The Build-Up to Conflict

The cause of this, the second, Afghanistan campaign had little to do with the Afghans themselves but everything to do with the Great power rivalry of the British and the Russians. It represented the swing of the pendulum between the two main competing theories regarding the best way that the British should have safeguarded their Indian empire. On the one hand, some decision makers, thought that the British should be content with the natural defences provided by the Himalayas, an impenetrable desert and the Indian Ocean. After all, it had served the Indian well for thousands of years previously, and it had the added advantage of being the least expensive and complicated of the options. The Forward thinkers, on the other hand, were convinced that if the British did not assert their claims and influence over the central Asian kingdoms then they would find themselves displaced by the Russians, who were pursuing their own forward policy at this time with the annexation of Tashkent, Samarkand and Khiva.
The closer the Russians came to British India the more weight was attached to the claims of this school of diplomatic thought. Of course, there were the added problems of the fierce warrior tribes who were currently living in the harsh climate and terrains between the two powers and who had severely bloodied British military prestige some forty years earlier.

Over time, these competing theories became polarised between the two main political parties represented in Britain. The Liberal party, under Gladstone, was generally content to leave things as they were, being more interested in business and economics than in the expense of empire. The Conservative party, however, were finding new ways of enticing the newly enfranchised working class men in supporting the party that was traditionally identified as being the party of the landed gentry. Radical patriotism was to be Disraeli's way of gathering the support of this portion of the electorate. Fighting small wars to further the glory of the British Empire was his method of harnessing this patriotism for his own parties benefit. In 1874, the Conservatives won the general election. Lord Salisbury was appointed to the Indian Office and soon after he replaced the Viceroy of India, Lord Northbrook, with one who was committed to a more aggressive forward policy, Lord Lytton. Added to this was rising tension in Europe over Russian designs on the Ottoman Empire. The stage was being set...

The Trigger

The stick that Salisbury was to use to beat the Afghans with was over their refusal to allow a British agent to be permanently posted in Afghanistan. The best that the Amir Sher Ali could offer was that an Afghani would conduct diplomatic business in Herat or Kandahar on Britain's behalf. Salisbury was not happy with this state of affairs and indeed replaced Northbrook with Lytton precisely because of the former's reluctance to push the demands without any concessions. The problem was that Salisbury wanted the benefits of British diplomatic representation in Afghanistan without providing any carrots or sweeteners to the Amir to carry out this policy. It was obvious to all concerned that any such British agent would effectively have meant the loss of independence for Afghanistan, as it did with so many other kingdoms and countries throughout that part of the world. Why should the Amir have agreed to any such proposal when the British were offering nothing in return.

Unfortunately for the Afghans, a diplomatic blunder on their part gave the British Forward policy planners all the ammunition they needed to launch a campaign against them. In 1877, after having rejected repeated requests by the British for a diplomatic mission to be despatched to Afghanistan, the Amir received a Russian delegation headed by General Stolietov. This seemingly uneven treatment by the Amir confirmed the Forward planners worst fears. An attempt to send one last British delegation (with an escort of over 200 men) was made in writing to the Amir. It was also coupled with demands that would effectively have meant the loss of independence for the khanate. Also, the fact that the request was made as the Sher Ali had begun mourning the death of his favourite son did nothing to increase his goodwill towards the British request. He replied that any such British delegation would be met with force. Trying to force the issue, the mission was despatched by the British anyway. Predictably, when it arrived at Ali Masjid the Afghan governor there said that he had received no orders that he should allow it to pass. As far as the British were concerned Sher Ali had just failed their last test of loyalty for him. Now, there was only one course of action left to be taken.

The First Phase of the Campaign
Mindful of the disaster that befell the expedition during the First Afghan War, the Indian government prepared for this campaign in a much more diligent manner. The plan was to have three columns move simultaneously into the three main avenues of approach into Afghanistan. The largest was the Peshawar Field Force that was led by Lt-Gen. Samuel Browne the most Northernly of the three forces. Browne's mission was to expel all the Afghani forces from the Khyber pass and the valleys beyond it. Just south of Browne was the smallest of the three field forces; the Kurram Valley Field Force. This was led by Maj-Gen. Frederick Sleigh Roberts and was assembled at the town of Thal. These were to clear and hold the Kurram Valley series of passes that also provided passage into Kabul and Afghanistan. The third and arguably the field force with the most difficult and daunting task ahead of it was the Kandahar Field Force under Lt-Gen. Stewart. It was the job of this column to clear the much more arduous and treacherous terrain of the Bolan pass and the valleys up to and including the city of Kandahar. As the course of events transpired, the Peshawar and Kurram Field Forces were very much within tactical and strategic contact with one another and indeed eventually met up with one another. The Kandahar Field Force, though, was virtually cut off from the rest of the campaign and had to support itself autonomously for virtually the entire course of the campaign.

Gurkhas at Peiwar Kotal
Gurkhas at Peiwar Kotal
It was the largest of the three Field Forces that came into action the soonest as the Peshawar Field Force came to the imposing fort of Ali Masjid that overlooked the narrow Khyber Pass at one of its narrowest points. As the position lay near the border of British India, the positions of the Afghans had already been thoroughly reconnoitered before the declaration of hostilities and Samuel Browne had made his plans accordingly. The battle is recounted in further detail here. The effect of the battle was to leave the Northern approach to Kabul virtually wide open. Browne moved his forces forward to Dakka where they rested and regrouped for three weeks, safe in the knowledge that they had all but acheived their original objective.

Just fifty miles to the south of this, the Kurram Valley Field Force was facing a much tougher nut to crack at Peiwar Kotal (Kotal means Pass). Roberts had already successfully advanced into the valley and had taken Kurram Fort where opposition had been anticipated but not forthcoming. Locals said that some 1,800 soldiers and artillery had pulled out of the fort. He therefore pushed on hoping to catch the force unprepared, only to find them in a far better tactical postion than he would have hoped to have found them in. The battle is recounted in further detail here. Subsequently, the British force advanced to Ali Khel and prepared decent living quarters before the full force of a Himalayan winter could be brought to bear on them.

Supply Problems
The third of the columns, the Kandahar Field Force, did not face the same kind of large scale resistance as the other two columns did, but suffered from a potentially far more paralysing problem for the force; supply. The other two columns also encountered difficulties finding enough hardy animals to keep themselves with the requisit amount of stores for thousands of men and their support systems to remain operational. But, the Kandahar Field Force found that the animals that it had found were dying in their hundreds and thousands in the difficult terrain and with the worsening weather conditions. Added to this, was the fact that the local tribes were quite happy to prey on any group of carts that did not look sufficiently well defended. This added further to the man and animal power drain. Despite these problems, Stewart did manage to advance as far as Kandahar. Although the further he advanced, the more strain was put on the supply situation. This could have left this field force dangerously exposed if it hadn't been for the fact that the two victories at Ali Masjid and Peiwar had decisively forced diplomatic activity to a successful conclusion for the British, or so they thought.

Diplomatic Resolution, Afghan Style
The defeats at Ali Masjid and Peiwar Kotal had fatally shattered Sher Ali's grip on power in Afghanistan. It was clear that the various tribes were already splitting into various factions, for or against Sher Ali, the British or for a new Amir altogether. In this latter camp Sher Ali's disloyal son Yakub Khan was considered the likeliest candidate, despite Sher Ali's opposition. Sher Ali himself cut a rather tragic figure during these events. He was still deep in grief over the loss of his favourite son some seven weeks earlier. Also, he couldn't quite accept that the British were prepared to make such a determined effort to remove someone like himself who was willing to maintain the independence of Afghanistan, from the British and Russians alike. He never did fully mobilise the forces available to him, thinking that the British would see the error of their ways and come to a diplomatic solution that would preserve his kingdom's independence. In the end, he did feel compelled to turn towards the very people that the British had accused him of dealing with all along; the Russians. He left Kabul to appeal personally to the Russian Emperor. Unfortunately for him, diplomatic events in Europe had taken a turn that meant that the Russians no longer desired to be so antagonistic towards the British. The Emperor therefore have instructions that he was not now willing to meet with Sher Ali. Sher Ali had made his last throw of the dice and lost. His absence from Kabul meant that Yakub Khan's star was rising as quickly as his was fading. Completely shattered by events around him, the Amir refused all food, water and medical aid. He died at the age of 55.

This turn of events seemed quite fortuitous for the British as they were now able to back and make demands on the new Amir Yakub Khan. In fact, the demands that they now made were far more onerous than the ones that they had asked of Sher Ali. In addition to the British envoys to be stationed in Afghanistan, there were now demands that the Khyber pass and Kurram valley to remain under British control. Whilst this made tactical sense to the British on the ground, these additional demands were already undermining the position of Yakub Khan amongst his own people. Loss of foreign affairs, or British envoys were quite escoterical to most Afghans, losing a large slab of their country was not!

However, for the time being the diplomatic solution seemed to have vindicated the policy of the Forward Planners. There had been a considerable financial burden to the Indian government, but essentially their strategic aims had been more than satiated. Now, life could return to normal. The British forces were only to pleased to pull out of Afghanistan to avoid the horrendous summer temperatures and to avoid the constant attacks on isolated supply and relief columns. And, Cavagnari was duly despatched to Kabul with a small escort of Corps of Guides to take up his new diplomatic position.

Surveying Residency Remains
Surveying Residency Remains
The disaffection of many Afghans for the terms and conditions of the British peace seemed to have been lost on Cavagnari and even on Yakub Khan himself. At first, things seemed to go well enough. But in August, six Afghan regiments arrived in Kabul from Herat. This was supposed to be a routine relieving of forces. However, it was soon obvious that these regiments were not in the best state of affairs. Discipline in the ranks was virtually non-existant and was made considerably worse by the fact that they had not been paid for some time. Their disdain for the Amir and the British envoys was made highly evident. One riot by them was only dispersed with a payment of some of their arrears. On September 3rd, the regiments rioted again, this time they marched towards the British residency to demand their back pay. Scuffles and some attempted looting outside the residency led to several shots by the British escort. Unfortunately, these shots were enough to ignite the delicate situation into a full blown fight with the residency as the battlefield. The battle is recounted in further detail here. Suffice it to say that the events here were enough to scupper plans for a peaceful withdrawal by the British. The war had not finished after all and the retreating British forces were quickly about-faced and marched back into Afghanistan.

The Return of the British
That the British were returning to reek some sort of revenge over the murder of Cavagnari and his escort was never in dispute. What was less certain was what the British were going to do with Yakub Khan. The fact that he did not seem to have been implicated in the murders at all was of no importance. It was now patently clear that he did not possess the necessary power or force of personality to rule over his fractious country. The fact that it was the British demands that had fatally weakened him was not dwelt upon by the Indian government in Simla. They just needed to find some sort of replacement or have their entire plans for Indian security swept away before them. For the time being, as these points were being debated, the first of the British forces were already swinging into action under the stewardship of Roberts.

The timing of this second campaign did not seem propitious. The troops were about to enter their second uncomfortable winter in the Himalayas. Roberts felt that it was essential that the British troops make some kind of blow against the Afghans before the snows made campaigning impossible. He advanced his forces out of the Kurram valley towards Kabul, issuing a proclamation to the people of Kabul that he was returning there in order to punish the murderers of the British mission and that anyone found in possession of a weapon would be considered just such a perpetrator. Just south of Kabul his forces encountered a large force of thirteen Afghan regiments and twenty guns overlooking a village known as Charasiab (and not Charasia as contemporary accounts and even the Battle honours recount). Roberts was compelled to do battle without his entire force available to him and in a rather poor tactical position. The battle is recounted in further detail here.

Roberts advanced into Kabul and almost immediately begun to punish local Afghans with a series of public hangings. The lack of due process involved was to cause considerable embarrassment to him and the Conservative government back in Britain. This unseemly episode is considered to be a major contributory factor to the fall of the Disraeli government just a few months later.

The British attempt at maintaining any legal facade for their undertakings was made more difficult as Yakub Khan almost immediately attempted to abdicate. He was concerned that he might be persecuted by either side; the British for not intervening to help Cavagnari, or by the Afghans for being a lapdog to the British forces. On October 28th he publicly announced that he was going to abdicate and on the 1 December he departed for India for good. Now, Afghanistan was even more of a perilous place for the British to find themselves. With no obvious leader in sight, the country descended into unpredictable tribal allegiances.

The precariousness of Roberts' position was made evident on December 11th as his forces were split to comb the countryside surrounding Kabul looking for hostile forces. One of these forces, under Massy, found just such a force. Unfortunately, it was far bigger than anyone had suspected; some 10,000 Afghans in a continuous, unbroken line of two miles length. Roberts sent some forces to help Massy extricate himself from his very dangerous position. A propitious rear attack by the force headed by Macpherson allowed Massy to fully disengage and head for the relative safety of the camp at Sherpur.

The British forces would spend the next couple of days in enforced captivity at their base at Sherpur. Reconnaissance forces sent by the British were coming under increasing pressure as the sheer number of Afghans made any movement outside the encampment all but impossible. On the 14th, Roberts was forced to send out a force to try and disperse Afghans amassing less than a mile and half away from the base. At first it seemed successful, but as more Afghans appeared, they were forced to withdraw to the safety of the compound once again. Having lost the initiative and the ability to dictate circumstances, they would have to just wait for the Afghans to attack at their own leisure.

Roberts did not have a great number of forces available to him in Kabul, so a number of relief columns had been organised and were heading towards Kabul from the Khyber Valley. However,the emboldened confidence of the Afghans had made the whole country far more difficult and dangerous to traverse. The relief column led by Gough came under repeated attacks and pressures from surrounding tribes. As the relief column approached Sherpur on the 23rd of December they suddenly began to hear gunfire from the direction of Roberts' camp. The Battle of Sherpur had begun that very same day, the relief column had no way of knowing if they were marching to relieve the base, or to meeting their own deaths at the hands of a victorious Afghan army. Fortunately for them, the first forces they came across were a troop of Lancers pursuing the Afghans from the battlefield. It was clear that they would now be spending a cold, but relatively safe winter in Kabul.

Gurkha Camp
Gurkha Camp
Winter brought a temporary end to the campaigning of all forces in Afghanistan. But, the British were still no closer to achieving any kind of lasting diplomatic solution. It was clear that as soon as the snows lifted, the Afghans would be back to their traditional warlike ways and carry out yet more attacks on the British and their supply columns. There were two possible contenders to any kind of leadership in the country. Abdul Rahman was a cousin of the Yakub Khan who had grown up under Russian protection, but had assiduously managed to avoid being held a political hostage to them in any way. The other candidate was the governor of Herat and brother to Yakub Khan, Ayub Khan. He had more support in the West of the country, but had been identified as being a strong critic of Yakub's acceptance of British terms. He was therefore less palatable to the British than Abdul Rahman, who the British now sought to cultivate links with.

Meanwhile in April, Stewart had begun to move a large force from Kandahar to Kabul in some sort of attempt at consolidating commands and forces. Just outside of Ghazni the column was confronted by a well positioned force of some 9,000 Afghans in the hills immediately to his front. The battle is recounted in further detail here.

Stewart advanced into Kabul to find that the political and diplomatic landscape had changed both in Britain and in Afghanistan. In Britain, the victorious Liberals immediately replaced Lytton with Ripon as Viceroy and Stewart found that he had been given overall control of the British forces in the theatre. As for the Afghan situation, it was becoming clear that Abdul Rahman was the only candidate who was powerful enough to wield power and yet still remain palatable to the British and their war aims. There was still more negotiating to do, but essentially he was the only serious candidate that the British could support and he duly became Amir on July 10th. It looked as if the British could withdraw with their pride reasonably intact once again.

Humiliation and Triumph
Just as it seemed as if the campaign had come to a close and the British were about to withdraw, disaster was visited upon a British force at Maiwand. By placing Abdul Rahman on the throne, Ayub Khan decided that there was nothing left to lose and made one last gamble to disrupt the plans of the British and his cousin the Amir. The defeat upon Burrows' force just outside Kandahar had an electrifying effect on local tribes who all flocked to the banner of Ayub Khan as they advanced towards the precariously small British force now trapped within Kandahar itself. Relief forces had to be organised yet again by the British. Roberts picked the best regiments available to him in Kabul and set off on a remarkable forced march through the rough terrain of the Himalayas to reach Kandahar before it fell to Ayub. Another force was organised from Quetta by Phayre, although this force was to be bedevilled by transportation and communications problems over even more difficult terrain than that faced by Roberts' force. A race developed between the two commanders as they each sought to be seen as the relieving hero. Ultimately, Roberts arrived first and almost immediately went straight into battle with Ayub's forces. The battle is recounted in further detail here.
The battle of Kandahar finally settled the campaign once and for all (Although Ayub Khan did make one more unsuccessful attempt at capturing Kandahar after the British had left). The British really did now begin to withdraw and this time it was for good. At the end of the day, the British had spent an enormous amount of effort to achieve a situation that seemed virtually identical to that at the beginning of the war. However, events were to prove that their decisive action did indeed forestall Russian advances into the country, and things were to be as quiet as things ever can be in that part of the world for a while at least. The various tribes still made it abundantly clear that as little as they liked each other, they liked the British still less. The North-West Frontier was still considered the wild frontier and caused headaches for British planners in India for a long time yet to come. Although, as long as the tribes were fighting each other rather than inviting Russians in to help them the British were not overly concerned with the situation.

The period of this campaign was to presage an era of enormous change for the British and Indian Armies. Setbacks in Zululand in 1879, Maiwand in 1880 and Majuba Hill in 1881 meant that the Army had lost some of its lustre of invincibility. Indeed, this particular campaign had demonstrated that the British Army had still not learnt all of the costly mistakes it had learnt in the Crimea. Transportation was still a fundamental weakness that could so easily have turned triumph into disaster on more than one occasion. Equipment was also scrutinised as it became obvious that the standard issue items were frequently unsuitable to the harsh conditions on the ground. Much to the chagrin of many officers, it meant that the British soldiers had to improvise in ways that were eminently suitable to their requirements, but pitifully awful to look at. Uniforms were virtually unidentifiable as troops responded to boiling summers, freezing winters and Afghan marksmen with an imagination and improvisation that made NCO's and officers weep at the sight of them. The first victim of decorum was the white issue summer uniform which the soldiers quickly threw into pots of tea in a desperate attempt at making their uniforms a kind of Khaki colour and hopefully making themselves less identifiable to the Afghan hillsmen who constantly kept the soldiers on their toes. There were other developments for the infantryman (Slade Wallace equipment) and the cavalryman (Patterson equipment), but these were all responding to what the soldiers were doing by themselves anyway.

At the organisational level, the poor performance of the Bombay regiments at Maiwand helped lead towards a fundamental restructuring of the Indian army in the 1880s conducted by Roberts himself. The British Army was heading for its own reorganisation as part of the Cardwell reforms that were coming into effect in 1881. Within five years, the armies and organisations that fought in Afghanistan were to be transformed beyond recognition. Which is just as well, for despite the eventual success of this campaign, its style and execution would not have seemed out of place to a Napoleonic era commander. As usual, it was the bravery, technology and professionalism of the soldiers on the ground who time and time again salvaged the strategic situation for the commanders running the show. This campaign falls into the classical example of the small colonial war that the British army so frequently found itself in the Victorian era.

map of campaign
Map of Campaign Area
1880 Map of Area
Illustrated London News Images
Illustrated London News
Commanding Officer
Frederick Sleigh Roberts
Sir Donald Stewart
Significant Individuals
Initial British and Imperial forces
Peshawar Valley Field Force

Lt Gen Sir Samuel Browne

Cavalry Brigade
Brig Gen C. J. S. Gough
10th Hussars (2 Sqdns)
11th Probyn's Lancers
Guides Cavalry

Royal Artillery
Colonel W. J. Williams
One Horse Battery
One Field Battery
Three Heavy Batteries
Three Mountain Batteries

First Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen H. T. Macpherson
4th Battalion Rifle Brigade
20th Brownlow's Punjabis
4th Gurkhas

Second Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen J. A. Tytler
1st Battalion Leicestershire
Guides infantry
51st Sikhs

Third Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen F. Appleyard
81st North Lancashire
14th Sikhs
27th Punjabis

Fourth Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen W. Browne
51st King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
6th Jat Light Infantry
45th Sikhs

Kurram Valley Field Force

Major General Roberts Cavalry Brigade
Brig Gen Hugh Gough
10th Hussars (1 sqdn)
12th Cavalry
25th Cavalry

Royal Artillery
Col A. H. Lindsay
One Horse Battery
One Field Battery
Two Mountain Batteries

First Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen A. H. Cobbe
1st Battalion of Liverpool Regiment
23rd Pioneers
29th Punjabis
58th Vaughn's Rifles

Second Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen J. B. Thelwell
72nd Seaforth Highlanders
21st Punjabis
56th Rifles
5th Gurkhas

Kandahar Field Force

First Division
Lt Gen Donald Stewart

Cavalry Brigade
Brig Gen Walter Fane
15th Hussars
8th Cavalry
19th Fane's Lancers

Royal Artillery
Brig Gen C. G. Arbuthnot
One Horse Battery
Three Field Batteries
Two Heavy Batteries
Three Seige Batteries
One Mountain Battery

First Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen R. Barter
2nd Battalion King's Royal Rifles
15th Sikhs
25th Punjabis

Second Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen W. Hughes
59th East Lancashire
12th Kelat-i-Ghilzai Regt
1st Gurkhas
3rd Gurkhas

2nd Division
Maj Gen M A Biddulph

Cavalry Brigade
Brig Gen C. H. Palliser
21st Daly's Horse
22nd Sam Browne's Horse
35th Scinde Horse

Col Le Mesurier
One Field Battery
Two Mountain Batteries

First Infantry
Brig Gen R. Lacy
70th East Surrey
19th Punjabis
127th Baluchis

Second Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen Nuttall
26th Punjabis
32nd Pioneers
55th Coke's Rifles
129th Baluchis

Afghanistan War Medals
Ali Masjid
Peiwar Kotal
Kabul Residency
Ahmed Khel
1874 Disraeli Defeats Gladstone in General Election. Salisbury to India Office
1875 Northbrook replaced as Viceroy by Lytton
1877 Amir Sher Ali accepts Russian Mission to Kabul
Sep 1878 British Mission turned back by Afghans
20 Nov 1878 Three British Columns enter Afghanistan
21 Nov 1878 Ali Masjid falls to Peshawar Field Force
Dec 2nd 1878 Kurram Valley Field Force victorious at Peiwar Kotal
8 Jan 1879 Kandahar Field Force enters Kandahar
21 Feb 1879 Sher Ali dies
24 July 1879 Cavagnari arrives in Kabul
3 Sep 1879 Residency sacked by Afghans
Oct 6th 1879 Battle of Charasia
Oct 28th 1879 Yakub Khan publicly abdicates
23rd Dec 1879 Battle of Sherpur
Apr 19 1880 Battle of Ahmed Khel
Apr 28 1880 Fall of Conservative Government
Ripon replaces Lytton
Stewart assumes command of all forces
July 10 1880 Abdul Rahman becomes Amir
July 27th 1880 Defeat at Maiwand
Sep 1st 1880 Victory at Kandahar
Contemporary Accounts
Letters from William Eaton
The Afghan Wars (part 2) by Archibald Forbes
Suggested Reading
Barthorp, Michael
The North-West Frontier -
British India and Afghanistan 1839-1947

(Blandford Press 1982)
Barthorp, Michael
The British Army on Campaign 1856 to 1881
(Osprey 1988)
Duncan, J & Walton, J
Heroes for Victoria
Forbes, Archibald,
The Afghan Wars 1839-42 and 1878-80
(Darf 1987)
Hopkirk, Peter
The Great Game
Illustrated London News
James, Lawrence,
Raj - The Making and Unmaking of British India
(Little, Brown & Co 1997)

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Menenzes, SL,
Fidelity and Honour:
The Indian Army from the 17th to the 21st Century

Moreman, TR,
The British & Indian Armies on the North-West Frontier 1849-1914
(Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History No. 20, 1992)
Napier, Gerald
The Sapper VCs
Nevill, Captain H.
North-West Frontier
Richards, D. S.
The Savage Frontier
Roberts, Field Marshall Lord Frederick Sleigh,
Forty-one Years in India
The Road to Kabul
by Brian Robson
Wilkinson-Latham, Robert
North-West Frontier 1837 to 1947
(Osprey 1977)

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