The Mission
Major Cavagnari had arrived in Kabul with a deliberately discreet escort under the command of Lt Hamilton, VC. Cavagnari realised that the presence of any British personnel in Kabul after the signing of the treaty of Gandamuk would seriously undermine Yakub Khan's authority. Realising the delicate political situation, Cavagnari deliberately decided to only maintain what was effectively a ceremonial guard for himself.
The Spark
The Residency
The Bala Hissar and Residency
On 3rd September 1879, soldiers of the Amir's Herat regiments paraded in the Bala Hissar to collect their pay. The Amir's representative informed them that there was not enough money to pay all that was owed to them. The soldiers seemed to have decided to march on The Residency where they knew that Cavagnari resided with a not inconsiderable amount of money. The troops excitedly marched the couple of hundred metres to the compound of the residency where Cavagnari met them.

Cavagnari firmly stood his ground and refused to pay them. Rather, he preferred to allow the Amir to deal with the situation himself. Unfortunately, the Afghan regular soldiers were in no mood to back down. Scuffles and shouts ensued. Some of the Afghan soldiers attempted to accrue their own back payments by attempting to loot some of the goods found within the British compound. The Corps of Guides soldiers fired some shots to deter the agitated crowd and force them to back down. The result was the opposite of that intended. The Afghan troops withdrew from the compound, but only to gather firearms. They promptly returned with yet more comrades and joined by eager civilians. Together, the mob launched a full-scale attack on the tiny garrison.

Defending the Indefencible
The Residency
The Residency
Whilst the mob had withdrawn to collect firearms, Lt. Hamilton had attempted to effect some rudimentary defensive positions. He had ordered the doors to be baracaded and the roof to be manned. Unfortunately, the residency was wholly unsuited for defence, a hill and houses on three sides all overlooked the Residency compound. The Afghans were able to pour merciless fire on the troops within. Cavagnari received a hit on his head. The Afghans also brought up a gun to help reduce the defences yet further.

The position was obviously becoming hopeless, out of desperation the British decided to go on the offensive. Cavagnari, although wounded, led a sortie that had temporary success although he was further wounded. Later, Hamilton had to rush to a doorway into the courtyard of the residency with four sepoys where the mob was breaking through. Adjoining the courtyard was the officer's mess which had no parapet on the roof and could not be defended from there, so Afghans were able to get on the roof by means of ladders from adjoining buildings. The troops on the barrack roof, which did have a parapet were coming under fire from two field guns which the Afghans had moved into position north-west of the barracks.

In all this time, messages had been sent to Yakub Khan appealing for help, but to no avail. The troops in the mess were in danger of being burnt as the building had been set on fire, so they had to get back on to the roof and jump across to the barrack roof. They had to leave Cavagnari behind as he was to ill to move. One of the Afghans' guns was now positioned to blast a hole in the barracks where Hamilton and most of the Guides were. He led a brave attempt to capture the gun but had to fall back after killing the gun crew. Two other attempts involving Surgeon Kelly and the political officer, William Jenkyns, failed causing the deaths of both of them. Lt. Hamilton was the last officer remaining. He led another effort and managed to seize the gun but the other gun was in place. In a last ditch attempt, Hamilton shot and hacked his way through the rebels and placed himself between the gun and them where he finally succumbed to wounds and was cut to pieces. Less than a dozen Guides remained alive under the command of Jemadar Jewand Singh. They were offered terms of surrender but opted to fight to the death.

The bravery of the defenders was beyond reproach, almost to a man they fought above and beyond the call of duty. They were accordingly all awarded the Indian Order of Merit (then the highest award that could be given to Indian troops). The Corps was also given permission to add 'Residency, Kabul', on their colours.

This massacre had wider repercussions. The hawks in the British and Indian military establishments came to the fore to avenge the deaths of these British soldiers. The Second Afghan War would enter a costly new phase.

map of campaign
Major Cavagnari
Lt Hamilton, VC
Imperial Forces Involved

25 Corps of Guides Cavalry
50 Corps of Guides Infantry

Afghan Forces Involved

2 Herat Infantry Regiments

Silver Screen
The Far Pavilions
Hanna, Col. HB,
The Second Afghan War
Kaye, M. M.
The Far Pavillions
Robson, Brian,
The Road to Kabul - The Second Afghan War 1878-81
(Arms & Armour Press, 1986)
Shadbolt, SH,
The Afghan Campaigns of 1878-80

Campaign details

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by Stephen Luscombe