Background Notes on the British Defeat at Maiwand

'The Wisdom of Hindsight'

Initial Influences
Girishk and its Castle
Circumstances dictated that Brigadier Burrows' column came to be operating in a very different situation to that envisaged when it set out from Kandahar on 3 July 1880. The change took place on 11 July when some 6000 British-equipped local Afghan troops in a blocking position at Girishk mutinied and left to join Ayub Khan's rebel army approaching from Herat. General JM Primrose at Kandahar, although expecting the 4th and 28th Native Infantry Regiments to reach him by the end of the month, until then had insufficient troops to secure his garrison and was unable to reinforce Burrows to compensate for his loss. Ayub's approach had also unsettled the countryside around and local Afghan villagers had turned against the British. The result was that when Burrows later advanced on Maiwand his force could move only slowly being "encumbered with an enormous quantity of ordnance, commissariat stores and baggage" which could not safely be left behind at the camp at Kushk-i-Nahku.
Smoothbore Battery
Following the recapture of the six smoothbore ML guns (four 6 pdrs and two 12 pdrs) from the mutineers at Girishk, insufficient horses for the ammunition wagons could be found. It was therefore decided to burn the wagons and dump most of the smoothbore ammunition in the Helmand river leaving only 52 rounds per gun. In the event this decision had repercussions at Maiwand when these guns were taken out of action to replenish with ammunition. This unsettled the infantry at a critical stage.
The Commanders
Both Brigadiers Burrows and Nuttall in their mid 50s were rather elderly for field command. George Burrows, the force commander, was an infantryman who had been on the staff for the previous eight years and had not seen active service since the Indian Mutiny, a quarter of a century before. Thomas Nuttall, the Cavalry Brigade commander, had fought in Abyssinia in 1867 but had never himself served in a cavalry regiment.
Burrows' knowledge of Ayub's whereabouts, strength and intentions was woefully inadequate. Apart from information gained from his cavalry patrols all his other intelligence was about three days old. Meanwhile Ayub, it would appear, was much better informed about British movements. It meant that, until sighting Ayub's army on the morning of 27 July, Burrows was unaware of its full strength and was also surprised to find his enemy's main body already at Maiwand before him. Even when one of his patrols did give him information relating to Ayub's early advance on Maiwand, he waited two days for confirmation. In the end he was suddenly forced to act and gave his orders at 10.30 p.m. on the 26th for the advance early next morning, which resulted in few of his men getting any rest the night before the battle.

Colonel Leigh Maxwell has been particularly critical of the intelligence collection plan which he describes as rigid, unimaginative and lacking in initiative and aggression. A more robust patrol plan should have been implemented as soon as the enemy's main body began to close in after its 300 mile march from Herat. There is no doubt that this deficiency put Burrows at a disadvantage at the start of the battle from which he was never able to recover.

Initial Deployment
Burrows had been ordered to prevent Ayub by-passing Kandahar and moving on to Ghazni and then Kabul. Arriving near Maiwand too late to make any defensive preparations, he found that the enemy's main body was already marching from the west across the valley ahead of him, apparently about to move on up the Khakrez valley east towards Ghazni. Thus, despite the overwhelming numbers opposing him, he had to attack immediately to deflect them away from this course. So it was that the guns of E/B in order to be in range of Ayub's line of march were initially deployed in advanced positions on the flat open floor of this wide valley, about a mile out from Mundabad. As the rest of the force arrived they formed up around the guns with the baggage echelon remaining back at Mundabad in a good defensive position protected by a ravine on the north (valley) side of the village.

Six weeks after the battle, Burrows, seeking to justify the positions his troops had occupied, claimed that his hand was forced by the length of the initial "unauthorised" advance of Maclaine's guns beyond the ravine: "I was compelled to send the cavalry and artillery in support at once and hasten on the infantry. Thus the whole affair was precipitated and I had lost the opportunity of reconnoitring the enemy and selecting the position in which I would give battle". Maclaine, a rather arrogant Old Etonian, could certainly be awkward and had a reputation as a 'glory hunter', but it reflects no credit on Burrows that he should have attributed his troubles to a dead subaltern.

We do not know whether it was Burrow's intention to fight the whole battle from the exposed position that he occupied initially. As a place from which to face a vastly superior force it had some major drawbacks. It was almost totally exposed both to enemy observation and to the sun, and resupply of water and ammunition was at least half a mile away. Worse still, so rapid had been the deployment of the force that no reconnaissance of the ground was undertaken by Burrows or his staff. It wasn't until after midday that it was found that an extension of the ravine in front of Mundabad ran right across the front of the British/Indian position (later measured as being at a distance of between 300 and 600 yards away). This provided the enemy with cover from direct fire for his troops forming up for attack. Although the desert floor of the valley looked flat it was in fact cut by folds in the ground and numerous dry watercourses which the enemy used with advantage.

There is some suggestion that Burrows, having deflected the enemy from continuing towards Ghazni by his attack, intended to withdraw to Mundabad and possibly Khig which offered some cover and defensive positions which he could more easily have held. Unfortunately such a move became impossible once his force had been outflanked and become closely engaged.

Afghan Artillery
The British seriously underestimated the fire power of the enemy artillery. The Afghans had 30 guns (as against the 12 under Major Blackwood). Most of them were 6 pounders but they also had three modern 14 pounder BL Armstrongs. The crippling effect on Burrows' troops of more than three hours of their bombardment in the open is reflected in the reports which have been quoted. Almost all the British/Indian casualties up until the withdrawal were caused by gunfire. The Afghans' guns were well handled and they used the ground to move them forward and close the range. When their final assault came in they had got ten of their guns forward firing from the ravine, some less than 500 yards from the British line. Reducing the range was a distinct advantage in the heat haze which made estimation of distance very difficult; it is an indication of this problem that not one of the 42 guns on the battlefield was damaged by gunfire.
The Cavalry
Burrows has been criticised for ignoring his cavalry until it was in no condition to help him anymore. Perhaps because he was so badly outnumbered, he decided not to retain either cavalry regiment intact, using them piecemeal for such tasks as protecting guns, extending the fighting line, acting as flank guard and keeping enemy cavalry at bay. By so doing he squandered his ability to mount a strong counter-attack. In the event the cavalrymen and their horses remained in the open for more than three hours being gradually depleted by artillery fire, after which, as events proved, they were barely an effective force.

After the first charge had had "but little effect", Nuttall, the Cavalry Brigade commander complained bitterly of his failure "to induce the men to rally and face the enemy". He reported that they "seemed totally demoralised by the effects of the very heavy artillery fire, which had during the action killed and wounded 149 of the horses and about 14% of the men engaged in the front".

Under this bombardment Captain Mosley Mayne, 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, lost a third of his Squadron's horses while standing passively behind E/B Battery's guns. He wrote that he "had been for hours expecting orders to move as I did not consider I was required as an escort after the infantry had moved up in line with the guns. I thought all the cavalry would be moved out of direct fire and that my regiment would be formed and echeloned on a flank, but no orders came".

Nuttall cannot be absolved from responsibility for what seems a serious lack of direction to his Cavalry and for the failure to react to this profligate wasting of men and horses until it was too late. He was also criticised for his action during the final charge in "swerving off to the right, claiming later that he intended to clear his Brigade's front. Understandably many of his troopers followed him while Mayne and others rode on to cut down those Afghans attacking the rear of the Grenadiers". It was this fiasco and the failure to persuade Nuttall's men to mount a second charge, following which they trotted off the field to Mundabad, that led to a misleading and troublesome report by "The Times" correspondent that "the cavalry had bolted!"

The Last Gallant Stand of the 66th
Even now 120 years on there is still controversy over where blame for this costly defeat should lie. Some of the Regiments and the descendants of the men that took part smart from criticisms levelled long ago. But the arguments are now surely cold and sterile. The defeat of the British at Maiwand was as much the product of the overwhelming size of the Afghan army and its greatly superior and well handled fire power, as of any perceived shortcomings attributed to individuals, units or the British command. The battle was fought in extreme conditions of heat and thirst which the Victorians described as "trying". That so many of the British and Indian soldiers survived the long and dangerous retreat was due to the unselfishness of many individuals and the discipline and devotion to duty of units that had suffered greatly in the battle; yet they succeeded in protecting and shepherding so many wounded and other survivors back over the 45 miles to Kandahar. There just a month later they lived to see the defeat of Ayub Khan, whose army had lost five times as many killed at Maiwand as the troops he had so convincingly defeated.

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by Stephen Luscombe