the Amir an ultimatum: apologise for refusing the embassy and accept its demands, or face invasion. Regardless of the threats, it was still highly unlikely that Sher Ali would, or could, comply. Indeed, Chamberlain reported as much to Lytton, saying that the Amir ‘had no more intention of apologising than of turning Christian and applying for a Bishopric’. Colourful language aside, Chamberlain had hit the nail on the head.
Both Salisbury and Lytton pushed the British cabinet to give clearance for an invasion of Afghanistan if the ultimatum was not met. Their goal was simple: to remove Sher Ali and replace him with a more pliant ruler. Despite its tough stance on foreign policy, the British cabinet was unsure about ordering a military intervention: another disaster in Afghanistan would lead to a collapse in public confidence. On the other hand, Lytton had raised the stakes to such a degree that backing off would have even more serious implications. The British were acutely aware that much of their authority in the subcontinent rested on the perception of Imperial might. Many hawks argued that letting Sher Ali off the hook might lead to a repeat of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. And so, with some reluctance, the cabinet allowed Lytton to have his war.
Ready to fight
The invasion of Afghanistan was to take three lines of advance. One column of around 13,000 well-equipped men, under the command of Major-General Sir Donald Stewart, would march from Quetta to Kandahar. A second column of 16,000 men, under the command of the one-armed Major-General Sir Samuel Browne VC (designer of the famous belt), was to fight its way from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass and on to Jalalabad. The third column, the Kurram Field Force of 6,600 men, was ordered to secure the Kurram valley and then threaten Kabul. To lead these troops the British appointed Frederick Roberts VC.
Multi-lingual and a man of quick intelligence, the 46 year-old Roberts had received Britain’s highest award for bravery during the Indian Mutiny but still had much to prove and this was his first major field command. His force was predominately made up of native soldiers, called sepoys, including the 5th Gurkhas, a crack regiment of tough Nepalese troops. However, four of Roberts’ native regiments had large Muslim contingents, some of whom had serious misgivings about fighting members of the same faith. British troops were few and far between. The largest unit was the 2nd Battalion of the 8th (Liverpool Regiment). These troops were raw and completely unused to the climate.
Roberts realised that he lacked experienced troops and so requested further support. He received a number of Sikh units and a strong detachment from the veteran 72nd (Seaforth) Highlanders. On November 21, 1878, the ultimatum for Sher Ali to apologise and accept the British mission passed. At 03:00 the Anglo-Indian columns began their advance into Afghanistan. The Kurram Field Force, despite being the smallest and – bar its veteran contingents – the rawest of the British formations, was to perform exploits that captured the world’s imagination.
The Kurram Valley is approximately 60 miles long and surrounded by mountain ridges that rise to a height of 6,000ft. Now long since de-forested, in 1878 these ridges were heavily wooded and offered perfect cover for defending forces. The region was unfamiliar to the British, who were also unprepared for the natural obstacles of boulders and glacial debris scattered across the valley floor. Movement of equipment and supplies was therefore difficult and time consuming.
Towards the end of the valley the surrounding mountains fan out to form a large, steep and uneven horseshoe ridge, the peak of which stands at 9,000ft. Intersecting this mountain horseshoe is a pass, the Peiwar Kotal, with Kabul located 60 miles beyond. The Peiwar Kotal was an excellent defensive position: any advancing enemy would have to attack upwards and any moves they made during daylight hours would be visible for miles around. To defend this position, Sher Ali placed eight well-led, but not so well-equipped regiments and a number of artillery batteries under the command of his best general, Kasrim Khan. Although the other British columns had been making good headway, Sher Ali was confident that Roberts’ force could be held at bay.
To boost the resolve of his troops, the Amir appealed to their religious and nationalist sentiments. ‘Wage a holy war on behalf of God and his Prophet’, he proclaimed, adding, ‘a foreign nation, without cause or the slightest provocation has made up its mind to invade our country and conquer it’. Supported by large numbers of irregulars, Afghan forces outnumbered the British almost six to one.
Despite facing such a large force, Roberts knew that he had to attack before the Afghans could consolidate their positions. Having received mistaken intelligence that the enemy was retreating through Peiwar Kotal, he ordered a quick advance in order to catch the Afghans up and, while they were in disarray, force a decisive battle. As they approached, the waiting Afghan six-pounders brought down a heavy fusillade of shot and the British beat a hasty retreat, setting up camp beyond gun range.
To gain the upper hand, the British and Indian troops needed to face the enemy along a small front in a position where they could use their superior discipline and firepower. Roberts realised that a flank attack up and across the precipitous heights offered his men the best chance for success. To this end, he sent out a number of reconnaissance patrols who discovered a mountain pass on the extreme left of the Afghan lines. With this intelligence to hand, Roberts formulated a brilliant but simple plan. A skeleton force was left at the bottom of the valley, where it would make glaringly obvious preparations for a frontal assault. With Afghan attentions pre-occupied with the centre of their line, Roberts would take just over 2,200 troops along the pass at night and then, in the early hours of the morning, deliver a knock-out left hook.
On December 1, at 23:00 Roberts began the flanking march in bitterly cold weather. To retain the element of surprise, his troops were under strict orders to advance in total silence. Roberts remembered the occasion in his memoirs: ‘Onwards and upwards we slowly toiled, stumbling over great boulders of rock, dropping into old water-channels, splashing through icy streams, and halting frequently to allow troops in the rear to close up’.
But the pace was not to Roberts liking. In fact, it appeared that the lead battalion of the 29th Punjabis (made up of many Muslims) was deliberately delaying the column’s progress. Confirming this suspicion, several Pathan sepoys in the 29th decided to betray the advance by firing warning shots before being overpowered. Two men were later arrested and tried for treason. The elder man was sentenced to death, but the younger – because of his age and inexperience – was given a reprieve.
Gurkhas at the front
With baited breath, Roberts prepared for an enemy response. Nothing happened. Amazingly, Karim Khan had been informed by his sentries of the alert, but dismissed their reports as nothing more than a minor disturbance. This lapse in judgment condemned his men to a crushing defeat.
Roberts removed the 29th Punjabis from the vanguard and replaced them with his elite Gurkhas and a company of Highlanders. Despite the delays, the British were in position and ready to launch their assault in the early dawn hours. Roberts gave the order to attack, with the men of Nepal and Scotland leading the way. Totally surprised, Afghan resistance collapsed and Roberts started to roll up their broken flank. He also heliographed the British troops at the bottom of the valley, ordering them to begin a frontal assault. Caught between an anvil and a hammer, the enemy was inexorably forced off the Peiwar Kotal. By mid-day, Roberts was preparing to strike at Karim Khan’s camp.
The Afghans fled before he had the chance. Gunners from the Royal Horse Artillery had dragged a number of cannon up to commanding positions on the Peiwar Kotal. Although it was hardly a major bombardment, their shells managed to set some Afghan tents on fire. The blaze sparked a major panic and those manning the defenses and the baggage train started to flee. The havoc soon spread – units fighting, and even those yet to be engaged, started to run as well. For their efforts, the British only suffered two officers and 18 men killed, and 75 wounded. For his outstanding victory over such superior numbers, Roberts received the thanks from both Queen Victoria and Parliament.
Give peace a chance
The road to Kabul was now open, Kandahar had fallen to Major-General Sir Donald Stewart’s men, while Major-General Sir Samuel Browne had secured the Khyber Pass and was making good headway on Jalalabad. Sher Ali had no other option but to flee into the arms of his erstwhile allies, the Russians. The deposed Amir asked for assistance as soon as he arrived in Russian-controlled Turkmenistan. But the Tsar, bound by the Congress of Berlin and with no immediate need for the Afghan, simply re-buffed him. Alone, ashamed and heart-broken, Sher-Ali starved himself to death.
Once Sher Ali had left, his son, Yakub Khan claimed the Afghan throne. He sued for peace and, on May 26, 1879, at the end of lengthy negotiations, the Treaty of Gandamuk was signed. Yakub Khan agreed to cede the Kurram Valley and the Khyber Pass to the British, along with a number of other frontier districts. Afghanistan’s foreign policy was placed under Britain’s control; the British were adamant that the Russians should be kept out of Afghanistan for good. A permanent embassy was to be established in Kabul and linked with a telegraph line to India. In return, the British would withdraw their troops from Kandahar and Jalalabad and pay Yakub Khan an annual pension of £60,000, a fortune for those days. Many Afghans, from across the social spectrum, felt Yakub Khan had sold his country’s honour and lands purely for personal aggrandisement. Those who knew the ways of Afghanistan foresaw further trouble.
In July, Roberts personally escorted the new British ambassador to Afghanistan, Major Sir Louis Cavagnari, and his escort through the Kurrum Valley towards Kabul. Roberts later recorded that he felt a deep sense of foreboding as he waved the mission off. However, his mood was soon lightened when he received permission to return to England for a well-earned holiday. Events, however, were to scupper his plans.
An unwanted Kingdom
On September 2, Cavagnari telegraphed India saying all was well in Kabul. Three days later, the British authorities received grave news: the mission had been slaughtered to a man by Yakub Khan’s Herati regiments and the citizens of Kabul. It is still hotly debated as to whether Yakub Khan initiated the massacre or had simply lost control over those who considered him little more than an imperial stooge. Whatever the causes behind consequence, the annihilation of the embassy was a serious blunder.
Immediately recalled to the Kurram Valley, Roberts led his army back into Afghanistan. The advance was swift and by October 12 they were in control of Kabul. Yakub Khan had somewhat embarrassingly joined Roberts on his advance, blurting out excuses and saying his people had betrayed him. Roberts, however, was under the distinct impression that he was double-dealing with both sides.
Upon entry into Kabul, Yakub Khan abdicated. Roberts was glad to be rid of such a duplicitous character, although he was far from pleased with his position. In a letter to his wife he wrote: ‘Now I am King of Cabul…it’s not a kingdom I covet and I shall be right glad to get out of it’. The sight of the embassy’s massacre was investigated and the ringleaders caught, tried and hung. There the matter ended.
Roberts was keen to at least try and keep relations with the citizens of Kabul on a civil basis. Whilst his political masters wrangled over who should succeed Yakub Khan, Roberts got on with running the city and keeping the peace. Nonetheless, there were some moments of tension; the accidental explosion of the city arsenal was just one example of this.
Aware that the position within the city of Kabul was defensively weak and that the harsh Afghan winter was fast approaching, Roberts decided to move his army into a nearby Sherpur cantonment, which had been fortified with good thick walls. However the cantonment’s size – four and a half miles of defenses – meant that the British could only field one rifle for every yard. There was another problem: the eastern fortifications were incomplete and the position was overlooked by the Bimaru heights. Roberts had his engineers fortify the walls and to set up some small forts along the heights. Morale was high despite the hard work in preparing the defenses. Roberts was keen to maintain this and so authorized paper chases, polo matches, gymkhanas, music shows and, on one memorable occasion, a massed snowball fight.
As November turned to December, Roberts began to receive disturbing news from the hinterland – mullahs were travelling across the region preaching Holy War and vast numbers of irregulars were flocking to the banner of Mohammed Jan, who was fighting to claim the throne for Yakub Khan’s eldest son, Musa Khan.
Roberts then received intelligence that three columns of Afghan troops were heading on Kabul. He promptly telegraphed India (the line had been fixed) for re-enforcements and planned a series of actions to attack the Afghans and keep them from massing. Over the next six days the British fought a series of running battles with the enemy. Their efforts were largely successful and Roberts was soon in the position to deliver what could have been another famous knock-out blow – one that again depended on the element of surprise.
But British intentions were blown when General Massy (a subordinate so incompetent that Roberts would try his best to keep him away from the action), led his force of 300 cavalry and precious horse artillery on an unauthorised short cut – one that led them almost straight into the Afghan army. Roberts arrived on the scene with the Bengal Lancers just as Massy started a rapid retreat. Desperate to save the cannon, Roberts ordered the Lancers to charge in an effort to throw the Afghans off balance. It was suicide, but the brave men gave the guns just enough time to escape. Roberts himself was dangerously close to the melee. Indeed, he was even unhorsed and would have been cut to pieces if it were not for the bravery of a Bengal Lancer who raced over and rescued him.
With his carefully laid plans now compromised, Roberts ordered a withdrawal. By December 14 all of his troops were safely ensconced in the cantonment and the forts on the Bimaru heights. Four months of supplies and munitions were on hand and the troop’s morale, despite the recent debacle, remained high. Although the telegraph line had been cut, on a clear day Roberts could make use of the Heliograph and, on December 21, he received news that 1,500 men led by Brigadier-General Charles Gough was nearing.
The Afghans, buoyed by their recent success planned to make a head-on assault before Roberts could receive his reinforcements. On the night of December 23, a mullah lit a beacon on a nearby hillside, signaling the start of a general attack. The Afghans streamed forward shouting their war-cries. To help the defenders find their targets, the British cannons fired star-shells into the air. The explosions cast a weird light upon a terrifying scene of fearless men rushing into a lethal hail of lead. Some Afghans managed to scale the battlements, only to be brought down by the cold steel of the defender’s bayonets.
As dawn broke, the defenders could see that the snow around the cantonment was stained with blood and littered with bodies of the dead and dying. At 10:00 the Afghans launched one last attack. By now Roberts had placed a number of cannon on the eastern side of the fort. Their enfilading fire ripped through the advancing columns, while any survivors were scythed down by the rifle fire. By 13:00 the fight had petered out and Roberts delivered a coup de grace. His cavalry, the 5th Punjabis and the 9th Lancers, galloped out of the cantonment around the Afghan flanks and began to hack down any enemy too slow to reach the safety of Kabul.
The victory was total and the siege broken. The British and Indian army had lost 30 men dead, while one estimate suggested that well over 1,000 Afghans had perished. On the next day, Roberts received a very welcome Christmas present – Charles Gough’s column safely arrived at the cantonment.
After the Treaty of Gandamuk, Sir Donald Stewart’s force had remained in Kandahar because of supply problems and poor health. Over the following months they had regained their strength and were ready for operations. Their commander, the most senior general in theatre, was ordered to take 3,000 troops from Kandahar with him to Kabul, where he would take over and prepare the ground work for the important negotiations with the Amir-to-be, Abdur Rahman, a nephew of Sher Ali. The responsibility of protecting Kandahar and its environs now fell to General Primrose.
On arrival in Kabul, Stewart was given a warm welcome by Roberts, who was more than happy to hand over such a difficult political responsibility. Stewart brought news that Gladstone’s government was back in power and that the tempestuous Lytton had been replaced by Marquess of Ripon. With a less aggressive foreign policy in place, Roberts was hopeful of returning home to his beloved wife sooner rather than later.
But the cruel lesson of Afghanistan, then and now, is to always expect the worst. In July 1880, in the north western city of Herat, the brother of Yakub Khan, Ayub Khan, proclaimed himself Amir. He was aware that the British had weakened their presence in Kandahar and was confident that if he were to take the fortress town and successfully defeat the British, then people of Afghanistan would rally to his cause and reject Abdur Rahman.
The British were aware of Ayub Khan’s intentions. But to smash his army of around 7,500 men with a good number of quality guns (and a countless number of irregulars), General Primrose had sent out a woefully small force of 2,734 men. Their leader, Brigadier-General Burrows, while capable was out of his depth and his advance into the unknown and against such a deadly enemy was bound to end in disaster.
On July 27, miles from Kandahar and on the open plains near the village of Maiwand, the British and Indian troops were pounced on by Ayub Khan’s army. After four hours of sterling defense in the heat of the midday sun and against impossible odds, Burrows’ men broke and the inevitable massacre began. Only 1,595 managed to return to the fortress of Kandahar. Burrows also survived, having fought bravely from the saddle all day. He arrived crying uncontrollably and no longer able to speak, probably suffering from what we today know as post-traumatic shock. It was something of an irony, but on the same day Abdur Rahman officially accepted the throne of Amir to grand declarations of peace between Afghanistan and Britain.
With cut-up men literally camped outside his door, General Primrose, despite having a 4,000-man garrison, lots of equipment, cannons, strong fortifications and plentiful supplies, started to panic. All of Kandahar’s 15,000 citizens were told to leave, creating a large refugee problem and even more anti-British resentment. Primrose then sent out a series of desperate telegraphs India, outlining the Maiwand catastrophe and overplaying the danger of the siege his garrison was about to face.
When Ayub Khan’s army did surround Kandahar they made little headway against such a strong position. The British also discovered that time – with their plentiful supplies and ammunition – was on their side. But Primrose was unable to report this to higher command because the telegraph had been cut. Because of the earlier dire warnings, the British believed that a disaster more dreadful than Maiwand was about to take place. It became imperative that the siege be lifted as quickly as possible.
Race to Kandahar
Stewart had no hesitation in appointing Roberts to head the 9,900-strong ‘Kandahar Field Force’, made up of all the elite troops available in Kabul. Wheeled artillery was left behind, although screw guns were taken on the back of mules. Rations were extremely light. Roberts was in no doubt that the march was going to be tough, but he also knew that the eyes of the Empire and the world were watching him. Failure was not an option.
The march began on August 9. At first the going was relatively easy as the troops marched through the Logar Valley, which was well stocked with supplies. After reaching Khelat-il-Ghilzai the journey became a nightmare, with 120 miles until the next point of call. The men stumbled along over the uneasy ground as the temperature soared to over 110°F. At night they had to contend with temperatures well below freezing. Not one man could be left behind: shadowing the army were Afghan irregulars, who were only too willing to cut the throats of stragglers.
But it was the lack of lack of water that became the greatest test. Man and beast were almost driven insane by thirst. One officer wrote: ‘Tantalizing dreams of a ruby-colored claret cup, or of amber cider, used to haunt my imagination till I felt I must drink something or perish’. The army’s suffering was eased after it reached Khelat-il-Ghilzai on August 23. Here there a small British garrison was waiting with supplies and news that Kandahar was secure against the enemy. Roberts ordered a halt for a day, giving his tired men a well-earned rest.
On August 26 the force was less than 50 miles from Kandahar. Roberts then received a message from Primrose informing him that Ayub Khan had lifted the siege after hearing of the relief column’s approach. Far from slacking off, Roberts increased the pace. He was keen to reach the safety and supplies Kandahar. The toll of the journey and the weight of command had begun to tell on his health and he was taken ill with feverish symptoms on the next day. To his annoyance he was now forced to use a dhooly, a kind of palanquin.
Although these were testing times, there were moments of humour. With the British a few days away from Kandahar, a massive herd of 3,000 sheep suddenly appeared, accompanied by entrepreneurial Afghan shepherds offering the animals for sale, along with fresh melons. A British officer fondly remembered the almost surreal event, writing: ‘We just paid the price and regaled ourselves on mutton and melons!’
Victory of sorts
On August 31, Roberts’ force reached Kandahar. They had marched a staggering 313 miles in 21 days over some of the world’s harshest terrain. And they were still ready to fight, although dog tired. The same could not be said of those they had ‘rescued’. The garrison was in a slovenly condition, failing to even fly a union flag. General Primrose was eventually sent back to England in disgrace.
Still feeling a little unwell, Roberts gathered his forces together and made a quick advance on Ayub Khan’s army, which was positioned at nearby Baba Wali Kotal. Although the Afghan general had chosen a good location – in the expectation that the British would make a frontal assault – he should have known his opposite number was nothing like Burrows. Roberts went on to use every trick in the book, including feints and flanking attacks, with British and Indian forces cutting through the enemy like a hot knife through butter.
Having learnt of his amazing march and yet another resounding victory, the nation sent messages of thanks. But Roberts, still feeling unwell, was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go home. On September 8 the medical board granted his request for leave.
The new Amir, Abdur Rahman, was accepted by his people and proved to be an adept ruler, preserving the peace between Britain and his country. And while he had handed over control of the Kurram Valley, the Khyber Pass and areas around Quetta, he retained sovereignty over Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Importantly, Britain dropped any ideas of a permanent embassy and withdrew their forces from Kandahar and Kabul. The new Amir also upheld his promise to reject any Russian diplomatic missions.
Of all the tragic wars fought in Afghanistan over the last two centuries, the Second Afghan War is one of the most controversial. Lytton’s conflict resulted in the deaths of friends and foe alike for the sum total of a few territorial acquisitions and a diplomatic deal that was virtually the same as the one the British had in place with Sher Ali. However, one could argue that a more secure form of peace had been established and, importantly for the British, the vital border passes into India had been secured against the threat of Russian invasion. As for Roberts and his men, they had marched and fought their way into the pantheon of British Imperial heroes.