The soldiers were mostly tough veterans and they belonged to the army of the world's greatest super power. But even these troops wilted under the glare of the sun. As the temperature climbed to 110°F, 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 many gulping for breath. Worse still, it seemed that the possibility of ambush and bloody death lurked behind each rock-face and within every ravine. This was the road to Kandahar in 1880 and, for the British and Indian troops, there were hundreds of miles still to go.
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 external threats, especially those emanating from Imperial Russia. During the mid-19th century, the Tsar’s Empire had expanded inexorably throughout Central Asia and, the closer the Tsar's borders came towards India, the more guarded and wary the British became. Persia, Afghanistan and the Ottoman Empire, became the setting of imperial intrigues, espionage and attempts to dominate through soft power. This was the so-called ‘Great Game’. The source of the trouble that led to the Second Afghan War was primarily rooted in Russia’s desire to cripple the Ottoman Empire and secure unfettered access through the Straights of Constantinople. Britain had guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty in the event of a Russian invasion and was willing to use her superior navy to close the Dardanelles and blockade the Black Sea if the Russians made any aggressive moves. In response, Russia drew up well-publicised plans to march an army through Afghanistan and into India should hostilities ever break out.
But both empires also realised war between them would be prohibitively expensive and without the guarantee of success for either side. So long as they stayed their hawkish ambitions, and upheld the results of diplomacy, then most of the tensions between the two could be resolved at the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the balance was upset in 1874 when the Conservative Party under Benjamin Disraeli won the British general election, ousting William Gladstone’s Liberal government. In many Conservative minds, foreign guarantees between nations had to be backed by military might. Both the Secretary of State for India, Lord Salisbury, and the new Governor-General, Lord Lytton, were hawks in this regard.
Sure enough, the threat of open conflict arose in 1877 after Russia declared war on the Ottomans. 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 Malta, just off the southern Italian coast. In reply to these preparations, Russia gathered a 15,000-man army to march into Afghanistan and then India. The Russians also sent a high-status diplomatic mission to meet with Sher Ali, the kingdom’s amir, to ensure Afghan co-operation. The mission put Sher Ali into an awkward position as he drew a large British ‘pension’ that came with two main provisos: firstly, keep the peace along the Northwest Frontier of India and, secondly, reject any diplomatic overtures from Russia. Accepting the Tsar’s men would cause Britain to withdraw their funding and possibly antagonise them into launching a pre-emptive strike. But if he rejected the mission, and if hostilities did break out between the superpowers, then the Russians would attack through Afghanistan and almost certainly depose him along the way.
Making the best of a bad situation, Sher Ali accepted the Russian mission, although he kept it in Kabul* and played for time, protracting negotiations and making non-committal promises. Sher Ali hoped Russia and Britain would settle their differences and return to the status quo. He also hoped Britain would notice the Russian mission had been led a merry dance and, although displeased, take no overtly aggressive action in response. Britain and Russia did indeed settle their differences at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the Russian mission prepared to withdraw from Kabul. However, the amir’s hopes that Britain would appreciate his predicament were soon dashed because Lord Lytton was, quite simply, not a particularly understanding man.
*Often spelt Cabul by the British in Victorian times.
In fact Lytton was furious, labelling 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. 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 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 a warrant for his deposal and possible death. Unsurprisingly, the amir refused the British mission entry into Afghanistan and its leader, Neville Bowles Chamberlain, was warned to turn back at the border – advice that he promptly took. Lytton responded by issuing the amir an ultimatum: apologise for refusing the embassy and accept its demands or face invasion. Regardless of the threats, it was 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 their 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 as another disaster in Afghanistan might lead to a collapse in public confidence. On the other hand, Lytton had raised the stakes to such a degree that backing off could have even more serious implications, namely weakening the power of the British Empire in the minds of its subjects. In particular, the British were acutely aware that much of their authority in India rested on the perception of military might and 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 proceed.
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. These troops were led by Frederick Roberts VC, a polyglot and a man of quick intelligence. Aged 46, he 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 the lack of experienced troops was telling and so requested further support. He received a number of Sikh units and a strong detachment from the veteran 72nd (Seaforth) Highlanders. On 21 November 1878, the ultimatum for Sher Ali to apologise and accept the British mission passed with no response. At 03:00 the Anglo-Indian columns began their advance into Afghanistan. Despite being the smallest of the British formations, it was the Kurram Field Force whose exploits would capture 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 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 at least be held at bay. The amir appealed to his army’s religious and nationalist sentiments. ‘Wage a holy war on behalf of God and his Prophet’, he proclaimed. ‘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 Roberts’ men almost six to one.
Despite facing a much larger enemy, Roberts knew he had to attack the Afghans before they 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 and, while they were in disarray, force a decisive battle. The waiting Afghan six-pounders brought down a heavy fusillade of shot as Roberts’ units approached, forcing them to beat a hasty retreat. The British now set up camp just beyond gun range, with Roberts pondering his next approach.
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 a flank attack up and across the precipitous heights offered his men the best chance for success. To this end, he sent out several reconnaissance patrols and discovered a mountain pass lay on the extreme left of the Afghan lines. With this intelligence to hand, Roberts formulated a brilliant but simple plan. A skeleton force would be 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 1 December 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 the lead battalion of the 29th Punjabis (made up of many Muslims) was deliberately delaying the column’s progress. Confirming suspicions, 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.
With baited breath, Roberts prepared for an enemy response to these warning shots. 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. Meanwhile, 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 assault. 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 start 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 panic, and those manning the defences and the baggage train started to flee. The rout soon spread as fighting units, and even those yet to be engaged, started to run as well. By comparison, the British only suffered two officers and 18 men killed, and 75 wounded. Roberts received the thanks from both Queen Victoria and Parliament for his outstanding victory over such superior numbers.
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 ruler, simply re-buffed him. Alone, ashamed and heart-broken, Sher-Ali starved himself to death.
Sher Ali’s son, Yakub Khan, claimed the Afghan throne and sued for peace. On 26 May 1879, and 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 also placed under Britain’s control, with the British 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 small fortune for that time. Many Afghans from across the social spectrum felt Yakub Khan had sold his country’s honour and lands purely for personal gain. Those who knew the ways of Afghanistan predicted 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 feeling a deep sense of foreboding as he waved the mission off. However, his mood was soon lightened after he received permission to return to Britain for a well-earned holiday. Events were to scupper his plans. On September 2, Cavagnari telegraphed India saying all was well in Kabul. But the British authorities received grave news just three days later: the mission had been slaughtered 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 simply lost control over those who believed him little more than a puppet ruler. Whatever the causes behind consequence, the annihilation of the embassy proved to be a serious blunder.
Immediately recalled to the Kurram Valley, Roberts led his army back into Afghanistan. The advance was swift and by 12 October 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. But Roberts was under the distinct impression that the ruler was double-dealing with both sides. Yakub Khan abdicated on the British entry into Kabul and Roberts was glad to be rid of him. However, he was not particularly pleased with his position and, 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 site of the embassy’s massacre was investigated and the ringleaders caught, tried and hung. And there the matter ended, as he was keen to at least try and maintain civil relations with the citizens of Kabul.
While his political masters wrangled over who should succeed Yakub Khan, Roberts got on with running the city and keeping the peace, which he managed to do in an even-handed fashion, earning some begrudging respect among the Afghans. Nonetheless, there were some moments of tension, including the accidental explosion of the city arsenal. Roberts was aware his position in Kabul was defensively weak and that the harsh Afghan winter was fast approaching. He ordered his army into the nearby Sherpur cantonment, which had been fortified with thick walls.
However the cantonment’s size – four-and-a-half miles of defences – meant the British could only field one rifle for every yard. And 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 defences. Roberts was keen to maintain this and so authorised 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 hinterlands. Mullahs were travelling across the region preaching jihad against the British 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 bearing towards Kabul. He promptly telegraphed India – the telegraph line having been fixed – and requested re-enforcements. He also planned a series of actions to attack the Afghans and keep them from massing. The British fought a series of running battles with the enemy over the next six days, their efforts largely successful. Indeed, Roberts was soon positioned to deliver what could have been another famous knock-out blow, one that depended on the element of surprise again.
However, British intentions were blown when General William Massy* led his force of 300 cavalry and precious horse artillery on an unauthorised short cut, landing them almost straight into the lap of the Afghan army. Roberts arrived on the scene with some Bengal Lancers just as Massy started a rapid retreat. Desperate to save his guns, Roberts ordered the lancers to charge and attempt to throw the Afghans off balance. It was a suicide mission, 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 lancer who raced over and rescued him.
*A subordinate considered incompetent by Roberts.
With his carefully laid plans now compromised, Roberts ordered a withdrawal. By 14 December, all of his troops were safely ensconced within the cantonment or in the forts on the Bimaru heights. Four months of supplies and munitions were on hand and the troops’ morale, despite the recent debacle, remained high. Although the telegraph line had been cut, Roberts could make use of the heliograph on a clear day and, on 21 December, he received the welcome news that 1,500 men led by Brigadier-General Charles Gough were 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 23 December, a mullah lit a beacon on a nearby hillside; it was the signal to attack and the Afghans streamed forward shouting their war-cries. The British cannons fired star-shells into the air to help the defenders find their targets, casting 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 defenders’ bayonets.
As dawn broke, the snow around the cantonment was noted stained with blood and littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. The Afghans launched one last attack at 10:00. By now, Roberts had placed a number of cannon on the eastern side of the fort and their enfilading fire ripped through the advancing columns, while any survivors from this were then scythed down by the rifle fire. The fight had petered out by 13:00 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 cut 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. Roberts received a very welcome Christmas present on 25 December as Charles Gough’s column safely arrived at the cantonment.
Maiwand and the race to Kandahar
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 Afghan theatre, was ordered to take 3,000 troops from Kandahar with him to Kabul, where he would assume control and prepare the ground work for the important negotiations with the Britain’s choice of amir-to-be, Abdur Rahman, a nephew of Sher Ali. The responsibility of protecting Kandahar and its environs now fell to Major-General James Primrose.
On arrival in Kabul, Stewart was given a warm welcome by Roberts who more than happy to hand over such a difficult 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 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 he could take the fortress town. He hoped this would spur the Afghan peoples to rally to his cause and reject Abdur Rahman.
The British were aware of Ayub Khan’s intentions. But to smash the enemy’s army of around 7,500 men with quality guns and an unknown number of irregulars, Primrose had sent out a woefully small force of 2,734 men. While competent, the British commander Brigadier-General George Burrows was out of his depth. With hindsight, his advance into the unknown and against such a deadly enemy seemed bound to end in disaster. On 27 July, miles from Kandahar and on the open plains near the village of Maiwand, the British and Indian troops were ambushed on by Ayub Khan’s full force. After four hours of sterling defence in the heat of the midday sun, Burrows’ men broke and an 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. But he arrived crying uncontrollably and no longer able to speak, probably suffering from what we today know is shock and post-traumatic stress. Rather ironically, Abdur Rahman officially accepted the throne of amir on the same day, with grand declarations of peace announced between Afghanistan and Britain. Primrose now started to panic, despite having a 4,000-man garrison, lots of equipment, cannons, strong fortifications and plentiful supplies. 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 a series of desperate telegraphs to India, outlining the Maiwand catastrophe and overplaying the dangers 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 very much on their side and Ayub Khan was unable to press his initial advantage. However, Primrose was unable to report this because the telegraph line had been cut. Because of the earlier dire warnings, the British believed a disaster more dreadful than Maiwand was about to take place and it became imperative the siege be lifted as quickly as possible. Stewart had no hesitation in appointing Roberts to head the 9,900-strong Kandahar Field Force, which comprised all of 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 and Roberts was in no doubt the march was going to be tough, although he also knew that the eyes of the British Empire and the world were watching him.
The march began on 9 August. At first the going was relatively easy as the troops marched through the Logar Valley, which was well stocked with supplies. The journey became a nightmare after reaching Khelat-il-Ghilzai, with 120 miles until the next point of call. The men force-marched across uneasy ground as the temperature soared to over 110°F. At night, they had to contend with temperatures that were well below freezing. Not one man could be left behind as Afghan irregulars were shadowing the army, only too willing to cut the throats of stragglers.
But it was the lack of lack of water that presented the greatest test. Man and beast were driven almost insane by their thirst. One officer wrote: ‘Tantalizing dreams of a ruby-coloured 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 23 August. Here they linked up with a small British garrison that was waiting with supplies and the news that Kandahar was secure against the enemy. Roberts ordered a day’s pause, giving his tired men a well-earned rest.
On 26 August, 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. But far from slacking, 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. They offered to sell the animals along with fresh melons and a British officer fondly remembered the almost surreal event, writing: ‘We just paid the price and regaled ourselves on mutton and melons!’
Roberts’ force reached Kandahar on August 31. 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 found in a slovenly condition, failing to even fly a Union Jack.* Still feeling 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 would use almost every trick in the book, including feints and flanking attacks, with British and Indian forces besting their enemy with ease.
*Primrose was eventually sent back to Britain in disgrace.
Having learnt of his amazing march and another resounding victory, the nation sent messages of thanks. But Roberts, unwell and exhausted, wanted nothing more than to go home. The medical board granted his request for leave on 8 September. The new amir, Abdur Rahman, was accepted by his people and proved to be an adept ruler, preserving the uneasy 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 past two centuries, the Second Afghan War is one of the most controversial. Lytton pushed for a conflict that 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 agreed with Sher Ali. However, one could argue that at least a more secure form of peace had been established. The important border passes into India had also been handed over, rendering any potential Russian invasion of India a far harder task. But as for Roberts and his men, they had marched and fought their way into the pantheon of British military heroes.