With winter approaching, it was imperative that the British forces move quickly to secure their objectives. Roberts had decided that he would capture the mountain pass of Peiwar Kotal and occupy the next village, Ali Khel, before settling down for the winter. The quantity and quality of Afghan troops in the Kurram valley were completely unknown to him. He did know that there were forts at nearby Khapianga and at Kurram itself. But he did not know how well they were garrisoned. Besides, there were plenty of other places that an Afghan army could hide and wait for him.
Roberts started his campaign from Thal on November 21st. There was only a single track in to the valley, so he did not have the luxury of dividing his advancing forces. He merely split his forces in to an Advance Guard, a First Brigade and a Second Brigade to all advance up the same road at different times. The Afghans must have got wind of British intentions because their garrison at Khapianga was found to have been hastily abandoned. The British forces pushed on regardless until they reached the next fort at Kurram on November 25th. Whilst here, the locals informed the British that the Afghans had made a hasty departure and were currently attempting to retreat over Peiwar Kotal. On November 28th, Roberts set off quickly to try and catch the Afghans whilst they were attempting to flee the British.
Roberts sent two of his Indian battalions to the Kotal in hope of grabbing it quickly. Unfortunately, they found that the Afghans were far more prepared than they had anticipated. They were dug in and had artillery pieces all ready to support them. In a fierce firefight, the 5th Gurkhas had to be sent up to cover the retreat of the Indian battalions. It was clear that Roberts would have to come up with a more convincing plan to dislodge an Afghan force of this size.
Similar to Sam Browne at Ali Masjid Roberts came up with a plan that involved sending a turning column up around a parallel valley. Unlike Browne's efforts however, Roberts would send the vast majority of his troops as the turning column itself. The holding force really would be just that, a small force that would merely hold the Afghans attention whilst the main force got in to their position to attack the Afghans. In addition, Roberts would lead the turning column himself and he also ensured that they would be able to travel quickly and quietly by insisting that no animals nor supplies would be taken with them. The column was purely a fighting force.
His plan was almost immediately put in to place. In the evening of the same day that his force had been repulsed by the Afghans, Roberts quietly withdrew the majority of his forces from the camp. All the camp fires were kept burning and patrols of the remaining force were sent marching around loudly in an attempt to lull the Afghans in to thinking that nothing untoward had happened. At 2200 hours, the force began the 12 mile walk over treacherous terrain on a dark night. They marched all night until they had reached the right flank of the Afghans.
At 0500 hours, the artillery from the holding force began to bombard the Afghan positions. The noise of this action helped to divert the Afghans from the advance of Robert's Gurkhas and Highlanders. At 0600 hours, the Gurkhas had managed to move to within 50 yards of the Afghans before being spotted. They and the Highlanders launched a savage attack on the unsuspecting Afghans, capturing two guns and winning a VC within the space of an hour.
As the turning column came swinging in to action, the front force also joined in. The Infantry started moving along the northern ridge towards the Kotal. The advance was difficult given the number of pine trees that the defenders could hide behind, but nevertheless managed to capture a number of key spurs close to the Kotal.
At around the same time, Robert's turning force also ran into difficulties and for exactly the same reasons. The cover available to the defending forces was making life very difficult for the attackers. From 9:00 to 12:00 the British forces crawled along from tree stump to tree stump. At about midday however, the two forces did manage to join up with one another. This allowed them to redeploy many of their forces, most crucially the artillery could be moved to a far better position from which to shell the Afghans on the Kotal.
At 12:30 it was clear that the resolve of some of the Afghans was weakening, and some had begun to retreat. However, it was clear that they were still in excellent order and still held a commanding position. Yet, Roberts decided to take a bold move that would swing the balance of the battle decisively in to his favour. He decided to withdraw his turning column forces and basically conduct a second turning operation. The intention of this was to get behind the Afghan forces and cut off their line of retreat. This tactic was fraught with danger, as the frontal force did not have that many troops left at its disposal. Had the Afghans taken it upon themselves to have launched an attack on the remaining forces, the British could have been in serious trouble. However, Roberts had judged the mood of his foes correctly. As soon as the Afghans realised what he was up to, their organised withdrawal turning into an a panic rout, as they desperately tried to get clear of the British forces before the turning column appeared at their rear. The Frontal forces seized the initiative and captured the Kotal before the turning force managed to pull off their second turning movement of the battle. By 1430 hours it was clear that the British had secured a major victory against a foe that was even larger and better equipped than they had realised the day before. There were also signs of Afghan reinforcements making their way up to the battlefield, so speed was indeed a necessity in this battle.
This action was a much more convincing victory than that won by Sam Browne at Ali Masjid. Roberts showed a real understanding of the capabilities of his own and enemy forces. He managed to keep the initiative at all times and dictated the course of the battle from beginning to end. The terrain was always going to be a problem but the trees managed to help as well as hinder is own forces especially in allowing the Gurkhas to get so close to the enemy before surprising them. Indeed, Roberts was a great believer in the idea of martial races and valued the services of the Gurkhas and Sikhs far above the other Indian troops. This was partly a natural reaction for anyone who had been involved in the Indian Mutiny as he had been. It can certainly be said though that his troops were of a far higher quality than those afforded to the other generals in the other columns. This victory was to be the straw that broke the camel's back for the Afghan leader. If such a small British force could deal such a defeat on such a large Afghan force in such a formidable defensive position, what hope did his forces have left.
Frederick Sleigh Roberts
Brig Gen Hugh Gough
10th Hussars (1 sqdn)
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
58th Vaughn's Rifles
Second Infantry Brigade
Brig Gen J. B. Thelwell
72nd Seaforth Highlanders
Roberts arrives at Thal
Orders are given for the next day's advance in to Afghanistan
Advance Guard begins invasion but fails to capture Khapianga garrison, who had escaped during the night. First Brigade moves to Khapianga. Second Brigade remains at Thal
Advance Guard move to Hazar Pir. First Brigade to Ahmed-i-Shama.
Advance Guard reach the deserted Kurram fort. Locals claim that Afghan forces are retreating over Peiwar Kotal
Roberts concentrates his forces at Kurram for attack on Kurram
Roberts quickly sends troops to Peiwar Kotal to try and catch fleeing Afghans. He discovers that they are digging in and preparing for a fight. His force is forced to retreat.
Roberts leaves camp with a large turning force. They march quietly through the night.
Artillery of British holding force opens fire.
Holding force's infantry begin a limited direct assault. Turning force launches a major assault on the right flank. Gurkhas and Highlanders capture two Afghan guns.
Roberts attempts to advance to the Kotal. Faces determined defence from well hidden Afghans.
Frontal and Turning forces manage to unite with one another.
Some Afghans begin to retreat in good order.
Roberts breaks off most of his force to send troops behind the Afghans to cut off their retreat. When Afghans realise what is happening they break off all combat in an attempt to escape.
Peiwar Kotal occupied and cleared.
| British/Indian Casualties
| Afghan Casualties
Dead and wounded: In the hundreds
The North-West Frontier -
British India and Afghanistan
(Blandford Press 1982)
The Afghan Wars 1839-42 and 1878-80
|Hanna, Col. HB,
The Second Afghan War
The Great Game
Raj - The Making and Unmaking of British India
Brown & Co 1997)
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire
Fidelity and Honour:
The Indian Army from the 17th to the 21st
The British & Indian Armies on the North-West Frontier
(Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History No. 20, 1992)
Britain's Roll of Honour -
The Victoria Cross, Its Heroes and
The Road to Kabul - The Second Afghan War 1878-81
Armour Press, 1986)
The Afghan Campaigns of 1878-80