The Battle of Ali Masjid
War: Second Afghan War.
Date: 21st November 1878.
Place: At the Afghan, western, end of the Khyber Pass on
the border between Afghanistan and India.
Combatants: British and Indian troops against the Afghan
army and tribesmen.
Generals: Lieutenant General Sir Sam Browne VC against
Gholam Hyder Khan.
Size of the armies: 12,000 British and Indian troops
against 3,700 Afghan troops and an unknown number of Afghan
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.
Afghanistan showing all the battle sites of the Second Afghan
Ali Masjid, Peiwar Kotal, Charasiab and Kabul in the North East:
Ahmed Khel in the centre and Maiwand and Kandahar in the South
The Mutiny of 1857 had 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
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.
Winner: The British and Indians.
British cavalry newly arrived in India reviewed by the Commander in
British and Indian Regiments:
10th Hussars, now the King’s Royal Hussars *.
Rifle Brigade (4th Battalion), now the Royal Green Jackets *.
Royal Horse Artillery
Royal Field Artillery
Royal Garrison Artillery
17th Regiment, later the Leicestershire Regiment and now the Royal
51st Regiment, later the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and now
the Light Infantry*.
81st Regiment, later the North Lancashire Regiment and now the
Queen’s Lancashire Regiment*.
Officers of the 51st King's Own Light Infantry after the capture
of Ali Masjid
A Sepoy of the 14th Sikhs
11th Bengal Cavalry (Probyn’s Horse) *.
Queen’s Own Guides Cavalry*.
6th Bengal Native Infantry (Jat Light Infantry) *.
14th Bengal Native Infantry
(14th Ferozepore Sikhs)*.
20th Bengal Native Infantry (Brownlow’s Punjabis) *.
27th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis) *.
45th Bengal Native Infantry (Rattray’s Sikhs) *.
4th Gurkha Regiment*.
Queen’s Own Guides Infantry*.
1st Sikh Infantry, (FF) *.
1st Bengal Sappers and Miners *.
*These regiments have Ali Masjid as a battle honour.
Order of Battle of the Peshawar Valley Field Force:
GOC: Lieutenant General Sir Samuel Browne VC.
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Charles Gough VC.
10th Hussars: 2 squadrons.
11th Bengal Cavalry (Probyn’s Horse)
Queen’s Own Guides Cavalry.
Queen's Own Corps of Guides
Royal Artillery: commanded by Colonel Williams.
1 battery RHA
1 battery RFA
3 batteries RGA.
(several batteries carried on elephants).
3 batteries Mountain Artillery (the guns carried on mules).
1st Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Macpherson VC.
4th Bn Rifle Brigade.
20th Bengal Native Infantry (Brownlow’s Punjabis)
The Colour Party of a Sikh Regiment
2nd Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Tytler VC.
1st Bn 17th Foot.#
1st Sikh Infantry, (FF)
3rd Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Appleyard.
14th Bengal Native Infantry (14th Ferozepore Sikhs)
27th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
4th Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Browne.
6th Bengal Light Infantry (Jats).*
45th Bengal Native Infantry (Rattray’s Sikhs)
* These regiments fought in the First Afghan War.
The Second Afghan War devastated areas of Afghanistan,
particularly around Kabul, had the British and Indian Army on the
brink of disaster at Sherpur on the outskirts of Kabul and led to
the loss of the 66th Foot and two Indian regiments at Maiwand. The
inspired generalship of Sir Frederick Roberts, with the brilliant
tactical leadership of many junior officers and the dogged
determination of Indian, Gurkha, Highland and English troops brought
the British and Indian armies to victory. Against them the Afghans
fought with intense religious and national fervour, striving
ceaselessly to drive the unbelieving foreigners from their country’s
Map of the Battle of Ali Masjid
The legacy of the Crimean War from 1854 to 1856 was continuing
mistrust between Britain and Russia, focused on the disintegrating
Turkish Empire in the near East. The concern of the British
Government in Delhi was that Russia would push its eastern borders
around and through Afghanistan into India. The intelligence intrigue
between the two empires simmered through the second half of the 19th
Century under the half mocking title of “The Great Game”.
Relations between Britain and Russia deteriorated dramatically
during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. The Tsar’s governor in Central
Asia compelled the Amir of Afghanistan, Sher Ali, to accept a
Russian Mission at his capital. Spurred on by the Home Government
the British Viceroy of India, Viscount Lytton, demanded that the
Afghans accept a counterbalancing British Mission in their capital
headed by General Sir Neville Chamberlain and accompanied by a
substantial military escort. Sher Ali refused.
The view from Ali Masjid down the Khyber Pass
Negotiations took place between the British and the Afghans at
On 21st September 1878 Major Cavagnari led the advance party of the
British Mission into the Khyber Pass on its way to Kabul, to be
stopped by Afghan troops on the border and turned back.
Incensed, Lord Lytton issued an ultimatum to Sher Ali, requiring
him to accept the mission or face invasion. Sher Ali would probably
have accepted the mission, given time, but the British did not give
him the chance. On 20th November 1878 the ultimatum expired and the
British/Indian armies crossed the border into Afghanistan.
The Afghan fort of Ali Masjid seen from the Khyber Pass.
The invasion followed three routes: The Peshawar Valley Field
Force, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Sam Browne VC, was to
leave Peshawar and head directly west up the Khyber Pass to the
Afghan fort of Ali Masjid, guarding the pass from the top of an
imposing mountain. Once Ali Masjid was taken the force would
continue to Dakka or on to Jellalabad.
General Sir Sam Browne, VC, KCB, GCSI
The Kurram Field Force, 16,200 men and 48 guns, commanded by
Major General Roberts VC, was to leave Kohat on the Indus and enter
Afghanistan by the Kurram Pass, following the Kurram River up to the
Shutargardan Pass; in many ways the most direct route to Kabul.
From the South, Lieutenant General Stewart, with the South
Afghanistan Field Force, would enter Afghanistan through the Bolan
and Khojak Passes, taking Quetta and heading for the southern Afghan
city of Kandahar.
The task of each force was limited; to seize some Afghan
territory and halt.
On 20th November 1878, Browne’s force, the strongest, was over the
border, heading for the Afghan fort at Ali Masjid, lying at the head
of the Khyber Pass. Major Cavignari and Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins
of the Guides Cavalry had reconnoitred the Khyber and the plan of
attack was in place.
3,700 Afghans with 24 guns held the positions in and around the
fort and along the line of heights stretching to each side.
Elephant drawn battery of guns advancing up the Khyber Pass
The 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades moved up the Lashora Valley, 4
miles to the East of the Khyber, with the aim of outflanking the
Afghan positions and occupying the pass behind them.
The 3rd and 4th Infantry Brigades pushed straight up the Khyber
Pass to pin the Afghans and begin the attack on the fort.
The 1st and 2nd Brigades had some 18 hours to make their journeys
of around 11 miles, but the night was dark and movement was
The main force moved up the Khyber in the early morning of 21st
November 1878, exchanging shots with Afghan patrols. Guns were
brought up and the artillery in the pass and in the fort bombarded
each other, while the British waited for the outflanking move to
Afghan guns captured at Ali Masjid
At around 2.30pm Browne sent his two infantry brigades forward on
either side of the pass to attack the Afghan positions. The fighting
continued until around 5pm when it became clear that little progress
was likely to be made that day and the two brigades withdrew and
camped for the night.
The next morning, 22nd November 1878, the attack was renewed, but
it immediately became apparent that the Afghans had withdrawn. The
outflanking force was still short of the Khyber and the Afghans made
good their retreat, largely unimpeded.
The rest of the day was spent regrouping.
Punjab Mountain Artillery
On 23rd November 1878 General Browne took his cavalry forward and
the next day occupied Dakka, where his force remained for the rest
of the first part of the war.
Casualties: British casualties were 58. Among those low casualties
were Major Birch and Lieutenant Fitzgerald of the 27th Punjabis
killed and the sole British officer of the 14th Sikhs wounded in the
attack. Afghan casualties are unknown but will have been around
1,000 including 500 captured during the retreat.
The British aim in the war was to occupy Afghan territory and
thereby force the Ameer to concede the British mission at Kabul.
With the capture of Ali Masjid and the advance to Dakka, General
Sam Browne’s Peshawar Field Force achieved its strategic aim.
Following the success of Roberts’ Kurram Valley Field Force at
Peiwar Kotal and the occupation of Kandahar by the South Afghanistan
Field Force, the Ameer’s successor, Sher Ali, agreed to the Kabul
mission in negotiations at Gandamak.
The murder of the British envoy to Kabul, Sir Louis Cavignari,
within two months of the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak, led
promptly to the terrible second phase of the war.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
The 17th Foot entered Afghanistan for the second time in 1878,
having taken a notable part in the First Afghan War, including the
storming of the Kabul Gate at Ghuznee in 1839. For its long service
in India the 17th was awarded as its badge the Tiger with the
inscription “Hindoostan”. The Leicestershire Regiment, as the 17th
became in 1882, carried the nickname of the Leicestershire Tigers.
The regiment was amalgamated into the large “Royal Anglian Regiment”
but the name the Tigers lives on with the Leicester City Rugby
The Road to Kabul; the Second Afghan War 1878 to 1881 by Brian
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)