The soldiers were some of the toughest ever produced, and they belonged to the army of the world’s greatest superpower. Yet even they wilted under the 110-degree heat as the dust they raised, whipped up by the wind, choked their throats and stung their eyes. The mountainous terrain made for an uneven march, the high altitude left them gasping for breath, and behind each rock face and within every ravine lurked the possibility of ambush. This was the road to Kandahar in 1880. And for the British and Indian troops and their commander, Major General Frederick Sleigh Roberts, there were hundreds of miles still to go.
The Great Game
In the Victorian Age, India was the jewel of the British empire and Britain’s foreign policy was shaped around keeping the subcontinent secure from external threats, especially that posed by Russia. Afghanistan, a barrier between the two expanding empires, became the setting for an ongoing succession of intrigues, known famously as the ‘Great Game.’
The rivalry stemmed from Russia’s attempts to dominate Turkey and secure access through the straits of Constantinople. Britain had guaranteed Turkey’s sovereignty and was willing to use its superior navy to blockade the Black Sea and close off the Dardanelles if the Russians made any aggressive maneuvers. In response, Russia drew up well-publicized plans to march an army through Afghanistan and into India should hostilities ever break out.
As long as both nations stayed their ambitions and upheld the results of diplomacy, most of the tensions between them could be resolved. That balance was upset in Britain’s general election of 1874, however, when the Conservative Party under Benjamin Disraeli ousted William Gladstone’s Liberal government. In Conservative minds, the foreign guarantees secured by the Liberals were worthless unless backed by military force. Both the secretary of state for India, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, and the region’s new governor-general, E. Robert Bulwer-Lytton, Earl of Lytton, strongly supported that stance. It was only a matter of time before there was a major quarrel with Russia, and, sure enough, it came when Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877. As the tsar’s troops marched on Constantinople, Britain sent a large naval presence to the Dardanelles and began amassing a counterinvasion force on Malta. Russia reacted by preparing to march a 15,000-man army through Afghanistan into India. To ensure Afghan cooperation, a Russian diplomatic mission met with the kingdom’s emir, Sher Ali.
This put Sher Ali in a 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 its funding and possibly provoke an invasion. If he rejected the Russian mission and hostilities did break out, however, then the Russians would march through Afghanistan and almost certainly depose the emir on the way. Making the best of a bad situation, Sher Ali accepted the Russian mission, but kept it in Kabul (spelled Cabul in Victorian Britain) with protracted negotiations and noncommittal promises–while hoping that the British would understand that he was only playing for time.
As Sher Ali hoped, Britain and Russia settled their differences peacefully at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the Russian mission prepared to withdraw. His hopes that the British would appreciate his predicament were soon dashed, however. Lord Lytton was furious, labeling the emir ‘a savage with a touch of insanity’ and demanding that he welcome a British embassy, along with conditions that were likely to reduce both Sher Ali’s and his country’s power. Even if the emir had been well disposed to receiving the embassy, however, his countrymen were not. The First Afghan War of 1842, in which British forces had avenged the deaths of the soldiers and citizens massacred on a retreat from Kabul, was still fresh in the Afghans’ memories. By accepting the embassy and its terms, Sher Ali would in effect be signing his own death warrant. Thus the emir warned the British mission’s leader, Joseph Chamberlain, to turn back at the border, which he promptly did.
Indignant, Lytton issued the emir an ultimatum: Apologize for refusing the embassy and accept its demands, or face invasion. Regardless of such threats, Chamberlain colorfully but succinctly reported to Lytton that Sher Ali ‘had no more intention of apologizing than of turning Christian and applying for a Bishopric.’
Both Salisbury and Lytton pushed the British cabinet to approve an invasion of Afghanistan. Their goal was simple–to replace Sher Ali with a more pliant ruler. But in spite of its tough stance on foreign policy the cabinet was unsure about risking another military disaster in Afghanistan, and a consequent collapse of public confidence. On the other hand, Lytton had raised the stakes to such a degree that backing off would have undermined British authority in the subcontinent, which largely depended on the perception of British might. Many argued that letting Sher Ali off the hook would encourage a reprise of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Reluctantly, in the name of ‘Pax Britannia,’ the cabinet allowed Lytton to have his war.
Ready to Fight
The British and Indian armies were in relatively good shape in 1878, with generals who, in contrast to their bumbling predecessors, worked to a clear and concise plan of action. The invasion was to take three lines of advance. One column of 13,000 well-equipped men, under Maj. Gen. Sir Donald Stewart, would march from Quetta to Kandahar. A second 16,000-man column, commanded by one-armed Victoria Cross recipient Maj. Gen. Sir Samuel Browne (designer of the famous ‘Sam Browne’ belt), was to fight its way from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad. The third, numbering a mere 6,600 men, was to secure the Kurram Valley and then threaten Kabul. To lead that so-called Kurram Field Force, the British had appointed Lord Roberts.
Multilingual and a man of quick intelligence, the 46-year-old Roberts had earned the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny, but he now had much to prove. His first field command was predominately made up of native soldiers, or sepoys, including the 5th Gurkhas, a crack regiment of fearsome Nepalese troops. Four of Roberts’ regiments, however, had large contingents of Muslims, some of whom had misgivings about fighting their religious brethren. His largest British unit was the 2nd Battalion of the 8th (Liverpool) Regiment, whose troops were inexperienced and completely unused to the climate and altitude. Roberts requested further support and received a number of Sikh units, as well as a detachment from the veteran 72nd (Seaforth) Highlanders.
On November 21, 1878, the deadline on the ultimatum for Sher Ali passed. At 3 a.m. the Anglo-Indian columns began their advance into Afghanistan.
The Kurram Valley is approximately 60 miles long and surrounded by mountain ridges that rise to a height of 6,000 feet. Now long since deforested, in 1878 those ridges were heavily wooded, and offered perfect cover for defending forces. The region was unfamiliar to the British, who were 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. The local population, however, were mostly Shia Muslims who had suffered for decades at the hands of the Sunni Afghan warlords. Therefore they mostly welcomed the British, whose lines of command and control through the valley were, on the whole, relatively secure.
Toward the end of the valley the surrounding mountains fan out to form a large, steep and uneven horseshoe ridge, the peak of which thrusts up 9,000 feet. Intersecting that mountain ridge is a pass, the Peiwar Kotal, 60 miles beyond which lies Kabul. To defend the Peiwar Kotal, 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, Karim Khan. Although the other British columns had been making headway, Sher Ali was confident that Roberts’ force could be held at bay. ‘Wage a holy war on behalf of God and his Prophet,’ he urged his troops, adding, ‘A foreign nation, without cause or the slightest provocation has made up its mind to invade our country and conquer it.’ Supported by hordes of irregulars, Afghan forces outnumbered the British almost 6-to-1.
Having received mistaken intelligence that the Afghans were retreating through the Peiwar Kotal, Roberts ordered a quick advance in order to catch them while they were in disarray. As the British approached, however, the waiting Afghan 6-pounders brought down a heavy fusillade of solid shot. The British hastily retreated, 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, preferably where they could use their superior discipline and firepower. Roberts realized that a flank attack up and across the precipitous heights offered the best chance for success. To that end, he had sent out a number of reconnaissance patrols, and they discovered a mountain pass on the extreme left of the Afghan lines. Roberts quickly formulated a brilliant but simple plan. He left a skeleton force at the bottom of the valley, to make glaringly obvious preparations for a frontal assault. While Afghan attentions were preoccupied with their center, he would take just over 2,200 troops along the pass at night and deliver a knockout left hook in the early hours of morning.
At 11 p.m. on December 1, Roberts’ troops began the flanking march in bitterly cold weather, 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.’ The pace was not to Roberts’ liking–in fact, it seemed that the lead battalion of the 29th Punjabis (made up of many Muslims) was deliberately delaying the column’s progress. As if to confirm his suspicions, some Pathan sepoys in the 29th let off a number of warning shots before being overpowered. Two men were arrested and later tried for treason. The elder man was sentenced to death, but the younger was given a reprieve. With bated breath, Roberts braced for an enemy response, but nothing happened. Amazingly, although Karim Khan’s sentries had reported the shots to him, he dismissed it as a minor disturbance. It would prove a fatal lapse in judgment.
Roberts removed the 29th Punjabis from the vanguard and replaced them with Gurkhas and a company of Highlanders. Despite the delays, the British were in position by the early dawn hours. Roberts gave the order, and his elite Nepalese and Scottish troops led the attack. Totally surprised, Afghan resistance collapsed, and while his troops began rolling up the enemy’s broken flank Roberts heliographed an order for his soldiers at the bottom of the valley to begin a frontal assault. By midday the Afghans had been driven off the Peiwar Kotal and Roberts was preparing to strike Karim Khan’s camp, but the Afghans withdrew before he had the chance.
Gunners from the Royal Horse Artillery had dragged a number of cannons up to commanding positions on the Peiwar Kotal. Their bombardment set some Afghan tents on fire, causing a panic among those manning the defenses and the baggage train. The panic soon spread–even Afghan units that had yet to engage joined in the flight. British casualties totaled two officers and 18 men killed, and 75 wounded. For his outstanding victory over superior numbers, Roberts received thanks from both Queen Victoria and Parliament.
The road to Kabul was now open and Kandahar had fallen to Stewart’s men, while General Browne had secured the Khyber Pass and was making good headway on Jalalabad. Left with no other option but to flee to Russian-controlled Turkmenistan, Sher Ali asked for assistance, but the tsar, with no further need of the Afghan leader, rebuffed him. Alone, ashamed and heartbroken, Sher Ali starved himself to death–yet another victim of the vicious, deadly Great Game.
Once Sher Ali had left, his son and successor, Yakub Khan, sued for peace, and at the end of lengthy negotiations the Treaty of Gandamuk was signed on May 29, 1879. Yakub Khan agreed to cede the Kurram Valley, the Khyber Pass and several other frontier districts. Britain controlled Afghanistan’s foreign policy. A permanent embassy was to be established in Kabul and linked with a telegraph line to Delhi. In return for those concessions, the British would withdraw their troops from Kandahar and Jalalabad and pay Yakub Khan an annual pension of 60,000 pounds sterling–a fortune for those days. Many Afghans from across the social spectrum felt that Yakub Khan had sold his country’s honor and lands purely for personal aggrandizement. 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 Kurram Valley toward Kabul. Roberts later recorded that he felt a deep sense of foreboding as he waved the mission off. His mood soon lightened when he received permission to return to England for a well-earned holiday. Events, however, were to scupper his plans.
‘King of Cabul’
On September 2, Cavagnari telegraphed India claiming that all was well in Kabul. Three days later, however, British authorities learned that 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 simply lost control over those who considered him an imperial stooge. Whatever the causes, the annihilation of the British embassy was a serious blunder by the Afghans. Her Majesty’s army was never better at fighting than when smarting with the desire for revenge.
Recalled to the Kurram Valley, Roberts swiftly advanced into Afghanistan, retaking Kabul by October 12. Yakub Khan had somewhat embarrassedly joined Roberts on his advance, blurting out protests of innocence, saying that 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, but Roberts 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 new but unwelcome ‘King of Cabul’ did not, as Lord Lytton had wanted him to, set about exacting retribution and striking terror into the citizenry. The scene of the crime was properly investigated, and ringleaders were identified, officially tried and hanged. There the matter ended.
While his political masters wrangled over who should succeed Yakub Khan, Roberts got on with running Kabul. The city’s incomplete citadel, the Bala Hissar, posed a potential problem if it fell into insurgent hands. Roberts refrained from destroying it, however, because of its size and because he wished to minimize hostilities with the citizens. Nevertheless, there were some moments of tension, including the accidental explosion of the city arsenal.
As the harsh Afghan winter approached, Roberts, aware of his weak position within Kabul, decided to move his army into nearby Sherpur, which had good, thick walls. However, the cantonment’s size (4 1/2 miles of defenses) meant that the British could only field one rifle for every yard. Moreover, the eastern fortifications were incomplete and the position was overlooked by the Bimaru heights. Roberts had his engineers fortify the walls and set up some small forts along the heights. In spite of the hard work involved in preparing the defenses, morale was high. To keep it up, Roberts authorized paper chases, polo matches, gymkhanas, music shows and, on one memorable occasion, a mass snowball fight.
As November turned to December, Roberts began to receive disturbing news–mullahs were traveling across the hinterland preaching holy war, and vast numbers of irregulars were flocking to the banner of Mohammed Jan, who claimed the throne for Yakub Khan’s eldest son, Musa Khan. Roberts learned that three columns of Afghan troops were heading toward Kabul. Using the repaired telegraph line to India, he requested reinforcements and then produced a series of plans to attack the Afghans before they could mass.
Over the next six days, the British fought a series of running battles that soon placed Roberts in position to deliver what could have been another knockout blow–one that again depended on the element of surprise. Unfortunately for the British, their intentions were betrayed when Brig. Gen. William Godfrey Dunham-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 unauthorized shortcut–one that went almost straight into the Afghan army! Roberts arrived on the scene with the Bengal Lancers as Massy began a rapid retreat. Desperate to save the cannons, he ordered the Lancers to charge in an effort to throw the Afghans off balance. It was suicide, but the brave men gave the artillerymen just enough time to escape with their guns. Roberts himself was unhorsed and would have been cut to pieces had it not been for a Bengal Lancer who raced to his rescue with complete disregard for his own safety. The Lancer who saved him was a Muslim.
With his carefully laid plans now compromised, Roberts ordered a withdrawal, and by December 14 all his troops were ensconced in the cantonment and the forts on the Bimaru heights. Four months’ worth of supplies and munitions were on hand, and the troops’ morale 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 Brig. Gen. Charles J.S. Gough were on the way.
The Afghans, buoyed by their recent success, planned to make a head-on assault before Roberts’ reinforcements arrived. On the night of December 23, a mullah lit a signal beacon on a nearby hillside and hordes of Afghans streamed forward, screaming their war cries. British cannons fired star shells into the air, casting a weird light upon a terrifying scene of fearless men rushing to their deaths in a lethal hail of lead. Some Afghans managed to scale the battlements, only to be brought down by bayonets. By morning the snow around the cantonment was stained with blood and littered with the dead and dying.
At 10 a.m. the Afghans launched one last attack. By now Roberts had placed a number of cannons on the eastern side of the fort. Their enfilading fire ripped through the advancing columns–any survivors were scythed down by rifle fire. By 1 p.m. the fight had petered out, and Roberts delivered a coup de grâce. 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 had been total. The British and Indian army had lost 30 men killed, while one estimate suggested that well over 1,000 Afghans had perished. On the next day, Roberts received a very welcome Christmas present–Gough’s column arrived.
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 the British had regained their strength. Stewart, the senior general in the theater, was now ordered to take a further 3,000 troops from Kandahar with him to Kabul, where he would take over and prepare for the important negotiations with the emir-to-be, Abdur Rahman, a nephew of Sher Ali’s. The responsibility of protecting Kandahar and its environs now fell to Lt. Gen. J.M. Primrose.
On arrival in Kabul, Stewart was given a warm welcome by Roberts, who was quite pleased to hand over such a difficult political responsibility. Stewart also brought news that Gladstone’s government was back in power and that the tempestuous Lytton had been replaced by George Frederick Samuel Robinson, first Marquess of Ripon. With a less aggressive foreign policy governing Britain’s relations with Afghanistan, Roberts hoped to return 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 northwestern city of Herat, the brother of Yakub Khan, Ayub Khan, proclaimed himself emir. He knew that the British had reduced their presence in Kandahar and was confident that if he were to take the fortress town and successfully defeat the British, the Afghan people would rally to his cause and reject Abdur Rahman.
The British were aware of Ayub Khan’s intentions. To smash his army of an estimated 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 soldiers. Their leader, Brigadier George Burrows, while capable, was way out of his depth. On July 27, the British and Indian troops were pounced upon by Ayub Khan’s army on the open plains near the village of Maiwand. After four hours of sterling defense in the midday heat against impossible odds, Burrows’ men broke and the inevitable massacre began. Only 1,595 managed to return to Kandahar, including Burrows, who after having fought bravely from the saddle all day, arrived crying uncontrollably and no longer able to speak. It was something of an irony, but on that same day Abdur Rahman officially accepted the throne of emir to grand declarations of peace between Afghanistan and Britain.
With wounded men literally camped outside his door, Primrose–despite having a 4,000-man garrison, lots of equipment, cannons, strong fortifications and plentiful supplies–foresaw impending disaster. He ordered all of Kandahar’s 15,000 citizens to leave, creating a large refugee problem and even more anti-British resentment. He also sent a series of desperate telegrams to 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 it could make little headway against such a strong position. Because the telegraph had been cut, however, the British believed Primrose’s last dire communications and considered it imperative to lift the siege as quickly as possible.
The 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), and rations were extremely light. Roberts was in no doubt that the going would be tough, but he also knew that the eyes of the empire and the world were on him and that failure was not an option.
The march began on August 9 and initially went well through the Logar Valley, which was well stocked with supplies. After that, however, the journey became a nightmarish 120-mile slog to the next point of call. The men stumbled along over the uneasy ground, facing daytime temperatures of more than 110 degrees. At night the temperatures dropped below freezing. Afghan irregulars shadowed the column, only too willing to cut the throats of stragglers. It was the lack of water, however, that gave the British their greatest physical test. 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.’ But the army’s suffering was eased after it reached Khelat-il-Ghilzai on August 23. There, a small British garrison waited with supplies and news that Kandahar was secure. 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 when Roberts received a message from Primrose informing him that Ayub Khan had lifted the siege after hearing of the relief column’s approach. Roberts only increased the pace, for he was keen to reach the safety and supplies at Kandahar. His own health had suffered, and he fell ill with feverish symptoms the next day. To his annoyance, he was forced to take to a doolie, an Indian litter. Although they were testing times, there were moments of humor; on one occasion, as the British were a few days away from Kandahar, a massive herd of 3,000 sheep suddenly appeared, accompanied by entrepreneurial shepherds offering them for sale, along with fresh melons. A British officer wrote of the remarkable event, ‘We just paid the price and regaled ourselves on mutton and melons!’
A Victory of Sorts
On August 31, Roberts reached Kandahar. He and his troops had marched a staggering 313 miles in 21 days over some of the world’s harshest terrain, and although they were tired, they were still ready to fight. The same could not be said of those they had ‘rescued.’ To Roberts’ and his men’s disgust, the garrison was in a slovenly condition, failing to even fly a Union Jack during the siege. General Primrose was sent back to England in disgrace.
Still feeling unwell, Roberts regrouped his forces and made a quick advance on Ayub Khan’s army, which was skulking at the nearby Baba Wali Kotal. Although the Afghan general had chosen a good position from which to deal with the expected British frontal assault, he should have realized that his opposite number was nothing like Burrows. Indeed, Roberts used every trick in the book, including feints and flanking attacks, to cut through the Afghan host like a hot knife through butter. Having learned of his amazing march and yet another resounding victory, Britain sent messages of thanks. Roberts, however, was too exhausted to bask in the glory. On September 8, the medical board granted his request for leave.
The new emir, Abdur Rahman, was accepted by his people and proved to be an adept ruler. Although he had handed over control of the Kurram Valley, the Khyber Pass and areas around Quetta, he retained sovereignty over Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Britain also dropped any ideas of a permanent embassy and withdrew its forces from Kandahar and Kabul. The new emir in turn 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 remains one of the most controversial. Flexing its imperial muscle, Disraeli’s government had pursued a foreign policy that resulted in the deaths of friends and foe alike–for the sum total of a few territorial acquisitions, with a diplomatic deal that was virtually the same as the one it originally had with Sher Ali. One could argue, however, that a more secure peace had been established, along with the vital border passes into India, against the threat of Russian invasion.
As for Roberts and his men, their march to Kandahar against the odds presented by both man and Mother Nature placed them in the pantheon of imperial heroes. After serving with distinction in India and the Boer War, 82-year-old Lord Roberts came out of semiretirement in the autumn of 1914 to visit the sons of his Indian troops on the Western Front in France. He fell ill and died soon after in the way he undoubtedly wished–in support of his troops.
This article was written by Simon Rees and originally published in the December 2004 issue of Military History magazine.
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