The Battle of Ahmed Khel

War: Second Afghan War

Date: 19th April 1880.

Place: On the road between Kandahar and Kabul in Central Afghanistan.

Combatants: British and Indian troops against Afghan tribesmen.

Generals: Lieutenant General Sir Donald Stewart against unknown tribal leaders.

Bengal Native Infantry
Bengal Native Infantry

Size of the armies: 7,200 British and Indian troops against 15,000 tribesmen mounted and on foot of the Andarees, Tarkees, Suleiman Khels and other Afghan tribes.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British and Indian forces were made up predominantly of native Indian regiments from the three presidency armies: the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies with smaller regional forces such as the Hyderabad contingent, and the newest, the powerful Punjab Frontier Force. Indian regiments were brigaded with British regiments for deployment in the field.

The Mutiny of 1857 brought great change to the Indian Army. Prior to the Mutiny the old regiments of the presidencies were recruited from the higher caste Brahmin Hindus and Muslims of the provinces of Central and Eastern India, principally Oudh. 60 of the 90 infantry regiments of the Bengal Army mutinied in 1857 and many more were disbanded leaving few to survive in their pre-1857 form. A similar proportion of Bengal Cavalry regiments disappeared.

The British Army overcame the mutineers with the assistance of the few loyal regiments of the Bengal Army and the regiments of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies, which on the whole did not mutiny. But principally the British turned to the Gurkhas, Sikhs, Muslims of the Punjab and Baluchistan and the Pathans of the North West Frontier for the new regiments with which Delhi was recaptured and the Mutiny suppressed.

After the Mutiny the British developed the concept of the “Martial Races” of India. Certain Indian races were more suitable to serve as soldiers, went the argument, and those were coincidentally the races that had saved India for Britain. The Indian regiments that invaded Afghanistan in 1878, although mostly from the Bengal Army, were predominantly recruited from the “martial” races: Jats, Sikhs, Muslim and Hindu Punjabis, Pathans, Baluchis and Gurkhas.

Prior to the Mutiny each army had a full quota of field and horse artillery batteries. The only Indian artillery units allowed to exist after the Mutiny were the mountain batteries. All the horse, field and siege batteries were from 1859 found by the British Royal Artillery.


Bengal Cavalry patrol crossing a bridge

In 1878 the regiments were beginning to adopt “khaki” for field operations. The technique for dying uniforms varied widely producing a range of shades of khaki, from bottle green to a light brown drab.

As regulation uniforms were unsatisfactory for field conditions in Afghanistan, the officers in most regiments improvised more serviceable forms of clothing.

Every Indian regiment was commanded by British officers, in a proportion of some 7 officers to 650 soldiers in the infantry. This was an insufficient number for units in which all tactical decisions of significance were taken by the British and was particularly inadequate for less experienced units.

The British infantry carried the single shot, breech loading, .45 Martini-Henry rifle. The Indian regiments still used the Snider; also a breech loading single shot rifle, but of older pattern and a conversion of the obsolete muzzle loading Enfield weapon.

The cavalry were armed with sword, lance and carbines, Martini-Henry for the British; Sniders for the Indian.

The British artillery, using a variety of guns, many smooth bored muzzle loaders, was not as effective as it could have been if the authorities had equipped it with the breech loading steel guns being produced for European armies. Artillery support was frequently ineffective and on occasions the Afghan artillery proved to be better equipped than the British.

The army in India possessed no higher formations above the regiment in times of peace other than the staffs of static garrisons. There was no operational training for staff officers. On the outbreak of war brigade and divisional staffs had to be formed and learn by experience.

The British Army had in 1870 replaced long service with short service for its soldiers. The system was not yet universally applied so that some regiments in Afghanistan were short service and others still manned by long service soldiers. The Indian regiments were all manned by long service soldiers. The universal view seems to have been that the short service regiments were weaker both in fighting power and disease resistance than the long service.

Map of Ali Masjid
Afghanistan showing all the battle sites of the Second Afghan War:
Ali Masjid, Peiwar Kotal, Charasiab and Kabul in the North East:
Ahmed Khel in the centre and Maiwand and Kandahar in the South

Winner: The British and Indians.

Bengal Native Infantry
Bengal Native Infantry

British and Indian Regiments:
Royal Horse Artillery
Royal Artillery
19th Bengal Cavalry (Fane’s Lancers)
1st Punjab Cavalry (21st Cavalry)
2nd Punjab Cavalry (22nd Cavalry)
HM 59th Foot, later the East Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
HM 2nd/60th Rifles, now the Royal Green Jackets.
15th Bengal Native Infantry (Ludhiana Sikhs)
19th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
25th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
3rd Gurkhas
2nd Sikh Infantry

The British and Indian order of battle:
Cavalry Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Palliser:
19th Bengal Lancers
19th Bengal Native Infantry
A Battery RHA
1st Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Barter:
1st Punjab Cavalry
2/60th Rifles
15th Bengal Native Infantry
25th Bengal Native Infantry
11th Battery Royal Artillery

2nd Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Hughes:
2nd Punjab Cavalry
HM 59th Foot
2nd Sikh Infantry
3rd Gurkhas
2 batteries RA.

3rd Gurkhas
3rd Gurkhas

Account:
The attack on the main British and Indian army, the Kabul Field Force, under Major General Sir Frederick Roberts VC, in the Sherpur cantonments at Kabul in December 1879, although a victory over the massed Afghan tribesmen, revealed the fragile nature of the British/Indian occupation of Afghanistan.

In addition the Government of India in Calcutta was increasingly alarmed at the expense of the war and its attritional effect on the Bengal and Bombay armies; worn down by the relentless attacks of the Afghan tribes on the long lines of communications.

Map of the Battle of Ahmed Khel The Battle of Ahmed Khel

The secret policy devised by Calcutta was to appoint a new Ameer of Afghanistan and to withdraw the armies at the first opportunity. As a preliminary, Major General Stewart would march his largely Bengal Army force from Kandahar and join Roberts for a withdrawal down the Khyber route to Peshawar. A Bombay division would replace Stewart in Kandahar, to be under British control as a separate state from the rest of Afghanistan.

Stewart marched out of Kandahar for Kabul on 27th March 1880. A force would march south from Kabul to meet him on the road at Sheikabad.

Stewart’s army, totaling 7,200 combatants with a similar number of camp followers, moved in two brigades marching a day’s interval apart on opposite sides of the Tarnak River so far as Ghuznee. The shortage of transport animals, camels and oxen, required the Indian troops to live off the countryside.

19th Bengal
19th Bengal Cavalry (Fane's Horse)

The army halted at Kalat-i-Ghilzai on 6th and 7th April 1880 and recommenced the march on 8th with signs of a gathering opposition from the Afghans. Forty miles North of Kelat the army crossed from Kandahar province into Ghuznee, the province held by Mohammed Jan and the inspirational Mullah, the Mushk-i-Alam, the Afghan commanders at the attack on the Sherpur cantonment. In Ghuznee Province the Afghans made every effort to destroy or hide supplies that might be used by Stewart’s troops.

The British and Indian army was now shadowed by a large force of Hazara tribesmen who seized every opportunity to loot Afghan villages.

Stewart consolidated his force, allowing the second brigade to catch up, and halted at Jan Murad, 25 miles short of Ghuznee, before resuming the march on 18th April 1880. The weather was hot.

On 19th April 1880 the column marched out at daybreak towards Kabul and was soon strung out along some 6 miles of road; the advance guard of 19th Bengal Lancers, 19th Bengal Native Infantry and 6 guns of the RHA commanded by Brigadier General Palliser, followed by Stewart with his headquarters, Hughes’ brigade, then the transport column escorted by Barter’s brigade.

Beyond a village named Mashaki the western hills curved abruptly across the line of the road. The column stopped for breakfast short of this point and Stewart was taking breakfast when he was informed that a large force of Afghan tribesmen was in place along the hills blocking the road north.

Afghan Tribesmen
Afghan Tribesmen

Stewart sent orders back to Barter to bring up a substantial part of his brigade, still five miles distant, but resolved to attack the Afghans without waiting to consolidate his force. The artillery deployed athwart the road, supported by the 2nd Punjab Cavalry and a squadron of 19th Bengal Lancers to its right rear, with the infantry formed facing west along the line of the road and one and a half squadrons of the 19th Bengal Cavalry on the left flank.

Afghan Tribesmen
Afghan Tribesmen

Before Stewart’s infantry could begin its advance a mass of Afghan tribesmen rushed over the hill and attacked the infantry line, a large force of mounted Afghans charging forward on the 19th Bengal Lancers on the left flank. The Bengal Lancers were driven back onto the 3rd Gurkhas throwing that regiment into confusion and the 59th Foot were caught changing formation and without bayonets fixed. A high wind whipping up the dust significantly reduced the visibility making the battle conditions even more difficult.

For a time there was a danger that Stewart’s force would be overwhelmed, but the infantry regiments established a solid pattern of volley firing that drove back the tribesmen. The 2nd Punjab Cavalry attacked the Afghan left flank and the 1st Punjab Cavalry coming up from Barter’s brigade restored the position on Stewart’s left.

Ali Musjid

The Afghan War medal issued to a trooper in the 10th Hussars with the clasp Ali Masjid. With thanks to Historik Orders of Greenwich, Connecticut, USA (right)

The Kabul and Kandahar Star, issued to those regiments that fought at Kabul, took part in General Roberts’ march to Kandahar and in the battle at Kandahar. With thanks to Historik Orders of Greenwich, Conn. USA. (left)

The musketry of the infantry, particularly of the 2nd Sikhs, inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan tribesmen who finally turned and fled, pursued by the Hazaras killing all the fugitives they could catch.

Stewart limited his cavalry to pursuit within the valley before turning to the care of his casualties and the reorganisation of his column.

Following the battle Stewart marched his division to Nani and sent his cavalry on to Ghuznee which they captured without resistance.

Casualties: British and Indian casualties were 115. Afghan casualties were estimated to be around 3,000.

Follow-up:
After a period spent at Ghuznee Stewart marched on to Kabul and on arrival took over command from Roberts, as the senior general.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:

  • Even though the British and Indian casualties were low and the Afghan casualties high, the battle was for a time on a knife edge. Had the Afghans managed to break into the ranks of one of the infantry regiments in significant numbers the whole line might well have been overwhelmed as at Maiwand. Stewart was saved by the experience and determination of his infantry regiments, particularly the 2nd Sikhs, and by his well served artillery.
  • During the battle HM 59th Foot were caught changing formation and severely handled. It is thought that this incident gave Kipling the inspiration for his story “The drums of the fore and aft.”




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